And the Word Became Quarks – Br. Mark Brown

John 1:1-18

These words of John are surely some of the most luminous of the Bible: words to be spoken on our knees in wonder.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In the old Latin rite these beginning verses from John were read at the end of every Mass.  And all were to genuflect at these words: Et verbum caro factum est. And the Word became flesh–and dwelt among us.  Words to be spoken on our knees.

There is much to genuflect before in these opening words of the Gospel of John.  In the beginning was… That anything should be, or should have been or should come to be…that there is something and not nothing: existence itself is cause for wonder.  That anything should be at all should bring us to our knees in wonder—figuratively, if not literally.  And that there should be a beginning for anything to be in.  That there should be life and light, that there should be grace and truth: more cause for wonder, more reason to fall on our knees.  That there should be a Divine Word to speak anything into existence.  That there should be a Divine Word to become flesh.

That there should be flesh for the Divine Word to become. That there should be flesh to imbue with light and life.  That there should be flesh for grace and truth to be revealed to.  So much to genuflect before.

That there should be flesh at all is cause for wonder. Flesh, of course, is mostly an embarrassment in Christianity.  Something to overcome, something to triumph over—as in “the world, the flesh and the devil.”  The very word “flesh” has erotic or sexual overtones.  Without denying those overtones, I wonder if we’ve quite got the emphasis right.

Modern science gives us a much more complete understanding of flesh than the Bible does. It really gets to the bottom of things.  Particle and quantum physics give us a window on the fundamental components of flesh: the sub-atomic particles, the really small stuff where waves and particles blur the distinction between matter and energy and where properties are described in statistical probabilities.

We’re usually so caught up in the minutiae of our lives that we lose sight of the really small things. The neutrinos and quarks and gluons and photons and dozens of other charmed realities buzzing around the mini-solar systems of atoms.  Which make up the molecules that make up the living cells of our flesh.

Cells encoded with the DNA that signals how these cells are to interact with other cells to build the various systems of our bodies: the nervous system, the circulatory system, the alimentary system, the skeletal and muscular systems, the respiratory system, the reproductive system—all with their own organs, all, if we’re in good health, working together to make up the stuff we call flesh.  Flesh is a magnificently complex system of systems.

The system of systems doesn’t stop at our skin, though. Every individual human being is profoundly interconnected with others. Social neuroscience studies how our brains mediate relationships with others.  Your smile or your frown, your laughter or scowl, will activate areas of my brain even before my conscious mind can interpret it and respond “appropriately”.  Even our genetic makeup is dependent: our genes are inherited from our parents, of course, but how they are activated or not can depend on how we are nurtured, or not, as infants.

Flesh is most complex thing in the known universe, a system of systems interacting with other systems of systems in still more systems of social organization.  The quarks and gluons and neutrinos interact to become part of the atomic substructure of the universe.  The interaction of atoms configures molecular structure.  Particular combinations of molecules, given the right environment, become living cells.  How? Why?

At what level of complexity do living organisms become sentient?  We’re not quite sure.  At what level of development do sentient organisms become conscious, and why, and how?  We don’t really know.  At what point does consciousness become self-reflective, and why?  Another mystery.  It’s amazing what the quarks and photons and neutrons and electrons and all the rest can do when they get organized.

At what level of social organization does reflective consciousness acquire a moral conscience, and why and how?  At what point does flesh become aware of grace and truth, light and life?  Justice and compassion?  Love?  Beauty?  At what point does flesh become aware of  the capacity for fun? How? Why? These are delicious questions.

Flesh!  Human flesh.  God’s handiwork: human flesh, which the Word became, and dwelt among and within.  Flesh doesn’t get enough credit. Flesh doesn’t get enough genuflections.

We might also pause to genuflect before genuflection itself.  Partly because bending the knee belongs to an enormous range of choreographic possibilities, one gesture among many of the body’s own very expressive language. But also because the act of genuflection gives expression to flesh’s capacity for reverence.  The capacity to recognize something or someone as holy, as sacred, as divine, is itself something to reverence. We might genuflect before genuflection itself.  We might bend the knee in awe and reverence before our capacity for awe and reverence.

