Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger
David R. Weiss – December 26, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #4 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
The most important four ounces in the manger are the ones we never talk about. I might argue that they’ve always been most important, but in the face of climate change—and the deep transformation required in how we view the world if we hope to bequeath any semblance of functioning society to our children—these four ounces are ones we absolutely need to grapple with today.
Before I get there, though, let me make clear where I’m coming from. I regard theology as more concerned with evocative claims than metaphysical claims. I recognize many Christians think otherwise. They see the doctrine of Incarnation as a metaphysical truth claim: in Jesus, God became human. I don’t. I see it as an evocative truth claim: in Jesus we see one instance (and with striking clarity) of what God’s presence in our midst looks like. That will, no doubt, trouble some of my readers, while heartening others. I’m not interested in arguing which claim is more “right”—something I don’t think is provable in any case. Besides, the connection I want to make with these four ounces remains powerful whether you treat it evocatively or metaphysically. But it seems important—as my blog byline suggests—that I, at least, “err on the edge of honest.”
So, these four ounces. They’re microbes. Itsy bitsy creepy crawlies, if you like. Point is, without them there is no incarnation, metaphysical, evocative, or otherwise. And I’m betting they vastly outnumber the host of angels that serenaded the shepherds on that hillside on Christmas Eve. Science tells us the average adult human is home to about 100 trillion microbes that are essential to our being alive. It’s a package deal: there is no such thing as a human being whose “aliveness” is not fully interwoven with these trillion-fold tiny creatures. They aid in our digestion, play key roles in our immune system, and carry out other duties essential to keeping a person alive. Jesus could not have been fully human, fully alive, without these 100 trillion microbes. As an adult, these microbes constituted about six pounds of his body weight. As a newborn, they would’ve already numbered in the trillions and comprised about four ounces of his six pounds of holy babyness.
Whether you prefer your incarnation metaphysical or evocative, this is a pretty astounding insight: whatever we mean when we say God became incarnate, microbes are part of that. Of course, the gospel writer John didn’t know that science, but he captures it well when he writes: “And the Word became flesh …” (John 1:14) The Greek word here (sarx/flesh) means just that: the soft fleshly substance of a living body—whether human or animal. True, John is thinking specifically about Jesus, but his choice of sarx/flesh beckons us to hear God choosing an intimacy and solidarity that is much more radical than “merely” becoming human … more theologically evocative as well as more scientifically accurate.
Ironically, then, John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) not only provides some of the key theological infrastructure for the highest reaches of the doctrine of Incarnation, identifying Jesus with the pre-existent Word and that pre-existent Word with God,it also opens up to the most expansive—the lowest and earthiest notion of incarnation. Later John writes, in perhaps the most well known verse in the New Testament, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). The Greek word is kosmos, from which we get our word, cosmos. It means just that: the cosmos, the universe, or, more casually, the earth and its inhabitants. In explaining the motive behind Incarnation, John says, God loved it all. And, if we allow our theology to converse with our science, Incarnation becomes the truth claim that God embraces all creation so thoroughly as to enlist even microbes in revealing God’s love.
I think this offers several salutary insights as we try to imagine how to reposition ourselves within the world in a more harmonious and sustainable way. First, it reminds us that the scope of God’s incarnating love includes critters we don’t even think about … and surely the many that we do. We won’t work hard to save what we don’t love, and recognizing the reach of God’s love may help lengthen the reach of our own.
Second, if incarnation itself blurs the lines between the human and the non-human world, it challenges one of the fundamental binaries that has allowed us to recklessly and dangerously exploit the rest of creation. If divinity takes on not just human life but microbial life—in the service of love—then truly the entire “world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins) in ways we had never quite imagined. Indeed, our transition away from a way of life that presumes to use the world up as a matter of convenience hinges on breaking down the falsehood that we’re somehow set off from the non-human creation. Recognizing that Jesus—whether evocatively or metaphysically—embodies both is one place to start.
Third, what’s true of Jesus in his incarnate mystery is equally true of us in our more mundane humanity. (But don’t get me started, because I think the lines between incarnate mystery and mundane humanity blur—not just in Jesus, but in us, too!) In any case, this is good news. There are a multitude of ecosystems that we desperately need to find—feel, enact—our deep connection with, but we can begin right here: by acknowledging that each of us is our own ecosystem.
Those four ounces in the manger say something profound about God, Jesus, creation, and our place in all of it: interwoven. It’s high time we see that as both sacred and mundane truth.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!
I’m guessing, of course.Here’s the basic calculation per evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis: 10% of the drybody weight of humans is comprised of microbes. Adjusting for differences in water weight by sex (adult males are 60% water; adult females are 55% water), 4% male body weight is microbial; 4.5% female body weight is microbial. I’m presuming an adult Jesus weighed about 150 pounds and a newborn about six, but the exactness of those figures is irrelevant to the point I’m making. Rob Dunn, Every Living Thing(New York: Collins Books, 2009), pp. 138-143, cited in Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 20-21.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3)