24 December 2017

Life and Light

John 1:1-5, 9

Christmas Eve

In the majestic prologue to John’s Gospel we hear these words, “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” (John 1:1-5).

Life and light. In the Greek, we have two, three-lettered words.  Zoe—zeta, omega, epsilon—meaning “life.”  And, phos—phi, omega, sigma—meaning “light.” John turns to two theologically, existentially profound words, archetypal words, which reflect two aspects of reality, and joins them together to express the inexpressible, the Word made flesh.  Life and light. Zoe and phos. One of my favorite cross design holds these words together, forming a Greek cross, zoe on the horizontal arm and phos on the vertical arm, sharing an omega in the center.

On this holy night, in the dark of the night, we are here because, as John said, “What has come into being in him was life” (Jn. 1:4). Zoe.  John could have used a different word for life; he could have said in him was bios, which also translates into English as “life.”  Bios refers only to our physical existence, life in general, in its most basic, animal sense.  Zoe, however, refers to the force or vitality that animates our lives. It means full life, intense life, life that yields more life; it’s generative. It’s real life.  It describes the fullness of life, the kind of fullness that belongs to God.  Indeed, what John is trying to say at the opening of his Gospel is that the source of life itself, the fullness of life that belongs to God, is here in the flesh in Jesus.  The miracle of the incarnation is not only that Jesus was born, but that with his birth the fullness of God has entered into the world; with his birth something new has been born in us, we have been born into life, zoe, true life. The French philosopher Michel Henry (1922-2002), reflecting on the theology of John’s Gospel, might be helpful here.  He says that from a Christian perspective, “To be born is not to come into the world.  To be born is to come into life.”[1]  Zoe.

On this holy night, in the dark of the night, we are here because, John said, “…and the life was the light of all people” (Jn. 1:4).  John tells us that John the Baptist was not the light, but came to testify to the light.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9). There’s no other word for light in Greek. Phos.  Light means light. But what we need to remember is hat in the ancient world is that light, itself, was considered mysterious and divine. Although John was Jewish, he was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, and everyone in the ancient world knew that Apollo was god of the sun, the god of light, the bringer of light.  Today, we know more about the nature of light than John.  It’s dual nature of particle and wave makes it even more mysterious to us.  But something of the magic of light has been lost to us, thanks to Edison’s incandescent lightbulb.  The darkness as presence is not much of a mystery to us anymore. Night is not really night; ambient light pollutes the skies and prevent us from seeing the stars. So, what, then, does it mean to say in Christ was light?  Has the symbol of light lost some of its meaning?  Do we need Christ as a light? We’re no longer afraid of the dark. But if we need some light, we just use the flashlight on our iPhones.

But John tells us that Christ is a different kind of light. He’s not simply a Jewish Apollo. John says Jesus, the “true light,” has come into the world through him.  There was already light in John’s world, of course, but the life of Christ now illumines one’s life in an entirely different and unique way. The light of Christ is not natural to the world. The coming of his light might actually increase the darkness, because what we thought was light might not be light at all. In fact, the coming of his light might reverse and absorb natural light into its opposite, into darkness.[2] The coming of his light actually heightens the darkness of the world, the darkness already inherent in the world.  But this should not depress us because, as John claimed here in the prologue, in one of his most profound insights of the New Testament, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

This might be heady stuff for Christmas Eve, maybe especially if we’ve already had too much Christmas cheer.  But this is important stuff, serious stuff.  For many people, the world feels very dark these days.  For many, it feels as if darkness is overcoming the light.  Many are struggling with what Christmas means, even with what it means to be a Christian today.  We can draw considerable insight, wisdom, and strength from John’s testimony.  We don’t have to be afraid of the dark.  For, Christ’s light shines all the brighter in the darkness, and darkness cannot overcome his light, because his light is the life, the zoe, the animating power of the universe. This means that even in the darkness, if we search for it, Christ’s light still shines. Remarkably, light can shine from the darkness. That's because darkness, as the mystics knew, is luminous.[3]  This is the mystery that draws us here tonight. And, if we need help remembering this, stay in your head, or, better, consider your head.  Let me explain.

