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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Light and Life to All He Brings"

All things came to be through him,

and without him nothing came to be.

What came to be through him was life,

and this life was the light of the human race;

the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

Every year it’s a minor struggle at the parish over whether to read the familiar Christmas gospel of Luke 2, prescribed for the midnight mass on Christmas eve, or the prologue to John’s gospel, the hymn to the Logos, which is the proper gospel for Christmas masses during the day. There are actually a total of four different gospels used for the Christmas feast, the other two being the Matthew genealogy and annunciation to Joseph (used at the vigil mass on the 24th) and the continuation of Luke 2 of the Christmas gospel, the visitation of the shepherds, in the mass at dawn. Taken with the midnight and John gospels, this pretty much covers everything that the NT has to say about the birth of the Messiah. It isn’t much, but it’s more than just angels and shepherds. As The First Christmas, the little book by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg reminds us from the outset, we assume we know a lot about the birth of Jesus, but in fact, what is in the scripture we have synthesized into a single story, while the actual texts are quite different from one another in their detail. We would do well to go back and look at the Matthew and Luke stories again, and see them with new eyes, hear them with new ears.

Some of what we think we know is just guessing: like the “we three kings” thing. Not only are they not kings (Matthew calls them magi, or court astrologers), but there’s no mention of there being three of them, just that there are three gifts. Next time someone asks you whether music or homilies are more important, tell him the “we three kings” story.
But back to the yearly struggle - some priests always want to read Luke 2, the nativity story we all think we know so well, for every mass on Christmas. I’d like a little more variety, not just because I have to be at all the different masses, but because if we hear the other stories more we’ll get a better filled-out vision of what the incarnation means. If I want to hear Luke 2 more than at the midnight mass, I can always watch A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD, and hear Linus recite it, lights dimmed and everything.

Listening to the prologue to John, some words really strike me, and help me to hear about the meaning of the incarnation and get me ready to hear more of John during Lent and Easter this year. It was the verses that I quoted above, with that italicized line especially catching my ear: “What came to be through him was life.” John’s prologue starts with words that harken back to the creation story: “In the beginning...”, in Greek, genesis. The Word was in the beginning, and all things came to be, received life, through the word. The book of Genesis, though, describes life coming to be for the first time, springing from the breath of God hovering above roiling chaos. John is describing a new creation, and therefore, I think, a new kind of life, or wants us to think of life differently somehow. But what does he mean by life?

That, I think, is what the rest of John’s gospel is about, and he sets the stage for it in his prologue (or in Crossan’s happy word, “overture”). What John means by “life” is the life of God, made visible by the Logos in Jesus Christ, and “handed over” to the world from the cross and in the resurrection. The life of God is, for the author of the fourth gospel, agape, or what Paul had earlier called kenosis. The life of God is the complete emptying-out of the self on behalf of the other. For John, God’s way of living is to create, to pour self out so that the world might have life. The Logos, the word of God that creates what it says, is the visible manifestation of that holy mystery. The Logos “became flesh, and pitched his tent here among us.” In all the rest of John’s gospel, through the book of signs, and culminating in the passion narrative and the resurrection, Jesus through the evangelist is trying to get us to understand what life is. It is solidarity with friends, and not letting the wine run dry (Cana), it’s seeing that there is bread enough for the hungry (John 6), not letting the Sabbath interfere with an opportunity for healing (John 9), and not letting death pretend to be the result of kenosis, not letting death masquerade as God’s will for people (John 11).

The mutual self-gift or “living in love” that is the life of God is the theme of the Last Supper discourse, and Jesus is careful and explicit about that living in love and mutuality between him and Abba as being between him and the disciples as well, and among them. Agape is never exhausted, but only grows with the sharing of it. He gives yet another sign of divine life at the Supper when he washes the feet of his disciples and tells them “as I have done, so you must do.” And from the cross, finally, he bows his head, voluntarily handing over his life to the One who is life itself, and “hands over the spirit” as well to the church to continue his work and “do even greater things.” “Receive the holy spirit,” he says on the morning of the resurrection, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, you have the life of God in you now. Don’t be afraid of death. Don’t be afraid of anything. By giving yourselves away in love, you are becoming more and more alive.

I don’t think my mind and heart would have necessarily be drawn to these things if I only hear Luke 2 for all four Christmas masses. I do love the Luke narrative, but there is so much more, and the three gospel prologues are interdependent and mutually corrective for us when we hear them together. (Mark has no prologue aside from his first sentence: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Another genesis, and he starts with John the Baptist roaring in the desert wilderness, with Jesus, his cousin and contemporary, fully grown and, presumably, listening in the background.)

It is at the intersection of Matthew’s Messiah, “Emmanuel, that is, God-with-us”, and this God of the fourth gospel whose very nature is self-emptying and revealed in the Logos, that this year’s Sundays will be experienced. The wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures, the reflection of Sts. Peter and Paul in the epistles, and in Acts, will bring other insight for our reflection. Who knows where it will lead us? On this winter morning, three days after solstice, I’m aware of a lot of darkness in my life and in the life of the world. We’re already tired of darkness, and its wearying, debilitating effects. I’m looking for the light of the world, light to shine in the darkness, light that the darkness cannot overcome. One of the places I really want to hear about it is in my church. I hope for me, and for you, wherever you are gathering to pray, that we find light both inside and outside of those walls.