by Mark E. Stanger
2019 has been THE YEAR OF THE BODY at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Last Christmas I spent a few days in downtown Portland, Oregon with two immigrants from the Holy Land, one from Gaza and one from Bethlehem, working and training here in America, seeking refuge and asylum. Both are Muslims, one cultural and one observant, enjoying the bright fun and feelings of an American urban Christmas in the dark cold December. What had brought us together had been unlikely and unpredictable, more angelic than serendipitous––another story for another time.
After Christmas Eve dinner we hung out near the fireplace in the hotel lobby, playing at chess and with cameras and phones. I got up, stretched and grabbed my coat.
“See you later, guys. I’m walking to church.“
“But it’s nineteen minutes on foot…too far and too cold. Let me drive you,” said the Bethlehemite, looking up from his phone. I was looking forward to the quiet solitary walk but knew better than to protest with hyper-hospitality types.
Getting into the car, I drank in a bright foggy moon determined to light up the deep dark of the wet streets. Suddenly I got a text message from another middle-Eastern Muslim friend, who lives in one of Jericho’s refugee camps where his family has been since driven from Jaffa in 1948. Already Christmas Day there, in stark translation English the text announced fresh news that he was with his wife in a Ramallah hospital, excited, anxious and thrilled at the birth of their firstborn, a daughter. I was soaring well across my joy threshold. My imagination and heart opened to new birth with its risks and dangers, of that Nazareth family stuck for a while in Bethlehem before fleeing from Herod to seek asylum in Egypt, and of a bright new song from the skies above, announcing to poor shepherds that peace is ready for exchanging and unwrapping. Suddenly, right then, pulsing from the car radio, came another bright song, but from the earth below, as if rising from the Divine heart resting in a feeding trough.
I’m in love with your body … I’m in love with the shape of you.
The song, overplayed and ear-wormed over the previous year, alternatively beguiling and banal, catchy contagious and what?again? annoying, suddenly was the only song in the universe as lights and rain and windshield wipers joined in. Before we even arrived at Trinity Cathedral, before the sublime Britten choral prelude offered by all women’s voices, my soul was ablaze. I began to overload on other Christmas message layers: the Word, the conversation. Dominus dixit ad me/The Lord said to me, you are my child, today I have begotten you. In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and pitched a tent-home among us. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
Come over and start up a conversation with just me
And trust me I’ll give it a chance now
Take my hand
That song in that moment, heralded my celebration of Christmas. Now it filled the car and the night air, insistent, proclamatory and sacred. What Christian teachers call the incarnation––the enfleshment––refuses to be reduced to an abstraction. The Christmas story, the Gospel story, pulses with our own bodily pulse, our own tangible, familiar, strange bodies and our physical and emotional touching and talking with and loving others and our world. Cosmic and universal, great tidings for all the people, yet still whispered, intimate, agape plus eros plus all the rest of it, coaxing my stupid, dull imagination and will.
You know I want your love
Your love was handmade for somebody like me
Come on now, follow my lead
Follow my lead, says the firstborn of all creation, now a pioneer and pilgrim in an earthling body. The Divine is in love with us, our earthly, bodily, breathing life. In love even with our bodies, enough to choose one like ours for a home in which to gestate and from which to be born bodily. And accepting the human body of Jesus as his own to walk one tiny corner of our planet, and in that body to pass through death to life abundant. The first fruits of humanity’s resurrection. Come on now, follow my lead.
Shepherds saw and heard the angels singing glory, peace, and God’s favor toward humankind, not in general terms but in tones deeply personal and unambiguous. It’s a thrilling announcement, a siren sound, a troubadour’s poem, some heavenly sonnet, a wish and a woo. The song from the Beloved God-with-us is a gift directed at our heart, our life in the body, summoning us up and forward to the adventure of returning the love still coming down to us on Christmas.
Come on, be my baby, come on
Come on, be my baby, come on
I’m in love with your body
Every day discovering something brand new
I’m in love with the shape of you.
Look: Lyrics and copyright
Presbyter Mark retired a year ago from the staff of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and now lives in Beaverton, Oregon where he’s scanning the skies for directions on the next leg of his life journey. Instagram @markstanger