Christmas Day

21 December 2017

Sotheby’s

The dawning of the light: The Nativity, the Master of the Saint Lambrecht Votive Altarpiece, c. 1410-40, sold by Sotheby’s earlier this month for £297,000

The dawning of the light: The Nativity, the Master of the Saint Lambrecht Votive Altarpiece, c. 1410-40, sold by Sotheby’s earlier this month for £297...

Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

 

“WHERE are you from?” is a pivotal Christological question (Mark 6.3, John 9.29, 19.9). The opening chapters of Matthew and Luke address it with their genealogies, and with the narratives of Jesus’s birth and infancy.

The richly theological Prologue of John “has recapitulated [their] deepest meaning” and “taught us to understand them as an interpretation of our own origin, our true ‘genealogy’” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives). If Jesus is the Word “from whom all things came” (v. 3), the one through whom all light and life entered the cosmos, he is the source of all created beings. Whether we know it or not, we are his children.

Human beings were created as children of light, but live in a fallen world of violence and sin. Much festive celebration is about escaping from these harsh realities. The message of this Gospel passage offers a far deeper and more fundamental consolation. It is good news because it tells us that God has engaged with those realities. The light and life of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (v. 5). As Jean Vanier explains, “This life is not a flight from the world of pain and of matter but a mission into it, to love people as Jesus loves them” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John).

Vanier notes that the writer of this Gospel is never referred to by name. “He speaks of himself only in relationship to Jesus, as if his real value and identity flows from this relationship.” We see the same quality in John the Baptist, who is introduced entirely in terms of his witness to Jesus (vv. 6-8).

“The world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him” (v.10). To reclaim our “true genealogy” as children of light involves repentance. We first need to recognise that we are far from home. We do not need to make the journey back on our own, however. The Word has become flesh to dwell among us and call us back (v. 14). To all who receive him, he gives the “power to become children of God” (v. 12).

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In speaking of darkness and rejection, John is again “recapitulating” the deeper meaning of the narratives of Matthew and Luke. The slaughter of the innocents (recounted in Matthew 2, and remembered by the Church on 28 December) reminds us of the depths of human sin and violence — and the earthly powers that are challenged by the coming of the Prince of Peace. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary proclaims the exaltation of the humble and the scattering of the proud (1.51) and is warned by Simeon that a sword will pierce her heart (2.35).

Once we have recognised the depths of the darkness, the dawning of the light elicits a deeper joy. Isaiah hails as “beautiful” the feet of the messenger who has travelled across mountains to “announce salvation” (v. 7). This is an unusual, Christlike beauty, as the feet will have been hardened, even bloodied, by the journey. They are beautiful because they bring with them news of deliverance. The sentinels “lift up their voices” and “sing for joy” (v. 8).

There is a different kind of beauty in the first chapter of Hebrews. Even in translation, we can sense the power of the language. As Thomas Long observes, the epistle is written to be read aloud. It “begins with words as graceful and rhythmical as a human heart” (Interpretation Bible Commentaries: Hebrews). Like the song of Isaiah’s sentinels, the poetry of Hebrews expresses a joy that exceeds the bare meaning of any human words. The writer sets out the reason for this rejoicing. While God has spoken to humanity “in many and various ways by the prophets”, his definitive message to us is the gift of his own life: Jesus, “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (vv. 2,3).

As we contemplate this good news of salvation, the Psalmist enjoins us to add our voices to this great chorus of praise. On Christmas Day, we join the angels of Luke’s Gospel and “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things” (Psalm 98.1).

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