We are surrounded by words. Think of the billions and billions of words that bombard us in a single life-time (or election cycle). Words can amuse, enlighten, praise, encourage or comfort. Words can also berate abuse, insult, incite or terrorize. They are as powerful as any weapon or as gentle as a feather on the wind. And in this age of instant media, our thoughts and opinions can be sent into the world in seconds. What power words seem to hold! In fact, we often find ourselves powerless over the words that come out of our very own mouths.
In a recent essay for the On Being web-site, Quaker Parker Palmer talks about the disconnect between “the good words we speak and those we incarnate in our lives.” As he puts it: “In personal relations and politics, in the mass media, in the academy, and in organized religion, our good words tend to float away even as they leave our lips, ascending to an altitude where they neither reflect nor connect with our lived experience.” He goes on: “We long for words like love, truth, and justice to become flesh and dwell among us. But in our violent world, where hate speech generates rabid support for certain wannabe ‘leaders,’ it can be risky to infuse our frail flesh with the language of heart and soul.” It is in just that risky place where God meets us – at one of those thin places between heaven and earth – in the Incarnation.
When we ask these questions of the Bible, what messages are we given? The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have very different beginnings from that of John. In Matthew and Luke we get genealogies and birth narratives. Mark begins with John the Baptizer. Each has emphasized what would be more important to their intended audience. What is the focus of this fourth Gospel?
The Gospel attributed to John begins in a way both familiar and new. We are brought back to Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John’s focus is on the Word, the creative force Himself. Rather than re-creating, God is starting anew. God is trying something radically different in all of creation. He will join humanity by emptying himself of “God-ness” (if that’s a word) and become fully human in all its ordinariness. This has never happened before! It makes no sense! Think of it: people in power don’t willingly give up their power. Systems and institutions, corporations and churches tend to hang on to every vestige of real or perceived power. God comes to us as an impoverished baby born of refugees – totally without power. And yet, this is the embodiment of the Word. He has become incarnation – the Word made flesh. What does that mean for us as Christians in today’s chaotic world?
First, listen again to John’s words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This Word, this Jesus, was a part of the Creation – Light and Life. He is source and origin of Creation. He is God.
And then, God became fully, undeniably human. With this birth, we are gifted with new life. Through Jesus, human beings are given intimate, palpable, corporeal access to God. The centrality of the Incarnation is the essence of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, not that he just speaks God’s word. He is fully integrated as both Man and Word. Through Jesus, God knows our lives intimately, because to become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering and loss.
What is the redemptive work we are to do? I think we need to look again at the Word. How do we fully live into the Incarnation and make it central to our lives as followers of Jesus? It all comes down to Love. This is the purest embodiment of the Incarnation, of Word made Flesh. For us to love one another as Jesus loves, is to live out the love of the incarnation, to show in one’s own life the fullness of Love that unites God and Jesus. This doesn’t happen just once or even just once a year. As Howard Thurman writes:
Christmas is Waiting to Be Born
When refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sites with mind grown cold
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed,
Christmas is waiting to be born:
In you, in me, in all humankind.
Through the birth of Jesus, the Word has been made flesh and come into the world. We are redeemed by the Incarnation and made redeemers as well. We must love each other as God loves us.