20 December 2010

In the Flesh

Matthew 1: 18-25 & John 1: 1-18

Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 19th December 2010

At the Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve this week we will hear (again) the majestic Prologue of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  It’s read as the church is full of darkness and shadow, read from the light cast by the Christ Candle in the center of the Advent wreath.  We then share the light from the Christ Candle with everyone in attendance, each holding a candle.  The effluence of the light soon fills the space with a warm, soft glow.  Toward the end of the reading from John we then hear these words, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” 

            This is how John tells the story of Jesus’ birth.  The Gospel of John was probably written around 90 AD, which means he could have been aware of Matthew or Luke’s version of the birth; but there’s little evidence to suggest this.  There’s the minority view among scholars that John was actually written prior to 70 (when Mark was written) and smuggled out of Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed it in 70.  Matthew and Luke probably never read John.  In John, we don’t find dreams to Joseph, annunciations to Mary, no shepherds or magi or angelic choirs.  John’s account is heady; it’s grand, actually it’s philosophical through and through, making extraordinary claims – this is theology using philosophy to make an amazing claim: that in the birth of Jesus we have witnessed the source of all Being now become flesh.  The Creator has become creature and taken on the weight of the created order. 

            This is heavy stuff.  “In the beginning was the Word.”  It begins with an echo of Genesis 1, “In the beginning…,”pointing to the creative act of God.  ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος  (en arche en ho logos).  John says in the beginning was the Word or, in Greek, the Logos.   Logos doesn’t mean “word” in a conventional English sense.  Logos is not a part of speech.  Logos was actually a common philosophical term in the first century.  Many philosophical schools, including the Stoics, referred to the Logos as a way to describe “the deepest structure of the universe, more fundamental than anything studied by physicists then or now.  The Logos was the creative or ordering principal of the universe, giving rise to the laws and patterns that science discovers.  The orderliness of nature, the elegance of mathematics, the beauty found in music and art, the complexity of the human mind are all expressions of the Logos.”[1]  Logos is the beginning, the arche, the source or origin of all that is.    John is making the point that “the original source and sustaining power of the universe is the Logos energy that is revealed in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.”[2]  And, what is more, the source, the ground, the origin, the divine creativity that creates and recreates the universe and holds it all in being (see Colossians 1: 15-20), the very pulse and rhythm of life itself has now become enfleshed in this person Jesus. 

            Matthew does it his own way.  He has his own reasons to tell the story from a different angle.  His audience is not the Hellenist philosophical world, he’s not writing to intellectuals, yet what he offers isn’t any less intellectually demanding.  Matthew makes a similar point to a primarily Jewish audience and provides us with a narrative, a story. The revelation comes to Joseph in a dream.  Mary will bear a child, a son, to be named Jesus – Yeshua – meaning, Yahweh saves.  They will call him also Emmanuel, meaning, “God is with us.”

            It’s unusual to link John and Matthew, but they both raise the one point I want to focus upon.  They’re both making the same mind-boggling, earth-shattering, gracious claim:  God is with us…in the flesh.  Sure, we find plenty of places throughout the Hebrew scriptures where we are told that God is with us, that God’s presence goes before us, leads the way, is known in the still small voice.  And yes, we find in the religions of the Greco-Roman pantheon the gods were also a kind of presence in one’s life.  There’s nothing new about this.  However, it’s the manner or way of God’s presence that’s different.  Yes, the Roman emperors were viewed as deity, starting with Caesar Augustus (63 BC- 14 AD) who was actually called, in his lifetime, “son of a god,” he was worshiped and revered as a god (that’s why he was given the title Augustus, “revered one.”).[3]  But no emperor could ever take credit for actually creating the very world in which he inhabited.  What we find in the Christian claim is something different and new.  In his poem, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the eighteenth century English poet, Christopher Smart (1722-1771), captures this point:

God all-bounteous, all creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.

            Smart here alludes to the mystery of the Incarnation.  That’s really what we’re talking about here.  Incarnation.  Et incarnatus est, from the Nicene Creed, “and was made flesh.”  This is one of the central claims of the Christian experience.  God embodied in human form.  If there’s one think you leave with this morning, I hope it is this:  we come to know conclusively in the birth of Jesus that God is one who desires to be with us and desires to be embodied in the world and desires still to be embodied in our lives.

