The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
In this wonderful Christmas season, we celebrate and ponder the great gift of God's Word coming into our midst to save us and to lift us into the divine life, the life that is eternal.
One of the greatest journalists of the last generation, the late Bernard Levin, lived not far from here in Camden Town and was brought up broadly within the Jewish faith by his mother, who was herself the daughter of Ukrainian Jewish emigrants.
Professor Tom Wright, at one time Canon Theologian here at the Abbey, tells a moving story about the young Bernard and a celebrity visitor who came to his school. At the school assembly, the headmaster called the young Bernard to the platform in front of the whole school.
The celebrity, thinking perhaps to be kind, asked the little boy what he'd had for breakfast. That was easy, or so it seemed. 'Matzobrei', replied Bernard. Matzobrei is a typical central European Jewish dish made with egg fried with matzo wafers, brown sugar and cinnamon; Bernard's immigrant mother had continued to make it even after years of living in London. It was, to him, a perfectly ordinary word for a perfectly ordinary meal.
The celebrity, ignorant of such cuisine, thinks he must have misheard; he asks the same question. Young Bernard, puzzled and anxious, gives the same answer. The celebrity looks concerned, and glance quizzically at the headmaster. What is this word he's saying? The headmaster, adopting a rather paternalistic tone, asks him once more what he had for breakfast.
Now dismayed, not knowing what he's done wrong, and wanting to burst into tears, the boy says once more the only thing he can say, since it's the truth: 'Matzobrei'. An exchange of strange glances on the platform, and the now terrified little boy is sent back to his place. The incident was never referred to again, but it stayed firmly fixed in his memory to the very end.
This story holds within it some rather important themes for us this Christmastide. The Jewish word, not really understood by the world; the child's word, not really understood by adults; the word for food, not really understood by those listening. It rather uncannily echoes many of the themes that we find in St John's Gospel.
At the beginning of St John's Gospel we hear these strident words: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being'.
Here in St John's Gospel the Christmas story begins a conversation with God in a new way, a conversation that's still going on. No other New Testament witness places the Word, the Incarnation, at the centre of its theology quite like St John.
St John doesn't mention the birth narratives that we are so familiar with in St Luke or St Matthew. For John, the beginning isn't a particular event in time, like Jesus' birth or the start of his ministry.
Instead, the beginning is outside the normal boundaries of time. He refers to Jesus not as an infant, but as the Word. John begins his Gospel with that familiar phrase from the beginning of the Book of Genesis: 'In the beginning...' but instead of saying in the beginning was God, John says in the beginning was the Word (logos). The Word that in the beginning was with God, was God, and became flesh and lived among us.
For St John, the Word provides us with a unique access to God, precisely because Jesus shares in God's character and identity and when the Word is made flesh, this is when Jesus fully brings God into this world. That's why the incarnation is so significant, because Jesus doesn't simply speak God's words and do God's works; rather, he does those things because he is God's Word and work in the world.
The entire book bears witness to God's gift to the world through the incarnate Jesus. And yet, as the young Bernard Levin found out, our human words can be so easily misinterpreted and misunderstood.
It was T S Eliot who said, 'Words strain, crack and sometimes break under the burden'. He knew all too well how we sometimes find it difficult to express what we want to say.
This morning's said service has, more than usual, been dominated by the spoken word, and in many ways all the words we use to express the Christian faith fall short because they are human words. And yet they also convey the real fundamentals of Christmas. In the Creed we confess Jesus Christ to be truly human, and yet he is, as St John puts it, 'the Word made flesh' or indeed, as Martin Luther puts it, 'the proper man'.
The truth of God, in our human image is known through human life, and suffering and death and resurrection. This is the truth we're called to proclaim. It questions and challenges us. The words may be inadequate, but the truth of that searching love remains, drawing us to discover that Divine Love which will never let us down and will never let us go.