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Occupy Christmas, or, What’s in a Word? – A Christmas Commentary on John’s Prologue

[A pdf version to read and/or print may be found here.]

In the beginning was the word
And the word was with God,
And God was the word.
The word was in the beginning with God. …
And the word became flesh
And lived among us.
And we gazed on his glory,
The glory of the only son born of the father,
Who is filled with grace and truth.  
John 1:1-2,14 – Translation by Willis Barnstone, The Restored NewTestament

When music teacher Sandy Richards at Oak Knoll Elementary School in Traverse City, Michigan, recently attempted to change some lyrics to one traditional carol in preparation for her first and second grade student’s holiday concert she ran into a barrage of parent criticism.

She’d changed the word ‘gay’ to ‘bright,’ as in “don we now our bright apparel,” because the kids wouldn’t stop giggling every time they got to that line in the familiar song. “By taking the word ‘gay’ out of ‘Deck the Halls,’ you are making it a big deal,” said one parent, while stating the obvious: “One word can have different meanings.”

In light of the local uproar over the word change, the original lyrics were restored.  And presumably the grade-schoolers in one Michigan town did not apply the wrong definition to this word, don their gay apparel, and show up to the concert in drag.

Fact is, not only are some homonyms spelled and pronounced the same, while having completely different meanings, some words themselves seem to change with the passage time to convey something different than they did before, in light of our diverse experiences.  From time to time, one could then ask, what’s in a word?  And we could find the same word could mean something different than it ever did before.

In a prior commentary for the Advent season the word Gospel was considered.  Nowadays we most often associate the word with the certain writings of an emerging first century Jewish-Christian movement that documented their particular reflective experience of the life and teachings of an itinerant Galilean rabbi, named Jesus; to whom they subsequently attributed the title Christ; and with those “gospel” texts, over time, became part of the sacred canonical scriptures of our Christian faith.

Of course, we’ve proceeded over the last two millennia to attempt to progressively decipher and apply our own understanding of those historic documents; progressive, that is, in light of our own historical and cultural experiences.  But one way or another, we’ve taken gospel to mean good news, of one sort or another

Still, as that previous commentary explored the word itself, gospel even conveyed at least two different original meanings, depending on the particular context in which it was applied.  In the first instance, gospel as good news could convey an announcement of victory; as in “we won” (and someone else lost). Or on the other hand, gospel could represent a proclamation of amnesty or a blanket pardon and forgiveness for past offenses; along with release and liberation, and the slate wiped clean for everyone.

Time and again in the historical and prophetic books of the Jewish scriptures we can see how these two different definitions are used.  First, how the embattled Israelites competed with other peoples and nations to announce who was the victor, and who was the vanquished.  But then there was also the theme of exile and exodus, liberation, release and return; where there was that repeated prophetic vision where all nations would one day “stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of that dawning.” (Isaiah 60:3)

The imminence of such a “dawning” only intensifies when we turn to the good news texts that begin the different gospels in that compendium we call the New Testament.  Each, in their own way, would define just what kind of good news they’re talking about.  But not only that, even today it would seem the same word for what might be regarded as good news may be defined those two different ways.

For example, this commentary has been considered only a few days after the President Obama announced what was generally regarded to be good news, with the declaration that the American war in Iraq was officially over.  He spoke of having kept his covenant with the American electorate to end that war; or, at least the direct American involvement of what we ourselves started nearly a decade ago.  He spoke of liberation, in terms of liberating the Iraqi people from oppression and tyranny.  And he spoke of the joyous return of thousands upon thousands American military personnel once exiled from their friends, families and homeland.

But in this good news proclamation there was one meaning that might have otherwise been associated with the word gospel that the President did not use.  As Los Angeles Times columnist, Doyle McManus pointed out in his December 18, 2011 editorial,

“Two years ago, the Army general who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin E. Dempsey, commissioned a panel of historians to study how wars come to an end. Dempsey could see that the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts to which he and his colleagues had devoted almost a decade, weren’t heading for the clear conclusions that Americans yearn for. “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned victory?” the general, a former English professor at West Point, wondered at the time.  

The answer, the scholars told him, was that most wars don’t end with clear-cut winners and losers, especially long counterinsurgency wars of the sort we’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that kind of conflict, it’s hard to know when it’s safe to claim progress, let alone victory.”

While victory is a word that may be in search of a new definition, there are other words that seem to have popped up in its place; even if they are words that have yet to appear in any standard dictionary in some cases.

Take the word exceptionalism, for example; as in American exceptionalism.  It seems we most often hear this made-up word touted by political candidates who speak of restoring America’s greatness, power and supreme prowess among the nation’s of the earth.

David Kennedy, professor emeritus of history at Stanford, recently spoke about what this new word could possibly mean; along with a “deep theme in our national DNA,” and how we as a people (I would even now say an “invented people!”) have perceived our historical uniqueness, diverse strengths and potential weaknesses.

Briefly, Kennedy described two different origin myths in our society; one springing from the New England Puritans who understood themselves to have a special covenant with God to create what was literally for them a new world.  And the other much more mundane and practical American origin myth came from Chesapeake Bay, as a purely commercial proposition (originally tobacco & cotton).  These two competing mythic stories relating America’s greatness as a uniquely chosen people, but also premiere commercial enterprise, can still be seen playing themselves out today.  The danger may lie in how you define – and apply that definition to – the word exceptional.

