John 1:(1-9), 10-18
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
1:2 He was in the beginning with God.
1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being
1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
1:11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
1:15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”)
1:16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
1:17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
1:18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
My non-church friends keep asking me: “What is Epiphany?” I usually just say, “The 12th Day of Christmas.” They nod in agreement, as if that answer made it any clearer. Sometimes they ask, “Well, what is that 12 Days of Christmas bit about?” but usually they don’t, and that’s another story. What I want to say when they ask about Epiphany is that, “It’s the other side of Christmas. It’s about Light and seeing and being aware; it’s about beginnings and endings.”
This year I can get by with saying it’s Chrispiphamas. Sort of like Festivus, or saying Merry Thanksgivoween. Chrispiphamas is what you get when the second Sunday of Christmas precedes Epiphany by one day, and while you love the story of the Magi and Jesus and Joseph and Mary outwitting Herod and his murderous henchmen, you love even more the beauty and mysticism of “In the beginning was the Word…” and the coming of the Light. It’s Alpha. It’s Omega. Beginning. Ending. I think I’ve said before I like last days of months and first days of months. There’s something poignant and bittersweet in it.
The whole passage in John has always seemed more than a little mystical to me. In spite of its wordiness, and in spite of John’s maddening tendency to restate everything several times in different ways, there is mystery and majesty and mysticism in this passage. It’s a paradox, how there can be something already in the beginning that is one and the same as what it gives birth to…Dr. Who would probably say it’s all wibbley-wobbly, timey-wimey and such…
I know I’ve said before that I’m intrigued by the role of paradox in the Bible, and that the truth of the paradox lies at the center. But it isn’t just scripture passages that are full of paradox. Life is too – life passages are full of paradox.
Indulge me please, if you will. The Kingdom of Heaven is like….a vineyard, a mustard seed, a woman seeking a lost coin, a video game – yes, a video game. The Kingdom of Heaven (aka Heaven on Earth, aka LIFE) is like a video game. Your avatar has to follow certain parameters but is largely up to you to design as you will, and the game is all from your point of view. You are in a maze, trying to get to the next level. There are bonus point and energy boost bundles along the way if you know what to look for and manage to jump for them or pass through them. There are rewards, setbacks to avoid, destiny/fate pads, serendipitous clouds. All of these things take you to and through different parts of the maze. Paradox is represented by little knobs or handles or doors built into the structure of the maze, which you have the choice of opening as you go along, any of which will lead to multiple options for paths you can take in the maze….some into other planes of existence and other dimensions….they rarely function as you think they will, though, so it’s always a bit of a gamble and surprise when you delve into one….sometimes I love thinking about this kind of thing – it’s a nice thing if you are hovering between wakefulness and sleep and aren’t really either….which is sort of the equivalent of looking at something right in front of you out of the corner of your eye because if you look at it full on, you can’t quite see it…the whole thing points toward something that is bigger than all of us and an enticing ball of delightful mystery.
On the other hand, sometimes thinking like this makes me dizzy, and I just want to watch trash TV.
The liturgical season we have just passed through on the way to here where we are now, or when we are now, was Advent. Each year I seem to experience it a little differently. It isn’t a predictable, fixed thing. This year the image I have of it is like this:
Picture a long, dark hallway, punctuated by colored shafts of light from stained glass windows. There is a glow at the far end of the hallway. As you approach, slowly but steadily, the glow gets brighter, and just as you reach it, you can tell the hallway opens up into an adjoining room with a soaring ceiling, if in fact there is a ceiling at all. The space is filled with a beautifully lighted Christmas tree, full of warmth, color and the fresh, pungent smell of fir tree. The space, the air, the ambience is holy. Sacred. Glory-filled. Awe-inspiring. Total. Profound. Worthy of praise – commanding praise and homage. There is a sense of completeness, of peace, of extreme gratitude and thankfulness. Above all and through all, moving like dust particles in a sunbeam is total acceptance, complete joy. The space is filled with illusive, indescribable but undeniable, undisguisable, sheer, all-encompassing love.
