First Sunday after Christmas - December 31, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 + Psalm 148 + Galatians 4:4-7 + Luke 2:22-40
Behold! I bring you tidings of great joy: for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! My sisters and brothers, I speak to you today + in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
Today’s gospel raises what Hans Urs von Balthasar contends is the decisive theological question posed to humanity throughout the ages. Namely, whether God has spoken in history in a revelatory and self-communicative way or (as von Balthasar puts it) the “Absolute remains the Silence [far] beyond all the words of the world.” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Christian Meditation, 1984 [ET 1989], 7.)
Every religious and spiritual tradition begins with this question: Has God spoken? And if so, how? The Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have decided emphatically, and somewhat uniquely, in favor of the former, though each of the Abrahamic faiths differ on how that self-communication (or, ‘revelation’) of God has unfolded in history. By contrast, many of the noble Eastern meditative traditions epitomized in Buddhism, for example, assumes the latter. This, of course, makes sense in a non-theistic tradition in which the existence of God is not as much patently denied as it is simply unaddressed.
The upshot, however is that, within Buddhism truth is not aided by, much less grounded in, the self-communication of God (what we typically call “revelation”), but is rather derived from deep introspective practices by which one trains oneself to see reality for what it is and thereby liberate themselves from suffering and its fundamental causes. One therefore “achieves” enlightenment when one has arrived at a lucid observation of Reality as it really is. I will return to this idea of “achieving” enlightenment momentarily, but for the moment, suffice it to say that whatever we might think of these divergent convictions between the theistic traditions of Abraham and the non-theistic traditions of the East. In the end, whether there is a God who is self-revealing in history (or not!) makes all the difference as to how we frame and construct our spiritual lives.
The sublimely beautiful opening of John’s gospel we heard today (undoubtedly among the most christologically rich verses in all the New Testament), could not be more emphatic in its conviction that the Eternal Word (who is God and who “dwelt among us” in Jesus of Nazareth) is precisely that divine self-communication, given in a historical, radical, and definitive way:
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. 14And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This sublime hymn to the divine Christ concludes in John 1:18, where he 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.” That phrase, “who has made him known” is literally in Greek, “auto exegesato.” Exegesato: where we get the word “exegesis” from. Exegesis literally means “to draw meaning out of” something, or more simply, “to interpret” something. So, the conclusion of John’s hymn literally professes Jesus precisely as the Eternal Word-made-Flesh, interprets God for us. Jesus is the explanation of God.
This is a radical, and frankly ‘exclusive,’ claim about Jesus as Word that makes little sense when relativized as “one truth among many” in the history of world religions because it undermines the very basis, indeed the very reason for Christianity’s existence. Let me be clear here: while I understand and appreciate the progressive values of inclusivity and universality, any attempt to relativize John’s claim here – and that of the entire Christian tradition – by claiming that Jesus represents one equally valid “truth” among many, is to inevitably and unavoidably undermine the very basis of the Christianity’s entire reason for existence. But wait! It gets even more radical than that, and I will circle back to what I know most of you are already getting nervous about: Exclusivity!
But what you first need to hear is the irrationality (indeed the complete irreconcilability) of the claims we often glibly make about ‘all truths being equal’ for the sake of political correctness or worse, insipid forms of interreligious dialogue that can ultimately agree on nothing but the lowest common denominator of a shared commitment to eco-human well-being. The radicalism of the incarnation we celebrate par excellence in the season of Christmas is an unavoidably exclusive claim that Jesus is the very embodiment of God as Word-Made-Flesh. Not merely a messenger, but the message itself. Not ‘merely’ one prophet or sage among many prophets and sages who are all speaking to the same truth (in whatever distinctive ways), but rather is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God” (cf. Nicene Creed). Or again, as we will celebrate with resounding joy in our closing hymn today:
“Late in time behold him come, offspring of the virgin womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity
pleased as man with us to dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel!”
(cf. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”)
To sing this, to pray it, and to mean it, while at the same time relativizing the very radicalism of the claims made of the doctrine of the Incarnation, is nothing less than an attempt to have our cake and eat it too. One cannot sincerely hold both truths simultaneously. Nor do we have to. Ironically and more so, paradoxically, there is something precisely in John’s language about Jesus as “WORD” that opens an unexpected appreciation of the world’s religious diversity: one that remains faithful to the exclusive revelation of Jesus Christ, while, at the same time, remaining sincere in our respect for the truth claims of other faith traditions and what we might learn from them.
Central to John’s understand of Christ as the Eternal Word made flesh is the directionality of the Word: the Word issues forth. The Word -- that is to say Very God of Very God – comes to us as the very power of creation through which all things are made and in the very person Jesus of Nazareth.
So, I am attempting here to keep us honest. To have us look more closely and authentically at the profound beauty and power and radicalism of the gospel claims about Jesus, while showing that our very understandable and noble desire to ‘be inclusive’ cannot be achieved by undermining what is the most transformative truth of our own tradition: that God has indeed revealed the divine self in the arena of human history and has done so in the most radical way possible in the incarnation.
