123018 Christmas 1c What Kind of Beginning?
Tomorrow night we will celebrate the New Year. How will you celebrate? One thing that happens at midnight on New Years is a lot of chaos. People make noise–with horns, fireworks, noisemakers, or simply screaming; we revel; we dance; we hug strangers; we do things we would never do the rest of the year. Why? Traditionally noise making was meant to ward off evil spirits at the beginning of a new year. I don’t think most of us think about that; and it doesn’t explain all the other behaviors.
As I hear John’s prologue, chaotic noise-making, reveling, dancing and hugging strangers may respond to our deepest sense of the possibilities of life. Rather than ask why we do those things at midnight on New Year’s Eve, maybe we should ask why we don’t do them the rest of the year. Considering the radical new beginning described in John’s Gospel, chaotic revelry may be the best way to usher in the new.
The opposite of chaos is, of course, order. We usually think of order as a good thing, and it often is. But John’s image of creation calls into question whether that is always the case. This becomes evident when we compare it to Genesis’ version of creation. In Genesis the beginning involved bringing order to a formless earth covered in water. Light was separated from darkness; water from land; earth from sky. And darkness overcame light – every night. It was the way things were ordered, and that was called good.
In John’s version the beginning was more radical. It involved the Word bringing all things into being before there was any order. Light shines in the darkness and is not overcome. People are given power to become children of God. The Word becomes flesh. God is revealed for all to see. So the Gospel actually distances creation from order. Those in charge of maintaining order didn’t receive Jesus, the creative word. They rejected him violently, and the Word suffered that violence voluntarily to give birth to the creation of a new life that has nothing to do with the forces of death.
So John’s newness was much more radical than the New Year we are facing. When we turn over a page on a calendar it’s part of a given order. It’s not really new. It’s predictable – centuries ago people knew there would be a January 1, 2019. The world just had to wait for it to arrive. What we have in John is much more radical. John describes a beginning that couldn’t have been predicted. Furthermore, it’s one that can be rejected and resisted. Each of us can choose to receive or reject the new creation. That makes it both more fragile and vulnerable than the old one, but also more decisive.
Order often works against freedom. Around the world in the 20th century we saw communism, capitalism, Nazism and Fascism attempt to impose a more just order. In this country the most corrupt presidents have been the ones who focus on Law and Order. But only a creation that can be rejected is free. The paradoxical truth is that creation is more fragile and more vulnerable but also more decisive and inevitable.
According to John, the Word had always been in the ordered world but not of it. So both John’s Gospel and history itself reveal that bringing order to chaos has not been as much the work of creation as of human violence. The order of this world does not correspond to God’s order, since those who obey God are persecuted in this world. For the entire history of the world, human beings have used violence to try to maintain order. Cain murdered Abel in an attempt to avenge what he saw as an unfair advantage and to restore an order of equality between brothers. It was also in the service of order that Jesus was put to death. This was clearly stated by Caiaphas, the high priest: It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. From that day on they planned to put him to death.
We’re doing it again on the border. Instead of sending thousands of clerks to process asylum requests on the border, the government sent thousands of troops to keep them out. The Gospel says this reality is inherent in creation. Violence and revenge lead to violence and revenge, never to peace. They bring a kind of order, but God’s order is different from the order of the world.
So it becomes a choice, often a difficult one. The creation that Jesus revealed is ongoing and keeps revealing itself in the midst of the disordered orderliness of the present creation. We can choose how we will respond to the disorder. One border agent writes that the aliens we encounter are not narco bosses and murderous kidnappers but their victims: bewildered, disoriented, helpless migrants. Some agents help the migrants and are compassionate toward them. But others dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze. Those are choices people make. In Gospel perspective the choice is clear. The new beginning Jesus introduced into the world is an act of creation that brings life rather than death.
We only get glimpses of it but we’re invited to fan the flames, to blow on the embers such that the flame stays alive. Every once in a while we get a glimpse of the light, the joy and the courage to be, of God. John tells us that no one has ever had even a glimpse of God. Eugene Peterson translates it: “No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse. This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day.” We are called to take those occasional glimpses and fan their flames by repeating the joyful news. As we sing at Christmas: “Joy to the World, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ; While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.”
But the new creation is never as clear as the old one, so we tend to settle for the old one. Living in the new creation begun in Jesus has a tentativeness about it that is less attractive than the solid footing offered by the old creation. The old creation is more orderly. The new one can be rather chaotic. The people who observed Jesus and John first hand always found something to criticize. “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” The guardians of order always find something that doesn’t fit in order to reject the new creation because the new order never looks orderly at first. These same guardians of order were the ones who put Jesus to death – the very one who brought creation into being – because they considered his life disorderly and chaotic. But what we label as chaotic or demonic or excessive is often an emerging order that hasn’t been discerned yet.
So there’s a gift and a choice in Jesus’ entering history. On the one hand, John affirms that in Jesus the true creation entered history and pitched a tent in our neighborhood – full of grace and truth. And according to John, whether we accept him or not the gift is ours: “we have all received from his fullness, grace upon grace.” On the other hand, if we want to be called Children of God, who are born of God like Jesus not of the will of flesh or humanity–then we must receive the Word, no matter how strange and threatening it may sound. That’s why what Mary did is paradigmatic for all who are children of God. She said yes to God, and so gave birth to the very newness that empowers us to do the same. We show that we are born of God not by becoming less human and more divine, but by expressing our full humanity by moving the new creation a little closer to fullness.
John insists that this is something radically new: The law came through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ. The new creation must move beyond the orderliness of law. It’s always risky and a little chaotic to do so. It will often be rejected, as Jesus was rejected. But it is necessary to move beyond orderliness. Remember the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa? Both whites and blacks testified to atrocities inflicted by humans on other humans for generations. That was the truth and it was infuriating, despicable and embarrassing. To forgive the perpetrators felt like not taking the awfulness of it seriously. Only one man had the credibility and personal experience to call for such a process: Nelson Mandela. After 27 years as a prisoner on Robben Island, when he emerged he didn’t spew words of hatred and revenge. Desmond Tutu describes him as “a man regal in dignity, bubbling over with magnanimity and a desire to dedicate himself to the reconciliation of those whom apartheid and the injustice and pain of racism had alienated from one another.” (p. 39)
Where is the unsettling new creation invading your peaceful existence as we move from one year to the next? Are you resisting it or receiving it? Are you trying to impose a false order on it or discern the order in the chaos? There are many opportunities to decide how to act in the fact of what is happening in our lives and in this historical moment. We can react with hatred and anger, or with love and forgiveness. Hatred and anger maintain the established order. Only when we overcome the temptation to react like everyone else can we fan the flames of the new creation that is being born in and among us. Let’s enter this New Year committed to practice love and compassion.