Words on the Word
2. Sunday of Christmas
Ecclesiasticus 24:1-2, 8-12: in Jerusalem I wield my authority.
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-18: What rich glories he has promised.
John 1:1-18: We have seen his glory.
This is the third time since Christmas that we have heard this Gospel at Mass. If the Church keeps putting it before us, it must have something vital to say. Indeed, for centuries the Prologue of St John was read at the end of every Mass, to put what had happened at the altar in context, as it were. St John tells us who it is who assumes human nature in the Blessed Virgin Mary: the Father’s eternal Word.
What’s a word? We speak and write words to communicate ourselves; to make ourselves known to others. God’s Word is likewise his way of making himself known. God is eternal. The word ‘eternal’ trips easily off our tongue but its sense befuddles us. Our experience is so conditioned by beginnings and ends, especially by ends, that we can hardly conceive of a state of being unoriginated and boundless. As Christians we must open our minds and hearts to this perspective. We must learn to think beyond categories of births and deaths, to the carrying force that enables life in the first place. To confront ourselves with this mystery is already a form of prayer.
At a given point, our eternal God resolved to mark time. In the language of Scripture, he ‘spoke’. An utterance leaves traces. Physicists point to the waves created by travelling sound. More essentially, a thing said makes an impact on hearers. Naturally, we hear countless sounds each day of which we do not have the faintest memory. Thank God for that: life would have been insufferable otherwise. I am convinced, though, that each of us here can think of things we have heard said that have shaped our lives decisively. To hear someone say, ‘I love you’, transforms a life. It makes a narrow existence broad; indeed, to hear those words, ‘I love you’, is our best way, perhaps, of getting an inkling of what ‘eternity’ means.
Well, when God spoke his Word, it was to speak his love. Love was made manifest as light: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light. God had no need to let the light shine; not was he obliged to go on with creation. He made all there is because he wanted to, for the delight of it. He made it gratuitously, as a gift. You and I are now the gift’s recipients, tiny links in a long chain of human fellowship. It was the agent of this loving gift, the Word making it explicit, that became flesh and dwelt among us. He has a name, a face. We know him. Though we have not seen him, we love him. At Christmas we re-immerse ourselves in this exchange of love. It’s wonderful!
I said a moment ago that St John’s Prologue, which establishes the terms of Christ’s incarnation, was read, earlier, at the end of every Mass. This is because each Mass is Christmas in miniature. The Lord becomes truly present. I’ve been asked more than once, as perhaps have you: ‘Surely you can’t believe this to be true?!’ Well, I can. And I rejoice to construct my life on this belief. It is entirely reasonable. If the Word that was in the beginning made all things; and if that Word chose, at a precisely datable moment, to make himself present in human history, it was not by way of an excursion, just to see what it was like; it was to remain in our midst, and by means of that presence, to bring the work of creation to fulfilment. When we celebrate Christ’s birth, we do not merely remember something that took place long ago. We affirm something going on now, with immense repercussions for our lives.
The Church, who is our Mother, is also a great teacher. At this Mass, alongside the Prologue of St John, she gives us the prologue of Ephesians to read. St Paul can be hard to get to grips with. He has such a reputation for being difficult that we may switch off when we hear him read, letting his endless sentences wash over us as a peal of bells. That is understandable. Still, Paul is worth persevering with. If you want to further your acquaintance, Ephesians is a good place to begin.No single text of the New Testament, perhaps, makes the Christian calling so explicit. To discover it is at once fearful and enthralling. For we’re called, St Paul reminds us, to be ‘holy and spotless’.
Holiness isn’t the prerogative of people who lived long ago and far away; it is an imperative for you and me today. What’s it about? Basically about opening our lives so that Christ may live in us. When, onreceiving Holy Communion, we respond to the affirmation, ‘The Body of Christ’, with a clear ‘Amen’, it is in recognition of the Real Presence. But it is also because we are resolved to offer our bodies as a tabernacle in which the Lord may live. We enter a covenant. We pledge to live our lives according to Christ’s teaching and example; to walk as he walked. The King of Glory comes to make us glorious. If that seems like an off-the-wall statement, just re-read the texts of this Mass, when you get home, and look for ‘glory’. You will find it is a recurring motif, referring both to Christ and to us. The two are called to be one.
Glory is present in the Church’s prayers, too. Our collect today begins: ‘God, splendour of faithful souls, graciously be pleased to fill the world with your glory’. That mission begins with you and me, here at this altar. Believe in it! You’ve been created beautiful. You’re called to become splendid. Your great task is to enable God’s radiance to spread ‘to all peoples’. A freeing task. A joyful task. A glorious task.