A couple of days after Christmas, the all-Christmas-music radio stations have switched back to their normal formats. At local stores, the Christmas rack of cards had been transformed to a rack of Valentine’s Day cards. In our neighborhoods and among our friends and family, we have switched our greeting from, “Merry Christmas!” to, “Happy New Year!” The world has moved on from Christmas, and yet, the Church is still dwelling in Christmastide – in fact we celebrate not just one day, but the famous twelve days of Christmas. Our celebrations continue until those wise men arrive on the 6th, when we transition to Epiphanytide. Today, after stories of shepherd, angels, and the holy family, we find ourselves not wondering what is next, but instead still pondering what has just happened.
For a reflection on what happens in Jesus’ birth, what better text than John’s prologue? John takes us out of the stable, and invites us not to just consider the miracle of that holy night, but to consider the miracle of a God who takes on human flesh for us. And so, instead of telling us about the earthly beginning of Jesus’ life, John takes us all the way back to the beginning of all things – that creative moment when the Word and God are together, making all life come into being. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The words sound beautiful, and John’s text is rich with meaning and interpretation. But John’s words are also a little circuitous, repetitive, and a bit difficult to understand without reading them multiple times over. The familiarity and beauty of the words may be soothing, but the meaning of those words sometimes eludes us.
As I sat pondering these words this week, I found myself drawn again to Rembrandt’s painting, “Holy Family,”[i] In the foreground of the painting, Mary, who is bathed in light, has a well-worn book, perhaps scriptures, lying on her lap, held in place by one hand, as though she has been reading the book intently. Her face, however is turned away from the weathered book, as her other hand lifts a blanket that is covering a cradle, revealing a sleeping, contented Jesus. Behind Mary and Jesus, in much fainter light, Joseph is standing over a piece of wood that he is intently planing. Meanwhile, in the top left corner of the painting, young cherubim are hovering around the scene with outstretched arms.
What I like so much about the painting is that Mary gives us a clue about how we are to understand John’s beautiful, but convoluted words today. First, I am intrigued by the way Mary clutches her well-worn book. In looking at her book’s worn edges, I am reminded of the Bible I used for my Education for Ministry class several years ago. In EFM, you spend two years reading through the Old and New Testaments. I remember how my homework for the class instructed me to highlight certain passages in different colors so I could track the different contributors to a text. I remember writing notes in the margins of passages that stood out, held particular meaning, or raised questions. I remember certain pages being soiled by the meal I tried to cram in while finishing my assigned reading for a particular session. That Bible looked like a Bible someone actually lived with as opposed to the clean, commemorative ones I have on many of my shelves.
That is the way I imagine Mary treating her worn book. As the one who ponders things in her heart, I imagine Mary also ponders scripture in her heart. I imagine she pours over the texts as she looks for words to explain her experiences with Jesus or as she simply longs for words to describe her feelings toward the God who had done something so tremendous in her life. As Mary seeks to understand the Word made flesh, perhaps she returns again and again to the words of scripture, trying to discern their meaning. And given that she is a faithful Jew, she probably also does that pouring over scripture with her faith community, as they seek to always hear God’s word for the people. Her community probably turns back to that creation narrative over and over again. Her community probably turns back to the Law of Moses over and over again. Her community probably turns back to the prophets over and over again.
Given her longing for scriptural insight, Mary likely would have appreciated John’s text today, even though John’s gospel was not written until about 60 years after Jesus’ death. She would have already known the stories of Luke and Matthew because they are her story. But our text by John today is an attempt to help all of us understand the magnificence of what happens when God takes on human flesh. In fact, if Mary had been reading John, I imagine that the last line we hear is what draws her attention away from her well-worn book to look at the Christ Child himself in Rembrandt’s painting. John writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
Perhaps this text is why Rembrandt depicts Mary’s eyes wandering back to that cradle, her hand pulling back the blanket, and her mind not just worrying like any mother does over an infant, but her mind also worrying about what God is doing in this child of hers. She wants to do more than read the words on the paper – she wants to read the Word, with a capital “W,” in her life. She wants to gaze at the Word made flesh, who shines light into that dimly lit room and into the world. She wants to not only know the Law of Moses, but to know the grace and truth that comes directly from the Word incarnate.
What Rembrandt depicts in his painting is perhaps where we find our invitation from John’s gospel lesson today. In order to understand John’s language, we too are invited to create our own dialogue between the Word of Scriptures and the Word made flesh. Studying both Holy Scripture and the Holy Child is how we come to understand challenging texts like John’s gospel. For some of us, that invitation may seem as muddy as John’s gospel. But what Mary does in Rembrandt’s painting is available for us today too. We can “develop a richer, fuller faith by tending both to the Word through words and to the Word made flesh, the Christ who is with us in the sacraments, with us in prayer, with us in our church, with us in our friends, with us in the stranger, and with us in creation, since ‘all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’”[ii]
For those of you still wondering what this life pattern still looks like, consider the ways in which we already live into this balance. When we reach into our pockets a little deeper for those families in our neighborhood who are just struggling to put gas in the car and food on the table, honoring the holy in one another, we then turn back to Holy Scripture that tell us to care for the poor. When we care for one another in this community, sharing our deepest pains and struggles, we then turn to back to Holy Scripture as we struggle to find words to verbalize our understanding of God in that pain and struggle. When we come to this table, and consume the body of Christ in the bread, we then turn to Holy Scripture to understand what the Word became flesh means. We gather today as a community of faith, both clutching the Word in Holy Scripture, and clutching Word in the Christ Child, knowing that we can never fully understand one without the other. Amen.
[i] C. 1645.
[ii] Thomas H. Troeger, “Homliletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 193.