Word Made Flesh, or, How to Be Human

A recurring theme here lately, especially during Advent and in this Christmas season, has been how Jesus reveals to us who God is. This is the most obvious consequence of Christian belief that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, a belief we call the Incarnation. But today I’d like to talk about the flip side of this: Jesus doesn’t only reveal God to us, but he also reveals humanity to us. To paraphrase the old patristic saying, not only did God become human to show us what it means to be divine, but God also became human to show us what it means to be human.

Today’s Gospel reading, the glorious prologue to the Gospel according to St. John, talks about this in a metaphysical way when it says that the “Word became flesh’ (1.14). ‘Word’ (Λογος or Logos in Greek) is a notoriously complicated word to translate, carrying various meanings like ‘word, utterance, story, grammar, plan.’ Moreover, by the time John was writing, it had gained a heavy load of theological and philosophical weight, in both Jewish and Greek thought. Within Judaism, ‘Word’ was inseparable from the ‘Word of the LORD’ that came to the Prophets. In this sense, John would be saying that Jesus is the full embodiment of that prophetic message, which as we’ve seen so often, was all about seeing and loving the world with God’s concern for compassion, mercy, and justice for all. Within Greek thought, Logos meant something like the providential order that lies behind the whole universe — its deep structure, grammar, or blueprint, if you will. In this sense, John is saying that Jesus is the full embodiment of God’s blueprint for humanity — he is the Image of God in accordance with which we were made. Of course these ideas, Jewish and Greek, are not mutually exclusive, and Christians have from the beginning meditated on how they weave together in and through Jesus.

Either way, in saying “the Word became flesh,” John is saying that Jesus uniquely expresses God’s vision for what it means to be human.

We’re in a strange time when it comes to popular conceptions of humanity. On the one hand, Western society has in many ways embraced the progressive optimism of the Human Potential Movement, that we really are the measure of all things and have it in us to solve all of the world’s problems. On the other hand, our culture has also largely embraced the idea that we are nothing other than animals like any other animals, and has become quick to dismiss any and every weakness as being “only human” and to ascribe any kind of evil to “human nature.” This leaves us Christians in a weird place. We find ourselves doubly out of touch. First, there’s a deep instinct in our Scriptures and tradition that something has gone profoundly wrong with humanity. While this sentiment seems pretty obvious to me — just look around at our selfish, divided, and violent world — it is nonetheless anathema in our culture, especially in ‘spiritual’ circles, and looked down upon as needlessly pessimistic and shaming. But second, Christian doctrine is clear that we are not defined by what has gone wrong with us as a species, and that we are called to do and be more than the sum of our genetic and cultural wiring. And this sentiment puts us at odds with those who are happy to view our species only through the lens of the 500 millions of years of evolution we share with other vertebrates and not the twoish million years that has separated us from our primate relatives.

In the Christian imagination, it is Jesus who bridges the divide between these two beliefs. He enters the world of twisted, bruised and battered humanity and fills it out, restoring us to our original potential. As the divine blueprint, he reveals what our ‘house’ looks like under all the nonsense: that under our moldering shag carpeting there is perfect hardwood flooring, that behind the dingy wood paneling our walls are covered in beautiful frescoes, and that our drop-ceilings and pot lights hide twenty-foot ceilings with exquisite chandeliers. It is Jesus who reveals to us our full, original, intended beauty, and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to attain it.

Walter Wink put it beautifully in his posthumously published memoir Just Jesus:

And this is the revelation [of the Incarnation]: God is human … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.

We might say that only Jesus is a “human being.” The rest of us are “human becomings.”

So what does all this high-fallutin’ theology actual mean for us in our day-to-day life? There are three things I think it would be helpful for us to take away:

First, the change God desires in us is not for us to become something we aren’t, but rather the fullest expression of what we already are.

Second, if we aren’t sure what to do, we look to Jesus and ask ourselves what he would do. (Those old WWJD — “What would Jesus do?” bracelets that were so popular twenty years ago were not off the mark!) He is The Human Being. And by following his ways, we can become human too.

And third, we would do well to remember that because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” this Jesus who is our vision, our guide, and our blueprint struggled in all the same ways we do. He felt torn between competing priorities; he lost his temper and needed ‘alone time’; he didn’t fit in and was misunderstood; he had to learn difficult lessons. And so we don’t need to feel ashamed or embarrassed when we inevitably fall short.

Wink summarizes all of this well:

The goal of life, then, is not to become something we are not … but to become what we truly are — human. … We are invited simply to become human, which means growing through our sins and mistakes, learning by trial and error, being redeemed over and over from sin and compulsive behavior, becoming ourselves, scars and all.

And so, as this Christmas season wraps up, let us remember the deep lessons of this season. Jesus reveals to us who God is, and in so doing, he reveals to us who we are too. May all of us human becomings take up his ways and truly become human beings.


28 thoughts on “Word Made Flesh, or, How to Be Human

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