You are welcome and not an intruder. You have no shyness, no fear, no hesitation. The love is alive, warm and palpable, and there is a sense of peace so profound it defies understanding. It is a holy place, a sacred space, and you, even you, are welcome in it, drawn to it, compelled by it, humbled by it, held and encompassed in it, transfixed by it. As you breathe it all in, without really trying, you gradually become aware of sound, of music, rising up, swelling, spreading out through the golden, star-spangled light, infusing all as it spreads. Time loses all relevance as the sounds sweep over you. A split-second is an eternity that stretches in all directions, through all planes and dimensions of being. You are at the center of the paradox of all paradoxes, as the music erupts in a glorious combination of combined voices singing
Welcome all wonders in one sight! Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night, heaven in earth, and God in man,
That He, the old Eternal Word, should be a Child and weep.
Each of us his lamb will bring, each his pair of silver doves,
Till burnt at last in fire of thy fair eyes, ourselves become our own best sacrifice.
Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Poem – Richard Crashaw, Anthem – Richard Dierkson
It is a timeless moment. It IS eternity shut in a span.
That poem, by the way, is by Richard Crashaw and is the text of anthem I remember from Hendrix College choir days, called “Welcome All Wonders.” It popped back into my head, almost full-blown, with such an impact I looked it up on YouTube and even downloaded it on iTunes. To be fair, it does sound a bit dated, back from the late 70s-early 80s, but at the time, it was cutting edge, and it doesn’t matter! To sing it and be in the center of it was a memorable, transformative experience.
Having found this place where all wonders exist in one sight, having journeyed to it and experienced it, why would anyone ever leave?
Because we can’t stay. It is the human condition, after all. We have to get back to the business of being the Kingdom of God here on earth. What’s weird though is that we tend to see everything in such a linear fashion. We came down the long passage of Advent to Christmas and found it unspeakably glorious. We must have somehow worked our way around the Christmas tree we found there to come to the other side of the room, or the space behind the tree, the other side of Christmas, as it were. The light of Christmas begins to dim and fade, but we stay and fill the space with all those holiday things that happen between Christmas and New Years Day. Then we amble or stagger or walk away, down another passage that was there all along that we somehow now find ourselves in.
This passage seems brightly lit and full of promise at first, but soon the air in it becomes heavy. Gravity seems to have increased. We tire. The buoyant sense of peace and perfection gives way to gray feelings of doubt and insecurity. We can’t see very far ahead anymore, and our steps falter on the uneven path.
Sound familiar? Welcome back to life as most of us know it.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. No, we can’t stay on the mountain-top. it can’t always be Christmas. But this timey-wimeyness of Light and Word and Being and Creation and Beginning and Ending, all at once, all the time, past, present, future – all at once – or maybe all just RIGHT NOW, since RIGHT NOW is ultimately all we have — the center of the paradox that is Epiphany is that it IS always there. The Light never fades. We may block it, or close our eyes to it, or turn away from it, but it is ALWAYS. Right. There.
We don’t have to live our lives on autopilot. We don’t have to do things the way our ingrained habits tell us to. We don’t have to lock-step our way through life in a line that potentially encounters the amazing joy that is Christmas for a brief moment at the end of a year. We can tap into that paradoxical Light at any point. The other side of Christmas that is Epiphany is…..all the time. Life isn’t a series of straight lines. It’s a spherical experience with the potential to happen an infinite number of ways.
We can live. We can be alive. We can be aware of the breath in our lungs, the cold wind on our faces, the scratchiness of a wool scarf or the warm softness of a down comforter. I had a glimpse of the Light yesterday afternoon making cranberry sauce. The size, shape and deep red, rich color of the berries, their availability, the fact it was easy to get water and some sugar and a pan and place it all on a stove with a flame, watching the colors of the berries change as they absorbed the heat, hearing their skins split, smelling the pungent cranberry smell…. It was nothing short of a spiritual awakening. Made me think of Robert Louis Stevenson – ‘The world is so full of a number of things, I ‘m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’
I know we can’t be fully aware and attuned every second. I know there are countless injustices and inequalities. But we CAN strive to hold our heads up and look forward, to be open to what this whole experience of LIFE brings, instead of being filled with dread or boredom or fear. That’s part of what we do as a church; we bolster each other up. There’s someone to be strong for you when you can’t be strong for yourself. And, because of the Light that is the beginning and the end and the right now, we can look life square in the eye and say, “Bring it. We’re ready.” Because we aren’t ever facing it alone.
Thanks be to God!