If you want an earthy faith which embraces all our materiality and mess, look to Jesus Christ. For he is Emmanuel, God-with-us: and he points us to the human. (Listen.)
I’ve been browsing the app store lately, and it is simply marvellous how many apps there are to help me with my spirituality. There are apps for meditation and prayer. There are apps for devouring the whole Bible in a year, or for memorising passages, or for reading one verse very slowly.
There are apps to log my spiritual habits; apps to pray about the day; apps to frame silence; and apps to inspire me with spiritual quotations. If you want to hear sermons from around the world, there are apps. If you want to list people to pray for, there are apps. If you want to practise Christian stewardship and build a Christian marriage and raise Christian children … yes, there are apps!
And of course I use a few of these apps, though not the ones for marriage or children: but it makes me think: we live in a very spiritual age. By this I mean that we live in an era where it’s entirely possible to engage in spiritual practices and be considered a spiritual person, while largely avoiding the mess of being human.
This is something worth pondering.
Most of us have a tendency to look for God in beauty: an exquisite piece of music, a stunning sunset, the soaring flight of a wedge tailed eagle; and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course we look for God in uncomplicated, uncontroversial things, where it is easy to sense the divine.
We can maintain this sense of spiritual ease by praying alone; by reading our Bibles alone; by listening to podcasts which shore up our worldview; by confessing our sins only to ourselves; by using spiritual apps in solitary practice; and by drifting away from any faith community which makes real claims upon our time, energy, money and capacity for relationship.
And this is very attractive. Because while we’re sitting in landscapes contemplating the sublime, or scrolling through our phones and customizing our prayer lives, we don’t have to deal with screaming children and unfriendly people and hypocritical pastors and bumbling church leaders and unpleasant neighbours and manipulative relatives and demanding friends. We don’t have to deal with hungry people, or poor people, or annoying people, or vulnerable people. We don’t have to deal with our discomfort at being rich while others are poor, or our rage at being poor while others are rich.
Nor do we need to admit those nasty feelings of unworthiness and shame which seethe just below the surface. Our smart phones are streamlined and elegant; our spiritual lives are beautiful; and God is in all creation: except, of course, in humanity. Because, as was completely obvious to Roman pagans and Gnostics in the first century, and as is completely obvious to most of us now, human physicality and human brokenness and the mess of ordinary human relationships distract us from the divine.
Except if that divinity is Jesus Christ. Because Jesus was, yes, the Son of God and I assume he was quite spiritual: but he was also intensely material. Tonight we remember his birth in a dim dark stable, which smelled of chickens and wool and animal dung. This baby was conceived in mystery, and he was pushed out of a poor girl’s vagina by deep and powerful contractions. He emerged in a gush of amniotic fluid, smeared with vernix and streaked with blood; he suckled noisily from his mother as she nestled into prickly straw. And after the stress of the journey and not finding a room, and then the shock of seeing Mary give birth, Joseph was probably sobbing in the corner; then the shepherds arrived, shouting and singing and rough as guts.
The little one born in a stable grew up to live and work among outcasts and foreigners. He touched people who were sick and rejected and dying, and he made them whole; he restored them to community. He hosted picnics and shared fish, wine and bread; he reclined at dinner parties; his feet were caressed by a woman’s hair. He loved and wept and laughed and sang; he was impatient, and grief-stricken, and angry at times. He knew temptation; he knew rejection; he knew betrayal. Human politics shaped his birth, life and death; he experienced physical, spiritual and emotional anguish.
The God made known in Jesus Christ is not pure spirit; and he does not remain remote, detached, neutral, or on high. Instead, this is a story of divinity engaged, and made deeply and wonderfully and materially human. The Word was made flesh: and this Word, Jesus Christ, did not avoid the mess of life. Ours is a most material faith: and Christ is fully known, not in some purity of creation or abstract ideals or spiritual laws or esoteric disciplines, but in all the mess and glory of being human.
So if you want a pure spirituality uncontaminated by blood and tears, sickness and appetites, suffering, conflict, politics and other people, you’ll need to look elsewhere; and the app store’s a great place to start. But if you want an earthy faith, a real faith, which embraces all our materiality and mess, look to Jesus Christ. For he is Emmanuel, God-with-us: and he points us to the human.
Look to him, and look also among the poor, young and homeless; look among those seeking asylum; and look among the vulnerable: for it is among such as these that the Christ-child was born, and it’s through such as these that we welcome and love and serve him still.
And while you’re looking, look around here, too. We might look like we have it all together, but you’ll catch a glimpse: for we are ordinary people, wounded and vulnerable. Like Jesus, we too experience the mess of human emotions and the complexity of human relationships. We know poverty and spiritual poverty; we know temptation; we know rejection; we know betrayal. Our lives are shaped by human politics; most of us have known physical, spiritual and emotional anguish; and so you will find him here.
And because he has shared these realities with us, they are not foreign to him; they are not despised. Christ became flesh and lived among us and experienced the fullness of human life, so that with him we might live and die and be raised again into wholeness and God’s new life. Christ integrates it all: the spiritual and the material; bodies, minds and spirits; the app store and the mountaintop and the screaming toddler; and you and me.
So as we explore our spirituality, let us not deny the material and the brokenness and the suffering and the mess; but let us accept and embrace our humanity. And let us also accept and embrace the challenge and gift of one another; and the challenge and gift of God-with-us, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel.
And with the whole world around us,
heaven and earth, angels and shepherds,
stars and mitochondria and dust,
let us rejoice.
With the animals who gave up their manger,
with the young couple who opened their hearts,
let us make room.
With the wise men from the east,
let us bring gifts.
And let us celebrate:
because God knows and loves the earth
and the people of the earth,
in all their mess and materiality,
and a baby was born into dirt and darkness
to fill earth with the culture of heaven. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 2:1-20 given to Sanctuary, 24 December 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Christmas. Image credit: Alex Hockett on Unsplash.
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