In but a couple of days’ time the feast will be upon us.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 23rd December 2018 at 11.15 AM
In but a couple of days’ time the feast will be upon us. In truth, of course, the feasting began a while ago – the parties, the eating, the drinking, the inappropriate behaviour somehow legitimated by a mere sprig of mistletoe: Christmas is surely the most carnal of feasts. And while we are, perhaps ruefully contemplating our own carnality, and the inevitable Christmas spread, our readings today speak of hope for our bodies – bodies as agents, not of ruin or shame, but of salvation.
It is by Gods will – wrote the author of the letter to the Hebrews - that we have been sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all.
We are sanctified (made holy) by the offering of his body – his body offered once for all upon the Cross; his body offered to us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Our sanctification, our salvation is this gift – the gift of Christ’s body, whereby we are taken-up into his gift of himself to the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. The offering of Christ’s body draws our own bodies, and our whole person, into the life and love of the Trinity, so that we might become holy as He is holy.
After the Christmas festivities, I invite you to look in the mirror – full-length, if you can bear it - and remember that everything you see there is (at least potentially) holy; not a body to be hidden in shame but a body to be offered in hope; offered in Christ to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable.
That’s the kind of body-confidence that no-one should be able to undermine, and yet we may still look at ourselves and wonder what on earth God would want with a body like ours.
The parents of John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zechariah, clearly weren’t too sure what their bodies had left to offer. When Gabriel came and announced that Elizabeth would bear a son, Zechariah, understandably, drew the archangel’s attention to their age and decrepitude. But angels, it seems, are undeterred by such things, and Zechariah was promptly silenced before he could make any other irrelevant observations about the peculiar ways of God.
As if choosing an older woman weren’t inappropriate enough, God also chose a virgin. Elizabeth and Mary; two women who would be least-expected to be found expecting, and whose pregnancies might at the very least raise the odd eyebrow. So these two unlikely women greet one another and, in today’s gospel, celebrate a moment of secret joy. Of all women they are chosen; their unlikely bodies offered for a holy purpose: to make all bodies holy, however unlikely that may seem.
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
We are inclined to think of the Incarnation – God becoming embodied, fully-human, in Jesus Christ – as a kind of plan B (that’s the closest I’m, going to get to any mention of Brexit, you’ll be relieved to hear) The plan B story goes something like this: God created the world in the beginning, and everything was fine. Human beings messed it up, so God had to do something to sort it out. Enter the Baby in the Manger, the Cross and so forth.
You may well be wondering ‘what’s wrong with that? Surely that is how it happened?’ But theologians from as early as the 2nd Century tell us that such a ‘plan B’ implies that ‘plan A’ (Creation) was in some way botched, subject to a Divine error, and makes the Incarnation a Divine response to human sin. A Creator who errs, and who dances to sin’s tune, falls rather short of any God worthy of worship.
But what if the Incarnation was always God’s intention; part of his creating work? What if Creation and Redemption, though separated in time, are in fact a single Divine move?
For by creating, God makes way, makes space, for what is other-than-God – an inevitable distinction is made between what creates and what is created, but the forcing of that distinction into separation, the wedge separating Creation from its Creator, this is what we call sin. But just as God makes way for creation to be, so he makes a way for creation to be with Him in spite of sin; a way for creation to be itself and to be one with its Creator. And this way, this being with, is the embodied Christ; the fruit of the virgin’s womb – the body offered to make us holy.
But why would this way of back to God, as it were, be through something as unlikely, and apparently far-from-holy as a human body. (I bring you back to the vision in the full-length mirror – a beatific vision it probably ain’t) Why would God do it this way?
Well, firstly, if creation and redemption represent a single divine move, God would not make a way back for creation other than through creation – plan A is not left to wither in favour of a shiny new plan B. It is through creation that God makes a way for creation back to himself – and not through just any bit of creation, but through the offering of the human body of Christ.
And why a human body – why not something more spiritual, angelic?
Because in the human body all of creation is, in a sense, contained. In us is the dust, the inanimate elements, that make us one with far distant stars and planets. In us is the cellular life that makes us one with bacteria, viruses and the most primitive forms of life. In us is the capacity to grow, to respond and adapt to our environment, that we share even with grasses, shrubs and trees. In us is sentience, an awareness of others, and the will to align ourselves with or against them, which we share with all social animals. And in us, supremely, is consciousness; a mind that can reflect on itself; a mind that can consider not just material things, but mental concepts, ideas – something we may see reflected partially in higher primates and other species, but none to anywhere near the same extent. This intelligence we share, so we are told, with the angels, with creatures whose whole being is mind; intellect.
So the human body is a profoundly significant thing (which doesn’t in any way denigrate other kinds of bodies or our responsibilities towards them); but the human body is a micro-cosm, a whole cosmos in miniature, a compressed Creation. And today we contemplate the body of a young Palestinian woman, who would bear the saving body, in which Creator and Creation are one.
In the feasting of these days, during this most carnal of festivals, may we rediscover the deep significance and dignity of our bodies – and find the birth of Christ not body-shaming but body-saving – the hope of our own salvation and sanctification.
For this is God’s plan, and there is no plan B.
There is no other plan on offer.
There is no better plan imaginable or desirable.
Amen, Come Lord Jesus.