Duffing Into the Material
Sermon by Cynthia A. Jarvis
December 21, 2003, Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
“We have to duff into the material at the risk of the spirit,” said Robert Frost to a gathering of poets in 1958 concerning the incarnation and, by implication, addressing himself to the Christmas claim. “God himself by descending into the flesh showed this duffing into the material.” Frost was preoccupied with the conflict between spirit and matter, calling God’s “duffing into the material” a “derring-do.” So on the occasion of his 88th birthday, the age when one is freed from caring about what other people think, the poet proclaimed in verse, “…God’s own descent/Into flesh was meant/As a demonstration/That the supreme merit/Lay in risking spirit/In substantiation.”The problem Christmas presents for those who would believe God was in Christ, the scandal of the incarnation from the very beginning was the claim that God had chosen to enter human flesh. Flesh implied hunger, need, passion, impurity, sexual desire, vulnerability, suffering, death. Furthermore said the philosophers: Matter is completely evil! God is pure good! God become human is logically impossible! So to say and believe God was in Christ, an end run had to be made around Jesus’ material body, around Jesus’ humanity, and specifically around his birth. Some held that without passing through the womb of Mary, Christ was endowed with a seeming but not real body; others claimed the body was astral, made of superior substance like the substance of the angel who appeared to Abraham; still others said that Jesus’ body passed through Mary as though through a channel (hos dia solenos) taking nothing from her. We shake our heads but I tell you this: as we tidy up the stable so antiseptically, deck the halls so exquisitely, reason our way to the manger with such sophistication that we avoid the scandal and deny the flesh his incarnation embraced, the body his resurrection redeemed. A clue to our heretical instincts would be the commotion caused by the inclusion of the “caganer” figurine in a traditional Catalan crèche. You know the little French peasant figures? They come to the manger with baskets of bread, a goose held in a farmer’s arm, a pig in tow, a string of sausages carried over the shoulder. The point is that Christ’s birth draws to the manger common folk and so addresses the real lives of real people. The point seemingly was well taken until an art exhibition in Napa, California last Advent added to the scene the traditional caganer figurine: a man with his trousers around his ankles relieving himself in the corner of the stable. The Catholic League of America was “up in arms,” offended by a defecating peasant in the holy stable. I smugly shook my head at the report until I found myself at a proper women’s Christmas luncheon in center city this week. Literally out or the blue, an Episcopalian began telling me of the conversation she had with a younger woman at the early Eucharist last Sunday on the Mainline. The woman had leaned over to her before they rose to receive the elements and asked, “Do you smell anything?” My storyteller quietly shook her head. “Good,” the young woman sighed with relief, “because I just put my hand in the pocket of my jacket and realized I forgot to empty it after I walked the dog.” Suddenly I whiffed the scandal of God’s “duffing into the material…risking spirit in substantiation”: a derring-do that seriously religious people would rather do without! We recoil at a story we might find funny if it had been set in Macy’s shoe department, but not at Christ’s table! Up in arms, we are and so step away from the Christmas claim into the second century with the heretic Valentinius of Valentine’s Day fame, claiming instead that Jesus “ate and drank but did not defecate.” As Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, astutely noted in The Guardian last December, “What [the church] did not appreciate…is that the Christmas story is supposed to be offensive, and that the caganer is a reminder of the theological revolution that scandalized sophisticated opinion of the first few centuries of the Christian era: that God became human, that the sacred was no longer to be protected from the profane.” The problem, he says, is not that Christmas is too materialistic, but that it is not materialistic enough! “Merry Kitschmas!” wrote the good Presbyterians who sent me the vicar’s article last Christmas, kitsch being the denial of…well…I cannot say what, exactly, from the pulpit, so I will simply say the denial of the messiness of our material existence. So what in the second century was a heresy named Docetism [believing Jesus only appeared to be human] or Gnosticism [believing the material world to be evil and salvation to be our release from bondage to matter into pure spirit] has become, in the twentieth century, kitsch: a perfectly acceptable way of celebrating the season sans anything in or around the manger the culture considers unwholesome, indecent, impure, abnormal, vulgar, disturbing. “The caganer,” said the vicar, “is a reminder of another Jesus and another story. From the perspective of official Christian doctrine, the story of Christmas is a full-scale attack upon the notion of kitsch. …Orthodoxy