My wife Banu and I are fans of vampire movies. There are many I like, but my favorite is still probably one we saw in the theater when we were in seminary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I also very much like the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In. It has the added element of being a story of young love!
Why do I begin with vampires? The reason is directly related to the sacrament of the Eucharist. In the first century, as word gradually spread that the early church was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, many non-Christians were horrified. Prohibitions against blood in the Hebrew scriptures go back as far as Genesis: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4). The blood is the life.
Some called the Christians cannibals. And though the legend of the vampire goes back to ancient times, we can’t really pin that one on the early Christians. Still, hearing this, one might be forgiven if there were some doubts. To the uninitiated, it probably would sound like cannibalistic or vampiric actions are in order!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Does that verse from the gospel of John remind us of anything? If it reminds us of the first verse of Genesis, then that is deliberate. John wants to identify Jesus the Christ with the eternal living Word, the Word that transcends creation.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (v. 5). What does that mean?
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The Greek word for “overcome,” καταλαμβανω (katalambanō), has several nuances. It can mean “to grasp.” In the physical sense, it would suggest “seizing” somebody or something. In the mental sense, it refers to “understanding.”
It can also have the sense of “detecting.” In chapter 8, when some scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman “caught in adultery,” the same word is used. In this case, she is both detected and seized! (On a side note, we hear nothing about the man being detected and/or seized—nor about how word came to the scribes and Pharisees who detected her!)
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The darkness did not grasp it, or seize it, or understand it, or detect it. More than that, the darkness is incapable of grasping or understanding the light.
With verse 14, we have something of a summary of the introduction. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The Word became flesh and lived among us. That’s how John portrays Christmas. There’s no messing around with a baby in a manger.
There is an article with an eye-catching title by Jennifer Glancy, professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. The title is “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel” (Biblical Interpretation 13:2, 2005). She brings Pontius Pilate into the picture.
In the article, she wonders, echoing Pilate in his interview of Jesus, “What is truth?” Expanding on that, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?” If verse 14 is correct and the eternal living Word has come to dwell in flesh, then it seems we have to say yes, truth does in fact dwell in flesh.
That is the assumption of the Roman Empire and its project of torture and crucifixion—that truth can be extracted from flesh and blood. Indeed, that’s an assumption of torture: truth can be wrenched from the body.
Glancy speaks of three intentions of torture. There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth. (You know what I mean: “We have ways of making you talk!”) Secondly, there is “penal” torture, torture used for punishment.
Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which is part of a campaign to send a message to the rest of the population. You make an example out of somebody. Add to this the element of humiliation. People crucified by the Romans were stripped naked and mocked.
What does that mean for us? Can we think of ways in which we see or experience the Word in flesh? Are there ways in which we know there is truth in flesh, in this physical stuff?
I pray—I hope!—we don’t literally engage in torture, but torture can have different meanings. We torture each other in a multitude of ways. We torture ourselves, and we are tortured. I think it’s safe to say Covid hasn’t always brought out the best in us. We have shamed each other. We have sat in judgment of others. And there are consequences to all of this. We are harmed as the body politic, and we are harmed as flesh and blood bodies.
Yet even though we surely know darkness can’t overcome the light, at some level—and in some ways we can’t quite put our fingers on—we turn away from the light. Too often we hide in the dark. We need to let the light, the light that enlightens everyone, penetrate our darkness.
That doesn’t happen by accident. Responding to Christ’s call to eat his flesh and drink his blood is a matter of will. As the early church father Ignatius of Antioch put it, “the Blood of Jesus Christ is love.” That’s what it takes to become aware of the body of Christ, be it in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or in the sacrament of everyday life.
The apostle Paul warns the Galatian church when he says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14-15). Recall the earlier comment about vampires and cannibals.
We are at the beginning of a new year. No one knows what 2022 will bring. Certainly, it will have its own joys and sorrows, its own life and death. We as the church, the body of Christ, have our own unique calling. Our world is divided; our bodies are torn apart.
We can remain whole. We can be made whole. We are told that from the fullness of Christ “we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16). That is our witness. That is our testimony. Instead of tearing flesh and spilling blood, we build each other up. We nourish each other, knowing that the Word has come and dwells with us.