I went to the hospital today.
Not to worry – nothing serious, just arthritis in my wrists. The doctor is trying to figure out what kind of arthritis it is and that required an MRI on my right wrist.
Just the one wrist.
So naturally, in order to get a picture of my wrist, the staff asked me to remove my clothing…
The ‘good news’ is I got to put on a set of hospital gowns: those blue, one-size-fits-all-even-if-you’re-a-big-boy garments that are impossible to tie in the back because I have bad wrists, remember? Oh, and you should leave your socks and shoes on because the floors are dirty. Now walk those bare, white legs and mini-gown out to the busy waiting room and make yourself comfortable on a vinyl chair of your choice while you wait for staff to get themselves behind schedule.
The technician was a nice but humourless twenty-something girl with unnaturally large glasses and an important agenda that I kept interrupting with annoying pleasantries: Kind of early to be working, isn’t it? I ask, sounding like I’m desperate to make a friend; So, do you love your job? I say, sounding like I want her in my pyramid scheme; Mind if I have a coffee while you’re imaging me? I ask, sounding like a knob.
I humbly accepted the IV needle in my arm (surprise!) and snapped on the hair net I was handed (yes, I found it funny/ironic – she didn’t). I laid down on the narrow bench, moved my shoulders that way, put my hand in here, squeezed left over there, placed my other arm like this, lifted my head now and my legs another time, then slid, powerless, into the maw of the white tube. Thank goodness for all this technology which is making my life easier.
Fast-forwarding to the final scene – I survived, and the rumour that I can turn any experience into a long story is confirmed. Truth be told, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.
Seems like hospitals want you to take your clothes off to do just about anything inside their walls. I can’t even imagine what they make people do if they show up to make a delivery or apply for a job.
Although I must say, I’m a lot more comfortable with the reality of hospital gowns and human bodies these days. I don’t want to sound creepy about it but, while human bodies might be amazing, they are also very much alike when they’re hanging out (so to speak) in a blue gown.
Are you going somewhere with this, Brian?
Flesh. More than just skin, the word flesh is about the essence of humanness and it’s the core of Advent and Christmas.
As I have already written, Advent is a time of solemn reflection; a period of looking forward with hope to a future time of joy and freedom. The problem with looking forward is that it’s not always easy. Being human means we struggle when trouble happens in our flesh and we find it difficult to hope for light in the future when we are sitting in darkness in the now.
Consider the circumstances of Mary, the young woman Luke writes about in chapter one of his biblical testimony. We like to think of this story as beautiful and we like to think of Mary as blessed and virtuous but her situation at the time had to be one of fear, embarrassment and lostness. Think of the somber reality when she learns that she is pregnant at precisely the worst moment in her life: unmarried, helpless, every relationship in her male-dominated world has become strained and tenuous.
Yet in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions there is high respect paid to Mary who is described as the mother of God. Protestants often frown on this idea for obvious reasons but we need to consider a bit more closely what is intended by that term.
It’s about flesh.
The ancient Nicene Creed sums it up like this, “By the power of the Holy Spirit he [Jesus] became incarnate [flesh] from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” or “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary” and elsewhere, he is described as “…bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh”. To give you a bit of mind-bending theological nerd speak, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human.
This is more than a sweet, happily-ever-after narrative: it is about stress and trouble living with comfort and joy; the divine and mystical living along with skin and soul. Let’s not forget that the first Christmas was mostly a harsh, dangerous and unique event.
Jesus and his mother shared birth and danger and flesh. Real flesh. Naked flesh. Christmas is about pregnancy, blood pressure, a swollen stomach, a baby kicking, a hot, dusty donkey ride, human birth, water and blood, cutting an umbilical cord in a manger, feeding, diapering, clothing. First steps, talking, bonding, anxiety, worry, sharing, laughing, learning, sleeping, living.
His mother was there when he was born, naked and helpless, and she was there a lifetime later when he died, naked and helpless again. The bond they formed in the flesh would never, ever be shaken through their lives.
You see, connecting in the flesh is an even deeper experience than just being together physically. The word flesh is more intimate and transformative, which is why the term is used to describe God coming to earth. Jesus came, not just to say hi, but to be close to us and to know humanness.
Jesus’ birth is a beautiful story, yes, but we can be tempted to make it smaller than itself by creating an idol of colours, lights and feel-good traditions. It’s easy to have such a sanitized Christmas that the grit of the story is no longer meaningful.
Let’s keep Christmas meaningful by keeping it intimate and pensive. Fleshly.
Mary was a person whose faith carried her through her time of fleshly trouble; her pregnancy was her Advent. She was able to accumulate and ponder all her experiences into an outrageous love and hope.
In fact, experiencing life in the flesh is the very reason any of us can have the knowledge and hope that there is something more.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
– from Luke 1