Isaiah 61:1062:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-5; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
The phrase “the Word became flesh” is one treated with special reverence by Christians. It is the formula for the mystery of the Incarnation, the distinctive Christian claim. Just as Jews must wrestle with what it means to be a chosen people, and Muslims with their claim that Mohammad is the final prophet, so Christians must sift and parse and sort this claim more than any other: the indwelling of God in Jesus. I do not mean that any of us repudiate this distinctiveness; we could not repudiate it and remain Jewish or Muslim or Christian in any traditional sense. I mean that these core assertions jar when they are made outside their religion’s framework. So to the extent that these religions claim a message from God for all humanity, it is disturbing to discover that the most distinguishing proclamation they make is the most troublesome one. And not only that—in each case, the authority of their message hangs from this distinctive creedal statement.
I do not say “the attractiveness of the message.” We in our decadent age of commerce and consumerism think attractiveness is the only authority. We have built a culture around the belief that the ability to stimulate desire is adequate to establish power over another (unless we opt for violence), and we erroneously assume that to admit an inclination towards something is to concede to it. All three of the Abrahamic religions have attractions—as do all religions—but each also has a call to obedience at which one must stop browsing one’s way through the travel-brochures of the spiritual life, however appealing it would be to do it all, turn one’s back on other options, and follow one way. The hitch is that each religion offers authoritative guidance in making that choice only when one has, in a sense, already made the choice. Only when I have already admitted that God speaks with the fullest power in a certain tradition can I then opt for it. And once I have made that personal admission, I have already opted for it internally, and the formal conversion is only a change of clothes. But this spiritual authority comes enshrined in the most difficult claim each religion can make: that God chose a nomadic desert tribe over all the peoples of the earth and gave them His Law as a special gift that would enable them to live holy lives as a blessing to all the nations of the earth, that God spoke to an Arab merchant fond of spiritual retreats and gave him the final revelation that subsumes all previous revelations by which all people might come into devout submission to God, that God became incarnate in a young Jewish man who was executed by the occupying forces of his country and by that incarnation reconciled us all to each other and humanity to God.
Thoughtful—I will not say liberal—believers in each tradition ponder these things. What does it mean to hold onto a claim that strains credulity? If the religion in fact has a message for all people, why is the cornerstone a stumbling block, when it ought to be an approachable pavement, an accessible step, a welcoming threshold? However, to deny the exclusivity of the claim is to eviscerate the received form of the religion. This denial is all too often made with the best of intentions, in an attempt to widen the doors of mutual understanding. We are perhaps weary of some of the results of the Enlightenment: to reduce religion to what is self-evident is to agree that there is no need for revelation. But there is also a sinister self-serving side to the denial of exclusivity, which is more dangerous: to reduce religion to a mild common term is to betray the very nature of religion, which is our human articulation of awe, our handling of mystery, our palping our way beyond the borderlands of the sensible to the vast incomprehensible expanse of totality. God is nothing if not the Warrant for all reality, the Embracer of all, known and unknown, and so religion can hardly reduce itself to what is blandly acceptable, but must, in its dark depths, stake out a boundary marker where we stare across at the offensive or frightening or deadly, and our mind rebels. Each religion’s particular claim, which jars with its exactness and precision, is often the place in these days where, paradoxically, the surrender to what cannot be comprehended must take place. Who can deny that peace is the gift of the confession of faith in that religion’s claims and that new life is the result of a humble surrender to follow fully that religion’s injunctions? When thoughtful Christians ponder these things, they precisely ponder what it means that the Word became flesh, that the light that enlightens all people became Jesus of Nazareth.
Now these ponderous steps were taken in the first centuries of the church’s life also, as the early theologians struggled to understand the particularity of our revelation. It is astonishing to us that these debates were so violent, but, in addition to their political contexts, they also had existential impact. It mattered that the Word that is God became flesh, because life and our ability to deal with reality matter. If “in Him was life,” then we must have that life in human flesh. If “that life was the light of all people,” then no partial viewing is sufficient, when what we most need is this light.
