By David V. Goodwin
I never really appreciated the liturgical calendar until I interned at my church. I kind of knew what it was, but it always made me think of stuffy Catholic pews and hours of boring words. What I realized at my field site was that, although I grew up in a seeker-friendly, rock and roll, non-denominational church, we still followed the same liturgical calendar as that Catholic church down the road. We may have only hit two or three holidays on it, but it shaped how we performed worship, and how we viewed God. Today, I think it’s the latter that seems the most unrealized by much of US Christianity.
You see, Christmas is the first of two major events in the liturgical calendar. The other is Easter. The former essentially marks the opening of the calendar while the latter marks the closing. I could get even more technical, but the reason I bring this up is because both major holidays within Christianity actually share a singular message: God cared so much for humanity that God took on the experience of humanity.
Now a lot of modern Christians hold the belief that there’s more to the story than that, but that one idea is the “ground of meaning” for everything else. You don’t get Christianity unless God does this, and whatever other theological traditions link up after, whether atonement or liberation, this is at the heart of Christian understanding. I’ve heard it go unstated too often, and I believe that it may be the most taken-for-granted assumption of US Christianity, but without it almost every Christian theology loses its foundation.
A technical term for this principle is incarnation. You probably know the phrase, “God became flesh.” This doesn’t literally mean that God only clothed God’s self in skin. It means that God took on the body of a human. At Christmas time the celebration is oriented around God being physically born out of a vagina as a baby. Seeing as Jesus was not crucified as a baby, this also means that God as Jesus grew up.
That he (referring to Jesus) learned how to talk, pooped his pants, cried when he was tired, and felt growing pains as his body matured. During his ministry, Jesus ate and drank often; physiologically, this means his body produced waste. He cried when his friend died, and prayed emotionally when he knew he was about to be betrayed. In Jesus, we find God through the human body.
Without Jesus, it is important to note that God is still incarnational. Without a mind, how can anyone know God? Without sensory input, how can anyone encounter God? Without forms of language, how can anyone bear witness about God?
Even Christianity doesn’t need Jesus for God to be incarnational through humans. Christianity has long held the Tanakh (what Christians call the “Old Testament”) as foundational to understanding its identity, to understanding Jesus. In the first chapters of the Tanakh, God creates all things, and when God creates humans it says that they were cast in the mold of God. Many English translations quote God as saying, “Let us make them in our image.” How many images? One. For over seven. Billion. People. However a scholar wishes to interpret the subject of that sentence, the word “image” remains in the singular.
In times like ours, where divisive leaders are taking power and actively disenfranchising people, it is crucial for religious people, and especially Christians, to remember that the encounter with the divine is incarnational: God deeply connected with the human experience. This isn’t about defining which sins must be overcome, or the most effective behaviors to please God.
Christians, as I would hope for all religious people, ought to resist infringements upon human rights, because through the religious experience of incarnation, human dignity has been connected to God’s dignity. Such a theological understanding, if comprehended, puts all people on an equal plane of rights, revealing that the enemies of human worth are the enemies of God. That abusers of humans abuse God.
None of what I’m saying here is new to Christianity, but it is not understood by a majority. If it were understood, no human would die of starvation, struggle to live without a home, or be forced to drink poisoned water. If it were understood, no human would be ignored in their suffering, be physically abused over disagreement, or ever labeled a stranger in the midst of other humans. If it were understood, the church would have long ago established a world in which no one struggles to survive, in which nature itself is protected as the adornment of our expectation for God’s returning reign.
You may not agree with the personal life choices of other people, but that does not change the fact that they deserve respect, autonomy, and protection in order to live. So as God made humans in God’s image, and through Jesus fully embodied that image, Christian humans must shape our societies and governments in the human image, embodying as a group something accessible and beneficial for all people. To do otherwise is an attack on the incarnation found in the entirety of humanity.