Announcing “Advent with the Beginning of Luke,” a new daily devotional book for your Advent observance. Entries from December 1st through Christmas follow the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke – from the birth announcements of John and Jesus to the songs of Mary and Zechariah to the birth of Jesus, and culminating with the presentation in the temple. This Advent study will make a meaningful addition to your personal or group preparation for the feast of the Incarnation. Continue reading “Advent with the Beginning of Luke”
Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017 || The Eve of the Feast of the Nativity || Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
Imagine the scene in your mind’s eye: Mary collapses in the hay, her body racked with the utter exhaustion of labor. Joseph wraps the newborn in cloth he has ripped from his own traveling cloak and kisses his son’s eyes clean of the life-giving fluids of the womb. The baby boy tests out his lungs, and the shrill shriek of new life startles the placid animals dozing in their stalls. Mary beckons Joseph to hand her the baby, which he does – reluctantly. She places the naked infant on her own bare brown skin, and he inches his way to her milk, an impossible crawl for one so new, but he manages it just the same. Joseph watches, rapt with awe and wonder. The wild star burning bright in the night sky, the echoes of angels’ song – neither could compare to the beauty of the newborn, this treasure Mary holds to her breast.
Christus Natus Est. Christ is born. Continue reading “The Uniqueness of the Incarnation”
This is the script for a new Christmas Pageant written for Advent 2017. At St. Mark’s we have an abundance of small children (under 4), so this pageant is written with them in mind. Seeing them jump up excited when it was their turn to run up on stage was so wonderful!
If you’d like to hear a monologue version of this from the early service, please click here.
Narrator is seated on a stool slightly stage right of central entrance. Children are all seated on the floor in front of narrator, speaking characters are in the sacristy.
In the beginning, God had a story to tell: the greatest story ever told, the story of Creation. And God began that story with four simple words: “Let there be light.” Everything God created was a character in the story: birds and bugs, land and lizards, fish and flowers, mammals and the moon. Birth and life, death and decay were also characters, as were both cataclysm and cultivation. For untold generations, God’s story of Creation grew in the telling until a new group of characters entered the tale, characters who somehow knew the story was being told. Continue reading “Part of God’s Story: A Christmas Pageant”
Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015; John 1:1-14
Right now, you might be thinking, “Wait a second…where are the baby and the manger and the shepherds and the angels? I know it’s late, but I don’t think I nodded off during the Gospel reading.” Now, I don’t know whether or not you nodded off, but I can assure you that I didn’t say anything about the baby or the manger or the shepherds or the angels. Tonight, I read a different version of the story of Jesus’ Nativity. Allow me to explain in brief, and then we’ll get to what I really want to talk about on this most Holy Night, which is God making a home here.
But first: yes, we are used to the Christmas Pageant version of the story of the Nativity. Most of that story is found in the Gospel according to Luke. I say “most” because a few bits come from the Gospel of Matthew and a few others bits are made up entirely. Tonight we read another take on that same story, a take so vastly dissimilar that it seems to be a different story entirely. But it’s not. The story is just condensed. The story of the Nativity is distilled down to a single, yet powerful verse of scripture: “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.”
That’s it. That’s the Gospel of John’s Nativity story. That one verse; half a verse really. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Pretty concise, right? But even in their brevity, these words pack in a whole lot of meaning. They are pregnant words, so to speak.
The Word that becomes flesh is the main character of this prologue to John’s account of the Gospel. In just eighteen verses, John explores some pretty weighty theological ideas, and he does so using poetry. Indeed, these verses are best understood as a poem: John uses special words and rhythm and imagery in an attempt to get to the very heart of God’s making of and presence in Creation. The weightiest of these special images is the word “Word.”
This is the Greek word logos. We get the English suffix “-ology” from it; you know, biology, zoology, paleontology. We also get the word “logic” from it. When something is “logical,” it is orderly, organized, it makes good sense. So when John claims that Creation “came into being through [the Word],” he’s stating that God was organized about the act of creating, that God had a plan for the universe and wasn’t just creating all willy-nilly. You can see how John’s poem goes all the way back to before anything existed, all the way back to when there was only God. John needs this cosmic perspective in order to demonstrate the extraordinary specialness of what happens next.
