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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