What is the meaning of Christmas?
A classic question posed by many preachers and asked, I suggest, by every Christian when confronted by reindeer and santas, mistletoe and green trees, to say nothing of Christmas movies in which the plot is "by one means or another I am going to get home for Christmas".
When feeling sympathetic about the (now quite) secular (whatever Christian past they had) symbols of Christmas, our answers about the meaning of Christmas may include finding common cause between the Matthean or Lukan stories and the paraphanalia of contemporary Christmases. Reindeer and santas speak to us of gifts: at Christmas God gave us the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. Getting home for Christmas speaks to us of the depth of human love: measured by our aspiration to reunite as family; but an even greater love is the love of God which seeks to bring all of us home to God, through the sacrificial love of Jesus.
Of course we may not feel sympathetic and thus we may be tempted to rail against the "commercialization" of Christmas or against its deep cleavage from its roots as a festival of the birth of Christ. With a side swipe at all people who talk at this time about "Happy Holidays" rather than "Happy Christmas" (the former being something, interestingly, I am noticing this year, and not previously, here in NZ.)
Noting that it is not a competition to see which is the truest, bestest meaning of Christmas - a multitude of wonderful sermons will be preached this Christmas - I want to mention something simple, often overlooked and deeply profound which John says about the meaning of Christmas in his justly famous and proclaimed-each-Christmas Prologue (John 1:1-14 or 1:1-18).
"The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." (verse 9)
Isn't this a fascinating claim, especially given that the next few verses declare that when Jesus came into the world, he was not known and not accepted by all? Is this a theoretical claim: the light has come, all could benefit from it, but not all want to see this light? Or, is the light which comes into the world going to, in the end, enlighten everyone, even if there is initial rejection?
Certainly, with a book such as Tom Holland's Dominion in mind, we can look back on two thousand years of human history and see many ways in which the coming of Jesus Christ into the world has enlightened the world - opened up new and lasting understandings, for example, of the worth of individual people.
Of course, verse 9 is a restatement of something already said in verse 4:
"in him was life, and the life was the light of all people."
Whether Jesus is rejected or not by those he comes to give life and to enlighten, he is available for all people, for Jews and Greeks, for the whole of humanity.
Further, as the enlightenment of the world, Jesus will never be diminished or destroyed. Thus, verse 5:
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
Walter Moberly, in a book on the theology of Genesis, has a footnote about John 1:5 which bears citation:
"The Gospel of John, in its profound reworking of Genesis 1 in light of Jesus Christ, reflects on the fact that although darkness is not abolished by light, and thus endures, it does not have the ability to abolish the light. [then quotes John 1:5]. The way in which light overcomes the darkness is then expanded in the rest of the gospel as a whole." (p. 45 n10, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge, UK; New York, USA: CUP, 2009).
Jesus is the light of the world who enlightens everyone, but darkness - in the human heart, shadows cast over human society by tragedy and by tyrrany - endures. Disciples of Jesus continue the work of enlightenment.
Or, should do!
As Jesus was sent by the Father, so are those who read the Johannine Gospel and share the ideal discipleship of the Johannine community. Some of us will be Mary Magdalenes, others Andrews or Simon Peters or Thomases or Beloved Disciples. In our diversity we enlighten when we demonstrate unity (John 17).
The great gift of Christmas, then, in Johannine theology, is that the light of the world has come into the world and we all benefit from this enlightenment even if currently we live in darkness.
What about water?
Changing themes, I was struck recently by reading Isaiah 35, which figures prominently in the lectionary around about now. The prophet looks ahead to the coming of the Messiah and forecasts the eyes of the blind being opened and so forth (verses 5-6a), a passage which is embedded in assuaging John the Baptist's doubts about Jesus' messianic qualities in Matthew 11:2-11 (yesterday's Advent 3 Year A gospel reading). But Matthew's account of this conversation between John and Jesus pays no attention to a significant aspect of Isaiah's prophecy:
"For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water." (Isaiah 35:6)
Now, John does pay attention to various healings (roughly similar to those found in the Synoptics) but (if we allow that he might know the Synoptics), does he forage in Isaiah 35:6 for something missed by his gospel colleagues?
That something being less able to be illustrated by a specific miracle story such as a blind person being healed, but nevertheless is about real transformation of human lives: that the dry deserts of human life might be watered and from thirsty souls might come forth life giving water for others to drink.
Consider John's Jesus on water in language invoking springs and rivers:
"Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life'." (John 4:13-14)
"... he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.' (John 7:-37-38)
Yes, other Scriptures than Isaiah 35:6 can be said to influence what is said in these statements. My point is not that John is only drawing on Isaiah 35:6, but that John (assuming some knowledge of the Synoptics and some intention to probe more deeply into the meaning of the (hi)story of Jesus) takes a second look at a text such as Isaiah 35 in relation to Jesus.
More simply: John the Evangelist asks, "Where is the transforming water of Isaiah 35?" and Jesus in John's Gospel answers "Here it is. I have the water. I give it to those who believe and they become the springs and rivers of Isaiah's prophecy."
Times are tough this year, speaking economically. A bottle of water or a candle could be a wonderful, symbolically potent gift!