The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary;
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord;
Be it unto me according to your word….
Thus begins the Angelus, at Morning and Evening Prayer here in this chapel. Most of the year–we do something different in Eastertide. The Angelus is based on the passage from Luke that we’ve just heard. With the addition, the important addition, of John 1:14. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word who was with God in the beginning, who was God; the Word through whom all things came to be. The Word, the Logos, of God became human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation. The Angelus is in part a salute to the Virgin Mary and a request for her prayers. It is also a proclamation of the Incarnation and, in the concluding prayer, a concise summary of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. A good way to start the day.
From time to time, the Church has re-thought things. Literal readings of the Bible have given way to understanding informed by scientific knowledge. Even the most literal readers of the Bible accept that the world is a planet in a solar system in a galaxy among many galaxies. The cosmology of the creation story in Genesis has given way to demonstrable truth.
Another Biblical idea ripe for rethinking is “flesh”—that is, what the Word became. In scripture there is a wide range of opinions on the subject of flesh. In Genesis God creates human flesh and calls it very good. The Song of Songs sings the beauty of human flesh. Psalm 139 thanks God because we are “marvelously made”. The New Testament registers a shift, especially in the writings of Paul, for whom flesh becomes a problem, even a preoccupation. God sent his own son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” [Romans 8:3] Flesh becomes opposed to the spirit, opposed to our better nature. “The works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels”, etc. [Gal. 5:19] “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” [Gal. 5:22-23]
The early church and later the contemplative and monastic traditions, pick up on this very dualistic and negative assessment of human flesh—and it lingers today.
Flesh, incidentally, is mostly empty space. Flesh and other things may have the appearance of being solid, but it’s mostly empty space—even the stones of this chapel. The fundamental components of what makes up the world are surrounded by lots of space: space between the electrons whizzing around the nuclei of atoms. And if we go down into the nuclei of atoms we come to another world of strange and ambiguous realities—the quantum world, where there isn’t a lot of what you could call solid. The characteristics of the fundamental components of nature are such as to relate and connect and organize into increasingly complex entities.
And so, following what seems to have been a really Big Bang, clusters of matter formed into stars and planets and moons. And at least one of these spherical objects, this earth, had sufficient variety of fundamental components, that increasingly complex entities became possible. So, 13.8 billion years later, following aeons of evolutionary process, here we are, living things, flesh, pondering the nature of the universe and our place in it and the One who created it all—the One who said “Bang” and it was so. The One who became the flesh that we are.
But it’s mostly empty space with electrons whizzing around nuclei of atoms. Even the densest parts of our bodies, the exquisitely articulated skeletal frame that provides a structure for all the soft and squishy parts. Even the system of muscles that moves the structure into an infinite variety of positions and can even move the body from one place to another. Even the system of tubes with red or blue liquid that feeds the muscles and other squishy parts. One particular muscle, the heart, acts as a pump for the liquid blood. The nourishing of the body of flesh requires oxygen from the earth’s atmosphere, so we have a respiratory system working in tandem with the circulatory system. A system of nerves sends signals from place to place in the body and connects the various sensory systems: touch, smell, sight, hearing. Then there’s the system that makes new human beings. And the communications system, the nervous system that has its headquarters in some squishy stuff inside a roundish part of the skeletal frame. This is all flesh—and it’s mostly empty space. Even up here!
And, somehow, when this all adds up, we experience something we call consciousness. And it sure seems like we can make choices. And it sure seems like we have a sense of better and worse, right and wrong. We can decide to do stuff or not. We are conscious and we have a conscience.
This system of systems all works together marvelously—except when it doesn’t. The sheer complexity of human flesh means that it is prone to breakdowns and failures. We’re prone to illness; we die; we make bad decisions. But the sheer complexity of human flesh also gives us the capacity to do amazing things. Even the average Joe or Jane can do amazing things. Even the below average Joe or Jane can do amazing things, let alone Olympic athletes or prima ballerinas or virtuoso pianists. Our getting here to this chapel was an amazing thing, when you think about it. My standing up here talking and your sitting here listening are pretty amazing. Talking and listening are extremely complex events—pretty amazing, actually. And, not so amazingly, some of you are wondering what this all has to do with the feast of the Annunciation.
So I’ll get to my point. The Annunciation is about the very moment that the Word of God becomes human flesh. The flesh that the Word of God becomes is pretty amazing stuff—it is possible that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the universe. A human body is the most complex system of interrelated systems in the known universe. And this body, this flesh—which is mostly empty space—can do stuff. Some stuff we can do is not good. We can call that evil or sin.
But this body, this flesh, which is mostly empty space, can do stuff which we call good. Here’s my theory: all that empty space is not really empty. It is filled with an animating presence, an animating spirit, if you will—and that is the animating spirit of a living God, a God who has revealed himself by becoming human flesh. This living God, the Word who spoke existence itself into being, has revealed himself as love. This love, which inundates the cosmos, fills what would otherwise be empty space (even in things like flesh that seem so solid).
This animating presence embodies or incarnates love in countless manifestations, great and small. Especially if we are open to its energies. God is love; love is incarnate in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ brings grace and truth into the world, as John puts it [John 1:18]. We are his body, says St. Paul; we are a kind of continuation of Christ’s incarnation. And so, we have the capacity—that is, the flesh that we are has the capacity to incarnate love, grace and truth.
This flesh that we are, this flesh that the Word became, has this most amazing capacity: to embody or incarnate the very essence of God, the God whose animating presence fills all things. We’ve somehow acquired the capacity to say yes or say no to this presence. If we say yes to the presence of God’s love, the next question is “what good shall I do?” It becomes a moment by moment navigational tool through life: “what good shall I do next?”
When we say yes to God’s presence, our life’s project is simple. Not easy, but simple. And it all happens in the flesh. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility, self-control: the Spirit of God animates these things, but it all happens in the flesh. Every deed of kindness, every act of generosity, every word of encouragement happens in the flesh. Every embodiment of Christ’s grace or truth or love happens in the flesh—or it doesn’t happen.
It may be mostly empty space, but it’s amazing stuff, flesh. And it’s what he said he would raise up on the last day—in some marvelously new creation.
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