So much of this time of year is about ornamentation, decoration what with the lights, the glitter, the tinsel, the gold and the silver. The Gospel writer John spins the time and season with these words, “and the word became flesh,” (John 1:14) using the greek word sarx for flesh. That word, sarx, has its own distinctive tone doesn’t it? It’s hard to know what to think about sarx, or about how this one John insists created all that we see taking on sarx/flesh, becoming “carne” meat, if you will. The Greeks understood this in their day and age to mean ‘the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood of both man and beasts.’ I am convinced the Greeks and many of us, except for our own tiny ones, go ewwwwwwwwwwwww when we are faced with real thing, flesh, blood, mucous, feces, saliva, skin disorders, acne, and just pure craziness.
John continues to tell his story of this one who took on “flesh” and it gets even more squishy and squeeze, even smelly and repulsive. He has this one engaged in a conversation about birth, telling an old religious guy that he needed to “get a life,” that his life sorta sucked. The old guy’s comeback, “how was he to get back up inside his mother’s womb? Is that what Jesus meant?” Now that’s good theological stuff, don’t you think? John doesn’t stop there, he has this one who took on “flesh” standing at the entry way to a crypt with a dead, rotting friend inside. I mean the guys sisters warned him, our brother (Lazarus) has been in there for a couple days and he didn’t look or smell so good before we stuffed him in there. I mean there was a reason they put almost 100 lbs plus of smelly ointment on those bodies before they laid them away. You gotta understand that “being flesh/sarx/meat” has a pungency to it. So why would you choose to be human?
I’m convinced that this flesh stuff gets so disgusting that queasy theologians for thousands of years have tried to clean all the blood and guts stuff up. Various theories, doctrines, systematic theologies constructed a kind of silver and gold dimension to all of this, decorations, a little tinsel here and there around the primary story, making it look and even smell a little better, bring in that pine scent please, dispelling any disgusting notion that God would become, well, one of us for the sheer glory that comes with being human. You know heart beat, born of a woman, stuff like that, … yikes! One gospel writer has the child born in a stable (Luke 2:7). Imagine the smell in that place that first night. So what do you do with that kind of stench? Get out the theological soft scrub, bleach away any evidence that something holier is at work, bleach it away, dare I say it, the “disgusting” truth, that being human, yes being human is “very good, very good” maybe something holy. Ding, ding, ding!
No matter who we are we’re just not so easily convinced. In the darkest places of our being there are too many other voices, too many other so called truths stacked against that possibility that continue to defy any such good news. Too many of us don’t know what to think about ourselves, what to believe about ourselves. We don’t know whether to embrace ourselves and each other or be disgusted. We look in the mirror and we are repulsed. It doesn’t matter where the needle points on the scale. Mirrored back through the eyes of others, through the eyes of parents, through the eyes of a spouse, through the eyes of a church, it’s clear, this being human thing is highly over rated. And I’m not talking about simply on the surface, I’m talking deep down, something at the core of each of us, being human is just all wrong, even repulsive. Could it be that such reflections are actually destroying us? We unfortunately live into the sterile vision that has been cast. Could it be that our very saving rests in the eyes of another? One whose very human eyes saw what we continue to miss? The one whose very life purpose and mission was to see and point out to us that which we, to our own demise, refuse to see? That being human is to be made in the image of the holy one?
God becoming one of us, flesh, sends a message in this time of tinsel, in this season of silver and gold. The message of the incarnation is that being in the “flesh” is something good and holy. I need to be reminded of that. I don’t need to look any further than my own hands, no further than the bare feet of a child walking through a garbage dump in Haiti to be in touch with the holy. To be flesh and blood, to be of the stuff of the earth, of the universe is holy. I don’t need to wait till I die to encounter it. And when I am willing to put my very human self, to take my own incarnation seriously, to embody what the Christmas child would embody and in flesh then Christmas happens again, again, and again.
We do this by sitting, unpacking, and defining the course of how a malignant tumor has grown within the connective tissue (sarcoma) of a patient. To do such a thing is to be connected with the holy human. To sit by the bed of the one who brought you into the world, who rocked you to sleep, who nursed you on her breast, who changed your soiled diapers, who kissed your wounds, to sit and watch her take her last breadth in the flesh, in the midst of the void upon her leaving, that is holy human. To walk the journey of life in the flesh with another in friendship is something to be cherished and something to be embraced as holy human. To have permission through the simple act of a promise to unite in body, mind, and spirit is not disgusting but holy human, and a sign that we should lift our glasses filled with the fruit of the vine as he did in Cana of Galilee, when water remarkably was made wine. To watch the wonder of birth, to give birth and be birthed from the womb of a woman is a sign, a miracle, even in the midst of a labor that is often fraught with suffering, pain, and even risk. As best I can grasp, ONLY humans have the capacity to be with each other in such ways precisely because they have been given the capacity not to.
So as humanity continues to search the stars for life, in quest of something better, in quest of the good life, the best life is to be found, where? Right here, yes right here on planet earth with you. That is why this one adorned himself with flesh. The message of the incarnation, of Christmas, is that there is something very good and holy from the first breath to the very last breath, about being in the flesh. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, saves us from all other and any other cheaper notion and version of being human.
And hey, may your eyes be open to your own holiness and to the holiness of those within your embrace.