Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wisdom, Folly, and the Word Made Flesh

Readings: Second Sunday in Christmas, Year B

It's difficult to date Jeremiah's writings with precision, but it appears that he wrote our Old Testament reading shortly before, or perhaps during the exile of Israel's elites into captivity in Babylon. "Hear the word of the LORD, O nations... He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd a flock." Israel was not being gathered in, it was being scattered. Those living at the time might have said that Israel was more likely to be "taken in" by Jeremiah than gathered in by the LORD.

We now know that Israel was gathered in, twice. Once from Babylon, and again after the Holocaust. Our Catholic readings speak of Wisdom. Would it seem like wisdom to keep the LORD's commandments? That path has brought destruction. On the other hand, that path has also brought survival. Without the LORD's commandments, the Jews would have assimilated and ceased to be Jews long ago. If survival is the goal, then keeping the commandments is not just wisdom, but the only wisdom that counts. Only if ease, not survival, is the goal does keeping the commandments seem like folly.

Yet, as Christians, we proclaim what cannot seem like wisdom to the world. We proclaim the birth of Jesus as the birth of Almighty God into human form. Don't look to your army for rescue, don't look to wealth for ransom, look to this baby.

We know the stories of the nativity — the humble birth in a manger known only to the Magi and to the shepherds startled by a Heavenly chorus of angels. We sing of them in Christmas carols, and recite them in our traditional Christmas readings. They are similar to the infancy stories of the heroes of many cultures. The early Church celebrated Easter, not Christmas, which was a later invention by more than a hundred years.

Nevertheless, we celebrate these twelve days and justly so! But let us remember that without Easter's Good News — the resurrection of Christ, and in him, of us all — the Good News of Christmas is just another birthday.

And what a birthday! God goes completely underground, becoming one of us. And not by materializing full grown out of nowhere, but by being born dumb and helpless, just like the rest of us. God would experience what it is like to be in only one place at one time, with only the finite store of knowledge gained by growing up, and no greater power than that of heart, hand, and voice. God would never have been able to reach us by that path, if someone hadn't loved him, fed him, and changed his diapers.

Imagine the magnitude and terror, not of the Crucifixion, but of the Incarnation. One second God is Omnipotent and Omniscient, and the next God is a baby, who will never amount to anything if someone doesn't teach him his manners. That God did not abandon the Universe for 33 years do this, that God could still be God and also be Jesus, and that there could be the same separation between Jesus and God that we feel between ourselves and God — remember that Jesus often needed to go off by himself to pray — is expressed in the terminology "Son of God," which non-Christians find so unfortunate. But there it is, God going from the Power behind the Universe to having a short, rough life, with no special treatment or advantages, and having to communicate with his larger self the same way we do — through prayer. A fearsome thing to face, when you consider how hard life is. A sacrifice on our behalf, just to live, let alone to die.

All because God wants to be with us, not as a stranger, but as one of us. Which means that God puts on a human face, a persona, a personality. In particular, the personality of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. And the Word was made Flesh in secret. The writers of Mark and John didn't know the infancy stories surrounding Jesus — their accounts start with his baptism by John the Baptiser.

John, however, delays his narrative to meditate on the Logos, the Word, as if that concept meant something to his Greek-speaking Gentile audience. Today, that concept might be more familiar to a Muslim than to a Christian. In Islam, God says to a thing, "Be!" and it is. It springs into existence out of love for its Creator. The power of God's Word is such that it creates things out of nothing.

And that is John's obscure point. When God said, "Let there be light," that creative speech (or thought) was the core identity of the person Jesus. Just as spirit and breath are the same word in Biblical Hebrew, so the Divine speech is breath/spirit. In ancient thinking the spirit/breath was the essence of the speaker/breather. When a person breathed out his last breath, his breath/spirit/essence was gone.

So the Word of God is the breath/spirit/essence of God, breathed into God's creative command. Breathed into Jesus at the moment of creation, breathed through Jesus into all creation. "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being."

In the entire Bible, this is the most radical, over-the-top statement about Jesus. In his earthly lifetime, during his public ministry, he probably wouldn't have believed it himself. Only the second most radical, over-the-top thing about Jesus would have made this statement clear to him and his disciples — his Resurrection.

Now you look around the world and you don't see much Resurrection going on. People who die stay dead. What you see is a whole lot of Crucifixion. Not in the literal sense (except that Hamas has made it legal again in parts of the Holy Land for the first time since the days of the Roman Emperor Constantine), but in the figurative sense that people do a lot of awful things to each other. The Christmas story, the birth of Jesus, the Word made Flesh, looks like we are being "taken in," (deceived, fooled) rather than gathered in, for the Day of the Lord.

We can go on, attempting to explain ourselves to the world with fancy theology, but talk is cheap. That's why so much of the Bible, and especially Mark's Gospel, consists of actions. I suppose that we had better get out there and act like Christians, if we can figure out what that would be like. History shows us to have been a mixed bag so far in that regard. But we have at least one example.

So take these days and celebrate with family and friends. Or even with strangers. And then, be what you are called to be.

What is that, you might ask, and when were you so called? The writer of Ephesians (who may have been the Apostle Paul, or one of his followers) claims that you were called "from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love." That's probably the most radical, over-the-top thing the Bible says about you. Well, you're not holy, and you're not blameless. But you can love and be loved. That's a start. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to do the rest.

Merry Christmas!

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