The Word in the Flesh - A Pre-Christmas Reflection on the message of John 1
|The Adoration of the Shepherds -- Frederick van Valckenborch|
A week from now I will be celebrating Christmas. I will have gathered the evening prior with my congregation to observe the coming of the Christ child into the world. I will be drawing on John 1:1-14 that evening. It will be a brief meditation, so I won’t have much time to delve too deeply into the subject. It’s not the passage I usually look to for Christmas Eve, but this year I thought I might. After all, I’ve been bringing the word on Christmas Eve for the past twenty-one years.
John’s prologue is more abstract than the infancy narratives found in Matthew and Luke. The Matthew narrative is actually the Gospel reading for this upcoming Sunday. In that reading, we hear word that Joseph is visited by an angel who reveals that the child Mary is carrying is from the Holy Spirit, that they should name him Jesus (Yeshua) because he will save his people from their sins, and that he will fulfill the promise of Emmanuel (God is with Us) (Mt. 1:18-25).
Despite its more philosophical feel, John’s prologue helps us gain a perspective on this event we celebrate each year. It might not tell us anything about how Jesus was born, but it does give us a sense that this no ordinary person whom we celebrate. John’s prologue has been foundational to my own Christology. If the Word was in the beginning with God and is, in fact, God, then what does it mean for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us?
John reveals a number of things about this Word become flesh. For one thing, all things came into being through him, that he is life, and that he is light. As the light of God, he shines into the darkness. John the Baptist came along, according to the prologue to bear witness to this light. As we gather in this season to share in carols and other celebrations, we follow John in bearing witness to this light come from God, a light that takes flesh so as to dwell among us. Some might prefer a more earthy message, perhaps one that forgoes the origin story and begin as with Mark at the baptism. In the reading from Romans 1 that I am focusing on this coming Sunday (and which I reflected upon in my lectionary reflection on Monday), reference is made to Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh and to the revealing of him being Son of God through the resurrection. The question that this passage raises is whether it suggests that Paul has an adoptionist Christology (that is, he was born a human being but adopted (elevated) to the sonship of God through the resurrection. There is a lot of imperial elements in that conversation—whether Paul is drawing on the claim that Caesar is Son of God as well. That may very well be, but how do we hear this message in light of two centuries of interpretation and reinterpretation? The early Christian theologians may not be right, but do they not have something to say to us?
In part due to my son’s study of Orthodox theology as part of his graduate work at Claremont School of Theology, I’ve been looking again at these witnesses. Writers such as Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa attempted helped influence the direction of the creedal statement that has served to guide the church down through the ages (I should again note that I am part of a non-creedal community, so we don't recite the creed or give it any substantial authority, but for me, I'm comfortable with its message). The opening lines of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Oration “On the Nativity of Christ,” we read:
Christ is born, give glory; Christ is from the heavens, go to meet him; Christ is on earth, be lifted up. “Sing to the Lord, all the earth,” and, to say both together, “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice,” for the heavenly one is now earthly. Christ is in the flesh, exult with trembling and joy; trembling because of sin, joy because of hope. Christ comes from a Virgin; women, practice virginity, that you may become mothers of Christ. Who would not worship the one “from the beginning? Who would not glorify “the Last”? [Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 61]
Now there are elements of this statement that we might wince at, including the encouragement that women embrace virginity so that they might become mothers of Christ,” but for Gregory, the key is the call to sing praises to God because “the heavenly one is now earthly.” That is, the Word has become Flesh and dwelt among us. Or in Matthew’s terms, God is with us in this child.
You might ask, so how does this impact the world? What are the moral implications of this declaration? On the surface, this is simply a theological declaration, but I would suggest that it also reminds us that we are not alone in this journey. God is with us. Light has shined into the darkness. There is hope, so we might experience joy. Gregory continues his oration, but speaking of the light that dissolves the darkness, so that “the shadows have been surpassed, the truth has entered after them.” (Festal Orations, p. 61).
There is this sense of darkness all about us. We live in a polarized world. It is quite apparent in the United States, where the political divide is about as wide as it has ever been. Some of this has been inevitable as the nation has become more diverse and the nation’s people have had to make sense of the change. Some of us have had an easier time of it than others. My hope is that the emerging generations will do a better job than mine has. Truth be told, we have a long way to go, but the light is shining into the darkness. John has born witness to it, and we are invited to do the same so that there might be hope and joy in our lives.
My Christology is rather traditional. I affirm the full humanity and full divinity of Christ, as laid out in the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. I might state things a bit differently than Gregory of Nazianzus, but I can receive his message. Having started with the Cappadocian father of the 4th century, I close with a word from a 20th-century theologian, who has spoken of Jesus as Word of God, and that is Karl Barth. Barth writes: “Revelation in fact does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ nor from the reconciliation accomplished in Him. To say revelation is to say ‘the Word became flesh.’” He goes on to say that “When in the word revelation we say ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,’ then we are saying something which can have only an intertrinitarian basis in the will of the Father and the Sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit, in the eternal decree of the triune God, so that it can be established only as knowledge of God from God, light in light. The same applies if instead of Jesus Christ we saw concretely ‘God with us.’” [Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1:1, p. 119]. To this, we bear witness by letting the light that is the Word made flesh shine through our own lives. That will make a difference in the world. With this Word upon our hearts, may we continue our journey toward Christmas.