This organizing principle, this logic behind Creation, this giver of all life, this Word became flesh. This Word took on the very meat and bones and skin and breath and soul that had evolved over untold millennia within the Word’s own orderly Creation. This Word became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a man of seemingly humble origin who had a knack for helping people live better, fuller, and more authentic lives, serving one another in love. This Word became flesh, which means he got dirty and tired; he grieved and wept and sought comfort; he ate and drank and laughed with his friends. He was homeless at times; he was also a refugee. He was welcomed and excluded; he was loved and hated. He touched and healed so many people, but sometimes he needed to go off by himself to recharge. He took a first, newborn breath. He took a last dying breath. All this to say: he was one of us.
In fact, he was the best one of us. He was the best one of us because he was so much more than simply one of us. He was the Word. He was life as life is meant to be lived, as God dreams for life to be. As so many theologians have said, this Word became like us, so that we could become more like him.
And this thought brings us to the last important word in John’s brief Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Lived among us. I don’t like this translation. It’s about as weak a translation of the original language as you can get. I prefer this: “And the Word became flesh and made his home among us.” Made his home among us. This gets much closer to the intent of John’s original poetry. The Word didn’t just live here for a time. The Word settled here. The Word made a home here.
I think this second translation impacts me so much because I have lived quite a nomadic existence. In my nearly thirty-three years on this planet, I’ve lived in ten different states. The longest I lived anywhere was six years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The second longest was four years at college. I’ve lived a lot of places. But I never, ever felt like I was making my home anywhere. Until now. I live in a real house with my wife and two children. We brought the twins home to that house. In their short lives, they have never lived anywhere else. That is their home. We have made a home.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us. God made a home here. The Nativity we celebrate this night marks not a brief dalliance with Creation, not simply a passing through, but a commitment to be present, to be active, to be here. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, this commitment continues long ages past the Word’s earthly walk. The home God made is no longer just in Bethlehem or Nazareth or Jerusalem. The home God makes is here, in each beating heart. And the home God makes is also out there, within the whole of Creation. As the Godly Play stories so aptly put it: “All of God is in everyplace.” That’s God’s home. We are God’s home. And God is our home, now and into eternity.
So this night, we celebrate not only the first, newborn breath of the babe in the manger. We celebrate the deep reality that God made a home here in order that we might have a home in God.
Art: Detail from “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by William Blake, 1809.
Sermon for Sunday, December 6, 2015 || Advent 2C
As many of you know, Tim Evers and I spent much of last week in Haiti visiting our mission partner, St. Luc School. As you will see later in this sermon, I’m so thankful that a coincidence of calendar had us travel there during Advent. My first glimpse of the country came from 10,000 feet in the air. The Haitian landscape rises rugged and mountainous to the east where it abuts the Dominican Republic and flattens to the west where a peninsula bathes in the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was in the countryside west of the capital.
We arrived at the hospital of St. Croix in Leogane after the wildest vehicular ride of my life. Negotiating intersections paired survival of the fittest with a massive game of chicken. There were next to no traffic lights, and the painted traffic lanes seemed merely suggestive. Even which side of the road to drive on was in doubt. But we made it, thanks to our driver’s aggressive skill and liberal use of the horn.
As we drove, both from the airport and on the way to St. Luc, I tried to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Here are a few impressions in no particular order:
Wherever there is an open patch of ground, there are kids playing soccer on it. Grass is optional. And having a ball is optional.
Most people are dressed the way you or I might when we’re doing yard work. The big exception are kids – particularly girls – wearing immaculate school uniforms. And I mean immaculate. Their blouses are the only thing I saw that I would classify as the color white. Everything else that could be white was painted tan by all the dust.
There are stray dogs all over the place, many with mammary glands obviously swollen with milk. I realized how odd this sight was to me because nearly every dog in the U.S. is spayed or neutered.
The two main forms of transportation are walking and riding small motorcycles — dirt bikes, really. I didn’t know you could fit five people on a dirt bike, but you can.
There are lots of scrawny little goats milling around.
Many of the ramshackle dwellings are fenced in with tarps emblazoned with “USAID” – the United States Agency for International Development. The tarps say, “From the American People” on them. It’s a sad commentary that the emergency tarps provided five years ago after the earthquake have become a permanent fixture in people’s dwellings.
In the distance, the landscape is truly stunning, but focusing on the landscape close by tells what happens when there is no functioning sanitation department. Discarded bottles and Styrofoam food containers collect in piles like raked leaves, along with other unidentified refuse.
