Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


We are deeply grateful to Father John Hemer MHM for his most inspiring talks, and for allowing us the reproduce his notes here.
Click the "read more" link below for the full texts.  These are lecture notes, rather than finished texts to be read aloud, and are thus useful aids for private study and mediation.
There are two talks, both of which were nearly an hour long, so we are attaching below links to two PDF files, so they may conveniently be downloaded and printed for leisurely study.
Click here for PDF of first talk on St John the Baptist.   
Click here for PDF of second talk on the Prologue of St John's Gospel.

John The Baptist.

In Mt. 311-12 John presents a picture of the coming Messiah – for him Jesus - where the lines are very sharply drawn: His winnowing fan is in his hand, he will clear the threshing floor his wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that never goes out.
A popular idea at his time. This is what it will be like. Once we thought all of us were the chosen people but some of us behave so badly that they must have to face retribution. And there were different definitions of who was right and wrong. People haven’t stopped being moralistic, they are just moralistic in a different way.
John’s God is not harsh or angry but just and consistent. He will not  leave goodness unrewarded nor wickedness punished. He expects Jesus to follow on from here. He also believes that the ‘Day of the Lord’ has arrived, that God is intervening in a special way.
Because of the manifest evil around him John does expect something frightening, dramatic like fundamentalists, Catholic; Protestant who wait for great portents and signs and disasters which will make everybody believe.
Perhaps Jesus’ coming gives him the courage to finally face Herod, the collaborator, fox, and that leads very quickly to his arrest. John Baptises Jesus, Jesus goes off into the desert for 40 days. John thinks “well it’s only a matter of time before Herod and all his party get their come-uppance so I can say what I want to say”. He’s not too worried when he gets arrested, Jesus the Messiah will soon sort things out. He’s spent plenty of time as a hermit in the desert so apart from the confinement prison is probably no harder and possibly easier than the life he’s led. He just sits and waits for the fireworks to begin. But they don’t.

His visitors tell him that rather than sort out good and bad, Jesus has gone soft. Tax collectors, prostitutes who have betrayed the nation, who have led to its moral decay are his friends. Synagogue officials are scandalised – he breaks the Sabbath. John saw things so lax that he could no longer work with it, so withdraws to the desert. Jesus seems to be making things more lax. No wonder John’s confused.
Everyone said the church would get better after Vat II  and all the lapsed would come back. Some say it’s got much worse, that we’ve sold out to the world. That’s what John feels. Turn to Mt. 11:1-11
So he sends and asks Jesus: Are you the one to come, or are wee to expect someone else? Surely there’s more to God’s intervention than this! So He reminds john that there is more than one way to think about the coming of the Messiah, this great judge idea is the one currently popular. John defines himself in terms of the prophesy of Isaiah: a voice crying in the wilderness So Jesus reminds him of things Isaiah said about ‘the Day of the Lord’
Your dead will come back to life,
your corpses will rise again.
Wake up and sing you dwellers in the dust! (26:19)

That day the deaf will hear the words of a book
And, delivered from shadow and darkness
The eyes of the blind will see.
The lowly will find ever more joy in Yahweh
And the poorest of people will delight in the Holy One of Israel (29:18-19)

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears of the deaf unsealed,
then the lame will leap like a deer
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (35:5-6)

The spirit of the lord has been given to me,
For the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to soothe the broken hearted (61:1)

