by Jane Williams
Jane is an Anglican theologian and writer who is a lecturer at St Mellitus College, London, and a visiting lecturer at King’s College, London. Married to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams
Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14
What difference would it make if the Christmas story were not true? If God had not come to be born, live and die as a human being? Today’s readings shout out that the Christmas story is the key to what the world is all about, from beginning to end.
Hebrews tells us that the incarnation is the climax of God’s continuous, creative, communicating love. God’s love, Hebrews says, is always ‘son-shaped’. Through God the Son, the world comes into being; through God the Son it is sustained in being; and God the Son will bring it to fulfilment when he, the ‘heir’, rounds everything up. All the other ways in which God has chosen to communicate with the world he made and loves are interpreted by this great event that we celebrate at Christmas. The incarnation tells us that that is what we are here for - to be drawn into dialogue with God, hearing his word and responding to it.
The majestic language of these opening sentences in Hebrews should not blind us to the reality of the way God chooses to come to us. Hebrews piles up radiance upon radiance. The Son is ‘the reflection of God’s glory’, the ‘imprint of God’s very being’. He is no mere messenger, but the actual presence of God. And what does this dazzling reflection of God look like? A small baby.
St John’s great prologue makes that point perfectly clear. Like Hebrews, John’s opening scene is the creation of the world through the same power of God that makes the incarnation possible. The Word of God, the Son of God, is the overflowing, incarnating, life-making power of God the Trinity. Our understanding of God as Trinity brings with it the belief that God’s very being is relational love, and that love pours out into the world to bring us, too, into God’s love.
Although the incarnation is an extraordinary overturning of everything that we thought we knew about God, both John and Hebrews suggest that it is, at the same time, consistent with the nature of the God who chooses to create the world in the first place.
But John takes that one stage further. Yes, God is consistent in creating, in becoming incarnate, in redeeming. And part of that consistency is that it does not force a response. John says, with terrible irony, ‘the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.’ The way in which God chooses to create and redeem us allows us the option of ignorance about the very purpose of our existence. The Incarnation, which Hebrews describes in such grandiloquent terms, still comes down to this, the child in the manger. You have to suspect that ‘sensible’ is not a word in God’s vocabulary!
So here at the beginning of the Gospel John sets out what is to be one of his themes throughout - you have to choose. You can turn away from the light and choose the darkness, the darkness that represents not only evil but also ultimately unbeing. It is the darkness that was over everything before God created. It is formlessness, hopelessness, ignorance of the purpose of our existence.
Or you can choose light. To choose the light, according to John, is to step into our proper created place, as God’s children, alive in his love. God is the only source of life, John tells us, and this life is offered to us in the incarnation.
But the choice is ours. What we see now is the child, a symbol of life, but so vulnerable. To choose that life, to choose to nurture it and celebrate it is to choose God’s kind of life, since it is the only kind on offer. To choose something without the ambiguities and uncertainties of Jesus’ life is to choose the dark and that, says John, is actually not life at all. To recognize the life-giving power of the Creator in the baby Jesus, in his life, his cross and his resurrection, is the study of the Christian. Can we see ‘the glory of the Father’, here, at Christmas?
Would Isaiah have recognized this baby as the triumphant act of God that he longs for? In the incarnation, God does indeed bare his arm, but not to lead his armies to victory, but to show us the flesh. Isaiah proclaims the time when God will be ‘in plain sight’ (Isaiah 52.8) and, indeed, what could be more visible than another human being, just like us? What kind of a victory is this? It is the victory of God’s consistent and unchanging nature, that cannot be deflected from its original purpose, which is to share his life - his life, and no secondhand, trumped-up copies - with us.
Taken from Lectionary Reflections: Years A, B & C used by permission of SPCK Publishing 2021
Published in Messenger December 2021