In the Beginning

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Mass During The Day
December 25, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: If you were asked to tell the story of Christmas, you'd probably mention a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, shepherds and sheep, a sky full of singing angels, the wise men from the east, the inn with a "No Vacancy" sign and of course, a very pregnant Mary and a concerned Joseph. But today's gospel reading doesn't mention any of these events. What's going on?

The reading of the gospel lesson according to John for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sounds really deep. Philosophical. Heavy. It's not at all warm and cuddly like Luke's account of shepherds tending their wooly sheep under a starlit night, or singing angels or starstruck teenagers - one of whom is noticeably with child - who cannot find a place to crash for the night.

John's version has none of this. As the last of the gospelers to write, perhaps he thought it was a story that had already made the rounds. So now, given that the facts are a matter of public record, he intends to explain, at least in part, the meaning of the story. And to do this, he has to provide context; he has to go back to the beginning.

"In the beginning." Those three words take him and his first-century readers back to the first words of the Torah: "In the beginning, God ...".1 It's as though at the start of the Bible, God intends to remind us about beginnings, and that John, echoing this format, likewise affirms that humans have a history - a history that begins with God, continues with God, will conclude with God and in which God and Jesus Christ his Son are the major players: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being."

It's difficult to imagine that sort of linear chronological distance. For most of us, history begins when we are about 5 years old, give or take. Everything else is ancient history and must be studied, interpreted and assimilated through tedious work in a classroom.

Still, we can go back to our own personal beginnings. We remember the significant events of our lifetime, like the invention of the smartphone, the internet, personal computers, 9/11, the Challenger explosion, Armstrong on the moon and so on - although, if you're under 25 you won't remember any of that stuff.

In school, we study history to learn more about beginnings - the World Wars, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, Shakespeare, the invention of the printing press. But after that, things get dark and murky - until we see a star lying bright on the dark velvety pages of history, a supernova that exploded in about 4 B.C. and which heralded the arrival of a child whose birth we celebrate today.

But John takes this as his starting point and travels even farther back in time. He skips past Alexander the Great, the Persian period in which the adventures of Queen Esther took place, past the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, past the glory of King David, past Moses the architect of the incipient Hebrew nation and past the tribal conflicts going back to Abraham. He races past a global flood, humans who live for hundreds of years, until he arrives - finally - at Genesis (which means "beginning"). Now we are standing at the head of the Torah, the start of the Holy Bible, and the first three words read, "In the beginning ...."

So John repeats these three words, and explains why the transcendent God became a human by emphasizing two attributes of the squalling baby of Luke's account. He says in effect, "This baby is the 'word,' and he's also the 'light.'" In other words, this child came to say something, and to show us something . Let's look closely at both of these aspects of the baby in the manger.

What does this Child say to us?

It's striking how easily today's text reads. The author doesn't waste words nor does he use a $20 dollar word where a 50-cent word will do. Here is the thoughtful and philosophical John expounding on the preexistence of Christ, his co-eternality with God the Father and the incarnation of the supreme and ineffable God, and he uses one-syllable words to do so - words as simple and vulnerable as the baby in the manger.

Of the 228 words of our reading, 191 - that's 84 percent - are one-syllable words. In the first two verses, the only polysyllabic word is "beginning" which appears twice: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God."

It's as though John is saying that "This is not complicated." Or, as Chris Rock says to Jackie Chan in Rush Hour , "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" Perhaps we don't always understand the words, but let's try. What do you think is the most important message Jesus came to share with us?

The answers will vary, of course. But try this: I love you .

Don't dismiss this as being too pat and sentimental. Think about it. Just as the cross demonstrates God's love for us,2 so does the cradle . What else but love can explain the willingness of the Son of God who was present at creation to leave heaven's glory where he held the title of "God and God Alone," or "I AM THAT I AM," and to appear in human form as a crying, burping and pooping baby in a manger of straw? That's love!

Moreover, God had tried to show this love before by sending messages to us through the prophets. But the life expectancy of these prophets was not too long. Then, God sent Jesus, and it was an act motivated by love, as John himself notes: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son ..." (emphasis added).3 His Son was the Word, and his word to us, among other words, was and is, "I love you." It's a very simple message: only three syllables.

What does this Child show us?

John also describes this child as the "light of all people," and the "true light."

A word is a solitary unit of expression. It can be spoken in darkness. It can be a voice crying in the wilderness. But light suddenly illuminates an entire room or landscape. Light provides context and opportunities. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Light shows us the right path to take. This Child came to show us the way. "I am the light of the world," Jesus said. "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."4

When we follow the light, we can be confident that we're walking on the right path. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."5 We're on the right path - to a deep and abiding friendship with God.

This light, the Bible says, is for "all people." That means you. No one can take that from you. It resonates with what John will write in the third chapter of his gospel: "For God so loved the world ..." (emphasis added).6 The word he uses there does not mean cosmos, or planet or globe. It means nations or people. It means you.

God's light, the light of the Bethlehem star, the light in the eyes of a newborn child, is for you! God wants you to see the path, God wants you to see your salvation.

In the beginning ... and the middle ... and the end

As the Word of God and the Light for All People, Jesus clearly is someone you want to know and get to know better. Jesus is the one person you want to be a part of your history, someone with whom you want to have a beginning - a beginning that, well, never will end.

Not too much endures today. Political regimes come and go. Buildings go up and come down. Businesses are here today and gone tomorrow. Relationships are fragile, often held together by only the gossamer threads of a prayer and a promise. And then, at Christmas, we affirm in the midst of all this uncertainty that "in the beginning, God ...." The Bible pushes further: In the middle, God. In the end, God. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."7 Or, as Christ at the end of time puts it, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."8 The Be All and the End All. The First Word, the Final Word, the Last Word, the Only Word.

Christmas brings us to a new beginning, the Word speaking to us and the Light showing us the way. As we stand at this beginning, so much lies in potential, at the "what if?" stage.

What if we take this moment to begin, perhaps to begin again , to join forces with the divine which was present in the baby Jesus? What if we listen to the Word, and follow the Light? We stand on the cusp of a new year, we have renewed hope for ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, cities and our nation, indeed the world.

While the world did not recognize him then, perhaps the world may recognize the eternal God today - in you!