Isaiah was Israel’s greatest spokesman for God, if this is how he spoke of God’s coming then John has no cause for alarm at all, this is the salvation he’s been waiting for. And: Blessed is he who takes no offence at me. John could become bitter and cynical at this stage: “Have I spent my life just for this?” but blessed is he if he does not, if he has the courage to think again. Jesus does not tell John that he’s wrong, just that there is more to it than he thought.
John is the summit of what people can do for themselves when they take life and God seriously. Of all children born to women there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist. (Mt:11:11) But Jesus knows that isn’t enough. There is no grace in John, there is no such thing as a free lunch. God is not vindictive but he is strictly just. Jesus goes far beyond this, to a God who is really compassionate and merciful. People who have got themselves into a mess through their own fault don’t have to ‘pay everything back’. Many of us have received a version of Christianity which is more the religion of John the Baptist than Jesus. Priests have been very good at preaching repentance and condemning evil but often not daring to preach grace. And even when you do, people don’t always like it, and they accuse you of watering the gospel down. A religion of “tell me what to do and I’ll do it, no matter how hard” is much easier than “Love God and love your neighbour” when they won’t even tell me who my neighbour is, or more important who my neighbour isn’t.
It is not a case of John is right and Jesus is wrong. Clearly Jesus admires John’s purity and integrity and the evangelists are unanimous in saying that Jesus’ encounter with him was decisive. But the difference is between “what shall we do” and “what can we become?” People are attracted to John and Jesus likes what he does but realises that it’s not enough and that is john’s movement really takes root people will end up the victims of just another type of moralism, albeit more refined and with the borders drawn a little wider. So it’s the time for Jesus to act. Without being disciples of John we can probably never become disciples of Jesus. We can never follow him without desiring the good and shunning evil, but if we never get beyond that, we will never really get the point of the gospel.
Luke 3:10-14. John is very practical and quite understanding of the fact that human beings are often trapped in situations they can’t just get out of. Instead of telling the tax collectors to stop collaborating with the imperialist Roman swine, he just tells them to take no more than they have to, likewise with the soldiers and tells the ordinary punters to help someone who is poor. To do something which is in their grasp. Sometimes I’ve heard people talking about how we have to change our whole lifestyle and stop participating in global exploitation. Fair enough, that may well be true but that sort of talk often leaves people high and dry about what they can do practically to help others.
So John’s suggestions are full of practical common sense, but they are an exercise in damage limitation. His word to tax collectors is: “Take less”. Jesus word is “Come down Zacchaeus, hurry, because I am going to stay at your house today” To the soldiers who torture him his word is not a lecture about human decency, but Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Jesus is not interested in damage limitation, but in transformation. John is like a policeman who wants to stop two warring factions battering each other. Jesus wants to get them to sit down and talk to each other and learn about each other. Sometimes all we can manage realistically is the first, but we can never just stop there.
Jesus says of him in Jn. 5: He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.
But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John;
What Jesus offers is so much more.
In the run up to the year 2000 there was a lot of talk about the millennium, some religious groups expected dramatic things to happen and there was even a secular version of millennial fear in all the Y2K computer worries.
It’s significant that the Catholic Church had nothing to do with any of that balmy religious speculation. We did not celebrate the millennium; we celebrated a Jubilee, a Holy Year exactly what Jesus talked about.
What Jesus offers is not judgment, but jubilee
The Beatitudes. 5:3-12.
It was often suggested that while the Ten Commandments were a good guide to ordinary Christian life, for those who wanted to be really perfect, to really excel, there were the beatitudes. To see them as counsels for a higher degree of perfection is to misunderstand them. They are rather a gospel of golden opportunities, saying to people that if they find themselves in these situations, then they have a chance to meet God and enter the kingdom. Some of them - poverty of spirit, mourning, hunger, persecution are not so much qualities to be aimed at as starting points for a journey towards God

