Advent and Fallen Bodies
As I write this, I can feel the tickle in the back of my throat that tells me I’m about to get an early gift from my four-year-old: her cold. On a larger scale, I am still both physically and emotionally exhausted from ending a career this year that I had though I’d be in for the rest of my life and then moving cross-country. I started medication for anxiety a month ago, and I can finally feel the tension beginning to ease out of my shoulders.
I’ve been writing about how the Incarnation, the first coming of Christ two millennia ago in Bethlehem, teaches us to value physical bodies. After all, if the creator of the universe chose to become a human being and live among human beings, how can we live as though our bodies don’t matter, or are hindrances to be overcome?
And yet, having a body sucks.
Our bodies get sick, with colds and cancers and chronic illness. Our bodies get tired and injured. Our bodies age. Our bodies experience the effects of mental illness, of stress, of late nights and early mornings, of difficult relationships and circumstances. Our bodies die.
During Advent, we remember that Christ came as a helpless infant, taking on human flesh and dwelling among us. But we also hope for his return, when we too will be recreated in new bodies free from the effects of sin. For Advent brings with it the promise not just of the coming king but of resurrection, of new birth, of new creation.
Advent is, in part, a time of joy, hope and anticipation — and the ubiquity of Christmas in American culture can often make us feel as though we are somehow deficient if we can’t get into the Christmas spirit. No one wants to be an Ebenezer Scrooge at the holidays. But often, the problem is not that our hearts are two sizes too small; the problem is that our hearts are broken and our bodies are weary.
The good news is that Advent, the Incarnation, isn’t about Christmas cheer. Oh, celebration is good: Advent is about the joy of God’s presence among us. But Advent is also about the longing of God’s people for their savior. We long for what we don’t yet have, we mourn for the brokenness in the world, we suffer from sin and death and decay.
Advent doesn’t ask us to just be happy. Advent acknowledges our pain and loss and sadness, and says: look, here is hope: hope in the willingness of a teenage girl to become the mother of God, hope in her husband who accepted her despite her pregnancy, hope in the shepherds and wise men who came to bow before the ruler of the universe in the form of a child. Hope that God’s kingdom is coming, has come, will one day fully arrive.
But hope only works when life is not as it should be, just as light only makes sense in the darkness. For my readers in the northern hemisphere, today is the shortest day of the year, and Advent is framed by these dark winter weeks. The world is cold and dead, and we remember that we still suffer in sin and darkness; our physical bodies bear the marks of sin and death. But on this, the shortest day of the year, we remember that spring will return. Winter may stay for months, but we know that spring is coming. Life is coming.
Unlike spring, which always arrives, some of us may never experience healing in our bodies in this life. The waiting is much more difficult when we can’t count down the days until warmth and life returns. But Advent doesn’t ask us to deny the painful realities of our present lives.
Advent simply asks us to remember that there is hope. Hope in a manger in Bethlehem, hope that Christ will come again, hope in God’s ultimate victory over sin and death.
The Incarnation, all those years ago in the body of a teenage girl, tells us that God created us good, values our bodies, mourns with us over the pain these bodies bring. It is also a promise that one day, all will be made whole again, and the effects of sin and evil and death will be removed from our recreated bodies.
In the words of Julian of Norwich, Advent asks us to hope that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
(For anyone struggling to feel the holiday spirit in 2017, I highly recommend Rachel Held Evans' article “Mary, the Magnificat, and an Unsentimental Advent”.)