On Christmas Day we were told: ‘The Word, the true light that gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, the world that was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.’ (John 1:9-11) In some senses, today’s Gospel tells us a story, give us a pictorial image, of what it means to ‘not receive him.’ But ours is a call to receive this Word that took flesh in Jesus and lived among us. (John 1:14) Again here, in the Gospels, we can find a story that will give us an image to help us to visualise this: ‘Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.’ (Luke 10:38) Ours is not just to receive the Word, but to positively welcome it. (Luke 7:36)
These stories have something to offer us to help us ponder the Word in a more concrete/less abstract way. The story of the Flight into Egypt tells us that though the powers-that-be do their best to suppress or eliminate the Word that has come into the world, and that though their efforts may have some little success in the short term, in the end they will be unable to frustrate God’s plan for humankind. This is what St John means when he says that those who ‘prefer darkness to light,’ though they be mighty in power, will be quite unable to ‘overcome’ this ‘light that shines in the dark.’ (John 3:19; 1:5) This morning’s story puts it quite simply: ‘So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel.’ (Matthew 2:21) Herod’s actions, for all his might, were no more than hitting the snooze-button; they did nothing to alter the timeframe: “The time has come and the Kingdom of God is at hand,” as Jesus would put it later. (Mark 1:15. C.f.: Matthew 24:37-39) This story is a timely word for us in our time, a time when there is so much negativity directed towards the Christian message.
The story of Martha teaches us how to go about receiving and welcoming the Word: ‘Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42) In welcoming the Word we have to work out what it means to ‘accept’ it … such that it will enable us ‘to become children of God,’ as St John puts it. (John 1:12) For we are called to be children of God, that is, to be like Jesus who is the Word made flesh. (1 John 3:2)
To do this we have to get to know him who is the Word that ‘was with God and is God.’ (John 1:1) For, as with any human being, it takes time to know someone. There is much that they do that we do not understand, and which may annoy us and for which we are likely to criticise them. So, too, with the Word made flesh in Jesus. (E.g.: Mark 2:6-7, 16, 18, 24; 3:22; 7:5) On Christmas night we were told of how simple, poor shepherds came to hear of this Word, which was nothing short of a miracle — as is our own story of coming to know Jesus! In that story, we were told: ‘When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say.’ There is something about a person giving their testimony that can and does speak powerfully. The story goes on: ‘As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2:17-19) We, too, need to ponder in our hearts this amazing Word that is made known to us, if we are to receive and welcome it into our world and so come to understand what its message is.
The opening lines of the Rule of St Benedict, which we monks commit ourselves to, gives us the stance we need to adopt in regard to the Word: “Listen carefully, my son/my daughter, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:1) Shortly there after, Benedict tells us the essence of the Good News: “In his goodness, he has already counted us as his sons/daughters.” (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:5) This is what St John was telling us on Christmas morn: “To all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not out of human stock or urge of flesh or will of man but of God himself.” (John 1:12-13)
We are called to believe and accept this Word that is given us by putting it into practice. To do this we need to understand it, so that we might obey it … letting it become flesh in our flesh. So will we truly be God’s children, and that is what we are. (1 John 3:1-2) On this feast, we are invited to take our place in the Holy Family (John 19:26-27), to be who we are called to be and find our place at the Lord’s Table (Mark 2:16). For the Good News is that, in the coming of God’s Son, there is now no gulf between heaven and earth; earth and heaven are reconciled in Christ Jesus — there is now nothing to prevent us from taking our seat at the heavenly banquet, and of which our Eucharist is but a foretaste. (Mark 1:10; Matthew 22:8-9. C.f.: Genesis 3:24; Luke 16:26) In what we do, we are invited to show that this is so by making room for any and all who might come (John 13:34; Mark 2:15) … even if to do so invites opposition (Mark 3:2): we should expect to be treated no differently to the Holy Family. (Matthew 2:3; John 15:18; 16:20)
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO