Incarnation and Embodiment

by Ed Mackenzie.

During this Advent, many of us will spend time reflecting on God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus. We’ll no doubt hear again the words of John 1:14 – ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ – and sing carols celebrating God’s presence in the manger at Bethlehem. Over against docetic approaches to Jesus which deny his embodiment, we might recall that the incarnation affirms the goodness of the body of Jesus; ‘Jesus Christ has come in the flesh’ (1 John 4:2b).

The incarnation also has implications for our approach to human nature. If Jesus’ body is good, we can extrapolate that bodies as such are good, created by God as the form in which our humanity exists. Such a theme resonates with the beginning of the biblical story in which creation is declared ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31) as well as end of the biblical story with its anticipation of resurrection, that is, future embodied existence (1 Cor 15). How might such a biblical view on humanity shape our approach to the body today?

Firstly, affirming the goodness of the body can lead us to be grateful for the wonder of creation and how God has made us. In today’s context, we are especially privileged in having a huge amount of insight into the inner and outer workings of the body, with Bill Bryson’s recent work on the Body offering one recent reflection on its amazing nature.[i] As the Psalmist says, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14), knit together by God’s own hand.

While it’s possible to be grateful for bodies as such, it can be harder to be grateful for the bodies we inhabit – or rather, the bodies we are. Many of us look down on our own bodies and our gratitude for embodiment is certainly curtailed when illness, pain or ailments afflict us. But despite the weaknesses of the ‘jars of clay’ we inhabit, it’s through these vessels that God’s light and goodness can be made known (2 Cor 4:7-12). Perhaps thanking God for our bodies is a small way of honouring the God who has made us.

Secondly, the goodness of the body might lead us to spend time looking after our bodies. Such a posture is not selfish or self-centred, but rather a matter of rightly stewarding our lives. We know too that much ill-health – physical and mental – can be attributed to ways we use or misuse our bodies, and so finding ways to eat or exercise more healthily are ways to attend to our bodies. This is not a matter of pursuing a particular look or a specific size, but rather of moving and living in ways that lead us to flourish for the sake of God our service in the world.

While focusing on bodily wellbeing might form a part of many New Year’s resolutions, it’s something that we can return to as part of the rhythm of our life in every season. It might also feature as part of our conversations with others, certainly not to bring guilt or shame but rather to frame caring for the body as a way of caring for the self and so encompassed too by the love of God.

Thirdly, the goodness of the body means that it is as bodies that we seek to love God and love others. In Jesus’ reworking of the traditional Jewish practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matt 6:1-18), each practice requires bodily involvement – stepping inside our ‘closets’, resisting our desire to eat, and reaching out to help those in need. At a key juncture in Romans, Paul also invites Christians to offer ‘bodies as living sacrifices’ to God (Rom 12:1), with each of our individual bodies playing a role in the larger body of Christ (Rom 12:3-8).

Our bodies, then, are the means through which we move towards God and others in love. We are not our own, we’ve been brought with a price – and so Paul calls us to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). Just as Jesus gave up his body in love of God and the world, so too our bodies can be shaped in service in and for the kingdom.


[i] Bryson, Bill, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Doubleday: 2019)

3 thoughts on “Incarnation and Embodiment”

  1. As it happens I am reading Richard Rohr’s “The Universal Christ”. He identifies four different world views that we can adopt. The material world view that may lead to a loveless, materialistic outlook. The spiritual worldview that may lead to a loveless, individualistic self-concern. The priestly worldview that may lead to a loveless dogmatic emphasis on ritual, the ”law”, the scriptures and sacrifice. And finally Rohr’s project of an incarnational worldview in which “matter and spirit reveal and manifest each other”. He suggests this view “relies more on awakening than joining, more on seeing than obeying, more in growth of consciousness and love than on clergy, experts, morality, scriptures or rituals”. To me this speaks of the Universal Christ that is incarnate in all creation.
    Rohr sometimes makes claims about the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Christianity that I respect but disagree with. But I find his stress on incarnation meaningful and quite moving. He finishes his book with Derek Walcott’s wonderful poem about incarnation, “Love After Love”, which I add here:-

    The time will come when with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

    and say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

    all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf.

    the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.

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  2. I wanted to thank Ed for initiating a discussion on the matter of incarnation. It seems incredibly important, especially at this time of the year. The recognition that God is with us in a real sense is amazing and that Christ meets us as we engage with life in the here and now – not just on Sundays! The word that comes to mind here is embedded: God and Christ and Holy Spirit deeply involved in everyday life, along with the pain, the sweat, the blood, the despair and the evil. And, of course, the demand is on all of us that we must respond. I wrote a poem once about meeting God/Christ in Marks and Spencer which I add below.

    Marks and Spencer

    I bumped into God the other day
    Though it was God that bumped into me!
    I wanted a shirt – pink stripe would be nice,
    But Marks had little to see.

    An old lady fell at the queue by the tills
    She was embarrassed and shaken, but actually alright.
    The thing that struck me about this event
    Was the concern of strangers at this ladies plight.

    Were all of them Saints or off-duty Angels?
    Or Christians, nurses or coppers?
    Or did God’s demand that we love all we meet
    Stir the hearts of all the shoppers?

    So there was God among men, children, mothers –
    The God that appears as we respond – to others.

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  3. I, too, want to thank Ed for posting this piece which I have read several times this week. I realise, also, that I will return to it and read it again. I will probably refer others to read it.

    It reminds me how, when I read the stories of Jesus how much He realised He was God and human.
    It reminds me that God is always is in my body (I have known this for a long time) even as is gets older and less physically able and as I can’t get out and about. My active work is online – email, Zoom etc.
    It reminds me of the ‘Biases’ discussions and how people are looked down on (or patronised) if they are seen as less than perfect in some way.

    Each time I read, there is more.
    Thank you, Ed.
    Margaret

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