When I was in college I fell in love with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. For those of you a bit older than I am, you may very well be nodding your heads in agreement, as you probably grew up with this scientific mini-series as a part of your childhood. And those of you a bit younger than I am, probably know more about Cosmos the sequel, which came out in 2014 and featured physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as its host. Both mini-series are beautiful scientific descriptions of our best understandings about the origins of the universe and the emergence of life on earth.
And there is one scene in the 2014 version that still blows my mind. Dr. Tyson stands on a huge calendar, starting with January and going until December. This calendar represents the history of the universe, with the first milliseconds after midnight on January 1 as the Big Bang, and sometime around 11:59 on New Year’s Eve, human civilizations start to form. We get the Milky Way galaxy in March and our own solar system in September.
I find this scene fascinating not just for its excellent use of green screen technology, but because it puts into somewhat of a perspective that which I cannot even begin to fathom, the history of the universe, going all the way back to the beginning of what we call time and space.
I’ll readily admit that I’m a nerd for stuff like this, and I’m sure some of you are as well. I grew up wanting to be an astronaut, my favorite movie is “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and I love any story or book that talks about the mysterious origins of our world and universe, and wonders what is beyond the stars in deep space and deep time.
I think this is why I’ve always loved John Chapter 1. It is a creation story, not in the scientific sense that we know of today, but in a deeply spiritual and mystical sense. In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John’s gospel, like the other three, was written in Greek. And the Greek word John uses for “word” in chapter 1 is logos, which can also be translated as mind or reason. We use the word logos all the time in English in words such as logic.
In the beginning was the Word, the mind, the reason, the logos. The Word was with God and the Word was God, and all things came into being through the Word. In the Word was life.
John’s creation story is a cosmic one, a story that starts before the creation of space and matter, with only the Word and God together, one in the same. Through the Word, through the mind and reason of God, creation comes into existence, life springs forth, and life not only in a biological sense, but in a spiritual sense, for this life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
Sometimes I am tempted to let John’s creation story end there. The mystical, mysterious Word beyond time and space brings forth the creation as the life and light of all people. Throughout history, and especially since the Enlightenment, many have seen God as only the divine creator, as only the mysterious Word that is beyond our knowing. A God who remains outside of our human world, setting creation into motion, and perhaps making a few periodic trips into our realm when we humans are in trouble and could really use a divine hand.
But John’s creation story doesn’t end with the Word as God. The Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The cosmic becomes the creation. The transcendent becomes immanent. God takes on human skin, the same skin that you and I have. God has a body. With the turn of a phrase, John’s creation story becomes a Christmas story.
Theologian Caryn Riswold writes about the incarnation of the Word in flesh, “An incarnation tells us that the human, finite, material world is in fact capable of manifesting divine goodness and grace…An incarnation tells us that God is intimately involved in the world…An incarnation lifts up the value of flesh and human life.”
This is one the radical truths of the incarnation. That God is truly with us, not just hovering over us or breaking into our world momentarily in miraculous events, but with us as one of us, known by us in human flesh. That God values this world enough to become a part of it, that God loves human flesh so much as to take it on as God’s own.
The mind/body dualism that Western Christianity has accepted and oftentimes promotes, can make this understanding of the incarnation hard to accept. Theologian James Nelson writes, “A great deal of Christian theology…has tended to treat the human body as something other than the essential person. Thus the body becomes inherently suspect. It might be redeemable by the grace of God but more likely the carnal body is relegated to the domain of ‘this world’ while the spiritual world is something qualitatively different.” (19)
The mind and spirit are pure and true. The body is tarnished with lust and sin. This sacred/profane dichotomy can lead to seeing the incarnation of the Word in Christ Jesus as a temporary event. The Word only used a body for a while, or took on what looked like flesh and bones but never truly was. As if Jesus had a new and improved body that none of us will ever achieve no matter how many New Year’s resolutions we make about getting back into shape.
The Word became flesh and I believe remains flesh. This is the salvation revealed to us in that tiny baby born in a stable in Bethlehem, the light and life made known to us, full of grace and truth. That we know God because God has taken on a body. A body that cries and hungers, pains and pleasures, laughs and touches. We can see God, feel God, taste God, experience God in all the sensuous moments of our lives. We have seen the glory of the Word.
Theologian Carter Heyward writes,
There is nothing higher, nothing more holy, than the body. It is nonsense, it is wrong, to contrast God with the body. Be it the individual human body, or the body of humanity itself, or indeed, the body of all that was created: the creation. My body is not a shell into which and out of which God moves, leaving me either godly or ungodly. The body of humanity is not a network of flesh and blood and bones that is either visited by or not visited by God. If God is worth our bother and if the life of our brother Jesus means anything worth our knowing, it is that the body is godly, the body is holy, without qualification. Our hands are God’s hands in the world. Our hearts are God’s heart in the world. God pulsating. God beating. God yearning and open and growing in history…When a human being reaches out to comfort, to touch, to bridge the gap separating each of us from everyone else, God comes to life in that act of reaching, of touching, of bridging. The act is love and God is love. And when we love, we God.
The imagery of Galway Kinnell’s “Parkinson’s Disease” displays these physical, bodily acts of reaching, touching, and bridging in a painfully beautiful way. The feeding of a father who can no longer feed himself, the stroking of hairs on his head, the kiss on the cheek, the light in his eyes, the dancing back and forth as a father and daughter walk from one room to the next. The poem breaks open this particular experience of life-altering disease, by illustrating for us that yes, through our bodies we know pain and suffering and death. And through our bodies we know pleasure and joy, hope and light, comfort and peace and salvation.
Kinnell writes: “Could heaven be a time, after we are dead, of remembering the knowledge flesh had from flesh.”
Our bodies, our flesh, is all we know. We cannot escape them, we cannot understand and experience the world without them. It is through these bodies that we literally come face to face with the divine all around us and within us. Through our bodies we know God. The Word is flesh.
At the end of episode 9 of the original Cosmos, Carl Sagan talked about our relationship to the stars of the universe:
The lives and deaths of the stars seem impossibly remote from human experience, and yet we are related in the most intimate way to their life cycles, the very matter that makes us up was generated long ago and far away in red giant stars. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
Amen, Dr. Sagan.
And in light of our reading of John 1 today, I will say we are made of God-stuff as well. The oxygen in our lungs, the hydrogen in our skin, the beta carotene in our hair and fingernails, are all the same as the body that God incarnated in Jesus Christ. They are all the same as the bodies that God lives in today in us, when we reach, when we touch, when we bridge, when we love. The life of God may seem remote from our experience, but we are related in the most intimate ways, the very flesh that makes us up was inhabited long ago by the Word, and still is today.