In the beginning was the Word . . .

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 | Psalm 147:13-21 | John 1:1-18

The gospel reading we have today is the same one from Christmas Day (maybe just in case you missed your Christmas observance that busy day). After the Christmas Eve emphasis on all the people at the manger-side, the Fourth Gospel brings to us a cosmic-level view, quite literally expanding our horizons if not blowing our minds, emphasizing both the eternal and the temporal spheres. In the Prologue of John, we are distinctly taken out of our carefully imagined, precious nativity scene following the long search for an inn . . . all the labor pains, sweat and tears, and animal scents and sounds . . . and brought to “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Like a high-speed, rewound montage of one’s life flashed before our eyes, we’re instantly time-warped back to before Creation. These words ignite a memory of similar words that are hopefully as familiar to us as they were to our Jewish ancestors. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” . . . or “When God began to create,” there was a wind of God or “spirit of God” that “swept over the face of the waters.” And then what did God say? “Let there be light.” And there was light, and it was good. (Gen 1:1-3)

Through the Word, light manifests, revealed of God, from God’s self. Ever-present, luminous, inspiring, yet intangible. And the Word of God throughout the Old Testament establishes God’s relationship with the people in covenantal relationship, intertwining word and deed. God’s promise endures faithfully, even as the people’s thoughts, words, and deeds fail again and again. It is the Word of God that sustains the people of Israel, keeping them in relationship with God, their strength and their refuge, their creator and defender, their assurance that they are the chosen ones. Eternal and Almighty God in heaven above maintains a covenant with the obedient, chosen people below. That’s the way it was.

But what if the story changes. It’s the same but new, familiar yet different.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He–word/logos, masculine in Greek, different from the feminine Spirit/pneuma in Greek or the breath/wind/ruach of Hebrew–He, the Word, was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being; all of creation is in unity through the Word. What has come into being through and in him is life, and the life is the light of all people. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And it was good, very good, I want to add, because my mind’s eye is set on Creation and God’s proclamation of the goodness of it all. God is. The Word is. The breath of God carries the Word over all that is to be in creation, filling all things through the divine inspiration, bringing Light and Life. And it is good, eternal, holy, divine, and beyond any concept I have of time and history.

Then the Prologue pulls us to a very real, earthly, temporal time and place in the person of John. Not known here as John the Baptist but rather John the witness. Twice we’re told John’s purpose is to testify to the light. John is not the light, but he’s a witness to it, to the divine light, the same light that we’ve heard was present at the beginning, that was coming into the world, to humanity and its domain, so that all who received this true light, who believed in his name, had power to become children of God, to be born of God, not of flesh but of Spirit (as Nicodemus would help clarify for us later in his exchange with Jesus).

I mentioned on Christmas Day the St. John’s Bible, illustrated beautifully, truly illuminated. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” takes the gilded words and suggests they form the ethereal haloed figure who seems to be walking forward, toward the reader, full of grace, though with such an indistinct figure. How they’ve conveyed such grace, I cannot know but just perceive. And it is through the person of Jesus Christ that we receive grace upon grace, grace and truth. It is through Christ that we are revealed the heart of the Father, the heart of God.

Our story has changed from one of a chosen few to all of Creation imbued with this Light of the Word that has been made flesh in Jesus. As it was in the beginning is now present in all that lives. And if we choose to live a life in the Light that overcomes the darkness, we, too, are children of God, not just in this sphere but in the eternal as well. Our story becomes not just one of deliverance and promise–though it is that, too–but ours is mainly a story of love, good and true. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). It’s not just a love story written in the stars but a love that was bold enough to become flesh. The Word, the Light and Life, was strong enough to become weak and vulnerable. The Word, the Love, need only to be named and known to be restored in its fullness.

And you know that fullness of love, right, when your heart feels like it will explode with love for another, be it family, friend, or lover? It feels all-consuming it its goodness, its joy, its truth. That kind of love exists for our souls, yearns to be acknowledged, recognized, and loved in return. The beauty of this love is that it’s not contained just for ourselves but naturally spreads to those around us because in its fullness, it enlightens the life of the Word in others, the Christ-light, the Life of all, whatever we choose to call it.

