The Word became Flesh

Christmas Eve,   December 24. 2015

John 1:1-14

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us”.  Next to the familiar story of the birth of Jesus, which we heard at the beginning of the service, these words embody the Christmas gospel.  What a powerful and mysterious phrase that is.  There is a fascination in these words, a great mystery that is named or at least hinted at.

I came across this week a meditation on the text by the American Quaker writer Parker Palmer that got me thinking again about this familiar phrase. Palmer suggests that a big part of the fascination of this phrase is that it names exactly what we so often miss.  There is often, he points out, a huge disconnect between the words we speak and those we incarnate in our lives.  “In our personal relations with those we love, in our politics, in advertizing and the mass media, in our religion, the good words we speak tend to float away even as they leave our lips.”  So often they remain just words –best intentions, hopes and dreams that remain empty, broken promises.  They express our ideals, and so often they don’t seem to have much effect on our lives. They do not become flesh, do not shape our lives, are not lived out by us as we would wish.

“We long for words like love, truth, and justice to become flesh and dwell among us,” to shape our nation and our society.  And yet the voices of fear, and hatred, and intolerance seem to be coming so strong over the airwaves, poisoning our best vision of ourselves.
We long in our personal lives, in our relationships with our spouses, our children, our friends, to live out our dreams and ideals of love, and joy, and mutual support.  But we know also that it can sometimes be a struggle to incarnate those ideals.  So much gets in the way: our frailties and failings, our insecurities and disappointments.  It can be difficult and demanding work, allowing these good big words to take flesh in our lives.

“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.”  Of course these are just words, too, and fairly abstract words at that.  They are meaningful and relevant to us only because they themselves are enfleshed in a story.  In Jesus, all our fine sounding religious and philosophical doctrines, all the pronouncements of priests and professors, are brought down to earth in that single night in a cold cattle stall in Bethlehem.  And despite all the romance and sentiment with which we surround the story, this is not a fairy tale in some never-never-land.  It is a real story about the real world, the world we live in (whether we know it or not).  A lot of church signs this year seem to be making the connection: that Christmas is the story of a middle Eastern refugee family.  The story of Mary and Joseph, looking for enough shelter for Mary to give birth to her baby, is very real to the several million Syrian or Iraqi refugees.  It is played out in our world again and again, in the slums of Rio de Janiero or the villages of Nigeria or Sudan – in our own communities in women’s shelters or small apartments.  It is the reality of ordinary people trying to get by in a world that is often hard and unpredictable, sometimes terrifying and brutal.  It is here that God’s word chose to become incarnate, right in the midst of our most ordinary and messy reality.

And the Word that became incarnate was love.  But here again, we have the same problem.  The word love is so overused, it refers to so many different feelings and experiences and commitments, that we can begin to lose sight of what it means concretely.  A word that means almost everything can end up meaning almost nothing. We need to pay attention to how love becomes incarnate, what it looks like when it becomes flesh and dwells among us.  For Christians, the first place to look is to Jesus.  And so we look beyond the Christmas story alone.  It is why we come back the other 50 weeks of the year, to see what love looks like when it becomes flesh: to look to Jesus, how he lived his life, how he treated others, how he speaks to us over the centuries, how he laid even his life on the line for love.

When we do that, we can begin to spell out more exactly what love can look like.  We can find other words to name what we see.  Love can look like courage, or trust, or hope.  It can be expressed as compassion – compassion with others, compassion with ourselves – as grace, as tenderness.  Love can be understanding, and hospitality, and an interest in the stranger who is different than we are. Love can look like justice, or truth, or solidarity.  Sometimes love can look like anger, anger at injustice and cruelty, at sorrow at the brokenness of the world, like hunger and thirst for justice.  Love can look like humility, and a willingness to turn the other cheek, and an unflagging commitment to work for peace.

And yes, these too are just words, and if they remain just words, we really are no further ahead.  Except that in the event we celebrate this night, we believe that they did, once at least, become flesh, and dwelt among us. And as we spend time with this figure Jesus, as we grow to know him and love him, we begin to recognize that he is still among us.  That his compassion and courage and hospitality and justice and peace can still be found, incarnate in the lives of men and women. And indeed, as we live with these stories, as we keep our eyes open and attentive to the work of the incarnate word in our world, we will find that it does begin to be incarnate in our own lives – that in the midst of all our muddling and anxieties and failings, these words will begin to take flesh in us. And that, my friends, is my Christmas wish for all of us: that this birth we celebrate may be born also in us, that the eternal Love that became flesh may dwell also in our daily lives.  “For 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.” Amen