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Christmas Eve and the Creaturely Flesh of God

The baby Jesus was human. More importantly still, an animal.

Most English speakers use the word “animal” for something other than human. But of course, we humans are animals, too. The Latin word anima simply means “breath.” Whatever is breathing is an animal.

This matters for the Twelve Days of Christmas, a season to celebrate God’s intimate embrace of creaturely flesh, and it matters on a planet in the throes of an ecological crisis. Christmas matters as a celebration of God’s solidarity with the whole of God’s creation and not only humans.

The Gospel according to John points us in this direction by insisting that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14). As theologian David Clough notes, the key Greek word in that verse is not anthropos (human) but sarx (flesh), which is used elsewhere in the Christian Testament of the Bible as an inclusive term for all living things, just as writers in the Hebrew Bible used “flesh” to evoke the whole of God’s living creation.

Clough goes on to argue that the foundational Christian claim concerning the incarnation, therefore, “is not that God became a member of the species Homo sapiens, but that God took on flesh, the stuff of living creatures.”

More pointedly, Christianity does not offer an escape hatch from the material world of the flesh, as if all the gloriously messy realities of embodied life are sinful or evil (as the Christian tradition of my youth seemed to suggest). Christian faith invites instead a thoroughly materialistic spirituality.

Appreciating the material world not merely as a grand “stage” on which the human-divine drama plays out but as the location of divine encounter and the vehicle of divine grace has profound implications for how we treat all animals, human or otherwise.

We could begin by noting the mind-numbing scope of animal consumption. Conservative estimates suggest that 56 billion farmed land animals are slaughtered every year on this planet for food. That’s roughly 153 million every day, or 6 million every hour, or 106,000 every minute. These figures do not include marine animals or animals killed for sport or who die in zoos, circuses, and municipal shelters.factory_farm

(For the latest figures on animal consumption, see the online animal kill counter here, and the Animal Equality site for conditions on factory farms, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. For resources on protecting the welfare of farmed animals, see CreatureKind, founded by David Clough).

How we treat other animals—whether in factory farms or on exotic hunting safaris—has a direct bearing on how we treat other humans. Feminist scholar Carol Adams noted back in the 1990s the correlation between how meat for consumption is packaged and how women’s bodies are similarly “packaged” in popular culture. Historian Thomas Laqueur analyzed early modern approaches to human sexuality that compared the “brutish” sexual acts of other animals to the “lower classes” of Europe. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas urges us to notice how white supremacy is maintained, in part, through the hyper-sexualization and thus “animalization” of black women and men. And these are but recent examples in a long history of dehumanizing through animalizing, as nearly every human society has done to its enemies before going to war with them.

Meanwhile, as the Apostle Paul insisted nearly 2,000 years ago, the whole creation is groaning with anticipation for the coming day of salvation (Rom. 8:19-23). Christmas marks the dawning of that eager hope, and other-than-human animals were most likely among the first witnesses of that glorious dawn.

The former Episcopal bishop of Alaska, Steve Charleston, offers an elegant reminder of that most holy night when the Word of God became creaturely flesh and of the animals (human and otherwise) who bore hopeful witness:

Now, on this day, all the animals turn, wherever they are, and look toward that place, that one place, where long ago they gathered, drawn by a wordless summons, to see the future of creation born, lying in straw, a sleeping hope, nestled safely among them. The animals know that this is the eve, the beginning. They sense the great cycle of sacred time, they know the meaning of the change to come. Now, on this day, on this eve of everything, they make ready the welcome they have prepared, since before the star above them first appeared, set alight by an unseen hand.

Kiss your spouse, hug a friend, pet your dog or cat—celebrate the flesh on this most holy night. And let us commit during these twelve days of Christmas to change the way we live with all other animals.nativity_animals_3

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María and José: A Christmas Story of Divine Solidarity

The story is worth telling again, every year, for the good news of divine solidarity. I mean God’s solidarity with all of us, and especially with the most vulnerable, the fearful and insecure, the terrified and lonely ones.

Biblical writers offer more than one way to tell this story, which I take as an invitation to keep retelling it in fresh ways so that we can hear it, and upon truly hearing it, to live differently, and by our living, to glorify God.

However we tell and retell the story, Luke would urge us to remember that Jesus was born in an occupied province of the Roman Empire (Lk 2:1-2). We must tell this story, in other words, with politics, and economics, and the environment in view, and whatever else shapes the bodily conditions of God’s beloved creation, including today’s unprecedented wave of global migration (read about that here and here) as both humans and other animals move and flee toward survival.

It doesn’t matter whether the first century figures of Mary and Joseph qualify exactly as “refugees” in the modern sense. What does matter is the God revealed in their story is the God who is always in solidarity with the migrant poor, the lost and outcast, and the violently oppressed. This is the God who inspired Matthew to refer to Jesus as Emmanuel (“God with us”), and John to claim that the divine Word became flesh, and Luke to write about shepherds–the working poor of the first century–startled by a host of angels.

I’m grateful to Todd Atkins-Whitley, a friend and recent graduate of Pacific School of Religion, who retells Luke’s version of the Nativity with the refugees at the U.S./Mexico border fully in view. I heard the good news of God’s solidarity in fresh ways by reading Todd’s inspired retelling. With his permission, I offer it here and commend it to our shared Christmas contemplation and sacred, incarnational activism:

The Nativity According to Luke (2:1-20), Adapted at the Border

In those days, a decree went out from the Attorney General  that domestic violence and gang violence would no longer be considered grounds for asylum and a proclamation went out from the President that denied asylum to migrants seeking refuge through alternate means of entry. These were not the first restrictions on migration issued by various men who served as president of the United States.

Multitudes fled their own towns of origin to seek asylum. José also went from the town of San Salvador in El Salvador to the port of entry at the southernmost border called Tijuana because gangs had threatened to kill his family if he did not pay them. He went to seek asylum with María, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

While they were there, the border crossing was closed and border patrol agents fired tear gas canisters at them, throwing María into premature labor. And she gave birth to her firstborn son in a tent in a make-shift camp inside an abandoned municipal sports complex and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a crate, because there was simply no place for them to go in either country.

In that region there were women working in the maquiladoras, making electronics by day and night for foreign-owned companies seeking cheap labor and lax environmental laws. Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of the God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of Tijuana a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a crate.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “¡Gloria a Dios en el cielo más alto, y en la tierra paz entre los que él favorece!

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the maquiladora workers said to one another, “Let us go now to the Benito Juarez Sports Complex and see this thing that has taken place, which God has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found María and José, and the child lying in the crate. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the maquiladora workers told them.

But María treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

The maquiladora workers returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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