2nd Sunday before Lent 2018 (Eucharist)
Sunday 04 February
Proverbs 8:1, 22-31 John 1:1-14
Among the enormous pile of books I ought to read when I can find the time, there are two with the same title: This is my Body. One is a collection of essays by transgender Christians, reflecting theologically on their experience of gender transition and what that’s taught them about their own bodies, other people’s reactions to their bodies, about God and about the Church. The other one is by my friend Jennie, a university chaplain in London with whom I trained for the priesthood. It’s a kind of autobiography interwoven with meditation, all rooted in Jennie’s experience of serious illness and disability. Both books reflect deeply on what it means to have a body, to be a body; what it means to have to make peace with your body when it doesn’t behave as expected; what it’s like to feel- or to be made to feel- that your body is wrong, bad, imperfect, unclean, unacceptable; what it means to them to know that God understands what it is like to have a body like that too; how their bodies became a meeting place for God.
The Word was with God, and the Word was God. Some of the most beautiful and familiar words in the Bible, perhaps in the whole of the English language- yet perhaps so familiar that we no longer hear them. At the beginning of time, God spoke. But the Word which was in the beginning with God did not remain with God: remote, apart, abstracted. The Word became flesh. God knows what it is like to have a body, and for that body to fail.
Every wound on our bodies is an encrypted story. That’s Jennie’s phrase, and she should know: she’s had surgery for multiple brain haemorrhages, which involved having her skull sawn open. And the several authors who describe their journey through gender transition talk about their wounds too: not just the physical ones incurred in surgery but the emotional and spiritual ones too: wounds in their families, in their relationships with God and with the church.
Wounds become scars, and the marks they leave are not always visible. Our bodies remember traumatic experiences in ways which are hard to explain or understand. When every individual cell which was part of us at the time of the trauma has been replaced, our bodies still hold the memory of what was done to it. I learn that the hard way myself, through and expe3rience which left me too needing to make peace with my own body, and struggling to make sense of where God was to be found in it. Even now I find I can’t put words to what happened: for to put words to something, to speak it out loud, makes it real and gives it flesh. Once the Word becomes flesh, it cannot be undone. Each of us lives out our relationship with our body in a uniquely personal way. Our experience may not be written on our flesh in the way Jennie’s is; if the wounds we carry were caused by words, the scars they leave will be visible only to ourselves and to God. But it is our wounds and our scars which become the stories that tell us who we are- and who God is.
The Word was God. The Word became flesh. It became real, visible, tangible. The Word suffered. The Word died. And after the Word had died, it was the scars left by the nails which proclaimed that this really was the same Jesus who had died, but was now risen. Jesus’ scars are his encrypted story too: and to decde it, he invites us to touch the marks in his body, to eat his flesh and drink his blood, until his body becomes ours. For the Word is not just a concept. The Word of God is living and active: a person. And in becoming a person, the Word which was and is God also becomes terribly vulnerable. For the moment the Word consents to become flesh, the moment the divine allows himself to be constrained by the limits of a human body, it becomes real: it can’t be taken back. The Word says yes to pain, loss of control and death. At this precise moment in the Church’s year, we face that reality head on. For to become flesh, to be born, leads us inevitably out from the joy and excitement which surround a new birth towards the reality of death. And the yearly repetition of God’s story helps us to make sense not just of the flesh he took on for us, but to realise that it is our own: wounded, mortal, yes, but also glorious.
Words have tremendous power. They can heal and encourage, damage and destroy. What God desires for us, clearly enough, is beautifully described in the book of Proverbs: I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. Who wouldn’t want to feel such unselfconscious joy in simply being alive? And whoever has felt it has done so with their whole being: mind, body and soul responding as one. But I suspect that most of us also know what it’s like to lose our confidence that we could possibly be delightful to God. The careless words of others, the deliberate cruelty of words deployed as weapons, become our wounds. Self-doubt, alienation, rejection and fear lodge deep in our flesh. They threaten to become who we are. And it’s then that we most need to remember that words become flesh not just in us, but also in God. When we are invited to touch Jesus’ wounds, to eat his flesh and drink his blood, his body and ours are one. As his wounds were what enabled his disciples to recognise him after his resurrection, so our wounds are where God shows us that he really does delight in us as we are. To be flesh is to be vulnerable; to have a body is to risk being hurt; but to be flesh is also how we learn to recognise God, who himself become flesh in order to share in everything that happens to us.
Our words become flesh in our actions. Words of love and welcome need to be underlined with behaviour that conveys the same message. As individuals and as a church, we are called to embody God, the Word made flesh, in all our dealings with our fellow creatures. At the end of this week, I will be going to General Synod. Among the issues we will be discussing are safeguarding and responding appropriately to those who have been sexually abused; and making our churches welcoming to people with Down’s syndrome. Both of these issues touch on what it means to have a body which is somehow shameful, difficult, unwelcome- and the Church urgently needs to do something to change that. A word in the wrong place can reduce a human being to the status of a thing, a concept rather than a person. A word spoken in love, a Word which allows itself to become flesh for us and in us, helps us to make sense of who we are- scars and all.