By Sea Raven
Lectionary Reflections for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16 ;Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14
The readings for this fourth Sunday in Advent for Year A simply present Matthew’s version of Jesus’s birth, backed up by the familiar prophecy from Isaiah, along with a prayer for deliverance, and the Apostle Paul’s greeting to his community in Rome. The fourth Sunday and Christmas Eve allow plenty of opportunity to read both of the Gospel versions of the birth stories, and compare them – if desired. Sure enough, they don’t agree – that’s because the gospel writers had different agendas for their stories. Matthew’s agenda was to show that this Jesus was the long looked-for Messiah, who would bring deliverance to the oppressed and despairing people in occupied Palestine and sacked Jerusalem in the 60s to 70s, C.E. Luke’s agenda, twenty years or so later, was to convince the communities in the diaspora that had made their peace with the Roman empire that Jesus was the embodiment of the mythical hero that would show them the way into the kingdom of heaven by righteous living – most especially caring for the poor. Arguing about whether any of the stories are literally true misses the point. At Christmas, there is hope for deliverance and opportunity for repentance. So listen to the stories, sing the carols, exchange the gifts – but don’t check your mind at the church door. Palestine is still occupied, Jerusalem is divided, and Christianity is almost completely aligned with Empire – ecclesiastical and secular.
There are three sets of “Propers” and four other sets of readings to choose from during the twelve days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. The creators of the RCL direct that “If Proper III is not used on Christmas Day, it should be used at some service during the Christmas cycle because of the significance of John’s prologue.” Proper III it is.
John’s prologue is significant on many levels. First (in terms of the development of Christian dogma) it is important because it is a hymn to the mysterious presence from the beginning of God’s “word,” or “wisdom,” conventionally interpreted to be the Christ. Second, John’s mystical language defies literal interpretation. Even if belief goes so far as to insist that Jesus physically existed somewhere in the “sky” from the beginning of time along with the proverbial Grandfather Almighty, John still confounds even the least developed imagination with metaphor: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:4-5, KJV). Third, for postmodern, post-theistic minds, John’s prologue is poetry that speaks to the mystic and spiritual realms of human understanding, even when those realms are informed by the more esoteric discoveries of postmodern physics. Here is the translation developed by the scholars of the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar:
In the beginning there was the divine word and wisdom. The divine word and wisdom was there with God, and it was what God was. It was there with God from the beginning. Everything came to be by means of it; nothing that exists came to be without its agency. In it was life, and this life was the light of humanity. Light was shining in darkness, and darkness did not master it.
The “divine word and wisdom” combines masculine logos with feminine mythos – personified in the Greek pantheon by the Goddess Sophia. Wisdom then segues into Life and Light. After nearly two hundred years of the study of physics, the nature of light, and the origins of the Universe, John’s metaphor continues to resonate. We now know that the Universe is made up of light, and that we ourselves are also made up of that same light. We cannot survive without it. “Being” the light is not something we can opt into or out of, so “believing” in the light is about as useful as “believing” in air. John claims that the darkness did not master this genuine light, because Jesus rose from the dead, and will come again. Yet despite John’s certainty, humanity continues to live in darkness: continues to deny that human rights are the foundation for human security, not the suspension of disbelief in an interventionist god, or the reliance on raw, secular, imperial militarism masquerading as that god.
After the prologue, John begins to tell his version of the story of Jesus:
There appeared a man sent from God named John. He came to testify – to testify to the light – so everyone would believe through him. He was not the light; he came only to attest to the light.
So that no one (hopefully) will misunderstand, the writer explains what he means by “the light”: “Genuine light – the kind that provides light for everyone – was coming into the world.” Appropriating John’s metaphor to post-modern mythological experience, if we embrace Jesus as the bringer of spiritual light to the world and we take into ourselves Jesus’s radical, non-violent abandonment of self-interest (love), then we also become bringers of the light. We also participate as word and wisdom in the realm of distributive justice-compassion.
Forget the talk of “victory” in Psalm 98, and the triumphalism of the sermon found in Hebrews 1:1-12. Genuine light, says John, provides light for everyone. No room here for “my messiah is higher than your angels” (Hebrews 1:3b-4). We continue to ignore the fact that like the rest of the beings in the Universe, we are light-beings. If we realize that we are made of light, how can we continue to deny the light that flames in the very DNA of all earthly beings whether animal or plant? Jesus was not the only light-being that taught justice-compassion as the way. But of course, anyone who has lived into adulthood on Planet Earth knows that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
In the midst of a Universe made of light are black holes in the center of collapsing galaxies with energies so great that light cannot escape. Fear is the black hole in human spirituality that swallows up trust. It is born of belief in a capricious, interventionist god, and evil is the result.
But to all who did embrace [the light], to those who believed in it, it gave the right to become children of God. They were not born from sexual union, not from physical desire, and not from male willfulness; they were born of God.
John’s theology might have been informed by the theology developed forty to fifty years earlier by the Apostle Paul, but John’s Gospel has to be read with care. Taken literally and without a sense of the context in which it was written, the fourth gospel has led to some of the worst excesses of Christian imperialism. “Believing” in the light is not a prerequisite for becoming children of God. As Paul argues in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from the love of God – not powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths. A postmodern experience of a kenotic god, whose presence is justice and life, but whose absence is injustice and death, leaves no opportunity for patriarchal “male willfulness” to exclude anyone from the realm of distributive justice-compassion.
The divine word and wisdom became human and made itself at home among us. We have seen its majesty, majesty appropriate to a Father’s only son, brimming with generosity and truth.
The Jesus Seminar scholars’ translation is inclusive of the masculine logos (word) and feminine wisdom (Sophia), and so is the interpretation of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:22-30, who argues that Jesus the Christ is (for Christians) the Wisdom (Sophia) from God, and in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It is no accident that the birth of the light has been celebrated from the beginning of human time during the darkest times of the year, from the Winter Solstice (December 21-22 in the Northern Hemisphere) through the first cross-quarter day six weeks later (Imbolc/Candlemas – February 2). In the darkness of mid-winter, in the black hole of human spiritual despair, it is easy to begin to feel as though the light has been extinguished, and there is no escape. But we have learned that the Universe continues its unfinished story. God’s Covenant with humanity remains: the Earth’s poles tilt back toward the Sun as the Earth continues its eternal rounds; the Sun returns, and light is reborn. Even though we are made of Light, the only way to experience being that Light is to actively, consciously choose to live in the Light. Then we can realize that we are not only partners in the Covenant, we are co-creators.
Editor’s Note (on behalf of physicists for whom the light metaphor seems limited): I have always had a problem with this idea that “we are made of light.” We are made of little “fuzz balls” of energy. On occasion, at unpredictable times, those little fuzz balls can suddenly decide to alter the amount of energy they contain, and in doing so they emit small concentrations of energy which, depending on how we try to observe them, act like small particles of matter, or exhibit wave-like characteristics with wave-lengths and frequencies. When those frequencies fall within the right range of the radiation spectrum they are visible as “light.” Otherwise they are not “light.” They are x-rays, or cosmic rays, or protons, or neutrons, or neutrinos, or bosons, or a dozen other types of wave/particles, but not light particles. In other words “light” is a small subset of the energy spectrum that everything, including us, is made of. We are made of the same material as light is, but we are not made of light.
Sea Raven, D.Min., is an Associate of the Westar Institute (home of the JesusSeminar), and a Lay Minister for Worship and member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. This reflection is excerpted from her book, Theology of Exile II: The Year of Matthew. Visit Sea Raven’s website here: http://www.gaiarising.org