Words on the Word
Isaiah 52:7-10: They see the Lord face to face as he returns to Zion.
Hebrews 1:1-6: He is the radiant light of God’s glory.
John 1:1-18: No one has ever seen God, it is the only Son of God who has made him known.
‘In the beginning’, we read in Genesis 1:1, ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ ‘In the beginning’, writes John, as if picking up an antiphon, ‘was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ There can be no doubt that the resonance is intended. In Hebrew, each of the five Books of Moses is known by the word with which it begins, rather like a papal encyclical. The book we think of as ‘Genesis’ is called in Hebrew Sefer B’reshit, that is, ‘The book, In the beginning’. The phrase ‘in the beginning’ evokes the perspective from which Scripture sets out, the origin of all things. John tells us that this ‘beginning’ is not just a temporal reference. It is not just something, but somebody. The beginning has a name and a face—a name we now know, a face we have seen. This is the Gospel, the good news, of Christmas: the creative Word of God that first sounded in the dreadful void of darkness, tohu vavohu, has appeared in our midst as a fully human presence, calling us, teaching us, giving himself for us, inviting us to give ourselves for him and for each other. ‘And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’
The art and poetry of Christmas loves to meditate on this stunning paradox: that the Maker of all things, the invisible, boundless God, should be corporeally present in a human person, an infant wrapped in swaddling cloths, the most confined posture imaginable. ‘To think’, exclaimed St Bernard, ‘that the Father’s eternal Word should have made himself speechless, infans, for our sake!’ The more we dwell on this motif, the more baffling it becomes. I’d like, though, to turn the lens around, as it were. I’d like to reflect, however inadequately, not on what the grandeur of God tells us about this child, but on what this child tells us about God’s grandeur. ‘In our own time’, we have read in the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘[God] has spoken to us through his Son, the Son he appointed to inherit everything, through whom he made everything there is.’ Note what is being said here: the message given through the Person and teaching of Christ corresponds to the principle by which the universe is made. The Word that spoke ‘in the beginning’ is the same Word that spoke in the squares and hills of Palestine. To describe himself, the incarnate Word said, ‘I am meek and humble of heart.’ Is this, then, the law behind the cosmos we inhabit?
We are so used to thinking of power in terms of force that it’s hard to imagine the source of all power, God Almighty, being, meek. Yet that is what the cumulative testimony of Scripture suggests. The God who made all things ‘in the beginning’ is not a God who imposes himself. He proposes, invites. This courtesy of God, his invincible patience, is ever more clearly outlined in the Old Testament, whose later books reveal a divine vulnerability: a God who suffers with the sufferings of men, who suffers, too, at their rejection. The shape of this God becomes concrete in Christ’s incarnation. The Word through whom, for whom, all things were made ‘came to his own, and his own did not accept him’. He accepted their non-acceptance. He scorned the idea of calling down punitive fire from heaven. Instead he ran his course to the end, without flinching, ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross’. In his self-emptying, Christ’s glory was revealed. There we saw it, see it still, that ‘glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’. This is the gracious God we worship, to whom we call: ‘Come and set us free!’
A few days ago, I received a letter from Aleppo, from the friend of a friend, a priest who ministers there. The letter describes the anguish of a martyred city. The priest’s own home was recently bombed. Yet he remains, refusing to flee, certain that darkness will not, in the long run, overcome light. To make Christian sense of life in Aleppo, he enclosed a photo showing the remains of a crucifix in a battered church. The walls are pockmarked with wounds of machine-gun fire. The figure of Christ has been serially shot through. The arms have come loose. They hang straight down from the nails that fix them to the cross. The rest of the corpus is badly maimed, hanging at an angle, diagonally, along the cross’s vertical axis. ‘He has been shot and maltreated’, writes the priest, ‘but has stayed on the cross these five years, in solidarity with our pain and isolation. He hangs there, as disfigured as our city, revealing God’s grief in the face of the savagery of men.’
The crucified displays the carrying love of the Word that was ‘in the beginning’. Far from being an uncouth intrusion of ugliness into a pretty nativity play, this image spells out the stakes of Christ’s birth, a work undertaken in love to ‘destroy the defilement of sin’, not by spraying sin with insecticide, but by carrying it to the end and so, ‘taking it away’. The Word ‘in the beginning’, the Babe in the manger, the Lamb of God: the three are one. So may we surrender ourselves to God’s saving work in our lives. May we let him restore what is marred in our nature, and so be fit to receive the incomparable gift God became incarnate to bestow: the gift of himself. Christmas occurred that we might be sharers in Christ’s divinity, learning to walk as he walked, vessels of hope in a world of hopelessness. Such is God’s immense call to us.