These three Breathing Space talks for Advent are focussing on the statement so familiar from the beginning of John’s Gospel “The Word became Flesh”. Last week we thought about what kind of Word Jesus was, how God spoke through him. This week we will think just a bit about what that Word became - flesh.
Flesh – we can’t live without it, quite literally, but we often have problems living with it too. It is subject to disease, injury and pain, and to the wear and tear of time. In the end it fails us completely; we all die. Sooner or later some vital part of it gives up, no matter how fit or careful we are.
Even its pleasures can lead us up the garden path into trouble . Food and drink are great in moderation, but too much of the wrong kind and we know there is a price to pay. Then there is that fraught, delightful, complicated business of sex. It’s a wonderful gift, but it can cause emotional mayhem, betrayal and hurt as well. No wonder people through the ages have struggled with their bodiliness, and sometimes wanted to be able rise above it to what seems like a much more serene, spiritual existence. No wonder negativity about the flesh is so persistent – popping up in many cultures and religions. Blame for that negativity in our culture is often laid at the Church’s door, and sometimes that is fair criticism, but there is really nothing in Christian faith itself to justify such an accusation. In fact, once we start looking, we find it is quite the opposite.
The book of Genesis, as we heard just now, begins with a great hymn of praise to all things material. God looks at his creation, this immense variety of physical stuff that he has brought into being and proclaims over and over, “it is good”. The crown of that creation is humankind in this account, men and women, made in God’s image - a “wondrous being” as Haydn describes it in his Creation oratorio. That’s us! Wondrous beings – in all our physicality.
So where did the negativity come from? The problem is that Christianity doesn’t just have Jewish roots. It was also shaped, more profoundly than it realised at times, by the Greek thought world in which it spread during its early centuries. Greek philosophy was very varied, but there was a strong strand in it which distrusted the physical world, which insisted that perfection was spiritual and that to reach it you had to leave the clay of your body behind. The Jewish idea of the goodness of matter was impossible to reconcile with this, and in some ways we have lived with the fallout of the cultural clash ever since.
The idea that flesh is inferior to spirit has often won the day, I suspect, because it chimes with our experience of ourselves, especially if the flesh we inhabit seems less than glorious to us – and that can often be the case. When all we can feel are our aches and pains, and the mirror shows us more wrinkles than we want to see it is hard to think of ourselves as one of those “wondrous beings” that Haydn celebrated. We can understand why people might have felt that it would good to leave their bodies behind. We can all get fed up of them sometimes.
But there was one big challenge to that negativity, one reason why it never completely triumphed in Christian faith. And that was the incarnation, the idea that in Jesus, the word and will and identity of God became this troublesome flesh. That God himself felt its pains and delights, and ultimately endured death, just as we all must. For those early Christians of Greek origin, this was very difficult to get their heads round. It was counter intuitive, faintly disgusting. But they couldn’t just ignore what was, after all, a foundational doctrine of their faith, and there it has been, a highly inconvenient but ultimately wonderful challenge, ever since. The Word was made Flesh, says John. We don’t quite know what John, of his fellow early Christians, understood by that, but it is clear that they believed it. God, the mighty God, was one of us, like us, suffering and delighting, living and dying. And if you believe that, then you have to believe that flesh is blessed not cursed, loved not hated. If incarnation was good enough for God surely we should be enjoying it and treasuring it too, recognising flesh for the gift it is.
That doesn’t just affect how we think about ourselves, but how we think about others too. If our flesh matters, then so does everyone else’s, including those whose physical existence is painful, those whose bodies are starving, or cold or crying out for loving touch. In our Gospel reading we heard of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. I am very glad that when he showed us what love and service look like he didn’t just choose to say a prayer or demonstrate a particularly sensitive counselling technique. Good though those things are, washing feet was an infinitely better choice. You can’t wash feet from a distance. You can’t wash feet in an ethereal, spiritual way. You’ve got to get down on the ground and take them in your hands and touch them.
The Word became flesh, and thank God for that. God became a “wondrous being” to remind us that every other being – even me, even you - is wondrous too.