Christmas Day 2021 Nigel Bunce
Incarnation: different views
Incarnation (fleshiness). John’s account of Jesus’ origins is mystical, unlike Luke, who is much more earth-bound. But both authors reveal Incarnation, the divine in flesh.
Because I recorded this homily ahead of time, I don’t know whether today is a “truly magical morning”. To me, Christmas morning is magical when my car leaves the first tire marks in fresh snow (but not too deep!), glittering in the sunshine, on my way to church.
I always have to do some mental Christmas gymnastics for the scriptural change of pace from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Yesterday saw the birth of the infant Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Then, shepherds came to marvel at the miraculous birth.
Christmas with St. John (John 1: 1-14)
This morning, we listened to John’s much more cerebral account of the Eternal logos, or Word.. He was part of the Father eternally, since the beginning of Creation. John imagined Jesus as a light shining in the darkness, a beacon of hope for us all, a light that cannot be overcome by dark forces in the world. Listen again to how John introduces his Gospel.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
St. John, a mystic
This is the language of mysticism. John was a mystic. Unlike Luke, more of this world. However, both Luke and John were very clear. They both wrote Gospel accounts to promote the Good News. To convince us about who Jesus was and what he represented.
Luke’s story about Jesus would have made sense to the average person two thousand years ago. Back then, the arrival on earth of messengers from God would have seemed unusual. Yet, well within the bounds of possibility.
An angel told a virgin she would have a child. A poor young couple couldn’t find proper lodging for the birth of their baby. Angels told humble shepherds on a hillside about the wonderful child. They were the first people who see him. You can almost touch and smell the animals in the stable, see the breath rising from their nostrils.
St. John’s perspective was different
He began his Gospel, “In the beginning”. The exact same words as the start of Genesis. And just as God’s first act in Genesis was the creation of light, “Let there be light! And there was light,” so in John’s Gospel, Jesus (the logos) is the light that came into the world.
John wrote, “All things came into being with him, and without him, nothing came into being. What has come into being was life, and that light was the light of the world.” The Genesis account is a sacred interpretation of the physical Creation.
Similarly, John emphasized that the coming of Jesus into the world is a new Creation, a spiritual creation. Therefore, Luke and John tell us different ‘truths’ about how Jesus came into the world because the writers had different agendas.
The Word became flesh: Incarnation
Here again are the last words from today’s Gospel reading, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s Son, full of grace and truth.” John’s Incarnation drives home that the Father and the Son are One and always were.
Thus, both writers reveal Incarnation theology. For Luke, Incarnation is that Jesus was sent from God as a human baby. Luke appeals to the earthy side of human nature, the more ordinary side. John appeals to our more mystical or more introspective side.
We are not all the same
Therefore, one interpretation of Jesus may be easier to accept than the other. Fortunately, we do not have to choose. So I hope that the mystics among us can enjoy and find value in a story of shepherds and angels.
Equally, that “roll up the sleeves” types can find a quiet moment to ponder John’s words, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s Son, full of grace and truth.”
The actual date of Jesus’ birth
Let me change gears. Most people don’t realize that no-one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Early Christians didn’t even celebrate the event. A Roman Christian historian named Sextus Julius Africanus believed that God created the world on March 25 (I don’t know what year he thought that happened).
Sextus must have been a “John” sort of Christian. Because, he figured that God must have begun the ‘Second Creation’ on the same date. Nine months later, Mary gave birth on December 25th.
However, when we read Luke’s Christmas story carefully, we realize that Luke gives no evidence for a winter birth. There’s no snowy trek to Bethlehem. No shepherds shivering on a freezing hillside. Christmas carols like In the bleak midwinter and See amid the winter snow simply imposed North European culture onto Luke’s story.
Impact on Christian liturgy
As I said on another occasion, Christmas on December 25 has had a significant impact on Christian liturgy. Because Holy Week must occur in the spring. When Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover, a springtime festival.
That’s why we always rush through Jesus’ ministry from baptism to resurrection during the seasons of Epiphany and Lent. In only about three months. Then, we back-track to study Jesus’ teachings during the summer and fall.
I’ll stop there. May each of you have a blessed and Incarnational Christmas. Meaning, may you experience Jesus at this holy season. Whether you are by nature mystical or down to earth. Whether you are extraverted or introverted. Or, from another perspective, whether you are naturally a ‘head’ person or a ‘heart’ person. As part of the “all things wise and wonderful” let’s remember that “the Lord God made us all.” Amen.