1. How blessed are the poor in spirit:
    the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Many have commented on how this differs from the parallel saying in Lk. 6:20; How blessed are you who are poor, yours is the kingdom of God. It is been suggested that Matthew, shying away from the consequences or the difficulties inherent in the original saying (as probably found in Luke) has deliberately 'spiritualised' this sentence, and in so doing has softened its impact. Was Jesus saying literally that the state of poverty was a happy one? Most unlikely, and even a limited experience will teach one that poor people are not necessarily any more spiritual than the rich, indeed can be every bit as selfish and avaricious as the most unscrupulous of millionaire entrepreneurs. Was Jesus trying to liberate them from their economic situation? Was he being patronising? Was he telling people to submit to the unjust economic system at the time because their poverty made them blessed? Is he saying that poor people are more likely to be good than rich people? All these questions are answered by the expression poor in spirit. Matthew is not spiritualising or toning it down, but is trying to interpret and explain the meaning of a saying that could otherwise be highly ambiguous and open to the grossest of misinterpretation. Matthew's text clearly does not refer to mere material poverty as a blessing. The expression first of all points to insight into one's own condition. 
The poor in spirit seem to be those who have a relentlessly honest view of themselves and their own helplessness. This corresponds very closely to what we mean in English by humility, i.e. being in touch with the soil, not being subject to flights of fancy about oneself. The word used here, ptwcoi, does mean destitute, beggars. This is not a counsel just to have enough, it is not “blessed are the frugal!”
This realisation of one's condition, one's helplessness is not something that we can engineer ourselves. It simply assails people who are truly honest about their life. Many people spend a lifetime running away from poverty of spirit, and all of us resist it to some extent. Most of us would like to believe that we are self-sufficient, that we can call the shots, even where our religion is concerned. The opposite of this poverty is security. Whenever someone looks on his money, his position, his reputation, his possessions, his image as the thing which really makes him secure in the world he is relying on something which is not God. The one who is poor in spirit does not just turn to God out of some sense of piety, some vague religiosity. He realises in his incompleteness that he needs God desperately, he is like someone whose head is held under water gasping for air. At the moment he realises that, he has a chance to enter the kingdom of God. He has a chance to grasp that reality which Jesus struggled so hard to put into words. The kingdom is not a reward for goodness, it is the possession of those who learn to depend ultimately on God and nothing else.
This beatitude is about detachment from anything which will give a false sense of security, but it is also about attachment to the only one who can give any kind of security. Luke's parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk 18:9-14) is probably the clearest illustration of what this beatitude means.

2.  Blessed are those who mourn:
     they shall be comforted.
If poverty characterised the human condition in general, then grief is the most likely response to that. This may be mourning over personal loss, lament over Israel, the state of the world or even one's own sins. Mourning had also become a common metaphor to describe faithful Jews, in stark contrast to frivolous and cynical people who do not care about the state of the nation. Whatever the reason for the mourning, it is always a chance either to simply cling to the past or to make a new start. When people cling to the past, they are not really mourning, they are in fact refusing to accept their loss and until they do that they cannot move on. I once knew a couple in London whose eight year old son had one day just bowed his head and died. Destroyed by grief, for several years the kept the boy's bedroom exactly as it was the day he died. The grief did not abate, they remained stuck until the husband's job forced him to move house and so dismantle the room. After that they were able to really admit the boy's death and get on with their lives. The opposite of mourning is not laughter or rejoicing, but denial, numbness, repression of feelings. "Big boys don't cry". This leads to blockage, and the mourner cannot be comforted. People who are unable to mourn, to feel and admit their pain, cannot really rejoice either, they can only amuse themselves.
For Israel the greatest mourning in her history had been at the exile, when her whole world was destroyed, and every hope she had was taken away. But she was able to mourn her loss: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, at the memory of Sion. (Ps. 137:1) When she came home again after fifty years, she was changed forever. The majestic poetry of Deutero-Isaiah was the result of the exile. The incredible depth of insight found in the servant songs of Isaiah would have been impossible before the exile. Here she realised in her pain that God could and did accomplish his purpose even through a broken, demoralised people. One way of coping with such enormous change is simply to pretend it never happened, to keep talking about how wonderful everything was in the past. Israel did not fall into this trap, and so grew through her pain.
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  (Is. 53:2-6)
The giving of consolation is a matter of divine justice. People who honestly weep for their situation will be comforted by God The willingness and ability to mourn is no longer taken simply as a part of life, but it is for the believer the result of a special insight into the human condition before God. So this beatitude is a consequence of the previous one. Those who know how deep and total their poverty is, accept it, mourn for it and in that receive new life.

