And the Word became flesh…
This phrase, at the heart of not just John’s Prologue but his whole Gospel, is likely quite familiar to us. We’ve heard it before, perhaps many times, probably as one of the readings on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
But while we may be very familiar with it, this same verse and affirmation startled many of the earliest Christians who heard it. Living and operating in a world dominated by the Greek sensibility that God is, above all things, eternal and immutable and invulnerable, the idea that God would take on human flesh was both shocking and scandalous. And so for about three centuries after John first penned these words, Christians debated whether he was being merely symbolic or actually meant what he said.
Here is just a snippet of that argument, caught in a few lines from an ascetic monk named Tertullian of Carthage, writing around 200 AD in response to the contention of a Gnostic Christian named Marcion that Jesus was not, in fact, fully human but only appeared that way: “Come, then, start with the birth itself,” Tertullian writes, “the object of aversion, and run through your catalogue: the filth of the generative seeds within the womb, of the bodily fluid and blood; the loathsome, curdled lump of flesh which has to be fed for nine months off this same muck.”
Pretty strong language for a monk who had disavowed marriage and family! But, to tell you the truth, as Tertullian goes on it’s hard not to sympathize with Marcion, as all this does seem a bit beneath the dignity of any self-respecting deity. But then Tertullian gets down to business: “You repudiate such veneration of nature, do you,” he asks, “but how were you born?” And there it is, Tertullian’s point all along: if human birth is too messy or mucky for God, then so are we.
This is just what St. John is confessing as well – that in the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, God takes on our lot and our life, experiencing the same hopes and disappointments that we do so that, first, we may know that God fully understands our life and, second, that we have the hope that just as God shared in our life, so also may we share in God’s.
Yeah, the Church eventually decided, John really meant it.
Prayer: Dear God, it is nearly incomprehensible that you would become fully human, so we ask not so much for rational understanding as we do instead for grateful wonder that you love us this much. In Jesus’ name, Amen.