O Magnum Mysterium

Sermon for Saturday, December 24, 2022 || Christmas Eve || John 1:1-14

Tonight, I’d like to share with you a great mystery. It is the mystery of God’s movement in creation in the singular way that we call the Incarnation; that is, the presence of God coming among us in the flesh and blood person of Jesus of Nazareth. Notice, I said I’d like to share this mystery with you. I’m using the verb “share” on purpose, because it is way above my paygrade to try to “explain” this mystery. 

This isn’t the type of mystery one can explain. This isn’t like the kinds of mysteries my mother loves to read – Whodunnits. In those books, a mystery is set forth: say, how does the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolves around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figures out that the bell rope used to call for the maid is replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery. 

The mystery of God’s presence in creation is not this kind of mystery. The mystery of God cannot be solved. It cannot be grasped. But the mystery of God can be embraced. My prayer for all of us this Christmas is that we embrace this mystery of God’s movement, even as God embraces us with God’s love.

God’s love is a pretty good place to start. Before creation, there was God and only God. And this God’s very essence was love. But for there to be love, there needed to be a relationship, and so God was in perfect relationship with God. In our attempts to understand this relationship, we use the familial words of “parent” and “child.” The love flowing between these two was so palpable because it was also God. And all three were so united in love that they were still just one Being, even as they experienced the perfect relationship as three Persons. We call this mystery of love the Holy Trinity. And from the perfect relationship of God with God, God spoke all Creation into being.

That’s where tonight’s reading from the Gospel of John picks up. The prologue to John’s Gospel is a poem of epic scope, but like this sermon, it chooses (wisely) to describe rather than explain. The poem begins just like the book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” In Genesis God speaks, and Creation springs to life – first light, then water and sky and land and sun and moon and the great diversity of creatures. God speaks and Creation Happens. In John’s poem, we learn what God said. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

God spoke the Word, which was also God. (Remember, this is a mystery. I’m not going to try to explain it.) This Word was the organizing principle of Creation, the foundation of All-There-Is. In Greek, this Word is the Logos, which is where we get the word “logic.” So you can think of the Word God speaks as the logic, the blueprint, behind Creation, the sustaining force that keeps the near infinite relationships in Creation going. John says, “[The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word], not one thing came into being. What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

John begins with poetry here because any explanation would fall apart and fall flat and fall short. With this poetry, John casts our imaginations back to the very beginning, where we find God’s creativity at work, spinning countless new relationships out of the blueprint of the perfect relationship of God with God.

But since the Creation was not God, the relationships that formed there could not be perfect. And the least perfect of these relationships happened when people decided to try to play God. And here’s where tragedy enters the story. Instead of recognizing and copying God’s endlessly creative and loving nature, people saw only God’s power and mimicked this power in the worst ways possible.

No matter how bad things got, God was still present and still calling people back into right relationship with God and with one another. At length, God did something new. God gave the most precious gift God could give to this Creation. God gave God’s self, sending the Word among us: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Word became part of the Creation upon which the Word itself was the foundation. (Remember, this is a mystery. I’m not trying to explain, just describe.) The Word dwelt among us, remained among us, abided with us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In his earthly life, as recorded in the Gospel, Jesus taught us how to live more closely aligned to the blueprint of God’s perfect loving relationship. Jesus died demonstrating the lengths to which love goes to achieve reconciliation. And Jesus rose again to show us that nothing in all of Creation, not even death, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Word of God who was in the beginning with God and was God. This is a great mystery, what the old medieval Latin song calls “O magnum mysterium.” Again, this is not a mystery that can be solved like the ones in the Whodunnits my mother loves. This is a mystery that cannot be grasped. This is a mystery that can only be embraced. So, embrace the baby lying in the manger, yes. Embrace also the Way of Love which Jesus walked. Embrace this Way of Love so that when Christmas is over and all the decorations are packed away, we might still find ourselves participating in God’s reconciling movement throughout Creation.

As theologian Howard Thurman says in his prayer-poem “The Work of Christmas”:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.


Banner image is from Nasa’s James Webb telescope.

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