I will examine this paradox through the often-evoked metaphor of the Mountain, in which many of us in the West attempt to suggest that there are many paths (i.e., religious traditions) leading to the same peak (i.e., God). Sounds fair enough in a progressive secular society, but as sure as I stand before you as a Christian priest and not a Buddhist monk or Vedanta Swami, it is dishonest, and does not, in fact, do justice to either Christianity or to, say, Buddhism.
In place of the mountain motif then, I want to propose the metaphor of an ‘hour glass’ by which we might suggest the sands of Divine Love descend though one channel from the upper globe to the lower: that is, from the eternal realms of heaven to the created realm of earth below.
The first difference I want you to notice between these two metaphors is the directionality of the movement: We ascend the mountain under our own effort in what we might think of as our quest for enlightenment. But the sands of the hour glass descend from above to below until the entire lower globe is full. This is what we might think of as the directionality of the Incarnation: The Word descends to us; we do not strive to reach the peak under our own efforts.
But the mountain metaphor fails within Buddhism as well. On the one hand, for example, the ‘mountain pathway’ motif makes sense of the Buddhist idea that by one’s efforts (i.e., meditative practices”) one can ‘scale the mountain’ or ‘achieve enlightenment’ (what we might call here ‘the peak’ of the mountain). Yet the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence and non-duality would suggest there is in fact no “peak” at which to arrive, no ‘essence,’ no ‘god’ with whom to achieve union. Indeed, one might argue that, for the Buddhist, there is no mountain in the first place, much less “a path” by which to traverse it.
And by contrast, within Christianity, the ‘one-mountain, many-pathways’ motif fails entirely on this question of divine directionality. It assumes, in other words, that we ‘can’ and ‘do’ scale the mountain in order to attain not enlightenment (as the peak represents within Buddhism) but union with God. But, in fact, what we are celebrating in this season of Christmastide is the exact opposite. And this is what I mean by ‘directionality.’ While Christianity may well be at home with the idea that there is indeed a ‘mountain’ and a ‘God’ represented by its peak, the image nevertheless fails for Christians because the very nature of revelation as ‘incarnation’ means (if nothing else) that union with God is achieved not because “we scale the mountain to reach union with God,” but because God has descended the mountain to achieve union with us.
Christ, as Word-Made-Flesh is the very “going forth” of God from God to us. It is the directionality of God-Come-to-Us that makes Christmas what it is. As Isaiah prophesied in 55:11:
…So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Everything about Jesus is “Word” (Von Balthasar, [ET 1989], 14): Everything about Jesus is all an exegesis of God; an embodied word that comes to us as love incarnate speaks to us in endless ways:
He speaks in the cries of an infant as he lay newborn in the manger.
He speaks in his parables and wisdom sayings, no less than in his condemnation of hypocrisy and injustice.
He speaks in his healings and exorcisms and miracles.
He speaks in his mute silence at the time of his trial and condemnation to death.
He speaks in his cries of dereliction on the cross, “my God my God why have you forsaken me?”
He speaks perhaps most clearly in the deafening silence from the tomb of Holy Saturday.
And he speaks in the triumphal joy of the resurrection.
Everything about Christ is “Word,” everything about Christ is “Divine Speech” because Christ is the eternal ‘issuing forth’ of God to us: “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.” This is the beauty of the Christian claim that we do well not to glibly undermine: We do not reach God, God reaches us. We do not search for God; God is forever in search of us. We do not need to strive for union with God, but need only accept the union wrought by God in Christ.
Here, the apparent paradox, “No one can come to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:16) is revealed as true not in any restrictive sense (“only Christians go to heaven” or more arrogantly still, “only Christians of such-and-such denomination go to heaven”) but in its most universal sense (everything in existence is itself a word of God, brought into being and ultimately revealing the One Word spoken by God through all eternity).
The entire lower globe of the hour glass is full to the brim with the sounds of Divine Love. It is precisely because there are not many paths to God but only one path by which God has come to us that the joy and hope of Christmas abounds. To claim that Christ is the only way to the Father is simply to claim that in Christ the distance between heaven and earth is already reduced to zero not by our own initiative but by the sending fourth of the Word into the very creation which sprang from it.
In the end, if Christianity is to be faithful to its most radical claim: That indeed the Word of God, spoken form all eternity has been made “flesh” and dwelt among us, then it can claim nothing for itself by way of privilege and everything of itself by way of responsibility. That is, it is not for Christians to be saved apart from the world, but rather it is for us to proclaim that on this day in Bethlehem the world itself has been saved and there is simply no way around that.
Keep striving, if you must, for salvation or enlightenment or union with all things. But know this: the Word has issued forth from all eternity and has spoken in human history: there is no longer any need to strive, no mountains to scale, no pathways to walk. There is only Christ “who is everything and who is in everything” (Col. 3:11). All that is left to do is rejoice. Only to accept and rejoice!
+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.