A Thought in the Mind of God

NASA image - emerging universe

Second Sunday in Christmas | John 1:1-18

A Thought in the Mind of God

In the very beginning there was a word, an idea, a thought, the first thing that ever was, and the thought was hanging out with God. In fact, the thought, this thinking idea word-thing, was God.

Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, recto

That is how the Gospel of John starts. In the beginning was the logos…the thought, the idea, the word.

We say that words are not powerful. Words can’t hurt you, we hear from our elders when other children taunt us, but it is a lie—words can hurt us, more deeply and longer than any wound to the body.

They are powerful, words are. Just like God. Nothing more than an idea, really, a concept, a thought, but like God words are something that cannot be touched and cannot be destroyed, something capable of immense and unmeasurable power.

We struggle with knowing which is more important, words or actions. Most of the time, what we do is truer than what we say. What we do ultimately informs us as to who we are, as though each act is a personal sacrament — an outward sign of our own inward truth. If we say we are clean and sober while we pour another drink, our words are just the deception of an addict, the long slow con, a lie we tell ourselves in order better to deceive others.

Don’t tell me, we say. Show me. As revealing as our actions are, they are only true on the outside. It is the idea that drives the action, the thought that is the truth within us, the word that is us.

Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, verso

There is power in our thoughts, power in our words. There is a value to the articulation of our thoughts, and there is a truth in stories that cannot be told any other way. Give me a rule, and I’ll forget it or I’ll break it. Give me a story and I cannot forget it. We are wired to story, our brains evolving over millennia to learn from stories we heard around cooking fires, stories painted on the walls of our caves. All those clay paintings of bison and antelope are more than art: the sharing of these images was an act of communion.

The thought-that-was-God came into this world, to live in this world. That is the gospel message. The idea-that-was-God burned, shining, brilliant in the midst of dark ignorance all around, and the ignorance could not to quench it.

We read the story in the first verses of John’s Gospel, and we are no longer amazed by it. Perhaps it was a page turner two thousand years ago, an opening that caught the imagination of the ancient world: In the beginning was the Word… Imagine, the Word, the idea of God, walking as a human, standing in the wild places, listening to John the Baptist cry out his sermons to crowds by a riverside. It is an astonishing thought, but not to us. We are immured, buried and insulated by the profusion of words that surround us.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet  III, iii

That is how Shakespeare put it, and maybe he was onto something. Empty words. We have found ways to separate thought and word, to speak without thinking. Our words are everywhere, on signs, menus, T-shirts, screens, phones, emails, broadcasts. The value of our words is diminished by their pervasiveness, diluted by the ease with which we record them.

We no longer know the holy when we see it. We may no longer believe that anything is holy, let alone that words might be.

…I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
― William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Nevertheless, ancient cities fall into the dust, and the pyramids crumble, but their stories remain. In the end, the most ancient relic and the most enduring aspect of humanity is found in our intangible untouchable diaphanous words.

In the stories of scripture, God calls all that there is, all of the cosmos, into being with a word. When speech was added to thought, when the idea was expressed, the universe exploded into being.

What we think may be more real than anything we see. What we say may be more lasting than anything we build. In the end, the words that tell our story are all that we leave behind us. The atoms that make us may spin and fly, returning to the stars that made them, nothing but stardust, but our lives remain, a thought in the mind of God.

Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Sunday Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Here’s a bonus—a short (45 second) video from NASA as part of WMAP, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe project. In NASA’s summary: The structure of the universe evolved from the Big Bang, as represented by WMAP’s “baby picture”, through the clumping and ignition of matter (which caused reionization) up to the present.

A Child at Christmas

Mary and Joseph

Christmastide — First Sunday after Christmas | Luke 2:41-52

A Child at Christmas

Silver Snowflake on Christmas TreeWe wonder what Jesus was like as a child, but there is nearly nothing in the gospels to tell us. Perhaps there were stories passed around by the early church, lost tales of a young Jesus, stories we do not have. This passage in Luke’s Gospel is as close as we get.

