Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmastide: Incarnation

"Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps; fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will.” (Psalm 148: 7-8)

Christmas celebrations in the Diocese of Nebraska this year were shaped by the winter weather. Some parishes, including our parish of St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, went ahead with Christmas Eve plans knowing that attendance might be down a bit because of snow or ice, while others cancelled or rescheduled services.

In south central Nebraska, the Christmas Eve blizzard watch had been dropped for a winter storm warning. (Our true blizzard was to come on Christmas Day.) Before the weather became a big factor, I had planned to be at both our late afternoon family-oriented service and our 10:30 Eucharist. On Christmas Eve, though, knowing that weather conditions were supposed to deteriorate sometime overnight, we started out for the earlier service thinking that as we drove back to Hastings afterwards, we could determine how safe it would be to drive back up for the second service. We were surprised when we got to the edge of town and into more open country! It was clear that the roads were bad and quickly becoming much worse, and so, despite disappointment at the prospect of missing both Christmas Eve services, we turned around and went back home.

Our daughter’s church in Hastings, First Congregational UCC, had a 6:00 Christmas Eve service, so we joined her for that before driving very carefully back to our house for a much more leisurely supper than we can usually squeeze in between Christmas Eve services. The entire evening was a very different experience, not what we had had in mind and not without disappointment about missing the celebration at St. Stephen’s , but a good start to Christmas nonetheless. In the end, the reason for our evening turning out the way it did was a fresh reminder of what we celebrate at Christmas: God’s Incarnation; God being born as a human being, as one of God’s own creatures, to live among us on Earth.

While we find the terms or categories ‘body’ and ‘soul’ useful, we human beings are a complex combination of these elements. Some of the ancient Greeks thought that we had pre-existent souls that were inserted into bodies and that at death continued to exist without a body. In the Nicene Creed, in contrast, Christians emphasize the resurrection of the body, the hope of everlasting life in a new body, not a bodiless eternity. Our sacramental sense in the Episcopal Church also points to the intertwining of the physical with the spiritual. We use physical elements – water, bread, wine, oil – to deepen our experience of God’s grace, and in our liturgy we move around in physical space instead of sitting still, trying to leave our bodies behind.

Pointing to the connection evident in the Hebrew between Adam and his creation from Earth, Robert Alter (The Five Books of Moses, p. 21) translates Genesis 2:7 this way: “…then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.” This is who we are; we are connected both to the Earth, to the physical world, and to our creator God, whose breath of divine spirit gives us life.

We often talk about our souls and our spiritual lives as if they are something separate from our bodies and the rest of life; perhaps we do that to help us remember that we have souls and need to tend to their health, or perhaps we do it to compartmentalize our lives and keep God at a distance. At times we need to give special attention to our spiritual lives because our culture makes it difficult to keep a healthy balance among the variety of human needs, but we err if we take the physical world – and our bodily experience – to be second-rate. We are inextricably connected to the physical world. Our health, both body and soul, is tied to the health of the Earth.

This year, the blizzard’s shaping of our Christmas celebrations is a reminder of our connection to the Earth. Just as the Holy Infant was born in a stable, the last place most people would have looked for the birth of the Messiah, so Christ gets born again in our hearts in unexpected places. We might expect to find the wonder of Christmas in the beautiful liturgy and music of a Midnight Mass or the joyful retelling of the story in a children’s Christmas Eve pageant, places where we have found it before, but we can also find the wonder as we look out alone on wind-driven snow. Our God came to live here among us on Earth, and so we can find God in the earthly elements of wind, cold, and snow.

We are not isolated from the world around us, and we Nebraskans are certainly not unaffected by the weather. Who we are and what we do is bound up with the natural world around us; and who we are and what we do -- and what it is like to live as a human being on this Earth -- are important to our God, who became Incarnate as a baby born in a stable in Bethlehem.