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Christmas Day

15 December 2020

Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14


THERE are lots of ways of teaching Christianity, but two predominate: telling stories, and the reasoned discourse about God which is theology. Of the three sets of Christmas readings, this is the most theological — at least, its New Testament lections are. The Isaiah reading is unapologetically anthropomorphic. Often in scripture, God is said to have an arm that is “strong” or “outstretched”, but only twice is it called a “holy arm” (and it may have been introduced into psalm 98 from Isaiah 52). The next chapter of Isaiah, 53, brings readers to the suffering servant; so, for a Christian, the story moves from the might of God’s holy arm to the vulnerability of holy arms outstretched on the cross.

Instead of accessible narratives featuring journeys, companions, get-togethers, and a birth, the New Testament reading and Gospel provide propositions about God’s nature and being, in a reasoned discourse. The Greek word for such discourse is logos. So John begins: “In the beginning was the Logos.” He writes his extraordinary prologue with existing Christian communities in mind. But the words he uses suggest that he was also communicating Christian truth to the wider world.

John quarries the philosophy of his day for ways to help Christian truth talk to “pagan” ideas. In particular, he seizes on the Stoic idea that “logos” is the stuff that makes the world cohere and establishes patterns in nature and intellect. He identifies that “logos” with the being who “was in the beginning with God”. Stoics thought that “logos” was a kind of stuff, not a kind of person. But John turns their idea inside out, declaring that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

It has always been difficult to express theologically how God, being perfect, and “dwelling in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6.16), could interact with the finite physical world of human beings. Multiplicity is one answer. Have a hierarchy of divinities, like the gods of Greece and Rome, or a system of intermediate beings, such as angels, to bridge the divide between divine and human. Unity is another option. It has the virtue of clarity, but struggles to explain the complexity of the human experience of the divine, and of the fact of evil in the world.

Early on (as both Hebrews and John bear witness), Christians dived into the centre of this problem and scattered it like water splashed from a pool. Their ground-breaking revelation was that God encompasses both multiplicity and unity. They explained this through what they called the Word’s “incarnation” (a word derived from Latin, “fleshification”). The Greek term, enanthropesis, means the “humanification” of that divine Word or “Logos”. When John states that the Word became flesh, what he means is that he is really made of human “stuff”; that he has the same physical reality that other human beings have. An equivalent English idiom might allow us to say that the Word became “flesh and blood” like us.

When John was writing, there was no such thing as capital and lower-case letters. He could not distinguish for his readers between “the word” and “the Word”. Nor could the author of Hebrews, whose name is unknown (in time past, it was identified as Paul). Mostly the context makes it clear; but I haven’t forgotten realising, when reading radio listings in a newspaper, that the programme that I thought was Thinking Aloud was actually Thinking Allowed.

New Testament books are documents for reading aloud and listening to. They are not meant to be read microscopically, with forensic attention to detail. What inspires and drives people, in all the Bible books, is the gists and impressions through which we encounter the details over a lifetime. It’s not that details don’t matter: rather, that — if they take precedence — they will obstruct, not communicate, the gospel.

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