If Luke insists on seeing the conception and birth of Jesus in the full sweep of Israel's history, the fourth Evangelist's perspective stretches even beyond that to the cosmic. And John does that in some of the most powerful poetry in the Bible. Let us use this brief space to explore what may be the single most influential sentence in Christian literature:
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us
and we saw his glory
the glory as of the Father's only Son
full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).
This morning's newspaper tells me speculations that stretch me into dimensions way beyond the peeled orange and warm coffee in front of me.
First, a report on the study of the piece of Mars discovered in Antarctica twelve years ago. Scientists figure it was chipped off that planet by an asteroid collision some 4.5 billion years ago, went into orbit around the Sun during the next several billion years, and then, recently (around eleven thousand years ago), got sucked into Earth's orbit and finally landed. It bears what some think is the first evidence of life in our solar system apart from Earth.
Another page carries recent conjecture about the mysterious extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, after their species had been around for 160 million years.
John the Evangelist knew of no such data and speculations, but his vision is every bit as cosmic as our own considerations about the story of the universe, from Big Bang to the emergence of life here on “the third rock from the sun.” By the time he has reached verse 14 of his prologue, he has described the Word (the logos, the principle of order in all creation, God's sole medium of self-communication) as having brought all that is into being (galaxies, solar system, dinosaurs, and all), and then as being the “light of humanity,” as shining into the darkness (of evil), and being neither understood nor overcome by that evil. Finally, what has been proclaimed in broad, somewhat veiled terms becomes powerfully explicit in verse 14. That eternal logos became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The remaining phrases spell out the implications of that astounding utterance.
And made his dwelling among us. The root sense of the Greek verb here is “pitched his tent.” What the wilderness tabernacle was (the portable sacred space where Israel accessed in a special way the presence of Yhwh), what its successors (the first and second stone temples of Jerusalem) were—these sacred dwellings have now been surpassed in that very function by the flesh of Jesus. The Word made flesh is now the privileged sacred space for encountering God, the very creator of space and time.
And we saw his glory. In the Hebrew Bible, kabod (“glory”) is the physical manifestation of the mysterious presence of God. The humanity of Jesus is exactly that, in a consummate way.
Full of grace and truth. “Grace and truth” are a consecrated biblical phrase associated especially with God's covenant fidelity (as in Ex 34:6). That is, we have come to know God's covenant love in a full and final way in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth.
What is for us a feast of all that is warm, “up close and personal,” Luke and John would have us celebrate what is comprehensible only in the fullness of all history and in the vastness of all creation.No wonder Christmas stretches us.