by Joseph D. Small
YEARS AGO, when I was preparing to leave my pastorate in Rochester, New York, to begin work in the new Theology and Worship Ministry Unit at the denominational office in Louisville, a member of the congregation asked me what my favorite Bible verse was. I didn’t have to think for a second:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:14, RSV)
The question-asker was an artist, an accomplished calligrapher. A week or so later, as I was packing up my books, she presented me with a large, beautiful, framed piece of art that she had made. On a deep blue background, the Greek text of John 1:14 in black is overlaid by the smaller English text in white. Splashes of brilliant gold border the top and bottom of the text. It has graced my study ever since.
The verse is part of the familiar “prologue” to John’s Gospel. John 1:1-18 is a majestic proclamation of the gospel, one that the Jerusalem Bible translation had the good sense to set in poetic form. There is no mention of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and stables, wise men and the little drummer boy — simply the astonishing announcement that the Word of God became a human being. It is impossible to sentimentalize John’s proclamation of incarnation, God’s enfleshment. The only possible response is awe.
Reverence deepens when we notice that throughout the opening of John’s Gospel, incarnation echoes the Genesis account of creation:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
In the beginning was the Word … all things were made through him.
And God said “Let there be light”; and there was light.
The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image.”
In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind.
No abstruse Greek philosophy here; instead, nothing less than new creation. John does not sentimentalize, but neither does he replace an infancy narrative with speculative reason. God’s creation of the cosmos is the only reality magnificent enough to frame divine self-giving to the world in becoming bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.
Calvin’s Commentary on John offers an intriguing possibility that underlines the re-creation theme of the prologue. Calvin noted that the standard Latin translation of the Bible rendered the Greek logos by the Latin verbum [word] that, in turn, has influenced English translations: logos-verbum-word. “I wonder what induced the Latins to render logos as verbum, for that would rather have been the translation of hre ma [word],” Calvin wrote. “But granting that they had some plausible reason, still it cannot be denied that sermo [speech, speaking, discourse] would have been far more appropriate.” It is Jerome’s translation, not Calvin’s that has influenced English versions; virtually all translate logos as word. Even so, Calvin’s insight reinforces the relationship between the logos of John 1 and the dabar [say, speak, command, promise] of Genesis 1. John’s prologue is dynamic, not static. At the heart of his Gospel we do not find a thing, word, but an action, speaking. In Genesis 1, God’s speaking is an active force that creates: “God said… and there was.” Throughout the Old Testament God’s speech is God’s creative action in the world: “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The dabar of the LORD is God’s dynamic discourse with Israel: “Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel.” God’s speech, God’s communication, is the revelatory action of God, disclosing who God is, and establishing God’s relationship with his people. John’s Gospel now declares that God’s revelatory self-disclosure has become flesh. God now speaks in human terms, in a human life, and we have beheld his glory.
Incarnation is far more than a moment in time, for it extends beyond, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Incarnation is the dynamic reality of God-with-us in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth and God-with-us still in the life of the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. We may celebrate the moment of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, but the entire Christian year is a celebration of the incarnation. From Jesus’ birth throughout his life of telling parables about God’s reign, healing the sick, confronting evil, embracing the marginalized and dispossessed, the speaking of God was with us in the flesh. In his temptation, suffering and death, God’s Speech was seen and heard in a human being. In the Human One’s resurrection and ascension, God’s discourse with the world rose above time and space. And through it all, we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
Yes, upper case S and F. John has no delusions about the imagined glory of human fathers’ sons and what that ambiguous relationship could conceivably tell us about God’s Way. Throughout Scripture, glory expresses who God is, especially as God is known within creation to humans. It is a way of expressing the inexpressible, the very presence of God. In the incarnate One, we have beheld the glory of God, God’s presence among us. “No one has ever seen God,” says John; “the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). The kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s alone, present among us in the human Jesus of Nazareth.
