|Credit for the picture: Kings College Chapel Choir , Cambridge, England|
Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
THE GOSPEL. S. John 1. 1
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men”
Behold the mystery of Christmas! Now you weren’t really expecting Santa Claus and his team of dancing reindeer just yet, were you? But perhaps, just perhaps, you might have expected, reasonably enough, the story of Mary and Joseph and the wee child, “cradled in a stall was he with sleepy cows and asses”. Please don’t take that last reference personally! And yet, the great and resounding Gospel which you just heard is the gospel which lies at the heart of the mystery of Christmas, reindeer, sleepy cows and asses and ourselves notwithstanding.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and, if that were not marvelous enough, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. This is the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of the life of God opened out to us in the very being of our humanity, the mystery of God himself now become the mystery of God with us.
It is no discredit to the sweet wonder of Bethlehem, to the strange and touching picture of the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph, to the scene at the inn where there was no room, to the stable and the manger where the holy child is born, that we should hear the Gospel from the Prologue of John rather than the familiar nativity stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We hear those stories as well in the Christmas season, of course, but what gives them poignancy and meaning is what we hear in this great gospel.
If we had nothing else of the whole of the New Testament, but only the Prologue of John, it would almost be enough, it seems, which is not to say that everything else is so much straw and nothing worth. Instead, it emphasizes the surpassing wonder of what is seen and heard in this gospel which illumines so much and, indeed, everything of the mystery of Christmas and of the heart and soul of the Christian faith.
As the poet/preacher John Donne observed in his magisterial sermon preached on Christmas day in 1621, the “whole gospel” of John “is comprehended in the beginning thereof”. And more. In some sense the whole of divinity is captured in this beginning. “For here is first, the Foundation of all, the Divinitiy of Christ”. And yet, in this lies the greatest challenge to our world and day. It has altogether to do with two things: first, the idea of God; and second, the divinity of Christ present in the reality of our humanity; in short, the Word and the Word made flesh. This is the teaching which belongs to the heart and soul of Christianity.
“Without forsaking what he was, yet he became what he was not”. God became man without forsaking his divinity and yet became altogether what belongs to our humanity in the integrity of its spiritual and physical truth. And yet, is not this the very paradox, and therefore the unexpected glory of God with us, which lies at the very heart of the Christmas mystery and celebration? Is not this the teaching which redeems all the sentiment and sensuality of our lives and of this season in our all-too-secular and all-too-atheistic world? It redeems the sentiment and sensuality of the season by gathering it into the great something more of God’s Word signaled so profoundly in John’s gospel, and especially in the splendid prologue of his gospel, which proclaims so clearly the great and distinctive principle of the Christian faith, ‘the Word made flesh’. The Word that is God engages our humanity in the intimacy of Christ’s holy birth without which we are left in the dark unreason of our all-too-sentimental and all-too-anxious sensual lives.
And yet our text, drawn from the prologue, too, makes the point in another way and in a way that challenges the existential pragmatism and institutional follies of our world and day. “In him was life and life was the light of men”. Life and light. These are the two great metaphors and images of our spiritual life. “I have come”, Jesus says, “that they might have life and have it more abundantly”. Abundant life is opened out to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The life is light, the light of holy understanding, the light of creedal doctrine. Christ, after all, is “Light of Light, very God of very God”. He is the light that has come into the world.
It makes no sense, of course, unless we appreciate and honour the reality of the idea of God and the reality of the idea of the divinity of Christ. In a certain way, the celebration of Christmas concentrates for us the idea of the reality of God with us, the God who does not abandon his people but seeks their restoration and perfection, the God who engages our world without simply being collapsed into the world, lost in its confusions and uncertainties. Ultimately, that is what is signaled in the celebration of the birth of the holy child. Ultimately, it is about life as light. Something is made known in the darkness of human experience. God makes himself known and reveals us to ourselves at one and the same time, both for good and for ill.
“He came unto his own and his own received him not”. There was no room in the inn. Do we have room for God in the inn of our souls? In a way, the stark and sorry answer is no. Instead we must seek him where he wills to be born – in the lowliness of a barn among the lowliest of creation, among the simple beasts of the field, and only in us provided we are humble and open to the wonder of his coming, only in us provided we repent of the pretence of our pride and the arrogance of human experience which demands that God be accountable to us and subject to our bidding. We are not the measure of reality. God is. That, of course, is the point without which we can make no sense of the mystery of Christmas. We are too much with ourselves in the ‘inns’ of our pride, in the follies of our own self-assertions about our sexual, social, economic and political identities, in “the devices and the desires” of our all-too-foolish hearts. Better to sing with the shepherds.
The nativity of Christ signals the wondrous humility of God and calls us to a reasonable humility about ourselves, to ourselves as the ‘mangers’, as it were, in which Christ comes to be born, in the quiet darkness and the naked reality of our humanity, stripped of all pretence, at one with the simple creation. Bethlehem, after all, recalls paradise. The God who called out to us “where are you?” has come to us and suddenly the wilderness of our disobedience has become the paradise of heaven. Bethlehem is paradise restored.
It presents a picture of the harmony of the created order in all of its distinct and ordered moments, but even more, it shows the harmony of God with his creation. Here is the life of the world, the source and creator of the universe at home in the world, at one with us in the truth of our humanity, at one with us illuminating the darkness of the world which has turned its back on God. Here is the life that is the light of men. We are meant to know God as the source of the world’s being and life. We are meant to live in that light of divine understanding.
“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God”. The mystery of God with us bestows a new dignity and a new freedom upon our humanity. But only if we are willing to live in that light that is life. It means to feed on the Word, to come to the manger of the Church where the light of Christ is all our life. To receive him who is our life and our light means to live in the light of his teaching. And that is the challenge for our world and day, for the church and for each of us. It challenges the world morally, socially, economically and politically; in short, spiritually. It challenges the Church and each of us to be faithful to what we have received, to make the Word the measure of experience and not experience the measure of the Word.
Without the Gospel of the Word made flesh, Christmas is but a simple folk tale, quaint and picturesque, perhaps, but of no real meaning and of little worth. Without the Word, we are left in the dark unreason of our sentimentality and sensuality. There is no redemption of the sensual and the sentimental, no engagement between God and us; in short, no mystery, no Christmas. There is only the darkness and the death of ourselves. But in this holy Word, there is light and life, grace and truth. He who comes is the light of men who opens out to us the light of God. “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”, John tells us, in a kind of almost parenthetical ecstasy. Such is the great joy of Christmas, if only we will see. And then, perhaps, too, we shall sing with the shepherds and dance with the reindeer.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men”
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church/Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne