Today is the first Sunday of Christmas. You know that there are 12 days of Christmas, and that those twelve days begin, not end, on Christmas Day. Christmas continues right up to the Feast of the Epiphany—although in many places, Christmas decorations remain in the church until February 2, which is Candlemas, or also the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple. Continue reading
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”
We live in difficult times. The world is a dangerous, scary place. The future looks bleak. Not only are the problems we face apparently beyond our will and capacity to solve. It’s not just the ongoing wars, a challenging economy; Climate change seems to be occurring at a frightening pace—with reports this week about warm temperatures in the Arctic causing unprecedented ice melting.
It’s not just the immensity of the problems, in recent years truth and reason themselves have come under attack. First it was Stephen Colbert and “truthiness.” Now, we are victims of “fake truth” the manipulation of the media, and a widespread and vicious attack on science.
Some of this latter can be blamed on a certain understanding and worldview within Christianity. It’s been a practice among some Christians for centuries to draw a sharp contrast between faith and reason—to argue that one must believe in spite of evidence to the contrary; that faith in God goes against reason. In recent decades, that view has led to some Christians making contortions in their efforts to explain away the theory of evolution, the fossil record, the big bang, arguing that scientific evidence like fossils were given by God to test our faith, or worse, planted by Satan to deceive us.
In a way all of this has led us to this point; where we’re not quite sure of anything; that every position no matter how supported by scientific evidence, is only a matter of opinion.
These majestic, transcendent verses from the very beginning of the Gospel of John reflect and present us with a very different perspective. John is writing from within a particular worldview that permeated the Hellenistic culture of his time. In the beginning was the Word, in fact, in the beginning was the Logos—more than word, it could be translated as reason. You could understand it as the underlying order of the universe, natural law, if you will.
John is asserting not just that God created the universe, but that this created universe is imbued with divine order and reason; that it makes sense, and also, that by exploring the universe, we can come to know something about the nature of God.
Of course, to translate logos as “word” is to make another important theological point—that at the very beginning of things, the second person of the Trinity was present, involved in creating the universe. Indeed, in Genesis 1, God creates by speaking the universe into existence—God said, “Let there be light.”
This is all well and good, but the reality is that the world we experience only dimly reflects the divine order and creative power that brought it into being and maintains it. Our fallen natures have clouded our reason, and creation itself bears signs of our disobedience of God.
We experience our own sin and fallen-ness, we know our broken-ness and the broken-ness of the world, and we struggle to know and to love God and ourselves. Given that, we’re tempted to experience or understand God as utterly beyond us, beyond our comprehension or understanding, remote, uncaring, unmoved or unmoving.
The word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the heart of this passage, the heart of the gospel, it may very well be the heart of Christianity. The God who is utterly beyond us, incomprehensible, infinite, has become one of us, has dwelt among us. The God who created the world and us, has come to us in human form, becoming human, sharing our lives and our existence.
But more than that, the word we translate as “dwelt” could be translated as tabernacled or tented—it’s a reference back to the experience of the Hebrews in the wilderness when they created a tabernacle to be a symbol of God’s presence among them as they wandered through the desert.
That’s one way we should think about it, that in the Word becoming flesh God tented among us, taking on a frail, temporary body like ours, but also that God journeyed with us, that God journeys with us, that God is with us as we wander through our lives.
It’s a remarkable journey that we make through our lives, it’s a remarkable journey of struggle, change, and love. There’s a remarkable journey in this text, from before time and the universe existed, to the Word becoming flesh and tenting among us.
To ponder that mystery, not just what the words say, but the mystery of the nature of God to which it bears witness—a God beyond our comprehension and imagination, but a God who so cares for us and loves us, that the very Word of God comes to us, becomes one of us, dies for us.
To contemplate that God, the God we see dimly in the beauty of creation; the God we see clearly in the incarnation; the God we see in the words and life of Jesus Christ; the God whose self-giving love embraces the whole world in his outstretched arms.
To contemplate that God, to contemplate that love, and to begin to express and share that love; that is what and who we are called to be by Christmas. Thanks be to God.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” These majestic words, the beginning of John’s gospel capture the profundity and the mystery of our faith. For two thousand years, Christians have read these verses, wrestled with them, pondered their meaning. We do that today as we celebrate the miracle of God becoming flesh and living among us.