This is all that is, if we believe. The Light overcomes the darkness, but it does not mean that the darkness isn’t there, too, that there will be trials, tribulations, obstacles, barriers, fortresses that attempt to persuade us that the Light is a wish-dream we only thought was real. Our hope is folly, weak, and vulnerable, the darkness would have us believe. Remember, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and I believe with all my heart and soul and strength that that Word brought Love into our lives in a way only God knew would fulfill us and restore us to the fulness of the image we were created to be in God, a reflection of the Light and Life of Christ.

God came to our world through the Word in the person of Jesus. As we enter a new year, what word will you carry with you that might remind you of the Light you bear, thanks be to Jesus Christ? What might unlock the barriers of your love and joy in life that most connect you to God? To your brothers and sisters in Christ? What word will motivate you in your spiritual gifts and talents to be a defender of the faith and the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the stranger? What word might empower you to be the Christian this community needs, an ambassador for the love of Christ?

A friend of mine these past few years has herself chosen a word for the year, and the artist that she is, she decorated the word and hung it on her fridge or mirror or wherever she would encounter it often. The last couple of years at least, she took tiny canvases and using paint and paper and stamps and pen, decorated the canvas, emblazoned with a word, chosen by the one who commissioned her artistry . . . not only her art but also her prayers. Since she introduced me to the practice, I was reminded how years ago, a dear friend of mine and I set intentions for the new year, writing them on slips of paper, putting them in a special box. These special words have a way of addressing the truth of who we are, what we truly need. I don’t mean to sound flippant when I say, “All we need is love,” but in a way, all we need is the love of God to be manifest in our lives, fully and completely. What word do you need to help you reveal the light? My word is courage this next year, to be strong of heart. Because when the Word became flesh, our world broke open to the reality of a fierce love available to all, and it takes all of us to keep the life-light emblazoned not only for ourselves but for others. I need courage. Like John, we are called to testify to the Light, the Light that brought heaven to earth in a story of enduring love. And Love itself is a powerful Word.

 

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The Lord is With You

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38 | Canticle 15

Advent is all about preparation. “Prepare the way, O Zion,” we’ve sung, and theoretically, that’s what we’ve been doing, preparing the way for Jesus Christ to be fully present. These past three weeks have given us clues. As we lit the first candle with a word of peace and heard the Gospel tell us to “keep awake,” we focused on being present and aware. We lit the second candle in hope that we’d be a part of making a straight pathway through the desert, that the pathway of God’s peace might be realized. We lit the third candle with a word of joy and the vivid image of John the Baptist proclaiming, being that voice in the wilderness for the one who stood among them but was not yet known, the one greater than him who would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit. And today, we light a candle with the word of love on our lips, and we remember the Annunciation of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/104384.html
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

If you went home today or sat in your favorite chair reading or watching a movie tonight and Gabriel appeared to you, would your preparations find you in a place ready to engage God’s will? Because Mary was apparently ready, though I do like the poems and paintings that show her hesitance, reticence, youth, and vulnerability. It is not lost on me that after Gabriel has told her not to be afraid and that she’s chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, her most pressing question is about how that’s to be? How can she be pregnant? Forget the logistics of gestating, birthing, and mothering the Son of God: let’s start with the basics. And she’s told that the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, with her consent. Mary shows us who she is in her devotion, in her strength.

I mentioned that there was one more thing I wanted to share from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. . . .” (quote from Roshi Joan Halifax at the beginning of Ch. 7, p.147)

I mention this because while we all take for granted Mary’s strength, we often hear her spoken of as meek and mild. Of course she’s that, too. God knows who she is and favors her. Surely she is one who loves God with all her heart, all her soul, and all her mind. She’s awake and aware. She anticipates the Lord’s presence in her life. Her joy is harder for me to see, so tied up in her love and her surrender, that it must be complete in being so implicated in God’s will. That Mary is all of this in her youth speaks to a wisdom beyond her years, a strength of spirit that even Zechariah failed to show when Gabriel appeared to him. She heeds Gabriel’s message not to be afraid, and her love of God remains steadfast. Zechariah, a high priest and elderly man, powerful in many ways, serves as a contrast to this our Mary in Luke’s telling.

