Archive for the ‘Gospel of John’ Category

Tangled Up in You

December 25, 2008

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Tangled Up in You © Jan L. Richardson

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.]

[To use the “Tangled Up in You” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

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Where I’m From

December 7, 2008

advent-door-blog-2008-12-7Image: Where I’m From © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 3: John 1.6-8, 19-28

If you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu in reading next Sunday’s gospel lesson, it’s understandable. This passage from John circles us back around some of the textual territory that we visited in the gospel reading for Advent 2. John approaches his subject in a different fashion than does Mark, but, as in Mark, John the baptizer makes an early appearance in the gospel. Once again we hear words about making a way in the wilderness. Yet where Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, borrows those way-making words from Isaiah and editorially applies them to John the Baptist, using his authority as a narrator to make clear that the Baptist is the one of whom Isaiah was speaking, John takes an intriguing turn in his gospel.

In John the evangelist’s version of the story, the priests and Levites approach the baptizer, asking him, “Who are you?” He begins by saying who he is not: “I am not the Messiah.” They persist. “What then? Are you Elijah?” John emphasizes he is not Elijah, nor is he the anticipated prophet. They ask him again, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” In his own voice, John responds,

I am the voice of one crying out
in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Where the other gospel writers linked the Isaiah passage with the story of John as an editorial comment, John the evangelist places Isaiah’s ancient words on the baptizer’s own lips. His narrative choice imbues the baptizer with a deep clarity about his role in the story of the Messiah. Though not the promised prophet for whom the people had long waited, John the Baptist’s claiming of Isaiah’s words to describe himself places him firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He knows he comes from Elizabeth and from Zechariah, but with his answer he places himself in the lineage of those for whom the wilderness, both literal and metaphorical, was their home, their place of formation as messengers of God. John’s response to his questioners is not only a way of saying who he is, but also where—and whom—he has come from.

In pondering John’s clarity about where he has come from, and how this informs his understanding of what God has formed and fashioned him to do, I’ve found myself thinking about a poem that recently circled my way. Written by Appalachian poet George Ella Lyon, “Where I’m From” offers a litany of the places and people, the artifacts and experiences that hold the poet’s roots. “I am from clothespins,” she begins,

from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)

[Read the whole poem here.]

Lyon comments that the poem has traveled widely, circulating as a writing prompt. “People have used it at their family reunions,” she writes, “teachers have used it with kids all over the United States, in Ecuador and China; they have taken it to girls in juvenile detention, to men in prison for life, and to refugees in a camp in the Sudan. Its life beyond my notebook is a testimony to the power of poetry, of roots, and of teachers.”

In our mobile society, it’s sometimes hard to say where we’re from, hard to name the roots that hold us as more and more of us live at a distance from the places (which may have been many) and people we grew up with. And yet Lyon’s poem reminds us that roots happen in a variety of ways, sometimes but not always tied to one particular place. Our increasing physical rootlessness is perhaps itself a kind of wilderness, akin to what John the Baptist experienced—but the wilderness, as John knew, is a place to be from, too.

So on this Advent evening, inspired by the baptizer and by an Appalachian poet, I’ve been thinking about where I’m from, and what direction my roots are turning me toward.

Where I’m From

I am from orange groves
and old Florida,
from a house my parents built
in a field my grandfather gave them.
Black-eyed Susans grew there in the spring,
so thick we played hide and seek
simply by kneeling among them.

I am from a town
with more cows than people,
from Judy and from Joe,
from generations that have grown up
in one place.

I am from peanut butter and
honey sandwiches every morning,
from my grandmothers’ kitchens,
from Thanksgiving feasts in the
community park,
from Christmas Eves in the
white painted church
among the pine trees.

I am from the dictionary we kept
by the dinner table
where we ate words like food,
from hours and days in libraries,
from miles of books.
I am from the path they have made.

I am from solitude and silence,
from the monks and mystics who lived
between the choir and the cell,
from the scribes bent over their books,
from parchment and paint,
from ancient ink and from gold
that turned pages into lamps,
into light.

I am from women less quiet,
women of the shout and the stomp,
testifying wherever they could make
their voices heard.
I am from Miriam and Mary and Magdalena
and from women unknown and unnamed,
women who carried their prayers
not in books
but in their blood
and in their bones,
women who passed down the sacred stories
from body to body.

I am from them,
listening for their voices,
aching to hear,
to tell, to cry out,
to make a way for those
yet to come.

—Jan Richardson

So where are you from? What are the places, the people, the experiences that formed your path? What holds your roots? How does where you’re from help you understand who you are? How does it enable you to make a way for the one who comes in this and every season?

Wherever you’re from, wherever you’re going, peace to you as you continue to find and fashion your path. Blessings.

[To use the image “Where I’m From,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]