            Unfortunately, the history of the Christianity has done a terrible job actually conveying this to the world, living as if this were true, living from it.  The Incarnation stands at the heart of the Christian experience and yet we’ve done a really good job disincarnating Jesus; that is, thinking of Jesus as if he didn’t have a body. There is a very deep and destructive anti-body heritage in Christianity that made its ways into Christian thought and practice quite early.  It’s found in the rise of asceticism that made its way into the church from Greco-Roman sources.  Actually, it was the Greeks who did a good job separating spirit from body and favoring spirit over body. (This has contributed to a mind-body dualism that continues to plague the church, science, and even the way we treat illness.  Even the contemporary ecological crisis is an extension of this divide, that is, how we treat the earth.  If spirit is more important than matter, then it doesn’t matter how we treat matter.)  This antagonism runs deep.  A lot of the blame can go to the 4th century theologian, Augustine (354-430), who possessed all kind of fears regarding the body as sinful, viewed sexuality outside procreation as sinful, and had a low view of women.  These ideas continue to inform the way the church approaches a whole variety of issues today.  These ideas make it difficult for Christians to be, well, human – real, embodied, with feelings and emotions, and bodies that freely know desire and pleasure and respond to beauty – and to do all of this without guilt or shame.  I’m told the hanging of Christmas stockings originated in Germany, where each stocking contained five gifts, one for each of the senses in celebration of the Incarnation.[4]  And yet, that said, the guilt and shame associated with being human runs deep.

            The shame runs very deep.  True story.  Here’s a good example.  Four years ago when I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land our group went to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  It’s an enormous Roman Catholic Church built, as tradition has it, on the site of the home where Mary first heard that she was going to bear a son. Deep underneath the church is a cave.  There’s been an altar there since about 384 AD.  Carved in the floor in front of the altar are these words:  ET INCARNATUS EST HIC.  And was made flesh here.  Right there!  Now, earlier that day we were working at an archeological dig – at a site that had been left untouched since the first century.  We were dusty, dirty, sweaty, cleaned up best we could and then drove off to Nazareth.  The women were told to make sure they brought something along to cover up their shoulders, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed into the church.  They were prepared.  What the guys didn’t know is that we couldn’t wear shorts – and we had on shorts.  As we approached the high wall around the church we found the guard at the gate who was checking for skin.  The women went in first.  Some of the guys got through because their shorts covered their knees.  Not mine.  I was barred from entry.   I was mad.  I came all this way and I was not going to be kept from seeing this place.  So I pushed my shorts down as far as I could and still walk and then stretched my t-shirt down to cover the difference.  It was quite a sight.  I was let in and had a very funny walk through the church.  Now, in Nazareth there are two churches of the annunciation.  One is Roman Catholic, the other one is Greek Orthodox and they’re just as strict about skin, if not worse.  I tried my trick again, but they wouldn’t let me in.  How ironic that there in a town that claims the actual site of the incarnation itself, the church still has a problem with bodies, skin, flesh.  Obviously, God thinks they’re pretty good.  How can exposed shoulders be an affront to the gospel?  And – for God’s sake – what’s so scandalous about my knees?

            The controversial Italian filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), gets it right in his film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), when he has the wise men approaching the infant Jesus, kneeling before him and then kissing his feet. They didn’t kiss an idea of Jesus; they didn’t kiss his teachings; they didn’t kiss the spirit of Jesus. Et incarnatus est. “Good is the flesh that the Word has become.”[5]

            The Incarnation is the mystery of God’s embodiment in the world.  It tells us something about God’s style, God’s way, what God values and honors; that the world is saved through a body.  God seeks embodiment in the world in Christ because of love, God’s love for us as bodies, and God’s love for creation as heavenly body.  The way of Christ is the way of God and the way of God hasn’t changed.  God continues to seek embodiment – wants to dwell in us, dwell with us, around us, through us, for us, God wants to tabernacle with us, hang out with us, and, most of all, grow in us.

            God wants to be born in humanity.  Throughout Advent I invited us to consider the journey to Bethlehem.  Yes, we know the story of Joseph and Mary and the Magi, of God’s own journey, as it were, to earth in the birth of God’s son.  It’s this story, of course, that drives this season, as it should.  But it’s also about realizing our story, how we fit into this story.  It’s not just about their journey to Bethlehem – it’s also about ours.  What matters is that we get to Bethlehem too.  It’s also about our journey to the place of birth, of hope, of love.  Bethlehem – meaning, the house of bread – is the place where we are nourished, where we are given life.  That’s where God is born in us and that can be any place.

