“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).
Christmas was certainly no exception. The energy and preparations that go into celebrating the season in L’Arche are momentous and even (relatively) luxurious. Whether it be the community’s worship or eating life, Christmas felt like a time to pull out all the stops in gratitude and joy for life, and love, and God.
Minimalist that I am, I often struggled with the gaudiness of this “materiality.” It all seemed too much of everything: food, energy, people, work. The hoopla felt like a noisy hindrance to a deeper reflection upon God’s radical identification with the lowliest and most vulnerable among us. Most of the time, I secretly wished for a more “toned down” season.
Yet upon further reflection I began to wonder whether all of my friends were on to something. Could the love that so many core members – those in L’Arche who have intellectual disabilities – shared in the festivities of Christmas not point to the goodness of creation expressed in the birth of Christ? Is this not the mystery of the Incarnation, that God – the Almighty, Sovereign, and Omnipresent Creator of the Cosmos – would choose to embody himself in the one of us, bones, muscle and food that we are? And by doing so, does God not proclaim once and for all how much he delights in the material and earthy works of his hands?
In the words of the Gospel of John, the Word that existed before time and was there when the world was created became flesh. Perhaps we have heard this passage many times and no longer think about it. But can we see something marvelously scandalous here?
The word “flesh” has had a rather torturous history in the Christian tradition. Like the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis – most well-known for his (controversial) novels Zorba the Greek and the Last Temptation of Christ – most of the past 2000 years has been a “battle between the spirit and the flesh.” While we hear Ezekiel speak of God giving the people a “heart of flesh” (11:19), we also hear Paul say that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8). While Paul uses “flesh” as a synonym for what we might call the “false self” or the “ego” alienated from God, too often it has been equated with the body. And much confusion and harm has come as a result.
The first verses of John’s Gospel, however, tell us something very different. Here “flesh” becomes the medium for God to enter into the world and reconcile all things to himself. God did not choose to enter into the world solely by way of people’s “minds” but through contact with their bodies. Jesus even makes the continually radical suggestion that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). Far from being a symbol of the baser dimensions of the human condition, here Jesus uses flesh as the means for his most intimate communion with us. It is as if Jesus is demanding that we have faith in his whole person, utterly divine and utterly human and material.
This is the kind of faith that so many of my friends in L’Arche relate to. In my (limited) experience, people with intellectual disabilities want reality “with flesh on it.” They do not wish to relate to a Facebook page but a body next to them. Most cannot share a highly abstract theological conversation with me, but can heartily share food and drink. my L’Arche friends usually do not pray for world peace or the eradication of poverty, but for “my friend” or “sister/brother/parent.” People like Susan and Brian and Michael generally find the beautiful prayers of worship less inspiring than the bread and cup of communion, and the bodies of their friends by their side.
And so they love to celebrate and feast, never alone but together. In this way, people with developmental disabilities have taught me what the church has taught all throughout history: the life of faith can never be lived in isolation but must always be shared with others. And not just “virtual” others but with material and fleshly bodies. In this way we can continue Jesus’ giving of his body to us through one another. We are the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) and thus called to become bread for each other. So many times in L’Arche I experienced how the core members truly understood this reality, and embodied Paul’s words on how the members who seem the weakest actually become the most indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22).
So let us truly celebrate this feast of the Incarnation of God as a sign that our salvation comes through the earthly and material reality that we are. And may those prophets among us, who demand that our faith takes on human flesh, lead us in the delight and joy of matter that God has done ever since he looked at the world and proclaimed, “It is good” (Gen. 1).
Jason Greig was a Student Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network when he wrote this article in January 2012