Christmas conjures up a lot of associations for me. A mountain of presents piled under a tree. Family trips to the movie theater after all the presents had been opened. Watching the snow scene in The Nutcracker with a mouth half-open in wonder. Cut-out cookies, frosting, sprinkles, those hard little red cinnamon candies and the silver balls that could crack your teeth. Listening in the dark to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas, and weeping for Tiny Tim, even though he lives in the end. Attending candlelit church services. Singing in holiday choir concerts. Watching Doctor Who Christmas specials.
I loved Christmas as a child. But Christmas these days is a bit more complicated. It presents scheduling challenges, traveling challenges, financial challenges. The weeks leading up to Christmas are full of pain for many of my clients as family drama touches on childhood wounds. I find myself grumbling about our culture’s rampant materialism, missing my childhood, feeling pressure to make Christmas as special for my daughter as it was for me and my siblings, and sometimes just wishing for the whole thing to be over.
Now, my favorite part of the Christmas season is the sacredness of it.
I find this sacredness woven into the rituals of Advent and the aching lyrics of many of my favorite hymns, lyrics that speak of lonely exile, death’s dark shadows, a thrill of hope, a new and glorious morn, and the hopes and fears of all the years. It has never lost its shine for me, the story of a long-awaited Savior born to an oppressed people, who took his first breaths with blood and vernix on his skin and nursed at his mother’s breast just like I once did. Advent has given me permission to embrace Christmas as a season of pain and struggle, a season of waiting, of hoping, of longing for something better than this.
Spiritually, Christmas represents for me the moment where what it means to be human collided with the Divine and was irrevocably changed. The spiritual message of Christmas in the Christian tradition is that there is no longer any division between the sacred and the profane, that we are closer to God than we could ever imagine, that Love deigned to clothe itself in flesh just to draw nearer to us, that the Divine speaks to us in language we can understand and touches our lives with real hands and a heartbeat, that our bodies and the bodies of others are forever holy.
The meaning of Incarnation—in-carnate, carne, which in Latin means “flesh” or “meat”—is a little mind-blowing when you really think about it.
Incarnation means that God has a body just like mine. God sneezed, got headaches, felt hunger and pain and sexual arousal and sleepiness. God had a mother who changed his diapers and got up with him in the night and put her finger in his mouth to feel his baby teeth cutting through the gums. God was a toddler. God was a teenager. God walked and laughed and danced and worked; God even died.
What this means is that my body is a place where I can meet God. We tend to think of spiritual experiences as happening to our souls, in an out-of-body space of thought or emotion or something beyond both of them. But in reality, spiritual experiences involve neurons firing, right and left hemisphere integration, physical sensations, maybe hair raising on our arms or our heartbeat slowing down, our lungs expanding or our nervous systems settling. That is to say, spiritual experiences happen in our bodies, just like everything else. When I experience God, I only and always experience God in my body.
Let me make this practical for you: If you want to experience more of God, get into your body. Pray, sure. Read a religious text if that works for you. But get out of your head and into your body. Lay on the floor and feel your bones and muscles pressing against the carpet. Go out into the woods and notice how the air feels different in your lungs. Look at the clouds or the moon and rejoice in what your eyes can do. Drink water and sense your thirsty body surging in gratitude. Place a hand on your chest and feel your heartbeat. Notice how your emotions feel in your body as they rise, peak, and subside. Cry. Laugh. Sing. Dance. Breathe.
Here is a crucial question for spiritual experience: What does love feel like in your body?
Most of us have experiences of love with partners, parents, children, or friends from which to draw as we answer this question, but I believe that even if you have lived a mostly loveless life, your body is still wise enough to know what love could or would feel like if you found it. Close your eyes and get in touch with what love feels like in your body. What sensations do you notice? What movements speak of love? What emotions does love evoke, and where do you feel them in your body?
For me, love feels like a gentle hand on the smooth skin of my cheek, a thumb caressing back and forth. Love feels warm. Love feels cozy, like wriggling toes under a heavy blanket or sitting with your back to a fireplace while the snow falls fast and thick outside dark windows. Love feels like safety—muscles relaxing, breath slowing, and the entire weight of my head resting against someone’s chest. Love feels like a body against mine, softening and solid, present, substantial.