All this I saw from the seat of a dented Mazda dualcab truck. All this I saw without actually interacting with anyone. Thankfully, we did interact with people, and so my appreciation for both the blessings and challenges of life in Mercery, Haiti deepened. Our main contact was Fr. Sonley Joseph, the priest in charge of St. Croix and its eight — eight! — satellite parishes, including St. Luc. Sonley and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers and we both lived in the same dormitory at Virginia Theological Seminary (he a couple years after I). I liked him immediately, and not just because of our kinship, but because of his soft-spoken, yet ardent and inviting vision of the mission of God. In Haiti, the Church’s participation in God’s mission has always been linked with education, and most churches have schools attached. Sounds like St. Mark’s, if you ask me.
Fr. Sonley was our guide and interpreter when we went to St. Luc on Wednesday morning to say hello to the students and teachers. We received 270 bon jours in return across the eight classrooms, from 6th grade on down to pre-K. The school has no electricity, but there is enough tropical sunlight to illuminate all the rooms, save one whose windows are shaded by plants. The classrooms are quite noisy because there’s nothing but cinderblocks to keep sounds from one room invading another. And most teaching is done using the blackboard, as there aren’t enough books to go around.
But even with these challenges, the teachers’ love for their profession and their students is evident from the moment you step into the room. Tim and I met with the teachers later in the day, and they all agreed that St. Luc is the best school in Mercery. Their pride for and dedication to their school was wonderful to feel. Access to education is a fundamental human right. And these teachers are realizing this fundamental human right for those 270 beautiful children, in a country were such access is far from assured.
To be involved in the process of educating these children, even in the small way we at St. Mark’s are, is a gift. Our partnership with St. Luc School is a gift from God, a participation in God’s mission as Fr. Sonley described it. Of course, there is so much more we could do. We have a list, prioritized from simple to incredibly ambitious. But that’s only for these 270 kids. What about the other children of Haiti or in other poverty-stricken places (even here in the States) or the other needs and disparities that need to be addressed or the issues of injustice that keep people from having access to fundamental human rights? There is so much more that we could do! There is always so much more we can do — So, so, so, so, so much more that we can easily be overwhelmed; the need can steal our breath, then our balance, then our will to persevere.
And this is where the season of Advent infiltrates our hearts and minds and gives us a little breathing room to stand back and take it all in. Yes, the needs of this world are great. Yes, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. But Advent teaches us two things that will sharpen our focus and our will.
First, as Stacey so aptly put it last week, Advent reminds that the One we long for is already here. There is a tension at play between God’s kingdom already here and God’s kingdom still to come. God’s kingdom is alive and well in Haiti. Indeed, despite the general poverty of resources and circumstances, the faith of the people of Haiti is deep and abiding. I saw dozens of signs that said “Merci Jesus” on them. Thank you, Jesus! For what, you might ask? For life. For love. For family. For the same things you and I thank Jesus for. That’s the “already” of the kingdom. The “not yet” is still breaking in: it’s in the teachers sweltering at blackboards with 50 students clamoring for attention; it’s in the mother painstakingly washing the uniform each night so it is immaculate again in the morning; it’s in the hungry yet smiling faces of those children who are Haiti’s future, whom we are helping to educate.
Second, Advent teaches us to focus on a particular spot at a particular time on a particular person. The particularity of Jesus’ Incarnation is what we are getting ready for. God came to us in all the particularity of a precious human life, born in a place that could easily have been fenced with a tarp from USAID. Because of this Incarnation, Jesus had a chance to meet people in a way God couldn’t — eye to eye, touching, embracing, walking with, eating with…dying for. When you start to get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, return to Advent. Walk with Mary and Joseph to that starlit stable in Bethlehem and witness the birth of grace and love. See Christ embodied in his own peculiar humanness. Then go back to the needs of this world. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. Instead, do what God did in the Incarnation: pick a place; pick a person. Be present there. Form a partnership there. Form relationships there in that singular place. Find Christ in that person. And be an incarnation of Christ to that person.
That’s what we’re doing in the partnership between St. Mark’s Church and St. Luc School. It’s an Advent partnership: already begun but never quite finished. It’s also a Christmas partnership, because in that little school off a dirt road in the boondocks of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we incarnate Christ for each other. Thanks be to God.
The greatest story ever told began
When God breathed deep and bade the light to shine;
Creation burst from Love and Word, then ran
Away and grasped at purpose less divine
Than God would wish or yearn for it. For God
In foolish wisdom wove with freedom’s thread
And gave creation chances to be flawed,
If chance there were to choose the Lord instead.
