This past week at our weekly Bible study, we did an in-depth look at the Nativity stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each story is quite different from the other, but each has its own power, and together they contribute to the narrative traditions around Christmas.
But, surprisingly, the lection for Christmas Day is neither the story of angels and shepherds in Luke nor of the wise men in Matthew; it’s the first chapter of the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
That one was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through the Word and not one thing that has come into being came into being without the Word.
In the Word was life and the life was the light of humanity.
And the light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and set up a tent among us.John 1:1–4,14
This Hymn to the Word is not, strictly speaking, a Nativity story. But it reminds us of what those Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are all about.
For Christmas is not really about the charming stories of the baby Jesus, as special and beautiful as those might be. It’s not really about angelic visitors or magi from the east, about shepherds and inns, cattle softly lowing as the infant Jesus sleeps in a manger.
Christmas is about the incarnation of the Word of God in our midst. As the Greek text of John so colorfully puts it: “setting up a tent among us.”
The true power of the Christmas story is that the Word of God, that creative spirit of God through whom all things were made, the Wisdom of God, the Self-Revelation of God—that Word should become flesh and dwell among us.
Note that the text does not say that the Word appeared as flesh or pretended to be flesh. It says the Word became flesh. This means that the Eternal Word becomes one of us—truly one of us, living our lives, knowing our sorrows and joys, suffering our sufferings, dying our death, and being raised to our resurrection.
The Incarnation of the Word is a stunning act of solidarity by the Eternal God with mortal, broken humanity.
That is the power of the Christmas story. That is the message that has spoken to us across the centuries more powerfully than any story of angels, shepherds, animals, or magi, as beautiful and as dear as those stories are to us.
For God has declared solidarity with us fully and deeply, and that means that whatever we are going through in life—in times of triumph and defeat, joy and sorrow—we are not alone. Immanuel—God is with us. For the Word of God has set up a tent among us.