Perhaps in past eras it did humans good to lift their eyes beyond the turmoil of life in the flesh. Our ancestors may have found hope during hardscrabble lives by imagining their destination as a place no longer fraught with daily hardship. By this generation, though, we humans have managed to spiritualize and intellectualize ourselves so far beyond our bodies that we can almost forget we are flesh and blood.
But watch a few episodes of BBC’s Call the Midwife, or simply remember experiences with childbirth. Or consider the physical and mental pain of death. Such crossings to and from earthly life remind us we are flesh. We come into the world with grunts and animal gasps, blood and squalling, to jubilation or sorrow; and we leave the world in much the same way.
Celebrating Christ’s birth, we commemorate a moment that joins heaven and earth, spirit and flesh. The Isaiah passage that Luke 3:1-6 quotes on the second Sunday of advent, Isaiah 40:3-5, ends with the familiar words, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” The NRSV and NIV both change “all flesh” to “all people” in verse 5, but the Hebrew says kol basar, “all flesh.” Since the Greek Septuagint from which Luke quoted retained pasa sarks, the NRSV is right to translate the phrase in Luke 3:6 “all flesh.”
This phrase has a potent history. Almost half of its appearances are found in just four chapters, Genesis 6-9, the story of the flood in which “all flesh” perished except the few humans and animals in the ark. Afterward, God pledged a covenant with “every living creature of all flesh,” a covenant of patience despite human failures; a covenant of salvation for all flesh.
When Isaiah says, “All flesh shall see” God’s glory, it means that we living, fleshly creatures will see God’s work here on earth. And when Luke paraphrases Isaiah, saying, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” Luke too means that we fleshly creatures, while drawing breath, while living in our mammal bodies, enjoy God’s bounty and blessings. And not only we but all flesh, all creatures. The reign of God, here on earth, includes all that God created.
God comes to us humbly, as a child, a human animal, flesh and blood. We dress Christmas in lights and adorn it with angels and stars. We deck the halls with “boughs of glory.” But in the Christmas story the image of the invisible God sleeps in a manger; sheep rest beneath the stars; angels speak to night laborers. Salvation begins here in earthly life; and it begins not just for humans but for all flesh.
- Baruch 5:1-9 quotes from Isaiah 40, announcing mountains and valleys made into level ground, and trees providing shade.
- Malachi 3:1-4 (alt.) compares God to earthly fires purifying precious metals.
- Luke 1:68-79 compares God’s tender mercies to the breaking of dawn.
- Philippians 1:3-11 expresses Paul’s grateful support for the Christian community, modeling the valuing of persons over wealth.
- Luke 3:1-6 emphasizes that all creatures will see God’s salvation (see comments above).
- Zephaniah 3:14-20 announces good news for disabled and outsiders, changing humiliation into praise and renown.
- Isaiah 12:2-6 imagines salvation as a well from which the faithful joyfully draw water.
- Philippians 4:4-7 invites the audience into gentleness, joy, and peace in the midst of daily cares.
- Luke 3:7-18 challenges hearers, like healthy trees, to bear worthy fruits.
- Micah 5:2-5a imagines Godly leadership as the feeding of a flock of sheep.
- Luke 1:46b-55 praises God’s support of the lowly and resistance toward the powerful.
- Psalm 80:1-7 paradoxically portrays God as both enthroned on cherubim and busy tending sheep.
- Hebrews 10:5-10 prizes Jesus’ self-giving over the giving of material sacrifices.
- Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) celebrates the “fruit” of Mary’s womb.
- 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 attends to the lowly: a boy and his self-giving mother.
- Psalm 148 calls all creation to praise God, starting in the heavens with angels, sun, moon, stars, and sky, then descending to earth to call sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, wind, mountains, fruit trees, wild animals, cattle, birds, and finally humans, men and women, young and old.
- Colossians 3:12-17 commends appropriate adornment: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
- Luke 2:41-52 tells of a twelve-year-old with understanding beyond his years.