The Word became Flesh in all Languages
Baby Jesus is portrayed around the world according to the appearance of the people of the area. In Asia, He's Asian, in Africa, African, in Russia, Russian. This is good because the Word, God the Son, became flesh for all and is what gives power to the words of men. "Without the miracle of the Incarnation, no word of man would be the Word of God" (In the Name of Jesus, 142). Without the Word becoming flesh it would be as a French poet said in 1890 "'The flesh is sad and I have read all the books.'" Or as the fictional Faust said in 1790 "'all the books are dust, not life'" (From Dawn to Decadence, 623). The Word becoming flesh in all languages gives power and life to the Words of men.
Let's start with Latin. The Word becoming Flesh is not a Deus ex Machina but a Deus ex Matrix. Deus ex Machina is literally "a god from a machine." It was a stage effect in ancient Greek plays where one of the Greek gods was lowered by a mechanical device on to the stage for the purpose of solving the unsolvable. Jesus is not "a god from a machine" but a Deus ex Matrix, God from the womb. I could have used the usual Latin for womb, uterus, but matrix is the Late Middle English word for womb derived from the Latin for mother. I wanted to emphasize what the Church has always confessed that Mary is Theotokos, Mother of God.
Deus ex Machina is the name of a literary device today. It considered the mark of a poor plot and/or poor writer. Perhaps because unlike the ancient Greeks, modern people don't believe in the concept of gods let alone them coming to save us. Already over 40 years ago the Humanist Manifesto II said, "No deity will save us; we must save ourselves."
But the true God did come to save us but in a way too wonderful to grasp but only appreciate with a gasp. "J. B. Philips author of Your God is too Small said elsewhere, "Behind all our fun and games at Christmas time, we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done" (Watch for the Light). Behind the excitement of "whatever could it be in that brightly wrapped box" is the excitement of Who could it be making the bump in the Virgin Mary's belly?
Contemporary songs and old poems catch the thrill and chill with lines like, "Mary did you know.When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God." A 1925 anonymous poem gets to the darker side of Mary's wonder. The poem pictures Mary gazing at her sleeping Son her eyes growing "wet and dim" for very depth of love "as mothers do today." "Then did a sudden presage [warning] come to her/ Of bitter looks and words and thorn-strewn street?/ And did she catch her breath and hide her face/ And shower smothered kisses on His feet" (Tidings of Great Joy, 86).
Our own Christmas songs catch this dark but necessary side of the Word becoming Flesh. "Myrrh is mine: it's bitter perfume/ Breaths a life of gathering gloom. / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb." "Why lies He in such mean estate,/ Where ox and ass are feeding?/ Good Christians, fear, for sinners here/ The silent Word is pleading. / Nails, spears shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you."
The Word became Flesh in all languages because He speaks to all. He speaks to the French. The incarnation of God the Son in the Virgin's Womb is and isn't what the French call a pis aller. That's a course of action followed as a last resort. That's amputation, radiation, chemo in medicine. In day to day life, a pis aller is a pay day load, calling a plumber, or, for you football fans, playing Johnny Manziel.
The Word becoming flesh was not a last resort in that before the world was even created, before Adam had even fallen, the plan was to send the Second Adam. And rather than God coming from a machine, He would go into the machine of His own creation. God who is spirit beyond the Laws of time and space would descend into the machine He created submitting Himself to the limits of time and space to take humanity's place under the Law. Think of all the times, all the spaces you have failed, defiled, ruined, and think of Jesus descending into them to redeem them, to restore them, to save them.
I said it wasn't a last resort, but in another sense it was. So terrible, so brutal, so unimaginably ghastly is God taking on flesh and to suffer for His creation, there had to be another way. The Word made Flesh asked if there was in Gethsemane. And the Father said there wasn't. The Golden Virgin on the basilica at Albert, France gives a vivid image of the pis aller God did for mankind. In the midst of World War I the cathedral was so damaged by artillery shelling that it seemed the tilted Virgin Mary was throwing baby Jesus down into the battle offering Him as a sacrifice that might end the terrible slaughter (Great War and Modern Memory, 132).
