The story is shared of a young couple who took their newborn baby to see her great-grandfather. The older man had suffered a stroke and his ability to communicate had been drastically inhibited. But he knew what was happening. When they placed the infant in his arms, he held it tenderly as he had his own children generations before. He caressed the child lovingly and over and over again said the only word he could: "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
How does one define the full meaning of that moment for the young parents and the great-grandfather? There are some things in life whose joy we can experience but which, for all our knowledge and sophistication, we cannot express in ordinary language.
Who among us does not feel that the season of Christmastide is such a moment? Christmas is God saying "Yes, yes, yes, yes!" The Word that became flesh in Bethlehem almost 2000 years ago is God's 'Yes' to our deepest hopes; 'yes' to our noblest dreams; 'yes' to our hunger for meaning; 'yes' to our possibilities. This is a season when we experience a joy we can never fully analyze or describe. Perhaps that is why the Gospel stories of Jesus' birth vary.
The most beautiful and beloved account of Jesus' birth is to be found in the Gospel of St. Luke. The most scholarly account is in the gospel of St. Matthew. The apostle John, or some other Christian of the same name, wrote the fourth Gospel. Many scholars believe that it was written towards the end of the first century after Christ or about 70 years after the Crucifixion. Nearly three generations had reflected upon and experienced Christ, and John's account of Christ's birth is entirely different from Luke and Matthew. His manner of interpreting Christ's coming is the most majestic and unsurpassed. Luke and Matthew comprise the libretto, John, the musical score, the fortissimo. Luke tells us what Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were doing that first Christmas. Matthew, in his account, tells us what the nation of Israel and Judaism were doing. John tells us what God was doing: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God . . . in him was life, and the life was the light of men . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." That is the Christmas story according to John. "The Word became flesh . . ."
Now I know what each word in that sentence means, yet put them together and they state a truth which defies logic. We confront here the ultimate mystery of the Christian faith. That term-word-so the textbooks say means, in Greek thought, the controlling and organizing principle behind the world-if you like, what holds everything together and gives it meaning. Serious students of the Bible know that the prevailing Greek philosophy of the first century was geared to a mysterious and eternal divine substance called the logos-from the Greek for-word. St. John borrowed both the term and the idea and proceeds to say that this divine substance called the logos became incarnate in Jesus. In Hebrew, word is shorthand for the way God acts. He speaks and something is done. In the story of Creation, nowhere does it say that God did anything. He spoke and that was enough. "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light". So, if you add Greek and Hebrew together, the term 'Word' refers to all we can know of God through his actions in history.
And 'flesh'-I've no trouble with that. Well, I have plenty as do most of us, but at least I know what the word means. It's the frail, wayward stuff that enshrines human personality. It's the embodiment of all our sorrows and joys, health and sickness, grandeur and misery. So, I can get my mind 'round those two terms, 'Word' and 'flesh'.
It's that verb 'became' which is the problem. By what strange chemistry can the essence of divinity become fleshed out in a human frame? I don't know, and I don't know anyone else who does either. Mercifully, there are many things in this life one doesn't have to understand in order to benefit from them. We can be sustained, comforted, even changed by truth too deep to be fathomed. So, that short sentence-'The Word became flesh'-expresses the core of Christianity. A person could probe and dissect it for a lifetime and still not strike bottom. But there are some important things it says to me.
First, the Word became flesh so that God can speak to us in language we understand. The key problem of all religions is: How do we get in touch with God, or more to the point, how does God communicate with us? Some religions-both ancient and modern-would say: through the spirits that inhabit our natural world-rocks, rivers and mountains. Others, that an inerrant book dropped from heaven into the lap of their founder. Astrologers read the truth sketched out in the conformation of heavenly bodies. There are those who try to get in touch with loved ones on the other side of death. The Christian claims: the Word became flesh. Truth was invested in a personality-Jesus! Is it not a fact that most of the truth which really matters comes to us, not in abstract or generalized propositions, but through a personal encounter? An orphaned child will get precious little comfort from a manual of child care. That orphan needs a parent: a mother or a father. A medical dictionary is no cure for the seriously ill. The sick person needs to feel the healing touch of doctor and nurse. And, no doctrine of Salvation can release a person imprisoned in a private hell. That person needs a Savior. Truth, personalized. The Word become flesh.