Everything, from our visual depth perception, to our cunning with numbers, to our sense of cause and effect, that enables us on the one hand to turn the world into story and on the other to anticipate the future, everything arises out of our existential anxiety to know that it is reality and not illusion that we deal with. When the early theologians said that in Jesus we were not sent an emissary, to leave us thrashing and suffocating through the layered curtains of revelation, but God from God, light from light, true God from true God, they were fueled by that anguished groping for reality which is our essence and its consolation they had known in Christ. At the ultimate level, across an abyss we cannot bridge, God reached out and was with us. The essence of divinity is invested in our flesh; by God’s own action, God is not remote, but irrevocably enmeshed with us. God has chosen to act for our restoration by becoming human, fulfilling all that was hoped for, removing the barriers between us. Goodness has thrown in its lot with us. Hope will never again be a stranger to us. Heaven will never be closed to us again.
That this is a statement of faith is precisely my point. You cannot get at this claim with scientific devices, because it attempts to resolve an anguish that is prescientific. I do not mean from an era before science. I mean that our desire to know the truth, to know ourselves in touch with reality, is prior to the impulse of scientific investigation, which is only one of the drives it motivates. This statement of faith—that the ground of all reality is accessible to us—is prior to and larger than scientific claims. To science it says, “I am incomprehensible to you, not because I am inaccurate, but because your tools are limited to the quantifiable.” And how did we know that in Jesus unfettered reality was among us? The ultimate and utter reality in Jesus is demonstrated by his Resurrection. Death cannot overcome what is real and what is true; that which holds all things as one is not wiped out by decay and defeat. Jesus’ Resurrection is not simply a sign of God’s vindication of that human being, but a demonstration that what was present in Jesus was the life that is the light of all, which darkness cannot overcome. This claim we cannot disavow and remain Christian.
Now, if you will, in your life also this unlikely conjunction must be affirmed: the Word must be made flesh. And if I have, up to this point, been speaking of conceptual things—if I have been Wordy—it is no less crucial to be fleshly. Your faith, you see, is also a complex construction. It has an inherited traditional deposit—all the unlikely claims we struggle with and resist, this hoard of holy words—and it has impact in your daily life—a constellation of habits and attitudes, of allegiances and values, all expressed through your flesh. This objective wordy belief must be wedded with the subjective fleshly behaviors. In you also the Word must become flesh. So to conclude I will mention two very divergent ways in which this might be so, one close to hand and comforting, the other more distant and troubling.
First, we are once again at a Eucharist and you will come up and receive a little piece of bread. Today, notice the bread and its strangeness, because that is the nature of the Incarnation. The Eucharist is our ongoing access to the Word made Flesh. The Incarnation was unpredictable and unlikely, and it is proportionately unlikely that the flesh of the Son of God be available to us in these barely edible bits. But that is the point. We affirm that God visits us no less in these little nibbles than God did in Jesus.
If you already believe that God is active, since you assent that God is involved with life, first affirm that what you have in your hand is a piece of useless and unsatisfying bread. The resistance of this little piece of bread, its inability to be other than itself, is a clue for you of the essence of reality, which also does not depend on your notions and preferences, but resists being sucked into your fantasy and being reduced to a phantasm of your desire. Nothing is less desirable, less attractive, than this little piece of bread, except perhaps for the one it makes known to us, that itinerant carpenter, of whom it was said “he had no form or comeliness, that we might desire him” and whom we left beaten and broken.
