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Christmas - Proper III
December 25, 2006
There are aspects of the first chapter of the Gospel of John that are particularly process-friendly. John 1 is, of course, the incarnation text par excellence. What makes it so amenable to a process interpretation is that the incarnation of the Logos in the person of Jesus is not simply the invasion of a reality that is alien to the world; it stands, rather, in continuity with the presence of the Logos in all creation. The Logos is not only the agent through which God creates the world, but it is “the true light that enlightens everyone” (or, according to one way of translating v. 9. “the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world”). Vv. 10-13 may refer to Jesus, as the incarnation of the Logos, but it is also possible to understand them as referring to the presence of the Logos in all times and places. In any case, what becomes incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is an aspect of God is in fact universally present in the world.
V. 14 (“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. ”) is startling, both from Jewish and Hellenistic perspectives, since it could be seen as compromising the radical difference between the human and the divine. But it is for this very reason that it is so amenable to process thought. For God’s presence in Jesus as the Christ is not different in principle from God’s universal presence in the world. The entire world process, in fact, depends upon this presence in the form of the initial aims that God provides for every becoming occasion. One way to capitalize upon this affinity in a sermon would be to stress that what we celebrate at Christmas is a unique event from one perspective but a paradigmatic event from another perspective. For Christians, the Christ-event is unique, since it is through this one event that we have in fact come to know God in the particular way that defines Christian faith. It is paradigmatic, however, in the sense that it also opens our eyes to God’s presence in all human experience, both religious and secular. Whenever human beings experience a genuine sense of the holy that attunes them to the creation and to the humanity of other persons, and whenever they feel the lure to act for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation—that is, in a word, for the common good—then God is indeed present. We may legitimately say, then, that the good news we find in Christ is good news for all humanity, not just those who happen to belong to the community that knows God in this particular way.
Although the last verse in the reading from Isaiah 52 sounds a somewhat similar note by proclaiming that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God,” the meaning is significantly different from John’s proclamation of the presence of the Logos in all things. In Isaiah, the point is that God’s restoration of Zion will show to all the earth who really is God. The nations, in other words, will be forced to recognize the power of the LORD, who has loosed Jerusalem from the chains of its captivity. There is nevertheless an important point of contact between the passages by virtue of God’s universality. The restoration of Zion is not just a triumph over enemies, but a restoration of God’s peace (v. 7) on the earth, just as the light in John 1 is the light that shines throughout all creation. In any case, moreover, the book of Isaiah elsewhere acknowledges that the salvation God offers is for all nations (e.g. , 2:2-3; 49:6). And, on the other hand, the gospel of John has a strong strain of exclusivism, as we can see in 14:6: “no one comes to the Father except through me. ” From a process perspective, then, both texts to be brought into conversation with important insights gained from our modern/postmodern perspective in order to temper their exclusivist strains. This does not mean, however, that either should be stripped of their particularity. What we celebrate at Christmas is not just God’s universal presence, but the particularity of the disclosure of God that comes through Christ—a disclosure, moreover, that is inextricable from the experiences of ancient Israel out of which it grew. We can celebrate both the liberation of ancient Jerusalem and the appearance of the light that enlightens all creation in Jesus of Nazareth, even as we declare that the God of love and justice whom we know through both events is active in all times and places.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).