I’m beginning this in the infusion waiting room just a few days into Advent. With my church ministry days behind me (at least for now, probably for good) I’m relearning how to love this time of the year. I can, in good conscience, light the candle of peace this year, not feeling like a fraud, knowing that I will not truly know peace until Christmas has passed.
This year, we light the candles as a family around our dinner table, just one of the many things different about this year. In addition to treatment, family, and work, I have been inordinately preoccupied with a new understanding of the Incarnation, the coming of God in the flesh.
As much as we all love the idea of little 5 lb 10 oz baby Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, being swaddled and safe with his mother the day he’s born, we typically don’t think through the full implications of God – for the very first time – entering creation as a creature, made of the same elements in the periodic table that make up all life on earth. Advent and Christmas are like the warm blanket of the church calendar. We wrap ourselves in the familiar, cozy thoughts of baby Jesus needing mom and dad, to be nuzzled, burped, and put down for naps.
But, we largely omit all the other creaturely stuff that comes with babies – rashes, fevers, teething woes , etc. – and most of us are quick to stop thinking about all this “body” stuff shortly after we celebrate his birth. It’s interesting to think about a baby in need, but to many it’s unbecoming to think this way about the Son of God, when he’s five, twelve, or twenty-four.
But let me tell you why it’s important we change that. God being born, living, and dying the way humans do is good news for us embodied beings.
It affirms our bodies are not inherently “bad,” or to dress that word up in its Sunday best we might say our bodies are not inherently“sinful.” It’s an important reminder for those of us who grew up at the height of purity culture. Christ gave a dignity to our bodies by choosing to come in one of his own.
I’ve had to remind myself of this when I get frustrated with my own body and disappointed by the “indignities” that come with being examined, poked, and prodded for months. Why do the needles still sting? When will the scars fade? How many mor people need to see me naked before this whole damn thing is over? If only I were stronger…more resilient…less of a wuss… the temptation to join in on the beat down is real.
But, the Incarnation keeps me from going too far into those reactions, so rooted in an irrational understanding of “strength” (and more than a sprinkle of toxic masculinity, if I’m being honest). It’s not that Jesus leans down to me from the heavens to console me. It’s that the Old and New Testaments provide an unfiltered look into the suffering of human bodies: of couples who can’t get pregnant, women who suffer simply because they live in a world run by men, men broken and battered by the world, too, and children who are not spared its horrors.
And then, as if to pound the point home, scripture tells us that even when God takes a body, it also experiences the fragility of this life.
Stop reading. Think about this: the God who made all things, who defeats pharaoh, and inspires prophets and psalmists decided that this world was worth teething, sprained ankles playing with friends, hunger in the wilderness, and the cruelest tortures of the empire. He was not only for us, but with us, and that is both a source of comfort and a reminder that none of us get a pass on the weal and woe of this life, even if we are the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things.
So, the Incarnation reminds me that I don’t get a pass. Do I ask why? Yes. Do I expect an answer? Well, I already have one (not to say I wouldn’t mind a word from on high).
More importantly, though, God living in human flesh lets me know that “humanity” casts a pretty wide net. If even God can be fully human, then so can I. This thought has unequivocally been a comfort, as I’ve been worried lately about keeping my humanity.
This might sound a bit melodramatic, but here it is: when I tally up all of the changes I’ve experienced since March, I sometimes wonder what I am at this point. Surgery has scarred and misshaped my arm. Radiation has left my skin discolored. The immunotherapy has mutated my T-cells into merkel hunters and maybe even misshaped my insulin receptors for the rest of my life.
Psychologically, there’s not a big decision I make that doesn’t include thinking about what will happen if I don’t survive this very present reality. Even after I passed the Series 7, I thought “Hopefully I’ll get to use this thing.”
Spiritually…where to begin? To be ordained in the PCUSA you have to prove that you are “orthodox” in your beliefs. At one time they said I was, but now: I don’t know if they’d be angry, disappointed, amused, or awed at my answers. I have seen the absolute worst the industrial church has to offer, and had other church folk pray for and feed my family. I’m forced to reckon with both realities and to start over on my own understanding of how to live as a Christian in this world. My faith is probably best described as “minimalist.” Calvin urged pastors not to get focused on adiaphora, things about which we can be indifferent, and I have probably put way too much in that category for his comfort. But, I offer no apologies; it’s led me closer to Christ.
My body, mind, and spirit have, in no uncertain terms, changed. I hope for the better, but I am different. So different, I sometimes wonder if I’ve lost my humanity, but the Incarnation reminds me that “being human” is not reducible to a particular mind, body, and/or spirit. No molecule, thought, or belief can remove us from the Incarnation’s embrace. So this Advent, I will still wait and plead for Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the flesh and this life, to be with me and you, especially in the reality of frail flesh.
7 thoughts on “Embracing the Incarnation with Frail Flesh”
Very beautiful, very touching, very insightful, very real. Brandon, you are part of my morning prayers often. Keep writing, keep sharing.
So touching, Brandon.we can only hope and pray for you at this terrible time. But, you have touched so many lives ! You are brave, you are strong, you are loved. Carolann and Vic
Brandon, thank you for sharing, you are not alone, many of us have struggled with the same questions, gone through the tunnel of doubt and questioning, and come out the other end better for it as God has made the exit and beyond possible. Again, thank you, God bless, we miss you.
Brutiful. Your insight is inspiring. Hugs, friend. We miss you, always.
I wonder if this terrible illness is being used to touch the lives of people that you can’t ever know. Maybe you too are being poured out as an offering.
Thank you, Brandon, for sharing your beautifully written insightful thoughts as you approach Advent and Christmas. What a gift you have given us. Prayers and God’s blessing for continued recovery. Ginnie J
You have been through so much Brandon, both health wise physically and emotionally with this damn disease and the church. I pray every day that God grants you peace and strength to fully recover from that which has assaulted both your body and your faith. You have so many extraordinary gifts to share Brandon, there simply must be a place someday where you might once again have a pulpit to share these gifts widely. May God fortify you on every step of your journey and please keep expressing your thoughts in your most raw, honest & eloquent of ways.