Reading from the Gospels, Christmas Day: John 1.1-14
Of all the artful treasures passed down in the Christian tradition, some of the most amazing are the early medieval Gospel books from Ireland and its neighbors. The Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Gospels of St. Chad: fashioned by monks living in such places as Iona and Lindisfarne between the seventh and tenth centuries, these and other Gospel books offer a remarkable testament to the power of the Word to inspire devotion and beauty. Monks undertook the creation of these books as an act of prayer, lavishing their artful attention on the pages over the course of months and years. They drenched the pages with colors derived from the things of the earth: flowers and seeds and leaves, precious stones and minerals, even inks made from insects.
A distinctive feature of the Celtic Gospel books is the intricate knotwork that adorns the pages. Serving not merely as decoration, the knotwork connects the words and images so intricately that the boundary between them breaks down: words become images become words. All manner of forms and symbols twist through and among the knots, telling their own stories: animals and angels, crosses, chalices brimming with vines, and human figures including Christ, Mary, and the four evangelists. Some of the knotwork marries the silly with the sublime. Mice play tug-of-war with a Communion wafer, cats bound from page to page, intertwined men tug at one another’s beards. And everywhere there are books, reminding the viewer not only of the power of the Gospel but also of the enduring presence of the Word who took flesh and became incarnate in this world, a living Word for all to read.
The most ornate pages of these Gospel books are labyrinths that beckon readers to enter the mysteries of this Word, to lose themselves and find themselves again within the twisting pathways of the Gospel story. These volumes not only stand as a stunning sacrifice of skill and devotion; they also offer a way of approaching the Gospel story. With their intricate and intimate interplay of words and images, the Gospel books proclaim the story of the God who came to become entangled with us. Page by page, knot by knot, they tell the good news of the God who desires to be thoroughly intertwined with us.
The intricacy of these books testifies to the complexities of the Gospel story. With roots that twist deep into the Hebrew scriptures, the Gospel texts have layers of meaning that we can hardly begin to understand if we have not studied the texts that came before them. Symbols, stories, patterns of God’s relationship with God’s people, the ancient hopes and struggles and journeys that the people of God have undertaken: all of the tales and literary traditions that the Gospel writers inherited helped to inspire and inform the stories that they told. The Celtic Gospel books acknowledge this, intertwining pre-Christian imagery and allusions with symbolism drawn from the New Testament. The very design of these books serves to confound our assumptions that we entirely understand what their Gospel texts contain. With their complicated pathways, intricate knots, and dizzying spirals, these books remind us that the Christian life is an ongoing journey of initiation, and one that only grows more mysterious and complex the deeper we go.
For all its complexities, however, at times the Gospel story stuns us with its simplicity. It startles us with the clarity by which it reflects and speaks to our ancient human yearnings and fears and hopes. So it is with the story we hear on this day. In a dark time, John tells us in his gospel, God came to us. God put on flesh and was born among us. And this God is life. And this God is light. For all people.
And the light shines in the darkness.
And the darkness did not overcome it.
God came to get tangled up with us, to become entwined with us, to be knitted and knotted into our lives. The knots are not always tidy. I can admire the wondrous and beautiful patterns that the Celtic artists accomplished, but the patterns and entanglements of my own life, and my own art, tend to be far less orderly. Yet amid the complexities and complications and conundrums that life offers us, God twists and turns, walking the labyrinth with us and helping us find our way through.
On this Christmas Day, where do you find yourself on the twisting path? How do you experience the God who desires to be intertwined among all the elements of your life? Are there any tangles that could do with some attention? How might it be to invite God into those? If you were to paint or draw or collage the pattern of your life right now, what would it look like? What story, what good news, does that pattern contain and proclaim?
On this and all days, may you know the presence of the God who came to us and who goes with us still, entangling us and entwining us. I am grateful to you for sharing this Advent path, and I invite you to continue to journey with me as I return to The Painted Prayerbook, exploring the intertwining of words and images in the year to come. Blessings and deep blessings to you. Merry Christmas!
[For last year’s reflection on this passage, visit Door 25: The Book of Beginnings.]
Visit ◊The Advent Door◊ home.