Young as she is, dependent upon her family and now her betrothed though between the two households, and about to be pregnant…could she be more vulnerable?

“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

God knew in Mary the strength of her spine, her strong back, not only to withstand the strain of childbirth but to endure the trials of raising a son who would have to go the way of the heavenly Father. He would break her heart in rejecting his earthly family. He would dismiss her when she called him out at the wedding feast, though she did not dismiss him. She would be close always to the news of him, as a mother does, and stand there even at his death. The song “Mary Did You Know” wrenches our hearts because we know that all this will come to pass, but how could she? God knows she’s strong of heart, and she has a strong back.

And she’s soft. Soft enough to swell with a child. Soft in her vulnerability, which means not only that she can be broken but also that she can break into newness of life. She’s not hardened to possibilities or unresponsive to that which is far greater than herself. Naive as it may be, she knows who she is and where she is in this world. She doesn’t have God’s approval like Zechariah and Elizabeth; she has God’s favor.

And the Lord is with her. Already. Before he was conceived. Before he was born.

“How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly–and letting the world see into us.” (rest of Halifax’s quote on p. 147)

We see the Virgin Mary, in her youth and vulnerability, in her obedience and devotion, in her strength and love beyond her years. The Lord’s favor was with her, indeed, radiating to all through the generations, this most highly favored lady. But before all the generations called her blessed, she had to brave the wilderness of her wild-hearted response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes,” Mary’s consent to participate in the will of God took her further into vulnerability, the wilderness of walking a way alone. Like we said last week, though, when we take a light into the darkness of the wilderness, we tend to find others who have also ventured into a way that was right even if it wasn’t popular, a way that is true even if it’s uncomfortable. Mary makes it to Elizabeth’s house. Mary makes it to the birth with Joseph. The Lord is with her all the while.

We may not get Gabriel visiting us today or ever. Our calls are not as dramatic most of the time as we navigate our jobs and vocations, our lives and loves, but the decisions we make are often life-altering. When we approach a precipice having done the training in mindfulness and presence, with knowledge of our story and stories, and with a strong back and soft front and wild heart . . . what does our decision look like if we not only believe but know that the Lord is with us?

Beloved, the Lord is with you.

How do our decisions make space for the presence of the Lord to grow in our lives? Are we responding out of fear? Are we putting up a shield to defend ourselves from what is uncomfortable, terrifying, or different? Or are we showing our soft front, our wild, open hearts? Can we take that step into the wilderness even if it’s dark and unknown but we feel it to be true?

With this kind of walk in faith, the Light grows, and we make way for the Incarnation.

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What is True at Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14

Around the ages of 6 to 10, each of my children in turn have been keen to point out to me in polite whispers that people obviously dressed up as Santa aren’t the real Santa. I meet their earnest eyes with a smile and a wink and mouth, “I know.” They, too, smile in their assurance of finding something true, but I remind them that that person dressed as Santa embodies a symbol of the Spirit of Christmas–the joy we have in sharing gifts with one another, given as tokens of our love. The season of Advent has ideally prepared us to share our intangible gifts of faith and love with one another joyfully and especially prepared us to rejoice in the gift that is Christ our Saviour.

Earlier this week in prayer, a line from Psalm 62 called out a reminder:

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

I had to read it again.

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

Whatever the past four weeks have held for us, in this moment we breathe in sacred stillness and let our bodies, minds, and spirits quiet, leaving outside the door all that would distract us.

Fully present here and now, as the gathered faithful, we have come to adore the blessed babe, come to heed the angel’s declaration, come to witness that God is indeed with us. We’ve come to hear the story of the true spirit of Christmas and to welcome our salvation in the form of the infant Christ.

