Tuesday November 30, 2021
Katie Snipes Lancaster
John 1:2 He was with God in the beginning.
Reflection on the Nativity
Does your family speak in code? Can the mention of just a word, or phrase, that summon whole stories? Maybe it’s a movie quote, a song lyric, a detail from a family vacation twenty summers ago? At my house, if you’re unnecessarily and dramatically pouty, we might say, “you are Charlie-Brown-ing it” referencing A Charlie Brown Christmas where he sulks, head down, to somber theme music (we might add, “of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brown-i-est” quoting Lucy, emphatically). If we pass I-57, you might hear us ask each other if we should take a quick trip to Memphis (an inside joke referring to the time 10 years ago when two people on a motorcycle cut us off suddenly to exit onto I-57 and we created an entire imagined story about how they really needed to get to Memphis down I-57, stat).
Similarly, scripture has its own insider language and story references. This second verse from the Gospel of John echoes the more ancient words of wisdom literature, summoning Wisdom (personified as Sophia) who sees herself too, with God in the beginning. Wisdom-Sophia can be found across the Old Testament, but the most explicit connection between Wisdom-Sophia and the Logos-Jesus in John’s Gospel comes here: Wisdom herself says, “The Lord created me at the beginning… ages ago I was set up at first, before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22–23). The writer of John’s gospel is intentionally tethering Jesus to this time-honored sacred text.
Scholar James Dunn explains that “the first Christians were ransacking the vocabulary available to them in order that they might express as fully as possible the significance of Jesus” and so we should not be surprised that John recycles language to make his point. The gospel writers were trying to connect the dots between the sacred experiences of their ancestors and the equally here-and-now and long-ago Jesus Christ in whom we can place our trust.
What does this all say about prayer?
1. Maybe you have your own insider language with God? For some, just walking into Kenilworth Union can summon decades of holy moments. For others turning off the radio on the drive to work can evoke a hundred other prayer-soaked commutes. For me looking at the palms of my hands when I hear the words, “Let us pray,” can connect me instantly to prayer circles long past with people I’ve loved who have since joined the saints of light, or whose faith still impacts me even though I haven’t seen them since I was 11 years old. Embrace the practices that kindle God’s nearness.
2. Maybe you also ransack the vocabulary available to you in order to draw near to God? I borrow the language of the poets in order to pray. I sing dinner prayers from sacred worship and/or summer camp in order to bless our shared meal. I dig deep into prayer anthologies to connect to the God who whispered love to the ancestors of our faith. We need not speak the “right words” in order to pray, we just need to open our mouths, or our hearts, or even just feel the breath deep in our bellies in order to connect to the one who was “with God in the beginning.”
Stray thoughts: In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that Jesus is “Immanuel” which means God-with-us, but here in the Gospel of John, that seems almost turned on its head: Jesus is the Word who has been (always, since the beginning) with-God. Matthew bends God toward us in the person of Jesus Christ. John bends Jesus toward God so that we might trust that his presence is sacred. Both are such potent uses of the word “with,” and it reminds me why we treasure the multiplicity of the many gospel renditions retelling Jesus’ story.
Praying the Nativity
Bring forth your presence, O Christ.
For we seek you in your proximity to God.
Your impossible nearness grounds us.
Our hearts are full.