By Peter Sawtell, Eco-Justice Ministries, 22 Dec 2017
Christmas is the holiday where we celebrate “peace on Earth, good will to all.”
As we roll around to Christmas this year, I think back about 50 years. The US was entangled in our “dirty little war” in Vietnam. Some of my friends in the church youth group talked about not celebrating Christmas until there was peace on Earth. They would have had a very long wait.
This year, with the US in a state of perpetual war (16 years and counting), ecological damage mounting day by day, tragic injustice on so many fronts (racial, economic, gender, immigration, etc.), it still seems jarring to celebrate peace, justice and goodwill.
Observing Christmas, though, is entirely appropriate in the presence of its opposite.
Even if it is only for a day, we do say “yes” to the values and the vision of God’s shalom. If we take the incarnation seriously, we are acknowledging that this troubled world still is in desperate need of salvation.
That disparity between what is and what should be is essential to the Christian story.
+ + + + +
The first chapter of the Gospel of John is a profound theological affirmation of God’s incarnation in this messy world. It doesn’t have a baby, or shepherds, or magi. It is a bigger narrative, about cosmic themes of meaning and hope that have a focal point when the Logos of God enters into the world.
The language of John 1 is beautiful and evocative, echoing the first chapter of Genesis. When I stop to read it carefully, though, it does get a bit confusing.
“In the beginning,” we read, “was the Word” — the Logos. The footnotes in my Bible say that the Word of God “is more than speech; it is God in action, creating, revealing, redeeming.” What has come into being through that creative work is life, “and the life was the light of all people.” Three steps in — Word to life to light — we finally get to familiar phrasing, affirming that “the light shines in the darkness.”
John’s story presumes that there is darkness in contrast to the light of Christ. John reminds us that the world — and even God’s own people — did not receive this embodiment of the divine. Of course there is a disparity between what is and what should be. That contrast is essential to the story.
John’s gospel was written in everyday Greek. He used street language, not formal or academic speech. Translating that language seems to be amazingly complicated, though. There’s a key word in John’s proclamation that comes out quite differently in various biblical translations. Trying to grab the full meaning of “katalamba” opens up some helpful insights for me in this time of eco-justice crisis.
In the New Revised Standard version, that word is rendered as “overcome.” It is in that marvelously hopeful line: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The New American Standard (like the old King James) is less triumphant with “and the darkness did not comprehend it.” The New International Version is similar, “the darkness has not understood it” — with a tinge of present tense, too.
The Mediterranean folk 2,000 years ago apparently caught nuances of this word that don’t come easily into English translation. Some of the definitions speak of “lay hold of” or obtain, to take into one’s self, or take possession of. There’s a mix of conceptual and physical ownership in the word.
If we’re looking for contemporary street language, maybe we come close if we say that “the darkness just didn’t get it.” That fits well with the following verses, too. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” They (we!) just don’t get it.
The story of the incarnation starts with God, who creates and sustains a world of order and meaning. That world came into being through the Logos, and all things are infused with that wisdom. And the story of this world has the people, who just don’t get it, who don’t recognize the Logos among us and within us. Because we don’t get it, there is war and suffering and injustice and sorrow.
Christmas can be a moment to break through our befuddlement, and even for a moment grasp what God intends for the world. Christmas, unfortunately, is not an occasion to celebrate that God’s Logos and God’s shalom are perfectly embodied and recognized. This holiday of faith is a moment to catch a glimpse, and to have a flash of recognition, about the profound reality of God’s creation. It is a moment to understand the light, not the darkness. It is an opportunity to see God within this world.
Theologian Sallie McFague does not use the light and darkness language of John, but she makes a parallel point about what is ultimately true and what is false. In Life Abundant, she wrote,
I finally understand what life is about. It is, quite simply, acknowledging how things are — living in the truth. And the truth is that God is the source and sustainer of everything. … God is reality, the breath, the life, the power, the love beneath, above, around, and in everything. (pp. 9-10)
When we just don’t get it, we think that life is about possessions and power and self. We think that war is inevitable and competition is the primary way of relating. We think that exploitation and destruction are normal.
When we understand what life is about, when we get it, we take into our selves the truth that God’s creation is all about relationship (human and ecological), community, justice, sufficiency and love. Those are not unrealistic ideas. Those are the reality that informs all creation.
In the celebration of Christmas, we rejoice that we have caught a glimpse of God’s light and God’s purpose. We admit to ourselves that the darkness is not the ultimate reality. For a moment, we comprehend and understand the light. We take it into ourselves and make it our own.
+ + + + +
50 years ago, my high school friends thought that we should not celebrate Christmas until there is peace on Earth.
Today, I am convinced that we must celebrate the incarnation precisely because there is not peace on Earth. Christmas — theologically — is a prophetic proclamation to our wounded world. It is an affirmation of God’s light as more real than the delusions of darkness. It is when we begin to “get it”, and reorient ourselves toward God’s purposes.
Christmas is not a celebration of perfect peace in the world. It is a commitment to work toward that peace and justice for all creation. It is one occasion among many when we can comprehend God’s light, and make it our own.
May God’s light shine among us this Christmas, and may we live in that light always.
Rev. Peter Sawtell