In his great meditation on the crucifixion, Death on a Friday Afternoon, Father Richard John Neuhaus cautions us against passing too quickly over the darkest day in the Church’s calendar in our rush to the most joyful one. But what is brought to fulfillment on Easter does not begin on Good Friday. It begins at what Catholics mark as the Feast of the Annunciation and is revealed to us nine months later, with the usual Divine theatrical flair, at Christmas.
At the Nativity, we are confronted with the one human act in which our physicality is most comprehensively expressed, in all its blood and pain and filth and danger and glory: birth. It is not mere coincidence that the great political and moral fault line of our time (which is more than political and moral) has at its center birth, the event that does not make us what we are but shows us what we are. Denying, as we do, that reality, we deny the reality of who and what we are.
Christians sometimes do not quite know what to think about our bodies. Paul was a bit queasy about marital issues, and seemed to want us to somehow transcend the body and its particulars. The famous observation wrongly attributed to C. S. Lewis — “You do not have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body” — speaks to a similar impulse. The earliest version of that sentiment is attributed to the Scottish minister George MacDonald, in — this is not without interest — an article in a Quaker periodical on the subject of excessive mourning. What is to mourn in the separation of the eternal part of us from the temporary part? Or so goes that argument.
The same sentiment is found throughout Christendom: The famous confessor Padre Pio, who was a man of robust proportions, was rumored to have lived for years while taking no sustenance beyond his daily Communion bread. When Saint Denis was beheaded, he took so little notice of the shocking violence done to his body that he picked up his head and walked six miles to church while preaching a sermon on penance. (The depiction at Notre Dame is remarkable.) Similar stories are so common that Christian theologians have found it necessary to coin a term for martyrs who travel while carrying their heads: cephalophores. Walking around bearing our heads — there’s some sort of metaphor for us overly analytical moderns in that.
Some of the witnesses understood what this was all about from the beginning.
But in the flesh is where life happens. Saint John Paul II dedicated a great deal of his intellectual labor to his “theology of the body,” and it is heady stuff. It is worth your time, if you feel like some serious reading. If not, Christian art is the great gift to those of us without the theological orientation: “Holy infant,” we sing, knowing that that is that flesh, “so tender and mild,” into which the nails will be driven. Take the Old Testament as liberally as you like, it is in the flesh that we are created and in the flesh that we create, in the flesh that we fell and fall, and through the flesh that we were redeemed. Not the star that announced him, cold and remote, but warm and frail and vulnerable. The symmetry was not lost on the great priest-poet Gerard Manly Hopkins: “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am: This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond.”
Some of the witnesses understood what this was all about from the beginning. One of the magi brought as his gift to the newborn king myrrh, which was used in the preparation of corpses. Nicodemus would later do the same after what was done to that child’s body had been done. What must that wise man from the east have thought, standing over that child, understanding, if he did, the Divine plan, that the little innocent in the manger would eventually be ritually humiliated, abandoned by his friends, and tortured to death? That this was necessary because . . . ? Best not to think too closely about God’s business. God’s business is God’s business.
#related#Our business is something else, to live in this world as best we can according to what we can intuit and be taught of that other terrifying business. The ritual of gift-giving is something more than a boon to shopkeepers: It is instruction in how to live. Consider: The family of 29-year-old Enrico Rojo, a Marine from Humble, Texas, will not have him home this year, or ever again. He survived attacks in Afghanistan and died outside Loma Linda, Calif., when he stopped to render aid to a woman who had been hurt in an automobile accident. Another car swerving to miss the wreckage hit Rojo. He died, and the woman he stopped to help was arrested for drunk driving. Of course he stopped. Of course it was to help a stranger. Of course he was not afraid. In September, 21 people were killed by a Russian airstrike in Syria while unloading humanitarian-aid shipments from the local Red Cross subsidiary, which they call the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but the red cross is a more fitting symbol, a reminder that even at Christmas there is no gift that is given without a price.
At Christmas, we are instructed in generosity, chastened by the Divine example, not only of the Son but of He who so loved the world that He gave His only Son. It is mainly simple stuff: “Feed the hungry,” we are told. Yes, yes, we can do that. Clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, comfort the widow, look after the orphan, welcome the stranger (who knows how to ask questions). Yes, we can do all of that, we who have so much. But in all that there is another more subtle homily, another exhortation: to remember who and what we are. Poor potsherd. Immortal diamond.