Before John proclaims the gospel of God, He introduces the God of the gospel.
God has an eternal Word. This Word brought everything into being, but God spoke his Word forever and ever before he spoke his fiat lux. The Word is “toward” God, face-to-face, so that God sees and knows himself in the Word who is his image. The Word is so perfect a verbalization of God that he is himself God. When God speaks, he speaks himself yet again. God is eternally communicative, eternally self-communicative.
That becomes good news when John tells us that God speaks his Word in a place and form we can receive. The God of the gospel is the God who has and is eternal word. The gospel of God is the announcement, “the Word became flesh.”
John doesn’t simply mean that the Word assumed a body or human nature. In Scripture, flesh does refer to the muscles and tissue that occupy the space between bones and skin, but it also describes creatures that are made from nothing. As flesh, we don’t have life in ourselves. As flesh, we are penetrable, soft, and vulnerable to assault and attack. Flesh can be wounded. Flesh refers to human beings in our naked frailty and need.
After Adam sins and death enters the world, weak flesh becomes mortal flesh. Separated from God, flesh becomes self-indulgent. We pursue desires of the flesh that war against the Spirit of God.
Flesh is also, strangely, the source of violence and aggression. Vulnerable and mortal, we are enslaved to fear of death, pain, loss, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. We beat our chests and put on pathetic displays to hide our feebleness. We wound others to prevent our flesh from being wounded; we scapegoat to protect our reputations; we become aggressive in guarding our comforts. The very weakness of our flesh makes us reactive and violent.
Flesh thus describes the entire human condition. We are flesh because we are weak, fragile, vulnerable, needy creatures. Under the power of sin, we are flesh because we are mortal and selfish. Enslaved to fear of death, we do what the apostle Paul calls the “works of the flesh”—immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, and envying.
To say the “Word became flesh” is to say that the Word assumed the whole of our dilapidated condition. He becomes weak, dependent, vulnerable, mortal. The Word is tempted by all the indulgent and violent instincts of flesh, yet he doesn’t sin. God doesn’t recoil from our flesh. He enters it to make it his own and to transform it from within.
God the Word speaks in our flesh and through flesh, yet still he speaks as the Word who is God. Creation is no obstacle to God’s self-communication. Even a broken creation is no obstacle to God’s self-communication. The God who speaks himself eternally in the Word speaks himself in human flesh. Glory shines in the ruins.
It’s easy to get this wrong. We’re tempted to think that the Word speaks when Jesus turns water to wine, heals a man who has been lame for decades, gives sight to a man born blind, and calls the corpse of Lazarus out of the grave.
Those signs do reveal the Word who is God. But the Word also speaks in Jesus’s hunger, fatigue, and thirst. Supremely, God speaks his glory in the shredded flesh of the Crucified. The hour of the cross is an hour of humiliation. At that moment, the flesh of the Word proves to be utter flesh, vulnerable to whips and thorns, even to death on a cross. At the very same moment, when the flesh of the Word is most utterly flesh, the Word most fully speaks the glory of the Father. The hour of humiliation is the hour of glory, when the Son glorifies the Father who glorifies him.
This is the good news of Advent: Because God has spoken in the flesh of the Word, he can speak glory in your shame, power in your weakness, triumph in the midst of loss and defeat, wholeness in your brokenness, life in your death. The Word who became flesh dwells in your flesh and speaks himself there, among your ruins.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.