This freedom came to earth when Eden’s dust
Was poured in human form, but right away
The fruitless choice was made, and broken trust
Turned Eden’s joyful hues to shades of gray.
The freedom God had granted first abused,
When fear and shame were learned and love refused.
With love refused, sad separation reigned:
We littered earth with broken covenants
And chose dark paths to walk and then complained
To God that we were lost beyond all sense.
In longing God would call us to return,
And for a fickle time we would repent.
The cycle thus unleashed: we’d grasp then spurn
The love of God, but God would not relent.
We showed no willingness to come to God
So God in mercy chose to come to us,
As shepherd, comforting with staff and rod,
To teach us sheep again to love and trust.
As love so often does, this love began
When Mary felt a tremor ‘neath her hand.
Her hand leapt up to shield her dazzled eyes
When Gabriel, awash in radiance,
Appeared to her, and much to his surprise,
He saw no fear in Mary’s countenance.
Confusion showed instead on Mary’s face:
She wondered how she ranked as favored one
When her humility would grant no place
As high, yet humble love would bear the Son.
Now God entrusted Mary to decide
If God’s design to walk upon the earth
Would flow through Mary’s womb, thus God relied
On human freedom to approve the birth.
But God chose well: the humble maid said, “Yes,”
And through her love this broken world was blessed.
The world was blessed one night in David’s town,
But so few saw the miracle arrive
That we might wonder whether it came down
At all, or if it simply failed to thrive.
The savior people sought was not a child,
Who nestles helpless at his mother’s breast.
They sought a fighter who like Samson piled
The bodies of the foes he sent to rest.
They sought a soldier who like David led
His troops to bloody victory with ease.
They sought a muscle-bound Messiah bred
To root out rank imperial disease.
So when the unexpected came that night
The people waiting all ignored the light.
The light was fading fast in Bethlehem
When Joseph, hand in hand with Mary, passed
the final house, which closed its doors to them
Like all the rest had done that day. At last
The months of waiting ended with a burst
Of pain that echoed through the darkling gloom;
She knew the birth would now be unrehearsed
And cried to Joseph, “Please go find a room.”
But Joseph would not leave her in the street,
So heaving Mary to his arms he veered
Off down a dusty trail and heard the bleat
Of sheep and goats, and knew a stable neared.
For once, thank God, a door stood open wide,
And breathless, weak, the couple dropped inside.
The couple dropped inside a stable stall,
And Joseph gathered up the fresher hay
While anxious Mary paced from wall to wall
Until the urge to push would not delay.
The universe contracted to the here,
The now, the pain, the prayer, the ancient swell,
The final push, the crystal cry so clear,
The Word made flesh was born — Emmanuel.
The universe expanded once again
As light ascending from within the child,
Reflected in the nighttime sky, and then
The light ignited in a star most wild.
The brilliance shone on heaven and on earth,
Proclaiming God-with-us, the Savior’s birth.
The Savior’s birth took place, yet no one heard
Until the herald angels praised his name
To shepherds (“lowlife rabble,” many slurred),
And yet for outcasts such as these He came.
When eastern wisdom read the star’s good news,
The magi journeyed west toward the flame;
But Herod welcomed them with bloody ruse,
And yet for immigrants like these He came.
For all creation was the Savior born:
Yet not for wealth, nor fortune, nor for fame,
But for the broken, lost, abandoned, scorned,
And Yes — what Joy — for you and me He came.
The greatest story ever told endures
Oh God, keep telling it till we are yours.
Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 21, 2014
This version of the Christmas pageant employs two sets of main characters, one younger and one older. The older versions sit on stools flanking the main action. They stand up to deliver their monologues. During the monologues the younger versions pantomime the action and speak at the end of each speech.
Before the universe existed, there was God. There was no time and no space, but there was God. Then God spoke and Creation came to be. One of the things God created was freedom, which was the ability to say “yes” or “no” of your own free will and not be compelled to answer one way or the other. God yearned with all of God’s heart that the Creation God made would say “yes” to a deep relationship with God its creator. But more often than not, parts of that Creation said, “No.” People said, “No.” We said, “No.”
