What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us.1 John 1:1-2
On this feast of the Apostle St. John, the Church continues to meditate on the meaning of the Incarnation, on the truth that God is with us. In the gospel today we hear of Mary Magdalen’s running to Peter and “to the other disciple whom Jesus loved” to tell them that the Lord’s body is missing from the tomb. A detail in the gospel account is striking: “They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first” (John 20:4). Now we know that John is younger than Peter, so perhaps this is why he runs faster. But it is also possible that he does so precisely because he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” We can all recognize from our own life experience how love impels us with the strength and the youth of our own inner being.
St. Augustine in his commentary on the first letter of John writes that before the Incarnation “We already possessed the means to see the flesh, but we had no means of seeing the Word.” The beginning of John’s first letter describes for us precisely how it is that the disciples, and perhaps especially “the one whom Jesus loved” came to see the Word in the flesh of Jesus. What has always struck me about this passage that we read today is its incredible tenderness. In it we recognize our own experiences of an epiphany of the sacred in the beauty of one whom we love. In it there seems to be a message not only of the presence of the Word in and through the body of Jesus, but of the manifestation of Divine love as mediated in the love that we hear, see, look upon, and touch with our hands.
In his memoir Morris West speaks of his time as a young man in the Congregation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools of Ireland. He describes his master of novices as a “loveless man.” “He had never experienced love; therefore, he could not give it.” The effect of his years in that Congregation was, for West, “that I had been robbed of my own fragile identity and I dared not yet reject the religious artifact that had been given to me instead” (p. 13). West realizes that what most constitutes himself, his unique capacity for and expression of love is being lost. So, as the time for his perpetual profession drew near, he decided he must leave the community. His family is far away, and so his first night out of religious life he stays with friends nearby. He then relates:
I spent that night in the house of friends. I do not remember what was said or how I conducted myself. All I know is that, when I went to bed and switched off the light, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I was still weeping when the door of the bedroom opened and one of the daughters of the house, a young woman of my own age, came into the room.
In the morning she was gone. Two days later I was gone, too, rattling in an overcrowded train back to the home-place I had left twelve years before. I was still lost and fearful, but I knew that a small fragment of the mosaic of my lost identity had been restored. It was, and still is, like the first gleam of star fire through the black murk of storm clouds. I have always been grateful to the woman who gave it to me.A View From the Ridge, pp. 13-14
On this night in which another comes to him in compassion and love, West experiences something he had not in 12 years of living in a religious congregation, “the first gleam of star fire through the black murk of storm clouds.” In that gleam of star fire he knows “that a small fragment of the mosaic of my lost identity had been restored.” It is in being loved by another that we come to know core pieces of the mosaic of our true identity and possibility, and it is in loving another that we allow them to know, in our love of them, the mosaic of their own life and call. In the presence of one we love, we know ourselves to be more alive and awake, to be more fully ourselves than we are in their absence.
This universal experience is the one that John has most fully in the presence and love of Jesus. All of what he has to share with the world, he tells us, is born of what he has heard, seen, looked upon, and touched in Jesus. So John races to the tomb, leaving Peter behind, in the hope, need, and desire that is born of his love of Jesus. In the love of the Word made flesh, we come, says Augustine, to see the Word.
What this feast and the words of 1 John offer us is a lesson both for our religious and our secular cultures. What Morris describes of his experience in religious life was perhaps typical in his time. I often think that one of the great ironies is that a faith tradition that is grounded in the experience of incarnation, of enfleshment, became so suspicious, often to the point of fearfulness, of sexuality. The description from 1 John that we read today is one of seeing the Word in the flesh of Jesus. It is a sensual description in the literal sense of the term. It is in the flesh, says the mystery of Christmas, that God is manifest to us. Human beings learn the ways of love by loving and being loved. Besides being the greatest of joys, it is also a difficult and painful process, for it is easy to confuse love with our own gratification. Certainly for most of us, we cannot “see the Word,” that is we cannot know the love of God, until we come to know something about loving and being loved. To be fearful and suspicious of that core human and humanizing experience may be the greatest “heresy” of the church over time.
On the other hand, it is true that the Word was made flesh in Jesus so that “the part of us by which we could see the Word” would be healed. As we long for love, we long even more deeply to “see the Word.” This manifests in our experience in our own insatiability, our inability to ever be fully satisfied in love. In a secular culture such as ours, we tend to displace our need for this more profound love in the vertical sense with a multiplicity of loves in the horizontal sense. The sexual aberration of our times is that of attempting to distract ourselves from the hidden and subtle need to “see the Word” in our loves by roaming widely for incessant sexual experience. Although, this may now be changing as recent studies are showing that younger people are less sexually active than the generations preceding them. This flight from our own depth remains, however, a constant temptation for us.
The Christian faith tradition is one in which the enfleshment, the embodiment of the Word is central. To be healed, as Augustine puts it, requires of us that we come to see the Word in the flesh of Jesus. And we do this by loving. The “loveless” Christian is a paradox. Yet, as banal as that may sound, in truth we substitute beliefs for love all the time. There can actually be an appeal to this for us, because learning to love is difficult and messy. In love we are constantly being challenged to be reformed and transformed, to live with the painful recognition that we are never really all that good at loving. It is actually much easier to spend our lives attempting to perfect ourselves, as fruitless as that may be. When I was a novice, we were told that our greatest responsibility in life was to live the Rule perfectly. How dismal! At Christmas we celebrate the truth that God did not come to us in power and perfection but in our human flesh and blood. In the words of 1 John, we are reminded that we shall be healed so that we may come to see the Word only in love. The fellowship we have to share we discover through a love which hears, sees, looks upon, and touches the beauty of the beloved one.
Life itself was therefore revealed in the flesh. In this way what was visible to the heart alone could become visible also to the eye, and so heal human hearts. For the Word is visible to the heart alone, while flesh is visible to bodily eyes as well. We already possessed the means to see the flesh, but we had no means of seeing the Word. The Word was made flesh so that we could see it, to heal the part of us by which we could see the Word.St. Augustine, from Tractates on the first letter of John