24 December 2015

And Was Made Flesh

John 1:1-5, 14-16

Christmas Eve 2015

In a few minutes, with the sanctuary full of dark and shadow, we will hear the majestic prologue to John’s Gospel, read from the light cast by the Christ Candle. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Toward the end of the reading we will 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.  No annunciation. No shepherds.  No manger. No magi.  Instead, John, echoing the opening verses of Genesis, says, “In the beginning….”   ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (en arche en ho logos).  Drawing on Greek Logos philosophy John makes an amazing theological claim: in the birth of Jesus the Divine Word that created all things has become creature and taken on the weight of the created order. 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 is enfleshed in this person Jesus.[1]

God is with us…in the flesh.  What’s so new about this?  There are plenty of places in the Bible 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.  The religions of the Greco-Roman pantheon also claimed a kind of presence in one’s life.  What we find in the Christian claim, however, is something different.  In his poem, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771), captured its significance:

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

Smart alludes here to the mystery of the Incarnation.  This is what tonight is about. Incarnation.  As the Nicene Creed put it: Et incarnatus est, “and was made flesh.”  If there’s one thing you leave here with tonight with, I hope it is this:  the birth of Jesus decisively affirms that God desires to be with us and desires to be enfleshed in the world, it was true then and it’s true now.

The incarnation stands at the heart of the Christian experience and yet, unfortunately, the Church has done a 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, which privileges spirit over body, which values spirit over matter. These ideas make it difficult for Christians to be, well, wholly 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.[2]  Still, the shame runs very deep. 

True story.  Several years ago I was in the Holy Land and 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, where there’s been an altar since around 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 the group I was there with went on an archeological dig. We were dusty, dirty, sweaty, but cleaned up best we could before heading off to Nazareth.  The women were told to make sure they brought something 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 were wearing shorts.  As we approached the high wall around the church we found the guard at the gate 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 had come all that way and I was determined to get in.  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 allowed in and had a very funny walk through the church.  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 flesh is good.  How can exposed shoulders be an affront to the gospel?  And—for God’s sake—what’s so scandalous about my knees?

Tonight we celebrate God’s embodiment in the world.  The incarnation tells us something about God’s style, 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. God desires to dwell in you and me, to dwell with us, together, around us, through us, for us, God wants to take up home with us, hang out with us, and, most of all, grow in us, come to live through us.

God wants to be born in humanity.  The German mystic Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1327) once said, in his commentary on the prologue in John, “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.”[3]  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.”  Know that God is among us, within us, with us.  This is your birthright.  

This is what we claim tonight, that we, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, that we may know ourselves as daughters and sons of God, can know who we truly and authentically are—we are objects 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. This is what the fallen, fearful, friendless places in the world need to hear this night.  This is the reason for our joy![4]

[1] 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] I’m grateful to Fritzi Scott, former member of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, for this story.
[3] Expositio sancti Evangelii secundum Iohannem (LW 3), n. 117, cited in Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thoughts of Meister Eckhart: The Man From Whom God Hid Nothing (New York: Herder & Herder, 2001), 117.
[4] The last two sentences allude to Dan Forrest’s composition “Carol of Joy,” with text by Eileen Berry, which was sung by the choir right after the sermon.   http://www.danforrest.com/satb-accompanied/carol-of-joy/

1 comment:

Alison Enokian said...

Thank you Ken. Merry Christmas.