For me to experience God, I have to be able to allow my body to experience the sensations of love. This is the only way I have to know that God exists. I don’t get that faith from reading the Bible or assenting to a doctrinal statement or just trying really hard to believe. I get my faith from welcoming love into my body from somewhere outside of me. I get my faith from feeling the love of God like warm hands on my shoulders or an ache in my chest or a whisper tickling my ear, the Wind saying, “I love you.” I feel loved beyond any love I’ve received from human relationships, and so I believe in God.
While I can’t speak for other religions, the entirety of the Christian journey is corporeal and embodied.
Sin happens in the body. I want to be tremendously careful in how I write about sin, since this word has been used to harm so many. As a therapist, I am a pragmatist; if a concept is helpful, I use it, but if a concept is unhelpful, I toss it out. Much of how the word “sin” has been used is just plain unhelpful—a way of condemning behaviors that violate purity codes or oppressive standards of righteousness that does not take trauma or human development into account. So for our purposes, I want to talk about sin in terms of neurobiology.
Let’s define sin as the collective suffering of our ancestors—both harm perpetrated and harm suffered—that causes us to perpetrate and suffer more harm. Sin is a word for what is wrong with the world; this allows us to focus less on personal commission or omission of a specific deed, and more on corporate participation in evil, systemic oppression, and legacies of trauma. The text of Deuteronomy talks about “visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generations.” Quite literally, we carry the traumas, attachment styles, and histories of our parents and grandparents in our epigenetic heritage—the way our genes are expressed—and pass down this heritage to our children and grandchildren. Harm transmits on a genetic level, and it impacts our bodies, inhibiting our ability to love securely, making us physically sick by bathing our bodies in inflammatory stress hormones, and cutting us off from experiencing safety and connection with the bodies of others.
But healing and forgiveness also happen in the body. When we heal emotionally, our bodies change on an epigenetic level, allowing us to pass down greater wholeness and health to our children through both nature and nurture. As we shake off legacies of trauma (or sin), we free our bodies to act in more a loving manner. After we release the pain that is making our souls sick, our bodies often begin to heal in new ways. I believe that this is why Jesus healed the sick and forgave sins at the same time; they were two halves of the same process, a promise or foreshadowing of the inside-and-out wholeness of the Kingdom of Heaven. True trauma recovery (something we all need, whether we have PTSD or not) doesn’t just happen in the mind, in our thoughts or memories or beliefs about ourselves; it trickles out to our entire being, creating harmony in our nervous system and everything it touches.
And finally, salvation—the culmination of healing and forgiveness—happens in the body. Contrary to much medieval art and popular opinion, Christianity is not a religion about going to Heaven when you die. Christianity is a religion where God brings Heaven to Earth, renews Creation, and descends to dwell with God’s people here, on this good earth. This is the whole point of resurrection. It’s not that we leave our bodies, but that our bodies are renewed and become what they were meant to be apart from sin and sickness, trauma and terror, despair and death. The Greek word for salvation is sozo, a word that means wholeness and health more than it means rescue or redemption. The promise of salvation and the meaning of the Resurrection (the “happily ever after” to the Incarnation’s “once upon a time”) is that we are our bodies, we always have been, and our bodies will one day be made whole.
Imagine that. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
Jesus incarnate is love with skin on; Jesus resurrected is hope with skin on. This is the whole Christian story. From start to finish, it is an embodied faith. This is why, after everything, I am still Christian.
In light of this embodied faith, I want to give you some spiritual practices to engage in this Christmas and into the New Year.
Care for your body. Drink water, take walks, get enough sleep, and listen to what and how much your body wants to eat.
Meet the bodily needs of others. Feed them, make sure they are warm, give them time to rest. Consider, too, the physical needs of the most vulnerable in your community and how you can help.
Treat your trauma. Recognize that it’s there, thank it for getting your attention, commit to doing whatever it takes to heal, and then take the first step. Buy a book. Browse therapist profiles on Psychology Today. Make a phone call. Just do it.
Do chores as a form of prayer. When you’re doing dishes, or vacuuming, or folding laundry, let your body relax into the rhythms; talk to God if you feel like it, or if you don’t have anything to say, just listen; if you’re not the praying type, focus on gratitude for your body or see if you can connect to the presence of Love while you work.
And hug your loved ones. Hold them tight, for at least thirty seconds, long enough that it gets awkward, and then just a few seconds longer, until the awkwardness fades and you feel a lump in your throat. Notice God in how the embrace changes your body and theirs.
Merry Christmas, my friends. And God bless us, every one.