In a post engagingly entitled “Academic Freedom: From Ram-skit to Bull-dung,” Crystal Downing relates how a professor bragged about telling students, “Christianity is ‘bull-dung’ and that’s not opinion; it’s fact.” My immediate thought was that this was indeed an inspired metaphor for the faith whose God was born in a stable. Like the crown of thorns, a taunt intended to mock and injure expresses a profound truth. In tribute to the exuberant earthiness of Dr. Downing’s Medieval Drama course (which she was subsequently forbidden to teach at Secular U.), I shall take the scatological metaphor as a starting point for reflections on some earthy aspects of the Incarnation.
Overturning the gnostic worldview that the soul is good and the body is bad, God loves everything about us, including the things we find gross. In fact, he appears to be especially attracted to us at our most miserable and disgusting. Dave Barry offers sage advice about what kind of pet is most desirable:1
[W]hen you have an intestinal flu and reek like a Hong Kong dumpster because you have not showered or changed pajamas or brushed your teeth in four days, and you are crouched in the bathroom spewing random fluids and semisolids from every orifice you possess, your dog is right there next to you, wagging its tail and licking you and just generally doing everything it can to communicate the message: “Wow! You have never smelled more interesting!”
Fido—from Latin fides, “faith”—is an icon of the faithfulness of God. Only when we surrender our illusion of presentability can he truly show his unconditional love.
Jesus made a point of touching people whose filth rendered them unfit for human society. Bishop Barron notes that the woman with a flow of blood for twelve years would have been a social pariah:2
The woman touches Jesus—and how radical and dangerous an act this was, since it should have rendered him unclean. But so great is her faith that her touch, instead, renders her clean. Jesus effectively restores her to full participation in her community.
While this woman’s continuous flow of blood was obviously unusual, it was also a morbid magnification of the “dirtiness” that has always been associated with the workings of the female body. As with all the miracles, this one’s symbolism goes beyond the relief of an individual person’s suffering. The act of healing is part of God’s benediction and sanctification of womanhood altogether.
That radical move is in character for a God whose first home on earth was the goopy interior of a woman’s body. The significance of this humbling choice, and of pregnancy as a model for Christian life, should not be underestimated. I argue in a recent article on the theology of prenatal life that the conception of Jesus, “the true light” (Jn 1:9), recapitulates the origin of the world: “Like the fiat of God, whose Spirit was moving over the face of the waters, the fiat of Mary causes the Spirit to overshadow his creature and beget light (Lk 1:35-38).” As Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) points out, it is “the feminine dimension of the Church, rightly understood, [that] will bring about the new opening to the creative power of the Spirit, and so to Christ’s taking form in us, whose presence alone can give history a center and a hope.”3
How exactly was the Word made flesh? We can never know for certain, of course, but in her fascinating article on “The Incarnation of Christ from the Perspective of Embryology and Genetics,” Catherine Tkacz presents a compelling theory about the cooperation of nature and grace. Here is her synopsis:4
In normal human reproduction, a fertile woman ovulates, releasing an egg cell from an ovary. That gamete has just 23 chromosomes, one half of the woman’s DNA. Significantly, those 23 chromosomes have duplicated themselves, but the copies are still attached to the originals. Only if a sperm encounters that egg cell will the copies separate from the originals, and the cell will discard the extra set. At that instant, the egg cell becomes a true ovum, and at once the DNA from the sperm combines with that of the ovum, so that a new human life, the single-celled zygote, comes into existence. Dr. Tkacz speculates that at Mary’s moment of ovulation, God performed the gentle miracle of transforming one set of her egg cell’s chromosomes, with the major change being to alter one X chromosome into a Y, and then at once the 23 original chromosomes from Mary combined with the 23 adjusted by the Holy Spirit to form the incarnational zygote.
In fashioning the New Adam from the flesh of the New Eve, God did not need to conjure a sperm out of thin air. As in the first public miracle, the transformation of water into wine, God merely tweaked the materials at hand, showing once again that his creation—all of it—is very good.
Since the purpose of the created world is to teach us about God, his grace always cooperates with nature. He does not transform dung into gold. (Why would he? Remember the one about the miser who shows up at the Pearly Gates with a suitcase full of gold bars, and St. Peter asks in astonishment, “You brought pavement?”) Instead, he performs the more glorious alchemy of using it to enrich the soil. His grace still does the lion’s share of the work (Is 55:10-11):
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Our task as humans is to respond with humility—both words related to Latin humus, “dirt,” the substance from which we are made and to which we will return. It is when we remain close to the ground, taking seriously our vocation as fertilizer, that our cooperation with God’s vivifying Word will bear the best fruit.
- Dave Barry, “Dog Ownership for Beginners,” in I’ll Mature When I’m Dead (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010), 87-96, at 90-91.
- Daily Gospel Reflection on Mark 5:25-34 (June 27, 2021).
- Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 59-60.
- The author kindly supplied this synopsis for me (by email, July 2, 2021), as well as the English original of the article, which was published in Ukrainian in Analecta 8 (Ukrainian Catholic University, 2016), 242-64.