Ave, Verum Corpus Natum

Sunday 19th February 2006
Year B, The Second Sunday before Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
John 1:1-14

Choir: Ave Verum Corpus natum de Maria Virgine...

That small snatch of the Mozart arrangement of the Eucharistic hymn, Ave Verum Corpus has been played over and over again on Classic-FM during the past month as an advertisement for a special CD to send babies to sleep. It would have to be a very good or tired baby to get to sleep during those first awestruck few words: Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine: Hail true body born of the Virgin Mary.

After that there is no prospect of sleep: Vere passum immolatum in Cruce pro homine: You who truly suffered and was sacrificed on the Cross for mankind.

And then the English translation goes on: Whose side was pierced from which water and blood flowed. Be for us a foretaste of heaven during our final trial. O sweet Jesus, O merciful Jesus, O Jesus son of Mary have mercy on me.

Here, in one short hymn we have: the birth and death of Jesus; the combination of Christmas and Easter; that combination of the divine love and the human Mary; but, above all else, we have that combination in Jesus Himself of the divine and the human. And the core of the hymn, dealing with the incarnation and death of Jesus, begins with a reference to the Eucharist and ends with our plea for mercy.

Although it would be deeply appropriate to sing these words on Christmas night, and even to preach a homily on the link between that night and the events of Good Friday, we find it hard to focus theologically when we are overwhelmed with joy yet again at the birth of our saviour; it does not seem quite right to mar that joy with the sorrow of death. We are, quite properly, bound up with the baby.

The opening of John's Gospel which we have just heard gives us a better opportunity to think of the incarnation. This passage was so revered in Christian tradition that it was, until recently, said at the end of every Roman Catholic High Mass which is why it is sometimes still referred to as "The Last Gospel". Instead of the physical tiny baby of Matthew and Luke we have the most gripping phrase in the whole of Scripture: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us". This is such an overwhelming idea that we need to break it down into its two component parts.

First, the Word was made Flesh. This is the absolute core of Christianity but in many ways it is the most difficult mystery to penetrate. In all other religions there is a radical split between the spiritual and the physical but what the incarnation means is that the spiritual and the physical are combined in one person, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was fully divine and he was also fully human. In the early church there were such tendencies to emphasise one or other of these ideas, the full divinity or full humanity, of Jesus, that dissension and violence broke out. This was only damped down by the formulation of the Creeds which said that Jesus had two natures, the human and divine, in one person, a mystery known as Hypostasis. The importance of this controversy explains why the Trinitarian Nicene Creed we will say when I have finished is almost entirely about the Son of God, Jesus Christ, with the Father and Holy Spirit as bookends; it is not that they are not equally important but that the Nicene Creed was formulated quite specifically to settle the controversy over the status of Jesus.

This perfect coexistence of the human and divine in Jesus should give us cause to think about three aspects of our faith: first, we should be very careful not to fall into the temptation of ranking the spiritual above the physical. To this extent I believe that the Pope's recent Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, ranking spiritual love (Agape) above physical love (Eros), at the very least runs the risk of being seriously misunderstood, as both are equally part of God's creation. The nearest that we get as human beings to understanding incarnation is when that dream of earthly love becomes so real to us in the mutual love of another that the spiritual and physical are indistinguishable.

Secondly, the Word was made Flesh, says John, and that means that the gender of the child was not significant; what matters is that the eternal God became a physical being in history. We are meant to be able to focus absolutely and sympathetically on the baby, on Jesus walking through a field, fishing in a lake, preaching on a mountainside; that is precisely why the Word Was Made Flesh, to give us a closer understanding of our God.

God made us so that we could be the object of sacred love; and so that we could return that love freely, if imperfectly; but the idea of God's self communication to all humankind is so difficult to grasp that the love of the Creator was made concrete in Jesus.

Thirdly, that union of the physical and the spiritual which was the earthly life of Jesus Christ is precisely replicated in the Holy Eucharist which we have come to celebrate today and which is the starting point for the Ave Verum. This is not just a spiritual or a physical experience, it is a Sacramental reality.

Turning then, to the second part of John's mystery - and dwelt among us - this reinforces the humanity of Jesus after the long introductory passage emphasising the spiritual nature of God, using the totemic metaphor of light. The danger of the manger is that we think of the baby as dwelling in such a distant time and place that it is a kind of fairy story, a myth of ancient times; but, as I have just mentioned, Jesus dwelt among us in Palestine and dwells among us now in the Eucharist.

Of course, during His earthly life and in His presence with us now, Jesus dwells among us as sinners, as people who suffer from an impaired relationship with Him. This explains the middle section of the Ave Verum which recounts the death of Jesus on the Cross; and it explains our plea for mercy at the end. By the very nature of what we are, as imperfect creatures of our Creator, the death of Jesus at the hands of human beings was inevitable. The perfect love of this perfect human being was too dangerous, it threatened too many vested interests; the legalism of the Jewish religion then and the legalism of the Christian religion now, was not and is not equal to the perfect love of our Saviour. We can only take a certain amount of virtue; so what must it have been like to live alongside Jesus?

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Having surveyed some of the implications of the most important statement about human beings that has ever been written, let us draw some tentative conclusions. First, the incarnation of Jesus is a mystery but mysteries are not phenomena at the periphery of our lives, they are at the centre; and with study, prayer and silence we can increasingly, though imperfectly, apprehend God's limitless self communication to us in love. Secondly, the crib and the Cross are one: only through the birth and death of Jesus can we grasp god's love for us; love in birth, love in death. Thirdly, that birth and death and our prayer for mercy are bound together in our Eucharist, in our thanksgiving; every time the Eucharistic prayer is said, Jesus is born for us, dies for us and then lives for us again.

Today is exactly half way between Christmas Day and Easter day, between the humility of the crib and the triumph of the Cross in the Resurrection; between the Word made flesh and the flesh made in the new word of the Gospel. The life, death and Resurrection of Jesus provide us with a concrete guarantee of the irreversibility of the promise of the perfection of humankind within the love of God, which is a posh theological way of saying that because Jesus was born, died for us and rose again we know that we will one day know Him as part of the Triune God in Heaven.

In the meantime, the Jesus who was the Word made Flesh, lives with us, here and now, in Word and Sacrament.

Jesus Lives!