A Fleshy Celebration
Most people don’t think much about sex at Christmas. Unlike Valentines or the increasingly raunchy Halloween, the Christmas holiday has very little sex appeal in the wider culture. But for Christians, I would argue, Christmas may be the most important holiday for thinking Biblically about sexuality. After all, at the very heart of Christmas we have the story of a birth– which in every other instance of its occurring in history is tied, well, to sex. It is the absence of the sex act in the birth of Jesus that is viewed as miraculous and which is the first indicator that Jesus is as Gabriel tells Mary, “the Son of God.” It is the mystery that Jesus was not conceived but incarnated that holds the real importance for how we are to think about our bodies and sexuality.
Throughout Church history, the virginity of Mary has been held up as an ideal that at times has been used to teach that sex is in itself bad or defiling. In this view Mary had to be kept holy in order to carry the God-child and sex would have disqualified her. The idea that Mary’s virginity showed superior godliness is enshrined in Catholic teaching, which holds that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. She is the model for those who under religious vows dedicate themselves as spouses to Christ in part by remaining uncorrupted by intercourse. The Protestant view has traditionally taught that the virginity was not as much about not corrupting Mary as it is guarding the paternity of Jesus. Jesus was God and Man; he is of the flesh, but his Father is God himself. If Mary was not a virgin, then Jesus’ sonship to God would be in question, since he could have been conceived by a man. Her virginity is linked to the special, divinely ordained circumstances of the Incarnation, which must be honored, a one-of-a-kind event, not to be used as an example for others. Protestants believe that Mary went on to affirm sexuality in marriage and conceived other children by way of ordinary intercourse.
For most Christians then it is not the virginity of Mary that holds much influence in how we think about sexual ethics. Why I think Christmas should help us think about sex is not about Mary. After all, it is not Mary that provides the basis of Christian ethics, it is Jesus. And at Christmas, what we are celebrating is not merely a miraculous birth. We are celebrating the Incarnation. God took on flesh. When the Logos became a child, God said a resounding “yes” to the goodness of creation, especially the goodness of our bodies. It is from this basis that we must approach sex. The sex act is not foremost a defiling act that can corrupt another. It is foremost an act of our bodies, in submission to a spouse, given by God himself.
One of the aspects of Christianity that Islam finds objectionable is that they cannot conceive of how a holy God could be born of a woman. But at Christmas we affirm just that. God does not see the uterus or vagina as corrupting him– but instead he turned the womb into a holy space that he filled with his presence. Not only does God affirm the woman by choosing Mary to carry the Christ, he affirms man when he became a person. The baby Jesus grew into a man who was like other men. He had hormones and desires—but never used this biological fact as an excuse to sin (Hebrews 4:15). In becoming flesh, God affirms the goodness of everything about the body– even the parts of our own bodies that at times we have the hardest time seeing as good.
The people we see at FirstLight strongly need the reminder that their bodies were created as good. So many of them experience deep shame about their bodies and sexual desires. They have felt that their sexual feelings were dirty and shameful. They believed for years that their sexual feelings needed to be kept hidden. This has led them to keep their sexuality in darkness instead of bringing it into the light of God’s grace. In the dark they use their bodies for selfish and shameful things. But God says our bodies are good and have been redeemed through the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection and so we should bring God our bodies. This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 7 when he says that we are to glorify God with our bodies. Since our bodies are good we must use them in ways that are honoring, righteous, and pure.
It is precisely because our bodies are so good that they can be misused to become something bad and harmful. When we take what God intended for good and for his glory and bind them with a prostitute, Paul says we harm our own bodies, the bodies redeemed for us by Christ himself. But at Christmas, we remember that the greatest gift given is that Jesus was born not to live but to die. That by taking the wounds on his body he cleanses our bodies from all sin and defilement. All of the shame and guilt we carry for how we have used our bodies to indulge in self-gratification, to harm others, to connect with others in ways that were immoral— has been overcome by Jesus giving his body on the cross. At Christmas we celebrate that Jesus came once in the flesh to redeem us in the flesh for what we have done in the flesh. But we also look forward to Jesus coming again, at which time we will rise in spiritual bodies ready to delight perfectly in God and enjoy him forever. At that time, all of our earthly desires, even our sexual desires, will be purified and we will meet God himself and we will enjoy him in bodies that never hurt, long, grieve, or die.
This is what Christmas is all about. It is a fleshy celebration.