“In the beginning there was the WORD; the WORD was in the presence of the HOLY ONE, and the WORD was the HOLY ONE.” Even the word WORD carries meaning beyond the page. In the context of the prologue of the Gospel according to John. The word WORD is translated into English using a capitol W or in some translations in all-caps, to alert readers that the word Word is being used in a particular way. Words are powerful symbols which have the ability to capture the meaning of a thing. Or words can be used as symbols to point beyond themselves to something whose meaning cannot be captured by any word. As we have journeyed together exploring new ways of being Christian in this relatively new century, new ways of understanding have required us to find new words to express our images of the MYSTERY that cannot be captured with the word God. Finding words to use when we worship together has become more difficult. But nowhere is the task of finding words to express the inexpressibly more challenging than choosing hymns.
We love to sing together. Music moves us in ways that open us to the MYSTERY in which we live and move and have our being. Sadly, some of our favorite old hymns fail to express the freedom we have begun to discover in the LOVE that IS God. But the tunes, ah the tunes, the tunes continue to move us. Fortunately, we have been blessed with a multitude of new words to sing to those beloved old tunes. Sometimes those new words work well and sometimes not so well. Nowhere is that more apparent than during the Christmas season. The words to most Christmas Carols have been married to the tunes in ways that no one shall put asunder.
Take Silent Night for example. Christmas Eve just isn’t Christmas Eve unless we sing Silent Night. You hear the first few notes and memories come to light as the familiar words come back to us. Now there have been some splendid new verses that have been written to Silent Night which expand our images beyond “round young virgin mother and child” to capture the Cosmic nature of the incarnation.
Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Cir-cle the sun
Star-dust cy-cles through
Life abounds upon Earth
Life abounds upon Earth (by Keith Mesecher)
I love the imagery these words capture. I love the theology these words open us up to. These words give me a sense of the cosmos far beyond my childhood nativity images. But I can promise you now, that I would never dare to tinker with the words of Silent Night on Christmas Eve. The moment Marney’s fingers touch the keyboard, just the first few notes signify the beginning of a treasured nostalgic experience which cannot be tinkered with. From the very beginning of a tune, assumptions are made; assumptions which are inscribed in our very nature. So, just imagine the audacity of the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John, who dared to tinker with the most iconic beginning of all as far as his audiences were concerned. Remember, unlike 21st century worshippers, first century worshippers didn’t just commit hymns to memory, they committed the Hebrew Scriptures to memory. So, when our anonymous gospel-storyteller began his story with the words, “In the beginning” each and every one of his listeners would have been primed to hear what comes next… “In the beginning” Genesis, the very word Genesis translates as beginning. And so begins the prologue of our storytellers gospel of the life and times of the Joshua ben Joseph, you know Mary’s boy! “In the beginning” wait I know you think you know what comes next, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Ah, but think again. “In the beginning…wait for it…in the beginning there was the LOGOS.”
“LOGOS” is a wonderful Greek word, a word that we translate into English as “WORD”; that’s Word with a capitol W. But our English translation loses much of the meaning of this logos. In Greek the word logos is used to mean word, or reason, or logic. The best definition I have ever heard of the Greek word logos is a word which is so true to a thing that nothing comes between it and the thing. (Rev. Winnie Varghese) Logos is, if you will, a Word which captures the logic, the reason, the wisdom, the Sophia, the essence of the MYSTERY. In the beginning there was the LOGOS and the LOGOS was God. What is our storyteller trying to do with these carefully chosen words? What new beginning is he trying to get us to embrace. In the first century everyone would have understood that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Their minds would have already raced ahead to familiar words: “But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep—yet the Ruach of God was brooding over the surface of the waters.”
They would have expected to hear, “Then God said, “Light: Be! and light was, God saw that light was good….and on and on goes the familiar story. But not for our anonymous gospel-storyteller, who had the audacity, right from the very beginning to change the familiar words.
“In the beginning there was the LOGOS; the LOGOS was in God’s presence, and the LOGOS was Theos”….THEOS the Greek word which points to the MYSTERY which we call God. A new story, a new beginning, calls for new words, new words to capture new meaning, new words to point to LOGOS beyond our ability to capture.
Standing here, at the beginning of this New Year, which marks the beginning of a New Decade, we could sure use some new words to help us see beyond the words which are being bandied about. Everywhere we turn we are confronted with the same old story. Granted Herod has turned orange, but our current Herod, you know the orange fellow who lives in the temple they call the Whitehouse. He may be a new-fangled Herod, but it’s the same old story: violence, greed, pomposity, arrogance, and maybe even war. Orange is the new black as flames threaten to consume hectares and hectares of Australia. While Australia burns, and the Middle East simmers, we can’t help but shake our heads and wonder where to begin. In the beginning…of this new decade…what are we to do?
You know me well enough by now to know that I don’t really have an answer to this question. In the beginning of this new decade I do have a story to tell you. It is Sufi myth full of questions. The Sufi myth begins where Sufi myths often begin. It begins with a certain Sultan owned everything a man could wish for and still he did not know the purpose of life. The answer to three questions made his life difficult:
- What should I do?
- With which people should I do the things God asks me to do?
- When should I do it?
The Sultan asked the advice of all kinds of wise people, and then he was told that there was a Chishti dervish, who lived far away, and who might give him a satisfactory answer. The Sultan immediately left and after a journey of several weeks he met the dervish. The dervish was cultivating his own land. He was a simple man, but no simpleton, as he was reciting a Persian quatrain over and over again:
There is a work beyond knowledge, realize that, go!
Do not work to get jewels, be the mine, go!
The heart is a temporary abode, leave it and come!
The soul is the final abode, realize that, go!
The Sultan was however not interested in Persian poems and put his three questions to the dervish. The dervish did not answer him and continued with his work. The Sultan became angry and said: “Don’t you know who I am. I am the Sultan of Sultans”.
But this did not make any impression as well and the dervish continued doing what he was doing. A heavily wounded man suddenly appeared, and he dropped to the ground in front of the dervish. The dervish said to the Sultan: “Help me to carry this man to my place!”
“I’ll help you,” the Sultan said, “but will you answer my questions afterwards?”
“Later!” the dervish said and together they brought the wounded man to the hut of the dervish and took care of him.
“And now I’d like to receive the answers to my questions,” the Sultan said.
“You can return to your palace,” the dervish said, “because you have already received the answers to your questions. As to what to do, you should do what comes to you on your path. As to with whom you should do it, the answer is with those who are present. And as for the when to do it, you should do it the moment it takes place”. (Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah, 1967)
Friends, as we begin this new decade, orange may indeed be the new black. Darkness has descended with a distinctive orange hue. Herod is in the midst of a tantrum which threatens to unleash more violence and possibly war on untold millions. Australia is burning.
Words like “Happy New Year” don’t seem up to the task of point us toward the Shalom we long for. Peace seems beyond our reach. Justice for the Earth feels like a task of biblical proportion. How shall we begin this new year, this new decade?
In the beginning…surely you know what comes next…”Through the Word all things came into being, and apart from the Word nothing came into being that has come into being. In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light—a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness has never overtaken.”
On this new day, in this new year, in this new decade, in this new beginning, you are the light. What should we do? With whom should we do it? When should we do it?
In the beginning, may you do what needs doing with what comes to you on your path. May you do what needs doing with those who are there with you. May you do what is called for in the moment it takes place. In the words of the MYSTERY we call God, who in the beginning said, “Light! Be!” for God saw that light was good! Be the light of the world!