I must admit that I have always been a little wary of John’s prologue at Christmas time. I tend to prefer the earthy stories of Jesus in a manger, of dramatic angelic appearances, of messy shepherds, and of a baffled holy family. I like that I can picture the events in my mind and ponder their meaning. I like that I could imagine myself there and even wonder what the events mean to me two thousand years later. My love of these stories is only accentuated by the songs we sing on Christmas Eve, and the nostalgia the music brings to me.
But today, on Christmas Day, we get none of that. We sing no songs, we hear no romantic, familiar stories, and we do not get lost in the ancient narrative. Instead, on this busy, often loud day, we come into a totally different space – a place of quiet reverence – and we hear a totally different text. John does not go back to the beginning of Jesus’ story – he goes back to the beginning of all our stories. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Our minds drift not back to a stable, but to the beginning of creation, when the earth was a formless void – tohu wavohu. Whereas our synoptic gospels try to tell us about who Jesus is by giving a story about his birth narrative, John’s gospel takes an even wider lens to try to explain who Jesus is.
In some ways the contrast between Christmas Eve’s stories about the stable and Christmas Day’s quiet reflection on the beginning of time is quite appropriate. On Christmas Eve we are full of giddiness and excitement. We break the long anticipation of Advent with a festive celebration of Jesus’ birth. We share in jubilation, as if we are a crowd of people gathered at the maternity ward, sharing cigars and bear hugs. But today, like a crew that has come in to clean up after a late-night party, we gather in these pews with a bit more sobriety, deeply pondering what all this incarnation stuff means. For that kind of work, John’s gospel is the perfect gift. John almost seems to say, “Yes, all those stories you know and love about Jesus are true and are to be celebrated. But do not get swept away in the excitement and forget what this really means.”
For John, he begins his gospel starting not with details of the event of the incarnation, but with details about the significance of the incarnation. For John, he is not interested in the sentimentality of a cute baby. John is interested in the astounding fact that God became incarnate – took on flesh, lived among us, took on our dirty, gritty lives, and faced rejection and suffering – all so that we might live. The God of creation – that same creative God we know from Genesis – is the same God who comes among us. The Word has always been, and yet the Word also enters into human history to give life and light to the people. When we talk about this kind of momentous significance, it is no wonder that we gather here in quiet awe of our God, soberly realizing the tremendous, salvific gift of the Word made flesh coming to dwell among us.
In some ways, the contrast between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are hitting home a little more vividly this year. On the one hand, I have a four-year old, who really gets Christmas this year, who is excited beyond belief about baby Jesus, St. Nicholas, presents, and visiting family. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and I want to cultivate that joy. I am reminded of that collect from compline that asks God to “shield the joyous.” But on the other hand, death has been heavy around me these last few days. A dear friend from Delaware died this weekend, St. Margaret’s Cemetery helped a young couple from a neighboring church bury an 8-month stillborn child on Monday, and just two days ago, a St. Margaret’s parishioner lost his mother. In light of the grief of those around me, I am grateful for a sober reminder of the awesomeness of our God, the salvation and promise of resurrection that is only made possible through the incarnation – that Word made flesh who lived among us, and who is full of grace and truth. In the end, there is hope on both sides – hope for the happily joyous this season and hope for the soberly mournful this season. I thank God for a Church who tends to both sets of needs, but mostly I thank God for taking on our earthly flesh, for giving us the Word who knew both joy and sorrow, and for promising us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Amen.