Sr. Joan Delaplane is Professor Emerita of Preaching at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri. Joan is a Spiritual Director, a well-known retreat preacher, and the recipient of the 2001 Great Preacher award from Aquinas Institute of Theology. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted.]
And the Words Were Made Flesh
First air date December 26, 1999
[Transcribed from tape and edited for clarity.]
"Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." [I Peter 3:15]
Most of the parties are over—at least for a week—packages are unwrapped; cards read; the company is gone; needles are beginning to fall from the tree; and we stop to ponder: That's it? After all the hype, running around, and preparation for Christmas, that's all? In spite of the extra five pounds from partying, many may feel empty and hungry for more. What was it all about? John Shea tells what it was all about through the eyes of a child:
"She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, "They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee-hee), but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was?" Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars. "The baby was God." And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation." (1)
Yes, the wonder, the joy of little Sharon, her inability to restrain herself is one way to properly respond to the awesome mystery that "God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16)." Incredible! Unfathomable! Infinite kind of Love that is difficult to wrap our minds around, much less our hearts!
But haven't you found it true: When you love someone you strain to find ways to make that love known? Throughout the Old Testament the Jewish people testified to a God constantly straining to reveal that love in all of creation about us. Through the prophets and the psalmists we had glimpses here and there of the wonder of our being, the wonder of one another, the wonder of our God; but we saw in a dark manner. That this God could grasp what it meant to be limited, to hunger and thirst, to know need for love and security, to fear and to suffer, was beyond the human imagination. And so, it's as though God said: "I've tried to tell you of my profound love for each of you in so many ways, but now time and my actions will speak its truth in ways you can grasp: And the Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. ...From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace... No one has ever seen God. It is God the only son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him know (Jn 1:14-18)."
Our God has truly entered the human condition, a human condition that is not all clean and lovely, warm and welcoming as some Christmas cards would have us believe. Our secular, consumer society has usurped much of the wondrous mystery of it all from under us. Have we not, as well, sanitized the whole scene? Have we not softened the rough straw with Downy; sprayed a fragrance to cover the smells of the animals; silenced the cries of Mary in childbirth; tranquilized Joseph in his fear as he cut the umbilical cord, and as he heard the first cries of this baby boy? Then there were these strange shepherds who had come in off the field, unkempt, poor. Could not this have felt rather intrusive to Mary and Joseph in this shabby but sacred scene with their new born? Was there possibly a healthy hesitancy in Mary to hand them her baby to hold? All of this followed by word that Herod was out to kill the baby; they must flee to another country.
No longer can we say that our God could not understand what it's like to struggle against the cold, to have to flee to another country, to be betrayed by a friend, to grieve the loss of a loved one, to fear suffering and or death, to experience a seeming absence of Abba. No, our God has truly walked our walk; God's Word of Love has truly taken flesh. And the words of Jesus took flesh as well. He didn't just say, "I love you," to Zaccheus, but called him down from his tree top, offered friendship and sat at dinner with him. Jesus not only spoke of a God of mercy and forgiveness, but extended that forgiveness to a frightened, shamed woman standing alone with a pile of stones left about her, and to his friend Peter at a second charcoal fire. Jesus not only spoke of God's Kingdom of justice, but he stood in solidarity with the poor and the outcasts. He not only spoke of a God who longs for our wholeness, but he touched a leper to clean skin, a stooped woman to straightness. He not only said, "I love you," to the hungry crowd, but fed their hungers with truth and with bread. He didn't just say, "I love you," to each of us, but picked up a cross, suffered, died our deaths, and rose that we might know life eternal.
God's gift to us may not be the right size or color, but the present may not be returned, and we must each decide what to do with it. Yes, like Sharon, we could jump in the air, whirl round, dive into the sofa, and bury our heads under the cushion. However, we could also say to our God: "I want to say that I love you, but time and my actions will speak its truth." And the words were made flesh, as we try to be God's loving presence for God's people and God's world today. A prayer attributed to St. Theresa of Avila says it well:
"Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ's compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which
He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which
He is to bless us now."
