The prologue to John (John 1:1-18) is the Christmas gospel. It reveals how shallow our view of Christmas is. That deep down, we must realize our love is more than practical and theological ideas about God and the nature of Jesus. It’s in every aspect of creation and our very humanity.
The Incarnation of Jesus and the Incarnation of Love
Christmas 1B | John 1:1-18
read, listen, or read while you listen!
A Lutheran evangelist made a funny video a few years ago with a caricature of Martin Luther yelling at a couple of Anglicans for their stupid Christmas hymns. It’s really quite funny. You can find a link to it on the handout if you want to watch it.
But the Luther in the video makes a very compelling argument.
He’s complaining that the dominant Christmas carols in the world are Anglican and are very atmospheric. They catalog the animals at the birth scene and describe the weather patterns.
What this cartoon Luther wants is hymns about the power and beauty of the Incarnation. He wants the theology of the Incarnation Event to be center stage, not those beloved elements of the Christmas story: the hay in the manger and the quiet of the night.
I can totally relate.
All the greens and songs and presents and parties and good cheer seem like one giant community celebration, like an international birthday party. And then we all go home on the 26th and forget about it for another year.
We’ve thrown the party and given the gifts, but have we pondered the depth of God’s love? Or the profoundness of God’s mercy?
All this we love can seem so trivial next to the subject of our devotion. And really, could be a distraction from examining the emotional and spiritual depth of our faith.
In all those ways I think the cartoon Luther is completely and totally right.
And yet, he fails to see the greater point entirely.
The First Incarnation
Our great Anglican ancestors were tapping into a wisdom the cartoon Luther couldn’t see.
He came from a theological tradition which is very heady and focused on the analytical aspects of God: what we call philosophical theology. The way of seeing faith which dominated the western church for centuries.
Anglicans have this. But we also have a stream which existed prior to this: a Celtic spirituality which has informed the English church and further informed the whole church’s view of Christmas from the beginning.
And one of the things Celtic Christianity shares with us is a bigger, wider, deeper view of Incarnation than this cartoon Luther describes. Because the birth of Jesus wasn’t the first Incarnation.
The first is described in the gospel of John.
“He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
Before there was a baby Jesus, there was the Word. The Word was always. And the Word was with God in the creation of everything. So that God would be in the world. And everything in the world would bear the beauty of God.
Creation was the first Incarnation.
Those first Celtic Christians saw the breath of God, not in theological concepts or certainty of belief, but in everything around them. The world was the proof of God.
And not just proof of God’s existence, but proof of God’s character and love. Proof of the beauty of birth and rebirth, life and new life. That every opportunity of giving birth to a child makes an opportunity to see God in creation. To exclaim like Eve:
I have created life, like God!
In the rising sun, the expanding days, we can see the glory of God restored to the world. We can see the power of light literally bringing an end to the darkness.
In everything we can find God!
The cartoon Luther mistakes this knowledge for irrelevant metaphor. But we know it is much more than that. We know that all of creation preaches the Good News in ways we are unable. Like those stones Jesus claims will shout when we are unwilling.
While these pastoral scenes set by our hymns can distract us from the power of the Incarnation, they also reveal parts of it theological concepts can’t.
Like talking about the biology of childbirth and the psychology of parenting can inform a person about the concept of parenting, it isn’t the same thing as soothing a crying baby or sending a pre-teen to her room.
It can’t explain how holding a newborn in your arms or seeing someone else hold theirs, evokes all the feelings of parenthood in a flood of profoundly conflicting emotions of love and loss and joy and sadness all together. That we can see our own children in the past and the idealized future of their growing and graduating and working and living full and rich lives.
Grace Upon Grace
This is the power of reading the prologue to John for a Christmas gospel. Because it isn’t just a story about a baby born, straw in a manger, or whether or not there’s snow on the ground in Bethlehem.
AND it isn’t just about the manner and aspect of God’s love coming to us in a human form at a particular time or how the Word fits into a trinitarian formulation.
John reminds us of that first Incarnation when we’re all focused on the second.
And it does this by reminding us, just like Matthew and Luke do, that this is what God does. Not did. It isn’t past tense. Christmas is never past tense. Christmas is always in the present.
And that present is grace.
“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
This is how God is known: Jesus. We can know God through Jesus. Like we know each other; in our children; our friends and loved ones; those dearest and most cherished.
Through incarnation God is known.
Through the first and the second. And I always argue, in every incarnation since. Every incarnation revealed in us when we love each other. When we reveal grace and truth.
Every time we share grace upon grace. Like a Christmas miracle; it’s always present. Always with us. A love, like a guiding star or refuge in a foreign land. In the hospitality of strangers and the generosity of outcasts.
And in the zeal of fishermen and women and doctors and lawyers and tax collectors and prostitutes and all those disciples who were men and women both.
In Peter’s walking on water to the disciples feeding the multitudes, to our collecting for and feeding the homeless this January.
We tell stories and share food and give our love to the world in hope and expectation because in us, God is known. In our stories and our lives. In our work and our dreams—fulfilled and unfulfilled. God is there. God is found.
Even at our time of death. Or at our most desperate. Even when all hope is gone, the sun rises again. Even when our hearts don’t, the sun keeps rising.
God’s love is always present, revealed in the rising sun, the voice of songbirds, and in our hearts broken open to each other. A creation filled with love and always revealing the exponential capacity of love.
May we all know that love grows love. In the world and in each other.