Christmas, Part II, The Word, Embodied
In the beginning was the Word. These very famous words start off the Gospel of John, and they are always read as one of the Christmas lessons, often on the 1st Sunday of Christmas. So what is going on here? We remember the last time we heard the words “In the beginning…” That was in Genesis, giving us a mythical understanding of the creation of the world. (Remember, myth does not mean untruth, it means truth that is not factual.) Is John giving us a new myth? Perhaps! What happens if we think about this as a new way of talking about creation – not the creation of heavens and earth, but the creation of reality.
The Dutch scientist and Episcopal theologian Sjoerd Bonting talks about two kinds of creation. He suggests that the traditional understanding of creation ex nihilo, that is “from nothing,” is not the only way to talk about creation, and perhaps not appropriate at all. We are so used to thinking about creation this way that we may shake our heads and say, but if we do not understand our creation as having been created from nothing, then what? But there is another biblical understanding of creation, which is making order from chaos. The words that are translated as “void” and “deep” and so on can also be understood as pertaining to the ocean. In early Biblical times, the ocean was considered to be the realm of chaos, and the land was “ordered.” If we re-read the story of creation from that perspective, it still works, and it does not conflict with the big bang theory at all. It simply looks at it from a mythical viewpoint and gives us truths from that direction. This brings us back to the question of how we understand reality.
John gives us a poetic understanding of how reality comes from the mouth of God: a word is spoken and it becomes real. In this second time of Christmas we are offered a very different way of looking at the change in reality that happens when Jesus comes. The stories we know from Luke are very particular and “home town.” They try to bring the story to earth, so that we can imagine ourselves in the story. At the other end of the scale, the John story is poetic and global. Both are true in very different ways. Remember we talked about truth being a myth that we live by. Mythic truth in the infancy narratives is one kind of truth, and this is yet another kind of truth, a kind of poetry truth.
So what does this mean for us today? At one level, very simply, it means that we always have to remember that there are many ways of looking at the same situation. And those different ways of looking may give us different truths. A video called “What the Bleep” gives an introduction to quantum physics that outlines this very nicely. For example, when we look at a table, we see a solid surface. There’s no question about that, is there? But, as we delve down into the realms of atomic and subatomic particles, the “truth” changes. We begin to realize that the truth is that not only is the table not solid it’s mostly air – air that is in motion so quickly that it feels solid to us at a tactile level. So what is the truth? Is the table solid or not? It depends on the perspective. From a tactile level, yes, it is solid. From an atomic level, it is absolutely not solid. Both statements are true. And, we are just dealing with “factual” truth here, not comparing with mythic any other kind of truth at all!
So our perspective is a huge part of what makes up our reality. Back to Bonting and his Chaos-Theology. He reminds us that it is a law of physics that without intervention, order devolves into chaos. He also suggests that “chaos” is a way of understanding evil – as something slipping away from the the good of order/creation. Into the chaos comes the Word, the creative life-force. The ancients understood correctly that words make a difference. They listened and were nervous when someone said: “Thus says the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” They understood that the very speaking of the words started the creation of something new.
We are beginning to remember this. I read a lovely article about a woman in difficult circumstances whose friend challenged her to change her words. For her New Year’s resolution that year, she determined to change the word “can’t” to a word of choice, and to change her “no” to “not yet.” She recognized that when she said “can’t” that it really was a choice, and naming it makes a difference. Changing “no” to “not yet,” was equally challenging, as in, when a new acquaintance asked her, “have you been to visit Dubai?” Her previous answer would have been simply “no.” She changed that to, “not yet!” It was not that long until she was indeed, visiting Dubai. That was just the icing on the cake for a life turned around for changing her language from a self-imposed can’t to a life of chosen possibilities, from a static, devolving no to an open, creative not yet! The language and brain are intricately intertwined, so that when we change our language, the neural pathways in the brain actually change, for better or worse. So I invite you to listen to your words. Do you say “can’t” when there is actually a choice? Do you say “should?” That’s a big one! Do you say “no” when you could say “not yet?” Are you willing to step into God’s Word for you? It’s not a negative!
When John says, In the beginning was the Word, he opens the concept of “God with us” in a massive way. God’s creative urge is indeed the ground of our being, the spirit that gives us breath, and the hope that allows us to see beyond the chaos that always threatens to overwhelm us.
The chaos is always ready to jump back in to any situation. As Fred Conrad’s friend, Father Kevin writes:
How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives? . . .
One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.
A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.
I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Our friends in Newtown report that ministry of presence, and there is healing in their ministry of presence to each other. The many, many people who have died and are dying this Christmas season are surrounded by that ministry of presence. There is the Word, the God with us, brought to and through us as we embody God for each other, as Jesus taught us.
I invite you, this Christmas, to both be the Word, and to pay attention to words. I invite you to sit and “be with” those who are hurting, perhaps not saying a thing, remembering that just being there is enough, because through us, God speaks the Word, from the beginning.