turns out to be vastly more radical, not because it provides a way of squaring the circle of God-man, but because it refuses to separate the divine from material reality. God is born in a stable. The divine is [proclaimed] not as existing in some pristine isolation, but among the [messiness] of the world.” God duffing into the material…risking spirit in substantiation! Listen, then, to the messy details we actually are given by Luke: two crooked and cruel politicians at tax time, to the world’s eye a cuckold from the Jewish royal bloodline, a pregnant unwed virgin, a little town unable to accommodate the crowds of filthy peasants, a woman in labor denied a bed, childbirth in a cave where animals were kept, no doubt rough cloths to wipe the infant of blood and mucus, the rest used to swaddle him, shepherds smelling of sheep excrement crowding close to the scene, a newborn laid in a feeding trough. When those closest to this event read the details of Luke’s nativity, they heard the outrageous claim that God had entered the meanest and messiest imaginable material of human existence, heard that God chose for the birth of God’s only begotten Son the unclean place and the vulgar people refused by the culture, and heard that the angels literally glorified the scene. The gospel would be, on this Christmas Sunday of 2003, that Luke’s details still hold: God enters into the meanest and messiest imaginable material of human existence, abides in the places and with the people refused by the culture, glorifies that which the religious establishment abhors. With the caganer in the corner, then, the messiness of our real birth and our real death, the bodily fluids even we tend and touch tenderly for love’s sake in the beginning and in the end of the lives of the ones we have been given to love, have been assumed and redeemed by the God who has risked spirit in substantiation. But the vicar notes another detail of equal significance concerning the beleaguered little town of Bethlehem. In relation to the human writing of history, the birth of Jesus in a stable on the outskirts of Bethlehem is a scene that takes place “offstage.” That the story finally makes cultural center stage by way of Constantine’s decree is another sermon! Suffice it to say for this Christmas Sunday, the original offstage version of Christmas strangely comports with the kitschmas we have come to celebrate. For kitsch, by definition, treats that which is considered unwholesome offstage. “Think,” says the vicar, “of those Nazi propaganda films of beautiful, healthy children skiing down the Bavarian Alps. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Of course there is! For this is a world that has been purified, where everything nasty or troubling has been eliminated.” I think of the manicured gardens in Flossenburg where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed, his bones mounded with others and now perfectly planted so as not to disturb the tourists: “the aesthetics of ethnic cleansing,” the mess kept offstage. What does this mean and what does this matter some two thousand years later as, beneath our perfect preparations for kitschmas, the hidden homeless, the forgotten poor, the untouchable lepers dying of AIDS, the rejected sinners crouch toward Bethlehem [offstage] to see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to them? It means that every matter closeted in the human hearts in need of redemption—the relationships severed, the addictions hidden, the violence barely domesticated, the depression denied, the affair raging, the self-loathing cutting deep into the flesh, the greed, the hatred, the fear, the rage--all crouches in the darkness toward Bethlehem too. The gospel is revealed precisely there, says Luke: offstage is where he is born and beckons us…toward Bethlehem’s mean stable, the angels instruct us to go…and there we kneel with nothing but our material selves, with only the vulgar details of our lives and our world to offer before his holy presence. He assumes them: assumes our life in the flesh that with us will eat and drink and defecate, assumer our death in the flesh that soon on a cross will be pierced and broken for our sake, assumes completely in his flesh the purpose of God’s redeeming love. Say the orthodox theologians, if God did not really become human, if the Word did not become flesh, if God’s Spirit did not assume material form, if Mary did not really have a baby, then you and I and the rest of the whole human running race have been left to mess in our mess kits, to stew in our own juices, to relieve ourselves at the manger of any hope that God is with us and is for us. Therefore with all the offensiveness of the Christmas claim exposed, we proclaim this: that God did become human in Jesus Christ, that God has duffed into the material never to be separated from it or us again, that God has risked spirit in substantiation for our poor sakes in order that we who seek him still may be found of him, offstage, relieved of the embarrassment, no longer ashamed of the human being we recognize ourselves to be in his face. At this Christmastide, my friends, may the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” shine in the flesh of your heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Amen.