Among the myriad gifts of Christmas are:
Assurance that God is with us—“Emmanuel.” God is not aloof from us or disinterested in us—not, as Bette Midler once sang, merely “watching us from a distance.” God is among us and for us.
Clarity about the character of God. God is like Jesus. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey put it, “In God, there is no unChristlikeness at all.” God is as good and gracious as Jesus said and showed.
Confidence that God will surprise us. The Christmas story is filled with unanticipated wonders. The Savior was born to peasant homeless parents in a Bethlehem barn. A choir of angels sang to startled shepherds in a lonely field. Foreign astrologers followed a strange star to bend their knees in honor of Jesus. We can expect that God will do the unexpected.
These gifts of Christmas gladden and guide us; they promise us that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that we are never beyond the reach of hope. They also shape leadership and inform ministry. Christian leaders deeply involve themselves in the lives of those entrusted to their care. They model their leadership after the example of Jesus: loving tenaciously and tenderly, serving humbly and confidently, and teaching wisely and creatively. They trust that God will act, even when they cannot predict how and where and when.
There’s another gift of Christmas which is crucial for the practice of ministry: the gift of incarnation. “Incarnation” comes from the Latin words in carneand means, literally,” “in meat.” The word makes a startling claim: in the meat and the muscle, the blood and the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, we encounter the grace and truth of God. That claim comes from the single-verse version of the Christmas story we find in the Gospel of John: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).
Jesus lived within the limits and possibilities of a fully embodied life. Mary cuddled away the night-chill by holding him in her tender embrace. When Joseph held him close to his cheek, Jesus felt the comfort of a father’s rough, soft beard. Jesus cried when he was hungry or thirsty or wet. He laughed when Mary tickled his feet and shouted with glee when Joseph tossed him in the air. He fell and skinned his knees when he was learning to walk. When he hit his thumb with a hammer in Joseph’s carpenter shop, it really hurt. When he became a teenager, he felt stabs of desire. Throughout his life, he had headaches and stomachaches, caught colds, and sweated through the heat of fevers. In his death, he knew excruciating, torturing pain.
God’s incarnation in flesh and blood means that bodies matter to God and should be central to ministry.
Because we are embodiedspirits, emotional or spiritual experiences are somehow and always physical: they fire across the synapses of our brains and register somewhere in our bodies. Anxiety shallows our breathing. Fear churns in our guts. Loss sends tears running down our cheeks. Wonder widens our eyes. Confidence straightens our spines. Hope lifts our heads.
Since body and spirit are seamlessly woven together, it’s difficult to do so-called “spiritual” things—like being patient, compassionate and centered—when our stomachs growl, our feet hurt, and our heads throb. When we’re weary, hungry and thirsty, it’s harder to love well, to think clearly, and to feel truly.
Because bodies matter, so does food. Who has enough to eat and who doesn’t? What is the condition of the soil from which food grows? How are farmworkers treated and paid?
It matters that people struggle with food: some substitute it for love and can’t get enough of it. Others obsessively monitor how much of it they consume because they feel consumed by emotions which they cannot control.
It matters when our bodies become broken by disease, and it also matters that everyone has good and affordable healthcare.
It matters how the homeless are sheltered and that we work for decent and affordable permanent housing.
It matters that we create jobs which don’t demean human dignity and don’t treat the bodies of laborers as disposable cogs in a sweatshop machine.
It matters how police and prison officials treat all bodies, including black and brown bodies.
The Christmas gift of incarnation opens our eyes, ears, and hearts to the flesh-and-blood realities of our neighbors. “The Word became flesh.” Making that Word known has to do, in many ways, with how we treat bodies–our own and the bodies of others.