The story, told in a sparse, almost journalistic style, tells of Jesus and his parents and presumably his siblings going to Jerusalem for the passover celebration. We know that Jesus did have brothers and sisters. In the third chapter of Mark, Mary and the brothers and sisters of Jesus hear about him teaching in public and come to do an intervention (an interesting story in itself.) In Matthew 13:55, the evangelist goes so far as to name the brothers of Jesus—James and Joseph and Simon and Judas, if you were wondering. Traditionally the church addresses the theological problem of God incarnate having brothers and sisters either by calling them cousins or by carefully making the claim that these are only half brothers and sisters, sharing a mother but not a father. The gospels themselves are not so particular. Whatever way we choose to understand the theological assertion that Jesus is God become human through the miracle of being born to Mary, the rest of the family still existed. If you are part of a mixed family, you might reflect that you have something in common with Jesus.

It makes little sense to think Joseph would bring his wife and one child to the Passover celebrations but leave the rest of the family at home. In for a penny, in for a pound, most likely, particularly when one considers the apparent close connections of extended family and friends who make up the traveling party—if the younger children were left in Nazareth, who stayed with them? We don’t know enough to be sure either way. Most likely there were at least some elderly relatives or friends who did not want to make the trip, and they would have looked after the younger kids, but how young were these siblings? If Jesus was twelve, surely at least some of the other children were old enough to travel? Don’t forget, this is Mary. She perched on a donkey and rode to Bethlehem when her water was about to break.

Star on Christmas TreeIf Joseph and Mary didn’t realize Jesus was missing for a whole day’s journey, there must have been a good number of other children, friends and family around them. Imagine the panic when they realize that Jesus is lost. Jerusalem was a large city to them, full of more perils than tiny Nazareth. It was full of devout Jews to be sure, but there were plenty of less devout ones, Romans, foreign traders, all kinds of people. Luke tells us that after three days Joseph and Mary found Jesus in the Temple. We can’t quite tell whether this is three days total or three days plus that first day, but three or four days is a long time when you cannot find your child.

By the way, perhaps we are meant to reflect on those three days. It is an intentional detail—Jesus as a child is realizing his calling, and he goes missing for three days. At the end of it all, when Jesus the man follows the path he perceives God has prepared for him, there are those other three days between dying and living.

Luke gives us a hint of the mix of relief and anger expressed at the reunion, with Mary berating her son for treating them in such a fashion but immediately taking him home. There’s an interesting question—did Jesus do wrong by staying behind at the Temple? Did God misbehave?

Let’s leave that one alone. We might not like where it goes.

We do learn something about Jesus and the way he was raised. For one thing, Mary and Joseph clearly did not hover. They gave their children some freedom. The kids were able to move among their network of extended family and friends without being constantly watched.

Jesus also had an early inclination to theology. That should not surprise anyone. God studying theology is introspective but natural.

We might wonder about that scene at the Temple. When his parents found him, Jesus was “…sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

Yes, yes, we say, but then he was God incarnate. What else would we expect?

I have to wonder whether Jesus amazed them because he was God among them or simply because he was a child among them. He was young enough not to have been pressed into the mold of ordinary thought. Twelve is just the right age to start wrestling with the ideas we are handed about God and morality: we are emerging from childhood, and yet we retain the simple and frank vision of a child.

They were astonished, we read, but why? Were they astonished because of where they found him? Was it because of his poise or his grasp of theology? Was it because he had left them and, knowing they would be frantic to find him, he had not gone in search of them but instead sat enjoying himself in the Temple?

Did those men sitting and talking with Jesus even realize that his parents were searching for him? Or were they surprised when Mary showed up and began scolding the boy? And why does Mary do all the talking? What is going through Joseph’s mind when the boy says that he must be in his father’s house?

