Isaiah 61:10-62:3+Psalm 147:13-17+Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7+John 1:1-18
It has long been my custom on the morning of Christmas Eve to tune into the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel at Kings College in Cambridge, England. Normally, I listen while engaged in the flurry of preparations for services that evening, and the music and readings and prayers of Lessons and Carols provide something of a backdrop to all of that chaos.
Well, not this year.
No, this year, the bulletins were posted online (for which the trees on this planet thank us!), the services had been painstakingly knit together and loaded on YouTube, and there was nothing left to do.
So Tim and I sat in our living room to listen.
Those of you who did the same will know that, this year, there was no congregation in Kings College Chapel. The entire service, much like our own, had been pre-recorded. It lent a very different acoustic and feel to have only the choir singing the carols, the resonance of the sung and spoken word amplified by the large, empty space.
I will admit that the beauty of this annual tradition often moves me to tears. But this year? Well, this year, even that was different, because being able to sit and meditate and listen after the 10 months that have just passed tapped into a deep well of emotion. From the time we got to the closing words of the Bidding Prayer, there was no holding back as the Dean intoned these words:
Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.
There are far more this year than in years past “upon another shore,” 1.75 million worldwide, who have died from COVID. And of course, these words invoke memories of parents and grandparents and children who have died, all of them – “a multitude which no one can number whose hope was in the Word made flesh.”
The Word made flesh.
This text from John’s gospel is the ninth and final lesson of this service, and it is the one we heard this morning, but in the King James Version:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5)
I’ve heard that King James translation many, many times, but I am so accustomed to hearing that last part rendered as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” that I was taken aback on hearing the word “overcome” as “comprehended.” In fact, I was so taken aback that I pulled out my massive Greek concordance to investigate.
The word “overcome” in the New Revised Standard Version of the bible that we use is katalambanó in Greek, and its principal meaning is “to lay hold of, to seize.” But in a figurative sense, it can mean “to apprehend, to make one’s own.” Thus we get that King James word “comprehend, to grasp.”
So the shadow of which John speaks cannot grasp or lay hold of the light that has come into the world. It’s kind of like The Grinch who, when he has taken all of the Christmas finery and gifts and decorations from down in Whoville and it’s all precariously perched at the peak of Mount Crumpit, and the sounds of the Whos down in Whoville lifting their voices in praise reach the Grinch, he comprehended it not.
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.
There will always be darkness in this world, but it will not overcome the light because it simply can’t grasp what this light is. Its puzzler gets sore.
This beautiful hymn that we call the prologue of John’s gospel is the evangelist’s way of telling us that Christ was in the mind and heart of God, co-existing with God, since the beginning of time. And this heart of God took on human form and pitched a tent with us, tabernacled, dwelt with us. And over the course of the life of Jesus, it is clear that we humans, on the whole, comprehended it not.
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11).
One more bit of word-study for you.
The fifth book of the Hebrew scriptures which we know as Deuteronomy is, in Hebrew debarim, or words, because it begins “These are the words that Moses spoke.” The Hebrew dabar, can mean word or deed. So, to say something is to do something. God spoke, and creation happened. All things came into being when that Word was spoken.
For us to speak Good News into the shadow, into the gloom, into the storm and struggle of our world is to do that Good News. Our words and deeds help bring God’s reign into being, a reign that darkness cannot comprehend.
John tells us that we have received “grace upon grace,” and we speak that grace into the world by loving and feeding and clothing and visiting and befriending, just as did that Word made flesh. Or as the great theologian Howard Thurman put it
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
And doesn’t the world need a bit more music in the heart these days? Friends, we can speak it into being by the grace upon grace given us in Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh.
 Howard Thurman. “The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations” (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1985).