What would our Christmas cards look like if we knew about Jesus only from the Gospel of John? Without Luke's shepherds or Matthew's wise men, without the angels or the manger or the star? Today, on the third day of Christmas, the Church celebrates St John the Evangelist, as if to focus our minds on his distinctive presentation of the festival; yet John tells us nothing of the actual birth of Christ. Instead, he gives us his great prologue, familiar to many as the final lesson in the traditional carol service, or as the gospel for Christmas Day: "In the beginning was the Word . . ." John does not describe the events; he gives us their meaning.
"The Word became flesh" (John 1.14): here, in one short phrase, is St John's answer to the question, "What is Christmas about?" He means every word of that phrase. "The Word became flesh": Jesus of Nazareth was a human being in every sense. He chucked pebbles into streams and savoured the smell of new-baked bread; he felt his heart lift when he greeted his friends, and he ached with every bruise of his battered body as he staggered under the heavy beam of the cross. Some of John's contemporaries solved the puzzle of Jesus by seeing him as a demi-god, who merely appeared to be human (and in some versions of the story cut when the going got rough). St John has no time for such nonsense: his Jesus knew our life from the inside, laughing and weeping with those whom he loved.
"The Word became flesh". The Word of God is God's self-expression, God's way of communicating himself. But what does that mean? The ancient temptation was to make Jesus super-human; our own is to make God less than God. Modern Christianity has a tendency to make it all too cosy, as if God is everyone's favourite uncle. We do well to be reminded by the Muslims, with their powerful sense of God's majesty, and by those Jews who avoid even speaking the divine name: God is not another person in the universe, merely more loving and more powerful than we are; God is the source of the universe itself, and of everything within it. The more that science discovers, the more we realise that we cannot begin to grasp even a fraction of our vast and wonderful cosmos. Still less can we grasp its Creator: the maker and sustainer of a million galaxies and of every feather on a finch's wing. That is the God to whom the Word gives expression; for it is the only God that there can be. That is the God - nothing smaller, nothing cosier, nothing more manageable - whose Word became flesh.
"The Word became flesh." We cannot defuse the paradox by redefining man or by diminishing God. But nor can we weaken "became". In the early church, theologians who disliked paradox tried to do just this. Some interpreted "became" as "had a close link with", as if Jesus were just a man inspired by God. Others took "became" to mean "mixed with", as if he were a sort of mongrel, a compound of human and divine, but not truly either. Mainstream Christians insisted that "became" meant "became": the Word of God, without ceasing to be what it was, began also to be a human being. Consequently, it became possible for us to see the unseeable and to know the unknowable. As Jesus said to his disciple Philip, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14.9).
"The Word became flesh." If God were just another thing in the universe, this would make no sense. For then, "divine" and "human" would relate to each other in the way that two colours do: if you have more of one, you have less of the other; when I add more blue to the green paint, it becomes less yellow. But God is not within the universe: he is its source. The presence of God, therefore, is not in competition with the presence of the things that he creates. That is why God can become human without diminishing his divinity, and why human beings, when they become more like him, can become more, not less, fully human. Jesus showed us what God is like precisely by living human life in as fully human a way as is possible. He showed us that we too can reveal God to one another through our ordinary human lives: "No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (I John 4.12).
This is what Christmas means for St John: that the One God and Creator, the source and the destination of everything that there is, who reveals himself through his creation, has communicated himself to us in a definitive way in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth. If St John were to design a Christmas card, he might put anything on it: shepherds or salesmen, stars or shellfish, magi or mechanics - any of these could reflect the presence of God in creation. Most likely, he would draw us the man Jesus, going about his ordinary business. However, John's cards would not be opaque, but translucent, like stained glass. For that would allow the light, like the glory of God, to shine through the world that God has made.