Incarnation is squishy

December 29th, 2015

Being an adult is not for the squeamish. If I had to estimate the amount of time as a total number of days I will have spent cleaning up bodily fluids at the end of my life — blood, urine, poo, vomit, etc. — I’m sure it would be the equivalent of a nice vacation. Nurses and teachers, who clean up more often than I do, I take my hat off to you.

As I’m on the floor toweling up the remnants of my dog’s recent leavings, I can’t help become somewhat reflective about Christmas. One of the aspects of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ was an acceptance of becoming 60% water. The effect of being incarnate as a mammal is that you are constantly leaking, which often means that someone has to clean up after you.

Yes, I know that the messiness of Incarnation is a religious trope these days. We all have heard that Mary treasured the talk of shepherds in her heart while she was dealing with diapers and trying to figure out the rhythms of breastfeeding.

But as I get older, it strikes me that one of the most poignant aspects of being an incarnated human being, a creature who knows the world mediated through its own flesh, is that we are constantly leaking and disintegrating. We are organized entropy, taking in energy and matter, organizing it briefly to be part of our story, and then releasing it back into the world. It’s a precarious existence. We work very hard to create the illusion that it is solid, stable, predictable, that we are somehow in control of our environment and our bodies. But the reality is that we are mostly fluids. And we leak. All the time.

For one thing, we sweat. We are apparently the mammals most adept at sweating. Some argue that our ability to cool off with sweat allowed us to become highly-evolved pack animals. We ran down our prey until they died of exhaustion. Since we were able to cool our brains, they grew larger as we developed language to coordinate our strategies. So when God chose to become incarnate, God chose to become a sweaty God: Sweating from exertion, or embarrassment, or just existing while giving off a whiff of microbial B.O. The Bible even talks about Jesus’ sweat. Apparently he was an active prayer warrior, pouring out his heart until his sweat became like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

We cry. We leak out of our eyes when we are sad, or happy, or taste bittersweet moments that are just too poignant for words. We cry when we feel physical pain. So God chose to become a crying God, one who wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35), who certainly wept in pain at the crucifixion, who probably shed tears when his friends abandoned him, or perhaps even angry tears when religious leaders tried to shame him.

We excrete. There’s no shame in it, because, as the children’s book says, “Everyone poops.” We have to get rid of the stuff our body doesn’t use, and we require fluid to aid the process. We have to urinate to clean our blood. Jesus used this basic understanding of physiology in his own preaching. Salt that has lost its saltiness isn’t even fit for the manure pile (Luke 14:35) — which is a pretty shocking metaphor and a stern warning for those of us who lose our flavor. And we aren’t made clean by what we eat or the religious purity regulations we observe, because everything we eat gets turned into poop (Mark 7:19). Rather, it’s our words — which come out of our mouths, and not the other end — that make us clean.

We salivate. When the smell of sautéing onions or barbecue or roast vegetables with spices hits our noses, our digestive enzymes start cranking. Our bodies add fluid to our food to help it process more efficiently. Jesus used his own spittle twice in the Bible to assist healing (Mark 7:33 and John 9:6).

And we bleed. Some of us bleed regularly, others of us bleed occasionally. We bleed when we are wounded, when we give birth, when we donate blood. As Christians, we tell a story about Jesus’ last supper, when he passed a cup to his disciples and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant. Drink it, and remember me” (1 Corinthians 11:24). The people of Jesus’ day knew that blood, being the life-force, belonged to God, and with it they made atonement, sanctified people and places and gave thanks. Jesus’ own blood, like the blood of the Passover lamb, set us free from the power of sin and death.

When we talk about Incarnation, we often speak about flesh as if it is a solid thing. In fact, our experience of being flesh is very fluid. We are nurtured in the water of a womb and our first food is often breastmilk. Incarnation is squishy.

Being a human is not for the squeamish. At Christmas, instead of being disgusted by our bodily existence, we rejoice that we are made in God’s image. We celebrate the Incarnation. We tell of a God who entered our world as a human, practically leaking divinity out of his very pores.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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