Fourth Sunday In Advent: Light Beings
The readings for this fourth Sunday in Advent for Year A simply present Matthew’s version of Jesus’s birth, backed up by the familiar prophecy from Isaiah, along with a prayer for deliverance, and the apostle Paul’s greeting to his Christian community in Rome. The 4th Sunday and Christmas Eve allow plenty of opportunity to read both of the Gospel versions of the birth stories, and compare them – if desired. Sure enough, they don’t agree – that’s because the gospel writers had different agendas for their stories. Matthew’s agenda was to show that this Jesus was the long-looked-for Messiah, who would bring deliverance to the oppressed and despairing people in occupied Palestine and sacked Jerusalem in the 60s to 70s, C.E. Luke’s agenda, 20 years or so later, was to convince the communities in the diaspora that had made their peace with the Roman Empire that Jesus was the embodiment of the mythical hero that would show them the way into the kingdom of heaven by righteous living – most especially caring for the poor.
Arguing about whether any of the stories are literally true misses the point. At Christmas, there is hope for deliverance and opportunity for repentance. So listen to the stories, sing the carols, exchange the gifts – but don’t check you mind at the church door. Palestine is still occupied, Jerusalem is divided, and Christianity is almost completely aligned with Empire – ecclesiastical and secular.
There are three sets of “Propers” and four other sets of readings to choose from during the 12 days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. The Elves who put together the Revised Common Lectionary direct that “If Proper III is not used on Christmas Day, it should be used at some service during the Christmas cycle because of the significance of John’s prologue.”
Proper III it is.
John’s prologue is significant on many levels. First (in terms of the development of Christian dogma) it is important because it is a hymn to the mysterious presence from the beginning of God’s “word,” or “wisdom,” conventionally interpreted to be the Christ. Second, John’s mystical language defies literal interpretation. Even if belief goes so far as to insist that Jesus physically existed somewhere in the “sky” from the beginning of time along with the proverbial Grandfather Almighty, John still confounds even the least developed imagination with metaphor: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” John 1:4-5, KJV.
Third, for post-modern, post-theistic minds, John’s prologue is poetry that speaks to the mystic and the spiritual realms of human understanding, even when those realms are informed by the more esoteric discoveries of post-modern physics. Here is the translation developed by the scholars of the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar:
The “divine word and wisdom” combines masculine logos with feminine mythos – personified in the Greek pantheon by the Goddess Sophia. Wisdom them segues into Life and Light. After nearly 200 years of the study of physics, the nature of light, and the origins of the Universe, John’s metaphor continues to resonate. We now know that the Universe is made up of light, and that we ourselves are also made up of that same light. We cannot survive without it. “Being” the light is not something we can opt into or out of, so “believing” in the light is about as useful as “believing” in air.
John claims that the darkness did not master this genuine light, because Jesus rose from the dead, and will come again. Yet despite John’s certainty, humanity continues to live in darkness: continues to deny that human rights are the foundation for human security, not the suspension of disbelief in an interventionist god, or the reliance on raw, secular, imperial militarism masquerading as that god.
After the prologue, John begins to tell his version of the story of Jesus:
So that no one (hopefully) will misunderstand, the writer explains what he means by “the light”:
Appropriating John’s metaphor to post-modern mythological experience, if we embrace Jesus – as the bringer of spiritual light to the world – and we take into ourselves Jesus’s radical, non-violent abandonment of self-interest (love), then we also become bringers of the light. We also participate as word and wisdom in the realm of distributive justice-compassion.
Forget the talk of “victory” in Psalm 98, and the triumphalism of the sermon found in Hebrews 1:1-12. Genuine light – says John – provides light for everyone. No room here for “my messiah is higher than your angels” Hebrews 1:3b-4.
We continue to ignore the fact that like the rest of the beings in the Universe, we are light-beings. If we realize that we are made of light, how can we continue to deny the light that flames in the very DNA of all earthly beings whether animal or plant? Jesus was not the only light-being that taught justice-compassion as the way.
But of course, anyone who has lived into adulthood on Planet Earth knows that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
In the midst of a Universe made of light are black holes in the center of collapsing galaxies with energies so great that light cannot escape. Fear is the black hole in human spirituality that swallows up trust. It is born of belief in a capricious, interventionist god, and evil is the result.
John’s theology was probably informed by the theology developed 40 to 50 years earlier by the apostle Paul, but John’s Gospel has to be read with care. Taken literally and without a sense of the context in which it was written, the Fourth Gospel has led to some of the worst excesses of Christian imperialism. “Believing” in the light is not a prerequisite for becoming children of God. As Paul argues in Romans 8:38-39, nothing can separate us from the love of God – not powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths. A post-modern experience of a kenotic god, whose presence is justice and life, but whose absence is injustice and death, leaves no opportunity for patriarchal “male willfulness” to exclude anyone from the realm of distributive justice-compassion.
The Jesus Seminar scholars’ translation is inclusive of the masculine logos (word) and feminine wisdom (Sophia), and so is the interpretation of the apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians 1:22-30, who argues that Jesus the Christ is (for Christians) the Wisdom (Sophia) from God, and in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It is no accident that the birth of the light has been celebrated from the beginning of human time during the darkest times of the year – from the Winter Solstice (December 21-22 in the Northern Hemisphere) through the first cross-quarter day six weeks later (Imbolc/Candlemas – February 2). In the darkness of mid-winter, in the black hole of human spiritual despair, it is easy to begin to feel as though the light has been extinguished, and there is no escape. But we have learned that the Universe continues its unfinished story. God’s Covenant with humanity remains: the Earth’s poles tilt back toward the Sun as the Earth continues its eternal rounds; the Sun returns, and light is reborn. Even though we are made of Light, the only way to experience being that Light is to actively, consciously choose to live in the Light. Then we can realize that we are not only partners in the Covenant, we are co-creators.