Imagine looking at a present underneath the Christmas Tree. Imagine it’s the most elaborately decorated, beautifully wrapped box you’ve ever seen. It’s a work of art in itself – a shame almost to open it – then comes Christmas Day and you open it and discover that inside there appears to be nothing. You hunt around in bewildered fashion for the label which may (you hope) explain something of the mystery.
The label is illuminating, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. This box it says, contains all the love, all the memories, all the hopes and dreams of the giver for you; their every good and blessed wish – but because each of those things, hope, love, memory are without a tangible form, you cannot see them. You can’t relive a memory after all; you can’t embody hope or love – or can you? Maybe you’ve been conned. Maybe you’ve been given the cheapest gift of all – a prettily packaged parcel, but maybe, maybe if all this is true you have been given the most precious gift of all.
Much of life, whether we care to own up to it or not, is a tension between what is tangible, touchable, has a form, and that which is ‘spiritual’, numinous, and essentially without form. There is a dichotomy here (or two stories going on at one time), Greek Philosophers, and indeed some argue, St Paul presents this body versus soul concept very strongly in the way they understood the world. They always argued for the pre-eminence of the spiritual, non-bodily stuff: the stuff you can’t see inside the pretty package. Some philosophers went so far as to equate male with the spiritual and female with the less valuable, earthly-bound ‘bodily’ images of life. Which given their obvious leanings toward ‘spiritual’ was intended to be a bit of a kick in the teeth for women (and so it went on until really surprisingly recently in the Christian Faith).
I wonder if in our day and age, where there is so much emphasis on consumer-driven, tangible ‘stuff’; your house with pool and pony and two bathrooms and four bedrooms and huge electricity bills, I wonder whether we now find ourselves at the other end of the pendulum swing. We’re so obsessed with ‘stuff’ and about how things look; we put frameworks or policy documents or checklists around life. Even the need to record every detail of life in text or photo images to upload to any and everyone, I wonder if we are living or recording life. In a way I wonder if all our relentless recording of each waking thought is an attempt to pin down the feelings, thoughts and invisible stuff.
The tension between the visible and invisible, the body and soul stuff is written large into our lives. It finds our way into pop culture in films like the Matrix Trilogies and the Star Wars franchise. The other day we introduced our boys to the original Star Wars flick and in it Han Solo, watching Luke Skywalker train in his use of “The Force” says: ‘it’s all old-fashioned mumbo-jumbo, I make my own choices…” such could be the catch-cry for our society today. What we can’t see, what we can’t own or control, we don’t ‘get’. Meanwhile, aligning himself with the Ancient Greeks, Yoda says we are ‘luminous beings’, while the outer shell of our bodies is “crude matter”. It’s either/or stuff.
But bridging this apparent gap in our either/or approach to body and soul, material and immaterial, is what Christianity is all about. In becoming human, entering our time-bound, body-bound reality, Jesus holds in his person the tension between all those things. It isn’t either body, all you can touch and see; it’s also spirit, love, hope – all that comprises the way we interpret life, hold memory and aspire towards the future. This is Incarnation – it’s the box and the hope inside all at the same time and as humanity, the truth is that not one is possible without the other, neither one is more valuable; we need our bodies and we need our souls.
What if the best gift of all wasn’t a PS4 or 5 (or whatever they’re up to) or a remote controlled Barbie Universe; what if the best present of all is the heart and soul of God wrapped up in the most exquisite form we understand: the human body, vulnerable, open to love, open to rejection, open to life.
What if God becoming human, means that we too need to live life holding all that we can see and touch in balance with the depth and breadth of feelings, impulses, actions and imaginings that we can’t see but which form such a rich part of the whole? What if God living our reality is a challenge for us to live more fully in God’s reality?
May you and those you love have a happy, hope-filled and wonderful Christmas and may you be a blessing to others, just as you are blessed. See you in 2014!