Christmas Day – Year B
December 25, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 52:7-10 | Psalm
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Old Testament begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” Today’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Beginnings mean something.
I began my existence on December twenty-sixth, nineteen fifty-one. Yes, tomorrow is, in fact, my birthday. I will be sixty-nine years of age. December twenty-sixth, nineteen fifty-one is a very important day, not only to me but to at least some other people as well. Every time I go to my doctor’s office or to the pharmacy, I am asked for my date of birth, often multiple times. I respond, “December twenty-sixth, nineteen-fifty-one.”
However, every time I respond to that question, I say to myself, “Time has flown too fast.” I remind myself that I have accumulated a substantial amount of history since that date. I have been a baseball umpire, insurance adjuster, private investigator, law clerk, lawyer, Deacon and Priest. And, oh yes, after singing as a treble choir boy for three years, for forty-eight years, I sang countertenor, and occasionally baritone, in many church choirs and choral groups. And last but not least, I have written a theology book, the first volume of a series of four, and I am an active composer of church music. And, I had a history of many women until I found Deacon Sharon, truly the woman of my dreams.
I’m not telling you all of this to boast about myself, but to demonstrate that I, like every person that has ever been born, have a life that is a unique history book. While some of you have done some of what I have done, none of you are exactly like me.
The history every living creature begins with birth. Every time any person or animal is born, a new history book of unique events is started. For each of us, the plot, character, setting and theme, though similar to those of others, will be specific to each life in being. God did not make us in a factory on an assembly line. We are all unique beings with a unique set of talents and experiences.
All of that applies to Jesus. He, like us, is a particular person with a particular history unique to him. But compared to us, the history of Jesus, however, is entirely different. Yes, Jesus is a unique being with a history like no one else. He was fully human, but because he was also fully divine, Jesus has always existed.
Despite the incessant incantations of our conservative sisters and brothers that, “the Bible is the Word of God,” the Bible itself does not say that. Rather, the Bible says that Jesus was the Word of God. As we heard in today’s Gospel so beautifully sung by Deacon Sharon, “In the beginning was the Word and the word was God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” If that is not a very clear statement that Jesus Himself is the Word of God, I don’t know what is.
In studying scripture, it’s important to dig deeply into the words themselves rather than apply them to contemporary life with today’s meanings as biblical literalists do. But they are not as literal as they think they are. The original language of the New Testament was Greek. If you have never studied Greek, and I am among those who have not, an interlinear translation, Strong’s Concordance, and a Greek lexicon are your three best friends in understanding scripture. So if we go to the Greek text, we will find that the Greek word for “word” as used in today’s Gospel is Logos.
Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, first used the term logos around six hundred B-C to designate the divine reason or plan which coordinates a changing universe. Thus, this word was well suited to the purpose of the writer of John’s gospel to show that Jesus always existed as part of the divine plan. He did not begin, as human persons do, when he was born. Jesus has always existed and will always exist.
Heraclitus criticizes his predecessors and contemporaries for their failure to see the unity in experience. He claims to announce an everlasting Word, that is, the Logos, according to which all things are one, in some sense. Opposites are necessary for life, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges. The world itself consists of a law-like interchange of elements. Thus the world is not to be identified with any particular substance, but rather with an ongoing process governed by a law of change. Think of this change like fire, where heat transforms one substance into another. Fire neither creates nor destroys. It merely changes that to which it is applied. For example, wood is turned to ash. Logos is, according to Heraclitus, “An ongoing process governed by a law of change.” That fits very nicely with who we are, and who Jesus is.
As is true for the world in which we live, all of us undergo constant change from the time we each began at our birth. Our personal histories are the stories of change. From the time we are babies, we grow taller and gain weight. We acquire more knowledge every day. Our capabilities constantly change. As we grow older, we lose some capabilities but acquire others. We can’t run as fast, but we have greater tolerance for our mistakes and those of others. Our appearance changes. A few years ago, I had dark hair with flecks of gray, but now, my hair is nearly all white. I don’t like that, but it is a reality.
Jesus was part of the divine plan for always-changing humankind. Jesus came as the promised Messiah to remedy the ways into which humanity changed itself which were not to God’s liking. The Old Testament tells the story of the Exodus, where God freed the Jews enslaved by the Egyptians. After traversing the Red Sea held back by the hand of God, they settled in the Promised Land, but soon things began to go wrong. They succumbed to the idolatry of the local religions of pagan tribes, like the Canaanites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites and their fake gods like Dagon, Baal, and Astarte. The prophets told the Jews to knock it off, but they wouldn’t listen. So they were invaded and deported, first by the Syrians and then by the Babylonians. But God did not abandon the chosen people. Finally they returned home as we are told in the story of the Returning Exiles, where the Jews were freed from Babylonian captivity.
Yet upon their return to the Holy Land, their troubles did not cease, as they suffered conquests by Alexander the Great and later the Romans. The point is, their situation was always changing, and not for the better. Someone new was needed to make a difference, and that someone was Jesus. Whether, and how, Jesus actually made a difference is still a matter of debate, but without doubt, Jesus made at least somewhat of a difference in human history.
