Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31
Colossians 1: 15-20
John 1: 1-14
My way into today’s readings is through Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the extract we heard today which is often called the “Christ hymn.”
Colossians is believed to have been written near the end of Paul’s life, when he was in prison, around 60 AD, which is 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But the Christ Hymn is believed to be older, a hymn perhaps already familiar to the house churches in Colossae. So perhaps Paul quotes it to introduce the teaching part of the letter, as a place of common understanding from which to depart.
We are not unlike how I imagine Paul’s readers: Many of us find meaning in hymns and memorable liturgy more easily than we do in books. Poetic phrases repeated in song and in prayer soak into our souls and become entwined with our experience of God.
And this hymn is resonant with poetry. Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Phrases which open our minds to great mysteries.
The vision expressed is wide. Jesus is the Christ, with God from the beginning of time, through whom God chose to create the universe and everything in it.
Theologians at the end of the 19th Century suggested this expansive vision of a pre-existent Christ was a later development. According to this theory, at first the Christian movement understood Jesus to have become divine at his resurrection, then this was brought forward to the moment of his baptism, when the spirit descends on him like a dove, then to his birth. The myth, they argue, that he was with God from the beginning of time arose slowly, as the living witnesses of his life died out and in distant places. They point to our gospel reading from John, written at least 30 years after Colossians, as an example.
But more recent works suggest that this is not true, and the Christ Hymn bears this out. It now seems likely that from very early in the new Christian movement many who had heard Jesus speak, travelled with him, understood him to be the universal Christ described in this hymn.
Nor was this a gentile innovation. For the vision of God’s firstborn is there in the Hebrew Scriptures. One writer, Mary D’Angelo, shows that if you transpose the Christ Hymn from “he” to “she” then the similarity with the Old Testament poetry about Wisdom shines through – including our first reading from Proverbs: “created at the beginning, the first…beside him, like a master worker…daily his delight.”
How do we engage with this vision of the Universal Christ? It is so wide that the words can only suggest what is beyond. Can the Jesus who we read about in the gospels be a divine person through whom all things were created? This is a mystery.
Mystery has the sense of something about which we fall silent – I am reminded of that painting of the mystic, St John of the Cross, with his finger to his mouth – Shhhh!
And yet we still try to grasp what cannot be contained in words. We still talk, our minds still chatter away. We reach for the idea that God comes to us in human form – or rather if we are made in his image, he comes in God-form. And God also does not remain in mystery, does not fall silent. He reaches out to us, sometimes in words, sometimes in creation, but chiefly through the person of Christ.
Words and metaphors only take us so far, but they are what we have. One of our Farsi members pointed out to me, gently, that we English are obsessed with words!
There is I find in the biblical writers a balance between using words and having humility about them, between knowing and not knowing. Between the image and the invisible God who lies behind.
So we read, we listen, we sing songs, we share together in liturgy and in bread and wine and in mutual support, and we continue to search. And between them all, invisibly, a relationship with the person of Christ comes into being, which changes nothing and yet changes everything.
Richard Young (Rector)