Saying “No” to relationship with God led people down some dark paths. They dominated each other instead of serving each other in love. Fear ruled the day. And yet God did not give up. God decided to send God’s own Son into this wayward Creation to show us the path back to the God who never broke the relationship like we had done. All God needed was someone to say, “Yes.”
Scene 1: The Annunciation
While the OLDER MARY speaks her monologue, YOUNGER MARY and GABRIEL pantomime their conversation.
Until that day, nothing had ever happened to me. I grew up like everyone else in my town. I worked my father’s farm with my brothers and sisters. I watched the sun set. I watched the sun rise. That was life. Even getting engaged to be married to Joseph was just another day. It was expected. I always did what was expected.
Then Gabriel appeared to me, and every day since has been more unexpected than the last. He told me not to be afraid, but there was no need. His presence wasn’t frightening. It was exciting. From the moment he spoke, I felt a quickening in my gut, a hum, a desire finally to discover the person I longed to be.
The angel told me of the son I would have, the heir of David’s throne, the flesh and blood of the Most High God. It all sounded impossible. But Gabriel said nothing is impossible for God. I thought for a moment: I’ve never done anything in my life. I’ve never been anywhere. I’m not special in any way. Why would God choose me?
And that’s when it hit me. God chose me because God knew I would say…
Scene 2: Joseph’s Dream
Mary said, “Yes,” to the angel. She said, “Yes,” to God’s dream for her life, and that dream became a reality. And as the dream was growing inside her, the angel made another stop.
YOUNGER JOSEPH is fast asleep when GABRIEL stands over him pantomiming speaking.
My namesake was a great interpreter of dreams. He saved Egypt during a seven-year famine. He saved his own family, too. I always wondered what it would be like to have that kind of gift. Then one night I found out. My dream didn’t need interpretation, however, because the angel stood before me plain as day, and when he spoke, the words tasted true.
Everyone around me, society at large, even my own father, urged me to get rid of Mary, to dismiss her quietly so as not to cause a fuss. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then the angel told me why. Somehow I knew, even before the angel told me, that the child was special. I didn’t have the words to describe the way I felt until the angel called my son, “Emmanuel.”
GABRIEL departs, and YOUNGER JOSEPH rises from sleep. He join YOUNGER MARY and puts his hand on her pregnant belly.
Yes, the joy I felt came from that place, that place of nearness. When I looked at Mary and felt the baby kick, I knew…
God is with us.
Scene 3: Arrival in Bethlehem
As the NARRATOR speaks, YOUNGER MARY and YOUNGER JOSEPH make their way to Bethlehem.
Mary spent the first few months of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth. But as the time drew near for the baby to be born, the Empire called for a counting of all the people in their territories. Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be registered because his ancestors hailed from there. Mary went with him.
The waves of pain began weeks before Jesus was born. At first I thought I was going into labor, but Elizabeth assured me it was normal. I learned to live with them, even though they got worse as the day drew near. But that first night in Bethlehem, a different pain hit me, and I knew it was time.
YOUNGER MARY AND YOUNGER JOSEPH pantomime the story being told: breaking into the room, being surrounded by ANIMALS.
In desperation, I broke into the backroom of a house to get us out of the cold. The owner’s animals were huddled there. It stunk to high heaven, but at least it was warm. When Mary started to cry out in pain, I thought that we were done for, that the people of the house would drive us back into the night.
The FARMER comes in with a rake. Then the MIDWIFE enters.
But they didn’t. The farmer came in brandishing a threshing rake, but he took in what was happening right away and called for his wife. We asked if we could stay, and she said, “Yes.” Turns out she was a midwife. What a blessing from God. Joseph was beside himself. He didn’t know what to do. But she calmed him down, directed him.
She put a blanket in my hands and guided them.
One last thunderous wave of pain washed through me, and then…
YOUNGER JOSEPH holds the BABY JESUS in his arms.
I held my son Jesus in my arms. I held God. And I knew God was holding me.
Scene 4: The Shepherds
The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP cluster in the center aisle.
The light of the world shining from the baby wasn’t the only light shining that night. In the fields outside Bethlehem, dawn seemed to be breaking impossibly early.
The ANGELS and GABRIEL stand on the first pew and pantomime talking to the SHEPHERDS.
The light grew slowly at first, so we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But then the field was awash in brilliance. It was like an eclipse in reverse. But what I remember more than the light was the song. The angels sang a song of peace. Of peace! How could you sing a song of peace in such a war-torn age? And yet that is what they did.
