Today’s Gospel is perhaps not what would we typically expect to hear read on Christmas Day. We rightly associate Christmas with the nativity story, the birth of Jesus. Yesterday evening, in this very place, we recounted that very story. Today, however, we’re not moving on from the birth of Jesus. Instead, the Gospel of John challenges us to view the birth of the Messiah from a different vantage point. Whereas the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke situate us on the ground, almost able to smell the animals and grungy manger through the words on the pages Scripture, John offers us a more cosmic perspective.
The first thing we learn from John is that Jesus is called “the Word.” In the totality of his person, he is God’s Word, God’s communication, to us. Jesus’ reveals to us who God is. We’re told that the Word was in the beginning. From the very first, before creation as we know it came about, the eternal Source of all things—what Christian tradition has called God the Father—was always radiating outward. It is through the Word, John tells us, that creation emerged in the first place. But then that same divine Word was joined to creation within history, assuming human flesh in the birth of the Messiah. Jesus doesn’t just speak the Word of God; he is the Word of God. His entire life reveals the nature and character of God. This is why the late English bishop John Taylor wrote a theological treatise titled The Christlike God. His thesis is summed up in the title: God is “Christlike.”
A second thing we learn from today’s Gospel is that the divine Word is fundamentally about life. “In him was life,” writes John. In the birth of the Messiah, the incarnation of the Word, God is shown to be a God of life. From his birth to his death, from Christmas to Easter, Jesus is always standing for life, indeed for eternal life. Christmas, therefore, is more than a celebration of the birth of the Messiah. It’s a celebration of life and a reminder that God stands on the side of everything that promotes and sustains life in our world. But there’s also a flip-side. Christmas means God stands against all those practices and forces that threaten to end life. Poverty, displacement, disenfranchisement, racism, sexism, war—these are just a few of the forces in our world that Christmas resists. The remarkable irony is that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth are marked by exactly these sorts of life-denying forces. Mary gives birth in barn. There’s no crib, so they lay Jesus in a feeding trough. And then because of Herod’s reign of terror, Joseph and Mary flee with Jesus to Egypt, where they spend time as refugees. “In him was life,” John says, but that life was always enacted in circumstances and places that sought to undermine it.
A third thing we learn from today’s Gospel is that the incarnate Word has “lived among us.” John literally says, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” The Messiah has come to live in our midst, but in the most unassuming of ways. He comes to us residing in a “tent,” not in any stately residence reserved for royalty. Jesus’ lowly birth is a reminder that, as we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he is there throughout it all, pitching his tent alongside us in our toughest moments of despair. By virtue of his presence as divine Word, Jesus transforms our parched desert into a fertile encounter with the living God. This is what the Gospel of John invites us to celebrate today. The birth of the Christ child means that heaven is wedded to earth. Our sorrow can give way to dancing, our anxiety can be turned into peace, our fears can be transformed by hope.
I could end the homily at this point, but I’m reminded of those famous lines of a well-known carol: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” If the Christ child, the divine Word, is to be born in us, then we must heed the Word so that it can challenge us and transform us. In that sense, Christmas is a call to a different way of living than what we might be used to. Today we hear a call to stand for life and to resist all the powers that stifle life. We also hear a call to humility and simplicity. The Messiah did not take up residence in a cushy estate, but pitched his tent in our midst. There are many in our city who’ve been forced to live in tents. They are a stark reminder that the Word became flesh and pitched his own tent among us. If that same Word is to be born in us, to live through us, then this Christmas season is as good a time as any to evaluate how our habits of consumption and our craving of comfort might prevent us from living into simplicity.
Let me close with a quote from Gustavo Gutiérrez, an important Peruvian theologian. This is what he says about Christmas: “Entering into the hereness and nowness of our own history, nourishing our hope with the will to live of our country’s poor, these are unavoidable conditions to dwell in the tent which [God’s] Son pitched among us. In this way, we will experience in our own flesh, in the flesh of so many brothers and sisters, the encounter with the Word who announces the reign of life.”
Christmas is exactly that announcement: God’s reign of life has dawned with the birth of the Messiah. Immanuel—God is with us. It is indeed a time to celebrate. May you sense God’s presence in a special way this Christmas season.