Do his parents really know who he is? Does any parent realize what is really going on in a child’s mind? Of course, if Christianity has it right, Jesus is a special case.

In this Christmastide season, the twelve days of Christmas, it may do us good to follow Jesus’ example—do a runner, get lost for a bit, and start asking some questions, even if there is nobody offering better answers than we already had.

The rest of the year presses us into the mold of expectations. Normality, if that is even a real thing. Let’s not accept what the world tells us about God. Let’s not accept what the world tells us about our place in the universe. The world is old and jaded, set in its ways. Instead, let’s open up more than packages. Let’s open our minds. Open our eyes.

Let’s be a child at Christmas.

Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Mary and Joseph

Leaping Toward Christmas

Fourth Sunday in Advent | Luke 1:39-55

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

A baby kicks in the womb. That’s all that is happening in this story, really, just an ordinary thing. But it is the kind of small ordinary event to which we attribute meaning, a sign, or some superstitious belief from old wives’ tales. A broom falls. A palm itches. A child kicks in the womb.

That’s all it is.

Painting of the Visitation
Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Louvre, Paris.

In that simple kick, two women know portents of the future. They hear angels greeting them. They believe that the first Christmas is coming, before there is such a thing as Christmas. And they give praise to a God whom they have never seen, comfort one another in their faith that all will be well, simply because of a child’s restless dream in the warm darkness of his mother’s womb.

Two expectant mothers, one of them old, one of them young and as yet unwed, sit at the beginning of a new creation story. God is bringing about a new thing, and it starts in these two women who are not seen by anyone in their world as persons of greatness or importance.

There is a powerful dichotomy at work. The low are raised, and the rich and powerful are rejected. God’s value system is different than ours.

“My soul magnifies the Lord…” So begins the famous praise offered by Mary in Luke’s Gospel. The tension is plain in the text. Far from being a simple expression of faith, Mary’s words distill the message of the prophets. Her prophetic word to her world, and to ours, is that the proud shall be scattered, those who rule shall be torn from their thrones, and the rich shall go hungry. It is the gospel told as prophecy and as challenge—God shall favor the humble, empower the weak, feed the hungry. True power is not in governments or bank vaults or armies, the prophets are saying. True power, Mary tells us, is in the ability to create life, not destroy it. And we can see the face of God in every newborn child.

People speak of Mary’s humility, her willingness to submit to what she perceived as the will of God, and they are right to do so. We should also list her among the prophets, like Elijah and Isaiah. In her grace and her humility, Mary gave us words of power and of warning.

In this Advent season, we would do well to look for the dichotomy of the prophets, this tension Mary proclaims at the coming of the first Christmas. If we think ourselves clever, or powerful, or rich and well fed, then Mary is warning us.

Theotokos, they called her, God-bearer, but that was many years afterward, when enough time and enough words had passed to help the early Church see what had happened. When the Christ child was born and God in that moment began the making of a new creation, Mary was still in a stable, with straw for her bed, animals for her companions. In Bethlehem, she was a stranger who had travelled from far away. She was of low estate, no one of power, no one of wealth. And most blessed was she among us all.


Seeing God

Second Sunday After Christmas  |  John 1:1-18

Seeing God

The Lectionary Project

Earth and Moon, a NASA image

No one has ever seen God, says the evangelist John in the first chapter of his Gospel. Never mind the vision of Isaiah, or Elijah in the cave, or Moses on Mount Sinai: they were mistaken, or only had a glimpse, or perhaps it all happened in their minds. Only the Son has seen the Father, John tells us, leaving us in the quagmire of understanding the Trinity, one God in three Persons, Father, Son and Spirit.

As we have said elsewhere, we may be like God, but God is not like us.

And what does John the Baptizer have to do with all of this? All of the Gospel writers insisted on the importance of this odd man in the wilderness, pointing people to God. What is the big deal, and why should we spend time at Christmas remembering such an outlandish man?

