Katie Snipes Lancaster
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Reflection on the Nativity
Matthew and Luke more easily tell a story of Word-made-flesh. They don’t need to even use a word like flesh to make their point: instead they use story, real human beings whose very survival is at stake. Should Joseph dismiss Mary quietly, believing her unfaithful—his and her livelihoods and reputations on the line? Should Mary invite the shepherd-strangers into the donkey-adjacent birthing suite? Should they trust the dream of the supposed wise men, who suggest they migrate to Egypt away from the power-mad King Herod just to be safe? Matthew and Luke show us instead of tell us about the flesh-y-ness of the gospel.
John’s nativity takes up none of these real-life flesh-and-blood questions as it introduces the main character of the long saga he is about to share. Instead John finds a more poetic approach and tells it slant (as Emily Dickenson would say). John simply offers us potent language: “the Word became flesh,” followed by “dwelling among us,” not to mention “glory” and a dose of “grace and truth.” Each turn of phrase is more evocative than the last. Whole books are written on each of these topics, entire lives dedicated to unpacking one turn of phrase or another. It’s worth noticing just how much of a masterpiece each line of John’s prologue is.
Harvard theologian Mayra Rivera reminds us that somehow John’s description of Word-becoming-flesh has the power to join “tangible and intangible” rendering “the real world evident and visible.” Or as poet Marie Howe puts it “It was thing and spirit both: the real/world: evident, invisible.” Emily Dickenson challenges the simplicity of intangible-becoming-tangible saying, “A word made flesh is seldom” while poet Gil Hedley suggests that there is something almost entirely essential about the relationship between language and embodiment, word and flesh, saying “Your body is a holy book, a scripture—the pages of your flesh are marked in exquisite detail.” Maybe your very body is holy word, spoken by the holy one into being.
Perceptibly Professor Rivera brings the metaphor even more to life saying “Flesh is always becoming. Air, water, food, sunlight, and even societies of microorganisms enter our bodies to weave the delicate tissue of our flesh. Imperceptibly to the naked eye, cell by cell, day after day, the world constitutes your body and mine. And our bodies enter into the constitution of the world.” Have we not found, these last two years, how much my body impacts your body, how their health impacts our health? Just the word Omicron says it all (a word we’ve known barely a week now). We are entangled. Intertwined. Caught in an invisible web of connection that we can no longer deny. She also says, “words [do] become flesh. Words mark, wound, elevate, or shatter bodies.” This is no throw-away metaphor. Word-becoming-flesh has real life consequences, as we see when Jesus ultimately faces the powers and principalities of his day, his own word of love powerful enough to cause the authorities to trap his flesh on a cross. The word of one king, one religious leader, one friend-turned-betrayer or friend-turned-denier changes everything.
Praying this part of the nativity may mean praying for your neighbor, your literal neighbor, or your far away neighbor. Either way the prayer of John 1:14 has something to do with that interconnectedness, used often for good, but not always. Not unlike “six degrees of separation,” this text teaches us to pray for “the other” or “the one who is not ourselves” because by speaking their name into the ear of God, our always-enfleshed relationship to them might shift, and change in ways that make real-life differences for the health, well-being, and thriving of those for whom we pray.
Praying the Nativity
Dwell among us.
Make tangible what is intangible.
Make connected what is disconnected.
Give us words to speak your risky, embodied love.
Make our way yours. Our journey sacred.