31 December – Encountering God

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.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
(John 1.1-18)

It’s almost a week since we first heard this gospel read at the Christmas Day Eucharist but we return to it today. In fact, this is a longer passage from the beginning of St John’s Gospel than we get on Christmas Day. We are given those extra verses.

The five senses are such an important part of who we are as human beings and how we relate to the world. Whilst I was at Primary School in Leicester we read the story of Helen Keller. I remember it having a profound effect upon me. I think, at that stage, I hadn’t really encountered anyone who had extreme forms of sight or hearing impairment, no one deaf or blind. We heard about them in church of course because so many of the miracles recorded in the gospels seem to be about giving back to people their senses. But at that time in my life it wasn’t my own experience. And so to read of this young girl who was deafblind and as a consequence initially had no language skills at all was amazingly moving. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, liberated her, teaching her language skills so that eventually Helen was the first deafblind person to be awarded a Bachelor of Arts Degree.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller

I remember in the book reading how Anne taught Helen that each object has a name that we learn. She poured water over her hands whilst spelling the word ‘water’ on her palm. All of a sudden the penny dropped. Anne broke through into Helen’s isolation and she became able to learn and to communicate. Of course, for her the sense of touch was a way of breaking through where other senses were denying her access to the world. We can only wonder at those individuals who suffer complete sensory deprivation in which nothing from beyond them can have any effect. It is the kind of thing that people inflict on others as a form of torture – but some of our brothers and sisters are living this life day in, day out.

When on our journey we arrived at Bethlehem we saw a baby in a manger. That was the object of our journey, to see this Holy Child. That is the wonder of the incarnation of course, that in Jesus we can experience with our senses the God who is beyond the spheres of taste, sound, touch, sight, smell with which we know and experience the world.

St John describes this in the gospel reading for today.

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The God we had been unable to see, we see in Jesus; the God whom we had been unable to touch, we touch in Jesus. And the same can be said for each of the five senses with which we have been blessed. In Jesus our experience, our direct experience of the Godhead of divinity, becomes complete. As Helen felt the water running through her fingers and learnt the name by which it is called, so we touch God and learn God’s name, God’s reality.

In his First Letter St John writes this

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.
(1 John 1.1)

John speaks of a total experience of God through the incarnation. But you may say that that was then and this is now. We have been to Bethlehem in heart and mind, in prayer, Bethlehem bound as a community, but we couldn’t touch and see and hear as John is saying. But that is where the sacramental life of the church is so important. The incarnation and the sacraments are part of the same encounter with God.

As God in Jesus took flesh so the whole of the sentient world was touched with the divine. God could be experienced in another way, a more intimate, direct way than before. And that of course is the life of the church. Through outward visible signs we experience inward spiritual grace in each of the sacraments. In the dominical sacraments, those given to us directly by the Lord, Baptism and the Eucharist, in water and in bread and wine, our senses are brought into contact with God and the reality of God becomes part of the reality of our lives. Through the other five sacraments of the church (one of the extravagant riches of God which John in this Gospel reading calls ‘grace upon grace’ is that there are more sacraments than senses) we experience touch and sign of the divine for every part of our lives.

The Seven Sacraments - places to encounter God

The Seven Sacraments – places to encounter God

There is a sense in which humanity before the incarnation was as locked away as was Helen Keller, but as her teacher broke through and liberated her from her prison of isolation, so in Jesus we have been liberated and brought into a new and sensitive relationship with God. As I hold the bread in my hands there is a real sense that I am holding Christ, as though my Bethlehem journey had enabled me to truly pick the child from the manger and love him as I would want to do.

God confronts me as I look into the crib and God confronts my sight, my sound, my taste, my touch, what I smell, God is all around me as well as within me. This is part of the glory of Christmas that is renewed every time I approach God in the sacramental life of the church and in more ways as well. For as Evelyn Underhill wrote

God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament.

I would add, with gratitude in every sacrament for each is an encounter with the God we know in Jesus who enters every present moment through the mystery of the incarnation.

Lord God,
through sight and sound,
through touch and taste,
through my sense of smell,
may I experience you
and know you
and love you.

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