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Every May I teach a Hope College course called Ecological Theology and Ethics. It runs for three weeks, with the middle two weeks spent in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.
After a day of whitewater rafting on the Upper Hudson River, we (11 college students, me, and three other instructors) go on an eight day canoeing and backpacking expedition in the wilderness at the center of the Adirondack park. We carry all our stuff—sleeping bags, cooking gear, food, clothing—in backpacks, including one of the most important items, our shelters.
Students get to choose their shelter. Some sleep in hammocks and others sleep in tents. The tents are lightweight backpacking tents and so just large enough for two or four people, depending on the tent. Needless to say, you get to know your tent-mates quite well. You discover who sleeps cold and who sleeps hot, who snores and who tumbles about, who has insomnia and who sleeps like the proverbial rock. In late night conversations you learn of your tent-mates’ hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties. Sharing a tent breeds familiarity and intimacy.
This famous text in John’s gospel is all about tenting. It begins with the wondrous claim that in the beginning was the Word (logos) and that the Word (logos) not only was with God but the Word was God.
The Gospel of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus goes back to Abraham (Matthew 1) and Luke’s genealogy of Jesus goes back to Adam (Luke 3). But John one-ups them both by tracing the story of Jesus back to God. And John insists that all things (ta panta) came into being through the Word and that nothing came into being without the Word. Furthermore, this Word came into the world, but the world did not know him. Indeed his own people did not accept him.
The plot thickens in verse 14 where John says that the Word (logos) became flesh (sarx) and tented (eskenosen) among us. Yes, tented among us.
God in Christ pitched his tent among us and lived with us on our terms, fully human and fully divine, as the ancient creeds put it. For a time God lived among us, as one of us, and so God from the inside knows what it means to be human. As some early Christian writers state, there is nothing that we experience that God in Christ has not experienced. God knows us and the human condition because he tented among us.
Furthermore, proclaims John, we have seen his glory (doxa), the glory as of the Father’s only son (monogenous), full of grace (charitos) and truth (aletheias), echoing the powerful Hebrew words steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (`emeth). Through Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, we see what God is really like.
In the opening words of his gospel, John attempts to describe the mystery of the Incarnation. Whatever else we know, he affirms, we know this: the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. In the season of Lent this is especially good to remember.
Prayer: Loving God, who in Christ pitched your tent among us, remind us that you know us intimately and that there is nothing we experience, neither depths of sorrow nor peaks of joy, that you do not experience with us by the power and presence of your Holy Spirit.