Friday, December 26, 2008

Et Verbum caro factum est.

I spent Christmas Eve at an Anglo-Catholic parish in an inner-city section of Boston, which I go to whenever I'm in town. As someone relatively new to the faith, much of the liturgy and ceremony are new to me: this was, I think, the first actual Christmas Eve service I've attended. After the Eucharist, we read "The Last Gospel": the entire prologue to the Gospel of St. John. As a priest I know well said to me afterward, this contains the essence of the Christian faith.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

God is a Trinity, first and foremost. We know this, not merely by visions, or by Scripture, or by the Ecumenical Councils, but by reason. For we know (as per St. Anselm) that God is necessarily perfect, and that the essence of moral perfection- the most perfect moral sentiment- is love. God is love, and has been love, for ever. But if that is true, then God must be a community of persons. For no one can love himself- not with the highest, truest degree of love. True love requires an object. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This presupposes that I am separate from my neighbor, that we are two different persons. And so it is with God: He has always consisted in more than one person. Love requires an object, and a form. The Logos, the Second Person, the Begotten Son, is the object, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, is the form that love takes. "Whoever loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love." For that to be true, God must be a trinity, and that trinity must be eternal and indissoluble. This is the argument that St. Augustine makes in his De Trinitate: If, then, any one of the three is to be specially called Love, what more fitting than that it should be the Holy Spirit?—namely, that in that simple and highest nature, substance should not be one thing and love another, but that substance itself should be love, and love itself should be substance, whether in the Father, or in the Son, or in the Holy Spirit; and yet that the Holy Spirit should be specially called Love.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.
Jesus is coeternal with the Father: there was never a time when Jesus was not God, for there was never a time when the essence of God was something less than pure love.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

The Logos, the Son, is the mediator of life, says St. Augustine, as the devil is the mediator of death. Without Him, we would have nothing beyond the grave but pain, darkness, and sorrow: through him, we have a glimpse of the holy city where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." He came "that men might have life, and that they might have it abundantly." As we owe the history of the world that led to our births to the Father, and the power that sustains us from day to day to the Spirit, so we owe the life of the world to come to the Son.

5 And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.

How often it happens that the enemies of that which is good, hate it without comprehending it. As knowledge is an attribute of God, so ignorance is an attribute of the evil power. Good can subtract something from itself and thus comprehend evil, but evil can never comprehend good, for that would require something that it does not possess. The enemies of social justice- whether for the poor, for racial minorities, for the third world, for the unborn- always assume that there is a nefarious economic motive at the bottom of things, for they cannot comprehend true charity and a true thirst for justice, and believe that everyone must be as selfish as they are: and in this we see, as true as it ever was, the words of St. John enacted into reality.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

Here stands John the Baptist, cousin of Our Lord, who appears like a strange, inexplicable pillar in the desert, with no one in history or legend quite like him. People sensed, instinctively, that he was not like other men; some of his contemporaries, we are told, asked "Are you the Christ", and to this very day, in the Middle East, survive the Mandaeans who believe that, yes, St. John the Baptist was the Christ, the Son of God. I don't know exactly who or what this fascinating, enigmatic man was, but I can't credit that he was simply just a normal man.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

From before the beginning of written history men have seen light as a symbol and an image of God. We didn't know, then, that light, like God, is beyond our comprehension, but only barely so. Through evolution, intervention, and other mechanisms as yet unknown, God shaped our minds so that we would be able to just barely, almost, comprehend light: to understand that it can be a wave, and a particle, but not to understand, ever, how it could be both. Light is just barely beyond our comprehension: close enough to our powers of thought to illuminate us, but far enough away to tantalize us. And so it is with God.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Our false, foolish, selfish pride is hurt when others do not give us our deserved honor, our true worth. How much more should Our Lord have been hurt when we whom He had come to save treated him as a common criminal- mocked him, laughed at him, spat on him, tortured and killed him. Yet he matched our false pride with His true humility, and on the Cross his last thought was to forgive His tormentors, and to say to his neighbor, a scoundrel and a murderer, "Verily I say to you, this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise."

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

"Sons of God" in the truest sense: by love, by adoption, by service, and by salvation. We are sons of God in the sense that God loves us as a father loves his sons. The evil power tempts us by trying to persuade us that we can be our own masters, our own Gods: but the true way to become sons of God is not by seeking power and self-gratification, but by denying them.

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

The flesh is fallen, and the will even more so: God came in the flesh so that the fallen could be made unfallen, the hills made low, the valleys made high, and everything old made new again.

14 And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

"Ho Logos sarx egeneto." "Et Verbum caro factum est." This is the core of it, right here. The meaning of Christmas. The meaning of history. The meaning of redemption. At that moment, sometime in the spring of the year, between 4 and 6 BC, several billion years after the origin of the universe, came the event that all of human history on Earth had been preparing for, and of which all subsequent history is the sequel. This is the center, the basic fact of history, in the light of which everything makes sense. The flesh, that which had been made ugly and corrupt by the brutal facts of nature- by the cruel and wasteful process of natural selection, which has no mercy for the weak and no limits on the strong; by the laws of thermodynamics that make every system, in time, become more and more disordered and chaotic; by the laws of nature that allow earthquakes to happen and viruses to evolve, tearing down everything beautiful and reducing it to ugliness- this very flesh was the flesh that the Word, the Logos, the Son, chose into which to incarnate Himself. To redeem us, to renew us, and to save us. "Behold, I make all things new." And to this singular, beautiful, incomprehensible, appalling act of love, we owe everything in our lives here and in our lives to come.

"And I am with you always, till the end of the age." Amen.

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