proclus and the prologue II

(cyprian, 2nd Sunday after Christmas)

I feel like I didn’t really start to understand the true meaning of Christmas until I moved to Arizona. I remember clearly driving down Greenway Avenue in north Phoenix, passing by Our Lady of the Valley Church overflowing with cars on Christmas morning and suddenly realizing that there was no snow, no sleigh bells, no Jingle Bells. There was still Santa Claus, but even he didn’t make as much sense in the sunny desert at 90 degrees Farenheit. I kind of get annoyed at the bumper stickers that like to remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” because they sound a lot more angry and strident than evangelical, but yes, that’s right. I really got that when the secular commercial trappings were taken away. Yes, but that is only the first step.

I feel like I got another step closer to understanding Christmas here in the monastery. Finally I was in a place where not only did we savor every last drop of Advent––in other words, we didn’t start Christmas until after December 17th and the we started singing the O Antiphons––but also we kept on celebrating the whole season of Christmas. I even felt justified in not sending out my Christmas cards until January 6th. At the same time––and I am aware of this even more as the one who plans the music and the readings for our liturgies––it’s kind of hard to keep celebrating Christmas as long as the Church wants us to, while all the world is getting ready for the President’s Day sale… This year I was thinking, liturgically speaking, Christmas is kind of a like a distant relative who comes to visit, one who’s really fun and entertaining, but then stays too long. Three or four days later you’ve run out of things to talk about, and there’s jolly old Uncle Nick still sitting at the kitchen table waiting for his cup of tea and telling the same stories over and over again. But that makes me, and asks us to, and the Church asks us to, go deeper. After we’ve read the charming stories about Jesus’ birth from Matthew and the whole infancy narrative of Luke, we then get asked to listen to the Prologue of John, not once, not twice, but this year three times!

This reading that we heard the other day from Proclus of Constantinople was really helpful to me: “Christ did not become divine by advancement… Christ was always divine, but became human… We do not preach a deified human being; we confess an incarnate God…”[1] The other day I preached on this and talked about this idea of God descending, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, Sophia, descending. That, by the way, is what the kenosis hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that we sing every Saturday night, is really about. Yes, it’s about the human Jesus emptying himself out in service, emptying himself of his own will, but it’s mainly God the Word’s action of kenosis. Remember that Christian Wiman quote that we used several times already. Wiman says that the term kenosis “refers to the kind of self-emptying that God” in Jesus “performed in both the incarnation and the crucifixion.” In the Incarnation that Person, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, emptied himself––or maybe we could say Sophia emptied herself––of godliness to be human. And so Proclus explains that Jesus doesn’t earn his divinity, work for his divinity, become divine along the way. At least that’s what orthodox Christianity teaches. Jesus was divine all along, even though we could say as a human Jesus grew in grace and strength, and even came to understand the implications of that as a human being would. But it doesn’t end there. Yes, Jesus was not a deified human being; he was God incarnate. But the whole purpose of this is so that we can be deified human beings. Jesus was the incarnate God, not a deified human being. But we can be deified human beings! That’s as good a description of the telos of Christian life as any I’ve heard.

This Prologue of John is a hymn really, and it seems to be modeled on older hymns, hymns to Wisdom. And so this week we hear one of those hymns to Wisdom from the Book of Sirach as the first reading in which Wisdom praises herself.[2] ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High…’ We should hear this on the lips of Jesus, the Word made flesh! (This, by the way is the basis of the first O Antiphon: “O Wisdom from the mouth of the Almighty God come forth…”)th

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the high places, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud… Then the Creator of all things gave me a commandment and the one who had created me assigned a place for my tent, and he said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob…’

Indeed some translations of this Prologue echo the image from this Sirach hymn and are rendered, more literally from the Greek The Word of God became flesh and pitched his tent among us. A New Testament rendering of this might be ‘make your place not just in Jacob but make your place among and within human beings.’

Forgive me if this gets too pedantic, but there is something important about the literary structure of this hymn. It’s built is what called a chiasm, and the message is hidden in the middle of the hymn. Imagine in your mind a scheme A-B-C-D-A-B-C. Most of the time when we tell stories (or even jokes) the “punch line” is at the end. (I always remember the stories we read in school that ended like, “And that man grew up to be Abraham Lincoln!”) Even the parables: the moral meaning is at the end. But in a chiasm, the meaning is in the middle. So first we hear about the Word and the light (1-5); and then we heard about John the Baptist (7-8); and then we hear the world did not accept him (9-11). Then comes the punch line, in the middle, which I will hold off on for a moment. Then we hear about the Word again (13-14); and then John again (15) and about what happens to those who do accept him (16). What’s in the middle?

But to all who receive him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh, or human will, but [born] of God.

That’s the center of this hymn scholars tell us, the climax, the main point of this prologue. This event took place so that we could have the power to become children of God. This is what we have said about Jesus, that he was a Son, a child, an offspring, and we to can be and in some way already are in Christ.

The way Abhishiktananda explained it Jesus exploded the biblical idea of ‘father’ and of ‘Son of God’ to the extent of calling God ‘Abba,’ which is the name, which in Aramaic only the one ‘born from’ him can say to anyone. And so we too: as Jesus identified with the ‘I AM’ of the Father, so we identify with the ‘I AM’ of Jesus: … to all who receive him, who believed in his name, he gives power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh, or human will, but of God. In case you’re thinking that this is a bunch of New Age hooey, this is echoed in Preface III of the Nativity of the Lord:

… through him the holy exchange that restores our life shone forth today in splendor: when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor, by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal!

And so we are treated to this reading too from the Letter to the Ephesians. Just as this Word/Sophia was at play beside God all the while,[4] so God chose us in him before the world began…God destined us in love to be his children through Jesus…[5]

Just as Paul says that in Jesus the fullness of godhead dwelt bodily, he goes on to say and you have come to fullness in him, so the Prologue ends (did Paul and John talk this through?) and from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. Grace upon grace? What does that mean? There is already grace in our having been born, even of blood, even of human will. But as that great piece of Thomistic theology loves to remind us, grace builds on, but does not destroy, but builds on nature. Grace upon grace!

Yes, Jesus is the reason for this season, but you could equally, justifiably say that we are the reason for the season, so that we can become children of God; so that we can identify with the I AM of Jesus; in Paul’s words, so that we, wild olive shoots that we are, can be grafted on to the vine to share the richness[6]; so that (how many times have I quoted this?) we may share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity. This is why the ancients put together the visit of the Magi and the Baptism in the Jordan at the end of the Christmas season with the wedding feast of Cana: the water of our humanity is changed into the wine of divinity. That’s supposed to be the normal course of things.

This is the reason for the season. I don’t want to correct St. Proclus; I just want to finish his thought. Christ did not become divine by advancement; Christ was always divine, but became human. So we do not preach Jesus as a deified human being; we confess Jesus as an incarnate God, but a God who became incarnate so that we could become deified human beings. “By this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal.”

[1] Word In Season, vol. I [1987], 148.

[2] Sir 24:1ff.

[4] Prov 8.

[5] Eph 1:3-6.

[6] Rom 11:24.

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