Session Two. John’s  Prologue 1:1-18.
John starts with something very familiar to Jews – God’s word. Not exactly what Genesis says, but near enough to get people to hear similarity. God’s word is powerful and active. It Gives life: Take all these words to heart… for the Law is your life and by its means you will live long..(Deut 32:46-47.) It can heal people He sent out his word and it cured them. (Ps. 107:20.) According to Psalm 119 Your Word is my hope (81) Your word is planted firm in heaven (89) Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path (105) As your word unfolds it gives light and even the simple understand (130) If we equate God’s word with his Law or commandments, which the OT does. It is the most treasured thing there is (Feast of Shimchat Torah) In Genesis it is the agent of creation: And God said: “Let there be light” and there was light. John says: Through him all things came into being, a deeper reflection on what we are told in Genesis.
It is also the prophetic word which is always contending against hardness of heart, speaking on behalf of those who are wronged (see Isaiah 1.) It breaks the silence that no one knew existed, it causes those who did not notice the widow, the orphan etc to see them. On the other hand it causes those who bear it to suffer – think of Jeremiah’s confessions. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. (Jer. 20:8) In other words: “Because I speak on behalf of those left out, I have become left out.” All this is incarnated by Christ the crucified one.
The word was made flesh = the entire biblical revelation is contained in life, death & resurrection of this one human being. Bible is true history of the world.

All this is thoroughly Jewish, but how to express it for Greek converts who have never read OT? In Greek Philosophy the Lord, Logos is the eternal principle of order in the universe. For some it was the mind of God, guiding, controlling & directing everything. Later it was considered to be the by which God created and ordered the world. Some have translated the word Logos as ‘creative energy’.
Heraclitus stumbled on the truth when he said that the Logos is violence, i.e. violence is the organising principle of the world. There are two logoi operating in the world – two forms of coherence, two ways of making meaning. Heraclitus offered a view of origins different from the myths of his time. He sensed that violence behaved with a logic of its own that he called logos. He said: “Violence is the father & king of all things. He has shown some to be gods & some mortal (it creates distinction between sacred & profane) He has shown some to be slaves & some to be free (i.e it creates social differentiation) violence is justice & all things come to pass and perish through violence”
The sacred is violence transfigured in a way that must not be approached or recognised or touched. If this seems bizarre, think of honour killings in Islam. Typically a female member of the family will decide to marry someone who for one reason or another is ‘not right’. Her family will, without a qualm of conscience kill her. This is necessary to maintain social order and to give a message to others who may be tempted to do the same. The family would not consider this to be violence but justice and necessary. Violence creates order, and order is the will of God. So such a killing is a holy act. The controlling Logos of such a society and of any ancient society is violence.
So many myths begin with violence but they are unconscious. Heraclitus is the first to conceptualise the phenomenon of generative violence. Once this logos is in play it turns destructive violence into something that can keep society together. He saw that however random it is, collective violence develops according to certain patterns.
As John lays out his stall, we see through people’s reaction to Jesus that this is indeed the case, and the reader is asked to choose between the Logos of this world and Jesus who is the Logos from above. (You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.) (8:23.)
Through the Logos all things came to be – it’s only this logos is creative. The violent Logos produces structures and order and camaraderie and culture but it does not actually create any thing. It’s important to see that there is logos rather than chaos. The modern view that the universe is a purely random set of events with no intelligence behind it is flatly contradicted by the statement that in the beginning there was Logos – reason.