Our story is set with a backdrop of people of all sorts, some righteous but not all. The world has become thick with social, political, and religious constructs, which further constricts one’s freedom. In a time of expectation, an angel, a messenger of God, visits a young woman, asking if she’s willing to serve God’s will. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is guided by an angel in a dream to cooperate with God. And shepherds minding their flocks are interrupted by yet another angel to tell them the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Mary births a baby boy, attended by we know not whom, but God is fully present. The angels are rejoicing and singing, and shepherds come to see if all this is true, for the “child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” has changed everything.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a recent lecture that God doesn’t rend the heavens open to shower upon us the gift of our salvation; rather, God overflows into the world God created and fills from within, like a spring bubbling up from the earth. God changes things in the world in the world’s own terms, in its own life, within human relationship. In fact, he suggests that God “redefines human nature from within by defenseless love.”

“Redefines human nature” because we are shown our full, previously untapped capacity to be in relationship with others and especially with God. We are not so distinctly separate; God has been within us and remains among us. God redefines human nature because it would soon come to pass that no longer are we bound to this world in fear of death. Jesus lay wrapped in cloths as a babe as he would years later in a tomb, but at no point is he bound by this world. God redefines human nature because the least valued are given the greatest responsibility. Mary in her humility and silence bears her strength as she bore the Son of Man, and the shepherds, well, we can only imagine that the flock came with them. The shepherds who are both obedient to the will of God and able to care for and protect their flocks fill a role that resonates deeply with our Lord.

God doesn’t make a command at this moment in creation. God doesn’t say, “Realize today is the day to love me and do my will!” God offers us God’s self, the greatest gift we never thought to ask for.

Williams says that “God values our humanity beyond all imagining” and that “no risk or gift is too great for any one person.” For God it was never doubted that “humanity is supremely worthwhile.” God in infinite wisdom saw a new way to be among us so that we might once again know freedom and perfect love because on our own, we keep moving farther and farther away. Apparently the only way we could know such love was to experience it in the flesh, in flesh like ours. For that to happen, we had to show a mutual interest, a mutual willingness. We had to listen to what God had to say through the ages and trust that God still speaks in the present, yearning to share light and life with us.

The Christ child was and is the gift. God is the giver of God’s self, our greatest gift. The extraordinary was brought to the ordinary not in diminished form but as light from light. This gift born of Love shows us that the true spirit of Christmas is selfless, gracious Love. It is not forced. As much as God could have forcefully burst open the heavens and commanded obedience and loyalty through great power, God waited for the offer, the invitation to be accepted by an unassuming young woman.

The Spirit of Christmas is about receiving God’s in-breaking Love. Being aware of my own humanity and weaknesses, I realize that I needed Jesus to be born into this world those many years ago. I needed Jesus to be born into this world, to live and breathe among friends and foes, to die as one blameless yet crucified. I needed God to show me that I am beloved, that I am worth everything even if I don’t always believe it myself. And because God showed just how creatively love can be shared, just how beautifully life can grow from relationships, I know that God overflows into our world in immeasurable ways.

We try at Christmas to share our love for others in giving of our abundance. It’s what we do, and most of us enjoy the thoughtful preparation of choosing gifts and delight in the giving. We try to imitate God’s giving and do what we can to share. But the true spirit of Christmas comes from God’s giving and depends upon our receiving. Receiving the good news. Receiving God’s love. Opening our whole life to receive God and thereby receive our salvation, which is our perfect freedom and wholeness. Through this Christ child, we see how God breaks through the chaos, the darkness, and shows us that all shall be well. That there is hope.

We have to be able to recognize what is true, what is real. We have to remember the miracle of Jesus’s birth–that it happened at all–and open our lives to receive God fully, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but just for the sake of receiving God’s unconditional love. We move about in this world not separate from God. There is no glass nor wall nor space between us. When we smile at a stranger, when we kiss a loved one, when we great one another in peace, we have every reason to overflow with joy at the presence of God in our world, in the face of everyone we meet. This night, we not only marvel and rejoice in the birth of Christ but also humbly bow before the babe at the manger and let our Light be ignited by the one true Light. We can imagine looking over to Mary and saying in excited yet hushed tones, “This, this is real.” And her smiling back at us and saying softly, “I know.”

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