By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London
Among the Gospel readings assigned for Christmas, my favorite has got to be the prologue to John’s Gospel. With its bold affirmation of the flesh, the prologue unmistakably rejects all those early Christian heresies that denied the full-body reality of Jesus Christ. The Word did not just appear to be flesh, it became flesh and lived among us, thus making it crystal clear that God loves physical matter: God made it, God became it, and God wants us to experience Him through it. Ever since William Temple declared that “the Word made flesh” is the most important phrase in all of Christianity, Anglican Johannine scholars have tended to emphasize this flesh-affirming character of John’s Gospel. As an Anglican priest who has published a book on John, I find myself standing in this lineage and eager to share the Gospel’s invitations to affirm the flesh as God’s preferred vehicle for His glory.
It was this affirmation of the flesh that surprised me most in studying the Johannine Jesus, whom one scholar famously described as a detached “god who glides across the face of the earth” and whom another scholar called a “stranger from heaven.” Although I wasn’t looking for it, I kept noticing how much John’s Jesus seems to love the world and take great delight in earthly pleasures. He inaugurates his ministry by miraculously bringing more wine to a wedding party in which the guests are already sufficiently drunk (2:10); his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well is charged with nuptial and even erotic overtones (4:1-42); he offends listeners with a description of the Bread of Life that is far too fleshy for their religious tastes (6:60-61); he makes healing ointment out of dirt and saliva (9:6); he receives an expensive and seemingly excessive foot anointing from a female friend (12:1-8); and he himself strips down to almost nothing to wash his disciples’ feet (13:1-11). This Johannine Jesus is no stranger to the world.
John’s prologue functions as a poetic prelude to the almost scandalous ways that Jesus delights in creation; and the prologue invites us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the matter that is all around us and the matter that is us. On Christmas day, as we celebrate the Christ Mystery born of a woman’s body, John’s prologue reminds us to appreciate the gift of our bodies and to experience our flesh (and the earth!) as sacred vessels for divine life and expression. One helpful way that John’s flesh-affirming prologue invites us to celebrate the Incarnation is by helping us to appreciate the gift of our five senses, which are all explicitly referenced in the Gospel’s subsequent narrative. When Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, he invites us to appreciate the gift of audition by teaching the Pharisee about the spiritual significance of simply listening to the wind (3:8). The gift of taste is underscored when Jesus quenches the Samaritan woman’s deepest thirst (4:14). In the healing of the man born blind, we learn to appreciate the gift of vision by seeing God’s healing power at work in the messy muddiness of our lives (9:6). The gift of olfaction is highlighted as Jesus invites Martha and Mary to smell the subtle hints of resurrection in the midst of death (John 11:39); and Jesus emphasizes the gift of touch in his beautiful and enigmatic exchanges with Mary Magdalene and Thomas (John 20:17, 27). Throughout the Fourth Gospel, the Word Made Flesh invites us to be refreshed by the gift of our own flesh, our own temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), specifically by appreciating our five senses.
Another way the Word Made Flesh offers refreshment is by inviting us to rest. The Word who was with God at the beginning of creation knows the crucial importance of Sabbath rest (Genesis 2:2). So, it is no surprise that Christ urges his disciples and us to rest and abide in him (15:4, 7), to honor our flesh by giving it proper time to rest. This might be the Gospel’s most helpful piece of advice on Christmas Day for preachers and parishioners, who are likely exhausted after a busy and demanding Advent season, especially during a pandemic.
Traditionally, the author of the prologue is St. John the Evangelist, whose feast day happens to be celebrated on the third day of Christmas (Dec 27). Identified as the “Beloved Disciple,” St. John exemplifies perfect rest when he reclines next to Jesus during their last evening together (13:23). According to the Celtic Christians, St. John was resting upon the bosom of Christ and listening to his heartbeat. On Christmas day, when Episcopalians pray to be “renewed by the Holy Spirit,” may we all be refreshed by deepening our appreciation for our five senses and by resting and abiding in Christ, whose heart continues to beat in our own holy flesh.
 William Temple, Nature, Man and God: Gifford Lectures, Lecture XIX: “The Sacramental Universe” (London: Macmillan), 478; as cited in Christ In All Things: William Temple and His Writings, ed. Stephen Spencer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 130. Anglican Johannine scholars who have emphasized the flesh-affirming character of the Fourth Gospel include John A. T. Robinson, Richard Bauckham, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Dorothy Lee.
 Ernst Käsemann, The Testament of Jesus: According to John 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 75. Marinus de Jonge, Jesus: Stranger from Heaven and Son of God: Jesus Christ and the Christians in Johannine Perspective (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1971).
 I am indebted to Dorothy Lee, whose scholarship on John and the five senses have helped me to see the many ways that the Gospel affirms the flesh. See Dorothy Lee, “The Gospel of John and the Five Senses,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (Spring 2010). Also see Dorothy Lee, Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John (New York: Herder & Herder, 2002).
 During Lent (Year A), the Revised Common Lectionary assigns the above readings from John’s Gospel on Sundays, referencing the gifts of audition (3:1-17), taste (4:5-42), vision (9:1-41), and olfaction (11:1-45), while the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday references touch (20:1-18). Inspired by Dorothy Lee’s work, I have offered Lenten retreats, workshops, and a sermon series on “Experiencing the Fourth Gospel Through the Five Senses.”
 See J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1997). Also see Bede, Ecclesiastical History 3.25 in which “the blessed evangelist John” is described as “worthy to recline on the breast of the Lord.”
The Rev. Daniel London, PhD is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka, California, where he loves to engage his five senses in the church’s gorgeous redwood sanctuary, especially during Christmas (as pictured above on Christmas in 2018.) He teaches online courses for Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal School for Deacons, and the Diocese of Northern California’s Center for Bible Study. He is the author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic) and serves on the Executive Board for the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars.
One thought on “Christmas Day: Be Refreshed by the Word Made Flesh”
You’ve changed my Christmas Eve text. Our little congregation has only a Christmas Eve service, no Christmas Day service. So, the heck with Luke. The Word become flesh is the real story. The shepherds are dead and the angels are busy welcoming COVID-19 graduates into heaven. What a great opportunity to put the candy of Luke 2 back in the box and serve up some prime rib!
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