Light and Life at Christmas
When we talk about the birth of Jesus, we always turn to Luke's or Matthew's Gospels. That's where we read about angels and shepherds, a star and a stable, wise men and visitations. That's where all the familiar images of Christmas have their origin. Mark's Gospel skips the beginning and starts in the middle of the story. John's Gospel goes too far back, to before the beginning of anything, and is hard to read and understand. So, John and Mark don't get much play during December. They don't smell enough like a stable.
But by the time he wrote his Gospel, the apostle John had had a lifetime to reflect on the events surrounding the life of Jesus. He had been the one asked to look after Mary, Jesus' mother, so (assuming she had become part of his family) they must have spent time talking about Jesus' birth and all the craziness surrounding it. Her face, her laugh, the way she turned phrases -- these things may have been reminders to John of what Jesus was like.
When John family sat down to write his version of the story, he must have thought about where to begin. His mind must have played and replayed the details of that night in Bethlehem. Instead of starting there, though, he went beyond it and beneath it. His version begins by telling us about the One called the Word and how this Word came into a dark and dying world. In fact, as we read through the prologue to John's Gospel (1:1-14), two words surface more than any others: Light and Life.
Jesus is many things to many people, but to John he was Light and Life. The apostle must have remembered where Jesus was standing and what he sounded like when he referred to himself by those words.
"In him was life," John wrote (v. 4). Jesus wasn't just alive; he was Life. Life was in him. More than just a being with a beating heard and contracting lungs, Jesus produced beating hearts and contracting lungs. He was Life, so Life was his to give. John's Gospel reminds us that giving life was what Jesus had come to do. Jesus was the bringer of life.
"That life was the light of men," John continued. What was going through John's mind as he read back over his own words? He could recall watching men and women who were dark and full of death coming to Jesus, and then seeing how one touch, one word from him sent them away forever changed -- forever filled with the Light and Life of the One who came to conquer our fear of death and beat back the darkness. He could remember how that Light broke into his own darkness with a simple question: "What do you want?" Jesus had asked (see John 1:38).
Life and Light...that was Jesus.
There is a little inkling of the birth to be found in John's Gospel after all. It is one short sentence, but it says as much as Matthew or Luke do (without the gory details): "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (v. 5).
This verse should be read before Matthew and Luke. It prepares us to receive the full version of the story. The Light that is Jesus shines in, around, through, behind, beneath, beyond the darkness of the manger, the darkness of the stable, the darkness of the world, the darkness of our own hearts.
And yet we still do not understand it any more than the shepherds or the wise men did. Who can grasp the idea of Light and Life being contained in a body?
Like those first witnesses to the Christ-child, we are left to worship, adore and ponder the mystery. We pray for his Life to come to life in us. And we ask for his Light to shine forth from our hearts forever.
This is an excerpt from my latest book, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible.