Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sermon: C Christmas 1 30 December 2012

Is 61:10-62:3; Ps 147; Gal 3:23-25, 4:4-7; JOHN 1:1-18

The Word was made flesh & dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. AMEN.

Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “If creation had been left up to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that.” “Tempting,” according to the Synthesis Commentary I often read, “So, when we come to John 1, it is tempting simply to read the verses aloud and let them evoke the proper awe in what they say—since we certainly can’t match them.”

The question about talking about a mystery is what’s the right thing to say. Not to try to approach it is to abrogate my defined task, but to wander in, is sheer folly. For me duty trumps sense, and the question then is to go for explanation and education first, or the evocation of mystery.

Again the Synthesis commentary observes that John is concerned with the cosmic dimension of the pre-existent Word outside of human time and place. In the Hebrew tradition, the distinct reality of the spoken word is a dynamic entity, with the truth and power of that word rooted in the personality of the one who utters it. Ultimately, this word confers the reality that it signifies. In Greek philosophy, Logos was the principle that gave the world its character and coherence. In reconciling Greek thought with the biblical understanding of creation through God’s spoken word, Logos represents the mediating agent that brings reality to God’s design in creation and links humanity to God. Jesus is this mediator, the Logos, who was with God and expresses God’s purposes. Jesus as the Logos existed in the beginning with God the Father and was active in creation and through him all things came into being. The Word is the source of light and life for the world. Thus creation itself is affirmed as good, and we see the connection between creation and salvation. The contrast between light and darkness is a frequent theme in John’s gospel, and is linked to the creation of day and night in Genesis. Then, walking in light is choosing life, while walking in darkness is death. The light that Jesus brings cannot be overcome by the darkness.

The Gospel is asserting in the phrase “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” that the Word now enters the realm of human history and dwells, literally lives along with us, among us, as one of us. Then we can see the grace and truth of God’s true nature. All of us: followers, disciples, and struggling believers, then and now, continue to live in this glory that God bestows on us. Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of God who shares in the divinity of God, while at the same time taking on the fullness of our humanity. This is the mystery of the Incarnation: the eternal Word taking on full human nature— a genuine enfleshment who or which could experience feeling and need, and who could be crucified and killed. Jesus is the only one who has seen God, and so through Jesus’ life, we are enabled to see God’s love for the world. I’d add to this analysis a language comment I’ve observed before. When in language a verb verbs into a noun, it goes from a short vowel to a long one, such as a singer sings a song, the noun being the result of what the verb does, and changes action into reality. In Latin, I tego a toga, I put on a toga. The action of putting on something is a somewhat indistinct action, but a toga is a real, physical entity of clothing. Singing is an action into the air, but a song is a clear replicable entity. This vowel lengthening process is a known language pattern. In John’s Gospel, it says God legit and when God legit(s), Logos happened. God uttered speech and what was said was Logos, and more than being a physical entity, this reality of God’s speaking was Jesus Christ.
That said, it’s still a mystery. 

“A Word made Flesh is seldom
And tremblingly partook
Nor then perhaps reported
But have I not mistook
Each one of us has tasted
With ecstasies of stealth
The very food debated
To our specific strength — //
A word that breathes distinctly
Has not the power to die
Cohesive as the Spirit
It may expire if He—
“Made Flesh and dwelt among us”
Could condescension be
Like this consent of Language
This loved Philology.” So wrote Emily Dickinson.

I’d guess that this spare poem says most of what the more academic glop above reached towards.

How about this? Another poet wrote in “The Body of God”
“God is the great urge that has not yet found a body
But urges towards incarnation with the great creative urge.
And becomes at last a clove carnation: lo! That is god!
And becomes at last Helen, or Ninon: any lovely and generous woman
at her best and her most beautiful, being god, made manifest,
any clear and fearless man being god, very god.
There is no god
Apart from poppies and the flying fish,
men singing songs, and women brushing their hair in the sun.
The lovely things are god that has come to pass, like Jesus came.
The rest, the undiscoverable, is the demiurge.”

D. H. Lawrence worked at several images for the word made flesh, and his “apart from poppies and the flying fish” provides creation substance for God’s word made into a burst of creativities. He conveys the loveliness of the word made flesh, God’s own loveliness. We can muse on the theological meaning and philological expression and content, but what matters is the wonder and loveliness of God’s creation into a real, lively, and lovely person.

Dylan Thomas wrote a five-verse poem called “In the Beginning,” with six lines stanzas, so long to read whole.

“In the beginning was the three-pointed star,
One smile of light across the empty face; …
“In the beginning was the pale signature,
Three-syllabled and starry as the smile; …
“In the beginning was the mounting fire
That set alight the weathers from a spark,
A three-eyed, red-eyed spark, blunt as a flower; …
“In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters of the void; …
“In the beginning was the secret brain.
The brain was celled and soldered in the thought
Before the pitch was forking to a sun;
Before the veins were shaking in their sieve,
Blood shot and scattered to the winds of light
The ribbed original of love.” 

In each stanza he works at flinging out a different image, a different take on creation and its varieties and wonders in reality as well as in theory, abstraction, and theology and philosophy.

Aristotle identified three artistic proofs, the ethos, the pathos, and the logos. Ethos is the overall impression one forms about a person’s honesty and integrity. It’s the feeling one has about people that makes one believe that one can believe them. One can’t necessarily quantify it, but nonetheless, it’s one of the elements that can be persuasive. We tend to believe believable people. The second of Aristotle’s trilogy is the pathos. It’s a gut feeling one has about the rightness of something. It’s persuasion from within. The last word Aristotle used was Logos, the same word John used in this text. It meant the final word. The Logos is the truth that convinces one to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s the indisputable evidence. Again this is an academic explanation.

For many of us though something occurs to us which causes us to join Isaiah and rejoice greatly in the Lord. We join the psalmist to sing, “Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God.” However, “Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.” For some of us, a new additional faith was offered, another take on a relationship with God. The author of Galatians writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children, and because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” It strikes me that these readings assert positive statements with less narrative than many sets of readings. Poets provide color around the strong statements to offer pictures, if not stories. “And we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth”: Good News. AMEN.

© Katharine C. Black 30 December 2012, St. John’s, Boston