The Word Was Made Beautiful – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith NelsonIsaiah 52:7-10 & John 1:1-14

We are here to celebrate Christ, to rejoice and revel in the revelation of the Word made Flesh, to fall headlong into belief for the first time, or the five-thousandth time. You are here, probably, to listen – for the first or the five-thousandth time, to “hear the good news of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” in the words of Isaiah. But, probably, you are also drawn to see. To see and exclaim, even before hearing, How beautiful. How beautiful: the messenger’s feet upon the mountains. How beautiful: the holy arm which the Lord has bared. My God, how beautiful: this Child we have sought with the eyes of our hearts for so long.

Christmas, for Christians in the West, is the foremost opportunity to re-embrace the Medieval impulse to look and to touch; to show things of great meaning first, then to tell as commentary on the showing. As the faith of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America remains to this day, the faith of the Medieval West was unabashedly sensory. Looking and touching and tasting were essential to believing, and they are even more so today.

So for the next hour, and the next eleven days of Christmas after that: Look! Touch! Taste! Smell! Clap and point at jump up and down at every shiny, lovely thing. We need to engage these impulses in acts of worship because it is easy in twenty-first century North America to forget the path to this holy ecstasy, this self-spending in the pursuit of meaning rather than luxury and waste. Contrary to the pseudo-Christmas of the world, what we are doing here is no mere indulgence of the senses. This is no distracted gawking, or greedy grabbing, or tasting because our tongues are bored while hungry mouths are empty. Our God knows how very good yet how very distractible our senses can be. So, in the words of St. Athanasius, “He came to center our senses in himself.”[i]  His incarnation has opened the door to the deeply Christian act of beholding. This is pleasure taking hold of joy. This is beauty yielding a vision of truth. If our beholding is honest, here, too, is pain; but it is pain unlocking the storehouse of compassion. This is the shimmering wrapping paper that makes way with an ecstatic rip for the gift within. This is entering the stable at Bethlehem and, when we make our way home, knowing with our whole being that we have not merely been informed or entertained or gotten a good bargain out of the experience. Rather, we have seen God.

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” The prologue of John’s gospel, as always, positively resists sense and logic and points us directly to the domain of our senses, our intuition, and our desire: to look, to touch, to believe. This bond of warmth and genuine love with God, John suggests, will make itself known by making itself felt: in physical sensations that enfold us or catch us unawares. It will erupt in emotions that we cannot hide or control. It will whisper across the surface of awareness in intuitions that live in the gut as much as in the mind. How can we draw inspiration from the mysterious opening words of John’s gospel as we seek to renew that bond and to make Christ the object of all our looking, all our touching, and all our listening, for all our days?

In response to this mystical text of scripture, I repeat the time-tested reply of the mystics: Let the Word made flesh become flesh in you. Let the Word become flesh through your flesh. God’s solidarity with the material universe in Christ embraces all matter, but especially the human person, who is a microcosm of that universe. That Word that became flesh uniquely and irrevocably in Jesus of Nazareth through the immeasurable gift of his human mother’s consent – that Word that was in the beginning with God and was God – that Word desires with a cosmic longing to enter the world afresh and continue its saving work by means of you. You are essential, your consent is essential, and your love is essential. Nothing less will do.

Martha Graham, the visionary pioneer of modern dance, gave some astonishing advice about this personal involvement and consent to a divine, creative force. A colleague, Agnes DeMille, recorded a conversation she had with Graham in 1943, at a moment when DeMille felt tempted to doubt the value of all her previous work. Graham counseled:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening
that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.

If you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium
and be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is;
nor how valuable it is;
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly,
to keep the channel open.[ii]

We could easily say the same thing of God the living Word: “a vitality, a life-force, a quickening” – and again and again, an incarnation that is entirely dependent on the unique and open channel of your love. This process is not driven by motivation to express one’s individuality or to leave a mark on the world. It is the desire to please God alone by acting as a conduit for God’s self-revelation.

And yet, in those who have let the Word truly become flesh in their particular and irreproducible lives, an irresistible and radiant humanity emerges. There is no recipe for this process, and it is never complete on this side of Heaven.  Each baker must bake this dough in her own oven. Perhaps the Word has already become flesh in you many times, and your soul or your body – or both – bear the stretch marks and the scars of your God-bearing.

