Contemporary biblical scholarship tells us that we don’t really know exactly where Jesus was born and that the gospel writers don’t necessarily want us to believe that he was born in a barn and physically placed in a manger.
Ron Rolheiser, OMI
THE EARTHINESS OF CHRISTMAS
What the gospels do want us to do is to take those symbols seriously. Jesus’ birth is placed inside a stable because, among other things, barns don’t look like cathedrals and animals don’t smell like incense. There’s a brute earthiness to a barn, smells you don’t get in church. As for the manger, the feeding trough, well, that makes sense too, given that Jesus will tell us that his “flesh is food for the life of the world”. If one of the main purposes of Jesus’ life is to end up as food, as Eucharist, on a table (we call an altar), shouldn’t he be born in a feeding trough? The wood of the manger and the wood of the altar are one and the same, feeding tables, both of them.
In the incarnation, Christmas, God enters the world, becomes physical, and, by doing that, assures us that the spiritual does not set itself against the physical, that the sacred is not antithetical to the smells of the human body, and that God is not just found in churches and in places that are clean and reverent. The old moral dualisms – the spiritual against the physical, the clean against the messy – break down in the incarnation.
What Christmas teaches us is that God is as much domestic as monastic, a God of the body as well as of the soul, a God who is found in barns as well as in churches, in kitchens as well as in cathedrals.
Among the many things we celebrate at Christmas therefore is the sacredness of our own lives, in all their physicality. What’s made holy by Jesus’ birth? Most everything that’s physical: nature, our homes, our kitchens, our workplaces, our barns, our restaurants, our bars, our sports facilities, and, not least, our own bodies, including sex and the way babies are born.
Spirit too, of course, is blessed and made holy by the incarnation, but the Word was already spiritual. At Christmas, it “was made flesh.”
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