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 has come 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. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-14)
It is Christmas morning! And so we sing our carols and join our hearts with the angels and the shepherds to celebrate God’s new dawn. Christmas comes every year, and we hear again and again the story of the young couple, traveling to Bethlehem, burdened by something as unsentimental as a census when they would much rather be preparing for the birth of a baby. We know well the picture of the crowded city, the stable full of animals, and the baby Jesus lying in the manger. We can recite the message of the angels to the shepherds, and we know from which direction to look to watch for the arrival of the magi.
It’s a wonderful story, and one that has made its way into the fabric of both our faith and our culture. But the danger is that the baby and the angels and the star of Bethlehem have become so common to us, so rehearsed, that we lose touch with the overwhelming wonder and mystery of God coming into our midst.
It’s Christmas Day, and on this day, we don’t hear the Christmas story, at least not the way we usually hear it. John, in his gospel, doesn’t tell the story in the same way that Matthew and Luke do. He takes a different approach, dispensing with narrative and coming at us with straight theology. He strips away away the shepherds and the manger and gets at the very heart of the Christmas message: that God came to us as a human being, and that God came to us for the sake of our salvation.
John tells us, “the word became flesh and dwelled among us.” This means that the very power of God – the power of God that created the world – was born as a baby at Christmas. The fancy word for this is incarnation, which literally means “embodied in flesh,” and tells us the basic and amazing truth that the fullness of God’s glory came to earth in the human person of Jesus.
And the baby whose birth we celebrate is fully human – in the course of his life, Jesus laughed and cried, felt joy and felt fear, and even experienced pain and death. There is no question that the Word became flesh. And yet, at the same time, Christ is, as Hebrews tells us, “the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Christ, who entered completely into human existence and experience, is at the same time the divine creator and sustainer of the universe.
The word became flesh, not on a whim, but with a marvelous, grace-filled purpose: to save the world and draw all creation back to God. God loves us so much, even in our brokenness, that he sent Christ to dwell with us for the sake of our salvation. An old Latin text calls this a “wondrous exchange:”
O wondrous exchange!John speaks of salvation in terms of light and life. In Christ was life, he says, and the life was the light of all. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The Creator of the human race,
assuming a living body,
has deigned to be born of a Virgin:
and, becoming man without human seed,
He has bestowed upon us His divinity.
A few years back, I unearthed some old paints and brushes from an art class I had taken in college. It was winter, and evening, and the long nights and short days of the season had rendered me particularly sensitive to imagery of dark and light. I painted for a while, no plan in mind. I started with dark colors – deep blues and indigos and purples that veered on black. When the background dried into bumps and swirls of shiny darkness, I instinctively mixed on my palette the colors of light – pale yellows, streaks of gold and orange, faint pinks and white. I swirled some yellow onto the black, pulled some gold across the page, let the brightness of the colors encroach upon the darkness.
Of all the things I painted in my one college art class and beyond, this one is my favorite. Not because it’s necessarily any good, but because I love how, to me, it looks like the light is moving in and swallowing the darkness.
As soon as I finished painting it, I thought of the opening sentences of the evening prayer liturgy: Jesus Christ is the light of the world; The light no darkness can overcome.
These words have been sung and spoken for centuries, its origins in monks who prayed the hours, blessing God for the morning light at the opening of the day, and asking for the light of Christ to illumine the night’s darkness at the close of the day.
In the dark of winter, in the dark night of the soul, we yearn for light. We look at the brokenness in our world - the poverty, the hunger, the injustice, the racism, the fear, the disease, the war, the hate - and we long to see the kingdom of God. We want to believe John’s words when he assures us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” God’s salvation shines in this world, and there is nothing – not sin nor death nor fear nor pain – that can overcome it.
Marcus Borg, in the book The Meaning of Jesus, says,
Light shining in the darkness is a central image of [Jesus’ birth story]….The symbolism of light and darkness is ancient, archetypal, and cross-cultural. It has many rich resonances of meaning. Darkness is associated with blindness, night, sleep, cold, gloom, despair, lostness, chaos, death, danger, and yearning for the dawn. It is a striking image of the human condition. Light is seen as the antidote to the above and is thus an image of salvation. In the light, one is awake, able to see and find one’s way; light is associated with relief and rejoicing that the night is over; in the light one is safe and warm. In the light there is life.“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come 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.”
John gives us a beautiful image of salvation: light overcoming darkness, life overcoming death, hope overcoming despair, grace and truth reigning over all creation. John makes it clear that God took flesh for one sole purpose: to give us light and life. God became human so that we would be saved.
The wondrous exchange is the promise of our salvation. Life may be messy, unpredictable, and complicated. But grasping God’s promise is as simple as gazing at the sweet Jesus child and seeing in his face the hope of the world, for in this child we see the word-made-flesh, who came to dwell among us, to give us life and to be the light of all people.
Full of joy and light, we can proclaim the good news of the gospel on this Christmas day: Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the sun of righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.
The word became flesh, and dwelled among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of God’s only son, full of light and grace and truth.