Julian Browning reflects on the Prologue to St John’s Gospel and the presence of God in our lives
At Christmas God comes to stay. God lives with us again, in a personal, straightforward way, as natural and as wonderful as a newborn child coming into a family. And although we hear the story every year, it is the last thing we expect to happen to us. The Prologue to St John’s Gospel, those famous words read as our Gospel this morning, is about God coming home to live with us. If that alarms you and me, then the mystery of Bethlehem reminds us that we are not to fear God, because God comes to us where we are, as we are, as a child. Unto us a child is born. In Jesus, God is with us. When God is seen, when his Word is heard, our real life can begin.
One of us
In the beginning was the Word, and the word is the cry of a newborn child. Through the Word, who is both light and life, the invisible and unheard God we thought we would never know is now revealed to us. What St John calls ‘the Word’ also means in Greek ‘the meaning’ – the meaning of everything. St Augustine says somewhere that although God is older than the world itself, and his Word precedes Creation, he is younger in age than many of his servants in the world. We travel through life with no end of baggage, what we have done and failed to do, what others have done to us, no end of chips on shoulders, grumbles and false hopes. But God is born today as a new life.
This new life begins now. He is born as one of us, so that we can become like him. Here is a new language to be learnt, new words to be heard, words which put ourselves in God’s presence, but heard in the world we know already. The revelation is about how to see, rather than what to see. How do you see the Christmas story? It seems to me, is that as the story becomes more earthy, more human, more dangerous, more about people and what they do to each other, more like our world in fact, the whole scenario begins to fill up with the glory of God, and we know there are angels there.
Given to everyone
Now you might think it would be the other way round with us. We are so busy that we have little time for God; we know only too well, there is no room at this inn. The message of Christmas is that that sort of me-only life is a shocking waste. God gives us his life today, a vulnerable life like ours, placed in our hands, like a baby. Christmas is about God in my life, becoming children of God, as St John says, full of joy because we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.
This is good news for everyone. This is the significance of the Virgin Birth. Jesus has no human father, so no tribe, no family, no country can claim him just for themselves. Tribal warfare, my idol against your idol, that is not the story of Emmanuel, God with us. God so loved the world – not the Church, not my bit of the Anglican Communion – but the world. That is a thought which can literally enlighten us, particularly in the dark strife of our fractured world today, and it is there in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. We all live in a world
created by God; we all walk in the same light. The light has been given to everyone, whatever they have done, this light by which we are to see our way. We and many others might live in darkness sometimes, might even prefer it, but the light has come to banish that darkness.
The Christmas card we know so well, the Virgin and Child, is a picture of our relationship with God. If you look closely at some of the Virgin and Child Christmas cards you have received, you will sometimes see that the painter includes symbols of Jesus’s later life and death, a vine growing on a scaffold, a butterfly which is a symbol of Resurrection, that sort of thing. Christmas is about our whole life too,
our humanity. Nature and grace are intertwined in our lives. People often say, how I wish I had more faith so that I could explain all this, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and so on, the whole Christian experience. A mother does not wait for an explanation before she loves her baby. The child looks up at his or her mother. Our relationship with God is as close as a mother with a child, as close as that. Whenever we try to explain, we draw back. Christmas is our God-given opportunity to rediscover our innocence, a chance to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see. Perhaps that is why Christmas is such a nostalgic time; we are trying to remember the joy and the glory of an earlier time, something we once knew for certain.
All things are signs
What is that we have forgotten? St John tells us. ‘He came to his own.’ God has come home, to live in the world he has created. Those are the tidings of comfort and joy. So do not be afraid of the glory of God. Don’t back away when you see God’s human face. Wonder, yes, but don’t run away from God’s glory, do not deny it, any more than you would think of running away from someone’s love. We no longer need to look for signs and wonders, for yet more proof, more evidence. All things are signs. Everything reveals the love of God to us; everything reveals his Word. The glory of God is now to be found in the life of our world. ND