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~ The Last Word of Christmas ~
Augustine (AD 354-430) was the bishop of Hippo in the Roman province of North Africa. Although there must have been many others, he was the first Christian to make known the wisdom of regarding human experience as the starting point for reflecting on God. Much of our modern evangelical thinking puts our human experience aside in deference to the Scriptures...”It doesn’t matter what you feel, only what you believe.” Well, if I believe God loves me unconditionally and infinitely, and I don’t feel it, something is wrong with both my theology and my relationship with Him. Let us remember how intensely and profoundly the Psalter, the prayer book of the Scriptures, expresses the human experience ranging from despair and laying in the dust of the earth to exaltation and the beatific vision of the heavens.
Let me defer to Augustine’s wisdom for a bit: “John is the voice, but the Lord is ‘the Word who was in the beginning.’ John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever. Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart.
“However, let us observe what happens when we first seek to build up our hearts. When I think about what I am going to say, the word or message is already in my heart. When I want to speak to you, I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine.
“In my search for a way to let this message reach you, so that the word already in my heart may find place also in yours, I use my voice to speak to you. The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine.
“When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: ‘The word ought to grow, and I should diminish’? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: ‘My joy is complete.’ Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts” (Sermo 293, 3: PL 1328-1329).
The English alphabet has only 26 characters. I am arranging those 26 meaningless-in-themselves squiggly shapes into an essay that is able to deposit a little of what is in my heart and mind into yours. I try my best to put these 26 characters into a sequence that communicates my thoughts and you try your best to “read” them and assimilate them into your thoughts and heart. I’m not very good at translating my thoughts into these 26 squiggles we call “letters of the alphabet” and I know some readers aren’t that good at picking up on my translated thoughts since I think I’ve been misunderstood as much as understood, given some of the responses I received. It is a wonder and beauty that we can communicate the content of our hearts at all through sounds in the air and letters on a page.
The voice of John the Baptizer was not the Word. The glorious sounds of the great multitude of angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds was not the Word. These wondrous voices and sounds dissipate and are no longer heard. They “decrease so that He may increase.” “He” is the Word, the Incarnate of Yahweh, that is not characterized by sounds or letters, but by visceral Presence...for He is the Emmanuel, the “God with us.” The Word, the Spirit of the Christ, “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26b).
The letters of this Reflection, the sounds of music and worshipful proclamation, the sounds from the lips of the readers and preachers of Scripture in our services, having served their purpose, all must decrease so that the Word, the Emmanuel, the Presence, transcendent of all words and sounds, will “take heart” in us.
There is a time for joyous, worshipful song in jubilation. Christmas is indeed one of those times when we do that in communion as a people of Christ. But then there is that moment when we encounter not the words and lyrics about the Word, but the Word Himself, and feel the response of the apostle John: “His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:16b-17a, NIV). This is not the idyllic Christmas image of shepherds gazing lovingly upon the holy family in a stable. Image aside, Christ’s message profoundly penetrated the meaning of Christmas: “Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades’” (Revelation 1:17b-18, NIV). These are unacceptable words to many people, giving cause to persecution of those who do accept and embrace them. And to many others, they don’t sound like the words that would come out of the mouth of the baby Jesus lying in a manger. But they are, for He is the First and Last Word, “God with us”. And that is what Christmas is all about.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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Spiritual Resource Services © December 19, 2003
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