John 1: 1-14
These opening verses of John’s gospel are described as his prologue – where the themes which are woven through the story to come are introduced.
And verses 1-5 are the prologue to the prologue, a poem of symbol and image, the foundation for all that follows.
So we start at the beginning of time, with the Word - with God but not the same - spoken by God, the means of God’s creative outpouring, giving life to all things. From all-embracing God-breathed Word to life and then to light. For the life which comes into the world is also the light, shining in the darkness. The light is then the last in an unfolding sequence of images of the indwelling presence of the Christ which will run through John’s gospel:
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In this fifth verse the whole story is contained, the light newly shining at its Christmas beginning, and then, at its end, at Easter, tested by all the powers of darkness, but not overcome.
Not being overcome, this might seem a muted victory, at least in the world’s eyes – the solitary fact of survival, of not being extinguished.
I picture a small boat, crossing the sea at night, with a single candle, mounted on its prow. And out of the darkness comes all the chaos and violence of wind and wave, seemingly intent on snuffing out that light, but it continues to shine: by some ongoing miracle, it is not overcome.
Vincent Nichol, the catholic priest, wrote in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami:
“God's light is most like love and, as we have seen over and over again, disaster does not wipe out love: rather it intensifies it. Disasters do not wipe out faith any more than they wipe out love... the light of God glows more persistently in that awful darkness. It shines in human heroism, generosity, selflessness and courage.”
But the darkness remains. For the writer of this gospel, looking at the world as it was in 100 AD, the Jewish revolt brutally put down, the temple destroyed, Roman power was rampant. To quote Tacitus, writing at around the same time about his fellow Romans: “Robbery, slaughter and plunder they falsely name empire; they make a desert and they call it peace.”
In this climate, there is a defiance in not being overcome, which dares to even imagine eventual victory.
The word John uses for “overcome” also carries the sense of to “comprehend” – as in to understand, get the measure of, reduce and contain. And what this suggests is that, for the dark powers in the world which cannot comprehend this strange new light, Easter embeds within them a doubt, a realisation that there is a force, seemingly weak, against which their power means nothing, so that fear is now concealed in all their raging.
And this year we have seen darkness, and see it still, but also the light of God’s love shining within it, and not overcome, in hospitals and homes, in dangerous journeys, in encounters between the powerful and the young, and in our own community too.
But tonight we celebrate not the Easter ending of John’s story but its Christmas beginning, when the light first shines in the world.
We owe the celebration of Christmas in part to St Francis of Assisi. For he grew up in a time when Christmas went largely unmarked, when Easter was dominant. And he felt and believed that the wonder of God’s love comes to us not only through the trials of Christ’s passion, that we don’t need to wait for God to love us through the cross and resurrection. He believed God loved us from the very beginning and showed this love by becoming incarnate in Jesus, as a new-born baby at Christmas.
So Francis urged his followers to celebrate Christmas! He called for much feasting and partying. Some put lights on trees and he encouraged this, saying that the lights showed the true life of Christ brought forth in nature. At Christmas the Franciscans searched out the greatest delicacies and brought them to the poor to eat. And Francis said, “let the animals also have their favourite treats! “ He even went on – and here I apologise to vegetarians and vegans - to declare, “This Christmas Day, let even the walls eat meat!”
So let us celebrate the light of Christ come into the world! Happy Christmas!
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Richard Young (Rector)