“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14)
Well, we’ve finally arrived, haven’t we? Arrived at the fullness of the proclamation of our Christmas gospel. We’ve traveled with a company of gifted preachers the past month here at St. Paul’s. They proclaimed Advent gospels about practicing hope and the promise that her people’s greatest hope would come true in Mary herself, her own flesh and blood, not some house of cedar. At 5 o’clock last Thursday evening, on the lips of the children of this parish, we heard the Godly Play Christmas story, which ends: “[N]ow we all come, following that star, to find God-with-us. We come…to bring our own gifts to this Child, God’s gift to us.” Later that night, alongside shepherds from the Gospel of Luke, we saw God’s love lying in a manger in Bethlehem. God’s love like that of a young child – with nothing held back. On the morning of Christmas Day: the light of Christ shining in the messiness and darkness of human life and politics.
And now Christmas has arrived, fully. We welcome the good news. We sit in wonder. The Word became flesh and lived among us. Lived among us – no perfunctory visit. Lived among us – not with the inhabitants of some other planet circling a distant star. God in Christ Jesus experiencing in the flesh all our human promise and pain, tragedy and triumph, resilience and vulnerability.
But the line from John’s Gospel is much more than just a piece of a reading for one Sunday in the little twelve-day Christmas season. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” expresses the very heart of our faith, which is why for centuries in Catholic churches (Roman and Anglican) these words were pronounced as the last word at almost every mass across the entire church year. The final gospel, it was called. The gospel finale!
Oh, how desperately we need to hear and take to heart the good news that the Word of God lived among us in Christ Jesus, lives as one of us, at the end of this year 2020 when we’ve often felt so alone and adrift. Amidst vulnerability, pain, and tragedy, the Christmas gospel that arrives fully today proclaims that our world and our lives are not God-bereft; for the Word became flesh.
Still, I miss in my bones the way we would have embodied the Gospel of John’s words about the Word become flesh, if we could have gathered together on this First Sunday after Christmas in the upstairs worship space at St. Paul’s at about this time in the morning. A procession of the gospel book adorned with its jeweled cover – accompanied by the light of torches and the smell of frankincense – to the heart of the community halfway up the church’s central aisle where the gospel would be sung by one of our priests, with all the rest of us circled around listening and watching. To try and feel less liturgically disembodied, I decided to wear my alb today for the first time since March 8, as if I were preaching from our pulpit upstairs. Because here’s the thing, the thing I believe. All words are always enfleshed. Words themselves exist as little bodies incarnate here in the world of space and time. And so words matter. Words are precious. Words deserve loving care – nourishment and protection – just like all other bodies in our world.
Words are always spoken by some particular, embodied human being; with their lips and teeth and tongue and vocal chords and face and bearing. Each incarnate voice sounding out in its own unique way.
Words can be made visible only through a particular set of human fingers using a pen or pencil or can of spray paint or manipulating a keyboard or touch screen of some sort.
Other human beings – we might call them the blind or the deaf, but they are every bit as incarnate, as embodied, as the rest of us – read words through their fingertips and those raised dots of the Braille alphabet; hear words, say them, by way of the talking hands of sign language. [SIGN] “The Word became flesh.” [SIGN]
Even with their last, dying breath, a human being can dispatch a message to the world: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
So, I’d like to think there’s a further and still fuller proclamation hidden within today’s Christmas gospel. It might go something like this: The Flesh becomes word and their sound goes out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. The Word became flesh and, so too, the Flesh becomes word, as surely as exhaling follows inhaling. Incarnation gets turned inside out. The flesh of God becomes word in Christ Jesus’ proclamation of the good news. Jesus’ flesh becomes word in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Bible becomes living word in our worship words and hymns and prayers. And beyond, in the wider world: for at the beginning of this virtual worship service, we implored God to grant “that the new light of your incarnate Word,…enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.” Like setting fire to the wick of a votive candle inside its glass holder, and, behold, the light shines out in all directions.
Oh, how desperately we need to take to heart the good news that God’s flesh in Christ Jesus – and our own flesh – becomes word, here at the end of 2020 when words have been treated so haphazardly, so mindlessly; bought and sold and re-tweeted at such rock bottom prices; while, at the same time, our in-the-flesh interactions with other people have been so diminished by COVID-19.
Debra and I received a card the other day from a friend who is about as good at pouring out her flesh into words as anyone we know. Our friend began the handwritten message that filled both inside surfaces of the card, as well as the back, stating her reluctance “to look at Christmas cards to buy + send, with their cheery messages.” “Cards are created months + years before any given holiday,” she went on, “+ I’ve noticed at Barnes and Noble, there are repeats every Christmas -- so there were no cards expressing deep, heartfelt wishes for a pandemic-free Christmas, lives and the world. It seemed callous to send cheery cards when so many may not see another Christmas, nor perhaps even this one -- but then, thought I in my frustration at not finding more compassionate cards -- how important it is to tell those we care about -- you -- that we do care, ask how they’re doing + wish them at least a little ‘joy + wonder,’ as I do you.”
Instead, our friend wrote, she fell in love with these non-traditional Christmas cards called “Tree of Hearts.” Here are some of her final words to Debra and me: “don’t we all have a place in our own hearts for that -- a place of all the hearts we’ve known and loved to be forever -- different sizes, shapes, some hard, some soft + pliable + available to love, some crushed by pain + loss -- but we cherish them all + their place in our lives at one time. May your hearts find some peace, joy + love this [Christmas] + make even more room in your caring hearts for others.”
The Flesh becomes word and their sound goes out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.
1. A shout out to all the St. Paul’s preachers this past month: Advent 1: Rev. Natalie Johnson; Advent 2: Mo. Mary MacKenzie; Advent 3: Rev. Natalie; Advent 4: Kenzi Roberson; 5pm Christmas Eve: the children of St. Paul’s, including – Ayelette and Lydia Cameron, Eloise and Hazel Drackett, Ivey Hopkins, Felix, Jasper, and Toby Thomson; Christmas Eve “Midnight”: Mo. Mary; Christmas Day: Fr. Jay Rozendaal. Thanks so much for your words!
2. You can watch lots of YouTube videos of people proclaiming John 1:1-18 in
American Sign Language. I do NOT know how to sign, and I was struck by the variations between different sign interpreters, but, still, my favorite video was by Briana Ayers, created on August 20, 2016. She helped me try and learn the three signs for “The Word became flesh” enough to use above in my sermon.
3. Here’s the cover of the “Tree of Hearts” card.