SJF • Christmas 1 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.+
Merry Christmas! I don’t know about you, but I usually find the reading from the beginning of John’s Gospel to come as a bit of a surprise on the First Sunday after Christmas; perhaps especially when it is the day after Christmas. Instead of hearing one of the Gospel accounts from Luke or Matthew actually describing the events of the Nativity, the church assigns today this theological reflection in the form of prose poem — the prologue to the Gospel according to John the Theologian (or Saint John the Divine, as we are more accustomed to refer to him because of our cathedral here in New York!)
But this theological reflection comes at a good time and is a good reminder of something crucially important to our lives as Christians. The Nativity Gospel passages with the infant in the manger, the animals standing by, the shepherds and the angels, are the stuff of greeting cards as well as of the Gospel. But the prologue to John’s Gospel is of a different sort entirely — not the kind of thing one is likely to find depicted on a Christmas card! Although I did reproduce on the back of our bulletins today and in larger form at the back of the church, an icon of the Nativity which might make it on to a Christmas Card. In addition to showing the shepherds and the child Jesus, and Mary and Joseph and all the rest, it also includes that crucial element that relates to John’s Gospel: that beam of light coming down out of heaven and resting on the Holy Child. This is exactly why we proclaim this Gospel on the Sunday after Christmas, whether the next day or six days later, to remind us in the midst of all the rest of the Christmas imagery — the shepherds, the angels, the animals in the stable, the manger, and Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus — this Gospel comes to remind us of who that infant Jesus is: the word of God, now in flesh appearing; the true light which was coming into the world: a light that would be rejected by some, but who, to all who would receive him, he would give the power to become themselves children of God. Like himself they would not be born to this inheritance of Godhood by blood or by the will of the flesh or the will of man, but by God and through God and for God. The life of God himself would become their life — our life.
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Scientists tell us that life is almost inevitable given the proper conditions — or as was recently discovered with a life-form based on arsenic, perhaps even improper conditions! They are probably right, but not for the reason they may think. While I am not a creationist — I have studied far too much science to imagine that the universe is only a few thousand years old, and I completely accept the fact that life on earth not only has evolved but is still evolving — as I say, while I am not a creationist, I do see the irreplaceable hand of God at work in the beginning of life, and the establishment of the conditions that could allow that life to evolve and develop and flourish. And that is true whether on the unlikely chance that this island Earth is the only place in the universe where life has sprung forth and developed; or whether there is life on countless other planets circling the billions of billions of stars in this vast universe, or any other possible universe that may exist in some other dimension. There are, we are reminded, many mansions in our Father’s house. And there is every possibility of intelligent life on other worlds — and I say “other” advisedly, since the evidence of intelligent life on this planet is not always so obvious.
I take my cue for this view that life springs from the source of all life — and had and has its beginnings in that divine origin — from that short verse in the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard this morning: “for as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up.” Life does not come from what is dead, but from the source of all life. And this is true of the life that springs forth at the beginning of this world and every world where such life came to be or comes to be, as the hand of God apportions to each and every atom its particular characteristics and valences that cause them to unite to form things capable of living — and behold, they live.
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And the same is true of us. Without the hand of God reaching out to us, we would never have come to life. Without the grace of God our life would not be worth living. We live because, as the old hymn says, “because He lives”: not only to face tomorrow, but to face today! Jesus who comes to us today, the day after Christmas, is the same Jesus who came to earth 2,000 years ago — but he is also that same Word of God who at the very beginning of the universe some 14 billion years ago set it all in motion. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Jesus Christ, the son of God, who came to earth at Bethlehem on that cold winter’s night, that silent night, that night the angels sang, is the same Jesus Christ who is with us today — in our fellowship and our holy Communion, and in our hearts. And because we have received him into our hearts and have believed in his name, we have, through him, become children of God, not born of the flesh but of the spirit — the spirit of God. He brought our flesh to life through the amazing complexity of universal and evolutionary growth, from the time the universe was first created and made capable of sustaining life at all; and he has brought us to spiritual life through his Son. We are only able to be born a second time, just as we were only to be able to be born the first time, because of God. And for this second birth, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts to cry out, “Abba, Father.”
Without God’s touch, without God’s command, the universe would not have come to be; and when it came to be it would not — could not — have brought forth life but for God’s prevenient grace so to have ordered it as to be capable of forming the complexity and richness that life requires. And so too, we who live because he lives, would have remained an inert collection of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and a few other assorted elements — were it not for his life and his light coming to be within us and shining upon us when each of us was first born, as he was, a human child. And were it not for his having come among us as a child, we would not be capable of that second birth, that second life in him and through him, that makes us heirs of everlasting life.
He has brought us to life, for he is the life of the world. He has brought us out of darkness into light, for he is the light of the world.
And so, as we continue to celebrate this feast of Christmas — remembering that Christmas season does not begin on Thanksgiving Day, but on Christmas Day, and ends on January Sixth! — let us take these next days, take the time — which is God’s gift to us as well — to ponder the great mystery of creation and of life itself: that in this vast and almost timeless universe, we children of God are gathered here because God lives and shares his life with us — and came to us as one of us that we might live again, and become children of God, and have his life in us for ever.+