Dear Friends: 

A Word in Season

John 1:1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

Dear Friends:
The final Lesson in the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols – the opening verses of St John’s Gospel – makes a statement about God that takes the whole Christmas story out of the realm of Christmas trees and nativity plays – or perhaps as Cliff Richard put it ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ – and into a greater and far more significant place. 

Two modern hymn-writers almost manage to say what needs to be said in response to this passage.  Fred Kaan gets close in his hymn Each year we sing with bated Christmas voice as if events in Bethlehem were nice; and John Bell and Graham Maule have produced a paraphrase in Before the world began, one Word was there; but even there the stark splendour of John’s great opening In the beginning was the word does not come through fully.

So one question that we might ask is: why do people prefer the stories we find in Matthew and Luke?  Part of the answer must be that the familiar nativity stories are easier to cope with.  Even though the biblical narrative with its wise men and angels, shepherds and stables, set in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem is very alien to us in the twenty-first century, it is still a story with familiar themes of birth and a baby, and perhaps in today’s world the elements of exile, oppression and the slaughter of the innocents are not as alien as we might wish.  St Matthew and St Luke focus the relationship between God and humanity in a specific place and a human event. 

St John, on the other hand, does the direct opposite.  For him, our relationship with God is not presented as something that we can comprehend and grasp.  St John offers us a direct contradiction to the picture painted in the nativity stories.  He offers us the light of God that shines in the darkness and that is not the light that shines through the stable door.  And the hard truth is that that makes us uncomfortable.  We are out of our depth.  In John we come directly up against the great mystery of the faith, with all of its terror and all of its glory.  John reminds us of something that we would rather forget, which is that Christmas is not comfortable. 

We are much happier with the Christmas of nativity plays and carol singing.  We like a Christmas hymnody that sets the birth of Christ into a rather romanticised Victorian England and preferably in a melody that could be used as a lullaby.  We want the story of the birth of Christ to be presented in a play with shepherds, kings and a friendly innkeeper.  That is so much easier than facing up to the implications of words like He came to his own home, and his own people received him not! 

But that is what St John offers us.  A testimony to the fact that the story of the Messiah begins and ends in an incomprehensible splendour.  Those who first heard it and who knew their Old Testament in the Greek version would have heard not merely the first words as identical with the first words of Genesis, but the same rhythms in the opening sentences.  By the end of the first paragraph, St John has talked about the Word, about light, about life and about God who is the Word and in whom is found light and life and who has defeated darkness.  By verse five of chapter one of John’s Gospel, the passion story has been prefigured and summarised.  One could, without greatly exaggerating say that the rest of John’s Gospel is an attempt to explain the tremendous statements contained in that first paragraph. 

Angels and Shepherds, and Christina Rossetti’s picture of snow on snow, is much easier to grasp and comprehend, but even she asserts that heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain, and that is the picture that we need in our minds as we come to struggle with the fourth Gospel.  What St John is saying is that in Christ is contained the whole of the universe, and in his birth  it is not so much that the universe is changed, but that our understanding of the universe is changed. 

Since the birth of Christ, we have a new way not just of understanding life but of living it.  It is a truth of history that for twenty centuries untold numbers of people have been grasped by this child from Bethlehem, have been caught up in his message, and have had their lives profoundly changed by Him.  We are numbered among them this Christmas!  Let us rejoice in the one who is the very Word of God for you and for me...

With every blessing for Christmastide and Epiphany:

The Revd Nigel Young