Elizabeth A. Johnson
In our day concerns about ecology are rising. Climate change, pollution, and extinction of plant and animal species make us question harmful human treatment of the natural world….
At the core of Christian faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being to redeem the world. The gospel for Christmas day proclaims this beautifully: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word is God’s own self–communication, uttered from all eternity. Flesh means what is material, perishable, vulnerable, finite, the very opposite of what is divine.
Here is a most radical statement: God became material. Christmas celebrates a radical gift: The all–holy God personally joined our world of sin and suffering to save. This is known as the doctrine of incarnation, from the Latin in carne, “into flesh.”
Scientific discoveries have made clear that human flesh is part of the evolutionary network of life on this planet, which in turn is a part of the solar system, which in turn came into being as a part of a long cosmic history. This awareness of our natural history provides new insight into the cosmic meaning of the “flesh” that the Word became….
Out of the Big Bang, the stars; out of the stardust, the Earth; out of the matter of the Earth, life. Out of the life and death of single–celled creatures, an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom emerged human beings – mammals with brains so complex that we experience self–conscious intelligence and freedom.
According to this scientific story, everything is connected with everything else. British scientist and theologian Arthur Peacocke explains, “Every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.”
Quite literally, human beings are made of stardust…. Understanding the human species as an intrinsic part of planetary and cosmic matter has far–reaching implications for the meaning of incarnation. In this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos….
This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. In place of spiritual contempt for the world, we ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, part of the flesh that the Word became.