WHEN St John declares that “we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth,” he is making a statement about the spiritual realities that underlie the seeming insignificance of Bethlehem and Nazareth. The contrast is captured by Evelyn Underhill, who writes that, on the first Christmas, a “tremendous spiritual event took place; something which disclosed the very nature of God and his relation to his universe. But there was little to show for it on the surface of life” (Fruits of the Spirit).
Underhill argues that this contrast between outward appearance and inner reality is “true of all the coming of God to us”. What is revealed in the incarnation is that humility and poverty are the hallmarks of God’s presence among us. This has implications both for the places where we might discern God’s coming in our daily lives, and for the way in which we might bear witness to his “glory” in the life of the Church .
There is a constant interplay in the Fourth Gospel between descriptions of visible, tangible events (what Underhill calls “the surface of life”), and the transcendent, which gives it meaning. John begins his Gospel with an account from the very heart of the Godhead — of the Word who “was God” and “was in the beginning with God”; of the world that came into being through him; and of the entry of the Word into the created order to “live among us”. This account of the spiritual realities is the context for the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus in verse 16.
As our Old Testament reading and canticle indicate, John’s account of the “tremendous spiritual event” of the incarnation draws on the Hebrew picture of holy Wisdom, who “came forth from the mouth of the Most High” and “took root in an honoured people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage”.
Jesus Christ is a son of David, one of the “honoured people” in whom wisdom has taken root. Yet he is also the Wisdom and the Word of God: “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart.” John’s words portend a theological revolution. As Hans Urs von Balthasar explains, Christianity neither collapses the distinction between creature and Creator nor posits an unbridgeable distance between the two. Rather, it teaches that we can, by grace, “attain supreme union with God precisely on the basis of the lasting distinction between Creator and creature” (Light of the Word).
St John Damascene draws out some of the implications of this theological revolution for the Christian attitude to material things. The Damascene declared that he worshipped “the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter”. This recognition of the holiness of creation led on to a recognition of the imperative to treat it with reverence and respect: “Do not, therefore, offend matter. It is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible.”
The breadth of Christ’s saving work is also the theme of our epistle. In words that have inspired a rich seam of reflection from Patristic times, Paul writes of the Father’s plan to “gather up all things” (anakephalaiosasthai) in Christ, “things in heaven and things on earth”. As Margaret MacDonald explains, “The image is one of a cosmic Christ who draws all things into himself according to God’s plan” (Sacra Pagina: Ephesians and Colossians).
St Irenaeus writes that Christ gathers up in himself “all that is earthly and all that is spiritual. He unites humanity to Spirit and places the Spirit in humanity.” To be spiritual, then, is not to seek to turn our backs on created things, but to recognise their origin and ultimate fulfilment in Christ — the Word through whom all things came into being.
Commenting on this same verse, St Theodoret of Cyr writes that, through the saving work of Christ, “human nature is raised anew and puts on incorruptibility. Ultimately the visible creation, delivered from corruption, will receive incorruption.”
Salvation is neither purely individualistic; nor is it disembodied. The material world is also, always and everywhere, a realm with spiritual potency, where God wishes his presence and his love to be known. The mystery of the incarnation reveals “the surface of things” to contain an infinite depth. It has borne the very life of God.
If transferring Epiphany, see Canon Ritchie’s columns from 2018 and 2019.