Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas 1, Year C, Sunday December 27, 2009

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

When I was in high school, I spent one summer traveling in France with a few classmates and our French teacher. We visited the famous places: the Louvre, the Eifel Tower, Versailles, Mont Saint Michel. However, one of the most impressive things I saw wasn’t in a famous church or museum, but rather it was the very ancient drawings in the Lascaux caves, estimated to be around 16,000 or 17,000 years old.

I saw these drawings in 1962, and in 1963 the caves were closed because the many visitors were bringing in contaminants, and eventually the paintings would have been destroyed. I feel very fortunate to have been able to go into the actual caves, and walk where those ancient people walked, and see the paintings exactly where they were painted.

In spite of all of the study of these drawings, I don’t think that we know even today exactly what they were supposed to mean. They seem to show little stick figures of people hunting, and they include magnificent representations of animals, especially some large wooly animals, which might be bison. There are bulls, horses, deer, and over 900 animal drawings in all. There is even a large bison which has one leg drawn in front of the other to show perspective, which was not attempted again in Western art until the 15th century.

Perhaps these ancient people had visions, and wanted to record what they had seen. Perhaps they were telling the stories of the hunt. Perhaps they hoped to influence the future, and have a successful hunt the following season. We don’t know what these drawings meant to the original artists or to those who saw them. We do know that they are breathtakingly beautiful.

We can’t always know what art is supposed to “mean.” There was once a student who had been asked to write a term paper about a poem. This student couldn’t make heads or tails of the poem, so he wrote a letter to the poet and asked him what the poem “meant”. The poet wrote back to him, and said that he didn’t know what the poem meant either. The poem just was what it was, and it meant what it meant to those who heard it. The poet Archibald Macleish also wrote about the simple “being” of a poem in “Ars Poetica”: “A poem should not mean, but be”.

I’ve noticed this also with my icon paintings. Other people will see the most amazing things, that I had no idea were there. They will see an emotion or likeness in a face I’ve painted. They will see symbols that are meaningful to them, but that I never intended. Over the past year I’ve been working on a large icon, 3’ by 4’, and now after all this time it is finally finished and ready to be shipped.

Part of me wants to keep it, but mostly I want to let it go, almost like letting a grown child go out into the world. So I will light a candle and pray in front of it, and then pack it up for shipping. When I do send it off and let it go, I will feel some emptiness, but I’ll also be glad that it will achieve its own meaning for the people who look at it, engage with it, and pray in front of it.

The Gospel of John is a work of art. The other three Gospels tell of the story and the miracle of the Good News of Jesus Christ and they give powerful witness, each in its own way. However, the Gospel of John tells the Good News in words of true poetic power. Especially in this prologue that we heard today, the words evoke a truth that is beyond proof and reason.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Every year, on the first Sunday after Christmas, our lectionary appoints this passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. We have just barely heard the story of the birth of Jesus, and the Gospel of Luke is very specific in telling us when it happened, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus and while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and exactly where it happened, in Bethlehem, the town that is in Judea, not the other Bethlehem that is up north.

Now, all of a sudden, just days later, we are launched by the Gospel of John into a mystery that spans all time and space. We are in the realm of poetic art, without secure handholds, but with the promise of the divine light that is God’s gift to all people.

Jesus is the true light, which came into the world; he was born a human baby, lived a simple, human life, died on the cross, and rose again. He is also the light that existed from the beginning of all time, and continues to give hope and comfort. This is the light that helps us to see Christ in our grumpy neighbor. This is the light that helps us to be patient when we are grumpy and tired ourselves. This is the light that shows us the way when we are lost. This is the light that helps us to be kind and compassionate and loving towards all people and creatures, which God also loved into being.

This is the light that helps us to see God, and to love God, and to have faith in the saving power of God’s grace. The very nature of faith is that we can hold belief and hope without concrete proof. The words of the Gospel of John illuminate a truth that is clearer and deeper than anything we can touch or see.

In the depths of time and human origins, a few early people sketched their dreams on the wall of a cave. They could have made simple scratches to remember how many bison were caught in the hunt. Instead, they created a tableau that spoke of desire for something more than just a hunt or a vision. They, and all human peoples who followed them, have been reaching for the divine.

The divine Word came to us in Jesus, who became human, that we might see the divine more clearly, believe in Him, and carry hope in our hearts, and be ourselves transformed in the Spirit into a holy people of God. As the true light came into the world at his birth, in the first century, in Bethlehem, may we also see that light here, today, and may it be enkindled in our hearts and shine forth in our lives forever.

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