And the word was made flesh! Flesh. How that word explodes with connotations. Initially our flesh is virginal and pure; the naked unwhipped, unsullied, unwrinkled flesh of a baby, full of innocence, beauty, dignity. How natural that our baptismal rite holds up a baby and says: “Bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” How natural it is to handle a baby gently, to cradle it. But from the beginning, our flesh is complex and needy. It needs desperately to be stroked, to be wanted, to be held in affection, to be singled out for special attention, to be joined to what is beyond itself. Even in innocence there is complexity, and even in a baby the needs of the flesh are too complex to be fully met.
Moreover, our flesh is vulnerable, exposed; naked always, it hurts easily, bruises, burns, cuts. And life, soon enough, brings its whip down on exposed flesh. It begins already when we are in the womb and in the cradle where others around us, living in their own wounds, cannot give us the sense that we are unconditionally loved and wanted. Already then our flesh begins to bruise, to tighten, grow nervous and to take on the diseases of uncradled flesh. This intensifies after we leave the cradle. We tug at the wrong things; lamps and boiling coffee pots come falling down on our heads and we skin knees and cut ourselves on jagged edges. Then it’s the playground with its fights, its hateful words, its taunts, its bullyings, its cynicism and its rejections! A whip on exposed flesh. After the cradle, only seldom is the flesh cradled. Early in life, very soon, our flesh becomes scarred, calloused, sullied, full of nervousness and tense with suspicion. Yet, even as all this happens, love, too, is cradling our flesh, healing scars, melting bitterness and turning nervousness into calm. Thus, human flesh, the flesh that God came to assume, is indescribably complex. What kind of flesh did God have in mind for the incarnation?
Relaxed, joyful flesh; frightened flesh; unstroked tense flesh; smooth young flesh, strutting in pride; aged wrinkled flesh; perfumed flesh; decaying flesh; flesh giving itself in love; flesh holding a gun; restless aching flesh; sexually satiated flesh; drugged flesh; flesh in the groans of childbirth; flesh slashing its own wrists; whipped flesh; flesh raping other flesh; tired flesh; ulcered flesh; flesh full of energy; flesh full of cancer; virgin’s flesh; prostituted flesh; cradled flesh; uncradled frigid flesh?
Whose flesh? What kind of flesh did the word become? In what flesh can we see the word incarnate today? Can the word ultimately cradle and calm and satiate the complex needs of flesh? Will tension ever leave human flesh? These are adult Christmas questions; perhaps ineptly asked at Christmas time. Maybe Christmas is, after all, a time to focus on what is innocent and pure in the flesh, the baby Jesus, the initial entry of God into the flesh.
Certainly, Christmas is a time to ponder the flesh and to take seriously God’s entry into it. It is also a time to pray for a continued incarnation of God in the flesh. In that spirit, I offer a Christmas prayer for 1985: It’s a prayer I’ve borrowed from Theresa of Avila, a saint who would occasionally be very bold with God. It’s a fleshy prayer, one befitting the incarnation. At those times when Theresa of Avila felt most bold with God she would pray: “Lord, kiss me full on the mouth!”
That’s a bold prayer that our world and our churches might aptly pray this Christmas time. For we are fatigued, distracted, tense, frigid, frightened and overwhelmed people. We stand, all of us, in sullied baptismal robes, our dignity far from intact. We live trapped by our own histories, victims of our own needs, caught in a chain of wound and neuroses that stretches back far beyond our own memories and our own lives. Despite our achievements and our growth, our hearts are ever closer to choosing despair over hope, resignation to darkness over the light of love, victimization over liberation and cynicism over childlike happiness. We are a child in need of a mother, a tension aching for consummation, flesh in need of an incarnation.
Come, Lord Jesus, be born in human flesh, cradle our flesh, assume all flesh…kiss us full on the mouth!