Homily for Sunday, December 31, 2017
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” — John 1:14
Always on the First Sunday after Christmas—always!—the lectionary swings briefly through the orbit of John before rocketing off to one of the Synoptics for the bulk of Epiphany. I think the lectionary brings us to John not so much because by this time the Gospels’ few infancy narratives have already been read during the Masses for Christmas Day, but rather to increase the chances that our trajectory for the coming year will be at least tinged with—if not wholly consumed by—not just joy, but glory.
This is a homily about that elusive thing about which John speaks in this morning’s Gospel: glory. And—because they’re all connected—about John and Jesus and sorrow and joy. But I don’t want to begin there. Instead, I want to begin with swifts—the birds— in particular swifts as written about by Charles Foster, the English naturalist. You may have heard of Foster, who by his own admission is “a gnat’s breath away from psychosis.” Foster spent six weeks living underground to better understand what it was like to be a badger. He got naked and shot down rapids and slithered through the grass and tried to catch fish in his teeth to learn what it might be like to be an otter (which, he says, “is like being on speed,” and not in a good way.) To try to understand what it was like to be a deer, Foster let his toenails grow long and allowed himself to be hunted through the woods by bloodhounds.
Of swifts, Mr. Foster writes the following:
There are two classes of words commonly applied to swifts: words about ethereality, and violent words. They are not contradictory. The violence makes the ethereal accessible. Swifts lay open the sky so that we can go there. They slash the veil. If the swifts didn’t come, we’d be stuck with what we’ve got.
(In case you’re wondering… To research swifts, Foster spent hours in tree tops and in paragliders, and ate mouthfuls of gnats.)
Getting back to John’s gospel… I think the lectionary intentionally swings us into John’s orbit at the beginning of the Church’s year in order to “lay open the sky so that we can go there,” as it were. To remind us of the heights and depths, the peaks and precipices, the wideness and wildness that is possible in life lived with God. A wideness which John perhaps more than any other book in Scripture spreads before us. John’s emblem, after all, is the eagle, chosen because—as the ancients believed—eagles had the ability to fly close to the sun while yet keeping their eyes open.
And the two classes of words commonly applied to swifts might well be applied to John: “ethereal” and “violent.” “Ethereal” because of the soaring, open quality of John. Consider this morning’s lesson with its language of: “the beginning,” and God, and light and truth and fullness, and “the Father’s heart,” which it hints that, in Jesus, we just might draw close to. Reading this extraordinary passage—a passage that my New Testament professor called “the most majestic in all of Scripture”—we can almost feel the vortices and updrafts, the swirling winds and eddies, that give the gospel its icon.
And “violent” because the entirety of the gospel is set within the framework of the Hebrew Day of Atonement. When Jesus claims to be “the light of the world” and “the bread of life,” for example, he is making a virtual walk of the very walk the high priest would have taken on the Day of Atonement, past the lampstand, past the table of showbread, and into the heart of the Temple. And when Jesus is anointed with perfumed nard just before his crucifixion, he is walking past the altar of incense before entering the Holy of Holies where Jesus, “the Lamb of God,” atones for our sins.
John’s ethereal words and violent words “are not contradictory. The violence makes the ethereal accessible.” Jesus’ sacrifice—as violent a death as we humans could possibly die—enables us to draw “close to the Father’s heart”—as extraordinary an experience as we humans could possibly experience. Like swifts laying open the sky and slashing the veil, so does Jesus’ death lay open the way for us to go to the Father. In a strange, strange juxtaposition, incomparable violence opens the way to unfathomable joy. Which for John is, along with peace, one of the graces of resurrection.
It is fitting to remember now, even though it is Christmas, Jesus’ death and resurrection. The whole reason this “Lamb of God” has come into the world is to be “lifted up,” as John puts it—to be crucified! Our artistic heritage readily combines these two, Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ Passion. In the East, icons of the Nativity show Jesus wrapped tightly in swaddling bands… or are those grave cloths? In the West, it is not unusual for one of the lambs in the manger scene to be shown asleep in the corner… or, given its prone position, maybe it is not sleeping but dead? And it is fitting now, as we consider joy, to also consider sorrow, for as “ethereal” and “violent” are readily combined in John, so does John combine sorrow and joy. Is there any sorrow in the Gospels like unto the sorrow of, say, those mourning for Lazarus (in John)? Or John’s poignant scene of the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross. Or the sorrow of Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb? Or imagine the immense sorrow of the Johannine community in the first century: a community that was deeply, profoundly Jewish, and yet they were put out from the synagogue, cut off from family and friends, on account of their belief in Jesus. John knows about sorrow. And I suspect his experience of sorrow deepens his capacity to know joy. The two are connected.
Which offers us hope. Just as the annual arrival of the swifts remind Charles Foster that we’re not “stuck with what we’ve got,” so does John’s Gospel and its strange combination of the ethereal and the violent, of sorrow and joy, open up for us the possibility of… even more. Perhaps the best way to express this “even more” is to use Foster’s language for swifts….
John opens for us the possibility—these are all images from Foster—of winds rolling across topography like the surf, striking walls and hills and surging upwards in great gusts of splash. John opens the possibility of winds rushing through the trees and over the mountains and across oceans and continents, winds upon which the swifts make spectacular migrations. John opens up vortices and chimneys and “stalks of air that are huge writhing rivers” in which we can become as a swift—or as an eagle—winging our way skillfully, playfully to experience not just joy but something even more all-encompassing than joy: Jesus’ glory, the “glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
This bolt from John, this flash of wing and shock of wind that is in our lectionary this morning, I wonder if it might help us over the coming year to keep an “eagle eye” on the horizon, not merely of joy, but also of glory. With Jesus there is no need to “be stuck with what we’ve got,” be it sorrow or violence, or ethereality or even joy. John has slashed the veil… and laid open the sky so that we can go there. So that we can experience it all: right here, right now, in this life! So that we can be fully alive with Jesus’ “life abundant!” John has laid open the sky so that we can go there!