Merry Christmas! Thank you for being here to marvel together, again, at the great mystery of the Incarnation: that God has chosen to dwell among us in the flesh as a helpless newborn, yes, but also within each one of us. Last night, the children presented to us the drama from the gospel of Luke. This morning, we read from the Gospel of John, which does not provide us with the narrative account of the birth of Christ, and instead gives us a wonderfully crafted, hymn-like piece as its mystical prologue. Here, the author harmonized Greek philosophy with Jewish theology to provide the lens for viewing his whole work, and the new level of christological understanding: that is, Christ did not only enter our world at a specific time, but has always existed as one with God.
How does he do it? First, we have “the Word” – an allusion to Genesis, in which God created the world by speaking, but at the same time, a familiar concept shared by the various strands of Greek philosophy. For the stoics, Logos is the organizing principle of the universe and also the state of God’s immanent presence in it; while for others, it is a lower level of the otherwise distant divinity, and the form in which it is able to permeate the material world. As such, the Word was “in the beginning with God”, but then it also “dwelt among us.” What’s brilliant, however, is that these are also nearly identical words as those describing the Holy Wisdom of God in the OT. She is said to have been eternally part of God, present at God’s cosmic throne, the architect of all creation, giving people her spirit, guarding and delivering us from death, and enabling us to discern the signs of the Creator’s presence in the material world (e.g., Job 28, Bar 3, Sir 24, Prov 8, Wis 7). And just like the Greek word for “dwell” in John is related to “encamp”, the Hebrew word indicating God’s presence with his people is related to “tent”.
This is deep, and helped the Hellenistic Jewish followers of Christ to achieve a better understanding of who he was; but for us, the contemporary dwellers of the North, I think what we find most appealing and rather tangible in the “bleak midwinters” of our lives (and I mean more than just the winter months!) is John’s reference to light: “He was in the beginning with God. In him was life, and life was the light…the darkness did not overcome the light”. This informed the opening words of the Nicene Creed, with which we affirm our faith: “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made”. Now, Christianity does often get criticized for having accepted the syncretization of its message with the cultural customs, and these do include not only the gift-giving, decorating, and merry-making, but also the very choices of our feast dates. Most of them coincide with the special dates in the agrarian/astronomical calendar such as the solstices, equinoxes, and the quarter days between those. But what were our ancestors to do, in the bleakest seasons of their lives – cold, dark, restrictive and unproductive (agriculturally and otherwise…) – but to either relinquish themselves to the depth of despair, OR to find a glimmer of hope in the first few minutes of extra sunlight that appears each day. And so whether it was Jesus’ birth that became associated with the celebration of the winter solstice, or his conception – with the spring equinox, in either case, the event of God’s entrance into our world became symbolized by the increases in sunlight. This symbol is introduced in the prologue and dominates the whole of John, perhaps to echo Malachi’s, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings”.
Today, we are not the first Christians to wonder what to do with the misplaced emphasis of winter celebrations and their roots. Can you imagine, in the 17th century, Christmas was banned altogether by the churches in England, Scotland and most of America! Then, by the time Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in the mid-1800s, it had returned to England, but not yet regained the heartfelt spirit of the Tudor period. It is to Dickens that we owe the revised, family-oriented, children-centered theme we retained to this day. The Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England of the same time period also created the renewed interest in traditional rituals and observances, and voila, we find ourselves at church on Christmas and with our families over the next few days.
And I really do not think that the pagan roots of our customs and the risk of overindulgence merit the “bah humbug-ing” of Christmas. The darkness cannot overcome the light. Yes, blinded by sin, lying in darkness, the world that the Logos brought into being does not readily recognize its Creator. Yet, the Holy Wisdom guides us to look beyond ourselves and to dispel the cold shadows of our nature by appealing to its better qualities, such as charity and generosity, and the impulse to help, which many people, even those disenchanted by Christmas, feel strongly during this season.
What is repeatedly conveyed to us through the entire Scripture is that because we could not go to where God is, out of his self-giving love, he came over here to us, and called us to become like him. Much like the physical life on earth is impossible without the warmth and oxygen released by the sunlight, without the light of Christ – which in us, takes the form of the capacity to love, reason, sacrifice, and worship – our existence would also be impossible. This is the truth that has been handed over to us over the past 2000 years, the ultimate gift that our predecessors in faith did not keep to themselves, but kept on giving. So today, may we continue to celebrate Christmas without the skepticism, jadedness, or any reservations, and teach our children and friends about it, so that the light of truth, grace, and life never ceases to shine forth. Amen.