Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral
Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us… (from John 1:14)

Last night was the annual Carol Service for St Mary’s College. As Chaplain, the organization of everything but the music was my responsibility (and for the online record, the St Mary’s Chapel Choir may be the best of its kind—anywhere). Intermingled with the ethereal, other-wordly beauty of the choral music were readings textured with earthy grit.

Other-worldly beauty plus earthy grit—these lie at the heart of Christmas. And the line above from John 1:14 lies at the heart of the Christian tradition.

Below is a slightly edited version of what I preached last night in Durham Cathedral…


The Word—God himself in the Person of Jesus—became flesh.

So GOD…with toenails. GOD…with pores, cuticles, and hair follicles. GOD vulnerable to bug bites, infections; even prone to body odor. GOD with a belly button. I

know this Cathedral is almost 1,000 years old, but I doubt “belly button” has been said from this holy pulpit with much frequency.

And maybe it is okay to laugh a bit. If my children have not yet giggled over the idea of God with bug bites and a belly button, then I will be shocked. To speak in such theological absurdities, to speak of God in this way, can evoke 1) laughter, because the idea of God with crumbs in his beard and wine on his breath seems almost comical.

But to speak with such earthy grit about God can also evoke offense. It assaults our sensibilities about the divine. God encased within a warm, membranous sack of amniotic fluid that spilled on the dirt clotting up dust in a Judean stable—it sounds sacrilegious, unworthy of the pleasing aesthetics of our choral music, too jarring for the lovely sentimentality of our favourite John Lewis commercial.

But this “sacrilege” we call “Incarnation”: the Word became flesh.

At the heart of Christian faith is the apparent “sacrilege” of God with a body, of God becoming materially visible, touchable. It also made him, of course, killable, as the Cross reminds us.

Some mysteries are not meant to be unraveled. But a reason is provided for this Incarnation. Why did “the Word become flesh and dwell among us?” From John chapter 3—because “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.

Why did Divinity end up with an umbilical cord and eyelashes? Because of a love so energetic that compelled God to take drastic measures.

When I was at university, I was quite the cynic toward love and romance. But in my final year I suddenly found myself ensnared, arrested, overpowered… and she had no idea. After much inner turmoil, eventually we began a dating relationship that, was fairy-tale wonderful. Six months later we had scheduled what now would now be called a “gap year.” She was leaving to spend a year in South America, and I was boarding a plane for a trip around the world. There at the airport gate I hugged her one last time, trying not to cry and make a scene. Then I told her, “the next time I see you, I’m going to ask you to marry me.” I turned away and boarded that plane.

Several months later I was on another plane. With no training in Spanish, I landed in the sweltering coastal heat of Guayaquil and traveled by night into the interior of Ecuador. The next day I somehow I managed to get onto this rickety old bus full of locals, chickens, maybe a pig or two, and there I was, a nervous gringo with a very conspicuous bouquet of flowers. We wound through remote villages in the Andes Mountains, and at around 3,000 metres above sea level, I hopped off the bus. Then, after some searching and waiting, I found the girl. She said yes, and she is sitting here tonight.

My point is this: When someone loves you fiercely, they will come after you. When someone fiercely loves you, they will bridge the distance, propel through the blockades; they will take drastic measures.

And that is why “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” For God so loved. No matter how many ferries or buses or planes or mules I would have had to take, I would have found that girl in those mountains. But God has made a cosmic leap, from the ethereal beauty of heaven into our earthy grit. Come hell or high water, no distance daunted him, and he came into our mess to find us.

That is why God had pores and eyelashes and dust between his toes: For God so loved.

It is the sort of love that makes angels sing aloud in the dark.

One thought on “The Sacrilege we call “Incarnation” (and the Divine Love of Drastic Measures)

  1. If the only thing I read here were the words you wrote about St Mary’s Choir (and I will pass them onto Bethan, my daughter of course) I would have loved this sermon, but I also agree entirely with what you write about the smelliness etc. of the incarnation. I guess the sacrilege is when the whole experience is reduced to something that would not spoil a John Lewis storefront and adversely affect sales. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

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