We picture the Word becoming Flesh today as the birth of a firstborn child. Sure it was in a stable; sure there was no room in the inn, but all our memories are of sweetness and light, but the Son of God goes forth today to war, to battle, to bloodshed, not that of others but His own. And this was an opera not an opus. We go now to a Latin word that is so familiar in English that we don't italicize it anymore. This fits well with the fact that the Word that became Flesh is the same in all languages.
When we hear the Latin opus we think magnum opus which is a great work and think surely the Word becoming Flesh is a great work of God. But it's more of an opera. People think opera' is the plural of opus;' it's not. The Latin word opera is a willing work as opposed to necessary or forced labor that is implied by the simple Latin word for work, opus (Dawn to Decadence, 175).
At this point the opera of the Word becoming flesh begins to strike a sour note within us. Going to church, going to Bible study, serving my neighbor, my day to day vocation is an opus to me and well short of a magnum. Yet, God the Son becomes incarnate in a virgin's womb, experiences the trauma of birth by a sinful woman, is hymned now by smelly shepherds, and this was opera to Him, willing work. Think of the joyful scenes and songs of opera. As one poet says, "A God too great for the skyhas burst out of all things and broken the bounds of eternity" (Chesterton, Gloria in Profundis).
The word opera came to be used by the Romans for any elaborate undertaking. We would say "a production" (Dawn, 175). It's a real production for God to take on flesh and blood. Luther didn't agree with others who said John 1:1 should be translated, "In the beginning was the sermon" rather than "the Word" (Brecht, Luther III, 324), but I like the idea. A sermon is a production. It's a series of words that must connect to each other. The Word was definitely in the beginning, but His incarnation, innocent suffering, holy death, triumphant resurrection is a sermon indeed.
And it's all in words we can comprehend, understand, appreciate. A character in novel lives in fear that "the god he worshipped dwelt not in a far and momentous heaven, but in the habitations of earth-worms" (T. Caldwell, The Arm and the Darkness, 131). The Christian fear would be just the opposite that our God does only dwell in a far and momentous heaven and not here with us in our dust and ashes, in our muscle and blood, in our flesh and feeling. That we are left alone to face the aging, decaying, ailing, and dying that comes upon us because of our sinfulness. That our God is so spiritual, so remote that not only isn't He here with us, but He can't empathize with us.
No, He is Immanuel which God Himself tells us means, "God with us." He is with us in this body and life. He is with us in our earthly, tangible, fears, cares, and worries. He is with us while living, while ailing, and particularly while dying. And He speaks to us not only in all languages but in words we can bear. Luther said that if God spoke in the langue of His majesty "Then no human can hear it and live. Christ as a man speaks in a way that can be endured, and His voice is kind and full of love" (LW, 58, 140). Psalm 29 by contrast says that the voice of the Lord is powerful and majestic. It breaks cedars. It makes nations jump. It strikes with flashes of lightning; shakes the desert; twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.
If He spoke to us with this voice we could only pee our pants, but He doesn't. The incarnate God, the Word made flesh speaks in all languages, the language of forgiveness, acceptance, welcome to sinners. He is the reality of Esperanto. Esperanto is an artificial language made up in 1887. It is made up of mostly European languages and was designed to become an international language (Chesterton, Collected Works, XX, 169). That didn't work but Jesus does.
You know what the French poet said about even though he's read all the books he is still sad and what Faust said about books being dust not life? Solomon said something similar centuries before them. "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
Yes, the words of men do weary us, are dusty to us, and do sadden us, but the Word made Flesh and made writing is another matter. Jesus comes to us in every syllable of Scripture. The written Word that He attaches to Baptismal water rebirths us into the Triune God. The written Word that the pastor speaks into our ears in Absolution is what pierces to the bones and divides us from our sins, saving the first and sending away the second. The written Word and the incarnate Word are joined in Communion so that these aging, decaying, sinful bodies eat the forgiveness, life, and salvation won by and found in the Bread that is His Body and the Wine that is His Blood.
God's Word is powerful enough to break trees, shake deserts, and strike flames, but He inscripturated it and incarnated it for use by sinners like us. He tells all in every langue that He is God out of the wombas a choice and as a last resort, but this is a willing work of such grand proportions that mortal men can only adore it, cherish it, and repeat it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Feast of the Nativity (20141225); John 1: 1-18