Perhaps pointing people to God is the message of Christmas, and that is what SolarSystem_NASAmattered about John the Baptist. He wasn’t making a fuss about himself, certainly wasn’t dressing to impress or living out the delusion that the world revolved around him. In that regard he was a spiritual Galileo or Copernicus, pointing out that the world, in fact, is centered elsewhere. We might consider living the same way—centered elsewhere. Both Johns, the Gospel writer and wilderness prophet, tell us so.

For all that we grasp the shape of our solar system, we cling to our notion of a world that spins around us.

A Christmas resolution then:

May we be centered in God, not in ourselves. May we live life better for knowing it is not only about us. May we keep Christmas by pointing to the presence of God, the holy Other all around us.

God has come into our world, and God will come into our world. Blessed are those who see.

The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov
The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov

Christmas Truth

First Sunday After Christmas Day  |  Luke 2:22-40

Christmas Truth

The Lectionary Project

Luke tells a story not found in the other Gospels, a story about the infant Jesus Holly4x6being presented at the temple in accordance with Jewish law. The child is circumcised and named, and he enters into the life of the Jewish people with the blessing of the establishment who would later condemn him and call for his crucifixion.

In this short story we meet Simeon and Anna, an old man and an old woman, both waiting in faith to meet the Messiah. Had they grown old looking forward to this day, or were Simeon and Anna looking forward to this day, to God coming into their world, because they were old? We don’t know. Luke does not tell us, and there’s no other mention of them.

Were they real people, factual folk, or were they something more symbolic?

Luke’s account of the birth of the Messiah differs from that of Matthew, and both of these gospels differ from John and Mark. Other than the symbolism of John’s prologue, John and Mark skip over the birth narrative entirely. We could fret over the differences, the omissions, the additions, or we could accept what we have. Truth is not the same as factual detail. The facts of our existence are small and lose importance over time. The truths of our existence are less substantial, less documented, but more important.

We might hear the story of the birth of Christ and regard the event as a fact. We might also hear it as truth, the elements of the story each relating something true about our existence and God.

The temple, where an infant Jesus encounters Anna and Simeon, is huge— clean stone walls, walkways, polished bronze and gold, guards and priests with fresh robes and gleaming adornment. It is a gateway, the keeper of the rituals and the entrance into the communal life of the Jewish people. It is also the symbol of the establishment, the place where communion with God is being traded for the mere observance of rules, because the rules are simpler and easier to follow than a God who cannot be seen.

HollySkyThe old man and woman are also symbols. They are the wise, the seekers, the faithful, not trading their faith for rules, not exchanging their expectation of God’s coming for empty observances. They are children, waiting with pure devotion.

The temple and these old wise people are also part of us, within each of us. We value such rituals as we have, whether kneeling in prayer or checking our emails, for the way that they help us to define our existence. Stone by stone, we build temples in our minds. At the same time, deep in our minds dwell a Simeon or an Anna, telling us to look for more, something we have not seen in the great temples we construct around us. Look for something real, the old ones tell us, something that may not be so much a fact of our existence as a mark of genuine truth.

Then there is the child. This infant, now named Jesus—both a name and a meaning, Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, Savior—is a small thing, of little importance by comparison to the great stone walls and priestly rituals surrounding him. This child does not look more special than any other child the temple walls have held, no more special than any we ourselves have seen. Only the two wise ones recognize him. This child, born in poverty, in the muck and straw of a stable, is God becoming, Emmanuel, truth unremarked by eyes that are filled only with the splendor of the temple.

Christmas is not a day or a season. We open the presents, put away the ornaments, and say that it is over, but that is only the ritual, a small thing that we have named and welcomed and that passes, facts and details marking a holiday. The truth of Christmas is in the expectation of what has come, and what is yet to come. That is what our Simeon and Anna are waiting to see. That is what we are waiting to see, the coming of truth, God made real.