In Anthony Doerr’s sublime novel All the Light We Cannot See, we are drawn into the lives of two children just before the Second World War, Marie-Laure in Paris and Werner, about three hundred miles to the east near Essen, Germany.  We imagine the world through their eyes, as Europe is about to be swallowed by darkness.  Marie-Laure is blind.  Her world is dark and yet she “sees” through her imagination. Werner lives in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta.  Light is a theme that runs through the novel.  Late one night, after Werner and Jutta were supposed to be asleep, Werner pulls out an old shortwave radio, hooks the antennae out the window, and soon hears broadcasts coming from Russia, London, Rome, Berlin, and one coming from somewhere in France. They hear a “scratchy broadcast;” a man is talking with a French accent, talking about light.  “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light.  And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light.  It brims with color and movement.  So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”…Open your eyes, concludes the voice in the night.[4]

How does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light? How, indeed.  The mystery of light and darkness in us, embedded within us, the fact that light shines in darkness, that darkness can even generate light, allowing us to see—consider how awesome this is! We’re confronted with the sheer mystery of our lives.  If this is true about us, within us, then how much more must it be true for the light of Christ shining in our lives, source of life and light, even in our darkest moments?

Like John the Baptist before us, we are here tonight to bear witness to the light.  We are here this night because our eyes have been opened and we’re here because we want them to open more. Christ is born—and his life continues to illumine our lives. For, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (Jn. 1:14).


[1] Michel Henry, I Am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 59.
[2] Henry, 86.
[3] On the luminosity of darkness, see Melanie Starr Costello’s reflection at https://www.jung.org/blog/5631417.
[4] Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), 48.

Singing Mary's Song

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Here we are on the threshold of Christmas Eve. Close, so close to his birth, to that moment when BC became AD. It’s this turning that the Church, indeed the world, has yet to fully grasp. Mary knew that the birth of her son would mean the end of life as we know it.  Nothing would ever, could ever be the same again. 

Against all the sentimentality and domestication of the Christmas season, the Church must remember that his birth marks a radical inbreaking of something new.  The arrival of this New Age means the complete upending of the status quo; his birth signals the grand reversal of everything, the dismantling of the powers that be, and extends a new horizon of hope and healing for God’s people. Remember what Simeon said to Mary, when Jesus was twelve, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).

This “turn” is beautifully captured in Mary’s Song, also known as the Magnificat.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…” (Luke 1:47).  Echoing the prayer of Hannah the prophetess, in 1 Samuel, Mary’s response of praise boldly declares what the birth of Jesus means for her and the world, especially the rich, the proud, and the powerful.  In quoting Hannah’s prayer, Luke wants us to see Mary as a prophetess of liberation who sings a song of high revolt against the powers, who sings of the power of God that provides for the powerless. My friend, Frank Jehle, a pastor and theologian in St. Gallen, Switzerland, describes Mary’s Song as a “New Testament psalm.”  I really like this, because it ties the New Testament with the Hebrew scriptures.  In many respects, the entire Old Testament is summarized in Mary’s Song.  It’s a distillation of all 150 psalms.[1]

“My soul doth magnify the Lord,” sings the King James Version, “and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For God hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” (Luke 1:46-48a).  Martin Luther (1483-1546) loved the Magnificat. In his commentary on these verses, written in 1521, Luther said, “The stress should not be on the ‘low estate’ but on the word ‘regarded.’ [Mary’s] low estate is not to be praised, but God’s regard, as when a prince gives his hand to a beggar, the meanness of the beggar is not to be praised, but the graciousness and goodness of the prince. The evil eye looks only on the reward and the result of the humility. True humility does not know that it is humble.”

