Embodiment

Matt.: 2: 13-15,19-23

1/3/10

On Christmas Day I encouraged my son and daughter-in-law to pay attention to the development of imagination and the aesthetic in my granddaughter as well as to her physical, rational, and emotional development. I illustrated the innate nature of this aesthetic sense in my story about the reaction of a New York audience to Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus. The reason it is important to nurture imagination and a sense of the aesthetic, I said, was because we perceive reality in many ways and through many senses. It is the sense of imagination and the aesthetic that enables us at Christmas to connect with the presence of God in the birth of the baby Jesus and what that means for us. A heightened sense of the aesthetic and the imagination also helps us to be aware of the numinous, or the “Holy Other,” in life. In other words, the aesthetic sense and imagination help us to know God.

Last Sunday, at the baptism of the granddaughter, I commented that a sense of the aesthetic and of imagination is not just an internal thing. It can be nourished and educated by the world around us, or the context in which we live. I suggested that in baptism we put on the garment of faith. My granddaughter is clothed not only in the love of her parents and her family; she is also clothed in the love of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. We all come into the world naked, but almost immediately we need the protection of swaddling clothes, of love and of a divine presence, for at all stages we are “too old to be naked,” as the old lady said in my illustration.

Today I want to talk about embodiment, or assimilation. In the Gospel passage in Matthew we are told that Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt and then returned and went to Nazareth, “as it was foretold by the prophets.” What is happening here is that from the beginning the life of Jesus is embodying the experience of Israel: the flight to Egypt and the exodus (under Moses) and the experience of the Babylonian captivity, or continual persecution by those who oppose Israel. Later Jesus becomes “the lamb of God,” who sacrificially fulfills the ritual and liturgical sacrifices of Israel. At the Passover meal, he says that it is His blood that is to be drunk and his body that is to be the bread, which Israel has consumed.

As Christians, you and I are not only to live with a lively imagination and aesthetic sense and clothe ourselves in faith; we also seek to be like Jesus. That means that like Jesus, we seek to live out, to embody, and to assimilate the worship and life of the Church. We not only rejoice with one another, suffer with one another and share with one another; we also participate and live out the liturgy, the dance, of the Church.

By way of illustration, I want to tell you a story.  Years ago I worked in another parish. One Sunday in Advent I met a woman in the transept. She was crying. I asked her what was the matter and she said that she and her husband had not paid much attention to religion when they got married and now they had a child. Her husband was not a Christian and she didn’t know what to do about having the child baptized or brought up in her husband’s faith or in hers.

I told her that I really didn’t care which faith in which she chose to rear her child, but that I firmly believed that it is important to rear a child in a specific tradition. A person needs to have some kind of background, some kind of position from which to map out his/her faith, as he/she gets older. It is a terrible mistake to give a child no religious background and then expect he/she to make an informed decision about religion when he/she is a teen or a young adult. You are simply asking the person to make decisions based on ignorance. I added that she might as well bring her child to my church because most Episcopal children when they go to college wander off and do whatever they want to.

The next Sunday she was in church with her child. On Christmas Eve I was surprised to see her in the front pew with her husband. Now we had the tradition of having a parade around the sanctuary at the five o’clock service. The children brought a doll or stuffed animal to visit the baby Jesus. The crucifer lead the parade and I followed up with my little red wagon and my stuffed gorilla in it. As I passed the family, on instinct, I picked up my gorilla, handed it to the child and moved on. The child was delighted and took the gorilla up to visit the baby Jesus. From then on the mother and child were regular attendees and the husband came now and then.

Some years passed and the couple had a second child. One Christmas Eve the couple were there with their two children and with the maternal grandmother. As I was going down the aisle with my little red wagon and gorilla, the father leaned out into the aisle to say that his second child had forgotten to bring a stuffed animal. So I handed the gorilla to the second child, who happily followed me to visit the baby Jesus. Talk about history repeating itself!

In Epiphany I got a call from the mother asking me to visit the grandmother in the hospital. A recurrence of cancer required the hospitalization of the woman. So I went to see her and did so every day for six weeks. The first day I was there she told me the following story. When her daughter, son-in-law and children got home on Christmas Eve, the second child was upset because the child had not brought a stuffed animal to bring Father Gage’s blessing home to the other animals. The father told the child that a blessing can be carried in the heart and did not need to be attached to something. Later, as the grandmother and parents passed the child’s room, they heard the child saying, to the other stuffed animals, lined up on the bed, “I’m giving you the blessing given me by Fr. Gage and it is okay to share it with you, because I carried it on my heart.” The story blew me away.

A couple of days later I said to the grandmother, “Is that a Book of Common Prayer on your bed table? I’ve often seen a Bible beside someone’s bed, but never a Book of Common Prayer.” “Yes it is,” she replied. For years I have read either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer from it.” “That’s wonderful,” I replied.

In the fifth week she said to me, “I am dying and I know it, as does everyone else. What I can’t understand is why I am at peace with it all. I’ve had hard times in life, am divorced and a widow, and yet I feel totally at peace with what is happening. Can you tell me why?” I thought for a while and then said, “This is one of those times in which I am supposed to say something profound and I can’t. What I can say is that you have gone to church all of your life and you have read Morning and Evening Prayer regularly. In other words you have participated in the liturgy through the seasons of birth, the revelation of the nature of Jesus, His teaching, suffering, death and resurrection, and then the seasons of reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the life of the Holy Spirit in the body of the faithful, the Church. Over and over, through the liturgy you have gone through the cycle of birth, life, death, resurrection, new life and birth again. It is familiar to you and you have assimilated, or embodied, the whole sacramental and faith life of the Church, which of course is what we are supposed to do. Hence it all seems natural and familiar, not strange at all. You know that you are going to die and leave this mortal body, but that life continues beyond the here and now. Our physical life is only a stage before the next life. You have experienced and assimilated that. Because of your experience and your faith, you are at peace.” “You know,” she said, “I think you are right.”

The next week she had a birthday party with her family and shortly thereafter died. I had the privilege of doing her funeral.

Just as Jesus lived out, embraced and assimilated the life of Israel, his people, so you and I are called to live out through imagination and insight, and clothed in the garment of faith, the life of Jesus, though our actions and through the liturgy of the Church. Perhaps that is what it means to be part of the body of Christ. Perhaps the grandmother modeled how to grow old and to die with dignity, grace and faith. I believe that she left a legacy of assimilating the life of the Church through her participation in the liturgy, year in and year out, that is exemplary and an inspiration for her family, for those who knew her and for you and me. For the gift of her witness, thanks be to God. Amen –Fr. Gage-