Commentary on John 1:1-14
From all appearances, it would seem that John knows next to nothing about angels or shepherds, stars or magi.
Goodness, he doesn’t appear even to know the name of Jesus’ mother! Why, then, this particular reading as an option for Christmas Day? Because it captures the heart, meaning, and benefits of the Christmas story in a nutshell.
John knows he is playing for high stakes. After all, think of the chutzpah it takes to begin your gospel by repeating the opening line of Scripture itself! Like the author of Genesis, John too is talking about creation, God’s new creation in Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
Exploring the Story
To get at the significance of John’s poetic witness to the Word, we might be well served by employing some of the questions of journalism, sometimes known as the “five W’s.”
What? That is, what’s happening? Jesus, according to John, has been a part of creation from the very beginning. What occurs now is that God’s eternal Word — God’s Reason, Order, and very Being — is coming down to earth to take on human flesh. This is the not first time God has “gotten involved” in human history, of course. God has been at work in the world through covenant, law, judges, kings, and prophets. Yet now God is getting more personally involved, as the very Word of God takes on human flesh and dwells — literally, “tabernacles” — with us in our own human form.
Why? Because the world that has fallen into darkness needs light! And so God comes prepared to struggle, light against darkness, day against night. That struggle is captured in the future perfect of John’s grammatical construction, rendering verse 5: “The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Who? Or, better, who is affected by this? All of us, as new creation means new possibility for everyone! Even though many, including many who were close to him, did not recognize in Jesus what God was accomplishing, all those who do recognize and receive him are invited to become God’s own children. Note the freedom John imbues this invitation with: Children born not of blood (we will not be subject to the frailties of human flesh forever), or of the will of the flesh (we are more than our desires), or of the will of humans (we will not always be subject to whim and will of others). Rather, we are children of God, restored to God’s intention in creation.
Where and when? Not just in a manger long ago, but here, today, now! Perhaps this is why John gives such scant attention to the details of Jesus’ birth. He is, ultimately more interested in our birth, our new birth as children of God. According to John, that is, Christmas is not really Jesus’ birthday at all; rather, it is ours. Christmas is, that is, the day we celebrate our birth as children of God, the keeping of all God’s promises, and the beginning of the restoration of all creation.
Singing Praise to the Word
John may not know much about the details of the Christmas story, but he does know about the heart and soul of the Incarnation: that because Jesus, the very embodiment of God’s grace (verse 16) takes on human flesh we are granted the chance to know the unknowable God (verse 18) and recognize ourselves as those children beloved of God. This is the gift of Christmas, a new identity, a new opportunity, a new humanity, all through God in Christ. This is the gift of Christmas, and it deserves our full attention on this day and, indeed, throughout the year.
John’s prologue is, in many ways, a hymn to the Word, the Word that created in the beginning, created again in Jesus, and still creates when anyone receives Jesus in faith. This passage is packed with meaning and metaphor, and perhaps can best be understood less as doctrine and more as poetic testimony to the light, life, and living Word of God. We might therefore take a clue from John not only about what to preach on Christmas day, but also how. That is, given the “high mass” feel of many of our Christmas Eve services, we have an opportunity today to contemplate more quietly the profound mystery of the Incarnation, the doctrine at the heart of Christmas and to which John gives poetic witness.
Perhaps, in this regard, a short sermon is best, surrounded by the carols of Christmas that give voice, as John does, to the mystery and grace of God’s revelation. In particular, carols like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Love Came Down at Christmas,” “Cold December Flies Away,” and “Lo, How a Rose is Blooming” can accompany some of the more familiar Christmas carols and accent our reflection on all that God has accomplished through Christ. However you choose to celebrate this day and preach this passage, however, know that Christ came for you, for you and all of us, that we might have life…and have it abundantly. Blessed Christmas.