At some point early in human history, we made a big mistake. We decided that the physical world and the spiritual world were different. We started talking about body and soul, about spirit and flesh, as if they were different. And then, to make matters worse, we decided that one was better than the other. Some people decided that only the physical mattered, that if it couldn’t be counted or weighed or measured, it wasn’t real. At the other end of the spectrum, some people decided that the physical world was the lesser one, that what really mattered were ideas and thoughts and feelings and all the intangibles of life.
What we have ended up with is people arguing over a difference that isn’t real. Take, for example, the idea that there is a divide between religion and science; that somehow, we have to settle for either one alone. To believe that depends upon seeing a separation between the tangible and intangible worlds that just isn’t there. Religion and science both depend upon physical and spiritual understandings. In modern medicine, for example, we now realize that stress, an emotional state, plays a vital role in things like heart disease, a physical condition. And we have come to understand that brain chemistry plays a huge role in emotional conditions. The two cannot be separated. Religion and science are asking different questions, but the questions that each one asks are questions that need to be answered.
So why am I bringing this up? What does this have to do with Christianity? I think it’s one of the most important questions we need to think about when we talk about Jesus coming into the world. The story that we heard today, of Simeon and Anna, is a story of people who recognize the union of flesh and spirit. In Jesus, they recognize the holy in a human baby. It’s a pretty amazing story. The temple is crowded with people. There are people there for all kinds of reasons, so this young couple would hardly stand out. Because Jesus was a firstborn son, the Jewish tradition was that the parents would bring him to the Temple to dedicate him to God. But remember, couples come to the Temple with babies every day. Mary and Joseph don’t have some kind of spotlight shining on them, and we can assume that Jesus looks pretty much like any other baby boy. But these two old people immediately know who he is and that he isn’t just like any other baby.
My guess is that Simeon and Anna, who have been praying most of their lives, have a finely tuned sense of the divine. It’s like a musician who has been playing an instrument so long that she hears a wrong note in the middle of an orchestra and can tell you which instrument is off and by how much. Or perhaps their sensitivity is like a craftsman who can tell when a piece of work is just exactly right. Whatever it is, Simeon and Anna instantly recognize that this child is the one that God has promised. They understand that the physical and the spiritual are all bound up with each other, that this human baby is also somehow the Son of God. Flesh and spirit are one.
Jesus is the proof that spiritual and physical are just two facets of one thing. Jesus is fully human. He is also fully divine. We get all hung up on that, but we only get hung up on it if we make a separation between those two things. What we believe is that God became human in Jesus – not a pretend human and not a pretend God. We claim that Jesus was God and human – fully both.
But the next question is the really important one. If Jesus was fully God and fully human, what does that mean for us? What does it say about us? Are we JUST humans, physical, limited? Or, if God became human in Jesus, is it possible that God can become human in us? And if that is possible, what could it mean?
Let me suggest two things that it must mean if Jesus was really God made flesh. The first is that we cannot divide the human from the spiritual. People sometimes talk about their religion as if it were a private, interior experience. People say that they come to church because it makes them feel good. But if we follow Jesus, our religion cannot stay in our minds or hearts. It has to be expressed in our lives. Faith isn’t about how you feel, it’s about what you do. If we say that we love God, but treat other people badly, we have missed the point altogether. If we say that Jesus is the Lord of this world but then do nothing to make this world a better place, we have failed to live out our faith.
The second thing is that we must take the spiritual and the physical equally seriously. We must take all the sciences seriously, remembering that what we learn from them tells us something about the spiritual world as well. And we must also take the spiritual seriously. For many of us, this is the harder thing. Learning to pray, learning to meditate, even learning to talk about God or spiritual things makes us very uncomfortable. But God is both divine and human – in Jesus and in us.
And when we understand this, then we have the possibility of seeing the divine in the human. Because God is hiding in all kinds of unexpected places and people. There is grace in even the most unhappy circumstances. We expect to find God in happy, holy times and places. And God is surely there, but God is also in those places where people struggle and hurt and fail. And, perhaps most surprising of all, God is in those unremarkable times when life is just one thing after another. I remember an amazing conversation that I had one day with and older woman, a woman who had been open to God for many years. She said, “When I was young, I would encounter God and it would be a big surprise. But as the years have gone on, I’ve gotten used to God being present with me in every moment. When I’m cooking dinner or doing the laundry, I feel the love of God in my hands and under my feet. My prayer isn’t so much talking to God, but like a good friend, God is just there, and we don’t have to say anything.” For that woman, flesh and spirit had become one.
As the Gospel of John says, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus has come to show us how to heal the split between flesh and spirit, between the human and the divine. We are fully human, but our souls are as much a part of ourselves as our bodies.
So let us learn to feel the Spirit of God in our very human hearts, and let us learn to live that Spirit with our hands and feet in this world that needs God’s Spirit so badly.