THE FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
(Is 61:10-62:5 / Ps 147:12-20 / Gal 3:23-4:7 / John 1:1-18)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is the Lord’s Day, and the elder John, exiled on Patmos for his faithful witness, is in the Spirit, and he sees and hears things — wonderful and awe-full things — things which are and which are yet to come.
Revelation 4:6b–8 (ESV): And around the throne [of God], on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
The Church — from as early as the second century — has associated these four living creatures, described first by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-21) and here by St. John in the Apocalypse, with the four Evangelists: St. Matthew like a man; St. Mark, a lion; St. Luke, an ox; and St. John, the eagle in flight. St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 AD), who was himself a spiritual “grandson” of John the Apostle, explains the particular pairings of creatures and Evangelists in his book Against Heresies. Three need not concern us now; it is St. John who captures our attention and imagination today, on this his feast day: St. John the eagle in flight.
Why an eagle? As beautiful and necessary as the synoptic Gospels are — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — John’s gospel soars above them all. His eyes see, perhaps more clearly than the others, the broad sweeping landscape of salvation history — and not of history only, but of salvation future, too. And with this keener vision, he sees beyond the small villages and dusty roads of Galilee and Judea. He sees the entire cosmos as the venue and recipient of redemption: Jesus of Nazareth, God from God; Christ from the Jews, Christ for all creation; Christ the son of Israel, Christ the savior of the world. There is a “watermark” on every page of John’s Gospel, a faint text written behind all the others words:
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are faithful historical witnesses; they tell us what Jesus said and did. John is the faithful theologian who reflects on what Jesus said and did and who then reveals the depths of meaning in his words and deeds. It doesn’t take a scholar to see that John’s gospel is different; it just takes a faithful reader. In fact, John’s gospel is written to create from nothing, to call forth, the very kind of faithful reader who is worthy of its message: a reader who has been born again, a reader who is filled with the Spirit of truth, a reader with eyes to see and ears to hear. Lord, grant us to be such worthy readers. And you might, of your mercy, pray for me, that this gospel will call forth a worthy preacher of its message, too.
Matthew starts with Abraham and works his way forward through a string of “begats” all the way to Jesus. Mark commences with John the Baptist, just as it was written in Isaiah the prophet, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Luke tells the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the Baptist’s old and barren parents. But St. John? He sees further, like the eagle in flight:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2).
In the beginning: these words have nothing in common with the fairy tale opening line “once upon a time,” nor do they pinpoint a specific moment in time, say December 27, something BC. Just the opposite, in fact: in the beginning tells us that BC is a false orientation right from the start, that there is no BC, no time before Christ the Word was. In the beginning means from all eternity. It is St. John’s and the Church’s rebuttal of that great Arian heresy that claimed Christ was a created being, not co-eternal with the Father. “There was a time when Christ was not,” said the Arians. No. “In the beginning,” John wrote and we orthodox Christians still say:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Matthew and Luke show us a baby, born in time and space: in the days of Herod the King, when Quirinius was governor of Syria; in Bethlehem, the city of David, in this manger, in this house, in this moment. John tells us that this baby — in a way John is yet to reveal; just wait for it — this baby is the eternal Word of God, who existed before space and time and who created both space and time.
In the beginning was the Word: ο λόγος. We live in a world and in a time where words are plentiful and cheap, where many words are mere distractions or, worse still, blatant lies. But, not so long ago — in my father’s day — it was said that a man’s word was his bond, that the most important thing a man had was his word because it was an expression of his character. If an honorable man said it, it was as good as done. Words revealed character. Words created reality. That begins to get at what John means when he says ο λόγος, the Word. The Word reveals the very character of God. The Word affects that which it expresses; the Word speaks reality into being. As it is spoken, so it is done. As is the Word, so is the reality.
ο λόγος also expresses reason and order and purpose. Ask these questions about creation — and about life — as we all do from time to time:
Does any of this — the world in which we live and the lives we live in it — make sense, or are we just muddling along the best we can until we die?
Is there any order, any direction to all this, or is it all just happenstance, just the product of random events?
In the end, does it all mean anything: is there any purpose behind the joy and the suffering, the hope and the fear, the life and the death that we all experience, or are we just deluding and amusing ourselves as we dance toward the grave?
John answers these deepest questions of all men and women in just five words, six in English: In the beginning was the Word. The Word is the source of all reason, order, and purpose in the world and in human life. Does any of this make sense? Yes, the Word makes sense of it. Is all this just random chance? No, the Word gives order and direction to creation and to life. Is there any meaning to life? Yes, and the Word is that meaning. In the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It will take the Church three centuries and more to come to grips with these words. It has taken me a lifetime to even make a good beginning of understanding. How can the Word be with God, which implies difference and individuality, and at the same time be God which implies equality and identity? It makes perfect sense for me to say, “I am John.” It makes no sense at all for me to say, “I am with John.” Difference or equality, individuality or identity: take your pick, but you can’t have both. But John insists that both are true when spoken of the Word and God. The Word is with God; that is, the Word has distinct Personhood that differentiates the Word from God. And yet, the Word is God; that is, there is nothing essential to the nature of God that is lacking in the Word. Language is inadequate for this, even when we use it precisely as the Church has learned to do. This is the truth that John begins to reveal here, the truth of the Trinity, as we say in the Creed of Saint Athanasius:
…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
The Persons of the Godhead are distinct in Trinity — they are with one another — and are yet they are united in Substance, of one nature. The Word was with God and the Word was God, is John’s window into this great mystery of faith.