It is true enough that American culture has trivialized “the holidays,” and we know that our consumer society will not “put Christ back into Christmas.” We also know that the church is not immune to religious trivialization. Yet our Christmas deficit is deeper than measuring December by the number of shopping days left until Christmas, rather than by the profound movement of Advent. Our Christmas deficit may occur at the very point of our deepest Christmas devotion. By constricting our vision to a tiny baby in a makeshift crib, we make Christmas into the end of celebration rather than the beginning of awe and reverence. Even the brief “twelve days of Christmas” are confined to the lyrics of a song. Packed churches on Christmas Eve give way to empty pews on the following Lord’s Day.
Matthew and Luke understand that Nativity is not the climax, but the beginning of something astonishing. Mark is so eager to get to “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” that he skips over Nativity entirely, while John proclaims the glory of incarnation rather than the narrative of birth. We are grateful that Matthew and Luke tell us the story; we couldn’t do without it. The story of Jesus’ birth discloses what we would not otherwise know — that God comes to us, not in a display of power, but in the helplessness of a newborn baby. But we cannot stay beside the manger. Only as the baby grows and walks and speaks and acts will his life, death and resurrection disclose something else that we would not otherwise know — that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
We cannot linger in Bethlehem. But before we — like Mark — skip directly to adult Jesus, we should pause — with Luke — to listen to two old people who understood the magnitude of what happened in the stable. When Jesus’ parents presented the 8-day-old baby in the Jerusalem Temple, very old Simeon was there to see what the Holy Spirit had promised he would see: the LORD’s Messiah. Simeon held the tiny Messiah and praised God, saying,
LORD, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Simeon looked at the infant and saw the Messiah. And when Simeon saw the Messiah, he saw salvation for all peoples. When Simeon saw “love’s pure light,” he saw a light for revelation to all who had been “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). When Simeon saw “such a babe in such a place,” he saw Israel, to whom belong “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4). Simeon saw the LORD’s salvation that had been prepared for the whole world.
Mary and Joseph, amazed by Simeon’s words, were then approached by the prophet Anna, also very old. For years she had been in the temple, praying and fasting … and waiting. This prophet now knew that what she had prayed for had come to pass, so she began to speak, praising God and speaking about the child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna’s praise of God was prelude to the fulfillment of her prophetic call to speak the Speech of God. Her words are not given to us, perhaps because her prophesying continued for the days and weeks that followed. What we do know is that the Word of God that she spoke was for all who were looking for redemption.
Anna and Simeon tell us what really happened in the stable, and they point forward to all that will follow. But lest we take their words simply as human echoes of the angels’ “Glory to God in the highest,” Simeon tells us what will follow for the Messiah (and for us): “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.” Which brings us back to John. The Word — the Speaking, the Speech of God — became flesh. The miracle of Christmas is that God came into our world, into our life, into our flesh. And yet “the world knew him not.” It is the paradox of Christmas, and all that follows, that “we have beheld his glory” yet we “received him not.”
Presbyterians are more familiar with the Apostles’ Creed than with the longer (and earlier) Nicene Creed. Both creeds developed from the teaching of bishops to new Christians in the early centuries of the church. Both should now be used regularly in our worship and study, but the Nicene Creed is particularly suited to our Christmas, to our celebration of the incarnation. It invites us to confess the Faith that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God is,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God
of one Being with the Father.
The Creed also bids us to confess the Faith that the Son of God,
came down from heaven
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.
“True God” and “truly human.” This is incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. But not only God with us, but God for us. Between “True God” and “truly human” the Creed confesses that it was all “For us and for our salvation.” It was for us, for the redemption of Israel and the salvation of Gentiles, for the world, that “true God” was incarnate and became “truly human.” There is even more, for the Creed summons us to confess that “true God and truly human” Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, rose anew, ascended, and will come again for our sake.
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is one of the great hymns of the church. In the Presbyterian Hymnal, “Glory to God,” it is placed in the section, “Christ’s Return and Judgment,” but it also sings of the Word made flesh. The hymn enables us to give words to holy awe at Christmas.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence …
King of Kings, yet born of Mary
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of Lords in human vesture,
In the body and the blood …
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, Lord most high.
JOSEPH D. SMALL served as director of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship. He is now adjunct faculty at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and church relations consultant to the Presbyterian Foundation.