Psalm 147; Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Everything we know about the birth of Jesus comes to us from either the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke. Lukeâ€™s gospel, with its concern for the poor and marginalized, tells of the angels who appeared to poor shepherds to announce the birth of the Saviour in an animal feed stall. Matthew, with his focus on the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, tells of the astrologers from the East who see in the conjunction of the heavens that the long-awaited Messiah of Israel has been born.
But Mark and John have no such stories. Markâ€™s Gospel begins with Jesus, already a man grown, coming to John the Baptist to be immersed in the Jordan. Jesusâ€™ origins are of little interest in Markâ€™s telling. We hear nothing of who he is or where he came from beyond the mere fact that he was from Nazareth in Galilee. Even the story of his birth in Bethlehem, so important to both Matthew and Luke, is of no interest to Mark. Mark simply announces in the first sentence that Jesus Christ is the Son of Godâ€”and then Jesus simply arrives on the scene and sets rapidly to work. Markâ€™s intention is to lead us to conclude for ourselves, little by little, by his recounting of the events of Jesusâ€™s life, that he is, indeed, The Son of God. But just what this means is a mystery. A mystery, by the way, that the disciples are not clever enough to grasp. But Mark makes it very clear, by this bold declaration in the very beginning, that he has higher hopes for his readers, and that they, at least, are capable of Â grasping just what it means to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God.
The Gospel of John also does not contain a birth narrative and it also makes no reference to Bethlehem. But rather than one rather short, bald declaration, as in Marksâ€™ opening sentence, John begins with 18 gorgeous verses that are profoundly rich and deep both as poetry and as theology.
Â John wants us to realize that he has no birth narrative because he is telling a story even more incredible that the one Luke or Matthew tell. Johnâ€™s narrative is not about a particular baby who was born at a particular time and place, and the events that surrounded his birth, and what people made of them. The story John wants to tell is not at all about the birth of a holy man, and not even about the birth of the son of god in the way Johnâ€™s world understood such an idea. After all, Augustus Caesar, the emperor when Jesus was born was also called â€œthe son of god.â€ In fact, the Roman coin that was given Jesus when he asked to see whose image was on it in his famous â€œRender unto Caesarâ€¦â€ teaching was probably a coin with the face of Augustus on one side andÂ â€œdivi filiusâ€â€”â€œSon of Godâ€â€”on the other.
John wants to launch a far higher claim than this. He sets out a direct challenge to the power and prestige of the most powerful people in the world, the emperors of Rome. He claims this Jesus is not a mere Son of God as declared by the Roman Senate, as Caesar is, but the active principle that brought the universe and all that is in it into being. This is the story of the coming down into the world of Godâ€™s word, Godâ€™s wisdom, Godâ€™s agentâ€”uncreated, coeternal, an endless participant in the divine life itself. And John is seeking words of enough beauty and power and majesty to convey that astonishing fact. Â
So he starts his Gospel with the opening words of Genesis: â€œIn the beginningâ€¦â€
Creation began with a Word: â€œLet there be light.â€Â John wants us to understand that there was never a time when Christ did not exist. Just as a word spoken cannot separated from its speaker, in the same way Christ is inseparable from God. John does not even claim that Christ came into being before the foundation of the world. John is claiming that his gospel is the story of how God, the God who brought everything that exists into being with a Word, came to enter our world as one of us. John is claiming that in this man Jesus, God became flesh. Baby flesh. Boy flesh. Man flesh.
And as flesh, subject to all the perils and humiliations of every other human beingâ€”but filled with the divine light, so that the deepest, darkest, most impenetrable places of the world were shot through and through with light by his very entrance among us.
John wants us to understand that in this arrival among us is contained the answer to all the mysteries of existence: Â the meaning of the universe, the purpose of human history, the God-ordained solution for the puzzle of evil. In this majestic prologue to his gospel, John is showing us the path in the wilderness, the light in the darkness, the love that seeks out each and every one of us, a love that brought us into being, nurtures us, and will not willingly ever let us go.Â
And John is also trying to stir us into full wakefulness. Â He wants us to understand what it means to say that God entered the world and dwelt among us as one of us. For by so doing, every aspect of human life was taken into the life of God, and made holy and sanctified. Nothing human is left outside, so that in him and through him, heaven and earth are completely reconciled. As the Eastern Orthodox like to say, â€œGod became human so that we might become divine.â€
Â That is why right here, in this beautiful prologue of Johnâ€™s, an astonishing promise is made: in and through the coming of the son of God, we are all given the capacity to become sons and daughters of God. Since the beginning of creation, through the whole story of the people of Israel, God has been working to save and bless the human race. And now comes this most decisive event: the Incarnation. God made flesh.
And this is not something that took place back then, in the distant past. John wants us to see that it goes on. God was with us 2000 years ago, and God was with us 1500 years ago, and God was with us 1000 years ago and God was with us 500 years ago, and God is with us today. Todayâ€”just as God was thenâ€”God is with us. And todayâ€”just as God did thenâ€”God dwells among us, and todayâ€”just as we did thenâ€”the human race Â receives the gift of the embodied light, the light that casts out all darkness, and grants to us Â the grace and truth, that, in the beginning, and from the beginning God intended for us, as Godâ€™s beloved daughters and sons.