Another Christmas Story
Every year the First Sunday of Christmas we read John 1:1-18. It is a lofty and mysterious text as it begins, “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.”
We are so used to Matthew and Luke describing Christmas “from below,” with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, Magi, Angels everywhere, a Star in the sky, that it is difficult for us to recognize that what John is describing is the First Christmas – the Christmas before Christmas if you will. It is a view from “above it all.”
I say “First” because as anyone can see, John begins with the very first words of The Bible in Genesis 1: “In the beginning…” That is, we are meant to recognize that the story of Jesus begins before creation – for as we learn later this “Word,” which in the Greek text is “logos” - a word itself rich and complex with meaning to those who first read or heard this story of Jesus – this Word becomes a body, a person, flesh and blood like all of us. Like the very first person we read about in Genesis 2, created from a handful of mud or clay into which God breathes and it comes alive. The Bible, as many other ancient texts, understands that life begins with breathing, and that this breath comes from the same place as everything else – God. It is also understood that as we exhale, we share God’s breath with the rest of creation. All of life is made possible by our receiving the gift of inhalation, or the inspiration of God’s breath, God’s spirit, and then sharing this gift as we exhale, or expire, God’s breath with the rest of creation. How often do we think of ourselves as “sharing” with the whole world every moment we live and breathe?
This Word that becomes flesh is life, just as the breath is life, and this life is “the light of all people.” Like the Word, all people are light, even, we are told, in darkness. We forget that in the story John references, Genesis 1 and 2, light and darkness are both created to balance one another. And for the Jewish people of Jesus’s time, darkness, night, is believed to be the beginning of the day when people can rest and be restored to go back to work when the light returns. That is, for most Jews darkness is as good as light, and represents a Sabbath time of rest, the commandment that consists of nearly one-third of all the text of the Ten Commandments.
Yes, there were those at the time of John’s gospel who saw the world as divided, not balanced, between Light and Darkness. They saw themselves as Sons of Light preparing for battle against the Sons of Darkness, which for them was Rome, an Empire and Power Structure arrayed against God and all things good. They had plans of action and plans for battle and a view that the Light will eventually slaughter the Darkness. It’s possible John also envisions such a view, but then he introduces John the Purifier who gives testimony to the Light and is to draw all people to faithfulness. The Greek word pistis could mean other things, but normatively suggests faithfulness of practicing Torah, a life that acts out God’s “nurturing love for creation.” As Richard Swanson observes, “This will finally fit badly with the notion that Torah observance requires the sharpening of swords and the arranging of pikemen along the line of battle. John testifies to the light to draw all to faithfulness, because the muddle of human life had prevented people from seeing the Light that limits the darkness and from living lives of faithfulness. The one not recognized is apparently Jesus.” [Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of John, p 97]
The Gospel of John lies between the two failed revolts against Rome, first in 70 AD and later in 135 AD. The Rabbis at the time when asked why the revolts failed wisely answered: factionalism, taking a shot at zealotry in all forms, and at the resisters who failed to join with the zealots. When we are fractured, said the rabbis, we fail.
Into this scene the Word which is Life and Light becomes flesh and blood, sets up a tent and comes to dwell among us. This Word which is God, is not a cute and adorable God in diapers in the hush of a quiet stable with just a mother, a father and a few animals. This is one of us stepping into the chaotic mixture of religion, politics, economics and warfare that was first century Israel. The same chaotic world in which we all live. He arrives, John tells us, to reveal Grace and Truth into a world that has been divided and factionalized by a ruthless Empire that has appointed equally ruthless men to squeeze every last ounce of wealth out of its client states, in this case, Israel. This Grace and Truth is meant to order the chaos of our lives just as In the Beginning God ordered the chaos of creation itself.
Grace and Truth. Commodities in short supply back then and to this very day. Jesus, the Word made Flesh, sets up shop among us to begin the work of faithfulness to the kind of nurturing love God intends for all people, all creatures and all creation itself. Jesus, the Word, involves himself in all the challenges and controversies of the day and works to bring people together so that divisions and factions will cease.
This text from John suggests that the Grace and Truth of Christmas does not need a creche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word, to accept the Word, to get up and follow the Word. Literally, we are to see the light! There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Jesus, the logos, the Word, we can see the light and the logos, and he will lead us in the work of faithfulness, the work of Christmas. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the Work of Christmas to begin. It is time to share God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s Grace and Truth with all creation.
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the Kings and Princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To bring peace among sisters and brothers
To make music in the heart
-Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas