The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
(St John 1:9)
Many of you will know that Monday was a scary time for Rebekah and Frank Boneschanscher. Rebekah began to have contractions at 5 months in her pregnancy. She is in hospital now receiving the very best care, and the contractions have stopped for now – they have both asked for your continued prayers. I saw Rebekah in hospital in Zwolle and she explained how she was not able to come to Utrecht because the Neonatal unit here was full. And when they took her by ambulance from Amersfoort to the hospital in Zwolle, all the ambulance bays were also full, so she had to wait. The ambulance attendant, could not help see the parallel, and said to her, “It seems there is no room in the inn.” It was a scary moment for Rebekah, but she said it made her think of the mother of our Lord, Mary, after the frantic search finally going into an animal stable for the birth of Jesus and the uncertainty and danger of that! Rebekah is conscious like never before of the fragility of human life – and yet God chose to take flesh and be born in this way!
It is this frail human birth and existence that we celebrate at Christmas – the incarnation of God, God taking flesh in Jesus Christ.
Other religions have spoken of a kind of “transitory appearance of God in human form” but no other religion claims, as Christians do, that God took flesh in a particular person at a particular time and in a way that maintained the full integrity of divine and human in the one person, Jesus Christ. [Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, see Logos] As we say in the Athanasian Creed: Not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by the taking of the Manhood into God. God did not become a man so that he was no longer God, but took human nature into God. And that happened in a way that his human nature was not overwhelmed by also being God. (e.g. Jesus still needed to grow in wisdom and stature, like every other person [Luke 2:52]; as a human being he did not know the time of his return [Matthew 24:36].)
The music around Christmas time, our carols and hymns, are mostly focussed on the circumstances of that earthly birth, expressing the teaching of the Gospels, to drive home the message of its particularity.
- It was in the days of Herod the king; during a census by Caesar Augustus.
- It was two real historical people, Mary and Joseph.
- They travelled from the real earthly town of Nazareth to the real earthly town Bethlehem in Judaea – places still here on earth, centres of pilgrimage for all time.
- The humanity of Jesus is proclaimed in the carols, in that he was born of a woman, just like every other person born into the world. We imagine that Silent Night, Jesus asleep on the hay or the cattle lowing and the baby awake. And this child was lovely and awe inspiring to behold, just as is every child born into the world, and yet also something more.
- And at the same time the carols point to the claim of Scripture that it was God taking flesh: the Angel Gabriel announces the coming birth not to a couple but to a Virgin; the Herald angels tell the shepherds of the special birth; wise men from the East followed heavenly signs, and brought gifts for One who is to be a king, a priest and a sacrifice, not just for the Jewish people, but for all peoples.
These are core elements of the teaching of the Incarnation – of the birth of a special and particular human being in a particular time and place in history, and also, that the baby Jesus is more than a human being.
But our readings today from Hebrews [1:1-12] and from John’s Gospel [1:1-14] focus not so much on the historical particularities, but on the universal significance of the Incarnation. Let’s look today at just two of these verses, declaring the universal significance of Jesus Christ, one from John and one from Paul.
The first, is from John: The true Light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (St John 1:9)
Whenever people on earth perceive the truth, whenever they experience enlightening, John is saying that that light is coming from God, and that light is the Word, the eternal reason, the divine Wisdom. So whatever you know from science, whatever religion you hold – the extent to which you know the Truth, is the extent to which you are being enlightened by the same eternal Word, that became flesh. You are coming out of the shadows.
I don’t know about you, but I have a strong desire not to be fooled, and to seek out what is true. I have no interest in being a part of a body of believers that is a sect, no matter how big or how popular or how unpopular – I just want to know what really is the truth – not my truth as opposed to your truth, but the Truth.
And surely many of us want to know what is universal, what is true for all people, for all times and in all places. Only then can we stand on solid ground; only then can we build upon it. This is what John is claiming about the Son of God: He is the Word that was from the beginning, the Reason behind all things, the Light which gives light to everyone. You already know something of the Truth, if you want to know more, look to the Word…and that Word was made flesh, in Jesus Christ, He is the Truth. Later, Jesus said this of himself: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. [Jn 14:6]
The second declaration of the universal significance of Jesus is from Paul: Paul says of Jesus, He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. [Hebrews 1:3]
We are told in Genesis that every person on earth is made in the image and likeness of God. Distinctions between race and tribe and sex and age and Creed and preference for whatever – all these distinctions which are so highlighted by some in the modern world – such distinctions pale in comparison with our common humanity, which is, in every case, at its core made in the image and likeness of God.
But we are also told in Genesis and we know from life experience that much of what we and others do is surely not God-like, not a reflection of God’s image and likeness. We are fallen. That image is obscured. So what does that restored humanity look like?
Paul, in saying that Jesus is the exact imprint of his nature is saying that Jesus is the icon, the archetype, the image of God in man. So in this world of charlatans and of broken images, there is one human being who is the perfect image and likeness of God. In the stories of the life of Jesus we see what a perfect human being thinks about, how a redeemed human being acts, and how a restored person loves.
In Jesus, we know what we’re aiming for when it comes to uncovering the image and likeness of God in us.
So in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we can come to see and know God, the Truth, and we can see what humanity in its fullness can become.
But something is missing still in what I’ve said. We know that we are not saved through knowledge alone. Jesus didn’t leave us only with words on a page about him. If that was enough he could have sent more prophets inspired by the Word to reveal in time more and more of God’s fullness.
But would those added words on a page have comforted Rebekah as she was waiting for the hospital to find a place for her? And would that added knowledge be enough to comfort us in our sorrows and in our pains, which are very real and very deep in this life? Is it not in part the sympathy of God shown by His entrance into our world to share and transform our suffering that encourages us? Thankfully Jesus is not just the Word made into a book, He is the Word made flesh.
The experience of the Apostles was not limited to being taught some facts about God by a great teacher, but was one of deep fellowship and love with Jesus. It was being with him that changed them, it was grace flowing from him in His presence. [see Christos Yannaros, Elements of Faith, pp. 104-108] John says, we have seen his glory, glory… full of grace and truth. [Jn 1:14] And it was in this near communion with Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, that the Light broke through the darkness of their souls and the darkness – their confusion, their suffering – did not overcome it. [Jn 1:5]
That same fellowship with Jesus Christ is offered to us, in the Kingdom that Jesus has come to build on earth – his Church – and the Kingdom to which he is bringing us in the life to come. The Christian life is not just an intellectual assent to certain ideas, it is that in part, but what is offered is more: a lived reality, experienced in part, no doubt, through the reading of His Word (the Word spoken without, bringing forth the Word of truth that is within – Augustine), but more profoundly is experienced in fellowship with other Christians, in the life of prayer that is opened up to us by the Cross (see Heavenly Avarice, by the Rev Dr Robert Crouse), in the service of love to our neighbour. It begins through our baptism into Christ – a spiritual union with God – and is sustained by the Holy Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood given for us.
So in our service today, we don’t only tell the story, as important as that is, but we also sit with fellow believers and are encouraged by one another as we lift our voices together in prayer and in praise to God. And we also prepare ourselves, by being as honest as possible before God, so that Truth, that Light, might flood into our souls, and we might partake of the Divine Life which Jesus has made possible, through giving up for us His Incarnate Body and Blood.
I wish you all a joy-filled Christmas,
a Christmas full of grace and truth from Jesus Christ Himself!