In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 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. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
My favorite Christmas tradition is putting up the crèche—the nativity scene with all of the familiar characters. My crèche figures come from the south of France—I bought them on a trip there when I was visiting family—and they are Santons (little saints) made of terra cotta. The Santons from Provence include all of the usual figures—Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, shepherd, many sheep, the magi—and so many more. My crèche includes a peasant and his wife with her market basket, a priest with a red umbrella whose handle is a goose’s head, and my favorite figure who is clearly a traveler. The traveler has a cape that is spread out behind him. He clasps his hat to his head as he leans into the wind. His other hand grips a walking stick that he plants into the ground as he propels himself forward. He is a dynamic figure, and he conveys the strenuous motion and effort required by his journey. He is a modern looking figure—compared to the others—and his part in the nativity scene is to remind me that we modern people are also on the journey to Bethlehem. And now it is Christmas day, and we have arrived in Bethlehem. The Messiah is here. No matter where our journey began–in the nearby hills or in the distant realms of the East, we travelers find ourselves in the same place. Is this the end of our journey? Like people who meet on the road always have, we tell each other stories of our journey. Our stories are each different–of course they are. We began in different places, saw and heard different things
The Gospels are stories of four different journeys to meet the Christ. Each one begins in a different place. Some tell of some of the same events. There is a difference in each—the sound of a different voice, the perspective of a different pair of eyes.
The Gospel of Matthew tells of a journey that begins with dreams and messages from an angel. It is Matthew who tells us of the Magi–we call them kings but they are more likely astronomers–astrologers (they were mostly the same thing back then). A cosmic vision of a never-before seen star!
The Gospel of Mark begins the story about Jesus at his baptism as an adult–at the beginning of his ministry. No swaddling clothes are found in the Gospel of Mark. We never see Bethlehem through Mark’s eyes.
The Gospel of Luke describes our journey to Bethlehem, like Matthew. He begins with an angel’s visit–this time to Mary, and he tells of the birth in the stable, the shepherds and the heavenly host shouting Gloria! Another cosmic vision—unearthly, transcendent!
The Gospel of John has a cosmic perspective too—and it begins even earlier. The author of the Fourth Gospel begins with the beginning of everything–the beginning of time. Beginning, Beginning….Every journey has a beginning….John starts: In the beginning was the Word–.
And in your ears you may hear the echo of another beginning. It is the very beginning of our holy scriptures… It is the book of Genesis which begins: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
John’s Gospel doesn’t merely echo the words and images of Genesis—John’s Gospel is built on the foundation of the ideas and images of Genesis. Beginning, light, darkness, goodness, and most essential of all is the phrase: “God said, Let there be light.” God said. It is the speaking of God that created the heavens and the earth and everything. And the speaking of God was the speaking of a Word.
After the journey that ends at night in a little village called Bethlehem, that ends in the company of angels and shepherds and animals and a newborn child, we wake up in the morning wondering what it all means. And on this morning we hear the words of light and darkness from before the beginning of time. And somehow we begin to make the connection that the newborn child is the human presence of the eternal holy. We are witnesses that something cosmic has happened—and we share that realization with all of the Gospel writers, with the ancient inhabitants of Bethlehem and their motley visitors, with John the Baptizer, and with the whole community that speaks through this text. Suddenly we hear many voices: We! “We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
We linger in this joyful moment as long as we can, but we cannot stay in Bethlehem. It is the end of one journey, and the begining of another. As we hold the wonder of the birth of Christ in our heart, we still travel through a world that is blasted with darkness—as we know only too well. And yet, and yet, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” That is the cosmic reality—that the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem is a light that shines through time—back to the beginning of creation and forward to this very moment. That light cannot be stifled by the darkness in this world that is always trying to blot it out.
No matter how sharp the wind that cuts through our traveling cloak, nor how bleak the midwinter night, the star that beckoned us to make that journey to Bethlehem still guides our hearts to our Savior Jesus Christ. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Word of God, the eternal, undefeated light of the world.