Many Christians were launched into this third week of Advent with the fiery rhetoric of John the Baptist. He’s an odd figure, in more ways the one. His desert roaming and locust-eating offer a stark contrast to inflated Santas on glittering front yards and reindeer shimmering on rooftops.
John stands as a forerunner, a figure preparing the way for Jesus. Not so terribly odd for this season, except for the grating substance of his message: repentance.
That word more than merely grates. Repentance is one of those words that makes a growing number insist on being spiritual but hell-no-not-religious. It qualifies as one of those “trigger words,” especially for those who have heard it only in tirades of condemnation.
As a gay man, I heard that word as a young adult not only as judgment on my sexual desires but for my bodily self, who I am in the world. I came to internalize that judgment, thinking of my very own flesh as wrong, bad, even disgusting. This is what leads a shocking number of young people to suicide; one would be too many. Quite frankly, I am astonished with gratitude that I am still alive after those many years of suffocating religion.
My life changed dramatically in my mid-twenties, when a dear friend recounted the confession he made to a priest about being gay. In essence, this was the content of his confession: “I confess that I have been rejecting the goodness of my sexuality and the divine gift of my bodily desires; I repent.”
My friend told me this, transforming entirely my concept of sin and repentance, not to mention my image of God. Repentance, I realized, is not primarily about remorse; or rather, such regret is not its purpose. The word itself means turning, changing one’s mind, shifting the course of one’s whole life. To repent is to turn away from shadowy realms and toward the light, toward the light of thriving, flourishing and fleshy life, a life of joy, just as God intends.
This Advent season, now on the brink of the Christmas season, is drenched in bodily stuff, in flesh. Biblical writers don’t often dwell on abstract concepts but turn often to bodily images to convey spiritual insights – particular places, landscapes, banquets, other animals. Christmas celebrates newborn flesh in a manger, a feeding trough for cattle and sheep. Bodily, fleshy stuff matters, more than we can imagine; it’s precisely there, in bodies, where we encounter the mystery of God.
Here in the United States, we’ve been living through a period of rather intense moments of bodily stress. The killing of African Americans by law enforcement officials over the last few years has brought black bodies newly onto center stage. The seemingly unending wave of sexual misconduct cases has brought bodily vulnerability and bodily power into the spotlight of our entertainment industry and Congress alike. The entire planet is becoming increasingly aware of the many bodies living in the midst of a climate crisis; the body of Earth itself is groaning (as the Apostle Paul noted many centuries ago). Bodily, fleshy stuff matters – more than we can imagine.
These are indeed distressing moments but perhaps also fruitful ones of repentance, of turning around and changing our minds about flesh and bodies. This matters in Western culture where bodies of all types are objectified, categorized, made into commodities to buy and sell. Perhaps BlackLivesMatter and the flood of “metoo” hashtags and starving polar bears can prompt a profound moment of repentance, of turning toward the flesh once again, not as a consumer product but where the One who creates it is pleased to dwell, with abundant joy.
We need to be intentional about this. It won’t “just happen” on its own. And this is why, in part, I live with a dog. My Australian shepherd dog Judah will not permit me to sit in front of my computer forever; he insists on hikes, playing, wrestling, running down a beach, getting dirty, smelly, and covered in sand and mud and ocean foam. He stands panting after all that rolling about in the muck, panting happily as he stands there as a complete and utter mess; it’s glorious.
I actually love the smell of a wet, dirty dog. I sometimes bury my nose in Judah’s furry neck and relish that earthy, canine odor. It speaks flesh, a word made flesh, and there I remember: God really does love this glorious mess – God loves me.
On the endless list of things we all need to do in this “holiday” season, I would add one more and put it at the top. In your encounters with others, all of them, notice that we are bodies with flesh. With colleagues, reach out a hand to touch a shoulder; with strangers, shake a hand and feel your skin against skin; with friends and family, make sure you embrace them – a lot. And don’t ever miss an opportunity to fondle the silky ears of a dog, scratch the chin of a (willing) cat, or take delight in that tumbleweed of animal fur rolling through your living room.
All of this seems ridiculously inconsequential, hardly the revolution we now need. But it matters more than we can imagine, this regular, deliberate, intentional reminder of the flesh we are, the flesh God loves.
There are many reasons why physical touch has become risky these days. There are many more reasons why it is so urgently necessary, the reminder of our fleshy bodies, the stuff through which God chooses to speak and be known.
Repent, turn again toward the flesh, where God takes great delight to dwell, with an abundance of (messy, smelly, confounding, liberating, intoxicating) joy. That’s the gift I wish I could place under every single tree – wrapped in Judah’s beachy scent.