 A good way to understand this is: “In the beginning God expressed himself. Today people talk about ‘the force’, New agers about ‘cosmic energy’ or ‘the Life principle’ John tells his gentile readers that this force or power that they have always known about is not just something vague and abstract, but actually became visible in a real man. New agers tend to like their god rather vague and woolly, floating around in the atmosphere and you can get in touch with him (or her) by chanting or hugging a tree. God can be anything you want it to be. John agrees with them that there is such a force, but challenges them by saying that this force entered history in the form of a man. So word means much more to John’s readers than to us.
The verb for overpower is  katalamba,nw this can also mean to understand, to comprehend. The Vulgate has: et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt and the Douai has and the darkness did not comprehend it. In other words the forces of this world can’t understand it any more than they can really fight it. We have seen that happening with the Papal visit
In Mk 4:41 Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him. By the end of Mk we know that this is The son of God. Early church realises that when they met Jesus they met God, but the consequences of that not worked out in synoptics. With more time to reflect John comes to understand that if this is true, then this person must have existed since the beginning. This is not yet the full-blown doctrine of the Trinity, but a recognition that belief in One God is not as simple as we thought. Soon, John will make the connection between this pre-existent word and the earthly Jesus. The power which was instrumental in creation, which inspired all the great OT figures and all the philosophers takes on visible human form in Jesus
In case we start dreaming and get stuck in eternity (as sometimes religious people do) We are brought down to earth. A man came sent by God. His name was John. This book will tell us eternal truths, but we can only know them by being here on earth, in history with real people. (People woffle on about love, we can only touch it and know it by loving real individuals.) The author takes us out of eternity which is all beautiful and inspiring, and into history which is often messy and difficult.
Quickly we are told that this Word does not just float around in the ether, but becomes flesh, becomes concretely visible. This has many effects.
All decent people are on the side of light and truth and goodness – theoretically. But when that involves concrete choices, many fight shy. If this truth and light of God take on real visible form in Jesus we are faced with real choice. Many people like their religion and morality vague, general, universal. If the incarnation is true then that position is untenable. I can only show I’m on the side of universal truth by throwing in my lot with a very particular man. The incarnation, the Word coming into the world forces that choice.
“This ‘world’ does not mean our planet; rather it represents the planet’s people, especially in its officialdom, who stand opposed to God. As in the time of Jesus, when religion was embedded in all societal structures, this officialdom often is connected to recalcitrant religious leaders organised in a group. Those members who have come under the power of the group’s ideology stand in need of conversion.”
Walter Wink has made the helpful suggestion that we can get a sense of the force of ‘world’ in John if we substitute the word ‘system’ referring to the domination system, the unjust world order which privileges a few and marginalises and dehumanises many. You are of this system, I am not of this system (8:23) gives the sense of what Jesus meant here and avoids the danger of Gnostic dualism
Becoming Children of God is a central issue in John. We tend to say glibly: “we are all God’s children.” In a certain sense that’s true but this is not what John means. Being a ‘son’ of England or wherever means that my nationality informs to a great extent who I understand myself to be. Likewise when we say: “He’s his father’s son” we mean that he takes after his father and probably consciously tries to emulate him. But says John, that understanding of ourselves is not enough. To be a child of God means that my self-understanding must come from God and not from something in this world. That which we are born of is perhaps: ‘that which makes us tick’, the world in which we live. Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a child of Abraham, he has a great pedigree. The thing which gives him his sense of identity is his ancestry. Being Jewish is what makes him tick. Jesus tells him in effect that even that counts for nothing and that he has to be born again to even be able to see the kingdom of God. When people have had the experience of being born again, or a conversion experience, they bear witness to the fact that something else makes them tick, the whole basis of their lives and well-being changes. St Francis said that a Christian is a citizen of no country but the kingdom of heaven. Here he speaks with the profound insight contained in John’s prologue
 John says that authority to become children of God is given to those who: are born not of blood nor will of the flesh nor will of man but of God (Jn 1:13, my trans.) The first expression has puzzled scholars for centuries. The Greek  evx ai`ma,twn  ex haimaton means literally ‘of bloods’. If we translate this back into Hebrew the plural, damim is quite an ordinary way of talking about ‘bloodshed’ and maybe this is what John has in mind here. Unfortunately, the fervent defence of propagation of religion has often gone together with bloodshed in the history of the world. Jesus himself said: The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy service to God. (Jn. 16:2) Those guided by such religious principles cannot become children of God. (As we shall see whenever John talks about birth or parentage, his is hardly ever talking about the process of human generation) In many societies, both ancient and modern, the ability to shed blood without qualms was taken as the sign of a real man. There are still whole societies who think like this. “If bloodshed is the price we have to pay in order to do what we want, then we are proud of the fact that we are not afraid to pay it.” And all too often people assume that God is on their side in all this. John is saying emphatically that this cannot be the case. So John is saying that the people who can become children of God are those who are not guided by principles of bloodshed or mere human systems or desires.
Living at a time when we are rediscovering the goodness of the body, we are often disturbed by John’s distinctions between flesh and spirit, so it’s important to understand what he means. If we simplify the distinction between flesh and spirit to something bodily and sexual (as opposed to the things of God which have nothing to do with the body) we side-step the import of the NT.  Flesh is every human system of behaviour, even of thought or religion which is opposed to God, which is not enlivened by the spirit of the true God. Remember that pride, which takes place only in the mind, has always been considered a sin of the flesh. When Jesus says to the Jews in Jn. 8:15 You judge according to the flesh,  The NJB translates this as You judge by human standards. Note they are judging him on the criteria of their religion, which they claim was revealed to Moses. So although their standards are religious and have a very good pedigree and have served people well for 1000 years, they are of the flesh. This is so simply because now they oppose the work of God’s spirit which is being revealed in Jesus Christ. Perhaps a parallel would be the very belligerent forms of Catholic traditionalism which oppose Vatican II, judge most of their hierarchy to be unrepentant heretics and do this in the name of true Catholicism. The issues are complex but what is often at stake is an attachment to a certain form of catholic culture rather than the true spirit of Catholicism. There is a denial that any change or development can be good or of the Spirit. In that sense traditionalism, even though it espouses a form of religion which seems to be very ‘spiritual’ is often in fact a work of the flesh in the NT sense. It’s an attachment to a certain human way of understanding which was once embodied the truth, but now resists the work of the spirit, sets itself up in opposition to it, denies that it is the spirit.
