Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Recognizing Blessed John, Evangelist

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after Christmas includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Children whose birthday comes within two or three days of Christmas may feel that there’s not quite enough pixie dust to go around, that their birthday gets lost in the shuffle. Our parish patron, Saint John the Evangelist, may be familiar with that feeling, since his day in the Christian calendar is December 27. As important as he deserves to be to us, and much as we like parties, our patron saint doesn’t get much attention in Williamstown on the 3rd day of Christmas.

So we’re at least giving him a nod, and the Church helps us remember him by appointing as the Gospel for the 1st Sunday after Christmas the sublime words of the preamble to his Gospel, a portion known as the Prologue. His mystical prose celebrates the Word become flesh, and John’s first gift to all who hear these words is his insistence that the divine Word “was in the beginning with God” and “all things came into being through him.” It is as if the Word is the womb through which all creation is birthed. John personifies the Word, and so paves the way to conceiving a holy Trinity of divine being. Christians hear that “the Word was God” and instinctively think of Jesus Christ, in whom that Word is made flesh. At the same moment, to minds and memories shaped by the Hebrew Bible, “the Word” evokes the Spirit of God, more precisely the spirit of Wisdom, said by some biblical authors to have been present with God at the creation as Lady Wisdom. John the Gospel-writer sets the stage for God to be revealed as having dynamic facets—including the feminine—and we’ll see these strands of thought woven more intentionally into the concept of the holy trinity.

Well, there is a nod to blessed John, our patron. Where would we be theologically, without him? Thank God we have him, his voice, his witness. “No one has ever seen God,” insists John. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus the Word made flesh comes among us, the true light, full of grace and truth, to show us reality. What in English is Word in Greek is Logos, also translated “reality”.

The 4:00 Christmas Eve service here opened with an exchange between the indefatigable Lucy and a pensive Charlie Brown, who enjoys Christmas well enough, but is not satisfied until he learns what it is all about, what it is for, what is real about it. And Lucy, of course is fully up to the challenge.

This brief skit appeared to be well enjoyed, perhaps because it invited everyone to channel their inner child en route to hearing a few adult words attributed to American essayist (and Williams College grad, class of 1867) Hamilton Wright Mabie (and found for us by Barbara Kourajian): “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love…”, words spoken simultaneously by Lucy (Celia Twomey) and Charlie (Bill Wootters). There couldn’t have been a Lucier Lucy than Celia, or a Charlier Charlie than Bill.

I think we do our patron saint proud when we seize moments like that for re-examining, reconsidering how Jesus, the Word made flesh, is full of grace and truth. We did it last Sunday afternoon in a homegrown Christmas pageant unlike any we’ve done here before, featuring a touch that reminded me of Sesame Street, when the camera pans to the old fellows up in the balcony, with their salty commentary on life below. Not that I’m calling Joyce Lincourt and Tom Nicholson old, mind you, but every so often one of them would stop the action of the pageant to engage the cast in gentle cross-examination, grilling the shepherds on why ever they would want to play the part of stinky shepherds when there were parts like kings with crowns and angels with wings to be claimed. Our children, answering this kind of question, gave their own comments on what’s real to them in the Christmas story, creatively coached by Chris Bolton.

Speaking of shepherds, that 4:00 service was visited by the Sheep Family (known to us as the Torres family, plus Aodhan). As the shepherd, Sloane richly, plainly, retold Matthew’s story of the holy birth, punctuated every so often by that little chorus of baa-ing sheep.

And speaking of animals, have you taken a good look at our crèche at the altar? Have you noticed the species diversification going on there this year? Yes, that is a rat at the manger. And no, you’re not imagining it, a zebra has made it to Bethlehem (though, from a distance, he resembles Eeyore the donkey… but don’t be fooled). What has happened here? Actually, just what you might expect when Laurie Glover and Adrienne Wootters are put in charge of setting the crèche.

Could it be that this too is quiet tribute to John the Evangelist, that we envision such full breadth of the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ? At a time when our minds are fixed on the civil unrest and violence in South Sudan and Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership in South Africa, let that zebra remind us of the great continent that is home for many tens of millions of Christians—and let that zebra remind us to pray daily for the Church in all embattled societies, that Christians may bear witness to the Prince of Peace.

As for the rat… Williamstown writer Elizabeth Kolbert has a fascinating (and sobering) piece in the current New Yorker about the phenomenon of sudden global catastrophe, the extinction of species not on the gradual model advanced by Darwin and his associates, but the kind of calamity that might be caused by any of a number of factors. Geologists can point to signs of such swift extinction in certain parts of the fossil record. The slamming of an asteroid into the ocean bed off the Yucatan Peninsula may have caused the last such catastrophe. Carbon emissions appear to be accomplishing the next one.

Kolbert interviews a geologist who sounds quite confident that when this happens, the rat is the likeliest species to stand to gain from it all. The rat has, after all, followed the human species to every known spot on the planet, including some that human beings have chosen not to settle in, but rats have.

Let the one at our manger remind us to keep so praying, and choosing, and living that we may see and make the very best choices that this fragile earth and its shimmering ecosystems require of us.

I have one more facet of Christmas 2013 to report. St. John laces his Prologue with images of light, calling Christ the true light which enlightens everyone—a breathtaking claim that we haven’t paid enough attention to, preferring as a species to consider our own tribe or family or denomination or party enlightened, and others benighted. Darlie and her dad, Eric, pulled the plug on that narrow way of thinking in their duet on Christmas Eve, singing of how children the world ‘round see the Christ child having the same color skin that they have, in perfect expression of God’s universal love, the true light that enlightens everyone.

Well, it wasn’t yet night on Christmas Eve when I started lighting candles. Among the notes I left for myself last year (for this year) is one that said, “Don’t under-estimate how long it takes to light the candles.” And just a couple of weeks ago, a family in the parish gave us a full set of battery-powered candles for windows, with attractive pewter-finish bases, and I decided to place them in the upper room and porch windows.

Starting in the northeast corner of the upper room, I tightened the bulb in one lamp: it wouldn’t stay on. I went to the second: it wouldn’t come on. Likewise, of seven candles not one remained lit: some would come on, but immediately go out when moved. Others would come on only after being moved and, I’ll admit it, roughed up a little.

I will tell you what happened next. I will tell you this as a penitential act. I swept all seventeen candles into several nearest waste baskets. I will tell you that it felt therapeutic to do this, to draw a bright line in the growing dark.

After the 4:00 service, Joyce came over to me. “What became of the new candles?” she asked, innocently. Brazenly, I told her. “But we tried every one of them just yesterday,” she said, “and they all worked fine.”

What followed was a recipe for humility. Sheepishly, I reached for the nearest trash barrel that I could recall using in my purge, and pulled out one candle. Joyce twisted the bulb and it came on. And stayed on. So with a second. And a third. The fourth and fifth, too. The sixth one resisted for a brief moment of utter relief to me, then took. With the seventh one working, I saw what had to be next: wastebasket diving on the feast of the holy nativity.

It was the apostle Peter who asked Jesus, “Lord, are we to forgive someone as many as seven times?”

“Don’t stop there,” Jesus replied. “As many as seventy-seven times!” I’m thinking now that this flexibility may be required of us in our handling of things, not only people.

“The light shines in the darkness,” sings John our patron. And my darkness did not overcome it. Even when I let my doubts and my darkness speak to me, Lady Wisdom did not leave me to my own devices. Her role, like that of the other John, John the Baptist, was to bear witness to the light. Blessed John, evangelist, by his use of the word, makes witnesses of us all.