Reflection for Christmas 1, December 27, 2020
Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:5-7
Before we consider today’s readings, I would like to mention that tomorrow, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. You will recall these young victims of King Herod’s fear. There were probably not many of them. But lately the news has reminded me that Holy Innocents are still with us. I am speaking in particular of sex trafficking in children and their slavery. There are apparently many of them. We don’t hear about them much because I think that a lot of films that support the trafficking appear on the so-called dark web. I am not quite sure what that is, but the papers have also been talking about the posting of pornographic videos of minors on at least one site that is on the open web. I’m not sure if that’s true or is media hype. As far as I know, the facts are not all in. Nonetheless, please keep these kids in your prayers tomorrow and beyond.
And now for today’s Gospel passage.
Well, I have been on a really complicated journey to find a way to describe how uncomplicated the introduction to John’s Gospel is. And I find that I keep circling back to my father.
My father’s name was John. He was born in the United States in 1911. But he was raised in Italy from infancy. At age 14, he was sent back to the United States alone. I really don’t know why. What I do know is that despite the lack of education, despite the Great Depression, despite living between two cultures, my father modeled for me every virtue that God gave to Adam. If God created us in his image, to live in peace and to tend the Garden of Eden, my father was the exemplar.
He worked hard and he loved my mother. He was a great cook who loved to make large meals for large groups. He made wine. He painted the house every five years in the summer while drinking watered down Budweiser. He created and cared for an enormous garden with lawns, an English border, trees, and, of course, a large vegetable garden filled with tomato plants, basil and parsley.
He could look at a pile of junk or an old oil barrel and conjure up something like a sturdy three-legged table which we used for years. Or a huge barbeque which my mother demanded he hide behind the hickory saplings in the corner of the yard.
From his youthful forays into an amateur Italian theater society, he possessed a large store of Italian songs and stage routines. And when he recited to the family, he’d make people choke with laughter or wipe some tears. So, he had respect for the power of language.
I am “flesh of his flesh.” Flesh of his flesh. This is a figure of speech that signifies the unspeakable closeness between persons who are parents and children and grandchildren. It is one of those combinations of thinking and language that I classify under the heading “metaphor.” In today’s Gospel, John does not use that expression. He uses the term Word to explain or describe what is almost the same thing. He creates in our minds an image that describes an intimate connection or an identity between God and the earthly Jesus who walked among us – something that John desperately wanted to do.
In John’s mind, “Word” is the correct, respectful and powerful image. He uses it to describe in a more exalted way what we feel when we say “flesh of my flesh.”
Why did John use Word as his figure of speech? A word, like our thoughts, belongs to us like nothing else. Our words come out of our mouths through the combination of thought and breath and tongue and lips. In John’s age, when even philosophers didn’t know the particulars of sound waves, a word would have been a thing in itself that was totally connected to me and then was launched into the world where it would take effect when it struck another person’s ears. It also has a kind of identity of its own.
In today’s Gospel, John harks back to the Creation story in the book of Genesis where God spoke a Word or a few words and light came to be. “And God said, Let there be light.” John is saying that God’s speech describes how he creates. But what he is really saying is that the person who became Jesus is part of God like the breath is part of me.
So, why does John write this passage with a figure of speech or a metaphor or the inexact exactitude of poetry? Why can’t he be direct? I think John is trying out four things.
First, it’s the only way he has to describe his intuitive sense of who or what Jesus is. Saying that Jesus is the Word not only puts Jesus at the moment of Creation when God spoke words Let there be Light. It puts Jesus in God’s own mouth, makes him part of God’s own breath. This is a really excellent description of the Trinity.
Second, John really wants to exalt the man Jesus. He wants to make a connection between a man who was crucified and the very God whom Isaiah saw in his vision of the Holy of Holies from which, by the way, we derive the Sanctus acclamation “Holy, Holy, Holy” which we sing at the Communion service.
Third, he really, really wants to show the magnitude of God’s love. If John the Evangelist is also the author of the first letter of John in the NT, he is the man who wrote “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” That is a remarkable and wonderful statement. And the proof of God’s love is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In today’s second reading, Paul picks up on this and makes its consequences more explicit. “God sent his Son, born of a woman, 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!” It seems we come back to the idea of Flesh of my flesh.
Fourth. John wants us to get down to the “doing” part. John writes about love all the time. He encourages us to love each other. And, today, as never before, we can actually see so many of these “others” — on the internet, on TV, in newspapers, on Zoom, FaceTime, and WhatsApp, through email, chat, and all those modern things that keep us together in these times of separation.
And Loving is EASY. We love ourselves and want to improve, including our facing the complicated feelings that we are not loved or are not worthy of love. We love our families. We love our family members who have died. We love creation. We give to environmental groups. We can even join Gleaners who pick up backyard fruit and unharvested food and so forth to give away directly or to food banks. You can check this out on Google. We study and discuss our faith in Sacred Ground to see how we can be better children of God along with others. We make sandwiches. We volunteer for Ashby Village. We do the shopping for the house bound. There are a million different ways.
And we are not being asked to change the world. As Bishop Marc said to us at Saint Alban’s two weeks ago when he visited: changing the world is God’s work. We are only being asked to love.