Let’s keep the ‘flesh’ in Christmas.
Every now and then, I receive a Christmas card where, printed on the envelope, I find the saying: “Keep Christ in Christmas”. The cards were sold by a Christian charitable organisation, the St. Vincent DePaul Society (the Vinnies), who put this slogan on their cards as part of their on-going ministry.
I like the Vinnies. I have great respect for their work. But I feel the Vinnies are perhaps just a little bit too pessimistic here. The phrase “Keep Christ in Christmas” implies that Christ is somehow at risk of becoming completely excluded from our Christmas celebrations. And I honestly believe that the Christian basis of our Christmas celebrations is far too robust and resilient – even among those in our community who are not regular worshippers – for there ever to be any real danger of a completely Christless Christmas, despite all the scare talk about a so-called “War on Christmas” from idiotically extremist elements within the tabloid media.
Actually, I have a t-shirt that begins with the Vinnies’ phrase, “Keep in Christ in Christmas” and then lists a few ways in which we can do just that: “Feed the hungry.… Shelter the homeless.… Welcome immigrants.… Forgive others.… Embrace outsiders.… Share with those in need.… Advocate for the marginalized.… Confront those abusing power.… Value others’ religions.…” (And, of you want to see the t-shirt, I’ll be modeling it when I take my alb off after church.)
And, if we did these things, not only at Christmas but all year, we’d be well on the way toward living the life of Jesus, and certainly keeping Christ in Christmas. (We’d also seriously annoy the far-right media extremists who started all this “War on Christmas” hoo-hah in the first place.)
But still, I’d like to borrow the phrase from the Vinnies and play with it a bit more. Taking, on the one hand, the Vinnies’ slogan “Keep Christ in Christmas”; and also taking, on the other hand, the central affirmation of our lesson from John’s gospel “... the Word became flesh ...”, I’d like to develop a new version of the Vinnies’ slogan:
“Let’s keep the ‘flesh’ in Christmas.”
When our gospel lesson declares that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, the writer was saying a mouthful. In speaking here of “the Word”, the writer seemed to be combining a significant idea from the Jewish scriptures with another significant idea from Greek philosophy. Both ideas referred to the mind of God reaching out to the mind of humanity.
The Jewish idea was called Wisdom, (Hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek). Wisdom was often personfied and, when personified, Wisdom was personified in female terms. Lady Wisdom is a term often used by scholars today to speak of this personification of Wisdom.
The Greeks spoke of the logos, a word which means “word”. But logos means “word” in a far more active sense than merely a series of letters that makes up part of a sentence. Logos means “word” as in the self-revelation of the one speaking.
In this passage from John’s gospel, we have a combination of both the Jewish sense of Wisdom and the Greek sense of the self-revelation of the mind of God, using the Greek word logos, “Word”.
The active Word,
the living Wisdom,
the eternal self-revelation of the Living God
came to Earth and into our midst,
not as ink on paper, but as flesh and blood,
not as an infallible book but as a vulnerable person.
The Word did not become mere words, but living flesh.
As well, it was also important that the Word became flesh. The Greek word used here for “flesh” was sarx. In Greek, the word sarx was considered a bit crude. Both literally and in the way we use the term today, sarx was a four-letter word.
When the Greeks wanted to speak of the dignity, nobility and beauty of the human body, they used the word soma. Soma was the body beautiful, the human body which was immortalised in the classic Greek sculptures and celebrated in the regular athletic contests at Olympia. That was soma: dignified, noble, and beautiful.
However, sarx was the word they used to speak of our human flesh at its least dignified, least noble, least beautiful, and most vulnerable.
Sarx gets sick.
When the gospel declares that God’s eternal Word and Wisdom took human form, the word used wasn’t the beautiful, noble, and dignified soma, but its poor relation, the vulnerable sarx. This is good news to us all in our own vulnerability. This good news is the message we proclaim at Christmas. This is the good news we proclaim in the lessons we’ve been reading and in the carols we’ve been singing. At its best, Christmas has always been a rather motley combination of authentic Christian spirituality and authentic human earthiness.
Perhaps this combination of factors is why so many of the more austere sort of Christians are very uncomfortable with Christmas:
- the sort who also deny the authenticity of the spirituality of most people in the community;
- the sort who often deny the authenticity of the faith of most of their fellow-Christians;
- the sort who are often highly uncomfortable with their own earthiness.
But for the rest of us, for those of us who don’t wear our halos so tightly as to cut off the blood supply to our brains, this message is tremendous good news. The Eternal God has embraced our human condition in its fullness.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Let’s keep the ‘flesh” in Christmas!