What made a difference were the words of Jesus. Our conservative sisters and brothers are fond of saying that the crucifixion of Jesus saved humanity. As their theory goes, by dying on the cross, suffered the penalty of death to save humanity from damnation.
But the fact is, the death of Jesus on the cross has done absolutely nothing to improve the lives of everyday people on a practical basis. Nothing whatsoever. In the minds of our conservative sisters and brothers, being saved means that people’s souls are saved from Hell if they die. The concept of reward or punishment in the afterlife is speculative at best and remains a mystery.
However, my non-Christian friends, particularly atheists, react with, “so what”, when told Jesus died on the cross to save humanity. But if I repeat the words Jesus preached about personal behavior, such as “love your neighbor as yourself,” they are at least willing to admit Jesus made a difference in human history, even if they don’t accept him as the Messiah or as God’s Son. What this says is that words matter.
The words of Jesus are what define his history on earth. The words of Jesus are what make a difference. Even though Jesus is no longer on earth among us, the words of Jesus live on. The word made flesh matters.
The First Council of Constantinople in 381 A-D declared that Jesus not only gives God’s Word to us humans; he is the Word. The logos, the Word of God, is God, begotten and therefore distinguishable from the Father, but, being God, of the same substance.
The Gospel of John adapted the concept of the logos as described by the First Century Jewish philosopher Philos, identifying Jesus as an incarnation of the divine Logos that formed the universe. In the Book of Genesis, we read that the words of God initiated the successive stages of creation.
In the Thirty-Third Psalm, the poet declares,
“By the word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the host of them by the spirit of his mouth.”
The author of the Gospel of John was not the only New Testament author to consider the meaning of Jesus as logos. The First Epistle of John begins,
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
And the Book of Revelation speaks of the logos as the name of Jesus, who at the Second Coming rides a white horse into the Battle of Armageddon wearing many crowns thusly:
“He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.”
The Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation form what scholars call, “The Johannine Corpus.” Outside that set of books, Ignatius of Antioch was the first to consider Jesus as logos. In his Epistle to the Magnesians, he writes, “”there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence. There is not a time when Jesus did not exist.” Ignatius recognized that the word of God that created the universes was one in the same as the word of God that was Jesus. To paraphrase Pope Benedict the Sixteenth, Christianity is the religion of the logos.
The logos is the word of God expressed in eternal truths about humanity and the universe in which humanity exists. Certain things are not determined by time and place. The eternal law of God is comprised of those laws that govern the nature of an eternal universe. The logos is the law which God in the creation of humans infused into them for their direction and preservation. It is distinct from purely human laws such as, “Stop at a stop sign” or “pay your taxes.”
The number one law of God is the very nature of God, described throughout the Old Testament as, “Full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, long suffering and of great goodness.” The natural human reaction to a God with the aforementioned qualities is to love God with all of one’s heart, mind, and soul.
We manifest that when we love other people, recognizing that they are, like us, are created in God’s image. And that is why we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, that means, to not do to other people what we would not want done to ourselves. Simply put, the word of God is love. Jesus, as the Word of God, personifies love.
The Word of God is eternal. The Word existed at the beginning of creation and still exists today. The love of God existed at the beginning of time. Love began in the beginning. That love was manifested in the flesh by Jesus. That love is still with us today as we continue to experience Jesus in our lives, not only in the Sacraments, but in our relations with one another. The Church perpetuates that love in its work, in its worship, and above all, in its words. The Church is the Body of Christ. When the Church preaches God’s word, not only by what it says, but by what it does, the Word of God in the flesh is a continuing and immortal reality.
As today’s Gospel tells us, no human has ever seen God himself. In the Old Testament, the sight of God is too sacred for us to see. You will recall that Moses was told to veil his face when Moses encountered God. However, we have all seen what God looks like. Humanity, created in God’s image, continues as a physical manifestation of God. The eternal word of God, mediated to us by Jesus, enables you to see the face of God by looking into the face of your neighbor. If you read the entirety of the New Testament, it is nearly all about how we relate to God and how we relate to our neighbor. We are commanded to relate with love of God and neighbor. Jesus begins and ends with love. Let Jesus be part of your beginnings.
The love that Jesus taught us is what helps us with good beginnings. The intelligent person begins with the end in mind. Intentions matter. When you do something with a malevolent intent, bad results inevitable follow, maybe not immediately, but eventually. But when you begin with a positive goal in mind, you will always come out ahead. While you may not achieve the results you want, you can always take comfort that your heart is in the right place. Our hearts are what God sees.
In a few days, the world begins another secular year. I pray that twenty-twenty-one will be a good year for you, for me, for Deacon Sharon, and for Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, particularly our musical endeavors. Twenty-twenty has been the most challenging year of any I have lived, and I am sure for many of you, too. Pandemics happen once in a century. Even though we have some dark days ahead, many people will soon be vaccinated, so we have cause for optimism as the new year begins.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. God’s love began in you when you began your life at your birth. May God be part of all your beginnings.
Happy New Year! AMEN.