But, the Word was with God in another sense, too. John is preparing to tell the great drama of salvation in his gospel, a story in which God the Father sends God the Son — the Word — into the world to bear the sins of the world, to suffer and die on behalf of the world, to save the world. There is a caricature of this story that often parades as truth. In it, God the Father is portrayed as the righteous judge who is poised to pour out his wrath on a sinful world. God the Son is pictured as the loving savior who interposes himself between the wrath of the Father and the sin of the world and bears the punishment himself. There is just enough truth there to make this telling seem plausible, when really a half truth is no truth at all. What’s wrong with this story? In it, the Word is not with God, not in agreement, not on the same page, not of one nature and purpose: in it God has one nature — wrath — and one will — judgment, while the Word has a different nature — love — and a different will — forgiveness. But John will have none of that; the Word was with God. They share the same nature. They share the same will. They share the same purpose, the same love, the same unflinching intent to save man and renew creation no matter the cost. The drama of salvation is the joint venture of God and the Word. God sent the Word among us because the Word willed to come among us. John’s word with keeps us from wrongly seeing any difference in nature and will between God and the Word. For all our grand and precise explanations, John says it simply and best:
And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; this is John’s expression of the mystery of the incarnation. And it is a mystery, it remains a mystery, no matter how deeply the theologians explore it and how prayerfully the faithful ponder it. Whatever the incarnation is, it is not God-in-disguise; it is not the Word pretending to be man. Nor is it the Word ceasing to be God to become man. Both of these misunderstandings are classic heresies firmly rejected by the Church. John has something different in mind — not a change in the Word’s divine nature, but the addition of a human nature to form a new and unique person, the God-man: the uniting of two natures, human and divine, in one Person, without separation and without confusion.
No image is sufficient for this, but perhaps this one will be helpful. Imagine a sheet of paper; it would need to be infinitely long, but try to imagine it anyway. Now, write on that paper all the essential characteristics of God; leave nothing out: no matter that you can’t actually do that; we are imagining. So you write characteristics such as uncreated, immortal, spiritual, omniscient, omnipotent, and the like. Now, when you have finished that list, draw a line under it. Everything above the line is the Word. Now, below the line list all the essential characteristics of man: created, mortal, fleshly, and the like. This is something like John had in mind when he wrote that the Word became flesh. Without ceasing to be God — without surrendering any of the divine characteristics — the Word assumed unto himself all the essential characteristics of man: the two lists on a single sheet of paper, not separated by tearing, but not confused either by mixing the items of the two lists together.
Well, that is the best I can do, even though it’s a poor explanation, as are all explanations. Really, the how of the incarnation is not nearly as important as the why of it. Why would the divine, spiritual Word put on human flesh? Why would the infinite Word accept human limitations? Why would the immortal Word assume human mortality? John tells us: and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us — pitched his tent in the neighborhood — not as a foreigner, but as one of us. From the beginning of the story in the Garden to the end-which-is-no-end of the story in New Jerusalem, God’s purpose is to dwell among us, to be our God and to transform us into his holy people, into his very image and likeness. The Word is the prototype of all that, and not the prototype only, but the one by whom, through whom, and in whom it actually happens. Through his incarnation and all that entails — his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension — the Word takes the paper on which our human characteristics are written, draws a line under them, and writes below that line in the boldest script: Holy Spirit. Just as he once united our humanity to his divinity, he now unites his divinity to our humanity in and through his Holy Spirit so that we might truly be called the sons and daughters of God, partakers of the divine nature. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that we might become the temple of the Spirit and dwell with God.
And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. Glory is the visible manifestation of God’s presence; where God is, God’s glory shines: in the burning bush, in the pillar of cloud and fire, on Mount Sinai, between the wings of the cherubim covering the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, in a manger in Bethlehem, in a squalling firstborn son circumcised on the eighth day, in a twelve year old boy questioning the rabbis in the Temple, in a young carpenter planing doors and building walls, in an itinerant rabbi teaching and healing in the synagogues of Galilee, in that same rabbi standing on a mountain top in company with Moses and Elijah as they prepare him for what is soon to come, in a “criminal” standing before the seat of the world’s power as it chews him up and spits him out for convenience sake, in a condemned man carrying a cross and in a dying man crucified on it. Glory, glory as of the only-begotten from the Father.
2 Corinthians 4:6 (ESV): 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
We have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten from Father, full of grace and truth. This one — this Word who became flesh and dwelt amongst us — is not only full of grace, but full to overflowing. And,
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
What is this grace that we have received? It is life and light, for in him was life, and the life was the light of men. And, it is so much more. It is not life as we have known it before. It is the life we have always longed for in those moments of aching joy we experience in the presence of truth and beauty and hope and love. It is the life we were made for, the life we sold so cheaply in the garden and in every act of self-destructive faithlessness since. It is nothing less than the divine life within us:
To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13, ESV).
And now I borrow from C. S. Lewis. Look around you. These people amongst whom you sit are no ordinary people, no mere mortals. “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.” These people amongst whom you sit and with whom you worship are immortals, everlasting splendors (adapted from C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory). And all because they have received the Word, they have believed in his name, and they have been born again, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. They have become the children of God. And that is true of the one you see in the mirror, if that one is in Christ Jesus.
And so I stand before the Prologue of John’s Gospel this morning as the great scientist Isaac Newton stood before the mysteries of creation. He wrote:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
There is a difference, though. For me, for us, the great ocean of truth is a person, the Word who was with God and who was God, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. And because we could not discover him, he revealed himself to us, full of life and light, full of grace and truth. Amen.