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Advent and Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere: Our bodies

Lynne Baab • Thursday December 17 2020

Advent and Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere: Our bodies

I am shopping for groceries in mid December in Dunedin, New Zealand, where I have lived for a few months. As I come out of the supermarket, I see a small stand where Christmas trees are being sold, and a man is walking away dragging a Christmas tree. He is barefoot.

I am bemused by seeing a barefoot Christmas tree shopper. I think about what he is feeling with his feet – the solidity of the asphalt, bits of gravel, maybe a random leaf. He connected to the earth in a way that I am not. And he is dragging a Christmas tree, a secular symbol of a holiday that marks Jesus taking on human flesh. Jesus likely walked barefoot a whole lot more than I do.

It is 2007, five months after we arrived here for my teaching position at the university. In my early months in New Zealand, I am curious about what Kiwis do at Christmas, and my new colleagues are happy to talk about their plans. Because Christmas and summer vacation coincide, people often have long-established Christmas/summer vacation patterns. One colleague spends an entire month at a beach property up north owned by his extended family. They swim, sail, water ski, use jet skis, and bicycle. Another man spends a couple of weeks camping with his young kids. They take short hikes, expecting that their kids will learn to love hiking so that as the years pass, the hikes can grow longer. Barbecuing plays a big role in many of the Christmas plans I hear.

Christmas celebrates Jesus coming to earth in a human body to live on earth as we do. In the more northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas involves heavy sweaters and warm slippers. In Seattle, where I’m from, Christmas often involves rain. Sometimes we can get a walk on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Even if the rain has let up, walking involves many layers. Our Christmas bodies are muffled and covered.

The warm weather of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere invites physical activity, a celebration of the human body that I have never before experienced at Christmas. Coming from an evangelical Christian background, and recovering from a lifetime of longing to be thinner and wishing my stocky body had been born lithe and slender, the words “celebration of the human body” are a bit hard to write.

Earlier this year, in one of my two Seattle support groups, we read a book about the damaging effects of the so-called “purity culture,” an emphasis on sexual purity in evangelical circles in the United States beginning in the 80s and 90s, which sadly resulted in a great deal of body shaming. The book, Sex, God and the Conservative Church, was written by Tina Schermer Sellers, an old friend of mine who trains therapists in an evangelical higher education setting. She writes about the many students and clients she has worked with who think that all sexual desire outside of marriage is wrong – desire, mind you, not sexual activity – and this vestige of purity culture has left them with real challenges in marriage when sex is now supposed to be natural and easy. She also writes about the long Christian history of focusing on mind, soul, and spirit, and relegating the body to the lowest and least honorable place.

Many Christians these days are trying to engage their bodies in their spiritual lives. Christians walk the Camino in Spain and walk labyrinths. They pray while they garden and swim laps. They try to be aware of God’s presence while they bike and run and hike and kayak – or just sit in a beautiful garden or lie on the beach. Protestants from non-liturgical traditions are becoming more comfortable using the sign of the cross and praying the stations of the cross. I have found many of these practices helpful in trying to experience God’s presence in my body.

Numerous Christmases in the Southern Hemisphere have also helped me. The huge amount of light that I wrote about last week speaks of God’s illumination of all aspects of human life, including our bodies. The long days make outdoor activities possible every waking hour. The Christmas light in Jesus shines on our bodies as well as our souls and spirits.  

(Next week: Christmas food in the Southern Hemisphere. Illustration by Dave Baab, a Christmas scene at Tauranga, New Zealand. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below if you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog.)

Last month I had the privilege of being a guest on a podcast hosted by a friend of mine, Lance Lukin, who is a chaplain to seafarers. Listening is an especially relevant topic for the holiday season. The two episodes are here:

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