Last week, Deborah and I spent some time on the road—driving back from visiting family in Texas. It was a long trip. Fortunately, we were able to use a GPS app on her Smartphone, which helped us along the way.
Now, in spite of the ability of Siri to give us good directions, I have to admit something. I have to confess something. And that is, at least to me, there’s a kind of comfort, a kind of satisfaction that comes from pulling out and opening up an old-fashioned map. That’s not to say it has any chance at all of competing with a GPS. It hasn’t. Using a map in a car has never been easy, even the ones that came in spiral-bound booklets. But what I mean is this: I love laying a large map out on a table or desk, whether it’s of a city or state or region or beyond. I appreciate that sense of getting the big picture of things—seeing at a glance how everything, how every place, relates to every other place. I like having that overall perspective.
Oddly enough, that’s how I see today’s gospel. In the first part of the first chapter of John, I feel as if a large map has been laid out for the reader. While it shows a few important details, the main point is to paint with broad strokes the big picture of God’s plan of salvation, which is the Word made flesh come to live among us.
In contrast, the other two Gospels that relate the coming of Christ get very much into the details, into the particulars of the Christmas story. Somewhat like the images on a Smartphone or slightly larger screen set up on the dashboard of a car. Besides guiding the driver by one instruction after the other, it keeps things moving along—maybe like a good story does. While not allowing the driver to see very far ahead, it has a job of giving some indicators of what’s to come immediately down the road. Like traffic congestion due to an accident. Or a storm system one might run into. For example, the heavy rain we encountered in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. (Thank you, Virginia, for giving us better weather!)
In an odd way, that’s how I understand the versions of the Christmas story as told by Luke and Matthew. They never get too far ahead of themselves, but give hints of the weather that lies ahead. They also highlight the range of emotions experienced by particular flesh-and-blood human beings.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, at first she didn’t know what to make of his sudden appearance. We’re told that she was perplexed. But it was more than that. She also was alarmed, because the angel had to tell her she needn’t be afraid—that God had great plans for her, to carry and give birth to a baby destined to be a new kind of king among her people and, for that matter, among all of humankind. Although obedient, Mary still wasn’t sure what to make of it all—until visiting her cousin who confirmed for her everything the angel had said. In response, Mary sang a song of praise to God—from the wellsprings of her heart.
It was the same with the shepherds outside Bethlehem. On the angel of the Lord suddenly appearing to them in the dead of night, they were quite naturally terrified and, like Mary, also
needing to be reassured that they were not in danger but were instead receiving a message of great joy. Then, after seeing the baby with their own eyes, also like Mary, they sang to God a song of praise.
In Matthew, the story unfolds in some different ways—yet also leads us along just one step at a time. Again, emotions of the actors swing in one direction and then another. For instance, Joseph learns about Mary’s pregnancy. A sensitive, caring person, he will not disgrace her publicly, but nevertheless decides “to dismiss her quietly,” that is, until being instructed in a dream to stay with her, for she would give birth to a child who would save God’s people. What a message of reassurance! Later came the unannounced visit of several exotic-looking men from the East, who had come to pay homage to the new-born king. After they left, the angel again appeared to Joseph, warning him that, in a fit of rage, King Herod would soon send a death squad to kill all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem—the Slaughter of the Innocents, the focus of last Sunday’s reading. So Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped to the land of Egypt.
In contrast to the step-by-step approach of a GPS revealing barely ahead of time the obstacles or even dangers to be faced by a traveler, the Gospel of John offers a completely different way of seeing things. Like a large map spread out on a table, it provides the big picture, the long view of things. The light of the world—he existed before the world was even made. As the eternal Word, he even created the world—alongside God the Father. And unlike the cast of characters with their emotional highs and lows as portrayed by Luke and Matthew, there is in John a calmness, a serenity, an unhurriedness in speaking about the Word made flesh, which lives among us. Like a large map methodically unfolded before us, we see everything there is to see—altogether, at one time.
I can’t speak for you, of course, but for me these verses bring a great deal of comfort. Although in one way they may come across as sounding overly philosophical, overly abstract, it is their sense of unhurriedness, of deliberateness that actually attracts me. They are like the ballast in our respective ships that keeps us stable, keeps us upright in the midst of the storms of life. They remind us no matter what comes our way, God is with us. God will provide that strong center that we can depend on. We learn that in the darkest of nights—even when we may not be able to see it clearly—the light of a lighthouse remains. It still penetrates the fog and the gloom.
It’s so important, then, to keep in mind the long view of things—to develop and practice the art of patience (which is certainly an art I still have a long way to go in mastering). This long view reminds me of a couple of Bible passages in particular. One was read at a funeral held here last month, from Psalm 90:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and
from everlasting to everlasting you are
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In a neighborhood Deborah and I once lived in, was a family of a father and mother and their five children. An employee in the Department of Public Health in the state of Tennessee, the father—the husband—was making a career move. He and his spouse had decided he would return to school—to medical school. His plan was to do that while still holding down the job that he had—at least part-time.
Her job, her vocation at the time would be to keep raising their children, but really without any help from him, since he would be consumed by both school and work.
They both knew that to get through what lay ahead would require them to keep before them the big picture, the long view of things. For her to fulfill her part, she had a plan. Early every weekday morning, before her husband left, she got up to go for a run. Once in a while, when taking the dog out, I would see her. One other thing she did each morning—told to me not by her but by another neighbor—was to go to 6:00 am mass at the local Catholic church. That centeredness, that discipline was what was going to get her, her husband, and their children through the next few years. It was going to help give them the staying power they would so desperately need.
As we enter not only a new year but also a new decade, it’s perhaps an especially good opportunity to step back and reflect on the centeredness God gives us to meet the challenges of life—both those things having to do with our personal, individual lives and all the bewildering, even dangerous things going on in the world at large—remembering that the Word made flesh dwells among us—full of grace and truth—can make all the difference.