“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” -John 1:14
Of all the words which have been fleshed out in my life the one I like the best is “friend.” I’m sure I had some idea of what a friend was as a child. There were the other children on our street who I saw all the time but who were not family, friends by default and fair enough. I’m sure I had a few goldenbooks about friends, and I know my favorite part of the Sesame Street Christmas album was the story which Mr. Hooper tells with Ernie and Bert about two best friends who sell their most prized possessions to get a gift which will perfectly match the prized possession of the other. It’s a variation on an O’Henry tale, but I didn’t know that then, only that Bert & Ernie were friends. Best friends. Maybe this is what I had in mind when I slid a note to the wiry kid in Ms. Lannan’s Fifth Grade Class who I spent a lot of time with in the woods behind my house. It said, “Are we friends? Are we best friends?” He read it and shot a contorted fifth grade shrug over to me which said something like, “I don’t know, I guess?” That was good enough for me. I had no idea at the time how much better it could get. I had not yet learned that a friend was someone who could walk the whole length of Manhattan with you by night listening to you talk about your problems. I didn’t know that a friend was who you called when a parent was sick or dying, or that friends could tell you something painfully true about yourself without even being cruel. I didn’t know that friends could forgive you for lost time, or make a foreign country seem familiar for all the conversation to be had. Of course I wouldn’t come to know any of that at all if it hadn’t been for the flesh and blood friends who made that word so real for me. Not just real but nuanced, vivid, specific, fitting it’s possibilities to the details of my life and needs so precisely that it almost seems indulgent at times. If I hadn’t had such friends I might have only ever idealized the idea of what that word meant. It might have only been Bert & Ernie in my memory if I had not otherwise known what a friend was in the flesh.
Of all the words which have been fleshed out in my life, the one I like the least is “pain,” or maybe “hurt.” Again, as a child, I’m sure I had some idea of what pain was. A tummy ache, a hand carelessly scalded by a burning stove, not getting what I wanted, all kinds of hurt. But what can prepare anyone for knowing how nuanced of a word “pain” can be? There’s the pain of having your first love opt for someone else. Which is different from the pain of realizing that friendships get harder to keep when you live 2,000 miles away. There is the pain of watching someone you love brave a decimating illness. The pain of paying attention to news from the world when the violence seems relentlessly bent on getting worse. There is the kind of pain we anticipate for weeks before it comes. There is the kind of pain which catches us suddenly unaware, there are pains we get so used to we forget that they are there. Sharp pain. Dull pain. Even as I list them, my words and descriptions can sound so cliched or empty, unless of course one of them has resonated with an experience which you have had yourself, in the flesh, with pain. Such a big word can lose it’s meaning when it stands in for so many things, but it also has the potential to be revived again when fleshed out with new experience. Like how the word “tender” takes on a deeper meaning when you watch a toddler take her first steps. Or how the word “rich” might seem more profound when used to describe an elderly couple crossing the street together pushing all of their possessions in a shopping cart. When I was in New York a “rose” was a gaudy red thing sold in cheap bundles at the bodega on the corner, but in Portland I have found there are a hundred other variations on what a rose can be.
So what kind of word is God? To speak of God is almost more cliche than to speak of pain or friendship. God is a word which comes to stand in for so many things which we don’t quite comprehend; serendipity, coincidence, purpose, end. But what is the Word of God? With what does God hold a conversation? John has Jesus name a few things. The Light. The Way. The Truth. The Life. Others might say Justice, or Charity, or Peace. All words which could mean a million things but which in the flesh and blood of Jesus became something quite specific, something literal and concrete with a history and a pulse. In the last hours of his earthly life Jesus came to use the word “friend” for what the disciples had experienced of God in him. They in turn were to be friends to one another. Orthodox Christians have their own word for this, “theosis,” an ongoing act by which we are engaged with God to become more like God’s own self. God became human that we might become God. The Word was made flesh so that God might be fleshed out with us. We strive through the centuries to pin down God with a clever word or phrase and risk growing bored with the tidy conclusions we’ve invented. God will have none of it. God will be fleshed out again, perhaps with you. Unlikely as it seems, your own flesh and blood may be the very details by which God will show herself to someone near you, a stranger, a friend. Perhaps, through you, someone will learn what it looks like to give as if there weren’t a limit to consider. Perhaps at a moment when you have every reason to act out of fear or malice or despair, someone will catch you acting out of love instead, for no reason other than love itself. And whether they know it at the time or not, they will have seen a flash of God, in the flesh, and the Word will be born again. Then may their eyes be opened to look up and behold a world which is full of such flashes; sparkling, in fact, with the most intricate detail of what it is to live with God on earth. A life of pain, to be sure, but also a life of friendship, a life in which the best may be made manifest among us now. May it be so for all of us. May the Word of God be fleshed out with us this Christmas, and on all the days which follow.