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The Word made Flesh
Revd Sue Lucas, Christmas midnight mass 2014

Word out of silence, now in flesh appearing. 

Rowan Williams's 2013 Gifford lectures, published this year are called ‘The Edge of Words.’  And this night, as we wonder at the Word made flesh, we truly are at the edge of words, the edge of language, the edge of the intelligible and so at the edge of mystery.

Yet – there is a sense in which words are always already fleshly – words are material in the beginning and from the beginning; God speaks, in the passage from Genesis of which tonight’s Gospel is a deliberate echo -  and creation comes to be; and, curiously, modern science echoes this – our very being – from hair colour to character to some extent, from height to disposition to disease – are encoded intelligibly in our DNA.   Material reality is intelligible – flesh is word and word is flesh; the material world – speaks;

Poets have always known this; from Wordsworth’s drawing of extraordinary affinities between the environment and experience to, in a more theological register, Hopkins’ view of ‘inscape.’  But the poetic voice is also a prophetic voice, in its proper theological sense;  This isn’t bad theodicy – the crass view that ‘everything has a purpose’ – but simply that, the prophetic voice – the voice in which, according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, God spoke to our ancestors, the material situations in which we find ourselves, whether of rejoicing, or sorrowing, whether of affirmation, or challenge, or even threat, are potentially places for a deeper level of our own calling, both as individuals and as communities.  The work of the poet and the prophet is not an aberration or exception in the human world but an intensifying of an experience that belongs to our common humanity. Words, already material things, are our means of sharing in the work of our creator – of seeing the world, of understanding it, and changing it, of forming something new, and of being ourselves made new, formed more closely in God’s likeness.  In conversation with one another, and with God – we are recreated.

So it is both unsurprising and yet deeply mysterious that the language in which God speaks to us is material, is flesh; for whilst words and flesh are one, ‘There are moments when our speech is jolted into a different register.’ (p 7 The Edge of Words)

This is never more true than tonight; for we are jolted into the recognition that the word made flesh cannot speak – but is an infant, communicates the way of all infants, through cries and groans, and through the music of lullabies.

But of course that’s rather the point – word made flesh shows us that in the end, the words we use, like the material world of which we are a part, can be annexed, appropriated, co-opted, put to work in our own idolatrous schemes; but the word made flesh, in all his human vulnerability, cannot be:

Those who cannot speak – babies, those who do not have spoken language because of disability or accident, those who have a learning difficulty – perhaps most of all there we see God. Indeed, the vision of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities in which people categorised as having learning difficulties live in community with those alongside them – is that, in our use, and misuse and abuse of words, and of the material reality of which they are part – we need to recognise that it is we too that have learning difficulties, and not just those we so categorise:  in our failure to acknowledge, in fact, the difficulty of learning  – about our vulnerability, our flesh, our dependence.  And the narrative of Jesus own life shows us just this; the consequences of having the unconditional spoken in a human life. (Edge of Words, p 89)

And in those who cannot speak because their words and voices are silenced– those who are poor, who are sick, who are asylum seekers, who are alone, who are categorised as having learning difficulties, they too speak to us of a God in whom the unconditional is spoken, not in temples and palaces, but in the manger, and on the cross.
So perhaps our only possible response to the word made flesh is silent wonder – that the God who speaks us into being moment by moment, who breathes his spirit into an intelligible universe, speaks now, through this child, this son, this baby in the manger, this broken man on the Cross, and this risen one we meet, this night, and in every Eucharist, in the breaking of the bread.

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