            In my own journey this season I have come to see in a new way that God really does want to be born in humanity.  A guide for me this season has been the writings of the Dominican master theologian, philosopher, mystic, Eckhart von Hochheim (c.1260-c.1327), otherwise known as Meister Eckhart.[6]  In his commentary on the Prologue of John, Eckhart draws our attention to John 1: 12b, “He gave them the power of becoming sons of God.”  For Eckhart, the mystery of the Incarnation is not just that God took on flesh in one particular person Jesus, but it also points to the deeper theological truth that what Jesus experienced is being offered to everyone who is also in Christ.  He pushed his hearers to move beyond celebrating just the fact of the Incarnation, that it happened, but to ask, why?  What is the purpose of Incarnation?[7] 

            This is what he said, God’s intention in sending the Son was that “man may become by the grace of adoption what the Son is by nature.”[8]  This is his way of saying the ancient motto from the early church, best known in the Eastern Church (not so much in the West); in the words of Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-373),“God became man that man might God.”[9]“Why did God become man?” the Meister asked in a sermon, “So that I might be born God himself.”[10]  He is not saying that we become equal with God.  There is always the distinction.   But he’s trying to lift up the value of humanity. 

            This is radical stuff.  Not surprisingly, he was charged with heresy and was tried in Avignon and Cologne.  He didn’t survive the trial and was condemned as a heretic after his death.  If this is heresy, then put me in that camp too.  I think he was on to something.  The point here is that the purpose of the Incarnation shows God’s desire to take humanity into Godself and gives to humanity more and more of Godself.  The Incarnation brings something new into the world; it changes us.  Or, to put it a different way, Meister writes, “It would be of little value for me that ‘the Word was made flesh’ for man in Christ as a person distinct from me, unless he was also made flesh for me personally so that I too might be God’s son.”[11]

            That I too might be God’s son…  That I too might be God’s daughter…  That I might come to see myself, personally, existentially as one in whom God dwells, “full of grace and truth.”  That God is among us, within us, with us.  This is your birthright; this is your royal claim. Oh that the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve might know who they are, that we are daughters and sons of God, that we might know who we truly and authentically are – the object of God’s immeasurable, fathomless love that moves through the cold, dark expanses of the universe in order to be born and born again and again in us.  The birth of Jesus is the pattern; this is how God does it for all of us.  In this sense it can be said that Jesus truly was and is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:5) for us.


[1] James W. Jones, The Mirror of GodChristian Faith as Spiritual PracticeLessons from Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 23.  See also Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries:  His place in the History of Culture (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1985), 57ff.  Basil of Caesarea (330-379) refers to Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, the Word of God who pervades the creation” from the beginning to the present day.   Gregory of Nazianus (c. 329-389/390) said, “This name [Logos] was given to him because he exists in all things that are.”  Humanity participates in this presence of the Cosmic Christ by “mirroring forth the presence of the creating Logos,” as Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335- after 394) put it.  See also Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Comic Christ: The Healing of the Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (HarperOne, 1988), 108ff.
[2] Jones, 23.
[3] See Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (HarperOne, 2007), 159-160.
[4] Thanks to Fritzi Scott for this reference.
[5] “Good is the Flesh,” hymn text by Brian Wren (b.1936).
[6] Meister is German for Master, referring to his academic title Magister in theologia, obtained in Paris.
[8] Expositio sancti Evangelii secundum Iohannem (LW 3: 5-167), n.106, cited in McGinn, 118.  Emphasis added.
[9] See also 2 Peter 1:4, we are “partakers in the divine nature;” or Clement of Alexandra (c. 150 - c. 215), “The Logos of God has become human so that you might learn from a human being how a human being may become divine.”  Cited in Fox, 109.  Also, Irenaeus (2nd century AD – c.202), “God became man so that man might become God.”  Adversus haereses (Against Heresies), the earliest rendering of this understanding.
[10] Predigt and Predigten (DW 1-4), Pr. 29, cited in McGinn, 118.
[11] Iohannem, n. 117, cited in McGinn, 117.

1 comment:

Rev. Dr. Tom Blair said...

wonderful commentary !

makes a lot of sense to me- clear and precise!