So it is with those tantalizing questions that tease the minds of thoughtful people. What is God like? No person knows because God, as He is, is beyond the range of human senses. The nearest we'll ever come to an answer is embodied in Jesus through whom millions have caught a vision of God's love in action; God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven; God's judgment pronounced upon the manifold activities of the world.
Does God care? Behold Jesus ministering to restore a sick world, heal a divided world, save a doomed world, and dying to spell out the truth by shedding his own blood. You ask: how can I reach God? You can't. But God has reached you-put himself within range of your outstretched hand by raising Jesus from the dead, transforming him from a historical memory to a living presence. And if you think that is extravagant language there are thousands of people in every country, in every part of the world, who are prepared to risk the sneers of the detractors and the disbelief of the cynics by claiming, 'I know he lives! He lives within my heart!'
A philosophy may be argued about; a theology may be expounded; ideas may be played around with, but it is the truth incarnate in any personality which is most profound and mysterious. And that truth expressed through 'the Word become flesh' answers your and my deepest need-to be made whole, to be saved.
Second, the Word became flesh to bring, or to weld, God and his world together.
Word and flesh: God and the world. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot choose God and write off the world as irrelevant as some pietists would have us do. Nor can you try to remake the world without taking account of God as countless idealistic activists have struggled to do. If you want one, you must have the other. God without the world is an enigmatic abstraction; the world without God is a terrifying fiction.
Who, then, does this world belong to? Some misguided late 20th century Christians say: the devil-keep clear of it. Others would claim from their reading of history-it belongs to whoever is strong enough to dominate it-so accept the inevitable. The New Testament says this world belongs to God-so get in there and claim it for him. This is why a lot of people get uptight about what they call the Church's interference in politics. They don't understand, or perhaps we haven't made it sufficiently clear, that the path to holiness leads us through the places where the action is bloodiest, the compromises most degrading, the conditions most appalling. The word has become flesh and wherever flesh is torn and tortured, imprisoned and starved-there we will find Christ.
Where do we see God if not shining on the face of a single disciple struggling against all odds to bring a touch of dignity to the squalor of a filthy city slum? How do we receive the peace of God except as we try to be a reconciler amid conflict? You look for God in a world gone mad and you may find the Lord behind bars as the price being paid by prisoners of conscience for justice. Like Moses, you may ask, 'O, that I might see God'. And like Moses, you'll only see God's back turned away from some immigration point. If you wish to visit God's house, skip the cathedral or the historic holy place and squeeze into some damp tenement where a whole family is forced to live in one room. Would you stand before his altar? Confront, then, some shivering addict seeking warmth at the steam vents along our city's streets. God is there and that is what the Word becoming flesh means.
If what goes on in many of our churches sometimes seems irrelevant, it could be that the Word has not become flesh there-it has been transmuted into fine silk and splendid, stained-glass and rich brocade and majestic stone, but it has not become flesh. And if our prayers seem to echo hollowly around such places, it may be because our words remain words-they have not become flesh.
Keep the Church our of Politics? It can only be done by emptying Christianity of God, and the world of all meaning. For God has chosen the world as his temple, its darkest place as his throne, the spot where blood is spilt in anger as his altar.
Lastly, the Word became flesh to signify the dependence of God.
Christianity shares many truths with other great religions, but one truth is unique to it. While other religions make great play of man's dependence upon God, only Christianity dares to speak of God's dependence upon men and women. The Word--almighty power--becomes frail human flesh to symbolize the truth that God puts himself at our mercy, entrusts himself into our hands.
Is not this historically true? Didn't Jesus need a human womb from which to be born; a human breast at which to suck; a father to carry him to Egypt away from Herod's wrath; a group of friends to support, and sometimes betray and deny him; a black man to carry his cross; someone to roll away the stone from his tomb?
God needs us. He needs the Church to be faithful in its mission to the world. Too often it is closely allied with selfish interests and the work of God has suffered. At times we forget it is Christ's Church, not ours when we seek to model it after ourselves. When this happens the image of Christ is once again blurred.
On this first Sunday of a New Year let us be reminded that the Word became flesh and dwells among us still.
There's a modern verse that expresses this faith that I trust you have made your own and to which I call us all to rededicate ourselves.
If Jesus Christ is a man-and only a man-I say,
That of all mankind I cleave to Him and to Him I will cleave alway.
If Jesus Christ is a god-and the only God-I swear
I will follow him through heaven and hell, the earth, the sea and the air!