The Word Became Flesh
[In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.]
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
This Christmas season has been different, but it has been good and safe for my family. All of us have remained healthy so far.
All of us are who are retired or able to work from home have been spared from the anxiety faced by so many who are either out of work or working under conditions that expose them daily to infection. Though we have remained separated from one another, we are in touch by way of Facetime, Zoom and constant texts & phone calls. Still, I miss having bodily contact. December 22nd was the first time I hugged my parents since January. Sure, I can tell stories and joke with friends and family during video chats. But that is no substitute for their warm bodies sitting around laughing and hugging in the same room without worry.
Christmas this year has also made me painfully aware of how bodily our faith is. No one knew this as well as Martin Luther. One story has it that, when Luther sat down to debate the theology of the Lord’s Supper with fellow reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, he wrote in chalk on the table in front of him “this is my body.”
- Luther was so determined not to betray this central affirmation: the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper does not merely symbolize but is the Body and blood of Christ.
- And Saint Paul refers to the church as the “Body of Christ,” he is not speaking metaphorically. For Paul, the church, with all its faults, is the resurrected Christ in and for the world.
There is no spirit/body dualism in biblical Christianity. While we might distinguish between body and spirit or soul and body, the two can never be separated. Just as a body without a soul is only a corpse, so, too, a soul without a body is a mere phantom. We confess in our creeds, not that the soul somehow survives death, but that God raises the body, soul and whatever other part of us there might be from death. Salvation through Jesus Christ is not a purely spiritual measure designed to “save souls.” It is a life and death struggle for the whole cosmos in which Jesus invites us to participate here and now in our present bodily existence, assuring us that the outcome will be a new creation.
The Word did not just appear to be flesh, it became flesh and lived among us, thus making it crystal clear that God loves physical matter: God made it, God became it, and God wants us to experience God through it. William Temple went as far to declare that “the Word made flesh” is the most important phrase in all of Christianity.
It was this affirmation of the flesh that surprised me most in studying John’s Jesus, I kept noticing how much John’s Jesus seems to love the world and take great delight in earthly pleasures.
- He inaugurates his ministry by miraculously bringing more wine to a wedding party in which the guests are already sufficiently drunk (2:10).
- His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well is charged with nuptial and some would even say erotic overtones (4:1-42).
- He offends listeners with a description of the Bread of Life that is far too fleshy for their religious tastes (6:60-61).
- He makes healing ointment out of dirt and saliva (9:6).
- He receives an expensive and seemingly excessive foot anointing from a female friend (12:1-8).
- He himself strips down to almost nothing to wash his disciples’ feet (13:1-11).
John’s Jesus is no stranger to the world.
John’s prologue functions as a poetic prelude to the almost scandalous ways that Jesus delights in creation; and the prologue invites us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the matter that is all around us and the matter that is us. On Christmas day, as we celebrated the Christ Child born of a woman’s body, John’s prologue reminds us to appreciate the gift of our bodies and to experience our flesh (and the earth!) as sacred vessels for divine life and expression.
One helpful way that John’s flesh-affirming prologue invites us to celebrate the Incarnation is by helping us to appreciate the gift of our five senses, which are all explicitly referenced in the Gospel’s subsequent narrative.
- When Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, he invites us to appreciate the gift of hearing by teaching the Pharisee about the spiritual significance of simply listening to the wind (3:8).
- The gift of taste is underscored when Jesus quenches the Samaritan woman’s deepest thirst (4:14).
- In the healing of the man born blind, we learn to appreciate the gift of vision by seeing God’s healing power at work in the messy muddiness of our lives (9:6).
- The gift of smell is highlighted as Jesus invites Martha and Mary to smell the subtle hints of resurrection in the midst of death (John 11:39).
- Jesus emphasizes the gift of touch in his beautiful exchanges with Mary Magdalene and Thomas (John 20:17, 27).
Throughout the Fourth Gospel, the Word made Flesh invites us to be refreshed by the gift of our own flesh, our own temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), specifically by appreciating what senses we have.
Another way the Word made Flesh offers refreshment is by inviting us to rest. The Word who was with God at the beginning of creation knows the crucial importance of Sabbath rest (Genesis 2:2). So, it is no surprise that Christ urges his disciples, and us, to rest and abide in him (15:4, 7), to honor our flesh by giving it proper time to rest.
