I love “O Come All Ye Faithful.” I always have. I can’t help myself. I start humming it to myself in mid-Advent and by Christmas morning I’m singing it around the house nonstop and my long-suffering family is sick of it.
I love O Come All Ye Faithful because it encompasses the whole sweep of Christology. That’s a ten-dollar theological word but O Come All Ye Faithful is a thousand-dollar hymn. In my opinion. Everything we say we believe about the Christ is in this hymn:
- God from God, light from light eternal
- Only begotten son of the father
- Word of God, now in flesh appearing
And on and on.
The hymn does give a nod to the Christmas story we heard last night: the manger and the angels and the shepherds make an appearance. But the hymn is really more about Christmas theology than the Christmas story, just as this morning’s gospel is more theology than story.
John the Evangelist offers nothing like a birth narrative anywhere in his version of the Good News. Instead, John gives us this ancient text sometimes called the Logos Hymn. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Anyone who has every studied New Testament Greek begins with that text. It is the seminary equivalent of “See Spot run.”) In these seventeen words, John does what needs to be done on Christmas morning: he links Jesus to the beginning of time and the whole cosmos that we read about in the first verses of the Book of Genesis. John reminds us that Jesus is not only born in the particular moment in time where Luke puts him, but born eternally. John reminds us that Jesus is not just born in a particular place, but born among us everywhere. When he writes that the word became flesh and dwelt among us, in the context of all the words that have come before I don’t think John is talking about Jesus of Nazareth dwelling among the people of Israel for some decades, some number of years prior to the time when John wrote his Gospel. I think he means that the Word takes on flesh and dwells among us, eternally.
This is as mysterious and mystical as it sounds. This is the Gospel version of the words we bow to in the Nicene Creed: For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, …and was made man. This coming down from heaven is something that happens not just once, but always, and not over and over again, but continuously.
My favorite interpretation of these mystical words is from the Message which brings us down to earth: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
In other words, God’s eternally-begottenness has implications for us in our own lives. The Anointed One, the Christ, is in the air we breathe, in the rain and the fog and the ice, in the love we bear for those near and far away, and in the love God bears for us. And is present in our struggles, with work and money and traffic and parking, and those blessed neighbors God tells us to love even when they are hard to love. Even we ourselves, when we are hard to love—we need to remember that we are made of the same flesh that God’s Word is made from.
In his book, True Prayer, Ken Leech reminds us that “Christian Spirituality is flesh-based spirituality” and that “the true image of God is humanity.” It follows that the more human we are, the more faithful we are to the images of God. It also follows that the more we understand God’s presence in all life and all flesh, the more sensitive we become to inhumanity, injustice, and oppression, and the more our devotional life can become fuel for our fight against inhumanity.
We celebrate this feast of God’s becoming flesh and dwelling with us, by offering Holy Eucharist. This is what we do in our tradition when we gather. We offer mass.
We often say that every Sunday is a “little Easter,” in that we proclaim Christ’s resurrection every time we say mass. And we do. But there is also a way that every mass is also a little feast of the Incarnation. We gather in a particular time and place, as shepherds did to greet the baby Jesus over 2000 years ago, and we offer on this altar the mundane stuff of everyday life: bread, wine, money. What happens, though, is an alchemy of particularity into eternity, of chronos into kairos. This time into all time. Bread and wine become a heavenly banquet, the feast of the Kingdom of God. And Jesus, who is present with us always and everywhere, becomes once again present with us in a very particular way. Come let us adore him.