The Physical, matters

by Gareth Powell.

In the not unreasonable concern about the consumerism that has so come to define swaths of Christmas celebrations there is the striking truth that ours is an incarnational faith.  This is a festival about flesh and blood.  This is a festival about the divine in human form.  This is a festival that makes clear to any and all that the physical matters.  Take away stable, shepherds, precious gifts and human DNA and there is little, on the surface at least, left.  In the remembrance of God’s loving purposes recorded in any service of Nine Lessons and Carols we recall the form of the world created out of God’s own goodness.  In celebrating these twelve days of Christmas, we celebrate the ‘matter of eternal praise’ as Wesley puts it, in very human, physical form.  This we do with sight, sound, smell, and of course thought.

Some of our discomfort about the nature of popular Christmas celebrations rests in the uncomfortable fact that the community of Christians has, in its daily round, the responsibility of using God’s gifts, such that we may deploy the resources we have to proclaim the gospel of a child in a stable – and amongst other things, respond to the refugee family that flees an intolerant zealot (Matt 2:13).  How we use the material things of life says something profound about God, or rather how we encounter God and then respond to God’s love.  So, we may absolve some moderate gluttony by a larger donation to a charitable cause, because that is looking after our neighbour.  We justify an unnecessarily expensive gift (even to self) by holding a line about wanting to offer the best so that we can express how valuable a person (or self) is.  The dangers here should be all too obvious. Physical, human matter, matters a very great deal, but not simply for the sake of taking care of the physical.  The physical matters because it plays such a significant part in our response to the word made flesh.  That the word is made flesh at all offers us something of the challenge.  Divine beings manifested in clouds and pillars of fire is one thing.  People can be sent up to mountain tops to talk to that sort of God.  Keeping your distance enables you to avoid all manner of truths.  Now things are very different and the whole creation encounters God in a rather unexpected way.

What the donkey saw

No room in the inn, of course,
And not that much in the stable
What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host –
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love or money.

Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
U A Fanthorpe (1929-2009)

The mixture of those who entered that crowded stable touches upon the bringing together of humanity, each aspect of humanity having some awareness, however vague, of the enormity of the encounter.  While at the other end of the story, it is not the ill-prepared couple who failed to find a room in a crowded city that should tell us something about migration.  More pressing is the flight from a tyrannical leader murdering the innocent.  In that is the stark (or is it disturbing?) message of our God contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man.  And the Christ child is heard; in Aleppo; in the desperate cry of a seemingly comfortable but helpless mother in suburbia; in the whisper of a Coptic Christian; in…

And we celebrate the incarnation by our response – don’t we?

In the tradition of the Roman Church nativity scenes are kept on display until the presentation of Christ in the Temple (2nd February). We might do well to do the same, searching our hearts and, as Herbert McCabe puts it, realising that ‘We matter, not first because of what we have made of ourselves, but because of what God has made of us.  And that includes what we make of ourselves.’[i]

How then do we respond to this Child, who is taking us to places, together?

[i] McCabe, Herbert. God, Christ and Us. London: Continuum, 2003:136

3 thoughts on “The Physical, matters”

  1. When we speak of an incarnational faith, are we talking about a one-off event that lasted for some 30 years and ended with Jesus re-assuming his divine form and returning to Heaven, when his task was accomplished? Or is incarnation a continuing process? Mother Teresa spoke of being with Jesus every day, because she found him in those dying in the gutters of Calcutta. Can we still encounter Jesus in people we meet in our daily lives?


  2. God comes to earth via the pain, blood and mess of childbirth in a dirty, smelly stable where animals are kept.
    It doesn’t get much more physical than that. The profane becomes sacred.
    We need not feel any discomfort with the nature of popular Christmas celebrations. The celebration of light returning after the darkest days of the year was a pagan festival until it was hijacked by the first Christian missionaries and became a holy day. The profane became sacred.
    God is as much at home amongst late-night drunken revellers and those sleeping rough in shop doorways as he is in the candle-lit, incense-filled, choral atmosphere of a cathedral.
    It is man that divides, separates and excludes.
    God is in everything, with everyone and for all people, everywhere.


  3. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ does not dispense with or replace the God of the Old Testament. Concerned that the reference to “divine beings manifesting themselves in cloud and fire on mountain tops – is one thing…” suggests that there are more gods than One, and THAT one (referencing Sinai) is no longer significant or helpful today in the light of the Incarnation. “That sort of God” is probably a reference to how people might think (mistakingly?) of God, but it has serious nudges toward marginalising the Old Testament and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Distance is as valuable as nearness.


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