Rev. Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, December 13, 2015
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)
As English speakers we might get hung up on the word Word. For us the Word is something definite. It is narrowly defined in our speech patterns. It names a specific object or describes an action. In another usage the Word is seen as law-like or certain. When the Word comes down, well that’s the policy we are expected to follow. It’s the directive.
In the case of the Word was made flesh, ‘word’ is just not the best translation.
The Gospels were written in Greek. The term used in that language is logos. Now ‘word’ is one meaning for logos, but it really means very much more. In philosophy it describes the rational principle that governs and develops the universe. It is reason, but in theological terms it’s even more than that. It’s an ethos, a way, a path in a spiritual sense more than a physical one. It’s the idea of the teaching and the teacher more than the lesson plan.
By itself, “The Word” reminds English speakers of the lesson plan, the commandments, the rules. That does it an injustice.
When John the Evangelist wrote, “The Word was made flesh,” he was trying to capture the magnificence, in his view, of the moment when God himself became human to give us the gift of teaching and guidance.
Well, that’s not a concept that works for a lot of Unitarians these days. Most of us are at least skeptical about the idea of a divine presence who manages our affairs or intervenes in a direct way. For the most part we like to think we are in charge of our own lives, or that if there is some force that affects our well-being it’s not so specific as a Hebrew tribal divinity tracking our behaviour.
And yet — there is still a message of embodiment in this passage that is worthy of our consideration. We humans after all, are defined at least in part, by our bodies. Our genetics allow some of us to be taller or shorter, thinner or fatter, faster or slower, inheriting health or certain kinds of predispositions to illness.
But there is something more as well, some hard-to-define extra that makes us who we are. I say hard to define, though lots of people have defined it: Intellect, spirit, energy, soul, personality and many more.
There is an expression in our language. “The sum is greater than its parts.” The human body is made up of about $2000 bucks worth of chemicals and a few buckets of water. If we worked hard at it we could probably manufacture something like a body, but we can’t make it human. Dr. Frankenstein theorized that the difference was electricity – the spark that made us come alive, but even that wasn’t it.
Science, for all of its gifts has not gotten around to explaining why we are alive, why we are capable of doing, feeling and thinking so much. Even the science dictionaries define ‘life’ as having the quality of being alive. Not really the sine qua non of precision there. We all recognize the spark of life, but we can’s quantify, define or reproduce it mechanically. The essence of life remains scientifically elusive… and maybe kind of miraculous!
For a lot of people, and in the Nativity story, the missing factor is divine intervention. John claims that God came to dwell among us when he inserted part of his spirit into a human body. But most theologies suggest that we all share in that divine spark, we all carry some piece of god in us and that’s what makes us alive and sentient. The only difference in this story is that Jesus was born with divine knowledge of who he was, and with a specific mission to fulfill.
The implication in the Nativity story is that the word was made flesh so that we could hear the message of Yahweh again. Apparently it seems we weren’t listening to the first ones so very well. The implication is that Yahweh was getting a bit frustrated with us.
One could argue that Jesus came with a new and improved message from Yahweh, one that was simpler and less bound by narrow cultural rules.
In an oddball way the whole appearance of Jesus reminds me of an episode of “Undercover Boss”. And I mean no disrespect here. In that show the heads of corporations disguise themselves and go to work at the lowest levels of their companies. They get to rub shoulders with the rank and file. Sometimes the discover terrible abuses of company policy or practice that undermine the corporation. Sometimes they discover that their policies just don’t work outside of the boardroom. Sometimes they discover truly great people with powerful stories trapped by circumstance in dead end jobs. To make entertaining TV, there is always a revelation for the employer.
The appearance of Jesus kind of strikes me in the same way. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh walks in the garden with Adam. Walks…he is a physical being. By the time Moses comes along perhaps a couple of thousand years later, Yahweh only communicates with him as a disembodied voice in a bush that burns but is not consumed in the fire. By the time of the prophets, about another 500 years later, Yahweh only communicates with them through fits and in dreams.
