John 1:1-5, 10-14
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Christmas Day – 2022
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him.11 He came to what was his own,[a]and his own people did not accept him.12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[b]full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 10-14 – NRSV)
Over many of the last twenty-six years in ministry, I’ve often said that Christmas has no lasting meaning apart from Easter. Easter, I said, holds the more sacred space.
In recent years, though, I’ve begun to see Easter as a lens through which Christmas comes into focus. More specifically, perhaps, Resurrection is a lens through which Incarnation comes into focus. As a kind of prism, Resurrection bends the bright light of Incarnation into all of its stunning beauty, diversity, and possibility.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him…what has come into being in [the Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
Recognizing far more than mere doctrine in the fourth gospel, ancient Celtic Christians drew heavily from the witness of John. Through his telling of the story of the Christ, they felt an invitation into the living and transforming presence of God—a presence that is continually welling up from what Richard Rohr calls “an already Christ-soaked world.”1 So, while scripture is certainly integral to Celtic spirituality, the Celts experienced organic relationship with God through interaction with self, neighbor, and the earth.
How freeing and empowering. Indeed, how resurrecting to encounter Incarnation in ways so much more concrete than in abstract theological arguments. And how artful, inspiring, and appropriate for Christians to embrace the birth of a specific child, Jesus of Nazareth, as God’s unique self-disclosure.
Christmas is about the Word becoming flesh. It’s about the material quickening of light into life. We use so many metaphors that we forget we’re using them. In the confusion, we can become rigid when speaking of God. And when our words become inflexible and absolute, they’re no longer faithful to God’s Word.
There’s an irony to remember in all of this. While Incarnation is earthy and corporeal, like childbirth, understanding it depends on suggestion, imagination, and reflection. Incarnation is often most faithfully celebrated through story, poetry, and song. That’s why we read, again and again, Luke’s birth narrative with its shepherds and their gamey armpits and crude jokes, with its drafty stable where unimpressed farm animals chew on moldy hay next to a young woman groaning and sweating her way through labor. That’s why we, along with “heaven and nature,” sing—and listen to—so much music at this time of year. That’s also why we celebrated the mystery of Holy Communion last night.
And this is a gracious irony: All of our words fail to convey the fullness of the Word. And the Word always stands the best chance of being heard when articulated incarnationally—through our physical presence with and for one another and the Creation. Very often, even silence expresses the Word better than words.
Still, words are gifts, too. The poet Mary Oliver had a unique gift for experiencing the Incarnate Word in the world and for sharing the holiness she saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted through lovingly chosen, carefully crafted, and sparingly used words. This morning, I share with you one of her poems. It’s entitled simply “Poem.” I take that as the artist’s nod toward the humbling reality that her words cannot adequately express the fullness, the gratitude, and the hope she feels when experiencing the Incarnate Word in the creation.
On this Christmas Day, may you hear, see, and feel the Word in Mary Oliver’s words. And may you sense that ancient and ongoing Word being incarnated in you. For all of us, like the Christ himself, bear in our lives the light, the love, the very image of God.
by Mary Oliver
likes to dress up like this:
shoulders, and all the rest
in the black branches,
in the morning
in the blue branches
of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather
plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
the metaphor of the body,
lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body’s world,
and the dark hug of time,
to be understood,
to be more than pure light
where no one is –
so it enters us –
in the morning
shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;
and at night
lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body
like a star.