There is a story about St. Francis of Assissi where he calls out to an almond tree, “Speak to me of God!” and the almond tree breaks into bloom. Whether or not this happened, it is consistent with St. Francis’ attitude towards this world of nature. He is famous for speaking to wild animals and enjoying nature such as brother sun and sister moon. As such, he is unusual in some ways in the history of spirituality for seeing spirituality not as something removed from the world of this life but as part of it. In much of history, the stress was on denigrating the joys of this life and depriving oneself of them, even torturing oneself physically in order to be deemed spiritual.

DanStiver-HSU pic

Dan Stiver

This is a far cry from the spirituality of the Bible that to be sure emphasizes God as first in one’s life, laying up for oneself eternal blessings, and calling for discipline and moderation with respect to this world’s blessings—but it doesn’t reject them. In fact, they are a part of the goodness of God’s creation, and already in the New Testament, the writers warn against extreme asceticism and the view that the material world is somehow evil, calling for Christians to see that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Tim. 4:4) Paul says that he had learned to be content, knowing how to go without but also how to abound. (Phil. 4:11-12)

At this time of celebrating the birth of Christ, that most physical and this-worldly act, namely childbirth and the raising of an infant—it may be helpful to remember this holistic type of spirituality. The Gospel of John, apparently also already dealing with the denigration of this world, puts it starkly, “The Word became flesh,” incarnate. It is important to grasp that, as Christians see it, when God came to us most vividly and clearly, God came fully into this world of flesh and matter.

Jesus’ first miracle in John was to save the festivities at a wedding! While another meditation could focus on the dangers of being too worldly and too undisciplined and over-valuing the goodness of this world, there is a place, at Advent, to be reminded to note and relish the simple blessings of life that are often a part of Christmas: meals with family, fellowship with friends, laughter, engaging in games together, going to a movie, enjoying decorations.

We may think that we can only celebrate Christmas by going to a worship service, which is indeed a great thing to do. But celebrating the Incarnation, which involves the physicality, pain, but also joy of the birth of a child, surely also includes all of the other ways in which one appreciates life, in other words, enjoying being alive, like the almond tree, blooming.

Dr. Dan Stiver is the Cook-Derrick Professor of Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University

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