And the Flesh became Word: Reversing the Incarnation

How we have forgotten how Christmas works

Christmas 2019. Christians around the world celebrate that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Feelings of wonder fill us and hope, perhaps, that this enfleshment will somehow materialize into something more substantial than a promise, a light in the darkness, a hope, ever so faint, that the coming into the flesh will substantiate the Word that this flesh is all about: God setting things right on earth; God ushering in the kingdom.

Nothing concrete happens of course, nothing besides the erecting of cathedrals and the enthronement of the divine Son in the seat of human power. A lot of chatter to justify the theosis of the Son’s flesh, perhaps, a lot of wordy doctrine to bolster the system of divine-human coalescence into a powerful theocracy. Beyond that not much happens by way of changing the world into the abode of God where justice rules and the rich and powerful are called to account for the oppression and exploitation of the poor.

A Phenomenology of the Flesh

Why? Because we have forgotten that inasmuch the Word became flesh, flesh always also has become word. And the meaning we assign to that word is utterly unlike the flesh that was the manifestation of it. We are dealing with a dialectic of which we cannot find the first move. Did the word first become flesh or did it become that only insofar it first, as flesh, had become word? We like to think of the Word as the primordial beginning. Indeed, the author of John 1:1-14 (the so-called Johannine author) certainly ascribed to the Word that archaic authority of Creator of all things. How did the author know that? Divine inspiration, some say. I say: bollocks! 

It was an intuition, a creative insight, a poetic elaboration of the Johannine author’s phenomenological experience of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether the Word was precisely that, in the beginning with God, very God, without whom nothing is that is, we cannot know. From the gospel records we certainly get the impression that Jesus was highly ambiguous about his identity. The gospel writers, as much as they had a vested interest in producing a divine Christ, were not able–or dare not–hide that fact.

The intuition stands: the Word became flesh. Indeed, the way the writer of the Gospel of John goes about describing this Word’s way in the world enfleshed in our pain and misery is wonderfully counter-intuitive and cuts against the grain of human expectation. This is not the kind of Messiah anyone expected or anyone would have liked to be proud of. If it was a Word that became flesh, it must be an unheard and incomprehensible Word, not primarily in its epistemological inaccessibility but because of the radical otherness of Christ’s flesh!

Enthroning the Flesh

Yet the intuition, that innocently making the flesh a capitalized Word, prefigured some other doings in which the flesh was made Word. In fact, a good deal of Christian doctrine that followed in the wake of the convention-shattering experience of Jesus Christ, can be described as a grand effort to make the flesh of the rabbi of Nazareth the container of a lofty Word fashioned in an all too human imagination. The flesh became Word. And how! Jesus became the Second Person of the Trinity, co-substantial with the Father, the One who led his Church through the papal office in Rome, the Sovereign King of King seated at the right hand of the Father, the White Savior to whom foreign cultures had to be made suspect so their economies could be plundered, the terrifying Judge who calmly dismisses sexual deviants to eternal torment in hell… the list goes on.

Gone was the flesh. Oh, it was still depicted on wooden crosses and profusely portrayed on canvas, but in all truth a disembodied deity, named Christ, reigned on high. Christ has too often been represented as a disembodied heavenly monarch whose hands still bear the stigmata but otherwise remains aloof in the icon, a petrified marble child, a savior who whisks the soul away from sinful earth to a heavenly spiritual realm leaving the body to rot away into oblivion. 

Tragedy of the Word

And this is the tragedy of Christmas, namely that the flesh became word, human word, human doctrine, patterned far too much after a human conception of God, enlisted in endless human attempts to be immortalized in pomp and power. And Christ conceded and willingly bowed his head and bared his back to carry the weight of such misappropriation, as if to say: “I truly am the Word made flesh, a Word of which you haven’t got the faintest inkling.” 

