So the mystery began. Introduced by tangible, ancient writings which foretold the details of a Messiah’s coming. Given substance by a child’s verifiable birth. Witnessed by the music of the spheres as sung by angels. Confirmed by lowly shepherds and attested by star-crossed wisemen. Who knew the innermost secret of this mystery which endured its first day in the comfort of manger straw? No amount of philosophical speculation or theological investigation will reveal the man we know as Jesus.
I for one never put on my Christmas hat the day after Halloween, and certainly not before. That has to wait til the Friday after Thanksgiving when Christmas music finds its way to every musical outlet in my life. Outdoor decorations come next — after all, you never know when the weather may shift for the worse. Then come the tree, lights, candles, evergreen branches and whatever else my enthusiasm can conjure up. Maybe it’s a throwback to the excitement of my childhood. Maybe it’s that nebulous “Spirit of the Season.” Maybe it’s the warmth of family around the Advent wreath with the season’s recurring prayers. Whatever it is, I’m eager to be immersed in this winter holy day and all that comes with it.
It’s the day after Christmas (which may occur on the 26th or anytime up through January 1st) which is a bit troubling — sort of like that old song: “The party’s over. It’s time to call it a day.” Fortunately, the church has arranged its liturgical year to let us down more gently than secular society would have it. First we get the extension of the feast of Christmas through the next eight days. That is followed by the acclaim of Mary as the Mother of God and the remembrance of the coming of the wise men just a few days later. Only then do we enter into “ordinary time,” the period John calls “the last hour” and Paul calls “the end times.”
In any case, as the joyous noise of Christmas bells slowly fades, it seems particularly appropriate that we should turn from the wonder of a newborn child to the more sobering life of the troubled world we live in and the mystery which now envelopes it. To that end we are offered readings that demand reflection and meditation rather than celebration.
Matthew introduced the Messiah’s birth with a genealogy he traced back to Abraham. Luke followed his infancy narrative with a genealogy he traced back to Adam. So Matthew makes sure his readers knew that Jesus was a Jew, while Luke made sure his readers knew that Jesus was truly human. John takes it one step further, taking Jesus’ origins back past Abraham, back past Adam, back into a time which precedes time. He wants his readers to know that Jesus is truly God.
The Word was God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only-begotten Son,
full of grace and truth.
So the mystery began. Introduced by tangible, ancient writings which foretold the details of a Messiah’s coming. Given substance by a child’s verifiable birth. Witnessed by the music of the spheres as sung by angels. Confirmed by lowly shepherds and attested by star-crossed wisemen. Who knew the innermost secret of this mystery which endured its first day in the comfort of manger straw?
Only in the wildest fantasy’s of mythological religions had a God become man. Not til Pentecost we’re the disciples convicted of the truth of Jesus’ divinity which, even then, remained a mystery for them. The early church struggled with those who were intent upon putting parameters on the mystery. The range of speculation was prodigious. The proffered solutions were boundless. Was Jesus really a man or only pretending to be a man? Did he have one nature or two; or . . . were there two blended into an entirely new, but singular nature. One will or two wills? One mind or two minds? One person or two persons? Which one suffered — the human or the divine? The consequent battles of those days, both physical and intellectual, might lead one to believe that theology and philosophy had been abruptly appropriated by Satan for his own purposes. Faced with mystery, some tried to solve the unsolvable rather than simply knowing the knowable.
To all appearances the questions and challenges were posed for the same purpose as similar questions posed by modern mystery writers: who is the man behind the events we have heard of or witnessed? Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and a million others describe an event or events whose constituent elements suggest the convoluted, the secretive, or the impossible. The arrival of an infant on that night in Bethlehem suggests none of these, though the terms ‘wondrous,’ ‘amazing’ and ‘unexpected’ certainly come to mind. No amount of philosophical speculation or theological investigation will reveal the man we know as Jesus; for Jesus did not come to be a mystery, but to reveal the Father and the Father’s love.
The opening verses of John’s Gospel may seem to be abstract and intellectual because he opens with the line “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But, once we remember that his words were rooted in three years of experience and decades of reflection, we know that neither philosophy nor theology were the guideposts for what he wrote. He knew the man, the one called Jesus, the Christ. This same Jesus invites us to simply accept the wondrous mystery of his presence and to learn to know him and the Father’s love.