Christmas Day - 12/25/2016
If John’s was the only gospel we had, our celebration of Christmas, the Incarnation of our Lord, would be quite different. There would be no manger scenes in churches, homes and, at least around here, in public places, no Mary, no Joseph, no angels, shepherds or wise men. There would be no children’s Christmas pageants and many of our favorite carols would never have been written.
If John was our only gospel, Christmas would be different, but we would still celebrate the Incarnation, God becoming human in the person of Jesus, an event that is really beyond our comprehension. Matthew and Luke give us stories that help to make the idea of incarnation more accessible to us, probably taking fragments of stories they had heard and then adapting them in ways that helped to convey their understanding of who Jesus was and what his life represented; thus the similarities in their accounts and also the differences.
By the time John wrote 20 or 30 years after Matthew and Luke, their stories about Jesus, including his birth, were out there, but John, if he had access to what Matthew and Luke had written, chose to ignore some of it, including the birth narratives, and other stories he included but told in different ways because his agenda was different, often using symbolic and poetic images in emphasizing more the mysterious and mystical nature of Jesus.
For John, the best way to understand and to know Jesus is by contemplating such symbols and images so in his opening verses that are always the gospel reading for Christmas Day, John does what he does. Throughout his gospel he uses light and darkness in telling his stories and when reading John you begin to pay attention to that, especially being aware that when events take place when it is dark, it’s a hint that those involved don’t understand the truth about Jesus. They don’t understand that Jesus is a light shining in the darkness, one of the key images John introduces in today’s reading. It’s light that John then tries to make known throughout his gospel.
In some ways it might seem like the image of light shining in the darkness would have been more appropriate last night with worship ending by singing Silent Night in a dark church illuminated only by candles. But just as John’s gospel was written years after the others, thus being more reflective, we gather this morning, not years later but hours later, allowing us more of an opportunity to reflect on light shining in the darkness.
Liturgically, the candles that are lit for every worship service symbolize the light of Christ but it is also an image that recurs in special ways at various times throughout the year. It did happen last night, but during the weeks of Advent it also happened with the ritual of the Advent wreath. During December, as the days grow shorter and darker, in church the light increases with an additional candle being lit each week. The lights on the tree and on the wreaths here in church and in homes and around town are not merely decorative but should also remind us of Jesus as the light of the world.
The incarnation image of light shining in darkness also comes into play during the time around Easter, the central festival of the church year. The Good Friday Tenebrae service, a service very different in tone compared to a Christmas celebration makes use of light and darkness. On that night, candles are gradually extinguished and complete darkness takes over until a single candle returns to shine in the darkness. At the Easter Vigil, the new fire lit outside in the darkness is another manifestation of the light of Christ returning and shining as is the rising of the sun that ends the all night vigil on Easter morning.
Without the stories of Matthew and Luke, Christmas would be different, but the incarnation would still be celebrated and, especially with the image of light shining in darkness, reminders of it would show up at those other times as well. Those connections are important because the Incarnation is not a standalone event but is connected to all that we celebrate throughout the church year. In addition to that, even without the stories, we would celebrate the Incarnation because it is so important to who we are.
We think about Christmas as being about the birth of Jesus and it is, but understanding Jesus as God, the Word become flesh, the divine becoming human, Christmas is also about us, expressing as it does, God’s love for us. Another key verse in this prologue of John is “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Power to become children of God; as the divine becomes human, human nature itself is changed, the repair needed because of humanity’s fall into sin begins and this all out of God’s love, God’s desire to repair that which is broken.
The birth of a savior, Jesus, is good news and that is obviously part of what we celebrate at Christmas. But, as we reflect on it, the repair of fallen humanity is also part of Christmas and it too represents good news, really good news. In this event, in a new way, God does what God has always done which is to create new possibilities…especially new possibilities for those who don’t deserve it. It’s what we call grace and grace is also part of Christmas. In the quiet of Christmas morning we’re perhaps better able to consider the grace of the Incarnation.
Throughout Advent I have reflected on the Old Testament prophecies each week and it seems appropriate to continue that today. Isaiah writes, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news.” The immediate context of this “good news” concerned the return of the people of Israel to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. A messenger was sent to announce that victory had been won and this is no run of the mill victory because it represented the victory of the Lord, their God, a victory that constituted a new beginning for the people of Jerusalem.
The nature of biblical prophecy though is that the words echo beyond a single historical moment and into other instances of good news so this morning we hear that messenger of Isaiah also announce the good news of the Incarnation, which for us, is yet another new beginning, another cause for celebration.
It’s also notable that the messenger of Isaiah inspired joyous singing first among the sentinels keeping watch and then even among those who had lost hope, “the ruins of Jerusalem” as Isaiah calls them. The announcement of God’s good news inspires singing; spoken words alone don’t do it justice and so it is with the good news of Christmas. The stories of Matthew and Luke are important, the images and mystery of John are important, adding to our celebration. But…a response is called for; we can’t remain silent, so we sing…and we sing with joy.
Rev. Warren Geier