One of my great joys as a priest is to visit parents of newborn babies in the hospital. Each time I enter the room, I am overwhelmed with the joy, excitement, and love that a new mother and father have for their child. There is also awe and wonder, and usually, especially when it’s a first child, looks of amazement and bewilderment. As I sat with one couple recently, we talked about the life this baby would have, what he would see and experience, who he would become.
I’m awed by the responsibility parents take on. I’m also awed by the vulnerability, weakness, and dependence of newborns. This year, as I’ve reflected on Christmas and thought about what it means that God became flesh in a manger, in a stable, in Bethlehem, I have pondered the mystery that God comes to us, that God became human by being born as a baby, vulnerable, weak, utterly dependent on others for life.
For all the mystery and wonder about the first verses of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” I think that in some ways, it’s easier for us to get our heads around what John is trying to say here than it is for us to comprehend the fact that God became incarnate in a baby in Bethlehem.
Even if it may be difficult to believe that God created the universe and that the Word was present at creation, such notions at least conform to the idea of God that we have. If there is a God, certainly God created the universe. That’s the sort of thing philosophers debate and a notion that is worthy of an adequate concept of God. But for such a God, as the philosophers argue, all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, for a God like that to be born as a baby, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Immediately, all sorts of questions come up that curious people might wonder. If God is all those things, all powerful, all-knowing, what was God like as a baby? How could a weak, vulnerable infant contain a being of infinite possibility and infinite nature? How do we make sense of these two ways of understanding the way in which God became incarnate—the story Luke tells of Mary and Joseph, of a manger and stable, of shepherds and the story, or poetry of John: In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.
Well, John himself makes the connection a few verses into the gospel: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” More literally, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled (or tented) among us.”
That’s such an evocative image both for our present context and for the biblical story. Tents are something we’re familiar with. They provide shelter, yes, but they are also relatively insubstantial. They might protect us from rain, but they aren’t much use in a heavy storm with strong winds and few of us would want to have to live through a Wisconsin winter with only a tent for shelter. The image of the tent seems to capture something of the frailty of human nature.
But in the biblical context, the idea of tent or tabernacle takes on even greater significance. For it was in a tabernacle, a tent, that God was present with the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert for forty years. And in the tabernacle, God revealed God’s glory to the Israelites.
John uses that imagery as he seeks to help us understand the nature of God in Christ. For, he says, “we have seen his glory, … full of grace and truth.” Just as God revealed God’s glory to the Israelites in a tabernacle made from the skins of animals, so we see God’s glory in the frail flesh of a new-born baby.
That is the mystery of our faith, that we encounter God in a newborn baby born in Bethlehem. St. Paul articulates this fundamental paradox in the phrase: “power made perfect in weakness” because of course it is not just that we see God in the manger in Bethlehem. We also see God dying on the cross.
In John’s gospel, the paradox of the incarnation is also the paradox of the cross. John loves to use that word “glory” or “glorification” when speaking of the cross. Like Paul, John is telling us that in these moments of weakness, we see God’s majesty and power.
Manger, cross; God’s weakness, God’s vulnerability; God’s power. That is the mystery of the incarnation. That is the mystery and the bedrock of our faith. We may not understand, we may not comprehend it, but we can see it and experience it with our very eyes. We have the reality of the incarnation before us in the God who became flesh and tented among us, the God who died on the cross and was raised again.
But we have the reality of that incarnation before us in many ways. We see it, we taste it in the bread and wine of the eucharist, when we receive the body and blood of Christ. We see it in the very imperfect Church, both our local community, and the worldwide communion, bodies filled with flaws and imperfections, but also, mysteriously, the body of Christ. And finally, we may see it in ourselves, imperfect human beings though we are, but by the grace of God filled with the presence of Christ. May this Christmas rekindle in all of us the knowledge of Christ’s presence, of Christ’s glory, in ourselves, in our church and community, and in all the world. May we experience the reality of the incarnation for ourselves, and share it with the world!
“To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as ell as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and to be manifested in us. Christ’s work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarnate, crucified and glorified. Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man, so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.” Cost of Discipleship