Christmas may be over in our culture, but for us it continues for twelve days, through January 5. I don’t know whether any of you actually observe the twelve days of Christmas in any way, about the only nod Corrie and I make to the traditional season of Christmastide is to leave our Christmas tree up through the duration. In the stores, I assume the Christmas decorations are down and the Valentine’s Day displays are up. While many people’s outdoor decorations remain, the number of discarded Christmas trees curbside is growing by the day. We’ve moved on to other things—last minute plans for New Year’s, thinking about what January will bring, bowl games, NFL playoffs, all of that. Christmas is receding into the past, now memories, hopefully joyful memories, but memories nonetheless.
Not so here. We will continue to observe Christmas for another week. Depending on where Christmas falls on the calendar, we have two Sundays in the Christmas season, like this year. In our lectionary, the gospel reading for the First Sunday of Christmas is always the same—John 1:1-18. It’s virtually the same reading that we had on Christmas Day, different only in the addition of the last four verses that we heard today.
These verses are often referred to as the prologue to the Gospel of John; most scholars think that at its heart, these verses were a hymn early Christians sang—a hymn that was picked up by the gospel writer and adapted for his own purposes. That’s somewhat surprising, perhaps, because when we sing at Christmas, we sing carols about shepherds or Mary or angels. Our Christmas carols derive for the most part from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and reflect the piety and emphases of Christians of those eras. It’s only occasionally that our voices raise with words that echo the language of John’s gospel, in the hymn we’ll sing at communion, “Of the Father’s love begotten.”
As rich and evocative as the language of these first verses of John’s gospel are, I doubt that many of you find them as emotionally powerful as Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, which begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” It’s toward Bethlehem, the manger, angels, shepherds and the like that our attentions are drawn at Christmas, toward the miracle at Bethlehem, to the familiar story and its familiar characters.
John’s gospel draws us away from Bethlehem and invites us to consider the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ, of God becoming human. And as it does, it challenges to see ourselves and all of creation in light of God’s redeeming work and in light of God’s redeeming love.
The magnificent cadences of this gospel reading, the prologue of the Gospel of John, have provided theologians with endless possibilities for reflection over the centuries. What I would like to focus our attention on today are a few words that are often overlooked in this text, but they are important nonetheless: “But to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God.”
In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, Paul makes the same claim; that God sent his son, that we might by adoption become children of God. Such language is familiar to us, but I would like to reflect on this in the context of the incarnation as we continue to celebrate today. Both John and Paul place the idea of our being children of God in connection with the coming of Christ in human form. When we use the term, we tend to think of it much more broadly—as human beings, we are all in some sense, the children of God, each of us is a child of God. But we probably would feel uncomfortable to refer to ourselves as a son, or daughter, of God. When we think of “Son of God” we think almost exclusively in terms of Christ.
Yet we should think of ourselves as children of God. That is Paul’s point when he refers to the use of “Father” in prayer. He seems to be saying that if we call God “Father” when we pray, as in “Our Father, who art in heaven,” then we must be God’s children.
But what does it mean to be children of God? We might tend to focus on the shape of the relationship implied in such language—patriarchal, hierarchical. No matter how much love there might be between parent and child, there is also asymmetry—particularly when thinking about a parent and a newborn, or toddler. But if we shift focus away from the asymmetry toward what binds parent and child together—not just love, but an organic, physical, genetic connection—then what matters is the shared nature of parent and child.
The Incarnation helps us make sense of and claim our nature as children of God. Perhaps no one understood this better than Athanasius, archbishop of Alexandria in the fourth century. He was the great defender of the faith in a time when battles over doctrine were fought not only among theologians but in the streets and at the imperial court. For his efforts he was repeatedly exiled. In his work On the Incarnation of the Word of God, he articulated what has come to be known as the correct, the orthodox understanding of the incarnation. There and elsewhere, he argued that in Christ God became human in order that humans might become God.
That statement, which is a direct quote, may seem shocking to our ears. We tend to think of ourselves and God as separated by a vast chasm, and indeed we are. But Athanasius’ point is that the Incarnation is a bridge across that chasm, offering us a way of becoming more than we are.
And that is part of the power of the Incarnation as well. It isn’t simply that God has become flesh, however significant that is. It isn’t simply about God in flesh offering Godself to us. It isn’t simply that in the Incarnation, we are reminded that all of creation is of God. The Incarnation also teaches us what it means to be human.
Our tendency is to think of Jesus as someone quite unlike ourselves—as superman, perhaps, or as someone who was not human in the way we are, with our little faults and weaknesses. But that’s precisely the wrong way to look at it. The incarnation of Christ asserts that indeed, Jesus was just like one of us. He was born as a baby, he grew and matured like we have, he had the same struggles, the same difficulties, the same emotions that we have. There were early Christians who thought differently, who wondered whether the Jesus who could walk on water or could feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes might have been able to work miracles when he was a little boy, too. But the church declared such ideas heretical.
The wonder of the Incarnation is not simply that Christ became human; it is that he became human exactly like us. He took the same frail flesh that we carry in our bodies. He hungered and thirsted, he ate and drank, he got angry and he wept. As a baby, he was weak and vulnerable, dependent as babies always are.
But, and this is the important point, this is what Athanasius was trying to express, Jesus also showed us how to be human in a new way. We are tempted every day to lead lives dominated by fear and smallness, to stroke our egos or strive for fame and fortune, to hurt our friends and family in little ways, and sometimes, in big ways.
The Incarnation offers us a better way. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Jesus Christ became human to show us way, to show us by his love, how to love one another. In his life, and especially in his death, Jesus Christ demonstrated to us and to the world the nature and power of love incarnate. He showed us human life transformed by love, transformed for love. The Incarnation challenges us to accept adoption as children of God, to love as God loves us, to love as God showed God’s love in Jesus Christ.