By the Rev. Darren Miner
Merry Christmas! Today is a special day for all Christians, but it is an especially special day for the Church of the Incarnation. Since this parish isn’t named after a saint, we don’t have an annual patronal feast. Instead, we have a feast of title, and today is it—the feast of the Incarnation!
If you attend Midnight Mass or a sunrise service in an Episcopal church on Christmas, you get the story of baby Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. But if you attend the main Christmas Day service, you get something very different. Despite the fact that you see a papier-mâché stable in front of the altar, you didn’t, in fact, hear the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable. No shepherds in the field. No angelic host singing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Instead, you got an excerpt from a mystical poem about the doctrine of the Incarnation. To be honest, I miss the charming stories of St. Luke, but this profound poem of St. John is, in fact, the very foundation of the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ. So take a deep breath, and let us plunge into its mystical depths!
As does any good storyteller, St. John begins at the beginning—in this case, the very beginning! While St. Luke starts his Gospel with the birth of a baby prophet, St. John begins with the birth of the Cosmos, and he tells us about the relationship between God and a divine being called “the Word.” This Word existed with God before time itself was created, and all Creation was mediated through him. In the original Greek, the name of this being is Logos. Yes, it can be translated as Word. But it has other translations that are just as pertinent here, such as Reason or Order.
The existence of such a divine Logos was the subject of both Greek and Jewish speculation well before the time of St. John. This pre-existent divine person was understood to be the giver of reason and order to the Universe. He is the one who maintains structure in the face of chaos. He is the one who maintains the possibility of life in the midst of deadly disorder. He is the one who allows for the existence of light in the midst of darkness.
For John, the Logos is also God’s Word spoken to the Cosmos and to us. He is the divine self-expression of God’s love for the whole world. This divine self-expression of God’s love was “spoken” by God at Creation; was proclaimed to Israel by their prophets; walked among us as a preacher of peace; and continues to speak to us in Nature and in Church, in starry sky and in Holy Scripture, in the companionship of a pet and in the Blessed Sacrament. According to John, the unity between God and the Logos is such that one can even say that the Logos is God.
Now, as I mentioned, St. John was not the only Jew of his day to speak of the existence of a divine Logos. But what distinguishes him is his claim that the Logos was incarnated, that is, he became flesh and blood, and that he lived among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and foster son of Joseph the carpenter. Actually, what John says is that the Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us. The reference here is to a very particular tent, the Tabernacle of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Israelites worshiped God before the building of a Temple. What St. John seems to be telling us is that, not only was Jesus the embodiment of the Logos who maintains the universe, but in his person he has replaced the Tabernacle and the Temple as the place where we meet God.
St. John’s claim about the Incarnation of the Logos is hard to believe. John knew that. He speaks about how the world that was created through the Logos did not recognize him when he sojourned among them. Even God’s chosen people, the Jews, did not generally recognize the true identity of Jesus, and the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem went so far as to plot his judicial murder. Some two thousand years later, you don’t have to go far to find those who not only disbelieve, but scoff at the very idea that God lived among us as a fellow human being. But that is the bold claim of St. John. That is the claim of one who testifies to the divine glory that he himself had witnessed in the face of Jesus Christ. And that is the claim of the Christian Church today.
At first glance, all this mystical theology might seem quite remote and unrelated to our lives. But it is neither remote nor unrelated! For what the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us is that the divine Logos, a person of the Godhead, came to us as one of us to save us. As St. Athanasius puts it, the Logos “became human that we might become divine. He manifested himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the mind of the unseen Father… [and he] endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality.”
Out of love, the Logos emptied himself of his deity and took the form of a finite, mortal human being. And as do all of us, he came into the world as a little baby. Ponder this for just a moment: the divine sustainer of the order of the Universe came to us as a vulnerable, dependent infant, nursing at his mother’s breast and needing his diaper changed when he had soiled himself! The Divine Word, the very self-expression of the Deity, came to us as a mewling baby without the power of speech. Then, ponder his growing up to surrender his life for us on the Cross when the world refused to hear his word of reconciling love. The Logos suffered, and I do mean suffered, the fullness of the human condition; and he did so for one reason and one reason alone: love of us. Simply put, he lived and died that we might die and live.
In return, we are asked to trust in Jesus Christ, to recognize him for who and what he was, and still is. And we are asked to live as Children of God, testifying to our experience with the Incarnate Logos by both word and deed. As his disciples, we are expected to be bold enough to tell others about Jesus without being embarrassed by our faith. Just as importantly, we are expected to live lives that witness to that same faith. We are to be just and generous and loving and forgiving to everyone year-round, just as if every day were Christmas Day. We here have been offered the gift of eternal life through faith in, and faithfulness to, the Incarnate One known as Jesus. If we are truly grateful to the Giver, we will share that gift with others. For in truth, that is the only Christmas gift that anyone really needs!
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.