Every Christmas, we can count on seeing crèches or nativity scenes depicting the stories associated with the birth of Jesus. Some are large and elaborate, others small and simple. And most will be a mashup of stories from Matthew and Luke, bringing the shepherds and wise men all together at once — even though the latter probably came much later.
The gospel writers all tell the story of Jesus, but each in his own way. If Mark were alive today, he’d be the screenwriter, jumping quickly into the drama and cutting from one action scene to the next. He skips the birth of Jesus entirely. Matthew, I think, would be the teacher; Luke, the historian. They’re the ones responsible for the stories behind our nativity scenes and Christmas pageants.
And then there’s John, who’s more of a mystic than the other three. On a quick reading he seems, like Mark, to leave out the Christmas story too. He certainly has nothing like the tales of Matthew and Luke.
But even if John gives us nothing we could include in a crèche, the birth of Jesus is incredibly important to the story he tells. Indeed, it’s fair to say that John considers that birth to be the very turning point of human history.
John’s was probably the last of our four gospels to be written, and he probably knew of the others. Scholars generally agree that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source; that’s why the three are so similar. But even if John also had a copy of Mark, he went his own way. That doesn’t mean he ignored the other accounts; rather, he may have intended to complement them, to deepen the story people already knew.
He did that by making the story bigger.
Much, much bigger.
Look at his lead-in: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, NRSV). In those first few words, his Greek-speaking Jewish readers would already have heard echoes of Genesis 1, the beginning of all beginnings, in which God spoke the universe into existence. The divine Word was the agent of creation: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (vs. 3).
John is telling us, with in-your-face boldness, that this will not be merely the story of how the son of a Galilean carpenter became an itinerant rabbi. Nor is it merely the story of a great ethical teacher, or miracle worker. It’s not even the story of God at long last sending a great prophet or Davidic king to be the Messiah of his people.
Rather, it is the story of an unimaginable event, of the divine, eternal Word taking on the flesh of a real-live human being (vs. 14).
To show us how we were meant to live.
To die to make that life possible.
Away with the saccharine sentimentalism of a birthday party for Jesus. Sit up and pause the non-stop muzak about snow and reindeer and Santa Claus. This is history in the making.
Headline: God becomes human.
And human history will never be the same.
That’s not something you can build into a nativity scene or depict on a Christmas card. But if we know the story, we can look through these surface manifestations of Christmas to the real thing: the earth-shattering miracle, the staggering truth of a God who becomes one of us to show us the way out of our lostness.
May that truth make your Christmas truly merry, and may your merriment be tinged with awe.