God reveals a stunning, glorious, and gracious truth for us all at Christmas.
Paul E. Zell
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
How so? Open Holy Scripture to the first chapter. The answer is obvious. Repeatedly. “God said . . . God said . . . God said . . ..” The expression appears ten times in that opening chapter. In the beginning the Word called light into being and separated it from the primordial darkness. The Word separated the waters from the dry ground. The Word covered the earth with abundant vegetation. The Word called into existence the light-bearing bodies of the sky. The Word created the living creatures that fill the sea and the sky and the land. The Word fashioned our first parents.
A stunning truth
Some are tempted to skip that first chapter of the Bible—for good reason, humanly speaking. Simply put, it’s too much. The stunning truth the Word declares is far greater than our capacity to understand or explain. The infinite wisdom of the Word overwhelms. The surpassing power of the Word terrifies. If all things were made through his Word, what is the Word going to say to fallen creatures who often fail to acknowledge him and misuse what he has made?
At the start of the Gospel according to St. John, the evangelist echoes Genesis chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” So, the Word is not merely expressions emerging from the mouth, resonating between the ears, or lining up before the eyes. In the beginning the Word was God, and at the same time the Word was face-to-face with God.
“Through him all things were made” (John 1:3). All things? Indeed. “Without him,” the evangelist announces, “nothing was made that has been made.”
Like stars that sparkled in the sky while shepherds kept watch over their flocks at night. In the beginning the Word had called every one of them into existence.
Like the angel who spoke to frightened shepherds. Like the vast heavenly host who joined the angel, giving glory to God. In the beginning the Word had created every one of them.
Like the pagan emperor who decreed a census. Like the faithful citizen who went up to the town where he was to register. Like the highly favored virgin who gave birth. The Word had formed each of them.
The omniscient Word. The omnipresent Word. The omnipotent Word. The everlasting Word. Those “big words” learned from catechism instruction attempt to articulate realities beyond the capacity of the human intellect.
A glorious truth
“Eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.” Believers everywhere confess this glorious truth in the Nicene Creed, though none can fully comprehend it.
Then the inspired evangelist proclaims a truth even more glorious. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). St. John’s word choice would have prompted his fellow Jews to recall the tabernacle from centuries earlier, how God “tented” among his people as he led them to the Promised Land. God was always present with the Israelites during their exodus.
Yet this is so much more. The omniscient Son of God appeared in the flesh as the son of Mary. The omnipresent Deity was held fast in his mother’s arms, nursed at her breast, laid to sleep in a feedbox. The omnipotent Word took on the flesh of an infant unable to form words of his own. The Son of God remained God. The Son of God became a child.
Ordinarily a newborn is the focus of adoring scrutiny. Grandma’s heart melts over the tiny fingers and toes and ears. Older siblings beg to caress the ever-so-soft arms and legs. Doting parents gaze at their little one’s face for hours at a time. Skilled artists have rendered such paintings of the infant Jesus. St. John and the other three evangelists don’t give much room for that, however. Instead their sacred accounts move immediately to the glory of the God-man that his apostles witnessed with their own eyes.
A wedding took place at Cana, not far from where he was raised (John 2:1-12). From his lips came a simple directive to the servants: “Fill the jars.” Simple water went in. Exceptional wine came out. This is no ordinary or even extraordinary man. This is the Word made flesh, and his disciples put their faith in him.
A widow trudged to the cemetery, tearfully escorting the lifeless body of her only son (Luke 7:11-17). His heart went out to her. “Don’t cry.” With his hand he touched the pallet on which the body lay. “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up. This is no ordinary or even extraordinary man. “God has come to help his people,” they exclaimed, and rightly so.
They brought him a fellow who was deaf and could hardly talk (Mark 7:31-37). He put his fingers into the man’s ears. He spit and touched the man’s tongue. He uttered one word. At once this fellow’s ears were opened, and he began to speak plainly. This is no ordinary or even extraordinary man. This is the merciful Son of God, fully human at the same time.
A life—a God—with a gracious purpose
He set his face for Jerusalem. He allowed himself to be betrayed, tried, and convicted.
They pierced his hands and feet and hoisted his body up on a cross. He breathed his last and bowed his head in death. This is no ordinary or even extraordinary man. This is the divine Shepherd who willingly lays down his life for his sheep.
On the first day of the week his disciples were gathered behind locked doors. Suddenly he came and stood among them. He showed them the hands which bore the marks of the nails and the side a soldier had pierced with his spear. “Peace be with you!” This is no ordinary or even extraordinary man. This is the Lord God Almighty, the flesh-and-blood Victor over death.
Christmas, then, is so much more than “Happy birthday, Jesus!” It’s what Isaiah prophesied: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given, . . . And he will be called . . . Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6).
Christmas is so much more than a mother giving birth in lowly circumstances. It’s what Gabriel announced: “The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Christmas is so much more than cattle, donkey, and sheep admiring a little baby. It’s what the soldier exclaimed when he saw how he died: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). It’s the risen and ascended Lord appearing to the elderly St. John: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). It’s the gathered church triumphantly speaking its confession: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became fully human.”
Author: Paul E. Zell
Volume 106, Number 12
Issue: December 2019