Christmas Day: The Power of Physical Presence

Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

Earlier in December I found myself in a conversation with an acquaintance of mine who works as a therapist here in the Twin Cities. We were comparing notes about how our work has changed as a result of the pandemic. I talked about our fifteen months of pre-recorded, online worship services, preaching sermons and leading the liturgy into a camera, first in our own homes and, later, in a giant, empty sanctuary; about trying to remain connected and care for one another when we didn’t have the weekly touchpoint of Sunday gatherings; about weddings that became tiny, private celebrations and funerals that were never able to happen; of course, I talked about Zoom meetings upon Zoom meetings upon still more Zoom meetings, and the screen fatigue I know many of us experienced after so many months of virtual-only connections.

I was fascinated to hear from this therapist how her work has changed, too. Like a lot of us, she also took up working from home during the pandemic, and telemedicine has become her primary mode of care. Before the pandemic, of course, she would commute each day to her office, and that is where she would meet with patients. But in this era of Covid, counseling sessions take place virtually, with this therapist sitting at her computer in a spare bedroom and her patients in front of a screen in their own homes.

Telemedicine isn’t all bad, she said. For one thing, meeting virtually means patients don’t need to worry about who might see them walking into a therapist’s office; they can meet with their therapist privately from the comfort of their own home. That’s another thing: Telemedicine makes counseling much more accessible to people living in rural areas where the nearest therapist might be many miles away. This therapist acquaintance of mine, who happens to be a young mother, also described how therapy sessions have sometimes been interrupted and complicated by the presence of her child in that spare bedroom that has become her home office. She has actually discovered that allowing her patients a small glimpse into her own home life—giving them an opportunity to see that she is also a mom and has a life outside of her therapeutic practice—has been a form of unavoidable self-disclosure that has sometimes deepened the therapist-patient connection.

But there is one thing about conducting therapy via screen that has been very hard. She said that it is really difficult in a telemedicine appointment to co-regulate with a patient who is dysregulated. “Co-regulation” and “dys-regulation” are words that were totally new to me, but she went on to explain how human bodies have this amazing capacity to regulate other human bodies. When you yawn, I yawn too. If you laugh, I feel happy. When you cry, I get emotional myself. If I am calm, you find yourself calming down, too. Guided by the science of co-regulation, therapists are intentional about using soothing tones and speaking more quietly and slowly during therapy, trying to look clients in the eyes and stay right with them emotionally, all of which helps patients relax, focus, and be more present themselves.

Whether they have the language for it or not, most parents know something about co-regulation because, actually, co-regulation begins in the womb. Co-regulation is what’s going on when an unborn baby hears the voice of their mother, or when their mother’s movement soothes them. It’s what’s happening when parents rock their infants, hold them, speak to them, babble with them, and smile at them. Babies soon learn that they can smile and talk back. Co-regulation is also at work when a child falls and they immediately look to their parents to know how to react. If the parent comforts them without panicking, children usually move on more quickly. When little people are overwhelmed with emotion, parents do best when they model calm rather than mirroring back chaos. This is co-regulation. And co-regulation has the power to rewire our brains so that, with time, things that once triggered us or sent us into a tailspin no longer have the same effect and happen less often.

But this amazing capacity for co-regulation requires that two human bodies share space with one another. It’s much, much harder to co-regulate with another person when you’re in separate places communicating, say, across screens. You’ve got to be in the same room together. We have to experience one another in real life, in the flesh, physical bodies interacting with one another and affecting one another in real and significant ways.

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I wonder if there is a lesson in this for us about incarnation. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. God becomes a human and shares space with us, a physical body who interacts with us and shapes us and teaches us how to embody the peace of Christ. I’ll admit this is not a particularly elegant turn of phrase, but maybe you’ll at least agree that it’s a profound idea: By becoming flesh and dwelling among us, God co-regulates with us.

In the incarnation, God comes close to us. This is not a work-from-home God who remains at a distance up on some heavenly throne, leaving us to deal with the problems of our world alone; not a God who is detached from our struggles and unmoved by our anxieties and fears. When the Word becomes flesh, God closes the distance, joins us here in the midst of our pain, enters our broken world, and determines to accompany us. This is a God who understands the power of being physically present to one another, breathing together, speaking soothing words to one another, and allowing our bodies to respond to each other.

Which also means this is a God who doesn’t presume to solve our problems from on high by waving some sort of heavenly magic wand or with the snap of heavenly fingers. Our incarnate God is a God who comes alongside us and shows us a new way of being in the world, who models peace and steadiness and strength in the face of adversity, who embodies calm when the world is full of chaos and anxiety and helps us find calm ourselves. We become agents of our own salvation by the power of God incarnate in Jesus, who embodies salvation himself and shares it with humankind.

What’s more, we who follow the way of Christ and are baptized in his name become the body of Christ ourselves. By God’s grace we are empowered to go into the world modeling peace, embodying calm, soothing anxious bodies as we show up alongside others who feel tossed about by the chaotic forces swirling around us today. We are Christ’s body called ourselves to incarnate God’s mercy and love for the sake of a world that longs for peace and reconciliation.

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As the therapist and I were comparing notes about our experiences of working during the pandemic, I lamented our inability to sing together for months on end. It was amazing what Tim and Paul and the other singers and instrumentalists of this congregation were able to do with technology to enliven our online worship with beautiful music, but nothing beats congregational singing. Thanks be to God that we’re able to be here today in person and to sing the songs we missed singing together last Christmas.

The Rev. Quinn Caldwell, pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Syracuse, New York, wrote a brief reflection on the power of communal singing, and I couldn’t think of a better way to end this sermon. He writes:

Humans are the only singing species with a precise and shared sense of rhythm, which is what allows us to sing together. Two birds might sing the same song, but they cannot sing it together…. If a roomful of people sings at the same time, they start to breathe at the same time as well. Some studies suggest that if the drumbeat or base line is strong enough, their hearts will begin to beat together, too. And if we’re singing together and breathing together and our hearts are beating together, then it’s like we’re one body. And you know Whose body it is.

Another thing: all the other species stop singing when danger approaches. But humans sing louder the closer the danger gets. We sing together, and we become large, and we do not back down. So come racism, and “We Shall Overcome” you. Come fear, for “It is Well With My Soul.” Come war, for tonight is your “Silent Night.” Come, all ye faithful, and sing.


Resources consulted:

Quinn Caldwell, “Sing,” from All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014).

Kate Double, “The Co-Regulation Effect,” on Relationship Restoration, April 12, 2021, accessed December 22, 2021, https://relationshiprestoration.org/2021/04/12/the-co-regulation-effect/.

Jessica Estrada, “Co-Regulation Techniques Are Simple Ways To Calm the Nervous System—Here Are 3 Ways To Try,” on Well+Good, May 6, 2021, accessed December 22, 2021,https://www.wellandgood.com/co-regulation-techniques/.

Putty Putman, “The Incarnation,” December 24, 2020, accessed December 22, 2021, https://www.puttyputman.com/post/the-incarnation.


The featured image for this post is from Rémi Walle on Unsplash.


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