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Note: In this reflection I’ll consider primarily today’s Gospel reading.

Reading: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

John 1 is one of those passasges you just can’t say too much about. Today’s reading is a grand christological/theological proclamation, audacious in its claim that God did something unprecedented in the incarnation of Jesus. At the same time, John is clearly attempting to connect Jesus to Jewish tradition, to remain within the bounds of “orthodoxy.”

What do I mean? First, of course, we notice that verse 1 reformulates Genesis 1:1, placing Jesus with God at the beginning of God’s creative work. Except, second, we notice that John avoids naming Jesus and instead calls him “the Word.” Whatever the other implications of the Greek words logos, John identifies the Word as a figure through whom all things were created, a concept found in Jewish tradition in the figure of Woman Wisdom (for example, see today’s accompanying readings in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 10).

Then we come to verse 14: “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.” Here is John’s most scandalous statement. To assert that God would in any way become visible directly contradicts the Second Commandment, in which God commanded the people not to make idols—of other gods, of course, but also and apparently of God, too. As John goes on to assert in verse 18, no one has seen God. So to say not only that the Word became flesh, but that we have seen his glory (“the glory of the Lord” is a common OT euphemism for God’s presence) appears to be blasphemy of the highest order.

But there may be a certain theological logic behind John’s statement. As Patrick Miller notes in his recent book on the Ten Commandments, it may be that one of the reasons God prohibits the people from making idols, or images, of gods or Godself is that God had in fact already created an “image of God”—that is, humanity itself. The only one allowed to create an image of God is God. Turning back to John, then, it should probably come as no surprise that, in order to make the stunning assertion that God became flesh, John takes the reader back to Genesis 1 and God’s creative action. God creating an image of Godself when the Word becomes flesh has a certain continuity with the idea of God creating humanity in God’s image. With the notable exception, of course, that this particular image of God is full of God’s grace and truth (see also Colossians 1:15, where Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”). Finally, if we read slowly, we notice that it is not until John establishes this basic idea that he goes on to name Jesus as the particular one in whom the Word became flesh.

Heady stuff for Christmas (in typical secular understanding). But these words from Gregory Fruehwirth say it nicely: “The fullness of God’s Self was present in Jesus, and as a result of God’s indwelling Spirit, we can begin to live the moments of our lives as likewise filled with God, open to the full reality of the eternal Word. This new potential of creation to bear the fullness of God’s life and light is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is what Jesus’ birth announces” (Words for Silence, p. 43).

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Easter is. Joan Chittister makes this point perfectly clear in The Liturgical Year:

Christmas simply commemorates, not celebrates, the historical birth of Jesus, whenever that might have been. Because of Christmas, the life of Jesus was possible. Because of Christmas, the Incarnation can be fulfilled at Easter. Because of Christmas, the humanity of Jesus is fact. But the birth of Jesus is not the central meaning of the faith. On the contrary, it is the death and Resurrection of Jesus that are the core of Christianity. The liturgical year is, then, actually about Easter. (53-54)

One reason this is important is that it reveals just how profoundly distorted the secular glorification of Christmas actually is. Sure, the media covers Easter when it rolls around, but let’s face it—when it comes to American culture at large, Christmas is where it’s at. The crass commercialization of the holiday is just the surface representation of a much deeper—and I would argue, willful—misunderstanding of the Christ story.

Our culture is more than happy to give Jesus face time at Christmas because Baby Jesus is a safe Jesus. A cute Jesus. A gentle Jesus. A domesticated Jesus. A Jesus that makes no demands. Never mind that the infancy narratives of the Gospels (especially Matthew) anticipate Jesus’ own suffering when Herod orders the baby boys in Bethlehem to be murdered (an event remembered during the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the liturgical year).

Christmas, as it’s generally understood, is not the focus of the Christian faith. It’s merely the first stop on the way to Easter, a path that takes us through Jesus’ Passion and on to the Resurrection, an event that asks us to reexamine Jesus’ life and our lives in light of God’s radical in-breaking into the world. But make no mistake—amid all the bell jingling and toy buying, that’s the last thing the culture wants you to think about.

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