As we come to the first Sunday of 2021, most of us are only too glad to have left 2020 behind. If on New Year’s Eve a year ago we toasted the happy arrival of a new year, this past week we probably did less of a toast to welcome 2021 and offered up instead a bit of a groan as an ugly, tragic, troubling year finally ended. But when the pandemic began in February and March around the world, who would have guessed that many of us still would not be inside a church sanctuary for the first services of 2021? If any of us thought the pandemic would last only weeks or a couple months, we were sorely wrong. Lately the death toll in the United States has been at all time highs.
Maybe then this year the Lectionary text from John 1, that often gets assigned for the Second Sunday after Christmas, is particularly apt and maybe in its own way hopeful. Because a lot of the time this past year we maybe had a hard time discerning the presence of Christ in our lives and in our world. In the midst of so much death, so much sorrow, so much anger and division, where is Jesus to be found? Why can’t we see him as large and plain and unmistakable to our eyes of faith?
But perhaps John 1 reminds us that has often been the case, pandemic or not, but Christ is present. After all, the first words of the Gospel text tells us that Jesus came to that which was his own, but his own did NOT receive him. The long-awaited One was there, and people just missed him.
The words of John 1:10 confronts us, forcing us to ask ourselves, “Yes, perhaps we saw Jesus but did we recognize him? Did we receive him? Did we take his incarnation into our time and space seriously enough to realize that this changes everything? Everything!” Probably not. The truth is, we like the Jesus in the manger because he can’t say anything yet. We can project onto him anything we want. Maybe that is why in the tradition of the church we do such a rapid fast-forward to Epiphany and soon to the baptism of Jesus and the launch of the very public ministry we will consider in the weeks between Epiphany and the start of Lent.
Maybe the church has long recognized that the incarnation is: the real truth of Jesus comes when he opens his mouth to teach and preach; when we sets himself down at the table of the tax collectors and prostitutes; when he tells us to love everyone and to forgive even our most hated enemies. That’s the real Jesus who comes to us. Will we receive him? Will we accept the blessing of the divine grace that allows us to see him? Or will we continue to find this 10th verse in John 1st Chapter an indictment that makes us blush?
It is a vital point because when you move on a half-dozen verses in this chapter, you discover what this Child really brings (and it turns out to be the #1 thing we all need): Grace. He is full of Grace.
Aside from the gospel witnesses, I don’t think there is a narrative better illustrating the mystery of Incarnation than one particular incident related by author and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, in his book, Night. This short book is an autobiographical account of his incarceration at a concentration camp.
There Wiesel relates a story about the gruesome hanging of a young boy by the SS guards. He and all the other prisoners were marched out into the commons to witness this event. As the child hung, struggling for some time in the noose, someone near Wiesel kept muttering, “Where is God?” Wiesel tells of how a voice within him answered, “Where is He? Here he is-he is hanging here on the gallows.” Wiesel, Elie, Night, (c. 1958 by Les Editions De Minuit; pub. by The Hearst Corporation, New York, NY) p. 74-76.
Though not a Christian, Elie Wiesel comes much closer to understanding incarnational theology than many of us who are!
The Incarnation was not God’s temporary foray into human affairs. The Word both became and continues to be flesh.
- The stench of God’s flesh rises up from the ovens of Auschwitz.
- It is scarred by the lash of the whip.
- It is starved and frozen just across our southern border.
- It struggles for one last breath under the knee of a police officer.
- It fights for one more moment of life on a ventilator.
When John tells us that the Word became flesh, he is telling us that the glory and grace of God cannot be seen apart from the crucified Jesus who, even when raised from the dead, still bears the scars of torture. God cannot be blasphemed by the desecration of any temple or the temple of the human body, the flesh made sacred by God’s indwelling.
This 2nd Sunday of Christmas, is a good time to double down on the miracle of the Incarnation. As the manger gets ready to be set back up in the attic, the Christmas tree close to being out on the curb and the toys are either broken, out of batteries or their novelty spent, we are no longer competing with the sentimental overtones of the holiday season. With Santa in the rear view mirror and some very dark and frightening months ahead, we could use a Christmas story that enters into our anxious and stormy lives–and stays there. That good news is Emmanuel, God with us, stays not just for the holidays, but always.