The familiar Christmas story that features angels and shepherds, a brilliant star and a silent night, Mary and Joseph in a stable, and the newborn child asleep on the hay – this is a story that captures the imagination. It is the source for countless carols and pageants, greeting cards and paintings, and nativity scenes. It is sung about, seen, and celebrated wherever Christmas is kept.
But this Christmas story from Luke’s gospel is not the only perspective on the birth of Jesus that appears in the New Testament.
There’s also Matthew’s version, which emphasizes the dreams of Joseph, Herod’s fear and violence, the magi and their mysterious gifts, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.
There’s the opening chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, where the Son of God appears as heir of all things, victorious and triumphant.
There’s the passage in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which describes Christ born of a human mother so that we can be adopted as God’s children.
And there is also today’s gospel, the opening verses of John, which offer still another perspective on the birth of Jesus, another view of Christmas and what it means for us.
Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination. John’s approach is different. It is not opposite to that of Luke. It is not more or less important. It reveals the same Christ. But it is different. For where Luke engages the imagination, John’s verses can be said to engage the mind.
The symbol for John’s gospel is the eagle, because the eagle soars to the heights and has keen vision. Nowhere is such symbolism more appropriate than in the opening verses of this gospel, where immediately we are taken up to eternity and daringly witness that before anything was created, the Word already was, and this Word was with God, and this Word was God.
But what is this Word, and how does this passage deal with Christmas? Again, if Luke’s focus is imagination, John’s focus is thought. And so John borrows a term from the most sophisticated thought of his time, both Jewish and Greek. This term we conventionally translate as “Word.”
This term has a rich history among ancient civilizations living on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It does not mean simply “word” in our ordinary English sense. Instead, it means at least three things.
First, it refers to the structure that underlies the universe, what holds everything together, what makes things work. It is this Word that scientists of our time endeavor to hear and understand, whether they be physicists or biologists or astronomers. The glue that somehow unites all aspects of our wonderfully complex cosmos – this is part of what John means in today’s gospel in making reference to the Word.
The second meaning has to do, not with what is, but with what ought to be, the divine law and intention. Atoms and galaxies are obedient; they follow laws appropriate to what they are. Human beings are manifestly not obedient, yet still we understand there is a law. All people recognize this, however imperfectly, and ethicists and legislators work to express this law. So the way we are meant to live, in all its power and profundity – this is part of what John suggests in making reference to the Word.
Yet another sense of this term has to do with meaning and purpose, with a question that haunts every human heart: What’s it all about? We endeavor to connect with purpose and meaning through myriad forms of philosophy and religion, literature and art. We rage against the suggestion that the grandeur and sorrow of earthly existence is without significance. A persistent sense of purpose in the universe – this is part of what John means in making reference to the Word.
John’s focus is the rigors of thought rather than the richness of imagination. He borrows this term, the Word, from the most significant thought of his contemporaries. And he makes impressive assertions about this Word. This Word is not made at some moment in time, but always was, and always is, and always will be. The Word is with God and is God. The Word is the creator of the universe. In this Word are both life and light.
Wherever, then, people have some awareness of knowledge, of ethics, of purpose, they are enlightened by the Word, regardless of whether or not they know this is happening.
It is now that the drama begins. This Word enters the world in a new way, but remains unacknowledged, unrecognized, even by people who should have received the Word. But the Word persists, with that persistence we call love.
It is here John makes his most astounding claim. He puts together what human reason would say are incompatible. He announces that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
On the one hand, flesh: humanity in its finitude and frailty. Not the body simply, but human nature as subject to suffering, decay, ignorance, and destruction. It is this that the Word becomes by choice.
And remember what the Word is: the structure that underlies everything, the way we are meant to live, the purpose of existence. The Word who creates and who sustains the entire marvelous universe, from unimaginable galaxies down to unimaginable subatomic particles – this Word becomes flesh, a baby who wets and cries and shivers in the cold.
Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination, electrifies the imagination. John’s verses, on the other hand, engage thought and blow the circuits of the mind by audaciously uniting, and uniting forever, what human thought sets apart as opposite: our frail human flesh, with its ills and weaknesses, its ignorance and destruction; and the Word, which come forth forever from the Father and underlies all creation, all ethics, all meaning and purpose.
Luke and John demonstrate different approaches to the truth of Christmas. They are not opposite, and one is not more important than the other, but they are different. Their differences appear in what we have already considered, and also elsewhere in their respective accounts.
Do you remember how Luke’s Christmas story ends? Mary treasures the angelic message delivered to her by the shepherds, and ponders its significance in her heart. The shepherds return to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard. Thus Mary appears as a model of contemplation, the shepherds as a chorus of praise. It is not hard to imagine Mary as reflective, realizing in new ways who her child is and the purpose he was born for. Nor is it hard to imagine the bright-eyed shepherds dashing off, full of joy, different people than they were only hours earlier. Thus we have a picture on earth of the life to which we are invited in heaven: the contemplation and praise of God.
Recall now a point in John’s verses where he shifts attention undeniably to himself and his audience: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”
Luke appeals to the imagination; John appeals to the mind. And here John entices, teases, and excites the mind with the claim that we can see God’s glory. We can see it in Jesus: his birth at Bethlehem, his cross on Calvary, his resurrection appearances at Easter, his love alive among his people.
This is the glory that flames forth in the heart of blessed Mary.
This is the glory that makes shepherds sing for joy.
This is the glory available to every heart and mind that welcomes the truth of Christmas.
So then, allow your imagination to be delighted by Luke’s beautiful story. Let your mind be enlivened by John’s announcement that the Word has become flesh. Ponder the depths of divine mercy along with blessed Mary. Sing with the shepherds of Bethlehem, for the angel’s message is meant for you as well as them.
Welcome the divine glory today and all the year round, for it is ours to see Jesus, both now and throughout eternity.