The Second Stanza of Christmas
John 1.1-5, 10-18
Take the second stanza of O come all ye faithful:
"God of God, light of light ... very God, begotten, not created ... "
Again, the second stanza of Hark! the herald angels sing:
"Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail, the incarnate deity ..."
Or recall the incomparable In the bleak mid-winter and its second stanza:
"Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain,
Anyone whose heart can feel the pull of what Chesterton called "the romance of orthodoxy", thrills at the singing of such robust and unalloyed expressions of faith.
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign,
in the bleak mid-winter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ."
But in the sober light of January, when envelopes have to be opened and bills paid, and boilers fail, what convincing account can we give of the meaning of Christmas? A character in John Updike's Toward the End of Time goes outside to take down Christmas lights, and observes of them that they are "part of the annual pretense that God descended to earth in a baby's body."* Is it all, in the end, an overdose of religious sentimentality?
To give an answer, we need to ponder the second stanza of Christmas.
Most people know something of the Christmas story related by Matthew and Luke -- of the miraculous conception in Nazareth, of the poignant birth at Bethlehem, and of the appearance of angels, rustic shepherds and magi. Less well known and appreciated is the Christmas story according to John. For John. For John and his community, to understand the story of Jesus fully, you have to go back to the very beginning, to God's own creative purpose for life, and to One mysteriously named "the Word."
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ..." The clue to the ultimate identity of Jesus, and to the significance of his birth, is signalled in this concept of the Word or, in the Greek, logos.
Translation is an imperfect endeavour, and we ferry words across the distance between eras and cultures as best we can. Logos does mean "word", but also much more. In the centuries before Christ, the Greek philosophers developed the conviction that our visible world of sense, matter and change is given structure and meaning by unseen spiritual realities (as in the case of Plato's ideas or forms). Life is not a random collection of sense data but a coherent, intelligible whole with an origin and a destiny. To the shaping power informing all creatures with their particular natures the Stoics especially gave the name logos.
Thus John took up a Greek concept to speak to a Mediterranean world in which Greek language and culture were a common denominator. Had he been addressing an audience knowledgeable about the Hebrew Scriptures, he might have turned to Proverbs 8, or to the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, and spoken of the figure of Hokmah, or Wisdom. Were he writing in today's cross-cultural setting he might have spoken of the Tao made flesh. The image may be varied, but, according to John, Christmas is essentially the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery by which the eternal Christ took our flesh and came among us in our own condition.
We are dealing with metaphor in such expressions, of course. But metaphors do aim to say something in particular. To use a metaphor isn't to declare open season on meaning. Thus, the metaphorical statement, "the Word became flesh" means something different than another metaphorical statement, such as "the Spirit sojourned in Jesus." The big difference is in the verbs. "Became" is a copula and denotes identity between the subject and the subjective completion, the identity of the eternal Word with the unique individual, Jesus.
In John's understanding, to say that the Word became flesh is to say that the human person of Jesus came into being through the incarnation of the Logos. This means that there wasn't a time when Jesus was a free agent, so to speak, and God picked up his option. The ancient church had a word for it -- enhypostasis. The human Jesus came into being -- was born and ministered and gave himself without limit and died and was raised -- only because the eternal Wisdom of God took up our human nature, beginning with the conception in Mary's womb. Viewed from the perspective of the incarnation, then, there are not two incommensurate magnitudes to be related, the majestic God up there and the human Jesus down here. Rather there is one dynamic of accompaniment, in which the eternal Christ "emptied himself, taking the form a servant, being born in the likeness of humanity."
Following John's lead, historic Christian faith has rarely, if ever, treated the divinity of Christ as a question of quantity, as if it were apt to ask how much of deity could be contained in the life of a single, finite human. Instead, it has spoken of the quality of God's presence in Jesus Christ, confessing that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to God's self." The New Testament witness is that God was decisively and personally present in Jesus Christ, holding nothing back, and thus revealing the divine nature as redemptive, self-giving love. "No one has ever seen God, but the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, has made him known."
Sometimes people speak about the mystery of God as if it denoted all that we don't know about God. But in the New Testament, the mystery of God isn't so much about what we don't know, as about the unfathomable depth of what we do know. The mystery of God is about the awesome wonder of God's self-disclosure.
Thus, for early believers awareness of the mystery of God wasn't a platform for agnosticism or debate, but for proclamation and mission. Do you remember one of the details of Matthew's account of the passion? He tells us that when Jesus died, the veil in the temple was rent in two. The supposedly distant and unknowable God had torn down the curtain separating the divine lover from the children of humanity. The prophets of Israel had always testified to this passion of God to overcome isolation and alienation with humankind. Now God's work in Jesus had made it inescapably clear.
In the First Letter of John, chapter four, there is a culminating insight: "God is love." John is writing out of profound conviction: what has occurred in Jesus Christ is a decisive and utterly trustworthy revelation of the heart of God. If we receive this testimony then are not left in doubt about the greatness and goodness of God. We are left in awe and wonder that God's mercy and justice are made manifest in the gift of a vulnerable baby and in a crumpled figure on a Roman cross.
Jurgen Moltmann is a recently retired German professor, among the most notable theologians in this century. Fifty years after the cessation of hostilities in the Second World War, he was in England for a reunion of those associated with the theological school of Norton Camp, a prisoner-of-war camp in Scotland where Moltmann was a prisoner from 1945 to 1948.
At the reunion he gave an address on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32. Coming to faith was such a struggle for him. He tells of growing up in an atheist household and then of war service in Hamburg as an anti-aircraft auxiliary. He barely survived the fire storm which the Royal Air force let loose on Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah. "The friend at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: 'My God, where are you?' And the question 'Why am I not dead too?' has haunted me ever since."
It was at Camp 22 in Scotland that he and the other German POWs first were confronted with pictures of Belsen and Auschwitz. After attempts among many of the prisoners at denial, the truth sank in. They began to wonder, "Is this then why we were fighting at such cost, so that the concentration camp murderers could go on a few months longer?"
Moltmann received his first Bible at the Norton labour camp from a well-meaning chaplain. "Some of us would have preferred a few cigarettes." He read it without much comprehension until he came across the psalms of lament:
Then I came to the story of the passion, and when I read Jesus' death cry, "My God, why have you forsaken me?", I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you ... This was the divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on the way to resurrection. I began to summon the courage to live again, seized by a great hope ... This early fellowship with Jesus, the brother in suffering, and the redeemer from guilt, has never left me since. I never "decided for Christ" as is often demanded of us, but I am sure that then and there, in the dark pit of my soul, he found me. Christ's godforsakenness showed me where God is, where he had been with me in my life, and where he would be in the future.**
It matters. It matters that none other than the eternal Christ, the only begotten of God, took our flesh, lived our life, died our death and rose for our justification.
Here, in conclusion, is John Betjeman's expression of the second stanza of Christmas:
And is it true, and is it true,
This most stupendous tale of all?
. . .
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
. . .
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single truth compare --
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives again in Bread and Wine.
* John Updike, Toward the End of Time (Knopf), p. 30.
** Jurgen Moltmann, "Wrestling with God: A Personal Meditation", The Christian Century, Vol. 114, No. 23, p. 727.
Theology, Faith and Ecumenism
Questions, comments or
suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 1999 The United Church of Canada
Published: Friday, December 17, 1999