Friday, December 23, 2016

In the Flesh

Christmas Day 2016

“Flesh”. It’s all around us.
It titillates - advertising agencies know this in getting us to buy a particular product.
It troubles – “my body is not perfect, I must see a surgeon”. We are horrified by the layers of unnecessary flesh, fat, and celluloid clinging to our bones.
It terrifies – zombie movies and TV detective shows with half decayed cadavers on the cold steel of the mortuary table.
It tantalises – we will all be wanting to lose weight after Christmas. Some of us at the gym, some of us on steroids to boost our self-esteem.
It traumatises – some of us are repulse by raw flesh and won't go anywhere near the butcher.
In our culture, we continue to fear the things of the flesh or at least to keep at arm’s length some of the realities of fleshly life. This culture does not approve of unwanted hair, unwanted odours, or unwanted signs of aging. It’s a new form of Gnosticism.

And yet, this is what we celebrate today – the outrageous miracle of Christmas. The feast of God in the flesh. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton recalls how skeptical critics like to point out to believers how odd it is to say that a new-born baby is the eternal God, or that He had made the sun and all the stars. Christians, however, had clearly noticed the wonderful strangeness of the Incarnation long before the critics. They found it not a little odd, but overwhelmingly so, and altogether wonderful. As Chesterton noted, “We hardly needed a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about (the very thing we) have repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasized, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems and popular sermons.” An outrageous act to be sure, because in joining us in the fullness of our humanity, our lives are made holy once and for all.

Today is the feast of God in the flesh. At Christmas we remember that the word “Incarnation” is from the Latin “in caro” which literally means “in the flesh”. That is what we just heard in the Prologue of St John’s Gospel – Jesus, the Eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. The Invisible Deity became visible. St John the Evangelist deliberately used the crude, blunt word, “flesh.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that ‘Word,’ with a capital ‘W,’ and ‘flesh,’ undoubtedly with a small ‘F,’ were the polar opposites in the way John’s hearers thought. The sophisticated Greeks recoiled from the word flesh in regard to Deity. Flesh, to them, was corruptible, temporary, and doomed to be destroyed and cast aside. No God would deal with anything as degrading as human flesh. Yet that is exactly what God did. In becoming flesh, God accepted the limitations of humanity. But there is more to it. The coming in flesh by God was for a rather grisly and visceral end.

God meets us in the flesh, God dies for us in the flesh, and now God feeds us with His flesh. We are known, joined, partnered, loved and nourished in the flesh. Sounds absurd, right? But when you drill down into it, it does make sense. The world is mucked up. Only a sacrifice of flesh is sufficient to fix it all up and a special kind of flesh at that. The world was in  need of a major organ transplant in order to survive and mutate into the next level of evolution.

When you think about it, it was an outrageous act on God’s part to become human, to become flesh, to become frail. This is what God did when He became flesh. With a mysterious mixture of Divine grace and love, He performed the greatest act of condescension of all time and eternity. With such limitless power, the Word of God that could not be contained by the universe condescended to be compressed into human flesh. St Augustine paints this divine condescension in livid colours. “Creator of heaven and earth, He was born on earth under heaven. Unspeakably wise, He is wisely speechless; filling the world, He lies in a manger; Ruler of the stars, He nurses at His mother’s bosom, Man’s Maker was made man, that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breasts; that the Bread might be hungry, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired from the journey; that the Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge, Justice be sentenced by the unjust, . . . that Life might die. He was made man to suffer these and similar undeserved things for us.”

Faith in the Incarnation speaks such large ideas that both stagger and delight the mind, and it speaks so great a mercy and kindness that it is hardly possible to teach it as if it were some everyday fact. The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out beautifully the profound significance and the reasons why the Son of God became man (456-60).

The first truth of the Incarnation, is that He came to save me! God Himself became a little baby, a growing child, a young man; He suffered every manner of poverty and pain, and He died upon the cross—for me! And it is because He is my God that His salvation is so complete. Today, the world has forgotten that it is so in need of salvation. Many governments, non-governmental organisations and even religions have attempted to ‘save’ mankind from the humiliations of grinding poverty and unjust powers of this world. But we need to be saved from even more than that. We need to be saved from our own sins, and from all the pain and heartache and danger that penetrates the world because of sin.

This leads us to the second truth – How much I am loved! God Himself became man, and He Himself suffered for us, so that we could see and feel how much we are loved. Christmas, just like Easter and Good Friday, is the Feast of God’s love. When we see that it was the very Son of God, truly God, who suffered the humiliation of becoming a defenceless baby, who suffered the most bitter things, even death, willingly for us, we are allowed to see the immensity of God’s love and compassion. For Christians, the evidence and proof of the Lord’s own heroic love is contained in this simple statement – “He died for me.” But in order to die, He must first assume human flesh and life.

The third truth is by far the most outrageously imaginable – He gives us divine life. God’s becoming man was that great exchange: He took on our humanity in order that we may assume His divinity. Certainly, not a fair exchange but we shouldn’t be complaining because we got the best end of the deal. Through this humiliation of the Son of God we are lifted up, made sharers of the divine nature, able even now to share His divine life by faith, hope, and love. Because of what the Son of God experienced and did in our human nature, every man and woman is able to live a divine life, to be a friend of God, and come to see God in the infinite gladness of eternal life.

There can be no Christmas, in fact, there can be no Christian faith or life, without confessing that the Son of God, who is eternally God with the Father, has truly become our brother. Faith in Jesus is everything for the Catholic faith, not just the Eternal Logos, but also in the Incarnated Word who took flesh in a mortal woman’s womb and was born in Bethlehem. As God has given himself to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, so we are to give ourselves back to Him in our own flesh, in our hands and feet and faces in the world.   In our ordinary daily living, in you and me. It is in Christ, as the Communion Antiphon for this mass attest, “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

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