And contained in his Commentary is this prayer to Mary, which might assault one's Protestant sensibilities:

“O blessed Virgin and Mother of God,
how very little and lowly
were you esteemed,
and yet God looked upon you
with abundant graces and riches
and has done great things for you.
Indeed, you were not at all worthy of this.
But high and wide, above and beyond your merit,
is the rich, overflowing grace of God in you.
How good, how blessed are you
for all eternity, from the moment
you found such a God!”

Luther is, obviously, putting the stress on the mercy of God and moving the focus away from Mary’s “low estate.” My sense is that Luther wants to remove any notion that God was merciful because Mary chose to lower her estate, that she chose to lower herself, chose humility. And you can easily see how elevating Mary’s “low estate,” celebrating lowliness, making oneself low, putting oneself down, being submissive, unfortunately sacralizes this behavior and turns this way of being into a Christian virtue, which it isn’t (at least, not always). This has been detrimental for many, especially for women. It wasn’t because Mary chose to put herself down that God regarded her, it was God’s grace.

And, if we really listen to this text, really take to heart its message, we see that the Mary of the Magnificat is not meek and mild.  She’s not celebrating her lowliness, she’s not praising a God who’s commending her for being low; instead, she’s praising the God who regarded her low estate, who had compassion toward her, and empathy, who noticed her oppression, a God who sees her poverty, a God who sees her destitution, a God who sees her powerlessness—and has come to do something about it.  Martin Luther said, God’s work and God’s eyes are in the depths, but man's [eyes are] only in the height.”  God sees Mary, in the depths of her existence.  God recognizes her. She’s no longer invisible, as she was to the rich and powerful and arrogant. 

Yes, the Magnificat is a song of praise.  And there’s reason to rejoice. But the Magnificat is also song of protest—which is also a reason to rejoice.  Mary’s response of praise boldly declares what the birth of Jesus meant for her and for her world, especially the wealthy, the proud, and the powerful. It’s right there in the song.  His birth signals God’s grand reversal, it announces the great undoing, the falling and rising of many.  The halls of power, the kingdoms and governments and economic systems of this earth should tremble at his coming.  His birth puts the prevailing ways of the world on edge.  For, as Mary sang, he will scatter the proud, he will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly—the lowly that have been put down, pressed down to the bottom by society by those at the top; God will fill the hungry with good things, and will send the rich away empty, disappointed (Luke 1:51-53).  The word for rich in the Magnificat is a form of the Greek verb plouteo, meaning, “to be very rich.”  It’s the root from which we get the word plutocracy, a form of oligarchy, meaning a society ruled or controlled by a small minority of its wealthiest citizens.  So, we could say, Jesus will send the plutocrats away empty.

This—all of this—is why Mary’s rejoicing, because this one, this Jesus, this Yeshua, whose name means “Yahweh saves” will save us from all that binds and enslaves us—not by taking us out of the world and bringing us to heaven. This child will save us from the power of sin and all that separates us from God, our neighbor and ourselves; he will release us, liberate us from all that oppresses and dehumanizes us, everything that causes us to be fearful and anxious—here, now, in this life, where we live. 

This is what his birth means for us.  And, this means that when we say, “Merry Christmas,” this greeting, which contains a variety of meanings and wishes, should at the very least include the wish that someone experience in their own life what the birth of Jesus meant to Mary, the turning of the world. 

We need to remember why Mary is singing. The contemporary hymn setting of the Magnificat, Canticle of the Turning, which we sang at the beginning of Advent, captures the full meaning his birth, the meaning of the turn:[2]

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. 
Let the fires of your justice burn. 
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone. 
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne. 
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread;
every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn: 
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. 
Let the fires of your justice burn. 
Wipe away all tears,
for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

Here on the threshold of the turning, Mary invites us to sing.  
May her song be our song.  

Merry Christmas!

Image: George de La Tour (1593-1652), The Newborn Christ.

[1] Rev. Dr. Frank Jehle, from his Advent sermon/Weihnachtspost, 2017.
[2] Roy Cooney, Canticle of the Turning, set to the tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN.