In the philosophical and religious language of the first century Greco-Roman world, the term “flesh” was a dirty word. The word flesh was considered to be base and vile and abhorrent. As I have described in catechesis and in Bible class, at the other end of the spectrum was the word “spirit.” This was good and beautiful and desirable.
The Greco-Roman world set the spiritual in opposition to the material. The spiritual was “higher” and good, while the material was “lower” and bad. And you couldn’t get much lower or worse than the word flesh.
The flesh was to be escaped because something had gone wrong for our spirits when they were trapped in flesh. In fact for a number of versions of what we now know as gnosticism, the fall occurred when our spirits became part of this material world – when they became trapped in flesh. Salvation was to realize this fact. And once you realized that the flesh was evil, you could choose to live in one of two different ways. Either you could decide that since the flesh is evil, it needed to be beaten down and suppressed by ascetic practices like eating little food and punishing the body. On the other hand, you could decide that since the flesh was evil, it didn’t matter at all. Therefore, you could do whatever you wanted with it. Wild excesses of drinking, eating and sex were the thing to do.
This is the world into which the Gospel entered in the first century A.D. Of course the Gospel came from a very different perspective. It was rooted in God’s revelation to Israel – what we now know as the Old Testament. Here the material world was not bad. Instead, God the Creator had made it on purpose and considered it to be very good. The body – the flesh – was not evil and something to be escaped. Instead God had created man’s body from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life in order to make Adam into a living being. It was in the unity of body and soul – it was life in the flesh – that was God’s intention for man.
And in fact man was intended for a life of a one flesh union. Woman was created as the helper corresponding to man – the one without whom life was not very good. God created man and woman to be joined together in sexual union as one flesh. And this one flesh union physically demonstrated how God viewed them – they were now one flesh in his eyes.
This is what is described in broad strokes at the beginning of our Gospel lesson for Christmas Day. We hear in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” In Genesis 1 we hear God say, “Let us make man in our image.” Here – as elsewhere in the Old Testament – we receive the hint that there is more to the truth than the simple fact that there is only one God. We sense that there is a complexity within this unity.
Our Gospel lesson makes this clear when it speaks about “the Word.” We learn the Word was with God in the beginning – an obvious reference to God’s act of creation. And we learn that the Word was not just with God as some kind of created sidekick. Instead the Word was God. The Word was – and is – God, and so all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
From the rest of John’s Gospel, and the New Testament as a whole, we learn that the Word is the second person of the Holy Trinity – the Son of God. In the words of the Gloria Patri we confess the basic facts about the triune God – “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, Amen.” God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God was this way in the beginning. God is this way now. God will always be this way, because this is who he is in his own eternal nature.
The material world was very good. The flesh of human existence was very good. The one flesh union between man and woman was very good. All of this was true until Adam and Eve decided they wanted to be God. They were not satisfied with being created in God’s image. They did not want to be like God. They wanted to be God, for that is the temptation that the devil held out before Eve. He promised that if they disobeyed God by eating of the forbidden tree they would be just like God, knowing good and evil.
Adam and Eve disobeyed God and brought sin into the world. They brought sin into the flesh. And now flesh, which was created as something very good, has become ruled by sin and death. Now the flesh is something that sets itself against the Spirit of God as it spreads to each person conceived and born in this world. Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The fallen, sinful nature produces more of the same. And the flesh does one thing – it sins. The apostle Paul told the Galatians, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Indeed, the sinful, fallen flesh dies – that’s what happens every time.
At Christmas we celebrate the fact that God was not content to let this situation stand. Instead, he acted in a most surprising and unexpected way. This is described briefly in our text – brief words that contain the greatest mystery there has ever been. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Word became flesh. The Son of God became flesh. God, a spiritual being, became flesh. That’s what happened as Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Without ceasing to be God, the Son of God became flesh – he took humanity into himself because he is now the One who is true God and true man at the same time.
This basic fact which stands at the heart of the Christian faith – the incarnation – directly contradicted what almost everyone in Mediterranean world believed about how things worked. The Word became flesh? How absurd! How offensive! If you wanted to make up a religion that would be popular and would spread in the world, you could hardly have chosen a worse foundation.
And so from the very beginning we find the Church defending the fact that the Word really did become flesh. Jesus Christ did not only seem to be human – he really was, even as he was also really God. In his first epistle, John wrote, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” And the in his second epistle he wrote, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
God sent the Son into the world in the incarnation because it is sin that is bad – not the flesh. He came to redeem flesh from sin, to free it as the second Adam who removes all that the first Adam caused. St. Paul wrote, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” God condemned sin in the flesh on the cross. He killed the flesh in Christ. And the on the third he raised the flesh up. He raised Jesus Christ with a flesh that is no longer able to die – a flesh transformed and freed from sin and death.
He raised Jesus with the flesh that will be ours in the resurrection of the flesh on the Last Day – for that is in fact exactly what the Latin text of the Apostles’ Creed says.
Christ has won us forgiveness. He will raise and transform our flesh on the Last Day. And in the present he gives us his flesh – he gives us his true body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. The risen Lord gives us his body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. The Lord gives into our bodies his risen body and blood, and so we know that our bodies will be raised too. After all, Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
Through this divine food Jesus Christ gives us forgiveness and new life. Through the body and blood of Christ the Spirit nourishes and strengthens us in the faith. And because we have received the blessings of what Jesus won for us in the flesh, we now seek to live in the flesh in ways that share this love. John wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
On this Christmas Day, we hear in our Gospel lesson: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In the incarnation of the Son, we have received the saving love of God that frees us from sin and death. We rest secure in the knowledge that because Jesus’ flesh was raised from the dead and transformed, our will be too. And as our risen Lord gives us his flesh – his true body and blood in the Sacrament of Altar – we are nourished and sustained in the faith so that we can use our flesh to love our neighbor in word and deed.