Christmas 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.
When I was working on the 150th Anniversary history of Saint James Church, I had a good deal of material at my disposal. One of the most important resources was the 100th anniversary history, the “gold book” as it used to be called because of its cover. Actually I had a copy of this book from long before I came to be Vicar at Saint James Church, left to me as a bequest from my brother-in-Christ William Bunting, who served over at Saint Andrew’s Church in the east Bronx for over thirty years.
The only problem with this “gold book” is that it is what historians call a “secondary source.” The authors of this book handed along to posterity their own understandings of all that went before, tinted by the views of what was important to them at the time they wrote Even concerning its own time, the 1950s, it turned out not to be a reliable source for me today, as folks were so accustomed to things of their own time — the 40s and 50s — they did not think it important to record them, since “well, everybody knows that.” So, fifty years later, some important information was no longer recoverable to me, now, because everybody back then, knew it at the time and no one thought it was necessary to write it down.
Fortunately, the “gold book” was not my only source: I also had the parish records at my disposal. In the safe there were old papers and documents, what historians call “primary sources” — records from the actual times that things happened. And these records bear the mark of personal testimony and connection. Among them are letters from young soldiers serving in the First World War, writing from the horrors of the trenches to their priest back home in New York. There is the pencil entry in the parish record book, of the burial of the curate’s wife with no further comment — and it was only through correspondence with her great-granddaughter (now that’s a real primary source) that I discovered that the reason for the silence was the fact that she had taken her own life.
There are the more prosaic items like the last cancelled check to Tiffany & Co. to pay for the Saint Augustine and Monica stained glass window, probably the last surviving work of the great artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, or the receipts of sixty-five years earlier from the quarry for the very stones that form the walls of this church, signed and approved by the head of the building committee, Mr. Gustav Schwab.
And the difference between the secondary documents like the “gold book” and the primary sources like these handwritten notes, is that the primary materials speak for themselves, while the later records come second-hand, with interpretation and editing, and most importantly, omissions.
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John opens his Gospel with an affirmation that the Word was God and was with God at the beginning. This is the Original Message — the first “text,” if you will — that God spoke to creation, the Word through whom all things were made, the source of light and life, the primary source of all that is, but at that point seemingly distant, past and inaccessible to us in the present day. In between come the messengers, such as the Letter to the Hebrews refers to — the secondary sources — most importantly John the Baptist, who comes as a witness to testify to the light, and John the Evangelist, another testifier. But then, surprise surprise and Merry Christmas, the Word becomes flesh: not the secondhand word of a transcribed or translated message, but the Original Word itself, coming with all the power that it had in the first place: the primary source issued in a new edition, bound in flesh and blood — and swaddling bands.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews affirms this, this distinction between the secondhand word from the prophets, to the word of the Son himself, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. This Jesus, this Son of God, this Messiah is no mere messenger: he is the message!
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Yet still, John tells us, some turn away — the Word comes to his world which owes its existence to him, yet that world refuses to know him. He comes to his own, but his own people do not accept him, or at least not all of them. Those who do, who accept the message, the powerful message, the personal message who has been waiting to be delivered from the beginning of time, waiting for the moment the right instant when it is meant to be spoken — those who accept this message, who believe in his name, receive power themselves to become children of God.
This is the miracle of Christmas, that the power and the person of God became a human child so that we — we might through him — become children of God. He came to us, not through interpretation or translation, not through secondary sources or a third party, but directly and personally. The Original Word, the Original Text, appeared in a new, living, cloth-bound edition — a Christmas present for each and every one of us. As the great old hymn says
He sent no angel of his host
to bear this mighty word,
but him through whom the worlds were made,
the everlasting Lord. (Hymn 489)
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Beloved, we have a personal message waiting. He’s been waiting for two thousand years, for us. Let us, once again, open our hearts to receive him, open our minds to learn from him, open our eyes to behold his light, which enlightens everyone who will receive him and believe in his name, even Jesus Christ our Lord. O come, let us adore him.+