Where does the story of Jesus begin? Christmas normally points us to the birth of Christ. Picky people might point out that the story of Jesus began 9 months ago, at the Annunciation – that’s really when God became flesh. Saint John, however, has another idea of where to start the story of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John manages to go on, writing about that Word, Jesus, for 13 whole verses before he finally gets to the Conception and Birth of Christ – “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The nativity stories in the books of Matthew and Luke are, perhaps, the more common fare for Christmas celebrations, but with John we’re getting the real deal!
A quick note about the liturgy might help further this point. On major holidays like today, there are many Scripture readings appointed: two for Morning Prayer, two for Evening Prayer, in a few cases like Christmas two more readings for Evening Prayer on the night before (Christmas Eve), plus the readings for the Communion service. Because the Service of Holy Communion is the apex of the worship life of the Church, the readings for that service are usually the most directly pertinent to the holiday, while the readings in Morning and Evening Prayer offer additional perspectives or theological ramifications. So it is noteworthy that the usual nativity stories are relegated to Morning Prayer and the Christmas Eve or Sunrise Communion services, while the primary Communion service for Christmas Day calls for John 1 as the Gospel. This beautiful, majestic, and mysterious introduction to Jesus as the God the eternal Word which took on human flesh for our salvation has been the primary Christmas text for over 1,500 years!
Today you see reminders of Jesus as a baby everywhere: television shows and movies, Christmas songs both in church and even some of the secular ones, statues and pictures and even live nativity scenes… it’s in escapable. People can complain about the so-called “war on Christmas” all they like, but despite all that hullabaloo the baby Jesus is still very present almost everywhere we go. Throughout history, nativity scenes, plays, and reenactments have been popular sources of entertainment and devotion for Christians all over the world; meditation upon the face of a tiny newborn child as somehow also being the face of God is a devotional opportunity that is readily available almost everywhere we go at this time of year.
That is why, I think, it is all the more important for us to sit down with passages like John 1. There we are drawn deep into the mystery of the person of Christ – behind that cooing infant face is God the Word, God the King, God the Savior. These images even show up in the Prayer Book’s three traditional Psalms for Morning Prayer on Christmas Day. Psalm 19 gives us a picture of Christ the Word, meditating on God’s laws, statues, ordinances, ways, and words. Psalm 45 gives us a picture of Christ the King, painting a poetic picture of his royal weapons and scepter and robes. Psalm 85 gives us a picture of Christ the Savior, noting his gift of peace, mercy, righteousness, and truth, as our offenses are forgiven and our sins swept away. All this majesty, all this power, this God, came forth from the womb of Mary, was wrapped in a swaddling cloth, was placed in a manger to sleep.
If you have a time of family devotion on or around Christmas, consider adding John 1, Psalms 19, 45, or 85 to your repertoire of readings. Or pick up the Prayer Book and look at the other Psalms and Readings appointed from Christmas Eve through the end of Christmas Day; this is a holiday rich with meaning, splendor, and mystery!
To that end, I want to conclude with the lyrics of an ancient Greek song from the year 275 or earlier. It was known originally as the Cherubic Hymn, because it speaks of the heavenly beings who forever worship our Lord around his throne. It has been adapted into English, and I think many of you hymn-singers will recognize it.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending Comes our homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary, As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture, In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six winged seraph, Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence, As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord Most High!