In me, the making of art is one wondrous way that the Word delights – and sometimes demands  to become flesh, like a child tugging on my sleeve until I lift him in my arms. Artists are those who cannot resist the calling to make art, but they are also those whose intentional looking, touching, and listening seeks to make an art form of life itself. In an artist who is a follower of Christ, this becomes a participation in the creativity of God, the divine Artist. I give the example of art because, at Christmas, this impulse to co-create becomes a native urge and a secret power stirring in the heart of the Church and in every Christian. Our child-like delight in the miniature wooden crèche or the gingerbread house is a delight in becoming very small and very large simultaneously, like the artist and the Christ Child. Our imaginations identify intimately with the tiny figures or edible inhabitants even as our massive bodies loom above and beyond. If only for a moment, we play the role of both Creature and Creator.

To let the Word of God become flesh in us, we might ask God to make us more spacious. There is a beautiful prayer from the Eastern Orthodox tradition that has not only enriched my faith, but has shaped my artistic process. Here is the prayer:

While Gabriel was saying, “Rejoice!,” O Virgin,
At the sound of his bodiless voice the Master of All Things
Took flesh within your pure womb. He dwelt in you as his holy Ark
as spoke the righteous David in the psalms.
And in bearing your creator, you were shown to be
More Spacious than All the Heavens.
Glory to Him who willed to dwell in you!
Glory to Him who came forth from you!
Glory to Him who, through your God-bearing, has delivered us![iii]

In a breathtaking reversal of perspective – a reversal that is at the heart of Christmas – the Creator becomes small enough to enter a human womb. But even more breathtakingly, that womb becomes – in the praying imagination – more spacious than all the heavens. There is a sense in this prayer that by bearing the Christ, the Virgin Mary more deeply became who she already was; that her heart, the womb’s mystical counterpart, already participated to some extent in the vastness of God. It is this open and unimpeded orientation, the prayer suggests, that drew the Creator to enter the world through her.

In an artistic composition, a lack of negative space can suffocate the vision. An obsessive desire to continue adding details or figures can overwhelm the eyes of the viewer. But the right proportion of space can re-assert balance, liberate forms and amplify meanings. Becoming more spacious as an artist is the result of knowing when and how to let our art create us, to let it assert its own mysterious Otherness. Becoming more spacious as a bearer of the Word made flesh is the result of letting God be God in us, often by learning what to subtract rather than what to add, and by learning when there is too much of us and not enough of our neighbor or of Christ. The Holy Spirit needs the circle at the center of the Christmas wreath, the soft hollow in the hay of the manger, and the emptiness of the chalice. The divine Muse needs space.

To let the Word become flesh in us, we might ask God to renew in us the child-like wonder that is native to us as human creatures and is our birthright as children of God. I found this child-likeness rekindled in me when I received a Christmas card from two friends, a husband and wife, with a new baby picture enclosed. After several years of waiting and struggle, they now have a daughter, their first, named Aurora. Aurora, Latin for “the Dawn.” She is clasping a bright red apple and gazes unselfconsciously at the camera with quiet surprise in an expression I have witnessed on the faces of both of her parents.

This little photo inspired me to draw a “baby picture” of sorts, part of the sketching I often do as I pray with scripture or prepare to preach. This Christmas, that facet of my preparation has yielded a completed drawing: a baby picture of the baby who belongs to us all. I’ll conclude with a Christmas “show and tell,” by asking you to turn to the last page of your worship booklet.

        The Word Became Flesh, by Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE.

I invite you simply to gaze at the image for a moment in silence. Then I’ll offer some words to guide our gazing.

Each time I say the phrase “The Word became Flesh,” I invite you to reply.

“And Dwelt Among Us.”

The Word became Flesh: and dwelt among us.

As dark strips of lead bind and support the radiant panes in a stained-glass window, the letters of the Word of God dance between panes of light refracted in color.

The Word became Flesh: and dwelt among us.

…and we have seen his glory, rising as the golden yellow sun in the blue of the heavens. As in the gold-leaf halos burnished by the hands of the iconographer, it bears the Greek phrase, “The One Who Is.” The abbreviation IC, XC, proclaims the Holy Name of the Savior, Jesus Christ, whom we now meet face to face.

The Word became Flesh: and dwelt among us.