In addition, there is a darker side as well, as Kennedy points out, to what makes us exceptionally unique.  For instance, we are the only nation who ever waged a civil war upon itself to end slavery, bringing the good news of liberation and emancipation to some, victory to half the union, and defeat to the rest.  And we are subsequently the one nation today to have more of its citizens incarcerated (per capita) than anyone else.  Historically, its seems, we have always been susceptible for one kind of gospel message, and ripe for another. But in what sense, then, might we be an exceptional people?

“There is something universal with all kinds of societies, that people take pride in their society,” Kennedy observed.  “But when that shades off into booster-ism … in the sense that the rules of history don’t really apply to us, then I think it begins to get dangerous. … It is the unreliable and mythological character of the belief that we can be exempt from history, exempt from our own biography, and reinvent ourselves to be whoever we want to be. … Infallibility can get baked into the notion of exceptionalism.”

Meanwhile, there are other words in contemporary use these days that seem to have taken on new meaning; at least by connotation.  Take the word occupy, for example; and some of the other words often associated these days with the word occupyencampment, protest and confrontation, ninety-nine percent, etc. Whatever else anyone may think about the new meaning or connotation behind the word occupy, there are a couple things that seem obvious.

First, it is a word that has become embodied in a movement; and that movement is comprised not just of ideas and arguments, but people.  In a word, it is a word that has been embodied in the one referred to as the Occupant.  Whether it be Zucotti Park in New York, or Tahrir Square in Cairo, TIME magazine might just as well have named “The Occupier” as they did the “The Protester” to be that collective, corporate, incarnated word for occupy as their “Person of the Year.”

Second, of course, is the obvious fact an occupant is one who occupies something.  And, in this case, it’s a place that doesn’t belong to them; in order to demonstrate or make a statement about something they don’t have.  Simply put, it is a direct challenge to the power and authority of established norms and institutions that define or delineate what the “haves” have, and the “have-nots” don’t have.

And thirdly, regardless of the expressed frustration by the more rational types among us to “fix,” or at least quell this irksome dust up, it seems clear the word occupy nonetheless defines a reactionary movement to what has been decidedly deemed to be bad news for sufficient numbers of people to have reached critical mass.  Looking at the flip side, it’s a collective cry by a deafening chorus for some much-needed, longed-for and expected good news

Finally, what’s in a word we might nowadays call Christmas?  How might we find within the “Christ” in Christmas, a fresh meaning amidst the old traditional verbiage of this holy-day?  In light of our own historical and experiential context, how might we define whatever is good news about the birth and embodiment of all we deem divine?  Consider how aptly such seemingly secular words with their contemporary connotations and definitions are to be found in the context of an old, well-known and sometimes even hackneyed word, Christ-mas, or “Christ’s celebratory good news.”

If Christmas is a word that comes to us as gospel what’s in that word?  In my own experience and understanding of the story, it comes to us more as amnesty than victory; that long-awaited and much needed announcement of “great joy for all people.”  “For unto us is born this day,” the angel choirs sing of a brave new world with the incarnate word of God.

Next, whether you believe Jesus to be the incarnate word of God or not, it is difficult to say he was not an extraordinary, unique and exceptional human being; and one in which it would be difficult to argue his exceptionalism was anything akin to “boosterism.”

In addition, there’s that imaginative tale Luke’s early Jewish-Christian community spins about Jesus’ nativity in a Bethlehem stable he couldn’t call his own. Why? Because the appropriate establishment who was in the position to accept or reject those standing outside on a cold winter night could not fathom, let alone accommodate, what was about to happen; suggesting there is a longstanding precedent for an occupy movement!

All tolled, if an amnesty proclamation were to be the exceptional circumstance to what would otherwise be yet another Christmas as usual, perhaps it might be less about preparing a place for the baby Jesus who no place to lay his head.  Instead, it might be about us pitching camp in someone else’s stable that’s been awaiting our return for a long time, and joining a movement we might call Occupy Christmas. What might such a place look like?

Time and again, the Jesus character portrayed in the synoptic gospels describes in parables what such a place is like.  But in John’s gospel, we find it described with yet more new meanings given afresh to old words; so it might become possible we would never hear them quite the same way again.

Words like light that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overtake it,” or bread (of life), or vine (to which we can be rooted), a shepherd (who cares), a door (to that other place), a pathway (not yet trod), or new life, yet again (when you thought you were as dead as dead could be).  So many words take on new meaning with what John’s faith community calls gospel.

“In the beginning,” John’s gospel begins that proclamation, “was the divine word and wisdom.” And, “The divine word and wisdom became human, and made itself at home among us.”

The world did not recognize it.
It (this genuine light) came to its own place,
But its own people were not receptive to it.
But to all who did embrace it,
To those who believed in it,
It gave the right to become children of God.

                        (Funk & Hoover and the Jesus Seminar translation)

While some had long awaited victory, it came as amnesty for all.  While some saw such divine intervention as a threatened intrusion to the proprietary place of established order, others welcomed it as the most exceptional good news of what John’s gospel tradition would define as word incarnate, “brimming with generosity and truth.”

Perhaps the only question that remains is whether we will leave behind that old place, don our gay apparel, and finally occupy the gift that has been given to us once again this Christmas.

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

[A pdf version to read and/or print may be found here.]

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