God transcends holy purity to enter into impurity in blood and flesh, sharing even the hard and gross experiences of life with us.
Vicar Lauren Mildahl
The Presentation of our Lord
Texts: Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
Beloved saints, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s hard being trapped in these bodies.
Even in the best of times, when everything is working like it should, these bodies of ours still require so much care, and they still produce so many various fluids and waste. Even when we are perfectly healthy, living in a body is, just a little bit, gross.
That’s what I was thinking about this week as I was imagining this scene in the temple. Imagining the moment when Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms, I was reminded of the times I held my newborn nieces and nephews. And how cute and tiny and perfect they were – but also how their tiny baby bodies were kind of gross sometimes. Every parent I know has a horror story that ends with the line, “and that’s how we learned that you always need to bring two sets of spare clothes.”
Snot and spit up and overflowing diapers-that’s what being around a baby is like.
Perpetual messiness, briefly interrupted by rare moments of cleanliness. And so who’s to say that while Simeon was singing the Nunc Dimittis, Jesus wasn’t leaving some kind of fluid on him? Like babies do. Because he was. A real alive baby, experiencing the reality of living in a baby body.
And I think that’s pretty amazing! God alive as a baby! Tiny and vulnerable and smelly and alive – just like we are!
And this was clearly an important point for the writer of Hebrews as well.
Our text today begins in the middle of a theological argument centered around Jesus’ divinity and Jesus’ humanity – trying to answer the question that Christ-followers have been grappling with since the days when the New Testament was still being written: Why did God become human?
The Preacher in Hebrews answers: “Since, therefore, the children [that is humans – creatures – you and me] – since therefore the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things…to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.”
To free us and to help us and to reconnect us with God – Jesus shared our flesh and blood.
Actually, in the Greek, it’s the other way around. It says “haimatos kai sarkos” – “blood and flesh.”
It probably shouldn’t make that much of a difference. Every English translation I could find switched the two around because it makes perfect sense to use the familiar English idiom “flesh and blood.” But I almost wish the translators would leave it in the original order: blood and flesh.
Blood and flesh feels so much visceral, more connected to the earthy stuff of our bodies. The liquids and the solids that make up these meat sacks. Jesus doesn’t just share our “flesh and blood” because we have some kind of kinship in a nice, sanitized, metaphorical way.
Jesus shares our blood and flesh – our experience of life from within our biological containers.
So that he could share in our experiences about everything we undergo in life – every joy and pleasure and satisfaction and every craving and pain and ache and excretion of our bodies. Everything! Even the things that are a little bit gross. The things that are literally called “unclean” in the Torah.
God becoming blood and flesh meant that Jesus, like everyone else, was “unclean,” ritually impure, most of the time.
Purity, for Jews, doesn’t mean a state of sinlessness.
It doesn’t really have anything to do with sin – it has to do with living! Any time you come in contact with the fluids and the stuff of living, because of menstruation or because of ejaculation or because of childbirth or because of burying a corpse1 – all these things of blood and flesh – which are perfectly normal and perfectly good and healthy – are unclean as well.
The idea of maintaining a permanent state of ritual purity is laughable. It isn’t supposed to even be possible for creatures who are blood and flesh. For Jews like Jesus, permanent purity was only achievable for God, who didn’t experience the viscera of life, or for angels, spiritual beings who didn’t experience embodied earthiness.
Because that’s what holiness is: that set-apartness that transcends reality and materiality.
God’s holiness lies in the fact God isn’t a being, God is Being-Itself.2 The creative force of all existence, permeating all existence, and somehow also the things that doesn’t exist – so completely and utterly incomprehensible to us because we are small and finite and contained. And how could we ever approach divinity with our limited senses and leaking orifices?
We can’t. Holiness isn’t our natural state. And this is what the rituals of purification practiced by Jews for centuries are for. And if you remember, this is half of the reason that the family went to the temple that day: “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses.” Most scholars assume that Luke was talking about a purification ritual that was required after childbirth. Childbirth is one of the most bloody and fleshy experiences a person can have – an experience so human, so creaturely, so alive, so good, but so different from the intangible, ineffable, disembodied holiness of God. The rituals of purification helped connect the two, helped tend to the joys and sorrows of living and dying, helped unite the physical and the spiritual, helped each person see beyond their blood and flesh container to glimpse the transcendent holiness of God.
And it is in the temple that day – after going through the ritual practices of purification – that Simeon and Anna recognize the Messiah. Salvation is revealed and the veil is lifted – and what they see is that God has chosen impurity. God has chosen the uncleanness and the grossness of blood and flesh. God has entered into life.
So that Simeon holds in his arms, not God – holy and unknowable, but God – tangible and accessible. God, transcending divine purity itself to become an unclean baby boy.
This is the paradox at the heart of our faith.
The paradox of the kind of love that leads purity to embrace impurity. That depth of love that leads God to share our human body. And this is the paradox that we celebrate every Eucharist when we proclaim with singing God is Holy, Holy, Holy and then immediately turn around and hold up the bread and say the words of Jesus “This is my body.” This is my blood and flesh, eat it so you don’t forget how my love drew me to you – every single part of you. Even the parts of your life that are hard and gross – you are good – you are beloved.
You are saints – holy ones.
You are fleshy containers not just of humanity, but of divinity as well. Catching glimpses of God’s transcendent perspective through Christ. So that your experience of life, though mediated through your blood and flesh, is not limited by it. Because in Christ you experience life that transcends the limits of your body. In Christ you are free from the fear of death. You are free to embrace the goodness of the grossness of created life, and free to welcome death as a friend. So that like, Simeon, you can sing, “Lord you may now dismiss your servant in peace.” You are free, through the love of Christ, Jesus our brother in blood and flesh.
You are free.
In the name of the Father, of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
1. This list is adapted from Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 2018, pg 64.
2. This section relies heavily on the works of Paul Tillich, especially Systematic Theology: Volume 1, 1951.