The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP walk to the Nativity scene and join it. The ANGELS gather around behind the Nativity scene.
We went to find the One of whom the angels sang. And we found him in the dirt, among the animals just like my own children were born. The song of the angels rang in my mind and I sang it for the baby, a lullaby of peace for the Prince of Peace. And I knew he was one of us. And he was here…
To make us more like him.
Scene 5: The Magi
The MAGI begin their trek slowly from one side aisle of the church around the back and up the other side aisle. At the side of the church near the lectern, the MAGI meet HEROD, who pantomimes a conversation.
Not only did Jesus’ own people seek him out. Immigrants from a far off land arrived guided by a star in the heavens. They first met King Herod in Jerusalem, but they knew Herod was not the king they sought.
The MAGI move to the main group and present their gifts.
We had been searching the stars for a sign of the One who was to come. And when we found the celestial body streaking westward we knew we had to follow. We didn’t know where it would lead. What we didn’t expect, though, was for it to lead us not only across the desert, but deeper into our own hearts. When we met our true King the first time, we felt the inadequacy of the gifts we had brought – the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh. The infant gazes at us, into us, into our hearts. And we knew the gift he truly wanted. And so I gave him not just a box of gold…
I gave him myself.
The OLDER CHARACTERS move to join their YOUNGER SELVES.
And so God sent God’s only Son to teach people to use their freedom to remain open to God, to say “Yes” to that deep relationship. A few decades later, he would die for his convictions. But then he rose again to show that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.
So when you are searching for God…
Know that God is always with us…
And when the Prince of Peace calls to you…
* * *
(*=tiny speaking part; **=big speaking part)
MAGI x3 (1*)
*Artwork: detail from “Birth of Christ” by Antoine Pesne (1745)
Here’s the fourth in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!
Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in a little quiz about this video. In a few days, we’ll pick a random winner from those who participate. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and a mystery T-shirt, since the one Adam wore in the video is a one of a kind that his then fiancee made him for Christmas because she is awesome.
* * *
The trouble with being human is that most of us aren’t very good at it. We are way better at being couch potatoes or social butterflies or unique snowflakes or chickens. We explain the very act of making more humans by referring to the birds and the bees. A frightened human is a scaredy cat; an insufferable one is a less polite term for donkey. We may exist as humans, but we spend a lot of time filling the roles of other species.
And these other species are darn good at being themselves. Bees fly around collecting nectar and pollinating flowers. Trees keep soil from eroding. Grass scrubs the air of carbon dioxide. Cockroaches allow husbands to feel manly. If evolution teaches us one thing it’s that species thrive when they don’t try to fill the role of some other species.
While we are busy being butterflies and potatoes, we forget that in reality we are human. And who really wants to be human? Our skin isn’t very well adapted to our climates. Our young can’t fend for themselves for at least twenty-two years. Our bodies break down with alarming frequency. And to top it off, I can’t think of another species on this planet that kills its own kind with as much regularity and aplomb as we humans.
But somehow we have survived down through the ages amidst the dangers of saber-toothed tigers, drought, pestilence, war, and deficit spending. We have survived, but, as Tennyson writes, “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven.” I’m not even convinced that we’ve ever been that old strength. I don’t think that we’ve ever lived into our humanity to the greatest extent possible.
And here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t come to show us a new way to be human. Jesus came to show us how to be fully human. The Gospel makes a big deal about Jesus’ own humanity. Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus’ birth. John shows Jesus tired, angry, and sad. In all four accounts of the Gospel, he is brutally murdered. And why present God the Son as such a frail collection of bones and tissue and synapses? Well, he couldn’t be the “Word made flesh” without flesh. And he couldn’t be our hope and our salvation without fully identifying with our lives, however “nasty, brutish, and short” they may be (thanks to Thomas Hobbes for those appropriate adjectives).
So Jesus is fully human – not some ghost or apparition or hologram. And he’s fully divine. 100% of both. This 100% of humanity is the real miracle here. It’s impossible for God not to be 100% divine (God wouldn’t be God without the perfect batting average). But it’s very possible (indeed, likely) to be less than fully human. Jesus succeeded in realizing this unlikely full humanity, and that’s one of the reasons he’s so special. His life and his example teach us to be fully human.
