It was probably twenty-five years ago (maybe more), and almost Christmas. I might have been in a mall or in a car with the radio on. Wherever I was, Christmas music was playing. I heard the song, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and probably for the first time I paid attention to the words:
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.
Enough for him, whom Cherubim Worship night and day
A breast full of milk And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels May have gather
But his mother only, In her maiden bliss,
Worshiped the Beloved With a kiss.
In these words, 19th century poet Christina Rossetti (an Anglo-Catholic!) offered her earthy take on the incarnation.
At the point I paid attention to these words I was at best vaguely spiritual. I was attending, but not yet committed at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis. I was reading a lot about Christian faith and about the Church, but trying to make it fit into my ideas about what made sense and what was possible.
But these were strange words—words that took seriously God’s majesty and greatness, and yet described God taking human flesh.
And not just as a disguise like Clark Kent in glasses, but still invulnerable, but really taking human flesh: born as a baby, hungry, vulnerable, and as fleshy as it gets, but worshiped by a mother feeding him and giving him a kiss.
And I listened to these strange words—words I’d probably heard a hundred times before— but, for whatever reason, this time I asked myself, “What if this is true?”
By the time we reach the end of the gospel appointed for today, Jesus has gone from his biggest Joel Osteen-sized crowd of 5000+ people (as we heard a few weeks ago) miraculously fed, amazed and wanting more, all the way down to 12. And even these are in doubt. Why? They say it’s because this teaching about eating his flesh and blood is difficult. And it’s not just the miracle groupies—the hangers on—who are leaving. Even his disciples are leaving.
And Jesus turns and asks the twelve, “Are you going, too?”
Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life. The flesh is useless.” The flesh, as in the fallen world left to its own, trying to be God on its own, the world of Adam: “I’ll be my own God.”
But his flesh gives life. His flesh is filled with spirit and life.
Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
In other words, through Jesus, we, and through us the world, can have a share in Christ’s own divine life. Not just here at Mass, but in our whole lives, in our own flesh, out there in the world.
Through food and drink, through flesh and blood, his flesh and blood, we receive spirit and life. We, even in our own fleshiness, are transformed by spirit and life into spirit and life—God’s own spirit and life.
So what makes THIS teaching so difficult? And not just for them, but for us?
Because even for we who celebrate God made flesh in Christmas (and no one does it like Anglicans/Episcopalians), even for those of us who celebrate God made flesh in bread and wine in the Eucharist, isn’t there something about this stuff [flesh] that we doubt can be holy? Divine?
Is it that they (and we) just can’t square God Almighty, in all God’s holiness and all God’s majesty, with the flesh and blood of a human being? Is it that we don’t want to deal with the implications of our own humanity being drawn toward divinity?
Maybe it’s easier if God just stays up there.
From 5000+ to 12. And Jesus asks even the 12,“Do you also wish to go away?”
And I love their response.
They don’t say, “We have thought this through and we think we understand what this means… so we’re on board.”
They don’t say, “now if the bread and wine will retain their accidents even as their substance is changed into your flesh and blood, that could make sense.”
They don’t say, “We understand,” because they don’t. It remains difficult for them.
But they say, “Where else can we go? Who else can we follow?”
In following him, in walking with him, they have learned to see God at work in ways and in places that they could never have imagined except by walking with him, In walking with him, the world has begun to make sense, to take on a new cast, a new color, a new depth, a new reality, a new truth, that it didn’t have without him.
Years ago I listened to “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” and I asked “What if this is true?”
What if it is true that God took human flesh and blood? And if that’s true, then what if it’s true that God places that flesh and blood into our hands, into our bodies, into our lives?
And then what if it’s true that we, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, receiving his flesh and blood in our bodies, carry him, bear him, into the world?
And what if it’s true that Christ’s flesh and blood in us transforms our flesh and blood into it (you are what you eat)? What if it’s true that even this stuff [flesh] becomes the place in which God dwells? This stuff, too, becomes a tabernacle?
And more—if this stuff becomes the place in which God dwells, what if everywhere we go God goes with us? What if there is no place that is off limits to God? No place he doesn’t love enough to go to it and reclaim it? No place that God can’t go and reclaim and make holy?
In Met-Market. In Uptown Espresso. Even in rush hour traffic on Mercer. At family gettogethers (even crazy or painful ones), in our kitchens, our living rooms, our bedrooms. In the people sitting around us right now—not just while we’re worshipping, but even when we leave this place. In relationships of joy and of pain, in sickness and in health, in homeless shelters and hospitals. Even, despite what all the voices arrayed against us tell us, in the mirror.
“What if it’s true?” I asked that day. Or, to put it another way—what if I walk for a while in a world in which Jesus is who he says he is? What if I walk with him for a while?
Because when I do walk with him, the whole world begins to look different in the light of this baby, in the light of the Eucharist, in the light of this God made flesh, Jesus Christ.
In following him, in walking with him, I am beginning to learn to see God at work in ways and places I could never have imagined.
Like the words of a poem that make no sense on their own but when strung together take on a fragile beauty, or a painting in which pigment suspended in oil on canvas comes together into something true and beautiful, the whole world begins to make sense, to take on a new cast, a new color, a new depth, a new reality, a new truth, that it doesn’t without him.
“This teaching is difficult,” says the world, and his disciples, and even us.
But can we walk with him a while? Can we ask, if just for a time, what if it’s true?