Getting people to focus on John’s Gospel at Christmas time may be a challenge. Stories of the majestic star, humble shepherds, exotic magi on camels, and choirs of angels — all neatly assembled together in the traditional crèche scene — no doubt capture the imagination. Yet ancient Christian tradition assigned a reading from the Gospel of John for the Mass on Christmas day. Why? What impact should it have on our celebration of this joyous season? This article attempts to give the Gospel of John its due, and to explain why this ancient tradition still can inspire.
The Gospel reading for the Mass on Christmas Day is the Prologue of John (1:1-18). It is obviously focused on the Incarnation rather than the Nativity of Christ, not that these concepts are totally distinct. The issue, rather, is one of emphasis and mature reflection on the meaning of the Nativity of Christ.
Several observations about the Prologue are important for a proper orientation for preaching this word. First, note that there are longer and shorter versions in the lectionary. The longer version includes all 18 verses, a composition containing both poetic passages and narrative sections. The poetry concerns the Word (Logos), while the narrative concerns John the Baptist. If one chooses to stick with the longer reading, then the figure of John the Baptist, who was the focus of much of Advent, comes back in his role as a subordinate predecessor to Christ. He is the little lamp; Christ is the big Light, or to use the Gospel’s phrase, “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (v. 9).
Many scholars believe that the Prologue originated in an ancient poetic hymn devoted to the Logos, a Greek philosophical concept somewhat related to Lady Wisdom of the Old Testament. Later, the theory goes, recollections about John the Baptist were interwoven into the hymn. Be that is it may, the longer version, as it now stands in John, serves as the Prologue to the whole Gospel.
It is a kind of overture to the entire Johannine story of Jesus. It sets out a cosmic perspective of the eternal divine Word incarnate, taking on flesh, concretely entering human history. The Prologue hints at many prominent themes in the Gospel (light, darkness, truth, testimony, life, indwelling, grace, glory) that come back again and again. So if one sticks with the larger Prologue, in essence, one embraces the whole perspective of the Fourth Gospel. It is human history into which God has chosen to enter by way of the Incarnation in order that truth, light, life and harmony might be restored.
The Shorter Reading
If one chooses the shorter reading, which leaves out the narrative sections about John the Baptist, then the focus is clearly on the Word-made-flesh, the Incarnation itself. This is a highly christological perspective. The reason for the choice of this Gospel for Christmas day then becomes readily apparent. After reflecting on the charming scenes of the Nativity, as pictured in Matthew and Luke, Christmas day brings on a more mature reflection. The Nativity is not simply about a baby born in a manger. It is about the Lord of heaven and earth taking on our flesh and becoming one like us in all things but sin. The Gospel’s cosmic orientation is evident already in the first phrase: “In the beginning….” One cannot miss the allusion to Genesis, which begins the same way. In Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. In John, God recreates heaven and earth through the gift of His own Son, the definitive Word, spoken from beyond all time for all eternity. His message is that God chooses to dwell in our midst, to partake of our humble lives, and to lead us to truth, light and life.
Bringing the Cosmos Down to Earth
A narrow view of this interpretation of John’s Prologue might suggest that such a reading is too abstract to be of much interest to people today. It may seem like an arcane exercise in philosophical musings. After all, Christmas day for most people is very hectic. Children are preoccupied with their new toys, parents are concentrating on last-minute preparations for the feast, all are distracted by the practical details of enjoying the holiday. Even the hymns we sing at Christmas speak more of choirs of angels, stars, and magi than a christological doctrine.
A Most Inconvenient Moment
I suggest, however, that this context precisely makes preaching the Incarnation so important. God did not wait until everything in history was settled to send His Son. The Incarnation came at a most inconvenient and unexpected moment for Israel. They were unhappy with Roman occupation, and the people were divided into various political and religious persuasions. Yet at just such a time, God chose to take on flesh, to experience our vulnerability to the fullest extent, in order to be closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Even more important, perhaps, is that in our age of skepticism and doubt, the doctrine of the Incarnation speaks to the need to look around us more closely. God is in our midst. God dwells with us! God is not merely an abstract concept. God is a person who has spoken a Word. The Word pitched its tent among us.
Sadly, too many of us can only think of Jesus Christ as “God” and quickly allow this latter concept to overwhelm the truth of the faith: equally God and equally human. The message needs to be one of recovery. We need to see the profound insight of John’s Prologue for what it offers. It is not a nostalgic or fanciful tale. It is about a personal God who reaches out in the most unbelievable of ways to us in our human weakness.
Another aspect of this passage that may make an impact concerns the notion of gift-giving. The Christmas season, obviously, is a time for giving gifts to family and friends. Different countries have different customs, but the general sentiment is to share with others whom we love some sign of affection and, perhaps, appreciation.
The Incarnation, in a sense, is God’s participation in this custom on a cosmic level. What better gift to give to someone than the gift of oneself? God holds nothing back. His act of self-donation in the gift of His only Son, who is actually at the Father’s side and, indeed, is identified with the Father, (vv. 1 and 19), is nothing less than the most pure form of gift-giving possible.
Unlike our modern practice, this is not an act of “re-gifting.” The Son is unique, and He is given freely for all people and for all time. He is a light that will never dim, one who can illumine even the darkest corners of our souls. In the Prologue, the Gospel of John highlights this selfless act. It should call attention, most especially on Christmas day, to the generosity of our God, who continues to come to us in Word and Sacrament.
Descending in Order to Ascend
Note one more thing: this Incarnation is not merely one-directional. If the Son has been sent and comes down into the world to be among us, His destiny is to return to the world whence He came, to prepare a place for us (3:16; 14:2; 16:28). Paradoxically, though, His return to “glory” is by a harsh route. He will be rejected by the very people to whom He has been sent. Verse 11 is quite explicit: “He came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept Him.”
The alternation between the neuter word “His own” and the masculine “His own people” most likely refers to Israel, as the nation chosen by God to be the covenant people, and the fact that these very people rejected this free gift from God. Already, on the day of the Incarnation, our eyes are drawn forward to the drama that will take place on the Cross, when this only-begotten Son will be “lifted up” (19:17-19; see also 3:14 and par.). This is the reason He descended. To ascend to the Father and, ultimately, to take us along!
So, preaching the Prologue of John on Christmas day does not focus us only on a little babe in a manger. The doctrine of the Incarnation essentially teaches us about an “adult” Christianity. It expresses the reverse of our natural law, “what goes up must come down.” Rather, Jesus descended in order to ascend in glory. At the very moment we rejoice in the gift of Jesus Christ to the world — so beautifully summarized in the oft-quoted line, “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son. . .” (3:16) — we also recall the sacrifice He made so that we could participate in the glory of the Father. John’s perspective, then, gives us something really to sing about on Christmas day. TP
Father Witherup, S.S., is Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice. Among his many publications is Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press, 2013), and a new set of CD’s, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Spirituality of Paul the Apostle (Now You Know Media, 2013).