2013-01-05

Love Becomes Incarnate Many Ways

In addition to the Gospel of John, the New Testament includes three epistles of John, the first of which, at least, might have been written by the same “John” who wrote the fourth gospel. In any case, scholars think all four “John” books were produced by what they call the “Johannine community” – an early Christian cell that developed a distinctive form of Christian thought.

The first epistle of John says:
“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
Thus, the John gospel is saying that, “The word,” -- the logos, the uniting connecting principle which we might call love – “became flesh.” Love becomes flesh, becomes embodied. If we read this as poetry, not as a claim upon belief – that is, if we read it as expanding the ways available to us for understanding experience rather than as narrowing the ways available to us – then it is neither empirical nor imperial, but an invitation to play upon a field of imagination and possibility.

Lake Chalice is inclined to say love becomes more real when it takes its material form in our bodies and our actions of care. Plato apparently disagrees: he says love is more real as an unchangeable abstract ideal and becomes less real when dimly refracted into our fumbling, stumbling imperfect bodies. Nevertheless, Plato's perspective is valuable for reminding us that whatever we manifest, whatever incarnation we pull off, it is never the final form, never the end of the story, that there are always more possibilities.

Love becomes flesh, becomes embodied, and dwells among us. Love moves into the neighborhood. The poetry of John is more telling us than showing us. He leaves it to other gospels, Matthew and Luke, to show us what the word made flesh actually looks like.

John’s Gospel was the last one written, so its author would have known about the gospels Matthew and Luke, and would also have noticed how very different they were. Love becomes flesh in many different ways -- as John would have known just from the two examples of Matthew and Luke.

In Matthew, Joseph plans how to dump his pregnant disgraced fiancé, but an angel comes in a dream and tells him to stick it out. Wise men from the East come asking for the child born king of the Jews. They saw his star. King Herod consults his own priests and scribes, learns the child is in Bethlehem, and tells the wise men from the East to go look there, and then report back. They go, and the star reappears and leads them. They find the child and are overwhelmed with joy. Then another dream, another celestial intervention, tells the wise men not to go back and tell Herod. They left for their own country by another road.

In Luke, Emperor Augustus decrees the world should be registered. There’s an awareness of class that isn’t in Matthew. Mary and Joseph head down from Nazareth to Bethlehem because that’s where Joseph is from. While they are there, Mary gives birth, wraps the babe in swaddling clothes, and “laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.”

In Matthew, there's nothing about a stable, or a manger, or no room in the inn.

In Luke, the messiah comes from a poor, outcast family.

In Matthew, Joseph has middle-class worries about respectability and has to have an angel tell him to stay with Mary.

In Luke, they’re poor. There’s no concern about respectability, no mention of Joseph making plans to “dismiss” Mary. For Luke, for the poor, solidarity matters, not respectability. And in Luke, shepherds nearby that night see an angel who tells them, "a messiah is born – go." So they go. They find the parents and newborn. I love how Luke places the poor at the center of the story. The simple shepherds are the agents of the good news. There’s no fancy wise men in Luke, and no expensive gifts.

In any case, love becomes incarnate in a lot of different ways.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "The Word Made Flesh"
Next: Part 4: "Miracle on 34th Street"
Previous: Part 2: "Logosland"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Word Made Flesh"