“The Ancient of Days has become an infant.”
John Chrysostom, 4th century
On Christmas Eve we read Luke’s dramatic account of the birth of Jesus. On the first Sunday of Christmas (or, as it happens this year, Christmas Day) we read the prologue from John’s gospel. At first glance these texts seem to offer two very different perspectives on the coming of Christ into our world: Luke’s is earthy and political, conveying the historical contingencies (and palpable dangers) that attended the first Advent; John’s is meditative and philosophical, written in academic Greek, locating the “Word made flesh” not in the provincial politics of first-century Palestine but boldly and unapologetically in the sweeping history of the cosmos.
But despite the differences there is, I suggest, an affinity, a necessary and even urgent correspondence, between these two traditional Christmas narratives. And perhaps especially this year, as liturgically we read and hear them only hours apart, this affinity is worthy of deeper exploration.
In Luke, we glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically, ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky border crossings.
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Image above: Holy Family by Christina Saj, mixed media on canvas, 24″ x 24″ 2010 – collection of Central Presbyterian Church Atlanta GA