Saturday, December 24, 2005

Light and Life at Christmas

When we talk about the birth of Jesus, we always turn to Luke's Gospel or Matthew's. That's where we read about angels and shepherds, a star and a stable, wise men and visitations. That's where all the images of Christmas have their origin. Mark's Gospel skips the beginning and starts in the middle of the story. John's Gospel goes too far back to before the beginning of anything and is hard to read and understand.

So, John and Mark don't get much play during December. They don't smell enough like a stable, I suppose.

The Apostle John has had a lifetime to reflect on the events surrounding the life of Jesus. He had been the one asked to look after Mary, Jesus' mother. So, assuming she had become part of his family, they must have spent time talking about the birth and all the craziness surrounding it. Her face, her laugh, the way she turned phrases -- these things may have been reminders to John of what Jesus was like.

When John finally sits down to write his version of the story, he must have thought about where to begin. His mind must have played and replayed the details of that night in Bethlehem. Instead of starting there, he goes beyond it and beneath it. His version begins by telling us about the One called The Word and how this One came into a dark and dying world. In fact, as I read the prologue to John's Gospel, two words surface more than any others: light and life.

Those two themes are what John's mind gravitates toward. He must have remembered where Jesus was standing and what he sounded like when he referred to himself by those words. Jesus is many things to many people, but to John he is Light, and he is Life.

"In him was Life," John writes. Jesus wasn't just alive; he was life. Life was in him -- more than a heart beating and lungs contracting, the life Jesus provided was what produces beating hearts and contracting lungs. He was life, so life was his to give. John's Gospel reminds us that giving life was what Jesus had come to do. He was the bringer of life.

"That Life was the Light of men," John writes. What's going through John's mind now as he reads his own words? He could recall men and women who were dark and full of death coming to Jesus and seeing how one touch, one word from him sent them away forever changed -- forever filled with the Light and Life of the one who came to conquer our fear of death and beat back the darkness.

He could remember how that Light broke into his own darkness with a simple question. "What do you want?" Jesus had asked him. Life and Light -- that was Jesus.

And there is a little inkling of the birth here in John's Gospel. It is one short sentence, but it says as much as Matthew or Luke did -- without the details, of course:

"The Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not understand It" (John 1:5).

This verse should be read before Matthew and Luke. It prepares us to receive the full version of the story. The Light that is Jesus shines in, around, through, behind, beneath, beyond the darkness of the manger, the darkness of the stable, the darkness of the world, the darkness of our hearts.

And yet we still do not understand it any more than did the shepherds or the wise men. Who can grasp this idea of Light and Life being contained in a body?

Like those first witnesses to the Christ-child, we are left to worship, adore and ponder the mystery. And we pray for his Life to come to life in us. And we ask for his Light to shine forth from our hearts forever.