Being humble is a very good thing. We do well to be humbled by our own splendor, our own magnificence as creatures of this amazing stuff we call flesh. Here’s a Sabbath day suggestion: we could all take a rest from trying to be better persons, we could take a rest from our projects of self improvement long enough to comprehend how magnificent we already are.  We could wait until next year to be a better person.  Today, we could genuflect in awe before the wonder of our own incarnate existence.

And the Word became gluons and quarks and photons and neutrinos and dwelt among all the other gluons and quarks and photons and neutrinos.  The Word becomes flesh. The Word shall become.

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  1. Melinda on May 13, 2015 at 10:25

    Ah, such wonderment! Thank you Br. Mark

  2. Ruth West on December 26, 2014 at 13:46

    Br. Mark, I have never heard the emphasis in this verse being placed on “the flesh” rather than “and
    dwelt among us.” You certainly analyzed the flesh
    in a spectacular way. I think of the Psalm which says we are wondrously made. How complex and great is the creation of the human being! I am so grateful than God sent his son to dwell among us!
    Thanks for all those academically rich descriptions
    of the flesh. (I had to use my dictionary!)

  3. Christopher Engle Barnhart on December 26, 2014 at 07:36

    How wonderful to parallel sacred with sience. The links can not be overlooked. From the vastness of space to the miniscule of the human cell. God made it all.

  4. Carol Babb-Pool on December 4, 2013 at 15:19

    Thank you, Br. Mark. I, too, smile in wonder, awe, humility and gratitude!

  5. Janet Kuyendall on December 3, 2013 at 15:13

    Thank you again! This is such an awesome reflection. I shared it in 2007 at a homeless shelter and look forward to sharing it more.

  6. Brenda Weems on December 2, 2013 at 12:32

    Oh how beautiful are these sacred thoughts and words…how wondrous was/is it that Divinity was incarnated into Flesh…that our flesh can journey by Grace into divinity. The WORD became Flesh and the WORD still has the Power to incarnate. Thank you for this. Bless your pondering heart.

    • Janet Kuyendall on December 3, 2013 at 15:01


  7. Christina on December 2, 2013 at 10:41

    words – gifts that may, or may not be treated with reverence. THE WORD – the consummate Word: the consummate gift to be received with awe and reverence.
    Thank you Brother Mark.

    • Christina on December 26, 2014 at 09:44

      Again – a year later – thank you Brother Mark, and blessings to you and all the Brothers for the coming year.

  8. Rev. John Saynor on December 2, 2013 at 09:21

    Thank you! Beautiful

  9. Judy on December 2, 2013 at 08:27

    this makes me smile!

  10. Pam on December 2, 2013 at 07:59

    “Fearfully and wonderfully made”

  11. Martha Holden on December 29, 2011 at 17:49

    That is great…. four years old and aging well, very well. Better than my knees which do not genuflect well….but my heart improves at genuflection steadily, and much boosted along by this sermon. Thank you.

  12. Jan Kuykendall on December 26, 2011 at 12:44

    This is magnifcent but…Not even our flesh, as God’s handiwork, can express the awesome mystery of John’s words!

  13. William H. Petersen on December 26, 2011 at 07:38

    The “Last Gospel” wasn’t only done in the Latin rite. As an young acolyte growing up in Trinity Cathedral, Davenport, IA, I well remember (early 1950s) that this custom obtained. The then Dean ripped through it at warp speed (in English) and we duly tried to do a quick genuflection as the incarnational words approached and zoomed by. The text, however, was burned on my brain from a very early age and hasn’t lost its power in the many decades that have passed! Thanks for the reflection.


  14. Rev. Charles r. Colwell on December 24, 2011 at 07:40

    Fantastic meditation. loved it. THANK YOU!!!!

  15. John Van Siclen on December 24, 2011 at 05:35

    Thank you, Mark, for this and a very Merry Christmas to you and your brothers. John

  16. Clark on December 24, 2011 at 05:28

    Br. Mark- What a wondrous contemplation from infinite to infinitesimal, the glory of flesh; your daily word is a genuflection- I smile in the beauty of worship. Thank you.

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