As we approach this Christmas season, with the backdrop of a pandemic that has ravaged many people and communities, we ought to stop and ponder afresh the glory of the incarnation. With people in churches, and those we meet who are caught up with the ‘spirit of the Christmas season’, we often neglect to see just how special it is that at exactly the right moment in history, God actually ‘tabernacles’ (cf. Exod 32-40) among us. It’s why I think John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) is such a wonderful prompt to really take stock of the true meaning of Christmas.
The apostle begins with the deity of Christ who was both there at, and intimately involved in, Creation. After then speaking of the ‘witness’, John the Baptist, who was preparing the way for the Christ, John says that the true light, who enlightens the world, has come into the world. There is real significance to this statement, as his coming means that all who believe in him are adopted into the family of God himself, because they are those who are born of God. Then comes the statement which so beautifully encapsulates the glory of Christ, who does the unimaginable and condescends to dwell among us, his creation:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally, ‘tabernacled’] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
Of course, as John pens these words, he does so with the significant weight of Old Testament anticipation pushing him forward. On the back of Israel’s rebellion against God despite his awesome power displayed in the great rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt, God reaffirms his covenant with his people by committing to dwell with them – he would be their God who leads them and provides for them, and they would be his people who follow and entrust themselves to him. The tabernacle, with its construction explained in excruciating detail, was to be the dwelling place of God among his people (Exod 32-40). To use an image from Lamentations, if earth was to be God’s footstool, the tabernacle and later the temple, would be the connection points between the Creator of the universe, and earth. The tabernacle was unique, specific, glorious, and yet as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews makes abundantly clear, it was still only a copy and shadow of the real thing (Heb 8:1-5). As we make our way through God’s words to his people in the Old Testament, we feel the weight of expectation – his people continue to reject him, they continue to suffer as the consequence of that rejection, and God promises that he himself will come and make things right, through his chosen king. Finally then, at the Christmas story, we see this being realised!
While the synoptic Gospels (namely Matthew and Luke) comment on the significance of Jesus’ birth by giving us historical accounts, John focuses in on the glory of the incarnation in his prologue. As we make our way to Christmas, a season that is rightly characterised by joy, wonder, and amazement, let us not forget John 1. Sitting around the table with family and friends, the exchange of gifts, the love shown to others, the often additional vibe in churches as visitors flood in – all of these things, as good as they are, pale in comparison to the fact that God himself, who was there at the beginning and intimately involved in the creation of the world, walked among us. He ate with people, taught people, interacted with them, proved his God-ness through miracles, spoke to people about how they might be adopted into God’s family – God was on earth! No one has ever seen God, yet Jesus of Nazareth, full of grace and truth, displays the radiance of God’s glory. There are so many things worth celebrating at Christmas, but surely none is more significant than this.
The word ‘advent’ means the arrival of a notable person or thing. As we are now heading into this Christmas season, let us not distract ourselves with the shiny, advertising-drenched, false sense of happiness that the world projects on Christmas. Instead, let us prepare ourselves to hear afresh of the most notable person to ever be born and walk among humanity – our Lord Jesus Christ, God himself, who came to earth to save his people from their sins.