Some of you will know of the Rt. Rev. Gary Lillibridge, Bishop of West Texas. Bishop Lillibridge is a wise and true Texan. Some years ago I heard him speak at a workshop, and he imparted several important aphorisms. Perhaps the most profound was this: “If you discover that the horse you’re riding is has died, dismount.”
I am a lover of books. More specifically, I am a lover of stories, and of words, and of the way words are combined to grip the imagination and move the heart. And often there are no more important words in a story than the first words. We can all recall first lines that hooked us, captivated us, somehow encapsulated and rehearsed the entire story that was to come in an economy of language. Once we’d read that opening line, there was no way the book was leaving our hands until the rest of the story was had.
Charles Dickens was one of the very best at first words. A Tale of Two Cities begins with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” before catapulting us into the at first hopeful, and then murderous, era of the French Revolution. Even more tantalizing, A Christmas Carol introduces us to the soulless life of Ebenezer Scrooge with the line, “Marley was dead to begin with.”
Like me, Bishop Lillibridge loves first words. And his favorites, as he shared at the workshop those years ago, are the first words of the first book of Holy Scripture. Four words, to be exact. In the most traditional English rendering (slightly different from the New Revised Standard Version we read today), the whole sweeping narrative of the Bible commences with, “In the beginning, God.” Adding the next singular word gives us, “In the beginning, God created.”
Have you ever considered a hypothetical, distant future, when our society has gone the way of the dinosaur? No matter when that occurs, space-age, future archaeologists will, I suspect, look back in time and assume with a fair measure of confidence that some cataclysm ended our civilization around the year 1993. That’s the year I first remember hearing about a new technology called “electronic mail.” It’s also about the time that the post office began losing money, because with the advent of email people quit writing things down on actual paper and other concrete, tangible media. Even the supposedly permanent things on which we record information, such as compact discs, we now know degrade fairly quickly. Should all the computer servers in the world be destroyed, our story for the past twenty years would be erased with them. With no unearthed archaeological evidence to go by, future explorers will assume that some horrible, mysterious malady wiped out civilized, sophisticated folks in the mid-1990s.
I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s classic book The Everlasting Man, which considers about how we similarly talk about the human epochs that preceded us. Our confident understanding of human civilization only extends as far back as we can find enduring writing. We tend to call the eras before this “prehistory,” and think of them as simple and primitive. But the term “prehistory” really only means we don’t know much about such times, not that the human story was absent.
There are, of course, glimpses: The great temple mound at Newgrange in Ireland, and the even older Tarxien Temples on Malta (both of which I will visit this coming summer). There is Stonehenge, and there are the strange, beehive-shaped cairns that dot Europe. Even thousands of years older, there are elaborate cave drawings across the continents. We conjecture the purposes of all these phenomena, sometimes with convoluted explanations, but the truth is, absent written stories and instructions, at best we don’t know much. These things; the people who produced them; and the societies in which these people made their homes, found their meaning, and experienced pain and joy, are mysteries to us. About the only thing we can piece together with any confidence is that virtually the first intuition of humanity was the religious intuition. We find, again and again, the swirls that suggest infinity, the womb-like cells that mimic gestation, the altars that seem to yearn, through the eons, to mediate God.
In the beginning, God…In the beginning, God created…
As with so many other stories, in the story of Holy Scripture these first words are, indeed, the most important. They tell us that, before anything else, there is God alone. And everything that happens subsequently is by God’s initiative.
This is the greatest mystery, the one that extends back infinitely farther than the first, opaque evidence of human consciousness on the planet: the “is-ness” of the world, the fact that there is something rather than nothing. We can hypothesize, in these heady scientific days, how the world is here, how the first cosmic explosion expanded matter until physical forces caused it to lump together into planets, stars, and galaxies. We can explain the chemical soup that brewed the first biology on our planet, and the fossil record gives us the dramatic, stratified story of how those early creatures evolved, ultimately, into you and me.
But explanations of how answer questions of mechanics, not meaning. They do not solve, or even approach, the mystery of why there is a world. They do not tell us why the God who is, creates. These are, ultimately, questions not of history or science, but of religion. Despite what critics of religion argue, neither we, nor, I believe, the most ancient humans indulged the religious intuition in order primarily to explain the “how” questions. Rather, faith is and has always been, from this altar to the altar at Newgrange five thousand years ago, about why: Why is there a world? Why did God choose to create?
People across the globe from ancient days to now have consulted their priests and plumbed their souls seeking to unravel the heart of this mystery, and different religious traditions arrive at different answers. Our tradition, and the whole sweeping narrative of our holy book, takes the “why” of those first words—In the beginning, God created—and answers them with the person of Jesus, who is the embodiment of love. It is an answer as profound as it is simple. It is the response that would change the world, would end civilizations and create them anew, if we fully grasped it. Listen to it as if for the first time. Here is the answer: God creates so that love may be known.
We have entered into the season of Epiphany, which intends to remind us of all those ways God has been and is made manifest to the world. And before all other disclosures, before the burning bush or the pillar of fire, or the baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate today, there is the first epiphany: that we are here, that there is something rather than nothing, that in the beginning, God created.
In love, God created a world in which a sun could warm a ball of earth and water such that molecules were enlivened that evolved into creatures who could and did develop the very awareness to know and seek God. God created a world in which human beings could recognize the mysterious presence of that cosmic God in the human face of Jesus of Nazareth. And God attuned those same human beings to receive grace, which is the depth of love that completes the creation sparked in the beginning. There is no epiphany more wonderful or true!
How should we respond? God creates so that love may be known. That is the only answer. And so, we should respond with our own epiphanies to one another, revealing love and extending God’s grace in the world; by recognizing the presence of Christ in the face of others; by baptizing little ones into the Body of Christ on days such as today; and by writing things down in ways that endure, that reveal God’s reality and love in our day and for ages to come.
In the beginning, God….In the beginning, God created. It’s quite a first line. But, then again, it’s quite a story.