If we aren’t fully human now, what takes up the rest of the space? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains this question well. Lewis calls us “toy soldiers.” We begin as automatons – clockwork beings in need of winding and direction. But God doesn’t want toy soldiers. God wants sons and daughters to love and adopt as God’s children. Jesus’ example and his grace enable us to move through the messy, painful, joyous process of outgrowing our clockwork. Only by becoming fully human, can we fully embrace God’s love for humanity. If we can recognize God’s love for humanity, perhaps we can love other humans, as well.
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The mystery section was on the back wall of the small independent bookshop at which I worked my last few years of high school. When a customer entered the store, her eyes would glance past the smaller shelving units and fix on the placards proudly bearing the word “MYSTERY.” The shelves containing the mystery section were taller and broader than those holding the other books, and I was the only employee tall enough to dust the top ones without a stepladder. Let’s just say that the manager loved mysteries, so we had a disproportionate number of them. We had humorous mysteries and thrillers, beach reads and stay-up-till-one-in-the-morning nail biters. In those books, a mystery was set forth: say, how did the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolved around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figured out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was 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 Gospel according to John begins with a mystery, but it is a mystery that is wholly different from the Whodunnits? on the back wall of the bookshop. The mystery that begins the Gospel cannot be solved, cannot be explained away. It can only be unapologetically presented and then unabashedly proclaimed.
Take a look at the first five verses that John gives us:In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (1:1-5; NRSV)
Here John presents the mystery: somehow the Word (who we find out a few verses later becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ) is in the beginning with God and is also God. Remember in Algebra class when you had to show your work to get full credit? Well, John skips down to the bottom of the page. There is no balancing of equations or solving for “x.” He states the mystery simply: in the beginning, the Word was with God and was God. This is frustrating at first because I’m conditioned to think that mysteries are all supposed to be like the ones on the back wall of the bookshop. I want to know how it’s possible and I won’t be satisfied until I figure it out and if I can’t figure it out then it must not be true.
But I take a deep breath and look at the words again. I read them slowly and speak them aloud. I notice that the rational part of me is sitting in the corner sulking because “with” and “was” should be mutually exclusive. But I find that the creative part of me sees past such mundane things as mutual exclusivity and begins to roll around in the muck of ambiguity. I squelch my toes in the mud, relishing the notion that God lives in a reality where choosing between alternatives is not the only viable option. Of course the Word can be both with God and was God! The limits of my language do not limit God, only my understanding of God. I realize my language skills are not up to the challenge of describing God. And my rational side joins my creative side in the muck of ambiguity because my rationality has been given the license to imagine.
In a few short phrases, John presents the mystery. Then, he deepens the mystery by retelling the story of creation. It’s no coincidence that John uses the same phrase that opens the book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” All things came into being through the Word who was with God and was God. My creative side connects with these verses because they are about creation. Life is created through him, and because I have been given the gift of creativity, I can sense in my gut or in my bones that the Creator is continuing to create me.
This creative force is the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend or overcome or understand the light because the darkness has never been a part of creation. The darkness is just the absence of any created thing. It tries jealously to unmake created things but fails to triumph since God never stops creating or calling creation to God.*
In these first five verses, John locates us (“life,” “all people”) within the mystery of God and creation, and he presents the adversary of creation, namely darkness. We have the makings of an epic story here.** The seemingly out-of-place verses 6-8 help me realize my role in this story. The mystery has been presented, and now John the Baptizer steps onstage for a brief scene. He is a witness who testifies to the light. (The words “witness” and “testify” are from the same root in Greek; the English word “martyr” comes from it.) His proclamation points to the light, which is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. So too, my life, which has come into being through the Word, is meant to be a proclamation of the mystery of God and God’s movement in creation.
When I encounter these first few verses of the Fourth Gospel, I feel the enormity of the mystery of God surrounding me, and I rejoice that this mystery discloses itself in light and life and love. If I could explain the mystery, I would be in danger of explaining it away, of shelving it like the Whodunnits? on the back wall. The mystery transcends explanation. It is elusive, and at the same time intimate; it cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. The intimacy and the embrace happen when the mystery touches the spark of creativity within me, spurring me to proclaim the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Life has come into being through the Word. And my life expands to every pocket and corner of my being when I live to proclaim this good news.
* My apologies for hurling this paragraph at you with no further comment. If it confused you at all, blame Karl Barth.
** I am using the word “story” to convey something that is important enough to be told and retold down through the centuries, something that is about God and about us and is a tale that is never quite finished being woven. Please do not take my use of the word in the sense of “it’s only a story.”