Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Incarnation (December 16, 2012)

In the Christian Tradition, today is the 3rd Sunday of advent, a time of waiting for Christmas, or really, a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and to prepare for Jesus to come again.

What does Advent mean to UUs, some of whom are Christian and some of whom are not Christian? Christmas is, ultimately, about incarnation and so today, as part of this year’s sermon series on a “Language of reverence” I wanted to think a bit about this word that we UUs don’t use very often. “Incarnation” is word that comes to us from middle English meaning “made flesh” (that Latin root “Carn” means flesh). In the Christian tradition, Christmas is about God taking on flesh. This is special not only because it is miraculous, but also because it is a gesture of deep compassion. It is about God reaching out to humanity by taking on flesh like ours, being with us in the most intimate way. Experiencing our pain, in his nerves and sinews. In a theology where God and the world are separate, this represents a tremendous reaching out to be present with us in the world as we know and live it. When we sing “O Come O Come Immanuel” we are welcoming, beseeching God to be present among us here in the real, nitty gritty, imperfect world. Immanuel is a name coming from the Hebrew meaning “God is with us” [Sing]“O Come, you Day-spring come and cheer our spirits by your presence here.”

The Latin American liberation theologian, Ivone Gebara, is one of those Christian theologians who see a larger meaning of the word “incarnation”. She writes :
“I believe that to affirm the incarnation, or bodiliness of the divine does not necessarily require that Jesus have some unique metaphysical character. Jesus is also “our Sacred Body” For this reason, the incarnation, the presence of the greatest of mysteries in our flesh, is more than Jesus of Nazareth. In this sense, we could say that Jesus is for us a metaphor of the divine presence, the unfathomable mystery, the unutterable in the human flesh in which we are all included” [184]

This theology sings in harmony with words by UU Religious Educator Sophia Lyon Fahs -- indeed, words we will hear again at our Candle Light service on Friday “Each Night a Child is Born is a holy night”

Sally McFague, an Anglican Theologian, challenges us to expand even further what an incarnational theology might look like. She writes:

“An Incarnational Theology gives us permission to love the body of the world and through the world’s beauty to find intimations of God… What is this body that we are to praise and love? It is the universe, all matter/energy that has constituted physical reality since the Big Bang billions of years ago.  It is not any one body and certainly not the human body (the model is not anthropomorphic or apthropocentric.)  The body of God is all of creation, all of nature, all that “is,” all that exists. To imagine the world this way – as being in and of a God – and to imagine God this way --- as being the matrix of all that is – means that sharp lines between the world and God are erased.” 
So for McFague, we can understand God’s relationship to the world in an incarnational theology is that the world is God’s body or McFague offers another model for an incarnational theology “the world is in God as a baby is in the womb” [McFague p. 114-115]. That’s a pretty radical image—we are not used to hearing such an intimately female image of God in Christian Theology. Rebecca Parker, who holds dual fellowship as a minister in both the Methodist and UU traditions, challenges us in her beautiful advent poem, to remember that a time waiting for Jesus to be born is also a time when Mary was waiting to give birth to her very first child. I know of no other experience more really, nitty gritty and imperfect than giving birth to a child. Could the image of giving birth, with all it’s mess and pain and terror and exhaustion be a theological image for us?

I have mentioned here before that for me Universalism means that if any person is an incarnation of the divine, then God is present in all of us. God is, as Parker suggests, in the pregnant woman and in the child, in Joseph, in the animals, and even in Herod. God is incarnate in the lowly and the high, in the nitty gritty and in the sublime. “We are the dwelling place.” And, to spread Universalism out across the whole interdependent web of life of which we are a part, I believe that not only those animals in the stable that storied night, but every ant, every tree, every mountain  are part of the body of God as well. This is a theology that arose as a knowledge of systems theory has become part of our way of looking at the world. It is a theology that moves us from a theology of parts to a theology of the  

What would it mean to live knowing that the world is the body of God? Usually we think of the world as being kind of ordinary, not really very special, the word “mundane” comes from the Latin “mund” or “world.” Says McFague:

 “An incarnate God is exactly that; mundane. I think this God cares about entire species of animals becoming extinct because humans grab all the land; God cares about children who do not have fresh water to drink; … An incarnate religion demands an incarnate spirituality; one could call it a ‘spirituality of the body.’ Hence issues of global warming become religions issues: clean air and water, food and shelter, become ‘works of the spirit.’ When life is seen as intrinsically valuable and all life exists in networks of interrelationship and interdependence then there is no split between spirit and flesh, with religion concerned mainly with the spirit… the material condition of others is a spiritual matter.” [McFague p 155].

Today our hearts are heavy with reports of this massacre of children in an elementary school in Connecticut. It is unimaginably horrible. [pause for a moment of silence] moments like this have caused so many people in the twentieth century and today to turn away from the idea of God. It seems to me that the God we are turning away from is the God who is separate from us, the God whose unknowable will sometimes causes such suffering for our bodies, and the bodies of our children. But if we are all part of the Body of God, then this horrible event is a rending of our body, a wound to the body we all share, a wound to the Body of God. God is not separate from this event. God feels this event as we feel it. This is what incarnation means. To take on flesh means to take on the capacity to feel great pain, to be wounded. It also means, and this is the hardest part of an incarnational theology, that the capacity to wound, the capacity to do great harm is part of our body as well. It does not belong to “the other” who must be routed out and destroyed, but it is, in the largest sense, part of us.

How then shall we live? An incarnational theology means that we must  go about the work of healing knowing it is our own body we heal. It also means we must strive to live lives that are compassionate and just, because harm is not just something other people do, the capacity to harm is in each one of us, and in the social, economic and ecological webs in which we are intimately bound.  This is familiar territory for UUs. For at least a hundred years we have known that tending the body of the world is holy work. In our chalice lighting this morning Jack reminded us that “Service is our prayer.” We know that washing the coffee mugs after service on Sunday morning is a prayer. We know that bringing food to the House of Hope for Thanksgiving is a prayer. We know that turning down the heat and turning off the water heater when we leave the church building is a prayer. When we care for the bodies of loved ones or strangers, when we care for the body of the earth as a mother would care for her child this is a spiritual act even when our intentions are very mundane.

What does it mean to celebrate Advent, if God is already incarnate, right now in every facet of our universe? Or what if, as  Parker writes:

The birth cry in the night
is your child,
falling into the dark,
and your arms holding her.

Perhaps instead of preparing ourselves for the divine to come from far away, from divine realms we are preparing ourselves to birth something brand new, something as holy as anything incarnate in this world can be.  Perhaps it is a time for us to unearth that deep true part of our self that sometimes gets covered over by business, by social convention, by habit. This is a time to allow our hearts to shine, our souls to shine, even knowing that at this time of year when the world is dark and cold our hearts are extra tender. We must be at our most compassionate with ourselves and with one another through the hard days of waiting  “to render every act a prayer.” Who knows, maybe despite the dark, the grief, the cold, even despair, something new and precious will be born in us this season.

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