Readings: 2nd Sunday of Christmas

08 January 2015

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2nd Sunday of Christmas

Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 147.13-end; or Ecclesiasticus 24.1-12; Canticle: Wisdom of Solomon 10.15-end; Ephesians 1.3-14; John 1.[1-9,] 10-18

Almighty God, in the birth of your Son you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word, and shown us the fullness of your love: help us to walk in his light and dwell in his love that we may know the fullness of his joy; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A LEADING Pauline scholar describes the first 14 verses of the Letter to the Ephesians as "one of the most attractive passages in the New Testament".* None of the uncertainties surrounding the letter - whether it was in fact written to a community in Ephesus, or whether the author was St Paul or one of his followers - alters the effect of this celebration of praise, thankfulness, wonder, and hope.

Whoever wrote it was an accomplished literary artist. Those who received it must have rejoiced in the assurance of their destiny as God's adopted children, called to live a life of praise, and destined for eternal glory. The firm advice on growing to Christian maturity (Ephesians 4) and on putting on the whole armour of God to contend with the forces of evil (Ephesians 6.11-19), which comes later in the letter, is to be read in the light of this introduction: God's purpose is ultimately good.

Anyone reading this opening survey of the redemption, forgiveness, and everlasting inheritance promised in Christ might have felt almost as though they had themselves met the Son of God. The writer encourages this by including them among those whose special distinction it is to have been "the first to set [their] hope on Christ" (Ephesians 1.12). The same directness still works on the imaginations of later readers, to form a picture of close relationship with God through the person of Jesus - close not because of visible evidence, but because of how it feels. It is, after all, a description of being loved.

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The Prologue to St John's Gospel is another majestic piece of rhetorically accomplished scene-setting which determines the way in which everything that follows is understood. It works with some of the themes taken up in the first verses of Ephesians, notably the entitlement in Christ to become children of God; and the rich gift of divine grace (John 1.12, 16). Yet John's summary of the meaning of salvation manages to suggest a visible "Word made flesh" (John 1.14) which retains the profound invisibility of God (John 1.18).

Those in his audience are invited to be faithful readers in every sense, attending carefully through the rest of the Gospel to the signs of transformation, healing, and triumph over death which will reveal Jesus's identity as the Son of God (John 2.1-10, 4.46-54, 5.1-9, 6.5-14, 9.1-7, 11.1-44).It is grappling with the mysterious meaning of these signs which draws them into relationship with the Father, who has only ever been seen by the Son (John 1.18).

This is what we celebrate at every eucharist, but it is made explicit in the use of the long proper preface for Christmas, where thanksgiving for God's mighty and saving acts describes a reflexive outpouring of love (see 1 John 4.7-19). The Word is made flesh "for love of our fallen race", and, in becoming flesh, shows us the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4.6). This completes the movement: "In him we see our God made visible, and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see" (Common Worship, page 303).

Some might suspect that the hard elements of salvation are being obscured in beautiful word-painting. For them, the late-13th-century Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus (1266-1308) must at least provide a new perspective. He was the author of many works, but it is fortunate for us that one nugget has found a place in teaching outside libraries and seminar rooms.

In this, he boldly asserted that the incarnation would have happened even if there had not been a fall. At a general audience in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI explained to the usual large crowd that, for Scotus, "the Incarnation of the Son of God, planned from all eternity by God the Father at the level of love, is the fulfilment of creation."

This in no way denies the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ as the means required in answer to human sin. Scotus saw in the incarnation "the greatest and most beautiful work of the entire history of salvation", born out of God's determination to be united with the whole creation in Christ.

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain and Research Assistant to the Bishop of Ely, and a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College.

*Professor James Dunn on Ephesians in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman (OUP, 2001)

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