December 22, 2019

Catechetical Christmas Carols, VI: Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See

Passage: John 1:1–18

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And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. —John 1:14


Most of us have little patience for dry abstractions. There are exceptions: CPA’s, actuaries, contract lawyers, and Ph.D.’s in Philosophy, but most of us try to avoid tedium. And to be honest, theology can be tedious. Swiss theologian Karl Barth was the greatest Christian thinker of the twentieth century: how many of you have read all 12 volumes, 10,000 pages, and six million words of his Church Dogmatics? Neither have I.

The Christian Church understands this, so for centuries the Church has wrapped its difficult theology in the pretty package of Christmas Carols. Over the centuries the Church has managed to lodge a whole catechism of doctrine deep in our amygdala, so that when you hear a few measures of Joy to the World, in church or at Target, you’re stuck with it for the rest of the day whether you want to be or not. Christianity colonized culture for Christ with Christmas Carols.

Take Hark! The Herald, for example, which might be the third most famous Christmas Carol of them all, after Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful. It’s a Wonderful Life could not have been It’s a Wonderful Life without Hark! the Herald. “No man is poor who has friends.”

Charles Wesley wrote the text in 1739, but he didn’t write the music, so for about 75 years, Hark! The Herald was a poem in search of a melody, but then in 1850 a young English organist named William Cummings remembered a fetching tune by Felix Mendelssohn, who’d written it ten years earlier, in 1840, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s revolutionary printing press.

Mendelssohn rolled over in his grave when Mr. Cummings married his Gutenberg tune to a sacred text around 1850. Mendelssohn thought it might make a nice marching song or patriotic anthem, something like Oh Say Can You See, I guess. Mendelssohn described his Gutenberg tune as “soldier-like and buxom.” A buxom tune. I hope I haven’t ruined it for you. Mendelssohn was wrong; it wasn’t soldier-like at all, but sacred, a perfect marriage of text and tune and it caught on faster than Snapchat. 

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” says Wesley’s haunting text. “Hail the incarnate Deity” trumpets Mendelssohn’s martial music. You know what Incarnation is, don’t you? The Incarnation is the enfleshment of God.

“In the beginning was the Word,” says St. John, kicking off his brief Jesus biography with a bang. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, tabernacled among us, tented among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

It might be the most preposterous hypothesis in the history of religious conjecture. No other religion ever dared to submit anything so outlandish, this idea that the Creator of All the Burning Suns and Spinning Worlds, the Fanciful Dramatist who concocted this prodigious, prodigal panoply of protons, protozoa, plankton, peonies, Ponderosa pines, platypi, porpoises, and Presbyterians  came crawling into time at a cattle shed in Bethlehem far from Caesar’s lofty throne, with the soft, unfinished features of a human infant, a skull still translucent, and nothing to his name but the rags on his body and the milk in his mother’s breast.

Wesley brings this lofty abstraction down to earth and implants it in our amygdala, forever: “Veiled in Flesh the Godhead see; Hail the Incarnate Deity.” Without even thinking about what they’re really saying, Christians—not to mention atheists and secular humanists too—repeat the most important idea in all of Christian theology, millions of times, over and over and over again, every Christmas. I don’t think you can even calculate the vast evangelical significance of Wesley’s carol, just from a pure marketing standpoint.

God had a name. God had a name, and it was Jesus. God had a face. God had a face and it was his. To be real to each other we have to face each other. God knows this. See the distant vaporous Godhead veiled behind his swarthy, Semitic, carpenter face. Hail the Incarnate Deity.

That Bethlehem baby, Mary’s little Boy-Child, was God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God. So what’s the point? Why do I care? I’m glad you asked. Here’s something to take home with you. For Truth to be true, it must be enfleshed; otherwise it is just gaseous, intangible abstraction. This is true even of Ultimate Truth, God’s Very Own Truth. Therefore, let’s play God; let’s show up; let’s show up for each other as God in Christ showed up for us, crossing the vast expanse of intergalactic nothingness that once separated humanity from divinity.

Let’s show up for each other. Have you noticed the diminishing fleshiness of our contemporary world?

An ATM machine instead of a bank teller, Amazon instead of The Book Stall, Netflix instead of an actual theater with popcorn and your neighbors sitting next to you.

A couple of weeks ago I pointed out that our children who were born in this century are much safer than those of us born in the last one. They drink less alcohol, have fewer auto accidents, fewer dates, less sex, and fewer teen pregnancies, all this because they never leave the house. They connect with their friends virtually rather than face-to-face.

One year a few days before Christmas we had a snowstorm so serious that we closed the church office, and I went shopping at Macy’s. It was empty. Very few people wanted to brave the icy roads. There was no one in there but salesclerks and me, five or six of them standing around with nothing to do, but not one of them even noticed I was there. They were all checking their Facebook pages.

I was a vulnerable target, easy prey. I didn’t really know what I wanted to buy, just needed something for my friend, trolling around waiting to be talked into some cheesy trinket by the first persuasive saleswoman. But it was as if I did not exist.

If you will just show up and be present in the flesh to other human beings these days in this world of diminishing fleshiness, not somewhere else with your ipod or your cellphone, but there in the flesh looking someone in the eye and fully present, if you will turn the telephone and television off during dinner with your family, if you will silence your cellphone while having coffee with your friend at Starbucks, if you will refuse to be distracted by your problems at work while your daughter is telling you about the 18-foot three-pointer she nailed at the buzzer in her basketball game that afternoon, if you will massage away the stress that has lodged in your wife’s shoulder blades at the end of a long day, if you will make love to your husband on a weeknight even if he doesn’t ask, if you will just be there in the flesh, you will be a hero in the known world.

A while back I was planning a wedding with two of my favorite people. They were young and beautiful and smart. He was a medical student and she was an emergency-room nurse. I like to meet with my wedding couples for about five hours before the wedding. It takes us about two hours to plan the ceremony and then for the other three we talk about the marriage. I always tell them that when I officiate at a wedding I am representing two powerful authorities—the state of Illinois and God, so I like to make sure that a neutral counselor who loves them both asks some of the important questions we ought to ask ourselves and each other before say “till death us do part.

Sometimes, I ask them: Why him? Why her? Besides the obvious fact that he is dangerously handsome, why is he your life’s love instead of any other of the thousands of Jake Gyllenhaal’s you could have chosen? That’s a good question, right? Love is more than inscrutable chemistry, right? Love should be specific. Love should be focused. Love should be informed and intelligible.

So I asked these kids “What are some of the little things that made you fall in love with your partner?” This young woman says to me, “On our first date? We met for a drink? At one of those sports bars with 42 television sets? The Warriors game was on; he’s a huge Steph Curry fan? We sat down at a booth? His seat was facing the television? I was facing away? We sat there for about five minutes, and then he says, “Let’s change seats; I want to get to know you.”

I turned to this 29-year-old kid and I said, “You’re my hero.” That’s just a humble little example of enfleshment, of showing up, of just being there. By the way, when our meeting was over, this couple left my office, and he let her walk on ahead a little, and he comes back to me and whispers, “You don’t need to tell Brenda, Reverend, but in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you: when we switched seats? The game was over.” But I am interested in happy marriages, so I will never tell her.

Truth isn’t true unless it is enfleshed, even God’s Own Truth. Abstractions are vaporous and elusive. Every time we show up, every time we are present in the room, in the flesh, and look another human being in the eye, the Word becomes flesh.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Hail the Incarnate Deity.