Sunday, December 25, 2016

Word of Truth

Christmas Day
John 1.1-14
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1.1, 14).

As much as I love the poetry of John’s Prologue to his gospel, I still, after all these years of hearing it as the gospel for Christmas Day, have a hard time making the shift from the birth narrative we hear on Christmas Eve to this more esoteric imagery. Why, only 12 hours ago we were focusing on the much-beloved imagery of a young woman giving birth to her child, the Son of God, in low and meager conditions, surrounded by cute and cuddly animals, under the adoring eyes of lowly shepherds and the heavenly host of angels alike.  After all, it is so much more heart-warming than the way John portrays it, with all his talk about the Word this and the Word that.  By comparison, John’s words are so cold.  They’re so . . . so theological.  But of course, we know that it’s all the same event, it’s all the same message, just framed in different language. That the two accounts are really two sides of the same coin.

With its very different telling of the Christmas story, the Prologue of John is not meant to dismiss the Lukan birth narrative, but rather really enhances it. Enhances our understanding of the depth of what happened in that manger in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Maybe we need the comforting starting point of the scene at the manger from which to launch into the more theological understanding of what happened there. A comforting starting point to gently move to a fuller understanding of just what this event signifies. After all, Jesus doesn’t stay in the manger forever. And neither can we linger there for too long.

The Gospel readings for Christmas present what is theologically known as “the two natures of Christ.” The fact that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. On Christmas Eve we hear about the newborn baby. The Son of God. God coming in human form. Then on Christmas Day we hear about God coming to dwell on earth with ultimate grace and truth. The belief that Jesus is God from before the creation of the world. Therefore, Christmas Eve highlights the human nature of Jesus, and Christmas Day highlights his divine nature.

John’s Gospel focuses on Christ as the Word. Word, or in Greek, Logos, is a key concept in the philosophical tradition that helped the Greeks see how all creation was ordered. Inherited by the early Christians, it was a small step to go from Logos to Jesus as the Word – Jesus, as the Son of God, being the one who orders creation. Jesus, the Word who was from the very beginning of creation. In the Word made flesh, Jesus came into the very world he had created.

As Genesis tells us, all creation began with the speaking of a word. “Let there be light” (Gen 1.3). In the same way, the Prologue of John proclaims the Word of God as the light – the light of all people. Just as creation began with the bringing of light to the world, the Word of God, Jesus, born in a manger in Bethlehem, himself brings light into the world. He brings light in a different, more intimate form. He brings the light of revelation of who God is. The light of God’s love for all humanity. Since Christ always was, God’s love and intention for humanity have existed from the beginning. From before the beginning. For all eternity. And the Word made flesh, the embodiment in human form of the totality of God’s self-communication, of God’s love, makes that intention known firsthand. That all creation was made for us, as an expression of God’s love for us. And the ultimate creation, the Word, is given for us, as an expression of God’s love.

Martin Luther said it beautifully when he referred to Christ as “the mirror of the Father’s heart.” (Luther, The Large Catechism). That God’s heart is revealed to us through the Word made flesh, through his Son born in a manger in Bethlehem. God became incarnate that we might know the nature of God and God’s love for us.

Lately I have been giving some thought to the way we view words as a means of communicating.  We live in an age where words are becoming more and more subjective – where the words spoken may not necessarily mean the same thing to the hearer as they do to the speaker. As such, the words we hear expressed, particularly in the media, in civic and political discourse, present a truth that is increasingly subjective, increasingly relative. A reversal from the previous drive toward increased precision in our meanings of words. A reality that can be maddening for those of us who make our living using words to, and those who rely on receiving words that, express fundamental truths. Without the certainty of the truth expressed in words, how can we trust what we hear?

While we may struggle with this in our secular lives, that is not the case in our life of faith. The Prologue of John assures us that there is a fundamental truth that is eternal, that is unchangeable. A fundamental truth that is expressed in a Word (capital W). The Word that is the embodiment of the love of God. In the Word made flesh, God’s will and Christ’s self are revealed as being eternal – transcending, not bound by, any current social, economic, or political condition. The Word spoken by God at the beginning of creation, the Word made flesh in the baby at Bethlehem, is the universal, unchangeable truth of God’s unbounded love for us.

There is one other key point in John’s Prologue that we need to pay attention to. Aside from discussion of the Word made flesh, the Prologue also includes an almost parenthetical reference to one who “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (Jn 1.7). While speaking of John the Baptist, this statement has particular meaning for us, as well. As Christians, we are called to be like John the Baptist – those whose lives testify to God’s light and love in the world.

That’s what this season is about. Testifying to the light that has come into the world through the birth of Jesus Christ. The Word made flesh. Emmanuel, God with us. Showing forth the love that has been expressed from the beginning of creation. That is expressed in his lowly birth in Bethlehem. That is expressed in the Word of love and truth spoken by God.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1.14). And that same Word continues to live within us. And through us. This holy day and for all time.

Merry Christmas!

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