Where Do You Place the Comma?

But Wait There, Smore?

While some might try to impress you by engaging you in very principled conversations over the use of the Oxford Comma and proper punctuation, I   find myself a little more arcane in my pedantic small talk. I am more fascinated by the very existence of the comma.

Although a sort of punctuation indicating dramatic pause was used in manuscripts of Greek plays dating back to the 2nd Century B.C., the use of the comma as we know it didn’t start until the 1400s with the printer Aldus Manutius in his Italian print shop. How we view the world since that time has changed because of that literary invention, even if we didn’t previously know about its impact.

A case in point is the use of a comma in today’s Gospel reading. The passage from the Gospel of John 1:23 reads, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.”

The challenge of reading this text in 2017 is that the comma used between “desert” and “make” didn’t even exist in any copy of the Bible until the 15th century A.D. Also contributing to the lack of clarity is the fact that the text that John was quoting (in probably the year 90 A.D.) was actually written in 700 B.C.

So we are reading a comma into the text that is 2,700 years old when no such thing existed at the time it was written. Not to overstate the dilemma but if you read the text like this “…the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” It means something different than “…the voice of one crying out, in the desert make straight the way of the Lord.”

The location of the voice and the location of action changes by a simple pen stroke we call a “comma” and while we sort of just accept this willy nilly, it is actually a much-debated topic in theology. Where is the voice coming from? Is it the outsider who is telling us to get our act together in the city? Or is it a voice in the city telling us to fix things up in the badlands so that the Lord can come into town?

I don’t have an answer to the question, but I’d like to leverage the experience of confusion over a comma that we just had in order to help us understand Christmas a little differently. A common pitfall made by us humans is the act of retroactive analysis, seeing past events the way we like to see them rather than as they actually were. We retell the stories of the past to fit our current narrative, seen through our own lens. It isn’t always bad, but at times it can be self-serving, and without careful thought, it can lead us to some maligned conclusions.

Recently, a politician was heard as saying that “Christmas is back, bigger and better than before.”

A wise priest whom I deeply respect replied to the politician, “No. 1) Christmas never left. 2) Christmas is about littleness, God entered the world as a poor, small, helpless infant, the most vulnerable state imaginable. 3) Christmas is about humility. God lowered himself, “emptied himself,” to enter into the human condition.”

It may forever go unknown if the priest’s reply was ever heard by the politician, but we should take note of the advice he gave. In the midst of our Christmas parties, decorations, gifts, and dazzling beautiful trees, most of us (myself included) wouldn’t open the door if two unbathed refugees from the Middle East came to our door asking to have a room so they could give birth to a baby. I’d most probably try to ignore them and carry on with my evening plans.

We tend to retroactively see the beauty of a Silent Night and angels singing as we look back into what happened 2000 years ago, but I wonder if we haven’t added a metaphorical comma somewhere along the way that has adversely changed the meaning. Christ came and is coming again. Make the ways clear for him in the desert and in the city. From the forgotten lands to the familiar, find God in the simple and the sublime. Let us imagine this scene as it truly was and just like the comma instructs us to do, pause. For in that pause, our hearts might be changed.

-David Heimann, Pastoral Associate

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