Those who pay close attention might think we spend a bit too much time in John’s prologue. Even those who do not pay close attention to the readings, though, may well feel that we hammer the “In the beginning was the Word” passage of John a bit too frequently this time of year. We usually read it before the singing of Silent Night and the lighting of the candles on the Christmas Eve service. We also have it as a reading for one of our Christmas Day readings. We also get to read it a third time on the first Sunday after Christmas. Why, do you ask, do we spend so much time on just this passage?
Part of the reason, I think, is that John serves as a theologizing counterpoint to Luke’s historical narrative. Luke points us to the history of Jesus’ birth: Cyrenius is governor of Syria; Augustus is Emperor of the Roman Empire; Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem in obedience to the command of Augustus; the Messiah is entering the history of Israel not at the head of a legion of soldiers or of angels, but into a manger; his clothing is by no means royal; and the first heralds of this confirming miracle are shepherds, a group that would have been viewed with suspicion by the city-folk. The Incarnation happens in the real world, among real people, at a real time in history—that is part of the focus of Luke.
John, though, places the event in the cosmic span of God’s plan for the world. We cannot read John’s prologue without thinking back to the creation account of Genesis 1. In the beginning. Of course, John switches the focus from the author of Genesis to His own focus on the Incarnation of God, Jesus. You might be sitting here this morning, a bit sleepy because you were up late putting together gifts, and wondering how do we get from the Word to Jesus? In fact, though of you who have studied John extensively or taken local theology classes or maybe even EFM know that John never again refers to Jesus as the Word. Why does John choose that description for Jesus?
What’s in a word? How do we understand the importance of a word? Some years ago, when I was still serving on a Vestry, I had occasion to hear a young boy come to my sending rector a bit on the freaked out side of things. Week in and week out this little boy heard Father Dan pray for the angels and dark angels and all the company of heaven. The little boy did not want to pray for the dark angels because dark angels had to be bad. You are laughing, but think of how easy a mistake. Thousands of times Dan stood before that altar and prayed each time “ . . . joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven . . .” but the little boy heard something different, something that scared him.
Word is important in the Jewish understanding of God and a polemic against all the other Ancient Near East gods and goddesses. One of the chief distinctions that separates God from the throng of other gods is His ability and willingness to speak to His people. Lips they have and cannot speak; eyes have they and cannot see. In fact, the first theophany among the people of Israel was the giving of the torah to them by God. The people wanted to know what it meant to be a redeemed, holy, righteous people living in communion with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What they got was the instruction given Moses. Moses came down the mountain with 611 instructions. 365 don’t’s and 246 do’s – yes, I know I am excluding the Two Great Commandments which sum up the entirety of the torah according to Jesus. God revealed His character and His expectation for His people in those words. In essence, God was saying to His people, Want to live like Me, here you go. Follow these instructions. Those of us who have studied those words, of course, know the difficulty. We are like toddlers when it comes to the don’t, and sometimes we are lazy or fearful when it comes to the do’s. The great news, of course, is that we are in the same boat, though. We all fail the various instructions at various times in our lives. We are all, like Israel before us, terrified to hear His voice or to see His glory reflected in the face of another.
Then, along comes this Jesus. Want to know what torah living is like? Look at Jesus. He keeps the entirety of the torah? How do we know? Because He was raised that Easter morning! By virtue of His ability to keep the torah, Jesus is that firstborn without sin – the very sacrifice demanded of the torah for sacrifices. That birth we celebrate last night would have no significance were He unable or were He unwilling to keep the torah and face His passion and death during Holy Week. Why do you think Satan tempts Him so? Why do you think we tempt Him so? If You are the Son of God, come down! But that discussion is for another time. For now, we are looking at Jesus as one who shares the mind of God. For John, this is best expressed by the understanding of the Word, and so he uses that word to describe Jesus. Jesus keeps the mind of God. If we have seen Him, we have seen the Father, right? This is not new or isolated understanding. The early Church did not sit down and say “Hey, let’s think up a theology to explain what we saw and heard.” No. It was revealed by God. We have seen His face . . .
It is also not easy understanding, right? How can Jesus be co-eternal with the Father? How can Jesus be slain in the mind of God before the foundation of the world? What the heck are these Holy Mysteries really trying to convey? We understand the challenge, right? Does Jesus come into the world speaking the mind and heart of God and find the world going
“Duh, I get it, now!”
No. The world finds it a hard
saying, a difficult saying. John says
the light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. Even though He came into what was His own,
His own did not receive Him. This stuff
is hard, folks. The Pharisees and
Sadducees and the Temple Elites conspire to kill Him! They, of all people, should have known who He
was; yet they rejected Him! Without the
revealing of the Holy Spirit, you and I would be left to suffer in the same darkness. Now, though, because He is Lord of our
hearts, we have no need to fear the darkness of the world, do we?
Think of our liturgy last night and how it reflects our understanding of this truth. As we read this passage, what do we do? We light our candle. That’s right. As we are lighting our candle, what happens? Good job! The lights are dimmed. What is the outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace you and I are proclaiming last night in the darkness? That’s right, our light is from Him and it will not be overcome by the darkness. No matter how small our candles and how big the darkness, our flickering flame keeps it at bay! It’s not easy, no. The darkness is sometimes massive and threatens to consume us always. But there, in that tiny wick, His light and life are in us, making us fit vessels for His power and heralds of His Gospel. We can accomplish great things in His name, and we have no need to fear the darkness. Holly spoke last night of challenges, of mannequin, ice bucket, and glitter challenges. She also reminded us that the real challenges of our lives are to be found in how we respond to the darkness. Will we follow our Lord and bear a cross worthy of Him? Or will we give up, declaring the cross embarrassing or heavy or the darkness too much?
Brothers and sisters, the peace and hope and joy of that Rockwell picture we call the Nativity is a fantasy. Yes, God came into the world. And for just a moment all creation marveled. But Jesus came into a world, a Creation that was seemingly out of control. In reality, we were out of control. The fears and hurts and pains that were present in the days leading up to His birth still remained. The consequences of sin were ever-present in the world He came to save. Tomorrow we celebrate the death of the first martyr, Stephen. Wednesday we celebrate the death of the Holy Innocents. In our time we are grappling with the consequences of sin still in the events of Aleppo or, closer to home, the pains of homelessness or mental illnesses or racism or whatever elitism you want to include in this list. Yes, ever since that Night, the darkness has tried hard to overcome the Light that came into the world, that came into us. Yet you and I are reminded this day that His light burns in all who proclaim Him Lord! His light shows the way in the darkness that seeks so hard to snuff out all life.
And though I have mentioned His passion and precious death, and although I have spoken of the importance of enunciation in the Eucharist, let me speak a moment of what we are called to do in light of this Word becoming flesh. That little Babe, whose birth we celebrate and in Whose glow we bask, will grow to speak of the food that He offers, His own flesh and His own blood, that we might have life eternal. His language, and that of the early Church was so clear, that some in the Empire thought us cannibals, that we sacrificed young babes on our early altars. It was one of the reasons for persecution.
If all we feel warm and fuzzy when we celebrate the birth our Savior, then perhaps our understanding of His birth has been domesticated a bit too much. Perhaps, just perhaps, the true meaning behind the Eucharist has been clouded by scales in our own eyes or by the wisdom of the wise of this world. That Babe is the Word which both saves the world and judges the world. That babe is the flesh which both judges us and saves each one of us. That Babe is the Flesh and Blood we consume each and every time we give thanks to God for passing over our sins and giving us both light and life. That Babe is the Word of God, become flesh, that you and I might share in His glory for ever!
In Christ’s Peace,