Since the 12th January we have started our celebration of Epiphany and the role of the Magi in the nativity story. And as soon as I mention the Magi, the Wise Men, the Kings who visited Jesus as a baby we will create a picture in our minds of 3 kings robed and probably wearing crowns and no doubt holding small packages representing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It is perfectly natural that we will have this picture in our minds in association with the kings, the Magi, but it is of course a completely unfounded image. Nowhere do we read about 3 kings or indeed about robes or gifts wrapped in boxes. But the truth is humans cannot see or understand things in the abstract. What I mean is that when we are told a story about kings and gifts we need to give flesh to that story by imagining what the scene looked like. We need to start to give shape and indeed names and numbers to the story so that we can fully engage with it. And so the 3 Kings are given the names Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior .. not in the Bible but in human telling of the story so that the abstract becomes personal. This idea of the Word becoming fleshed out is central to our readings of the Bible today.
In the Old Testament we read that God is in a special relationship with Israel, with Zion. Their nation is beloved by God and chosen to show the acts of God’s kindness. Now this might seem strange or indeed unfair at first glance. Why are Israel loved more than any other nation? Why is Zion so cherished? But this is to miss the point . It is not that Israel is loved more than any other but rather that in showing the love of the Creator in specific acts towards Israel, God is revealing the love of the Divine for all that is created. The point is the same as that of the Magi becoming 3 kings.
For God to say I love you to creation it must be done in specific, actual, concrete terms and not as an abstract idea. Love is not an idea but is made flesh in its being acted out. So when we read of God’s love for Israel. How God cherishes and cares for a chosen people .. it is not to exclude us, but to reveal to us what it means to be in a loving relationship. When we read that God cares for and strengthens and brings peace to Zion it is in order to remind us that God wants to bestow strength and care and peace to us!! The choosing of Israel in the Old Testament is in order that we might flesh out the love that God has for all Creation. What you read about the journey of the Jewish people is meant for all who follow God. The failings and trials the freedom and faithfulness … it is all a particular story that reveals the universal idea.
God loves you … this is not an abstract idea but a definite truth which is fleshed out for us in the story of Israel in the Old Testament. For God … just like us cannot simply say I love you but must do I love you. We know this in our human relations .. when someone says I love you it must somehow be acted out too .. we must flesh out our ‘I love you’ with acts of kindness and sacrifice and tenderness.
This brings us to the Gospel where the same truth is revealed again .. that word must become flesh for it to truly dwell in our hearts and minds. So John writes ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’.
Here is the mystery revealed again in its fullness. Word must become flesh. Just as a story of Kings must be fleshed out with beards and crowns and names and camels .. just as God’s love must be revealed in the wanderings and wars and worries and victories of Israel … so the message of how we must love one another becomes fleshed out in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
You see it was not enough for God to say to us .. love one another! We needed the word to be made flesh among us. It was not an abstract idea that we should love our neighbour or indeed our enemies. We have been shown what this looks like in the stories and events of Jesus life. If you want to love one another it will look like this .. you will embrace the rejected; you will bring healing to the suffering; you will welcome the children; you will sacrifice your own life for those who curse you. This is the word love made flesh.
So this Epiphany let us embrace the image of the 3 wise men. Let us give them names and robes and beards. But let us do so knowing this is the human means of learning and relating. Let us read about Israel and God’s love for them and in doing so learn of God’s love for us all. Let us recognise Jesus as the Word made Flesh in our world .. the example of a love which was too complex and too big for us to imagine without Him.
And most importantly in 2020 let us seek to make flesh the faith, hope and love we have but which without us acting upon remains without substance in our world!