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Tiny fingers grasp a strand of gleaming beads, in sheer delight at their simple being. Those hands hold all our moments and our days, our prayers and our dreams, our dyings and risings. He treasures the single thread of our love. With it, he has captured our heart, and holds it aloft in newborn triumph.

The Word became Flesh: and dwelt among us.

The distant shapes of flaming stars are mirrored in the form of the flower’s blossom. On the still surface of a quiet heart, it no longer matters which is “above” and which “below.” One is the cry as he slips from the womb; the other, the sound of his first laughter.

The Word became Flesh: and dwelt among us.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

This divine-human Child is born today, but still is coming into being; a shaft of naked light, he needs the prism of your heart to clothe him in color and adorn him with shadow: the rich black of newly-tilled soil; the delicate pink of sunrise; the lustrous brown of olivewood; the burnt sienna of wet clay: the miracle of a baby’s soft skin enfolding the eternally Begotten.

Let us pray:

Jesus, our Joy, we have seen your glory here: Open our eyes to behold you in all places. Open our hands to take hold of you. Open our ears to listen to you. Flood our flesh with the beams of your light and hallow our bodies to bear you, a fresh and living Word. Melt the frozen heart of the world by the fiery warmth of your irresistible Love. Make us once more what we have been in you from the Beginning: your cherished and beloved children. Amen.

[i] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation.

[ii] Martha Graham, quoted by Agnes DeMille in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House.1991.

[iii] Orthodox Theotokion, Tone I.

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  1. Mary Naumann on January 2, 2022 at 10:45

    Thank you for the delightful artwork and joy full words.
    Many blessings, Mary

  2. Marynelle Losin on January 2, 2022 at 09:05

    Dearest Brother Keith,
    There is so much beauty and truth in your message today, it will take me several readings to even begin to absorb it all! Thank you for your creative expression in words and in images (baby ‘Aurora’ is a delight!!), and the thoughtful sharing of your scholarly wisdom! Bless you, Marynelle.

  3. Robert H. Mace Jr. on February 28, 2021 at 16:38

    Br. Keith — your words are in themselves art: the articulation of meditative musing which needs to be read and re-read because it is just too significant. Letting the Word become flesh in all its beautiful and horrible expressions, all its joy and sorrow, all its radiance and darkness, all its hope and despair. Through Mary’s ‘fiat,’ an affirmative acceptance that all of us human creatures are offered the choice to make, we can invite God’s Word to enter into our flesh, the entire infrastructure of our humanity. If we let Christ in. If we let ourselves experience God and life with all our senses: seeing, hearing, speaking, touching. If we reclaim the innocence and honesty which informed and enlivened the unique freedom that our little lives enjoyed when we were children, while refusing to embrace the cynicism and hypocrisy which too often invade and corrupt our adult natures. The Word will truly become flesh in us, if we find ways to let it. And then our lives themselves will become art. Brother, thank you for the thinking, speaking and touching.

  4. Susan McLeod on February 21, 2021 at 07:00

    I have no words…just awe.
    Thank you Br. Keith and SSJE.

  5. Bobbi on February 19, 2021 at 13:36

    Thank you, Br. Keith, for bringing Christ alive in me through all my senses. Thank you for sharing your art work, created through prayer, and while praying.

  6. Karen A Hartsell on January 8, 2019 at 17:30

    I believe in God and His son Christ !

  7. Leslie on December 30, 2017 at 13:41

    Thank you for the icon.

  8. Lennart Pettersson on December 28, 2017 at 18:25

    50 years ago while driving to work I asked my self ; where is GOD?
    suddenly I was given an answer, GOD lives in me if I let him.
    I have too let him have space in my soul! I did not know how much space GOD needed, so I but him in a corner.
    Sometime GOD was behind the race car wanted to build, sometime behind a new girlfriend, sometime behind the sorrow I felt when something gone wrong and I wanted to run away from a problem.
    recently over anger I felt over being rejected from something I felt needed to be dune.
    I had to look at my self and ask : dues GOD want me to maintain the church building or spread the of Crist.
    I know how use the tools to repair things, but I have acquire some knowledge on how to speak in public speaking and the content of the bible, and I have longing to teach from the bible. I know to be the true word of GOD as every time I went away from the word off GOD something went wrong.

    • Rick Porter on February 19, 2021 at 08:46

      Bless you Lennart.

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