Someone wrote to me this Christmas pointing out that the Mystery of the Incarnation did not come to us as theology and dogma but as story. Well, last night our liturgy pointed us to the story: of how Jesus came to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, how his mother wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, of the visit of shepherds who, prompted by a vision of angels, came and ‘found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.’ (Luke 2:7, 16) Today’s liturgy invites us now to look again at the story and see what more is to be seen there.

The Word of the Lord came to the Prophet Isaiah long before the events of Christmas night and said: “The Lord will give you a sign. It is this: the young woman is with child and will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) If we were able to go back to Bethlehem on this night, this is what we would have seen: a woman with her husband and their newborn child … so what? Well, it is given as a sign, and as St John puts it at the end of his Gospel: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31) We are given these signs that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in his name. When Jesus worked what St John calls his ‘first sign’ at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, St John says to us, “He let his glory be seen, and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)

So, when we look at a sign we have to look to see ‘his glory’ in it, that same glory St John speaks of this morning, saying, “We have seen his glory.” (John 1:14) In the Old Testament, ‘glory’ is the visible manifestation of God’s self-disclosure in a theophany. (Exodus 33:22; Deuteronomy 5:22) Moses begged God to let him see his glory, and the Lord agreed: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD’.” (Exodus 33:18) So, God passed in front of Moses and proclaimed: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7) This glory, God’s self-revelation, is what we are to see in Jesus; this is what St John means when he speaks of seeing ‘the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14) We are to see in Jesus something of God’s goodness, steadfast love and mercy.

Now, despite what the holy pictures show, Jesus did not walk around with some kind of divine illumination emanating from him. He displayed his glory in his signs, but only his disciples put their faith in him. There is a hiddenness to his 

glory, which not all can see. (C.f.: John 2:23-25) “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” says St John. John tells us at the beginning of this Gospel that ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ (John 1:1) He goes onto say that this ‘Word became flesh.’ (John 1:14) To see God’s glory, that ‘light that shines in the dark’ (John 1:5), we need to know the identity of this Word that has been made manifest in ‘the world’ as one of us. (John 1:9-10) This is the why St John goes to the trouble of reporting John the Baptist’s witness: “This is one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he existed before me’.” (John 1:15) John wants us to know that this Jesus is the ‘He’: he is the One and Only, God’s much loved Son, to whom he has given his glory. We need to know that ‘the Word that was God’ is the Word that became flesh in Jesus. And to see his glory we need to look at his signs with this in mind — armed, then, with this knowledge, we can read John’s Gospel reports of his signs, and so come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31) We don’t need to see more signs to put our faith in him; we just need to look at what he said and did when he was with us and see there his glory.

Today’s Gospel began with the words: ‘In the beginning ….’ (John 1:1) This is a deliberate take from the first words in the Bible in the Book of Genesis when it tells us a story about Creation. After telling us that Creation is an act of God — thus Creation itself is a manifestation of God’s glory (c.f.: Romans 1:20) — it finishes by telling us that he ‘created us in the image of himself.’ (Genesis 1:27) It should come as no surprise, then, that the Word that with God and was God, should choose our humanity as the vehicle for his final and ultimate self-disclosure. In Jesus, God became a real historical person, one just like us — and, wonder of wonders, in that revelation we can see, too, just what it is we are meant to be: images of God. This revelation began on Christmas night some two thousand years ago. Today the Church invites us to look there in that stable at Bethlehem to see the Mystery of the Incarnation as it began to unfold, to look there with eyes that can see his glory; this is God’s gift to us at Christmas. Perhaps, in looking there, we might begin to understand something of what Jesus meant when ‘he took a little child whom he set by his side and then said to his disciples, “Anyone who welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. The least among you all is the one who is the greatest.” (Luke 9:47-48. C.f.: John 13:16, 20) A little child, too, is more than capable of showing us something of God’s goodness, steadfast love and mercy, of revealing God’s glory.

On behalf of the Community, I wish you all the happiness of Christmas !

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO