By GEORGE A. KENDALL
When we think about the beginnings of things, something those of us with philosophical predilections tend to spend a lot of time doing, a sense of deep mystery comes over us. That is especially the case when it is our own personal beginnings that we contemplate as we reflect on our memories of early childhood, something that we become more and more prone to in old age — paradoxically, as the end gets closer, so does the beginning.
That kind of reflection can easily degenerate into an exercise in self-absorption, a kind of navel-gazing. Yet, done rightly, it can also lead to real insight into who we are and what our relationship is to the reality in which we live. Now, of course, those memories have been overlaid with many years of reflection and analysis by our more mature, even elderly, selves, and we can always question how much was actually there when we were children, and how much we have read into our childhood experiences. And yet, I believe they do reveal things about our fundamental reality as creatures and children of God.
There is something profoundly mysterious in my memories of early childhood. I have this recollection of myself in the very process of emerging into consciousness, or at least a kind of consciousness that made it possible to begin to store memories. And yet it is different from my adult consciousness. What seems to be missing is the questioning of things. At least, I recall being aware of the world and of myself but without really wondering how either got here. Everything is simply given, simply present. Everything has just always been there. That includes these people I call mommy and daddy. I don’t really wonder who they are outside the context of their relationship to me and my dependence on them, or how they got there. Everything is simply presence, simply gift.
This sense of being enveloped by a mysterious order that nurtures and upholds us is ultimately the encounter with transcendence, with God, however little a small child may be able to name it or articulate it. That order behind and embedded in all things is the Word, which is in the beginning, which is with God and is God. It is simply there, it is simply presence, it is simply gift. In T.S. Eliot’s beautiful words:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
We are now in the season when we celebrate, in a special way, the Incarnation of the Word of God, the Word’s supreme act of becoming Flesh and dwelling among us. In celebrating this, we are celebrating, I would argue, the beginning before all beginnings — “before” in the sense of taking precedence over, being more ultimate, being prior, in being, to everything, though not necessarily prior in time. Minor things like the creation of the world or my own entry into the world are not absolutely fundamental realities in the same way that the Incarnation is. Let us reflect a bit on this.
Many theologians, over the centuries, have maintained that the Incarnation was not just some kind of plan B that God put in place when man fell into sin, something that would not have been necessary in an unfallen world. On the contrary, God created us for friendship, communion with Him (Scripture even says of the Wisdom of God, which the Church has always identified with the Second Person of the Trinity, as “rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the sons of men” [Prov. 8:31].) That being the case, it was always God’s plan to become united to mankind in a way far more intimate than the relationship we see depicted in Genesis, by becoming man Himself, in the person of the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The community of mankind with the Incarnate Word is thus the fundamental reality in which we live and move and have our being; it is, for us, the absolute beginning, though, in time, the creation of the world came first (but it was present, from eternity, in the mind of God).
Of course, had mankind not fallen, the suffering and death of Christ would not have been necessary. Having come unto His own, His own would have received Him joyfully, not with hatred and rejection. But the Incarnation would still have happened. The relationship we have to Christ, and to one another in Christ, is the most fundamental relationship there is, even in the lives of those who do not know about it or who reject it. It is the beginning beyond all beginnings.
The modern world thinks of society as a collection of autonomous individuals, each of whom is responsible only for those relationships he personally chooses to enter into, and only for so long as he wants those relationships to continue. Even on the natural level, that is not the way things are. Christianity, and even paganism (by which I mean the real paganism, not the “neo-paganism” which has become a trendy pseudo-religion today), has always understood that we are born into a world of relationships which we did not choose but which we are called to participate in, to nurture and care for — what are called institutions.
At the supernatural level, we are born into a world in which the Incarnation of the Word of God is the fundamental reality, a reality within which we are called to a whole new relationship to the Word and to one another — the body of Christ, the Church, the Kingdom of God. We are not of course born into the Body of Christ (becoming a member of that requires a free decision on the part of each of us) but we are born into a world where that relationship is always there for those of us who choose it, it is always there as that to which we are called.
Now the fundamental relationships are always about the gift of self, and that is far more the case when we are talking about our relationship to the Incarnate Word. That relationship is not just a personal, individual relationship to the Word but is also a communion with one another in the Word. Hence nothing is more appropriate than the custom of celebrating the Incarnation by exchanging gifts. But the gifts we exchange have value principally if they stand for the gift of ourselves, which is why homemade Christmas presents are always the best. When the exchange of gifts becomes a kind of competition to see who can spend the most money on the most up-to-date, “cutting-edge” gadgets, then the sense of the communion of mankind in the Incarnate Word has been lost.
We live in a time when that sense of communion is under relentless attack, and that can only get worse, which means it is a time for taking ourselves back to the beginning, the Word, and proclaiming to all: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.”
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(© 2012 George A. Kendall)