In a similar way, biblical fundamentalism which claims the ‘spiritual high ground’ is often very at home with extreme right wing politics. And so while the fundamentalist would claim to be influenced not by the world but only by the spirit of God, his literalist approach to the text means he is closed to any meaning beyond the one he sees. The people who marched to war in the US to defend the right to keep slaves did so with the Bible in their hand and their Bible reading was a major part of the ideological underpinning of the pro-slavery movement. This kind of Bible reading is clearly a work of the flesh in NT terms. The vocabulary is very spiritual but it resists what God’s Spirit is doing.
Conversely, Paul says: in Ephesians 5:28-33
28. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself.  29. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church,  30. because we are parts of his Body. 31. This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh. 32. This mystery has great significance, but I am applying it to Christ and the Church. 33. To sum up: you also, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband.
So the most carnal of unions, the marital union, Paul considers to be something spiritual, something which reflects the union of Christ and the Church. So if we insist on understanding ‘flesh’ merely as pertaining to the body and the sexual, we close ourselves off to much of what the NT is saying. Of course over-attachment to the things of the body can keep us attached to the flesh, but conversely it is possible for people who are very ascetic still to be living according to the flesh, still to be guided by human concerns rather than the life-giving spirit of God.
To be born of will of the flesh means to understand one’s self in purely worldly terms. In American churches there is often a flag in the sanctuary. Perhaps the question John would put is: “If you had to choose between the cross and the Stars and Stripes (or the Union Jack or the Tricolour) which would you choose?” If it’s the flag then I am still born of the flesh. If I say: “My God and my country are the same thing”, then I am still thinking according to the flesh.
To be born of the will of man seems to have a specific meaning. Here, John does not use the ordinary word for man, a;nqrwpoj( but he says ouvde. evk qelh,matoj avndro.j This is the technical word for a biological male, not the generic term for a human being. Of course for Jews, their natural birth through Jewish fathers did make them people of God, John says here that this is not the case, this in fact can get in the way.
The Word became flesh. John takes a risk using this word, and elsewhere in the gospel it will have a negative meaning, something which is base and only earthly, and in opposition to the work of God: It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. (6:63) John could have softened this by saying: “The word took on a body” or: “The word assumed a physical form” but he wants us to face the scandal of the incarnation – that the majestic force who makes and sustains the universe limits himself to living in a backward village in a backward province. There were strands in Greek thought which said that the physical world is only a shadow of the real spiritual world, that our bodies are really just cages in which the soul is trapped. The Gnostics believed that the physical world was evil and the spiritual is good. (Genesis 1 contradicts this. Everything God makes he sees that it is good). Christians have often inherited this un-biblical view. God shows how much he loves the world by becoming a part of it. For the Greeks and millions of modern people – Hindus, Buddhists, new agers of various kinds, salvation, ultimate liberation is being released from the world. They subscribe to the idea that we can only encounter God in the spiritual and that salvation means that God rescues us from the nasty physical world with all its problems and brings us into his nice ‘spiritual’ world.. Instead of doing that for us God gets involved in history and human life. A lot of bad religion concentrates only on the spiritual and ignores people’s physical needs. Or tries to pretend that we can reach God if we by-pass the body. The central, most important fact about Jesus is not his teaching, or what he does, but he becomes one like us. Islam cannot cope with this idea.  For Muslims, God is all- transcendent and if he takes flesh he looses that. The risk is that Jesus, becoming flesh will not be recognised as God, just a man. Many saw only the man. But God does take that risk. Flesh is earth bound and perishable, does not seem to be a fitting vessel for God’s mighty purpose. But that’s all we have. We are beautifully human.
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his
To the father through the features of men’s faces
One of the reasons Protestantism has such problems with the sacraments and the very physicality of Catholicism is they can’t really believe the full truth of the incarnation, that the physical is a way to God, and the way God chose to reveal himself. The word became flesh, and the reformation turned it into word again. The problem with Catholicism is the other extreme. Physical things – candles, bread, water are some of the ways we make our relationship with God. But Catholics can get stuck at the physical thing. Religion can become mechanical and therefore superstitious. People will light a candle in church without saying a prayer and without realising that the candle itself is only a symbol of the prayer being offered. People can use holy things without any relationship with the holy.
Muslims and many Protestants see God as one who simply sends his instructions without really getting involved. That is the nature of the Koran and the way many people think about the Bible – a set of heavenly instructions. New agers like to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher (John’s gospel very vulnerable to that). People want to see religion a collection of beautiful sayings and ideas. Incarnation confounds all that.
“I need someone with skin on”
The Greek of John 1:14 really means And the word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Israel has a strong tradition of talking about God’s presence among his people as  ‘God’s tenting’. Make me a sanctuary so that I can reside among them (Ex. 25:8-9) I am the Lord your God who makes his dwelling (pitches his tent) in Zion. (Joel 3:17) After exile, during rebuilding of Temple; Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion, for look I come and I will make my dwelling (pitch my tent) in your midst. (Zechariah 2:10.) Jesus is now what the Temple was for Israel. If we want to meet God we do that not in a special building, but in Jesus. It was in the Temple that God’s glory was seen, so now We have seen his glory. The glory of God shines in what Jesus does. (There is no account of the Transfiguration in John because Jesus’ glory is visible from the wedding at Cana onwards.)
Moses gives the Law – a set of instructions, Jesus gives unsolicited free gift of grace, God giving himself. The heart of the gospel and the thing we have such trouble understanding.