It sort of looks like he has lost touch with his creation But the reports he gets suggest things aren’t going all that smoothly. So finally he sends a piece of himself back down as a sort of Undercover Boss checking up on how things are going. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
And one of the effects of this visit is that a lot of corporate policies get changed. Jesus sees that the 10 commandments and a lot of other rules that were added by lower management became stifling and cumbersome. There were a whole lot of mid-level guys who got tangled up in the application of the rules…and so made more rules to clarify things. They became too involved in fighting for the corner office and debating the luncheon menu and forgot about their real business – helping the customers. They forgot to consider the meaning and intention of the laws. So Jesus more or less discards all of these Temple rules and while not completely discarding the 10 commandments, does reduce them mostly to, “Love thy neighbour as thyself”.
Spoiler alert: The middle management types don’t care for this still undercover boss and give him the sack in a very permanent way.
But here we are in the Advent season and that part of the story still lies in the future. The Christian world is anticipating the start, the Word becoming flesh.
What would those among us who are humanists or atheists or skeptical believers make of that idea? We would probably dismiss the premise of a divinity slipping into a human body for a few decades. There are easier and more dramatic ways to communicate a message, after all. But underneath all of the story that grew up later, we do have this idea that there was this man, Yeshua, who galvanized a small group of Jews and began to reform the faith. And after he died, the story about him inspired eventually, billions of people. And, yes, the Christian middle management types also got in the way of all of that just like the Temple guys, but’s that’s a different discussion.
Was he somehow God made man? Was he a great avatar like Buddha or Mohammed who somehow was able to articulate a resonating message that people needed at a specific time and place? I don’t know. But I do believe that most of us have to find a way to make peace with this story. Like it or not, we live in a culture shaped by Christianity. The great tales that animate our cultures have power for a reason that goes beyond power, politics and good PR. The stories that last have something to teach.
Is there a lesson for the skeptics in this tale of divine embodiment? I think so.
Perhaps we can trace it back to the sum of the parts concept. What can we take away from this story of the divine becoming human?
For me it’s the promise that every new life holds. “Each night a child is born is a holy night.” Each baby arrives in the world with the potential to be the next great avatar. Each baby does change the world in which we live, and some are in the right time and the right place with the right logos to make a stunning impact on how the world works. But every person changes the world a little.
There is in each of us a spirit, an essence, a Frankenstinian spark – call it what you will. There is something in us. We are not just a collection of chemicals…we are Alive.
To me the Nativity story reminds us that we must treat each child as a potential Messiah.each person… More than that we are each born with an obligation to make the world a better place. Each of us carries a piece of the Logos – whatever you understand that to be.
You don’t have to be a world recognized figure to change the world. You just have to be you. Many of the remembered figures in history are only important because of the circumstances of when and where they lived. Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant reformation by being angry and nailing his protest on the church door. How many thousands of time has that happened and no one noticed? But he did it in the right time and place and a revolution ensued.
But how many other revolutionary things have been done by people we have forgotten? Who came up with concrete? Baby slings? The idea that Free speech should be a right?
How many terrible things have been done by people whose names we will never know? Polluters who killed a river? Abusers in the residential schools? Homophobic bullies who are never caught?
More importantly, how often have our lives been changed by people doing small acts of kindness? The person in the drive through who buys the coffee of the person in the next car? The folks who push your car out of the snowbank and you can’t afford to do anything more than wave as you struggle to keep driving away?
We are all alive. We all carry the same spark- the Logos however you want to define it. One question for our Advent meditation might be, now, what will you do with that spark today? Will you live it into being? Will you wait for another day to light the word? Will you ignore it and bury it under the weight of self-absorption and self-importance?
How are you going to live the Good News that is you? In each one of us the Word was made flesh. It is embodied in us. Recognize that.
The rest is up to you.