On Christmas Eve and again this morning, we read from the Gospel of John about the mystery of the incarnation. We do not get the pleasure of hearing the tale that is so often counted upon during the Christmas season. The appointed readings do not include the story from Luke that recounts Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the words of the innkeeper directing them to a stable for the evening, or of the angel that visits the shepherds cowering in a field while receiving the news of the birth of Christ. We are left without the ability to wonder what thoughts may have gone through Mary’s mind at the birth of her son; we do not get the story that leads us into the human aspects of the beginning.
We do not hear the tale that let’s us imagine what it may have been like to be Joseph, a father that takes Mary as his wife despite the strong cultural norms that called for him to dismiss Mary. Instead of hearing those cherished stories that paint the picture of what we know about the Christmas season, we hear the prologue of John in all of its mysterious beginnings that connect us back to the tale of creation in Genesis. We read about this mystical Word that is coming into the world, and we read about John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness.
Though we may pine for the traditional Christmas story, we are left to grapple with the difficulty of the Gospel of John. We are left to wonder what it means for this Word to come into the world and how that word will enlighten us. We are left to struggle through the beginnings of this particular gospel and to seek out a connection to the Christmas story that is so well known.
What is the importance of this birth? This child? Can we really understand the magnitude of this beginning without going all the way to the end? To be sure, the answer that we must give to these questions is an emphatic “No.” It is not possible for us to clearly understand what this birth, this child, this Word means without taking the story all the way to its supposed conclusion in order for the beginning to make sense, to enlighten. So, while it may seem out of place during this season of Christmas, during this time of celebration and joy, our story must include an examination of what the story of the beginning means in relation to the end.
As John tells us in the gospel today, “…his own people did not accept him.”
In one sense, we could read that Jesus comes into the world in the form of a man, and recognizing Jesus as a man, we do not accept him as the Messiah, the Christ. In another sense, the reading may imply that we do not accept him even as a person.
The second interpretation makes it easier for us to be rid of this troublemaker. We are able to take that person and banish him to the fringe of society. We are able to lift him on a cross, humiliate him, and eventually kill that person while hanging for all the world to see. And in that moment of pain, suffering, humiliation, and death, we begin to recognize something hanging on that tree. We begin to recognize ourselves.
The incarnation is a beautiful thing that God has done for us. God did not simply banish sin or evil out of God’s creation back in Genesis. Rather, God pours out God’s love in such a way that we are able to look at it, hear it, and speak to it. God pours love in such a way that we, in lifting Christ up on the cross, turn and look at what we have done expecting to be satisfied.
As we look back at that cross, at that man nailed to the tree, we are surpassed to find a mirror on that tree showing us ourselves as both the crucifiers and the crucified. In hanging Jesus from the cross, we see ourselves, the image of God, hanging from a tree and suffering the pain of humiliation and death. We begin to see ourselves in the evil that is being done while Jesus is hanging on that tree, and in that evil we finally begin to recognize the love that God pours into the world in the form of a human.
We begin to recognize the love that God has for us, and we are able to imagine the magnitude of that love. We are able to take that love and communicate it to other people in our midst and to share the virtues of faith, hope, and love with another. We are able to see ourselves as both the crucified and the crucifier, and in that moment of recognition, we weep for the great injustice that we have forced into the world. We begin to weep because in the moment of death upon the cross, we are finally able to recognize all that God desires for us. The recognition of ourselves in both Christ and the crucifiers of Christ allows us to finally recognize the personhood of every other human being in the world and to say “God loves you.”
In finally seeing Jesus hanging from a tree, we are able to turn and look back to see Jesus in a manger and weep. The rivers of salt that traverse the crevices of our cheeks carve out eddies of joy and shallows of sorrow; they call us to look at ourselves and to recognize the image of God in ourselves and in another. The tears stream down our face as we look back towards the manger and call us back towards God in a new and profound way.
No longer is God this mysterious being outside of the human reality; God takes on the form of a human being and calls us towards the holy. The action of the incarnation is not simply an action that we observe from afar. God engages in our reality and invites us into God’s life in such a way that God’s love seeps into every crevice of our being.
The incarnation becomes not just the action of God but also the action of humanity. In recognizing the incarnate Word, we begin to understand that we are called to live a life of faith, hope, and love with God and with each other. We begin to recognize that God is calling us to live as servants to each other and through that pattern of life, we receive the invitation to be participants in God’s work in creation.
The Word did not become incarnate for us to simply gaze upon. In receiving the incarnate Word, God grants us the ability to become God’s children. God loves us so much that not only does God send Jesus into the world but also invites us to be God’s children! God wants us to be part of God’s work here on earth.
God wants us to receive the incarnate Word in such a way that we begin to pattern our lives after the life of Jesus and seek to be a servant to another. In giving us the ability to become God’s children, God is inviting us into the divine life as participants with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we receive Christ, the incarnate Word, we become the living, breathing, moving, crying, laughing children of God through our faith to which we can respond, “Merry Christmas!”