The Word is Good

Christmas Dayword flesh

  • How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger.
  • The Lord has bared his holy arm.
  • Let the rivers clap their hands.
  • He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty.
  • The Word became flesh.

This morning’s lessons contain something like a sacred inventory of body parts: Feet. Arms. Hands. Flesh. In order to describe the God who bears good news, manifests strength and majesty, rejoices and indeed is made known as one among us, the Biblical writers drew upon the known capacity of the human body. As metaphor for God’s purpose and power, but also as manifestation of God’s very self. In the light of the incarnation of God—the birth of Christ, which we celebrate this day—the body takes on a new theological significance. None less than the Apostle Paul imagined the church as Christ’s body made up of many parts.

I get the partial thing. Most times the overwhelm of God’s wholeness—what John describes in soaring poetry as “full of grace and truth”—is such that that we can only apprehend it in part. Which might explain why the Bible is so full of lists. Lists of ancestors, of building supplies, of spirituals gifts. The intention of the writers was to point our attention towards a  glorious integrity that we humans are usually only capable of seeing partially. Consider, for example, the days of creation as recorded in Genesis One, and alluded to by the author of the letter to the Hebrews. “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth.” We know that, but who can grasp the multiform glory of our island home in its created entirety?

So the author of Genesis One, in patient poetry, calls our attention to the details: light and day and night and air and earth and seas and vegetation. We didn’t read this lesson today, but I’m guessing you remember something of the six-day inventory of created things. Fruit trees and sun and moon, then birds and sea creatures and wild and domestic animals, and finally, people.  “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We are the ones made to enjoy and give thanks for all this glory. But most days we walk blindly through these manifold miracles of creation, unable to grasp their dazzling complexity and integrity . God, however, is fully present in the details. For the Bible tells us so.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is how our Bible starts off. And John’s Gospel, which we did hear this morning, was designed to echo that first Genesis creation story: “In the beginning was the word,” John began. In Biblical terms, “in the beginning” is not so much a point in chronological time as it is a decisive moment in God’s self disclosure. Remember that God precedes and transcends time, so “in the beginning” is our cue to know that some new possibility—always inherent in the overflowing generosity of God—is now becoming manifest to our ears and eyes.

And—let’s face it—nothing manifests like a baby. A sensory overwhelm of sight and sound and smell! If you find God in those kind of particulars, you probably made the choice to attend the 4:30 pageant service yesterday, when the children of Trinity took over the chancel to tell the story of the Bethlehem birth, with baby Ruth playing the part of Jesus. That’s Luke’s unique version of the Christmas story, full of very particular and human details about shepherds and mangers and an infant wrapped in a bands of cloth. Matthew’s way of describing the particularity and universality of Jesus’ birth is to begin his Gospel account with a long genealogy. You could think of that as another sort of Biblical sacred list, pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of the family line of David. Mark’s Gospel has no birth story at all, which is why we don’t hear much of it at this time of year.

And then there’s John. The last of the four canonical Gospels to be written, it all but abandons any reference to the earthly particularities of Jesus’ birth, instead describing him as the preexistant word through which everything else came into being. John seems to be telling a story of cosmic significance. A far cry from the mess of a middle eastern mother and a manger… except that it’s not. By putting together word and flesh—in the same sentence, no less—John has rhetorically mixed oil and water. Or maybe better to say that he’s mixed ammonium nitrate and acid. Because for a Greek speaker of the New Testament era, to marry an abtract intellectual concept like word (logos) with the material specificity of flesh (sarx) was to explode the dualism of the platonic worldview.

John’s distinctive Christmas story teaches that, in the human birth of Jesus Christ, there is no longer any divide between the spiritual and the material. The wholeness of God’s glory can actually be found in the fleshly particularity of a human life. Even a life that begins as a crying baby and ends as a crucified criminal. Because in Jesus Christ, God shuns neither the tears nor the shame of the human condition.

To celebrate Christmas is to welcome anew the God who is fully present in creation: blessing the sweet and the sorrowful through the beautiful feet of the messenger, the clapping hands of the rivers, the tears of a laboring woman and the glory as of a father’s only son. Blessing you, blessing me, blessing our beautiful bodies and our aging and aching ones. Each of our very own parts point to the whole, and the whole is holy and good. What God saw in each of the six days of creation—that it is good, very good—God reffirmed in us through the birth of Jesus.

“Good is the flesh that the Word has become,” wrote poet Brian Wren, who was listening deeply to the Bible from Genesis to John—

“Good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.
Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.
Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.
Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.”

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