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Christmas Day

18 December 2023

(Set III) Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-4 (5-12); John 1.1-14


I HAVE said before that tackling John 1.1-14 is a big ask at Christmas. At least there is 1.14 to cling to: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” We need only remember that the “Word” is a name for Jesus, to grasp the fact that one who dwelt with God is choosing to dwell “among us”.

Christmas Day is hardly the ideal time for engaging with Hebrews, either. The theology in this reading is as dense as a Christmas pudding full of rich ingredients. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth of its teachings. But wise readers co-operate with the Spirit by themselves searching for illumination as well.

In Hebrews, the death of Jesus is a perfect sacrifice, bringing to its fulfilment that means of accessing God. The “new and living way” that it reveals is access to God through his Son. So it tells us quite a bit about this Son, but not with stories about him, or his teachings; instead, it plunges us straight into theology. Rather than lead us to find out who Jesus is by hearing what he does, Hebrews tells us who Jesus is so that we can make sense of what he does.

Key to that presentation is verse 3 of the reading: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

Our view of the relationship between the Father and the Son depends on whether we translate a Greek word, apaugasma, as “reflection” or “radiance”. Both senses are possible. One translation imagines light from the Father (original) illuminating the Son (copy), while the other imagines the Son as a source of light in himself. Is Jesus a perfect copy, or is he an original, a source? NRSV chooses “reflection”. I would be tempted to choose “radiance”.

What no single translation can do is to express, with a single word, the whole meaning of the Greek: that Jesus is both. Either way, it helps that “glory” is attached to this “reflection” or “radiance”; for the key idea built in to “glory” is light, understood with intense positivity.

When the author calls Jesus the “imprint of [God’s] very being”, we are thrown out of the theological frying-pan into the fire. The Greek word character means an imprinted likeness, such as a coin portrait. Jesus is recognisably “like” God, it says. Just as in English, the word “like” in Greek means both “similar but not identical” and also “exactly alike”.

That feels like quite enough about the natures of Father and Son to be wrestling with during the Christmas festive period. But the next Greek word is going to raise the alert level of every theologian to DEFCON 1: hypostasis. Jesus is the “exact/similar imprint” of God’s hypostasis. Does hypostasis mean “person”, as traditional theology of the Trinity has it, or does it mean “being/substance”? Putting it more straightforwardly, does this word tell us that God and Christ are made of the same stuff, or that they are the same person(s)?

If, by now, you are thoroughly confused, you are not alone. So many confusions in our thinking about God are rooted in the inadequacy of words to say what we want and need them to be able to say. Whenever we apply a word to God or Christ, be it “reflection”, “radiance”, “imprint”, “being”, or the like, we immediately mislead ourselves by thinking that we have described God. In reality, words usually have multiple shades of meaning, and they also change over time. So, even when we use the same word as another person, we cannot be sure that we have the same ideas of God in mind — or that what words once meant is what they always mean.

Words are not enough to describe God. They are useful tools, and sometimes necessary teaching aids. What they cannot do is define him, because they are always changing, and shifting in meaning: “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3.6); “[He] does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1.17 NIV),

Hebrews agrees with this take on God the Father: “You are the same, and your years will never end” (drawing on Psalm 102.27). Towards the end (13.8), Hebrews declares the same of God the Son: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” Those words are its Christmas gift to us.

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