I once read a book where the main character was a book. You might expect it to be boring, for what adventures can a book have. It was a true story of a special five hundred year old text, known as the Sarajevo Hagganah, which is the little prayer book Jews use when celebrating the Seder at Passover. The book had miraculous survived several pogroms of its Jewish owners from attacks during the Spanish Inquisition in Seville, where, it was saved by a Catholic Priest. The book traveled to Venice where it was lost for a time during pogroms of Jewish money lenders in the ghetto. The little Hagganah mysteriously arrived in Sarajevo, where it was hidden by a Muslim when Hitler tried to find it for his “Museum to an Instinct Race” he was planning. Another Muslim retrieved the sacred text from the Sarajevo library under sniper fire when Serbs were ethnically cleansing Croatia in the 1990s. So the Hagganah survived much of the worst of what humanity has done in the last 500 years, from Inquisition, Fascism, Communism and ethnic cleansing. This little prayer book, whose story is told by Geraldine Brooks in “People of the Book,” kept the sacred words alive while many perished, like a light shining in great darkness, but the darkness could not extinguish it. People risked their lives to save it, even when it was not the sacred text of their own faith, because sometimes sacred words are more important than our own flesh.
Words are powerful. We can’t imagine life without words, because we would not be human. Without words there would be not philosophy or law or politics, even love as we know it would be lost. There would only be instinct and survival. Words are what make us creative beings. If we read the opening chapter of the Bible, the creation story we know in Genesis, tells us that the world was created by divine words. God speaks, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Perhaps at that point there was what we call the “big bang,” which maybe we should rename “the big light” which created something in the darkness. Genesis proclaims the belief that behind all that we know and see, there was first a word, a wisdom that underlies all reality.
As far as we know, the Hebrew people were the first to worship the “word” of their god rather than the form. They did not worship the powerful natural forces of the sun, moon or stars in the heavens, or even mythic human heroes, but believed that a greater being, a higher power than themselves was the source of all life and wisdom. They believed this higher power, their God Yahweh, wasn’t just interested in sacrifices and playthings, but spoke and taught wisdom, and demanded a certain kind of moral life and fairness. They wrote down the words of their prophets who tried to listen to their god, and for the coming centuries they read and sang and chanted and memorized and tried to live out these words, in good times and mostly in bad times.
When the author of John’s Gospel wrote this text we read today, he was making a remarkable intellectual synthesis. He was combining the Jewish idea of a God revealed through a sacred word, written in a text, and a Greek philosophical idea of the word, which Aristotle and the Stoics called logos. Aristotle said that logos “makes it possible for humanity to perceive and make clear to others through reasoned discourse the difference between what is advantageous and what is harmful, between what is just and what is unjust, and between what is good and what is evil.” The stoics believes logos to believed logos to be “the active reason pervading the universe and animating it,” and that logos gave a direction to all matter and every human possessed a portion of this logos within, like a part of our DNA.
So John opens his Gospel with this powerful idea. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God and was God, and all things came into being through God. A Greek reader would follow this very clearly. Then John says that now the logos became fully embodied, not just in part but in whole, with Jesus of Nazareth, who has become a the logos for all, like a light shining in the darkness, full of grace and truth.
Tonight we gather to celebrate the birth of the word and the fulfillment of the word. It is important that we get this right here tonight, because too often the great religions of the world, all the people of the book, Jews, Christians and Muslims, too often get their words twisted. People of the Book have no need to defend or impose their God through violence. True believers of the word do not herd others into refugee camps in Gaza or endlessly imprison in Guantanamo, they do not fly planes into buildings full of other people, and they don’t send the word by predator drones or blow themselves up in crowded mosques or churches. We are caught in an endless cycle of violence and retaliation and fear that is not the word, it is darkness.
Because of the failures of all the people of the book, many in our world logically assume that religion is false and even dangerous. I don’t blame them, but I believe that a light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Just as a precious Hagganah prayer book survived all the centuries of terror in Europe, so too has the true logos survived to this day and this night. The logos can be heard and understood in many ways, and for me I experience it in Jesus and the words written in the Gospels. I believe with Jesus, and the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers that the logos dwells within each of us, and it is our sacred duty to keep the spark alive and fan it into a living flame.
I know that things arising in darkness create fear. Sometimes I am even scared by the darkness that can arise from within me. But light, the light of truth and love, truly is greater. So don’t think for minute that your light is too small. The logos that said “let there be light” is within you and the world needs your creative logos. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world, so don’t hide your light, but let it shine for all to see”