The only problem with trying to write “Christmas According to John” is that there is no Christmas story in John.
John gives us no stories about Mary being with child before being wed to Joseph, nothing about shepherds finding a baby in a manger, no dreams with messages from God about the baby. Joseph is never a character in the story, except basically as part of Jesus’ name (“Jesus, son of Joseph”). Mary doesn’t show up much–she’s at the wedding when Jesus turned water into wine near the beginning of John’s gospel, and then at the cross, near the conclusion.
Yet it’s a characteristic of this fascinating gospel that just because John never mentions something directly, we cannot conclude that he had nothing to say about it. Rather, we might want to listen with very attentive ears and see how he may want to give us a very different perspective on the well-known stories of Jesus’ life.
For instance, another seeming omission in John is the story of Jesus’ baptism, yet this gospel gives us a deep picture of John the Baptist and includes multi-layered references to water. Recall Jesus telling a disreputable woman at a well, “those who drink of the water I give them will never be thirsty,” or saying to a crowd at a festival in Jerusalem, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink", and to Peter as he washed his disciples’ feet on his last night with them, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” It isn’t difficult to make the case that John had plenty to say about Jesus’ baptism, but that he wanted to try to say it very differently.
Similarly, although John tells the most detailed account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on the night of his arrest, there is never a moment in this gospel when Jesus breaks bread and says, “this is my body,” nor passes the cup and says, “this is my blood.” But that doesn’t mean that John had nothing to say it. Rather, he uses shocking language earlier in the story: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” John apparently had plenty to say about that last passover supper, but he wanted to say it very differently.
So it is also with Christmas according to John, and part of the depth and meaning of the opening of his gospel is how effectively it conveys the mystery of the incomprehensible: the enfleshment of the ultimate expression of God, the human birth of the eternal, divine Word. As I write about this passage now, I notice doing so with a sense of trepidation, because it feels like one of the greatest disservices any of us could do to it would be to imply that we might explain it.
Yet in this great passage, John includes some critical indicators which he wants us to follow as an orientation to his entire story, as a lens to Christmas and beyond:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh and lived among us….”
To John's early readers, beginning a book with the phrase, “In the beginning…” would have stood out like today's flashing neon signs, immediately making a connection between what was about to be said and the beginning of the book of Genesis. He begins by connecting Jesus’ life, not just with a moment in a stable in Bethlehem, but with all of eternity. The God who created all of it was now doing something new within it–becoming enfleshed in one of the human bodies that were the height of that story of creation in Genesis.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."
John was about to tell a monumental story of light and darkness, how darkness did its best to try to extinguish the light–and appeared to have done so, but could not. Yet John emphasized that choice remained–both in the story he was about to tell, and on to everyone who might read it. The light, the Word, the newborn king in Bethlehem has come. Will we accept him? Or will we prefer darkness to light?
Considering Christmas according to John forces us to consider Christmas differently, in a sense, delivering the Messiah’s birth from forever being limited to a stable in Bethlehem and pointing to the much bigger point of what happened there: incarnation. The Word became flesh.
The mystery of John’s words invite an appropriate response to this Word-become-flesh, this crucified and risen Messiah who is still with us now and would later say in John’s story, “abide and me, and I will abide in you.” So perhaps you might want to respond by being attentive to the Word of God in what might be a different way than usual. Begin by slowly praying the prayer below, and then read slowly and attentively through this passage from John 1:1-18. Pay attention to any phrase in the passage that grabs you–surfacing any gut-level reaction within you. Does anything excite you in it? What pushes you away? Then, spend a few minutes in quiet with God, asking for the light of God which John describes to help you see God’s abiding presence with you today.
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.