Update: I’ve also written some Advent thoughts on singleness and celibacy.
In Advent, we celebrate that God came as a human, in a mysterious act called the Incarnation. But in this act, God didn’t merely clothe himself in humanity. Flesh and blood were not the trappings of God. Instead, he became human. It was no mere illusion, nor was it a facade God took on.
God became flesh and blood.
God found it suitable (desirable, even!) to take on a body–a created, formed, physical, material body. The implications of this are huge. Take sex for example.
Advent show us that the created world can contain God, and it still does not violate God’s Holiness–his “Otherness” or “Separated-ness”. He can know his Creation in such union and intimacy and yet still remain transcendent above it. Our bodies do not challenge his Holiness. He can take it on and still remain Other. He became “one” with us in a similar way to how we become “one” with others in sex. With this in mind, let’s unpack some implications:
Advent gives sex…
Dignity. It shows that God becoming one with a body is fundamentally good and does not in any way challenge his Goodness, Purity, or Holiness. This means that the joining of our bodies with one another is an echo, a shadow, of this same body-joining act. In sex, a couple “Advent” towards one another.
Value. In the Advent event, God shows us that our bodily existences matter; they are not flippant nor meaningless. What God did with his body is of eternal significance and so it is with us. It shows that this body-indwelt life should be conducted with great care, attention, and importance. And how much more so with the joining of our bodies with another!
Transcendence. “The Incarnation” is not just a historical designation for an event, it is a description of a greater, deeper mystery. It’s transcendent. What was being declared and accomplished in the Incarnation was so much bigger than the logistics or mechanics of it all. And so it is with our bodily, sexual lives. What is being proclaimed in our sexual lives is far bigger than mere mechanics, chemistry, or the strengthening of social bonds. Greater heavenly realities are being known and declared.
Boundaries. When God joined himself to humanity, it was within a certain design and plan. In the Incarnation, the Infinite made himself bound by finitude. He took on limits and weaknesses for the sake of his joy and our good. He only did and said that which was in line with what his Father and the Spirit had told him. Similarly, our sexual, “adventing” selves flourish best when humbly submitted to the bounds afforded to it by our humanity.
Narrative. The Incarnation is not an act that occurs in isolation. It happens in a context. We’ve talked about this before. The reason why the death of the infant Jesus by the hand of Herod would not accomplish salvation in the same way his death at a different Roman official’s hands years later, was because he had a life to live–a context to form in which salvation and redemption would be accomplished.
Sex is the joining of one person to another’s body in a similar way as God joined himself with a body. But that happened in a storied context for a storied purpose unto a storied end. The Incarnation was the climax (pardon the pun) of a history and plan that had already been in motion. Or, in other words, the Incarnation was not God’s “33-year night stand” with humanity. It was part of a greater dance that continues even today. Sex happens in the midst of a relational story.
Advent makes sex…
Dangerous. Though the Incarnation and Advent are a joyous event, the joining of God with physicality is a demonstration of something very deep, mysterious, powerful, and ultimately unknowable. Christ said he came with a sword, and to judge. The Christmas story is a story filled with poverty, pain, alienation, and even death. Apparently, God coming in bodily form can be messy. How people related to God’s physical Adventing among them had serious consequences for them and the people around them.
When we join ourselves to the ministry accomplished by Advent, it demands a lot from us. Similarly, sexually joining ourselves with others is a profound power and mystery, and something that can have serious consequences, echoing even beyond this life. How we live our sexual lives matters greatly and should be taken seriously.
Safe. God did not just take on any old random body. He came as a Jew, in Israel. God joined himself to a body that was part of his own people. He came in the context of Covenant, and it’s on this term that the “danger” of sex is turned into a joyous freedom. God took on the body and performed the rites and rituals of an obedient, Jewish male for his day and time, and it’s precisely by him being a Jew faithful to the Law, that the benefits of that spilled out into the world at large. In Covenant, Adventing bodies are kept safe and others flourish.
Sanctifying. The earliest Christian hymn that we have recorded, chooses a very specific aspect of Advent to praise Jesus for:
[Jesus] emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
And also, in a peculiar set of lines in Hebrews:
Although [Jesus] was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
God joining himself to a physical body was an act of profound and painful emptying of himself. And the suffering his physical and embodied sacrifice brought was in a way that he “learned obedience” (I won’t explain that right now–just go with it, or Google it).
Similarly, sex is meant to be a profound giving of oneself. If God’s joining of himself with a physical body was an act of sacrifice and emptying, why would we expect any different. The good news here, and the paradox of the Kingdom of God, is that in giving of yourself, you ultimately find deep joy and life (that’s how it worked for Jesus).
Mundane. From the perspective of all of those around Jesus, outside of some of the (few) events surrounding his birth, this “Incarnation” was not only not understood even as Jesus grew up, but probably seemed a little boring. You can imagine Joseph and Mary’s thoughts throughout Jesus’ life: all this fanfare surrounded the pregnancy and birth, and then…..that’s it? In fact, Joseph seems to have died well before Jesus ever did his first miracle or the big “Messiah reveal” thing. Joseph’s participation with the Incarnation probably seemed like a letdown to him.
The Incarnation seems immediately exciting, dramatic, mind-bending, and thrilling to us mainly because we’ve had most of the boring parts cut out of the story. The vast majority of this God-and-body union was probably very, very dry and unexciting. Advent, then, was woven into the normal, everyday mundane rhythms of this world. The same goes for sex. Sex–at its most beautiful–was not meant to be an escape from the boring world any more than the Incarnation itself was.
Remember, “transcendence” does not mean “absence of body”. Sex is to be woven into the most mundane nooks and crannies (again, sorry for the puns) of life and existence. It is to be liturgical–a sacred ritual of ultimate meaning that shapes and forms us at a deeper level than mere emotion or intellect. (Lauren Winner talks about this at length, and with much beauty, in her amazing book, Real Sex).
Finally, Advent means…
Sexual sin is a big deal. In Advent, God has shown us that the created world and our physical bodies are of infinite value and worth–and that they matter to him. This is both good and bad news for us. How one relates to Advent–the joining of God with human flesh–is of eternal significance. It’s a big deal and it should not be taken lightly. God is not flippant about our bodies and he doesn’t plan to just do away with them and throw them in the trash heap of the cosmos. As my pastor says, our bodies are holy ground, and God desires we treat them as such.
Sexual sin is not the end of the world. And yet, as I recently tried to remind us, the Advent story is the story of a God who came in physical form so that he could live the life on our behalf that we could not live. If you are part of God’s people, this life is yours. The screw-ups that you have done in and with your physical body and the bodies of others is not counted against you, because it has been physically counted against the physical body of God on the Cross. And so we can be free of shame and guilt.
You cannot be more sinful with your body than Christ has been righteous with his own. You are indeed totally depraved, but he is infinitely gracious. And Infinity beats totality any day.
Go therefore in peace to love and serve the Lord with your body and how you treat the bodies of others.
[image credit: this is an untitled piece (which happens to be both my favorite and most recent personal acquisition) from Jen Huber]