By Adam Thomas
The mystery section was on the back wall of the small independent bookshop at which I worked my last few years of high school. When a customer entered the store, her eyes would glance past the smaller shelving units and fix on the placards proudly bearing the word "MYSTERY." The shelves containing the mystery section were taller and broader than those holding the other books, and I was the only employee tall enough to dust the top ones without a stepladder. Let's just say that the manager loved mysteries, so we had a disproportionate number of them. We had humorous mysteries and thrillers, beach reads and stay-up-till-one-in-the-morning nail biters. In those books, a mystery was set forth: say, how did the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolved around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figured out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery.
The Gospel according to John begins with a mystery, but it is a mystery that is wholly different from the Whodunnits on the back wall of the bookshop. The mystery that begins the Gospel cannot be solved, cannot be explained away. It can only be unapologetically presented and then unabashedly proclaimed.
Take a look at the first five verses that John gives us:
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
And without him, not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
And the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness did not overcome it. (1:1-5; NRSV)
Here John presents the mystery: somehow the Word (who we find out a few verses later becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ) is in the beginning with God and is also God. Remember in Algebra class when you had to show your work to get full credit? Well, John skips down to the bottom of the page. There is no balancing of equations or solving for “x.” He states the mystery simply: in the beginning, the Word was with God and was God. This is frustrating at first because I’m conditioned to think that mysteries are all supposed to be like the ones on the back wall of the bookshop. I want to know how it's possible and I won't be satisfied until I figure it out, and if I can't figure it out then it must not be true.
But I take a deep breath and look at the words again. I read them slowly and speak them aloud. I notice that the rational part of me is sitting in the corner sulking because "with" and "was" should be mutually exclusive. But I find that the creative part of me sees past such mundane things as mutual exclusivity and begins to roll around in the muck of ambiguity. I squelch my toes in the mud, relishing the notion that God lives in a reality where choosing between alternatives is not the only viable option. Of course the Word can be both with God and was God! The limits of my language do not limit God, only my understanding of God. I realize my language skills are not up to the challenge of describing God. And my rational side joins my creative side in the muck of ambiguity because my rationality has been given the license to imagine.
In a few short phrases, John presents the mystery. Then, he deepens the mystery by retelling the story of creation. It’s no coincidence that John uses the same phrase that opens the book of Genesis: "In the beginning." All things came into being through the Word who was with God and was God. My creative side connects with these verses because they are about creation. Life is created through him, and because I have been given the gift of creativity, I can sense in my gut or in my bones that the Creator is continuing to create me.
This creative force is the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend or overcome or understand the light because the darkness has never been a part of creation. The darkness is just the absence of any created thing. It tries jealously to unmake created things but fails to triumph since God never stops creating or calling creation to God.*
In these first five verses, John locates us ("life," "all people") within the mystery of God and creation, and he presents the adversary of creation, namely darkness. We have the makings of an epic story here.** The seemingly out-of-place verses 6-8 help me realize my role in this story. The mystery has been presented, and now John the Baptizer steps onstage for a brief scene. He is a witness who testifies to the light. (The words "witness" and "testify" are from the same root in Greek; the English word "martyr" comes from it.) His proclamation points to the light, which is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. So too, my life, which has come into being through the Word, is meant to be a proclamation of the mystery of God and God's movement in creation.
When I encounter these first few verses of the Fourth Gospel, I feel the enormity of the mystery of God surrounding me, and I rejoice that this mystery discloses itself in light and life and love. If I could explain the mystery, I would be in danger of explaining it away, of shelving it like the Whodunnits on the back wall. The mystery transcends explanation. It is elusive, and at the same time intimate; it cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. The intimacy and the embrace happen when the mystery touches the spark of creativity within me, spurring me to proclaim the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Life has come into being through the Word. And my life expands to every pocket and corner of my being when I live to proclaim this good news.
The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at wherethewind.com.
* My apologies for hurling this paragraph at you with no further comment. If it confused you at all, blame Karl Barth.
** I am using the word "story" to convey something that is important enough to be told and retold down through the centuries, something that is about God and about us and is a tale that is never quite finished being woven. Please do not take my use of the word in the sense of "it's only a story."