“The word became flesh and lived among us.” Those are some of the most radical words ever uttered. You’ve probably heard them many times, as have I. But do you realize that John is announcing the birth of a new creation in the midst of the old? As we celebrate the birth of God into human history once again, it strikes me that we are standing at a moment of history when we need to believe in God’s new creation more than ever. John’s prologue is inviting us to a much more radical new beginning than we are used to. John’s beginning evokes the opening words of the Genesis version of creation, but goes beyond it in ways we need to hear this year.
In the Genesis version the beginning was about bringing order to a formless earth covered in water. Light was separated from darkness; water from land; earth from sky. It was acceptable that darkness would overcome light. It did so every night. It was the way things were ordered, and that was called good. In John’s version the beginning was more radical. It involved the Word bringing all things into being before there was any order. Light shines in the darkness and was not overcome. People are given power to become children of God. The Word becomes flesh. God is revealed for all to see. But an important new feature is added: those charged with maintaining order didn’t welcome the creative word.
The Gospel actually distances creation from order. According to John, the Word had always been in the ordered world but not of it. The ordered world did not receive the creative word. The Gospel story fills in the details of what these verses introduce: the ordered world violently rejected Jesus; and Jesus suffered that violence voluntarily on the cross in order to give birth to a new creation: a life that has nothing to do with the forces of death.
Let me show you what I mean. John describes a beginning that couldn’t have been predicted, but that can be rejected and resisted. Unlike the first creation, the New Creation can be rejected and can voluntarily suffer. And each of us faces with that choice - will we receive or reject the new creation? So the new creation is both more fragile and vulnerable than the old one, and more decisive and inevitable than we think. Ordered structures often work against freedom. The 20th century showed us that clearly –whether with communism, capitalism, Nazism or Fascism. Only a creation that can be rejected is free.
So both John’s Gospel and history itself reveal that bringing order to chaos is not so much the work of creation as it is the result of human violence. The order of this world does not correspond to God’s order, since those who obey God are persecuted in this world. For the entire history of the world, human beings have used violence to try to maintain order. Cain murdered Abel in an attempt to avenge what he saw as an unfair advantage and to restore an order of equality between brothers. It was also in the service of order that Jesus was put to death. This was clearly stated by Caiaphas, the high priest: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed … so from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
It becomes a choice, and a difficult one. The creation that Jesus revealed keeps revealing itself in the midst of the disordered orderliness of the present creation. We need pictures of this new creation, because it always emerges like a little sapling rather than a full grown plant. One picture that continues to inspire me comes from the story of two hospitalized children. Both are 8 years old. One is Palestinian; the other Israeli. They were in neighboring rooms in the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem since they were severely injured. The boy, Orel, the Israeli Jew, literally had half his brain blown away by a Hamas rocket, fired from Gaza into his hometown. Marya, the Palestinian Muslim from Gaza was paralyzed by a missile dropped from an Israeli jet during an assassination mission.
Half of Orel’s brain is gone. When he arrived at the hospital a year ago, he could not hear, see, talk or walk. Now he does them all haltingly. Marya’s spinal cord was broken at the neck and she can move only her head; she moves her wheelchair by pushing a button with her chin. Orel and Marya have been next-door neighbors for nearly a year. They talk, watch television and explore the world together, wandering into each other’s homes without a second thought. Marya likes Orel’s mother’s eggplant dish. Orel likes Marya’s father’s rice and lamb. Someone forgot to tell them that they are enemies.
Although the kids play instead of understanding the prolonged fight over land and identity that divides people in Israel/Palestine, their parents do understand and nevertheless have developed a kinship that the reporter describes as defying national struggle. “The wounds of our children, their pain, our pain, have connected us,” noted Angela Elizarov, Orel’s mother. She says about Marya’s father, Hamdi Aman. “Does it matter that he is from Gaza and I am from Beersheba, that he is an Arab and I am a Jew? It has no meaning to me. He sees my child and I see his child.” He said, “I have never felt there was a difference among people — Jews, Muslims, Christians — we’re all human beings. I worked in Israel for years and so did my father. We know that it is not about what you are but who you are. And that is what I have taught my children.” (A Mideast Bond, Stitched of Pain and Healing, By ETHAN BRONNER)
The story of these two families doesn’t change the basic reality of life in Palestine. Each side of the conflict will continue to avenge the killings by the other side, even when that only brings more violence. But the story does offer a glimpse into the new beginning Jesus introduced into the world: an act of creation that brings to existence and makes possible a human living together that does not know death. We only get glimpses of it; but we are invited to fan the flames, to blow on the embers such that the flame stays alive.
The new creation is never as clear as the old one, so we tend to settle for the old one. Living in the new creation begun in Jesus is a tentative one; that is less attractive than the solid footing offered by the old creation. The old creation is more orderly as well. The new one can be rather chaotic. The people who observed Jesus and John first hand always found something to criticize. “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” The guardians of order had to find something that didn’t fit in order to reject the new creation. And they always can, because the new order never looks orderly at first. These same guardians of order were the ones who put Jesus to death – the very one who brought creation into being – because they considered his life disorderly and chaotic. But what we label as chaotic or demonic or excessive is often an emerging order that hasn’t been discerned yet.
So there is both a gift and a choice in Jesus’ entering history. On the one hand, John affirms that in Jesus the true creation entered history and pitched a tent in our neighborhood – full of grace and truth. And according to John, whether we accept him or not the gift is ours: “we all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift.” On the other hand, if we want to be called Children of God, who are born like Jesus was – of God, not of the will of flesh or humanity – then we have to receive the Word, no matter how strange and threatening it may sound. That’s why what Mary did is so important for all who are children of God. She said yes to God, and so gave birth to the very newness that empowers us to do the same. We show that we are born of God not by becoming less human and more divine, but by expressing our full humanity by moving the new creation a little closer to fullness.
And John insists that this is something radically new: “The law came through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.” The new creation must move beyond the orderliness of law. It is always risky to do so, and a little chaotic. And it will often be rejected, as Jesus the word was rejected. But it is necessary to move beyond orderliness.
Where is the unsettling new creation invading your peaceful existence on this Christmas morning? Are you resisting it or receiving it? Are you trying to impose a false order on it or discern the order in the chaos?