On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of God’s plan for our salvation in the simple story of one woman, one man, one infant: the story of a newborn babe laid in a manger, warmed by the breath of animals in a stable, because there was no room at the inn.
We heard Luke’s timeless narrative of shepherds and angels, of the star blazing as a beacon to the world. We heard God’s message of the birth of a savior, given through the angels and delivered to a group of society’s outcasts, in a miracle that telegraphed the direction of Jesus’s coming ministry to the poor and despised peoples of the world.
In its universal humanity, the Christmas story is one that never fails to touch the heart, whether it’s played out by children in the parish Christmas pageant or read silently at home. In a sense, in zeroing in on that one family, that one baby, and the events of that one moment in time, it’s the micro version of the history of Christ’s coming.
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, we heard the macro version of that same message. John speaks in language that does not lend itself to pageants, in language that reaches the head before the heart. But this one brief and poetic passage is packed with essential points that help to define our Christian faith.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” On Christmas night, the angels announced Jesus as Savior and Messiah. Now we see him revealed as something even greater: as God, present from the beginning of time, in on the Creation, with all that that implies.
“Logos,” translated into English as “Word,” has many meanings in Greek. It can mean “an opinion,” or “to reason,” or “a plea,” as well as “speech” or “word.”
It has a long history and evolution in Greek philosophy. The Stoic philosophers of the third century BC used “Logos” to describe an aspect of the divine. Philo, a Jewish philosopher born about 20 years before Jesus in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, integrated that with the concept of Wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures.
John digested Philo’s work and adapted it to his gospel. The concept of Jesus as the Word of God, so imperative in our Christian tradition, is introduced here.
That’s the first big point. The second is like unto it: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
“Life,” for John, means “eternal life,” a life beyond death. The presence of light is an essential part of God, from the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible onward. The importance of that symbolism was particularly pronounced in that world, where light was scarce after the sun set. Without light, we cannot see; we blunder in the darkness, threatened by all the enemies that dwell there. But with the light provided by the Word, the spiritual darkness is driven away, and everything becomes visible.
But – next big point – not everyone recognized the light for what it was. John the Baptist, whom some at the time of Jesus believed was the Messiah, went ahead to prepare the way for the Word.
Those who do recognize the light of Jesus have the power to become God’s children, filled with God’s grace. That’s important, because, as the reading from Galatians explains, those who have accepted Christ are freed from the burden of the Law of Moses.
The Law started out as a commonsense guide to living and to honoring God, and grew from there; the consensus among Jewish scholars is that there are a total of 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. That’s far more than most people can remember, let alone observe. Jesus cut through the thicket to get back to basics: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
John’s language takes a little unpacking, but it provides the ideal balance to the simplicity of Luke’s narrative. It provides a key to understanding the meaning of the story of the birth in the stable.
The biggest of all the points in this reading is God’s love for us. Everything else just tells us how that love is manifested.
God is too immense for the human mind to understand. But because God loves us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” born as one of us, in a smelly barn, a human being with human challenges. Because God loves us, Jesus stepped out of the security of a quiet life into the spotlight, preaching and teaching and healing, setting himself on the road to Calvary.
Because God loves us, we can experience the grace of God. Because God loves us, Jesus brought us the gift of eternal life, the gift of becoming God’s children. There is no greater gift than that.
– Sarah Bryan Miller