In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being with him is life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14 NRSV)
Some years ago a young man, a highly talented musician from an island at the edge of the world, was brought as a slave to Ephesus. He would compose music, and his master would from time to time invite some friends over to his house where he would play his compositions for them. One evening, when the performance was over, one of the friends, an obtuse individual, said, “Very pleasant, Strephon, very pleasant, but what does it mean?” “It means this,” replied the slave, who then picked up his harp and simply played the piece through all over again.
“What does it mean?” I have thought this over and over since that night when Jesus, before his crucifixion, gathered us one last time for a meal and spoke to us in words that burned in our minds. It means this, we say—and we simply tell the story again.
That was the important facet of Jesus’s life. Everything that he said and everything that he did was filled to overflowing with meaning. If he stopped to speak to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, he infused that event with meaning. When he changed water into wine at the wedding-feast at Cana, it became a meaningful event. When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to speak with him (at night of all times; what was he so scared of?) that conversation was suffused with meaning. This meaning—the Word underlying the words—was what we all sought.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem we scattered – Luke fled to Antioch; Mark followed Paul to Rome; Matthew ended up in Alexandria; and I, John, in Ephesus. By this time we had come to realize that the return of Jesus was not imminent as we had expected. We had to set down the events of his life so that those who hadn’t known him might learn of him and follow his example. This is where the story of his birth comes in.
Matthew and Luke gave us insightful accounts of the Incarnation – the journey to Bethlehem; the birth in a stable; the visitation of the shepherds; the wise men from the East; the flight into Egypt – all had their place in the narrative. However, I and my disciples, telling the story over and over again, thinking and praying about it, came to realize that there was a deeper significance to what happened. What did it mean? The answer was simple, deceptively simple. (All great discoveries and revelations are at heart simple.) It meant that the light of the Word, the Word underlying the words, present at the beginning of creation, could and did conquer the darkness of sin and sadness.
Thanks be to God!
Lord Jesus, be within us to keep us;
beside us to guard;
before us to lead;
behind us to protect;
beneath us to support;
and above us to bless. Amen.
(from A New Zealand Prayer Book, adapt.)