“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” These majestic words, the beginning of John’s gospel capture the profundity and the mystery of our faith. For two thousand years, Christians have read these verses, wrestled with them, pondered their meaning. We do that today as we celebrate the miracle of God becoming flesh and living among us.
One of my great joys as a priest is to visit parents of newborn babies in the hospital. Each time I enter the room, I am overwhelmed with the joy, excitement, and love that a new mother and father have for their child. There is also awe and wonder, and usually, especially when it’s a first child, looks of amazement and bewilderment. As I sat with one couple recently, we talked about the life this baby would have, what he would see and experience, who he would become.
I’m awed by the responsibility parents take on. I’m also awed by the vulnerability, weakness, and dependence of newborns. This year, as I’ve reflected on Christmas and thought about what it means that God became flesh in a manger, in a stable, in Bethlehem, I have pondered the mystery that God comes to us, that God became human by being born as a baby, vulnerable, weak, utterly dependent on others for life.
For all the mystery and wonder about the first verses of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” I think that in some ways, it’s easier for us to get our heads around what John is trying to say here than it is for us to comprehend the fact that God became incarnate in a baby in Bethlehem.
Even if it may be difficult to believe that God created the universe and that the Word was present at creation, such notions at least conform to the idea of God that we have. If there is a God, certainly God created the universe. That’s the sort of thing philosophers debate and a notion that is worthy of an adequate concept of God. But for such a God, as the philosophers argue, all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, for a God like that to be born as a baby, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Immediately, all sorts of questions come up that curious people might wonder. If God is all those things, all powerful, all-knowing, what was God like as a baby? How could a weak, vulnerable infant contain a being of infinite possibility and infinite nature? How do we make sense of these two ways of understanding the way in which God became incarnate—the story Luke tells of Mary and Joseph, of a manger and stable, of shepherds and the story, or poetry of John: In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.
Well, John himself makes the connection a few verses into the gospel: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” More literally, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled (or tented) among us.”
That’s such an evocative image both for our present context and for the biblical story. Tents are something we’re familiar with. They provide shelter, yes, but they are also relatively insubstantial. They might protect us from rain, but they aren’t much use in a heavy storm with strong winds and few of us would want to have to live through a Wisconsin winter with only a tent for shelter. The image of the tent seems to capture something of the frailty of human nature.
But in the biblical context, the idea of tent or tabernacle takes on even greater significance. For it was in a tabernacle, a tent, that God was present with the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert for forty years. And in the tabernacle, God revealed God’s glory to the Israelites.
John uses that imagery as he seeks to help us understand the nature of God in Christ. For, he says, “we have seen his glory, … full of grace and truth.” Just as God revealed God’s glory to the Israelites in a tabernacle made from the skins of animals, so we see God’s glory in the frail flesh of a new-born baby.
That is the mystery of our faith, that we encounter God in a newborn baby born in Bethlehem. St. Paul articulates this fundamental paradox in the phrase: “power made perfect in weakness” because of course it is not just that we see God in the manger in Bethlehem. We also see God dying on the cross.
In John’s gospel, the paradox of the incarnation is also the paradox of the cross. John loves to use that word “glory” or “glorification” when speaking of the cross. Like Paul, John is telling us that in these moments of weakness, we see God’s majesty and power.
Manger, cross; God’s weakness, God’s vulnerability; God’s power. That is the mystery of the incarnation. That is the mystery and the bedrock of our faith. We may not understand, we may not comprehend it, but we can see it and experience it with our very eyes. We have the reality of the incarnation before us in the God who became flesh and tented among us, the God who died on the cross and was raised again.
But we have the reality of that incarnation before us in many ways. We see it, we taste it in the bread and wine of the eucharist, when we receive the body and blood of Christ. We see it in the very imperfect Church, both our local community, and the worldwide communion, bodies filled with flaws and imperfections, but also, mysteriously, the body of Christ. And finally, we may see it in ourselves, imperfect human beings though we are, but by the grace of God filled with the presence of Christ. May this Christmas rekindle in all of us the knowledge of Christ’s presence, of Christ’s glory, in ourselves, in our church and community, and in all the world. May we experience the reality of the incarnation for ourselves, and share it with the world!