The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
Word, words… Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me. Who else learned that rhyme in the schoolyard? Maybe you hollered it with false bravado at the resident bully in some vain attempt to protect yourself from words hurled your way with the sole purpose of piercing you in your most vulnerable places. Maybe they were words about your weight, your freckles, your glasses, your gender identity, your general clumsiness, your shabby clothes.
“Words will never hurt me.” It’s a lie, of course, – words can hurt, they can cut, draw blood, they can leave scar tissue. Every one of us, at some time, maybe more times than we’d like to admit, has released a word and instantly regretted putting it out there. But there’s no easy way to take back a word. You can’t reach out and grab it and shove it in your pocket before it reaches the ears and the heart of the receiver. Words are powerful.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Words can also bless and build up, they can plant seeds and inspire growth. They can even heal. I had an uncle who had a real way with words. He was a preacher, a teacher, and a sesquipedalian orator. This sermon is about words after all. I’ll just leave that one there for you – sesquipedalian. Let’s just say he used big words, he was a master of words. He’d say frugal where the rest of us would say cheap, filch instead of steal, capacious when you might just say it was a really big room. His love of words extended beyond the oral, he was a collector of exquisite fountain pens and a ubiquitous writer of letters and so in a very real sense his sesquipedalian words live on. For my uncle Gordon, words mattered. They were chosen carefully, in print and voice because he understood the tremendous power of words and sought to offer the best of them to life. Though I never had the occasion to witness him in the act of making amends, I suspect even his apologies were eloquent.
Of course a theologian would say that words are not the same as The Word, the Word that became flesh. Parker Palmer, a Quaker of some years and wisdom talks about being taken with this line as a child. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He marveled at how something as airy as a word could take on flesh. And yet it would seem that our words are always in the flesh, even as we gift them or hurl them through the air, words are carried on our breath, transported in waves of sound before being absorbed in the ears of another and landing in their body and soul with anything from a thud to a warm, expansive love.
Parker Palmer says that there is “often a distressing disconnect between the good words we speak and the way we live our lives. We long for words like love and truth and justice.” This year, if you listen to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, apparently we’ve been longing for the word justice more than ever. They’ve named it the word of the year. It’s just that in a violent world says Palmer “it’s risky business to wrap our frail flesh around words like those, we don’t like the odds.”
Throughout scripture God invites us to these words, in spite of the odds, showing us again and again how good words can become flesh.
In Greek, the language of John’s gospel, the word for the Word is Logos but in Hebrew it’s Ruah and it means breath. In Genesis YHWH breathes the Word into the clay and it becomes a living being, Adam – of the earth. In John’s gospel the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit. Here in the beginning of John there are no stars, no angels, no stable, no shepherds, wise ones, no baby in a manger, just the Word, the breath of life. In another telling of the story of Jesus’ incarnation we read that Mary took the words of the angel and wrote them on her heart.
But I’ve not experienced it that way. I’ve not been able to inscribe words on my heart. I’m not talking about memorizing words like a great orator; anyone can do that. I’m talking about inscribing them on your heart, making them real. I wonder if that’s where the disconnect lies? I wonder if that’s where the mystery of incarnation is to be found?
I had an encounter recently where I longed to do just that, to seize the words, every one of them and shove them into my heart. I was afraid the words would get away and I’d forget or I wouldn’t be able to hold on to the moment.
It was around a simple family dinner table with a couple of dear friends I was gifted with perhaps the most precious gift I’ve ever received. It was a gift that had been cherished in the givers home for many years and here it was being given to me. A person doesn’t give away something so deeply meaningful easily, I knew as it was being given that this gift was both an honour and responsibility. Receiving it with heartfelt gratitude was easy but the responsibility it comes with, that’s weighty. And that’s why I thought if I could just grab the words of the giver I’d be able to sear them in my memory and inscribe them on my heart and call them up again. But you can’t hold onto good words, they just wilt in your hand like a clutch of summer buttercups
I wonder if the Word becomes flesh through breathing it in like a deep diaphragm breath, through ingesting it. It’s no wonder that those who meditate, those who practice yoga, those who’ve learned how to keep anxiety in check all focus on the breath. Words don’t stay words after they’re spoken. Words aren’t like a memory that can be replayed in the minds eye. No a word enters our body and is transformed, metabolized, turned to oxygen to feed our very blood or into energy to nourish our cells. And this I wonder is this where we experience the Word, in the very cells of our bodies, in the breath we breathe?
The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and grace. Those two words are key – The Word, capital W is not any old word, it’s not the word of sticks and stones, it’s a word filled with Truth and Grace. And truth is both gift and challenge. Truth is a call to live by the Word that puts the poor first, that makes room at the table, that dares to see the world through a lens of abundance instead of scarcity, that talks equity not fairness. Truth doesn’t squeeze the life out of the good words, it inhales them and allows those words to grow and take shape in you.
And just as important, the Word, capital W is filled with grace, which is harder to hold onto than truth! Grace is God choosing to come as a vulnerable baby instead of a mighty warrior, even knowing how the story might turn out. Grace is the promise that if we breathe in good words they will be metabolized, they will nourish our cells and we too will share in the risk of incarnating holy love. And that’s far riskier business in our minds than just grabbing enough good words for ourselves and those we love.
For all the talk and reality of the world coming apart, for all the words that seek to take root in our fear there are equally as many words that offer sustenance and hope, good words, powerful words, transforming words. Maybe we should just change the scripture a bit: the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.
The Word becomes flesh from the inside out, one cell at a time, emerging in the most vulnerable form possible for a human, an utterly dependent infant – it’s as simple and mysterious as that. Christmas is a call for every one of us to dare to be born again, which is honestly not an absurd ask. Just as our bodies are being born again and again, every cell in our bodies has a life span of its own, dying to be born again. You don’t need to grab the Word tight or even sear it in your memory, you simply need to breathe it in and trust the truth that is grace will transform you from the inside out. How will the Word filled with truth and grace become flesh in you this season? Amen