As you gather with family and friends today, I expect that you will also share stories. Every family has their own set of legends – shared tales that we tell again each year. The one about Uncle Bob and the Christmas lights. The one about the dog and the wrapping paper. The one about Grandma’s favorite childhood Christmas. The one about the best Christmas dinner ever…or the worst. And part of the joy of sharing these true and beloved stories is hearing different family members tell them in different ways, putting their own spin and emphasis on the events.
The story of Jesus’ birth is told in much the same way that these other stories are told. We have four gospel writers who tell the story of Jesus in four distinct ways. Matthew starts his account with a genealogy, connecting Jesus all the way back through the generations to Abraham, and then tells the birth of Jesus through Joseph’s eyes. Mark doesn’t bother with any sort of a birth narrative, starting instead with an adult John the Baptist paving the way in the wilderness for an adult Jesus to begin his ministry. Luke gives us all the details – Mary’s back-story, Elizabeth’s back-story, the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the shepherds in the fields, and the angels who sang to them.
And then there is John’s voice, which we hear today: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….the word became flesh and lived among us.”
John isn’t concerned with how Jesus was conceived and born. John isn’t concerned about Jesus’ historical lineage or about the particular circumstances of his birth. John begins his gospel by talking about Jesus as the Word. The term that John uses is logos, which in ancient Greek thought means the divine ordering, plan, and wisdom of the universe. Or, put more simply, John uses the term logos to communicate that Jesus it the one who makes God known.
Susan Schaller is the author of the book A Man without Words, which tells the true story of a man that she encountered in her early days of being an interpreter for the deaf. She met this on the first day of her first assignment in a community college. He was standing by the door, his arms wrapped around his body as if wearing a straightjacket, looking frightened and utterly baffled by what was going on in the classroom around him. He was twenty-seven years old.
Susan recalls what happened next:
I walked up to him and signed, "Hello. My name is Susan." He tried to copy that and did a sloppy rendition of "Hello, my name is Susan." Obviously he didn't know what he was doing. It wasn't language. And I was shocked. I slowly figured out that this man had no language. Every time I brought up my hands, he brought up his hands. He mimed. He had no idea there was such a thing as a conversation, a dialogue: you listen, I talk; I talk, you listen. He had no clue!I was struck by many things in this story, but mostly by one sentence: “The amazing thing is that the window became a different thing with a word attached to it.”
[So I did the only thing I could think of to do:] I decided to stop talking to him. Instead, I taught an invisible student. I set up a chair, and I started being the teacher to an invisible student in an empty chair. Then I became the student. I would get into the other chair and the student would answer the teacher. I did this over and over and over. And I ignored him. I stopped looking at him.
For example, [I would mime] a cat, a cat coming in, picking the cat up off the floor, petting the cat, holding the cat up to me and holding a look of seeing a creature. Then I'd look at the invisible student and sign cat, and [write] C-A-T on the board. I used the word C-A-T. I used the sign "cat" and I mimed cat and then I nodded to the student with my facial expression, so you understand? Then I changed places and became the student. I looked at the invisible teacher now and I looked at the C-A-T on the board, and I'd pretend that I understood. I'd go, "Oh, I get it!" with my facial expression.
I did as many variations as I could, again, over and over – hours, days, hours, days. [It was the] most frustrating task of my life! I'd look at him every once in a while and sometimes he looked tired, sometimes he looked frustrated, sometimes he looked as if I were crazy. I didn't know if I could keep going. [But] we kept working. When I had almost given up, I tried it one more time. And something happened!
What happened is that I saw a movement. I stopped. I was talking to an empty chair, but out of my peripheral vision I saw something move. I look at him and he had just become rigid! He actually sat up in his chair and became rigid. His hands were flat on the table and his eyes were wide. His facial expression was different from any I'd seen. It was just wide with amazement!
He slapped his hands on the table. “Oh! Everything has a name!” He started pointing to everything in the room. All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.
The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a [word] attached to it.
He just went crazy for a few seconds, pointing to everything in the room and signing whatever I signed. Then he collapsed and started crying, and I don't mean just a few tears. He cradled his head in his arms on the table and the table was shaking loudly from his sobbing. Of course, I don't know what was in his head, but I'm just guessing he saw what he had missed for twenty-seven years. (http://www.conversations.org/story.php?sid=200)
All of this young man’s life was transformed, was brought into clarity, and was made understandable by the existence of a word. Everything has a name. Everything became something because a word was attached to it. It was through something as simple as a word that all of life became something different, something beautiful.
This is what we celebrate on Christmas: Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, who clears away the darkness from our eyes, who puts our world back into focus. It is through something as simple as a Word that all of our lives become something different, something beautiful.
On Christmas morning, it feels as if the world is waking up for the first time. The shadows have dispersed and the dark of a long night has finally broken. Like the young man whose life truly began the day he discovered words, we ourselves are summoned to the first real life we have ever known, simply because of the Word who became flesh and dwelled among us.
On Christmas morning, our hearts awaken to the certainty of God’s presence among us. The Word was with God and the Word was God. Jesus, the Word, makes God known to us and extends to us the assurance of this our salvation.
On Christmas morning, the world awakens to a clear sense of hope. The dark nights of fear, grief, and pain are not the final word. Our final Word is Christ, the Word-made-flesh who reveals to us the enormous brightness of God’s grace and love.
So what now? What do we do now that Christ has come to us, and dwells with us, God incarnate in our hearts?
We take our first cue from Mary, who “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” How we might live always in the newness of this dawn if we, too, treasured Christ the Word and pondered him daily in our hearts.” And then we muster up our voices and go out and share our words with the world, spreading the story of how we who were once wordless and afraid now have been transformed by something as simple as a word – the Word. To quote the hymn-writer Jaroslav Vajda, we might, “Give earth a glimpse of heav’nly bliss, A teasing taste of what they miss: Sing bliss, sing bliss, sing endless bliss. Sing bliss, sing endless bliss.”
My prayer is that on this Christmas morning, we remember what it feels like to finally be awake to God among us, and that we might go forth to sing songs of endless bliss, for the Word has become flesh and lives among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.