The Nativity of the Lord – Proper III, Year B
24 & 25 December 2020
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12)
In the Gospel of Luke, on the first day of the week the women disciples, among them Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, go to the grave early to embalm the body of Jesus as a last sign of their love. They find the stone rolled away and the grave empty. They are greeted by messengers who not only state that Jesus rose from the dead but also remind them of Jesus’ own words about his impending death.
The first time the risen Jesus appears to anyone is on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus joins two disillusioned disciples, first on their journey, and then for their meal, which is when they recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
Luke reports one more appearance of the risen Lord before his ascension. Jesus comes into the midst of the disciples, brings his peace and the disciples respond with fear, thinking he may be a ghost. Jesus says to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38-39) Then he tells them that he is hungry and he shares in their meal of broiled fish.
Flesh and bone, flesh and blood are expressions for being human, being real. Jesus is no ghost, he is flesh and bones, he is real.
Our reading for this morning is from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, parts of it we read last night. In verse 14 it says, “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.”
It is the word flesh that caught my attention. It is a word we don’t use often. It describes those parts of the body that are muscles and fat. But at least to my ear it sounds a bit crass.
The German word is Fleisch, both are related to the old English flæsc, meaning flesh or meat.
The Greek word is σαρξ. Besides flesh, my Greek lexicon also suggests ‘that which is mortal.’
Or think of Chili Con Carne, chili with meat. Incarnation shares the same root. Good comes into the flesh.
When my my brother and I were growing up, it was important to our mother that we would read fairy tales. I remember the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
Coming to her grandmother’s house she finds the wolf disguised as her grandmother and wonders about the strange appearance.
“Oh! grandmother,” she says, “what big ears you have!”
“The better to hear you with, my child,” is the reply.
And it continues with big eyes and large hands, until,
“Oh! but, grandmother, what a terrible big mouth you have!”
“The better to eat you with!”
Other than the gruesomeness of the story, what strikes me in this little dialogue is the relationship between appearance and function. The wolf has a terribly big mouth the better to eat us with.
The wolf, of course, is strong.
But God comes as a vulnerable human being and his very vulnerability is the point.
I have been reading Christmas poems. They do not speak of a baby that does not cry, but speak of blood and the dirt floor of the stable, and the Roman occupation as the first sensations of the Christ-child when he was born.
A couple of them we read last night. Do you remember the line,
until the next enormity –
the Mighty One, after submission
to a woman’s pains,
helpless on a barn’s bare floor,
first tasting bitter earth.1
Or listen to this one. It is called,
A Blessing for the New Baby by Luci Shaw
Lightly as a falling star, immense, may you
drop into the body of the pure young girl like a seed
into its furrow, entering your narrow home under the shadow
of Gabriel’s feathers. May your flesh shape itself within her,
swelling her with shame and glory. May her belly grow
round as a small planet, a bowl of golden fruit.
When you suck in your first breath, and your loud cries
echo through the cave (Blessings on you, little howler!),
may Mary adorn you with tears and caresses like ribbons,
her face glowing, a moon among stars. At her breasts
may you drink the milk of mortality that transforms you,
even more, into one of your own creatures.
And now, as the night of this world folds you in
its brutal frost (the barnyard smell strong as sin),
and as Joseph, weary with unwelcome and relief, his hands
bloody from your birth, spreads his thin cloak
around you both, we doubly bless you, Baby,
as you are acquainted, for the first time, with our grief.2
The Nicene Creed which we pray on high holidays and in the Season of Easter affirms Jesus’ divinity, “eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
… of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made,”
and it affirms Jesus’ humanity,
“was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary
and became truly human.
… he suffered death and was buried.”
The Apostles’ Creed says the same but without poetry,
“conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary… suffered, was crucified, died.”
Only God can save us and only flesh and bones can die. And so the eternal Word through whom all things were made became flesh to bear our suffering and to redeem us from sin and death.
Flesh is fragile and vulnerable and creaturely. Luci Shaw writes,
“At her breasts
may you drink the milk of mortality that transforms you,
even more, into one of your own creatures.”
That is the miracle of Christmas.
Of course, every baby is a miracle, all life is a miracle, but the miracle of Christmas is the embodiment of love in vulnerability, so that Jesus could die and rise, and the world with him.
1Luci Shaw, Accompanied by Angels – Poems of the Incarnation, 2006 Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdman’s, page 26
2ibid. Page 22