“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 all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-4).
The surprising Gospel
One of the interesting things about teaching New Testament Survey year in and year out is some things always surprise students. When we read the Gospel of John, for example, it’s always a surprise to them when John doesn’t have a Christmas story. No manger, no angels, no wintery eve in Bethlehem with shepherds and Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Just a crystal-clear pulling-back-the curtains kind of beginning that frames the whole arc of Christmas in the biggest possible setting imaginable.
John 1 intentionally mirrors Genesis 1—in which there is nothing, and then there is everything—with one major exception: The God who has brought everything into being is not brought into being, but always is. The God who has loved all things into existence was not brought into existence, but always was.
And so, at Christmas then, the God who has created all things becomes one with that creation. The One through whom all things were made is joined to it. The One who creates light becomes that light in the darkness.
The surprising God
This is the Christmas story, this is the gospel. This is the drama behind the drama, which peers through every nook of the nativity and illuminates the politics, hardship and terror of the Christmas story, for the light in the darkness gets no free pass from the darkness.
The child Jesus now is helpless in the manger, without language, without mobility, without sleep regulation or warmth or food. Taken by his hands to where he does not wish to go, he will be led into Egypt, defenseless against the Herods and the elements alike.
St. Athanasius, a fourth-century church father, describes the baby in this way: “While he moved in the body, the universe was not left void of his activity and providence. But what is most marvelous, being the Word, he was not contained by anyone, but rather himself contained everything … Being in the human body, and himself giving it life, he properly gives life to the universe also.”
What Athanasius means is this is truly the shape of God, the One who sustains all things, not in spite of being human, but in and through this way. The Word, dwelling among us, was, in taking on flesh, redeeming creation from the inside out.
As Gregory of Nazianzus, a later contemporary of Athanasius, put it, Jesus “bears the title ‘Son of Man,’ not just with a view to being accessible through his body to corporeal things … but with the aim of hallowing humanity through himself, by becoming a sort of yeast for the whole lump.”
The surprise of Christmas
The Christmas story—the drama of Mary, Joseph and Jesus—is playing out of what always has been the case. The light of the world sustains us, not by being over against us, but by being among us, with us, for us, suffering us.
What is so important that Gregory and Athanasius point out is this: This weak child is the one who is holding all creation together. This helpless child is God for us, the only God there is. To wish for a stronger God, one who would save us without also suffering us, is to wish for a salvation that is not patient with the stuff of being human.
This is the Christmas story and the gospel, that the light comes among us and in doing so overcomes the darkness.
And so, as the baby Jesus moves out into the world and continues to take up space and disciples, we are seeing an expanding of the light, radiating out through those disciples, such that the truth of John 1, “that the darkness has not overcome it” becomes a promise Jesus shares with all those who are his disciples.
The call to do likewise
Jesus’ disciples are called to follow in Jesus’ way. They too will share, not only in the hallowing of creation, but also in being abandoned by it; they too will share, not only in Christ’s glory, but also in his suffering. This call is extended to us, as well.
This is the Christmas story and the gospel, that the light of the world shines from within the world, suffering the darkness of the world in order to drive it out, to make holy that which always was destined to share in that holiness which is God. For this is God.
And so, in this Advent season, let us come and take up the cries of the baby. Let us hear his hunger, and let us take him up into our lives like a newborn, frail and irreplaceable. Let us be made alive by the One who is the light in the darkness, and let us be made new in clinging to this child.
For in letting in this weak, defenseless child, we are embracing God and with him who we are meant to be.
Let us, in the words of Gregory, “treat all as God does, so that you may ascend from below to become like God, because he came down from above for us.”
Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian ethics and practical theology and the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene. Email him at Myles.Werntz@hsutx.edu. Views expressed are those solely of the author.