Gospel Reflection for Christmas Day By Fr Brian Maher OMI
Imagine! A Christmas morning Gospel without a manger, angels, shepherds and a chubby-cheeked infant in the manger. This would be, very definitely, not the Gospel you’d choose to explain the Christmas story to children. It lacks the drama and imagery of Matthew and Luke and seems, in some ways, dry and without much emotion; more a list of one line statements than the telling of the most incredible story ever imagined.
But for us adults, who have through our own childhoods followed the star and stared in wonder at the baby in the crib, the opening of John’s Gospel, which we read today, is the complete and unabridged story of Christmas. It starts, not with Mary and Joseph cruelly told that there is ‘no room in the inn’, but with the very first moments of Creation, when God’s spirit hovered over the formless waters. It finishes, not with the arrival of the wise men and the star, but with the realisation that this child is the one – the only one – through whom we can see and hear God.
You see, what we read today is the conclusion of maybe close to one hundred years of questioning, discussion, argument and reflection. They were not easy years either, not smooth and peaceful, but years filled with persecution, pain and suffering where the small band of Jesus’ followers clung to existence by their fingertips.
Two thousand years after the fact, we accept without much thought that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for us and rose again from the dead. Two thousand years later, we have the benefit of Pentecost, not to mention the myriad of saints and scholars who have gone before us.
However, in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his closest followers struggled to make sense of what they had been part of. And why wouldn’t they? Nobody had risen from the dead before, and nobody lived on after death, not just in memory and story, but in a real, personal and tactile presence to them.
Those on the periphery, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, were asking the Apostles, “Who is this man?” “When did you realise that he was the Messiah, Emmanuel, God-with-us?” They were asking very real and very vexed questions. What could Peter, who had denied he even knew Jesus on three occasions, answer them? What could Thomas, who said he would not believe unless he saw the nail marks for himself, say in answer to their questions?
Those who had the privilege of actually knowing Jesus spoke among themselves about this. “When did you realise there was something very special about him?”, they asked one another. “When did you first notice he was different?”; “Did you ever say to yourself, he is God!?”
By about forty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was a kind of agreement among the Apostles that it was at his Baptism by John, that they first saw him as special, different, a person they wanted to be close to. That’s about the time Mark’s Gospel was written. His Gospel begins with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, with not the slightest mention of anything before that.
But that did not satisfy the growing number of those who had now come to believe in him. They continued to push and question. “Surely, if he was God, the Messiah, the person who rose from the Dead, there would have been some evidence of that before the age of thirty?” “A man who does what Jesus did, could not suddenly invent himself at thirty! There must be something more?”
In answer to those questions the Apostles thought back, talking with Mary, his mother, maybe Elizabeth, his relatives and those who knew him growing-up in Nazareth. Gradually stories were remembered and shared, and the community of believers realised that, “Yes, the signs of who Jesus really was were there, not just from his baptism but from his birth.”
This is when Matthew and Luke were writing their Gospels, about twenty or so years after Mark, and so they begin with the stories and memories they had of his birth, and the realisation that even at birth Jesus was special, was the Messiah, was God.
But even this did not satisfy. More questions emerge and more tensions arise. “Yes, he was special, but was he God? Might he be a wonderful man, chosen by God at his birth or baptism and given a special mission? Maybe he’s the greatest ever Prophet, messenger of God, but not God himself?”
Genuine disciples, close to Jesus, did think this, and in those early days of the Church it caused a lot of dispute and disagreement. There were times when the early Church almost split in two, or three, or just faded away.
And… it is from this time that today’s Gospel comes to us. Out of disagreement, and conflict and suffering comes this incredible opening to John’s Gospel. It is told so simply, yet it finally answers the deepest questions they had.
“It wasn’t at his baptism, or even at his birth, that the story of Jesus began. No, even before Creation itself, He was there… with God; he was God!”
At heart, this is what Christmas is… the moment when God, who created all there is, became one of us. Why? Because Creation was an act of love; God made us human beings in his own image. In the words of Psalm 8, he made us “little less than Gods. With glory and honour he crowned us.”
This act of love was not something on which God could ever give up. Nor could he ever abandon a being created in his own image. We are too precious, too important, too wonderful for that, even if we don’t see it ourselves. And so, in the fullness of time, when we human beings continued to misunderstand God’s love for us, he came among us as one of us.
Don’t try to understand it. We can’t! When we ‘fall in love’ with someone we get a glimpse of it; when a parent is prepared to die for their child we get another glimpse of it; but God’s love is so much greater than that. It is, and always will be, beyond us.
This is the heart of Christmas. It is the incarnation. It is the greatest story of love ever told, and it is today’s Gospel, told as simply and as eloquently and as powerfully as can be imagined.
This Gospel is the version of the Christmas story written for questioning and reflecting adults. Matthew and Luke give us the child’s version of the same story, rich with memories and stories, filled with the joy and peace of our God coming to us. It is the same story, just a different version.
And for anyone who thinks it is without emotion, read this: “He came to his own people, and his own people did not accept him.” (v11).
This is, for me, the saddest verse in the entire Gospel story. “He came to his own people,” wanting only to share his love with them (us), “…and his own people did not accept him…”. I can never read this verse, truly read it, and not feel tears in my eyes.
Can we celebrate Christmas without the crib, the angels, the star and the shepherds? No! And why should we deny ourselves the sights and sounds and celebration of God coming among us. Our Christmas carols capture the beauty and serenity of the scene so beautifully.
But, as adults, we also need John’s account of the Christmas story. It is the complete story, from beginning (Creation) to end (God coming among us to finally unite his story to our story).
As we listen to today’s Gospel, it would be good to spare a thought and a prayer for all of those whose questions and reflections allowed us to read what we read today.
This Gospel is the end of one long journey; the journey of coming to understand that the man, Jesus, was also God, the Word, who brought everything into existence.
It is also the beginning of another journey; the journey of going to “make disciples of all nations…” This is our journey, our challenge, our reality. But let us not forget, that tiny child you see in the crib says to us, “don’t be afraid, I am with you always, even to the end of time.”
Have a great Christmas.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Gospel for Christmas Day||John 1:1-18|
The Word was made flesh, and lived among us
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