Perhaps the ironic truth is precisely this that Christ is the Word made flesh, that the Johannine writer had the right intuition, that the Word is the humble expression of God’s self-giving love to humanity. Ironic, because we will never know. Because, if indeed Christ is that Word, his humility and self-giving demand that he became all that we wanted to make him. The flesh became Word, our word, a human word placing the flesh of Christ precisely in that system that he came to subvert. Rather than a word descending into the world, we have a flesh ascending on high into myth and metaphysical speculation.

The crucial distinction between the author of the Gospel of John and the Christian tradition is that for the author the flesh of Christ is the criterion of the Word while for the tradition the Word became the criterion of the flesh. Where the author of John creatively ascribes primordial origin and creator-ly power to the flesh of Christ in response to the excess of grace and truth, the tradition determined what the flesh of Christ was on the basis of its doctrinal and philosophical formulations: the god walked on earth in fleshly form, that is, the god we had fashioned in our image.

Figuring the Flesh

I argue for a third way that takes its cues from the Johannine author but without the baggage of the implicit ontological claims. We too need to refigure that move from Word to flesh, starting with the flesh of Christ and tracing its movement in the world as that which is beyond our imagination. If Christ truly is the Word that became flesh to save the world, then of necessity we have no way of telling what that Word is; any description is in danger of bringing that Word to our level of comprehension and thus human mastery.

This is exactly the radical proposal that I think necessary. The flesh needs to become word but in a different way than described above, where the word the flesh becomes is human imagination read back into and feeding the movement from Word to flesh. We have accustomed ourselves to see Christ as the person about whom we have received supernatural revelation, that is, revelation as information, detailing, among so many other things, that the flesh of Christ was originally an eternal Word.

This is all wrong. Whatever the Johannine writer claims about the Word is based, not on supernatural information, but on a hermeneutic of the living Christ whom the author had witnessed. That author creatively framed this in a way appropriate for his context: in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, etc. A pinch of Hellenistic appropriation for a post-Judaistic faith. The author based his conclusions simply on this: he had witnessed the flesh of Christ full of grace and truth. The criterion is indeed the flesh and not the Word. And what he and others did with the flesh, wording it out in written text, was an attempt to do justice to the experience of that flesh of Christ in real life. There is nothing supernatural about that. It was an entirely natural thing to ascribe to this flesh, this person, this Christ, the status of Word.

Perhaps, in refiguring and retracing that flesh back to its wordiness we finally realize we haven’t begun to understand what the Word is. Indeed, the very mention of this word in John, attempts to portray Christ as the beginning and origin, grounding the world and us with it in that Word. Isn’t that already saying too much; aren’t we attributing more than we can say about the man who showed us the face of God?

Wording the Flesh

Rather, as we retrace the flesh back to the Word, we should become quiet in front of that which we cannot know, cannot intuit, what surpasses our moral capacity. We should cross out any mention of Word because Christ, the man for others, has come in the midst of history, in the form of a givenness that is unlike anything else. Any origin ascribed to it comes from us and and is a speaking beyond our boundary.

Nonetheless, let the flesh become Word. Not a word of origin, not a word of power, not a word of authority, but a word of healing, of speaking truth to power, of kindness, of love. What Christ was (and is) doesn’t need to be backed up by a link to a supernatural realm and does not require divine justification. Christ is the gift from the hidden God. The hidden God stays hidden, but the Christ gives and does so without legitimization from God for that would merely destroy its identity as the flesh in whom we see grace and truth. 

Let that flesh of Christ be its own word, whatever that word is and whichever way is appropriate to our secular world. Let there be a word about that flesh. But not too many. Or better, let us enflesh this flesh of Christ, let us embody its presence and then let this flesh be worded, not by us but by others. As the Johannine writer testified that in the flesh of this Word we all saw grace and truth as the only begotten god, let others testify, speak, give attestation–in other words–word the truth of this flesh.

The flesh becomes word in and through our own flesh. When that happens, and only then, Christmas is fulfilled.

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