These days of Christmas after the Nativity of our Lord remind us that we celebrate more than a birthday. We’ve been told from the beginning that this occasion–this child–is something, someone special. Lest we be too attached to the view of Christmas as an oh-so-sweet birth of a baby, today we get this equally miraculous account of God coming into the world from John’s vantage point. That’s part of the beauty of having four gospels, that we get four perspectives on the singular event that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John’s account is just as important as Luke’s in shaping how we understand God being in this world; it just doesn’t publicity. How we understand God being in this world shapes the lives we lead as Christians.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
Now, I don’t believe John was there at the beginning any more than I think there was a man there to transcribe the accounts of creation offered in Genesis. But as my Old Testament professor said, “We don’t think everything in the Bible is a fact, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t True.”
John offers us an account of the Incarnation that is perhaps more true to the divinity of Jesus than we ever imagined. John’s account hearkens to the one “whose origin if from of old, from ancient days,” (Micah 5:2), one who was there “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” there when “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” and there when God said, “Let there be light” and “saw that the light was good” (Gen 1:1-4). The Son is at the beginning of all that we can conceive of knowing, not only in Word spoken but also in the Word, in Logos, which for the Greeks was “the divine principle of reason” that not only “gives order to the universe” but also “links the human mind to the mind of God” (Harold Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible, 1816).
When I was in Salt Lake City this summer, I had the amazing opportunity to gaze upon the St. John’s Bible, which was on display at St. Mark’s Cathedral. In 1970, master calligrapher Donald Jackson had the idea of creating a Bible that was both hand-written and illuminated, in the style of the monastics centuries earlier but more contemporary, complete with marginalia and abundant detail. His idea was commissioned in 1998, introduced to the public in 1999, and in December of 2011 was finally completed, all seven volumes, each one 2 feet by 3 feet wide when opened. With red leather binding and thick cotton pages, my hands wanted to touch these works of art, but the gloved docent had keen, watchful eyes. In the tight space of the side chapel or whatever it was, I devoured as much as I could, but there was so much. I had so little time, yet I was remarkably aware of the vastness of God outside the confines of time and space, yet ever-present within it.
The font, the style of handwriting used, was created for the project; only a select few were trained and had the privileged yet tedious work of writing the sacred text. The layout of the pages is beautiful, the detail incredible, and the colors of the illuminations are nothing if not intense and vibrant, dark and light. I consciously moved my body to get the best angle for the sun to shine on the pages with the gold highlights because that additional touch made the page even more interactive, bringing even more attention to the tremendous skill and creativity captured on paper.
Each gospel has an opening illumination, and the one for the Gospel according to John has a celestial background, with the top mid-center inspired by an image from the Hubble Space Telescope. The vast expanse of space is in the background, with text to the left of the golden figure emerging at the center, a figure crowned with an iconic halo. The bold, distinct golden letters at the top left read, “And the Word became flesh” and continue on the right side of the figure, “and lived among us.”
“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
John cannot emphasize enough to us “that Jesus brought divine life into the world”–not only through creation but also through eternal life of salvation (Harold Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible, 1816). Our being is wholly credited to what our Creator has bestowed upon us not just at the birth of the Christ child but from the beginning of our world. The figure emerging in the image is not a baby but an adult figure, one we might more likely think of as King or Messiah. But there is no distinct face, no identifiable gender, but this magnificent one lived among us, and was the light of all people.
I don’t think John ever says anything about us having to understand the mechanics of the Incarnation. At some point we brush up on our catechesis, but having perfect comprehension of God from God, Light from Light, isn’t what we’re asked to possess, nor are we expected to.
We are asked to believe, to trust in our heart that there is truth here. We are asked to believe in the gift of grace revealed and offered to us–not only in the Christ child but also in this Word made flesh.
And how we shape our lives because of our belief will naturally vary greatly. It is the nature of light to look different from different angles, under different conditions. It is the nature of creativity to portray quirks of the creator, and our free will means the specifics are up to us.
But our belief also makes known to us our common bonds: that we are united in Christ, that our very lives are illuminations revealing God’s presence in the world.
It’s not just the ordained folks who channel the light of Christ in this world–if we were, the world would probably be a darker place. Thankfully, all Christians are ministers in the church; all of us have the ministry of representing Christ and his Church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be (Catechism, BCP 855). So as we wrap up this calendar year, we remain ever-grateful that God emerged into our world so that we might know God through Christ the child and as Word made flesh. As we look forward into the new calendar year, it is worth our while to ponder not only where we see God in our world but how we represent God in our community. There may be times when we are the only Light another person sees, and it is our belief that fuels the light that shines triumphantly in the darkness.