The Word Becomes Flesh
In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to hear these words as a song for our times. It is winter, and it is bleak as we head into another lockdown in this province.
The poet, Christina Rossetti, was well acquainted with bleak midwinters. She endured major bouts of depression and ill-health throughout her life. Yet, her faith sustained her, and even in the midst of her darkest days she was able to write the most exquisite poetry, including this beautiful and haunting Christmas carol which acknowledges the hard times, yes, but also celebrates the birth of the child.
In that, she follows the prophet Isaiah, who many years before her proclaimed to a beaten down nation that the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. For unto us a child is born.
There is a tension between darkness and light, between winter and spring. And this year, I think we’re feeling that tension more acutely than any year I can remember.
This same tension shows up in all of the Christmas stories. In Matthew’s gospel, the darkness is represented by King Herod, who is infuriated by the magi’s report of the child’s birth and seeks to kill him. And yet, even in the midst of that anger, and great fear, when the magi do arrive in Bethlehem and see the baby Jesus, they are overwhelmed by joy. In these days when we feel overwhelmed, isn’t it wonderful to be reminded that we can also be overwhelmed by joy.
In Luke’s gospel, the story begins with a ruthless Emperor determined to increase his wealth and power. His edict, issued to all the world, forces a young pregnant mother to embark on a long and dangerous journey. But again, in the midst of danger and uncertainty, with no home to call their own, joy breaks in and angels and shepherds join with the parents to celebrate the birth of the child, just as we are doing this evening.
John, in the gospel which we just heard, tells it differently. He gives us a poem, not a story. And he uses that poem to tell us that the birth in time of this particular child has big implications. That Christmas was not just a one and done moment that happened 2000 years ago, but rather is glimpse of something much bigger, something with a cosmic significance that extends throughout all of time, past, present and future. He too acknowledges the darkness, the brokenness, the suffering of our world. But his focus is not on the darkness but on the light. There is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, does not and will not overcome it.
This light, says John, is seen most clearly in Jesus, the true light that comes into the world. He calls Jesus the Word of God, the essence of who God is and the expression of what God really wants to say to us. Jesus is the Word that was with God from the very beginning but which needed to be fleshed out so that we could see and hear it. And so in a very particular moment of time, in a very particular human birth, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, revealing who God is and speaking all that God wanted to say to us in human language and gesture. It was all there for us to see and hear, the glory of God in human form, full of grace and truth.
But that was two thousand years ago. What about today?
You know when I’m reading a poem, or when I’m doing physics, I find it helpful to look for the symmetries.
When I was a graduate student in theoretical physics, looking for the symmetries was a big part of what I used to do. I did my thesis work on a molecule which had a beautiful three-fold symmetry, but when you started to spin it, the symmetry broke down as the energy levels split. My task was to explain what was going on. I certainly won’t bore you with all the math required to do that, in fact, I don’t even understand the math anymore, but my breakthrough moment came when I finally got to the end of the equations and realized that the symmetry that had appeared to break down had actually been transformed into a new, more elegant symmetry.
Is there a symmetry in the gospel poem that we just heard? Well I see symmetry in verses 1, 14 and 12. It goes like this:
“The Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen the Word’s glory;
and to all who have seen, and believed, the Word gives power to become children of God.”
That is to say, God became a human child so that we humans could become children of God.
Or, to put it another way, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that in us the Word could become flesh.
That’s the symmetry. And it’s a powerful symmetry because it means that the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is not something that just happened 2000 years ago, it’s something that is still going on today. God wants the Word to enter us, to take on our flesh and dwell in our midst, even today.
Christmas was never just a one and done. It’s alive, and the story is on-going as God’s Word continues to be fleshed out in our lives. God is with us in the most intimate way possible, in our very flesh. God with us, and God within us.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That is the story of Jesus. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. That is our story. Can you see it? Where do you see that happening? Where do you see the Word becoming flesh and living among us?
Despite the darkness, despite the winter of our discontent, it’s all around us for those who have eyes to see. We see it in the resilience of personal support workers who work in care homes day after day. We see it in hospital staff who work around the clock to heal and comfort the sick. We see it in scientists who race against the clock to produce vaccines. We see it in teachers doing double-duty online and in the classroom. But we see it in the little things too. The phone call just to check-in. People who buy blankets and pillows to help those who are exhausted to sleep a bit better. Spouses who cut each other some slack in these challenging times. People who stay at home even when it’s hard. The Word is in the smiles, the listening, the mask-wearing, small acts of compassion and love, given and received.
All these things, and many more examples that I know you can think of, are what it looks like for the Word to become flesh. Yes the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus in a fulsome and unique way, and thank God for that, because we needed to see what that looked like, we needed to see God’s glory in the flesh, full of grace and truth, grace upon grace. We needed to see what love looks like in the flesh, what forgiveness, healing and justice look like in the flesh.
But the Word has never stopped becoming flesh. That which has been from the beginning and was revealed on that first Christmas day is still happening in our midst today. From his fullness we have all received, and continue to receive, grace upon grace.
And so we have faith that this bleak midwinter will give rise to spring, indeed it is happening even now. We live in hope that light will enter this time of shadows, that too has already begun. God is here, active and present, in our lives and in our communities, in and through those of us who provide the hands and feet. And the smiles, and the tears, and soon enough, the hugs. And there will be a lot of hugs.
Christmas is our annual reminder of all these good things, some of which we can put into words, and some of which are simply beyond words, even the words of the poet. May you be blessed this Christmas with light and warmth, with peace and love, and even in the midst of this winter, may you know a moment of overwhelming joy.
Homily. Christmas Eve 2020. John 1.1-14. St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 9.2-7; Ps 96; Heb 1.1-4; John 1.1-14
Image by Maelys McArdle