Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In the Beginning was the Word

This sermon responds to the Gospel for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, John 1: 1-14

“In the beginning was the Word…”

When our patron St. John reached for language to open his Gospel, his vision of the good news of God in Jesus Christ, he or his scribes landed on what in Greek is the concept “logos”, Word.

In our time, we have logos—as in Nike’s flying wing, a simple design that goes far to create recognition while also “saying it all”, speed, thrust, success.

In the vocabulary of that day, “logos” meant more than a word that communicates. “Logos” meant reality, the Word that communicates itself. When the inspired John built his Gospel on the “logos” becoming flesh, he spoke to his time. Who Jesus Christ is, says John, is the very ground of reality, the organizing principle of the cosmos, the One who makes sense of all, the One in whom all things hold together.

How highly we cherish the Word. Lives have been spent shielding sacred scrolls from defiling armies. Lifetimes of hours were invested by monastic scribes minutely lettering sacred texts, in famous examples like the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells elaborately illuminating those opening uncials, making each experience of opening those monumental volumes a fresh experience of “In the beginning was the Word…” So precious, these hand-lettered books, that even when printing revolutionized technology, the resulting Bible was still chained to the lectern so it would not be lost to the black market.

Candles burn at the spot where the Word of God is read aloud. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” the reader urges at the end, and we respond “Thanks be to God,” for the living Word. First and second lessons are like steps in a ladder lifting us to the Gospel, whose reader steps up to the altar to bring the Gospel Book into the midst of the people. They turn and face the making-flesh that happens in the center aisle, as words handed down over centuries and millennia pass over vocal cords and run across the tympani of hearers’ ears and so spark the mind, thaw the heart, and free the lips to join the transmission of the living Word.

“That which is handed on”, the literal meaning of the Latin word from which we get our word “tradition”. Complete with fingerprints from oily hands, DNA from the spit of debating rabbis and church fathers, smudges of candleblack, marginal scribbles and arguments—the Word handed on is always in subtle reshaping. It is a living Word, indwelt with power to become all that is in the mind of God for it to be. The nature of the Word is not to handcuff us to the confinement of small words and short texts, but rather to train us in right and healthy relationship to God, to neighbor, and to self.

Play out those three and see what the Word of God does: The Word shapes our faith in God by summoning us to God’s mission to redeem the whole of creation. The Word trains us to take our place in the community of covenant love both local and global. The Word frees each of us for ongoing conversion of life as stewards not just of the material, but also of the mystical.

And for Christians, the Word does all this not by piling word upon word into a code of law or a manual of behavior or a book of secrets. The Word does all that it does by having been in the beginning with God, by having been the womb of life and the light of all. The Word does all that it does by yielding that power to create and by becoming created, unimaginably becoming flesh to reveal to us the fullness of God, more, to cause that fullness to dwell within us, grace upon grace.

Whew! Words fail us. The Word does not fail us. In sheer wonder, silence is a fitting response. Better yet are faith, and hope, and love.