ST. JOHN'S DAY
The “third day of Christmas” is marked by the feast of St John, Apostle and Evangelist, called “the beloved disciple” in the the Gospel he wrote and styled “the Divine” or “the Theologian” in the language of the Church. This is a felicitous marriage of feast and season, since John's Gospel excels as the Gospel of the Incarnation. Its magnificent prologue is rightly read as the liturgical Gospel on Christmas Day. After we hear of the angels' appearance to the shepherds on Christmas Eve, on Christmas morning we encounter the sublime truth of this great day: “The Word was God.... the Word was made flesh.”
The brief homily we call “the First Epistle General of John” begins with a passage almost as striking, which echoes and reinforces the monumental prologue to the Gospel. John wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled …. that which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you.”
In this passage, the Apostle was dealing head on with the earliest heresy to invade the Church, a heresy which alleged that the Incarnate God did not really become man but only seemed to be human. We call this falsehood Docetism. This heresy can even be found in our Hymnal at Hymn 165, with the appalling line “Thou seemest human and divine.” We wish Tennyson had written, “Thou art both human and divine,” as our Creed clearly declares.
The reality of Our Lord's human nature continues to shock. It was a scandal to the ancient Jews, a stumbling-block to the ancient Gentiles, and an absurdity to the world today. We sinners do not want God to get too close to us. We foolishly believe He can be managed better at a great distance.
John demolishes this heresy with few words. We have seen God, he affirms, not just in some mystical vision, but “with our eyes.” We have handled God “with our hands.” But when? When we arrested Him in the garden? When we examined His wounds on Easter morning? When we touch and taste the eucharistic Bread?
John is relentless in declaring the reality of Our Lord's human nature, sometimes resorting to almost crude language. Where Paul (not known for under-statement!) speaks of the “body” of Christ, gentle and poetic John speaks of His “flesh.” And this truth, John teaches us, is a matter of eternal importance: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist....” (I John 4:2). Likewise, John allows the wretch Pontius Pilate to utter one of the most important affirmations of the Gospel, “Behold, the man.”
In the vulnerable humanity of the Infant in the Manger and the rejected corpse on the Cross, we truly see the humanity of God. LKW