Second Sunday of Christmas
Solemnity of the Epiphany
“The Word became flesh and lived among us…”
The deepest of human hopes has taken body, form: there is skin on God. Soft tissues wrap bone, the divine bound willingly in the swaddling clothes of human substance, fibered all through with yearning and will. The creator inhabits created form. There is no room for metaphor here; flesh on God is no parable, no allegory. Make no mistake: this is body, like yours, like mine, mystery as intimate as your own face.
What difference does it make for flesh to mean flesh? How much would it matter if the scriptures said instead, “the Word became soul and lived among us?” Is an enfleshed God just a magnanimous detail for the sake of good story?
This word, “flesh,” is used again not too much further along in the story. In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus makes the bewildering claim that his flesh is crucial to our life. Again and again, he uses this language:
The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…
My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink…
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…
Whoever eats me will live because of me…
The Jews say, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” The disciples are repulsed and say, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”
“Does this offend you?” he asks.
That it does offend them bears witness to the literal undertones in the word “flesh.” The Word has become anatomy, human.
Does it offend us, that our substance has been invaded by God in Christ? Are we offended that his flesh has everything to do with ours? In a culture so often imbued with a practical Gnosticism while ironically being obsessed with bodies, admittedly a “word-become-soul” messiah would be less confounding, and perhaps more tolerable to our sensibilities.
I confess to being as puzzled as the Jews and disciples by Jesus’ words about eating his flesh. Because of years of bread and wine around the table, I at least have some sort of framework for how it might make sense. But there is mystery deeper than my ability to grasp in his bold claim that his flesh matters to mine. Perhaps it is tangled in a sense of mutual indwelling.
Advent this year, a tiny girl with elfin ears came into my family. We marvel at her, how little family resemblance she bears to any of us, and yet she undeniably is us. She is like a stranger who catches the eye somewhere in daily life, at once looking so familiar and yet so unfamiliar. We gather in a line around her crib, all of us, comparing ears, the gentle arcs of lips, the contours of hairlines, and noses. We search her again and again for some sign of us, searching one another for signs of her.
Before her, how long had it been since we studied one another so closely with tender attention, honoring the bodied particularities of each of us?
Perhaps the messiah is not unlike this tiny girl, the stranger like us and unlike us, the mirror we search for signs of ourselves. For the mystery is not only that the word became flesh, but that flesh becomes word. In the incarnation, we are transformed – in our realities, from death to life, darkness to light, grace, and truth – but also in our substance. In the virgin, Jesus is born as we are. In the incarnation, we are born as he is, “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.”
What are the implications of such a transformation? Perhaps they might be summed up by saying bodies matter, material reality matters – ours, and that of all creation. The first words of the gospel according to John echo the first words of Genesis, where God in divine pleasure created all that is and declared it to be good. The divine clothes himself in human flesh, and we are recreated, restored to our former glory, no longer just created in the image of God, but housing the self of God by Jesus and the Holy Spirit within our substance. Each of us is a weighty, sacred being. Creation is sacred and weighty.
It seems no mistake then, no small thing, for Jesus to declare that together, we – as those devoted to him – constitute his body. As the church, we are the word become flesh, not as incarnation but as invitation, the gospel lived and testifying to this news, that in Jesus we are made new, our human stature being drawn up into the divine life. Like John, we are not the light, but we exist to testify to the light. We are not the Word, but by living we speak him forth. Our lives, collectively, become the language which tells the gospel.
In a world sometimes prone to disregard the body, the church stands as a witness to the goodness of human flesh. In the midst of technologies which encourage disembodied exchanges with one another, in the midst of a culture that disregards bodies as inconsequential and utilitarian objects, we gather in person around the elements of bread and of wine, eating and drinking the substance of Christ. We draw one another into identity and community through the embodied ritual of baptism. We lay on hands, anoint with oil, we kneel to confess, we pass the peace of Christ, gathering the bodies of others to ourselves in Jesus’ name. We sing, our voices extending the limits of our bodies to meet and mingle, indwell one another in sound. We make eye contact. We profess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. We wash one another’s feet. In all these ways, we live honor for bodies and the truth of enfleshed goodness, subverting the all too routine Gnosticisms of our culture, and professing that our salvation has come in bodied form.
May we, the one body of the Word made flesh, continue to testify to the light that is life, living evermore as children of God toward the new and inbreaking kingdom where we are re-created, the goodness of all creation is restored, and from his fullness we receive, grace upon grace. Amen.”