Having affirmed that—that this bread is first and foremost still to our vision a piece of unappetizing bread—affirm that it nevertheless has depths, that it opens out beyond itself, that it not only reminds you of your pledge to remember and follow the one who first broke and distributed bread among his friends, saying it was his body, but that it also reminds you of those others through time who made the same pledge, sometimes at the cost of their life, all the way back to those who first received a fragment of bread from the one who first broke it. Then see this bread open in your hands to be a memory of all that is sown in hope, all that is shaped for the nurture of those to come. See this bread contain all the longing of us who are human. Watch it open, until you see that this longing is itself mysteriously the pledge that we are not alone here, but that our hope for peace and a future, which is ground up daily in the suffering of humanity, is in fact shared with all human beings. This shared hope, in its inexhaustibility, in its innate power to renew itself in us, is the evidence of God’s constant pouring divine life into us. This is the mystery of how we are made, the light that is the life in us. We are made to want to live together in peace. And God renews in us daily, as we rise from our beds, a fundamental hope in life. And we Christians claim that God directly gives us grace for a life lived in the active pursuit of that hope through this bread that is once again God-with-us.
So, first the Word becomes flesh as facts carry meanings: the actual sliver of bread carries more than itself to your mouth. But the Word also becomes flesh as meanings are probed for fact. The flesh is the location of reality and the measure of truth.
So notice always the location of your own body. Where is it invested? How is it coerced? What habits disavow your claims to virtue? How do you actually live, regardless of your aspirations? The resistance of your flesh to your ideals is a sign that you have reached reality.
That resistance, of course, is not limited to our personal life. Other bodies give the lie to our pretensions to virtue. Again, the question is what the cost has been to the flesh. Where has your comfort and your security been enfleshed? On what back are you riding? The Church celebrated yesterday the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children Herod ordered slaughtered in an attempt to kill the newborn King of the Jews, Jesus. The acknowledged good of a stable dynasty veiled a brutal and reprehensible fact, and for the sake of that perceived possible positive outcome actual flesh was ripped open. The self-indulgence of the indolent is paid for out of the flesh of the innocents of the world, those powerless to defend themselves, except by acts of terror. Our consuming and combative choices hack away at the fabric of life, and we are slashed and burned in return. And if we answer, even sincerely, that we do not know on whose back we ride, that ignorance will not save us, and if we are lucky enough to die before the verdict comes in, that escape does not mean that we are numbered among the holy innocent.
For over a decade, the United States has held to an intensification of the U. N. sanctions on Iraq, blocking with its veto and entangling in debates any attempt to relieve that nation. As part of the “dual-use” considerations of the sanctions, by which items which might conceivably be used for military purposes are kept out, equipment to repair Iraq’s sewage plants have been held up. By 1996, all the sewage treatment plants in Iraq had broken down; 300,000 tons of raw sewage are dumped into Iraqi rivers daily. This, of course, has meant an increase of cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. But the necessary vaccines are also blocked, with the claim that they might be used to make biological weapons—a technically unlikely claim. Thirteen percent of all Iraqi children will die before their fifth birthday of these diseases and related conditions; twenty-five percent of all the children in the southern region live in chronic malnutrition. Is it better not to know about these Holy Innocents? By the grace of God, moments of brutality can become moments in which the powerful are forced into the most horrific knowledge of themselves by seeing their own violence and brought to repentance. We must see how flesh pays for our words if we are to change. The question remains, with whom do you identify?—and if it is Herod, wail.
The stakes are high; the game of salvation is played with real lives and is played for keeps. If the Word is made flesh, then not only is every fleshly occasion an opportunity to know that Word, who is grace and truth, that is to know God, but also we have been given the flesh to measure the truth of our claims. Always the weight of our words is gauged by the flesh; and when that weight is onerous, we do our best to shift it to others, but it is nevertheless our weight which crushes or lightens. If the Word is made flesh in us also, how can we not live as Jesus lived, and care for the suffering and work for reconciliation as He did?
Listen to the brief words about John the Baptist in today’s Gospel: “he was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” The Word alone does not need to carry the burden of all reality, only to witness to the grace and truth that we have known and to make them accessible to others. May we have the grace to bear our words of witness steadily and joyfully and humbly, but to incarnate those words in the flesh by active intervention for good, so that the light we have known in Christ and that we celebrate in this season may be known to those who know us and even those who do not, until the day we see that Light face to face and praise God for all eternity.