Thursday, January 2, 2020

In the Flesh (Reflections on Christmas 2, Year A)

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“And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14a)


The word gets a bad rap. If religious folk say someone is “in the flesh,” they generally don’t mean it as a compliment, do they? The word “carnal” comes from an old medieval word meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and is usually used to describe someone who is preoccupied with sex. In the third century there was a popular religious belief called Manichaeism which proposed that everything was divided between good spirit and bad matter. The spirit was divine but the flesh was evil. Medieval monks—Martin Luther included—tried to purify their souls by mortifying their flesh through fasting, hard labor, self-flagellation, or the wearing of very uncomfortable underwear.

Now of days, of course, we’re a little more kind to the flesh. We’re told the body is beautiful—just not your body. Nope, says the popular culture, you have too much flesh or not enough or it’s not in the right places or you’ve had it way too long. We don’t put on sackcloth or beat ourselves with rods these days; instead, we take spin class and inject poison into our face.

In a few days I’m going to turn sixty years old, and I have to tell you, my flesh hurts. It doesn’t look or act like it did forty years ago. I can’t divorce myself from it, so I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

What makes this acceptable to me is knowing that Jesus’ flesh on the cross hurt a lot more than mine does. If I feel pain or a loss of mobility, it’s nothing next to the loss of mobility that comes when you’re impaled on a piece of wood and left hanging there to die.

And that’s the amazing and glorious mystery of our faith: we see the Living God becoming flesh and living among us so that we can see his glory, grace and truth. God becomes one with us, wrapped, as Shakespeare put it, in “that small model of the barren earth which serves as paste and covering to our bones.” Jesus felt hunger and fatigue and physical pain just as we do. He wept and laughed and bled and experienced all the sensations of the flesh.

Why wouldn’t we want to embrace our flesh? Through it we have identity. We have our age, our gender, and in it we so often experience our emotions—we laugh, cry, smile, and feel in our guts and in our hearts. Best of all, it is through the flesh and blood of human experience that God came to know us, and it is because the Word became flesh that we can relate to God. We remember that every time we receive his body in the Holy Eucharist. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if—every time we feel that stiffness, ache, numbness or twinge—we remember that Jesus felt it too. He came to take on our flesh so that in our flesh we might recall his glory and love.

Happy 2020! Please drop by again.

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