It was Christmas Eve morning several years ago, pretty relaxed and casual. I was in my study, getting ready to start on a sermon for the following Sunday. As I drank my first cup of coffee and tried to pry my eyes open, I thought I’d check my e-mail and Facebook quick, just to see if there was anything there that needed my attention.
(Nowadays I stay off Facebook while I’m in the office, because you can sit down with Facebook thinking you’ll just check it quick, and then several hours later you wonder where the morning went!)
Someone had posted a video from The New York Times. Apparently kids in New York City and surrounding areas started writing letters to Santa, addressed to an apartment on west 22nd Street in Chelsea. The young couple who lived there were mystified at getting all those letters, but then they decided they had to try and do something.
When all was said and done, they had received something like 450 letters to Santa. Some of the letters were heartbreaking, like the kid who wrote asking Santa to help because her parents were out of work and wouldn’t be able to afford Christmas presents that year. That one the couple did themselves; but they passed some of them along to co-workers and friends.
They were able to send gifts “from Santa” to about a third of the kids from whom they’d gotten letters. They took the rest of the letters to the post office, where volunteers picked them up and responded to them.
The couple felt bad they couldn’t fulfil every child’s wish for Christmas; but at the same time, they could do something, so they believed they had a responsibility to do something and help some of the kids.
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I have no idea if Jim and Dylan and their friends were Christians. In the end, I don’t think it matters. Somehow, in the fulfilling of the Christmas wishes of 150 kids around New York—and keep in mind that some of these kids were writing on behalf of siblings as well—these two young men and their friends shone some light into the deep darkness in which some people were sitting that Christmas season.
Now, of course I know Santa Claus isn’t the Light that shines in the darkness. But isn’t it possible that the kind hearts of a couple in Chelsea and their friends, giving gifts to needy children in Santa’s name, were reflections of that Light?
The Prologue to John’s Gospel is my favorite Christmas scripture. It doesn’t tell the sweet story of a baby born in a stable and laid in a manger, announced by angels and visited by shepherds. Nor is the Fourth Gospel interested in the visit of the Magi from the east, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Instead, John speaks of creation, and Word, grace and truth, and a light shining in darkness which cannot put it out. John speaks of Incarnation.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” That is the simple definition of Incarnation—God’s Word took on flesh, was born and lived and died as a human being…as one of us. But Jesus wasn’t just an ordinary human being, so John goes on: “…and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that when John says, “…full of grace and truth,” he is translating a familiar formula from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is how God self-described back in Exodus 34: “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Grace and truth, steadfast love and faithfulness, are God’s very essence, now incarnated, made flesh, in Jesus Christ, for all the world to see.
Theologians put it another way: Jesus is the most complete revelation available to us of what God is like. In the mid-1990s Brian Wren expressed this in a hymn text:
Because Jesus felt
a woman touch his coat,
and said, “Your faith has made you well,”
I know that God takes notice,
and knows my name, and loves us all…
Because Jesus ate
with people who’d gone wrong,
and said, “You are forgiven now,”
I know that God forgives me,
and hears my name, and loves us all…
Because Jesus went
to heal a little girl,
and said, “Get up, and have some food,”
I know God cares about me,
and speaks my name, and loves us all…
Because Jesus sat
with children on his knee,
and said, “I’m glad to meet you all,”
I know God thinks I’m lovely,
and sings my name, and loves us all…
Because Jesus lived
and died, and lives with God,
and says, “I’m with you all the time,”
I know that God is near me,
and calls my name, and loves us all:
So thank you, thank you, thank you, God!
That’s Incarnation—everything we need to know about God, about what God is like, about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, we learn from watching Jesus. And if that was all that it meant, that Jesus shows us what God is like, it would be enough.
But wait, there’s more!
Go back to the opening verses of the Prologue, the first five verses of the Gospel. The Evangelist introduces us to one of the major themes of his story: the cosmic battle between God’s Light and the forces of darkness (which, by the way, have nothing at all to do with skin color; we have to remember that because too often people with dark skin internalize a message that their skin color makes them inferior, at least, and maybe even bad, and that’s something we should pay attention to).
This theme shows up throughout the Gospel—Jesus says at one point, “I am the Light of the world.” In chapter 9, by opening a blind man’s eyes so that he no longer walks in darkness, Jesus touches off conflict, but also brings a man into the Light. He speaks of his followers as children of light, and encourages us all to walk in the Light, not skulk around in shadows cast by sin and fear.
Then, as the story draws to its climax, Judas gets up and leaves the Last Supper, preparing to betray Jesus, and the narrator tells us: “And it was night.” He was not giving us the time of day, you understand. The forces of darkness, which have been opposing Jesus from the word “go,” are preparing for one last-ditch effort to overcome the Light.
But when John tells us in verse 5 of his prologue, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” he’s actually giving away the ending to his story.
Incarnation means more than just the revelation of God’s essence in human form, more than learning what God is like from watching Jesus—even though that on its own is a Very Big Deal. Incarnation means that God’s Light, God’s Word, the life-force through which God brought all things into being, has dawned upon the world in a completely new say—and no matter how dark and scary and awful things are, that Light remains, continues to shine brightly in the midst of darkness. Incarnation means that the Light has dawned into this world in Jesus Christ, and that Light will never be overcome by darkness, and one day—so says the Revelation to John, perhaps the same John who wrote the fourth Gospel—the Light that cannot be overcome by darkness will itself overcome all darkness.