And Finally…………
A Thought on the Incarnation.

My first Christmas as a priest in Africa didn’t start well. I went into the sacristy at 6a.m. to prepare for the three Masses I had in different outstations and realised to my dismay that I was completely alone. Normally two or three of the altar servers would accompany me, set up the altar, serve the Mass and pack everything away. But on this the busiest day of the year, when at each Mass there would be well over a thousand people, I would have to do everything myself. I was angry with the servers for not thinking of me. I was angry with myself, because I should have reminded a few of them that I’d be setting off very early and would need extra help. I was angry that all these people would be having Christmas and enjoying it with their families and here was I…alone. I had worked hard on my sermon that year and was pleased with it, so although I had Christmas well worked out in my head, it certainly was not there in my heart. So, sulking I got all the things together for the Masses, hundreds of hosts, vestments, all the right books, and with a heavy heart walked to the car not looking forward to the long, lonely task ahead. Leaning on the car were Edward and Michael, two lads in their late teens, good lads. “Happy Christmas Father, we’ve come to help you!” Jet black faces, Colgate-white teeth, big beaming smiles. My heart lifted. I wasn’t alone. It was at that moment my Christmas began. They were the best present I could hope for. We set off, chatting and singing carols and had three very long, very crowded masses, at the end of which I came home tired and satisfied and quite happy to be alone for the rest of the day. For me there was a great lesson there: Despite all my preparations and all my theology, I needed the presence of these two young men to make me feel it was Christmas, to make it real, to make me feel God’s presence. God knew that. All the words in the Old Testament, wonderful as they are, could not give us what we really need to feel the touch of God. He had to send us another human being. He had to come as one of us. For there is a child born to us, a son given to us.  We didn’t need more words, we needed a baby.