So what's it all about? Christmas everyday, as we gift one another, not necessarily with another tie or sweater, perfume or computer game. No, in gratitude for the Incarnation, we now try to gift others with God's saving love tangibly expressed. I believe that we saw this in Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who said: "...we believe God loves the world through us. Just as he sent Jesus to be his love, his presence in the world, so today he is sending us." And her words were made flesh.
We may not be called to embody such love for the poor and dying in the streets of Calcutta, but perhaps we are called to embody God's love as does Mary Ellen down the street by calls and letters to legislators naming concerns for the poor, the homeless, those without jobs or health insurance; or like Tom in his visits to the elderly widower on his block; or like Betty's visit to a grieving friend, bringing the gift of presence; or Jane's bringing some food to the sick mother with four children; or Bill's raking the leaves or shoveling the snow for an elderly neighbor; or in extending forgiveness to one another...
Thus, Christmas every day, so that a year from now we can say: The words were made flesh; and the love of Emmanuel, God-with-us, was made tangible for God's people day after day in our little corner of the God's world. Oh, come, let us adore him.
1. John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected (Allan, TX: Argus Communications, 1977) p. 68.
Lydia Talbot: Joan, a compelling statement on the difference really between two Christmases that travel on parallel tracks, the secular Christmas and the religious observance. How can we really try to ignore the secular, commercial track that results in great depression and disappointment and emptiness?
Joan Delaplane: I think you're right that that is what happens and why I mention that I think after all of the lights and ornaments and music and all that, sometimes people just have that sense of hunger for something more. I think it means to be extremely conscious all the way through our lives of what it is all about. It is that simple profound faith experience that God is love, as John tells us. It's as simple and as complex as that. God is love and we are made in the image and the likeness of this God, and in Jesus learn how to be that loving presence in God's world. I think it is just living out of a faith life of what it's all about in contrast to what the world tells us.
Talbot: And the wonderful imagery that you conveyed at the beginning of your message and the story by John Shea and the little child.
Delaplane: Didn't you love it?
Talbot: Yes, because you feel you can almost see her diving into the couch with that wonderful revelation: It's God!
Delaplane: That's right.
Talbot: The baby is God.
Delaplane: Yes, that's right.
Talbot: But doesn't that remind us that maybe we need to be more childlike, not childish.
Talbot: God's intervention in the human condition and then people of faith are called to just stand in awe.
Delaplane: I think that's the right word. Standing in awe and wonder. Something that children do. So much of our world has taken the awe out of Christmas because everything seems so automatic. I mean we've almost lost the sense of awe. We can land on the moon and it's "ho hum." We have lost our sense of wonder in too many cases and that is what the Incarnation calls for. It is something difficult to wrap our minds and hearts around. The profound meaning of love and the words are used so lightly today. We love our chocolate cake; we love our car; we love our computer. We have lost the reflective stance of its real meaning and yet it is the deepest hunger in all of us.
Talbot: The deepest hunger. And isn't that what the secular observance of Christmas misses in the sense that it does not acknowledge a fundamental contradiction? Material gifts never deliver what we long for, the connection with the eternal.
Delaplane: That's right, and that's why, unless one has lived it reflectively through this mystery and continues through the year to live it reflectively, that that hunger just continues. That the sense of the daily presence of God, Emanuel—God with us—and that hunger for the deeper meaning because the world around us are consumerists, a materialistic society, that will tell us that things are going to fill the gaps, and we find it doesn't.
Talbot: Joan, I must ask you, thinking back on your own growing up—you were one of four sisters who became nuns—what was your own observance of Christmas like in your family home?
Delaplane: It was wonderful! I really grew up in what you might call a "domestic church." My mother and father were just profoundly faith-filled people. All through what we call Advent, there was nothing until Christmas Eve that spoke of Christmas and at 6:30 on Christmas Eve we were—all seven children—sent to bed. The Christmas tree would be brought in from the garage at that point and mom and dad would put the lights on and put the gifts under it and you could smell the pine wafting up the stairs and the excitement as we knew Christmas had arrived. But it did not happen until Christmas Eve. During Advent it was the preparation. There was the little box for the poor and it was always just on Christmas Eve when it finally arrived with the anticipation.
Talbot: That's the gift that you have, continue to have, and convey in your wonderful message and observance of the real Christmas. Thank you so much, Sr. Joan.
Delaplane: Thank you.