Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky
Christmas 1 C - Sunday, December 30, 2012
Galatians 3: 23-25, 4:4-7
One of our brothers regularly circulates emails to us, usually cartoons or articles from Scientific American or musings by Bp. John Spong. Mostly I delete them. But occasionally one or another catches my attention. So it was this week, when one arrived titled “In brief...” It went:
God remained.It is, I think, safe to say that this is not great poetry. It is rather doggerel, defined by the online Encyclopedia Britannica as
a low, or trivial, form of verse, loosely constructed and often irregular, but effective because of its simple mnemonic rhyme and loping metre. It appears in most literatures and societies as a useful form for comedy and satire. It is characteristic of children’s game rhymes from ancient times to the present and of most nursery rhymes.And yet even this piece of doggerel verse is surprisingly delightful and helps shed light or insight on salvation history... not unlike one of those regular journalistic features where noted theologians or religious authors are asked to summarize the Gospel in five or six or seven words. You should try that
Today’s Gospel reading, however, the beginning or so-called Prologue to St. John's Gospel, is anything but doggerel. It is rather one of the masterpieces of religious writing, so filled with beauty and ideas and images that it fairly soars and can take the breath away.
I've long been fascinated by this passage, in part because when I was in third grade at Public Elementary School Number 29 in Scranton, every day began with our teacher, Miss Catherine Ruddy — a sturdy Irish spinster — reading this to us from the King James Version of the Bible. After a hundred or so times of hearing it, I'd committed it to memory:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.The same was in the beginning with God.All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.In him was life; and the life was the light of men.And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.I don't believe I comprehended it either. And almost sixty years later, I can honestly say that I still haven't comprehended it. But I'm so very grateful to have memorized it. I knew then, even at age 8, that what was being said here, proclaimed here, was profoundly mysterious and profoundly true. And
part of that had to do with the way in which it was said, the language that the author used to speak it and that the translators used to convey it.
Here was a message heard at the beginning of each school day that reminded me at some level that before 'today', long ago, in the beginning, indeed before the beginning, something monumental happened. And that I and everyone of us in that third grade classroom, as well as everyone of us here this morning and indeed everyone who has ever existed or will exist, is a participant in. It was a necessary reminder that we are part of a great cosmic event going back, back, back to.... “in the beginning.”
And who could not be enthralled? Just listen to these phrases:
...without him was not anything made that was made
...the light shineth in darkness
...He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own and his own received him not.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. (NRSV)
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
Pure poetry this, whatever later theologians might make of it. And God knows we need more such poetry in our broken and pseudo-rational world.
Eugene Peterson, himself poet and pastor, has said:
The Christian gospel is rooted in language: God spoke a creation into being; our Savior was the word made flesh. The poet is the person who uses words not primarily to convey information but to make a relationship, shape beauty, form truth.Information is useful. Technical language is necessary. But faced with the deeper questions of who we are and what we long for and how we love, these forms of speech fail us. They play into an ever present temptation to transform the mystery of life into a problem to be solved. But our lives are not so much problems to be solved as they are mysteries to be lived. Or as Peterson reminds us, they are all about the making of relationships, the shaping of beauty, the forming of truth. And for this we need the poet, the visionary, the artist, the sage. For this, we need each other. And for this, we need language like that we heard this morning from St. John's Gospel.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, who is also poet and theologian, speaks of it as an unveiling, which is itself the ancient Greek for for truth:
When we move with poetry and imagination
when we deal with symbols and images,
we become people
who are happy with mystery
and open to discovery.
To deepen the mystery,
to embrace complexity is risky.
We need to have courage
enough to be ready for an unveiling
which can be a startling process.
Startling, yes, but also exciting and freeing and life giving.
And beyond this... silence. Because however important and ecstatic and formative these sublime poetic utterances are, however central, they too will ultimately fail us and we will stand mute — speechless — before the great mystery that is God, that is Life.
And that is only right.
After all the songs and celebration and gaiety of Christmas, perhaps it is appropriate that we come to this Sunday after Christmas in quiet, without explanations, without theologies, without agendas, but rather in awe and wonder. And like Mother Mary, ponder these things in our heart.
Our dear friend Suzanne Guthrie has posted on her blog for this Sunday an excerpt from St. Gregory Nazianzus, a fourth century Greek theologian, one of the three famous Cappadocian Fathers. Let him have the last word:
You, O God, are above all that is.These words cannot contain all that could be sung of you.What hymn can ever celebrate your praise?And on what shall the mind rest since you are above the reach of all comprehension?You only are unknowableyet all that we can think comes forth from you.All beings give you praise, those that think and those that have no thought.All that is makes prayer to you.To you every thinking creature sends up a song of silent praise.All that moves has its motion from you.All that stays still has its rest in you.You are the end of all beings.You are the all and yet are nothing of what created beings are.You are not one among many and you are not the totality of all beings.You have all names there are.Yet for me it is not possible to name you for you are the only one to whom no name can be given.Have mercy, O God!You are above all this is.These words cannot contain all that could be sung of you.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.