Merry Christmas from the Fathers
I overheard some talking about Christmas' association with winter weather even in parts of the world, including the American South, that don't have much of it. How come? Because everything about the modern Christmas comes from 19th century America. And then, America's population was overwhelmingly in the northeast where colder climes prevail. But Christmas had been celebrated for 1,900 years before that, so this year it's Merry Christmas from the Fathers of the church.
For one of them Christmas was the cry "Land ho!" Chrysostom said that John revealing "the Word was God" does the mental equivalent of putting us out to sea where the eye has no point on which to fix. Chrysostom, says John, "takes us with him in his flight above the created world leaving the eye to gaze upon emptiness and on unlimited space" (ACC, NT IV, 7). Hilary of Poitiers does the same with verse 1a: "In the beginning was the Word." He says, "Fix in your mind what date will you for this beginning'; you miss the mark [no matter what date you choose}, for even then He of whom we are speaking was' [already]" (Ibid., 7).
"Being at sea" is an expression meaning completely lost or very confused. It's not good and seasick' is the next step. Ask someone whose experienced it. Almost all say, "I thought I was going to die, and then it was so bad I thought I wouldn't be able to." "In the beginning" which stretches back to when there was nothing "was the Word with God and the Word was God." Finite minds have to have a point to fix on. Even when we read the simplest of sentences, there is an automatic suspension of meaning until the period is reached" (Christianity and Classical Culture, 438).
The answer to being at sea is "Land ho!" The text takes you there. From 4 uses of the being verb was' in verses 1 and 2, John switches to the language of becoming or happening in verse 3. "All thing became or happened by the Word; and without Him nothing happened or became that has forever became or happened." But we're still not to "Land ho!", we're still not off the high seas. "Land ho! is the cry of verse 14: "The Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us." Father Luther tell us that these words were held in reverence in the Church of his day. They were sung in the Mass to a slow tempo and set to a special melody. And much like you see in a movie where someone lost at sea reaches land, falls down on his knees, and kisses the dirt. So at the words of the Nicene creed "from the Virgin Mary and was made man" everyone genuflected" (LW, 22, 102-3).
Jesus is the Rock of which the Psalmist spoke: "When my heart is overwhelmed within me lead me to the Rock that is higher than I" (Ps. 61:2). Jesus is the fixed point of a safe harbor on the stormy seas of existence. The Psalmist describes life in a fallen world as surging up to the heavens only to be plunged down to the depths. It's reeling and staggering like drunken men at their wits end until the Lord brings you into safe harbor (107: 26-30). The safe harbor is the Man Jesus, the flesh and blood conceived by the Holy Ghost in the Virgin Mary. "Land Ho!" the Spirit cries in our text. The flesh and blood Baby on Mary's lap is our fixed point. For Reformed Christianity "the infinite is uncomfortable with the finite" (Scaer, Law and Gospel, 21). For the Church Fathers, the very flesh of Jesus is the fixed point that brings relief and calls forth worship. John of Damascus said, "'I do not worship matter, I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became matter, and accepted to dwell in matter, and through matter wrought my salvation. I will not cease honoring matter, for it was through matter that my salvation was effected'' (Oxfor. Hit. of Wor., 26).
But there is dark side' to this truth. As the atheist's myth that there is nothing after this life but the "big sleep" is threatened by the "what if" of something more, so the dark side' of a God in flesh and blood is that He doesn't stay there' but comes here.' C. S. Lewis says in his unbelieving years his group would happily talk about the "Absolute" with no danger of it doing anything about us. It was safely and unmovably in the featureless, endless, nothingness and it would or could never come here. Being there meant here was nothing to fear; better yet nothing to obey (Surprised by Joy, 210).
Jesus is where the Absolute there' comes here.' Jesus is the point where the infinite becomes finite and yet remains infinite. With Father Jerome we say of this baffling truth: "The doctrine from God, I have; the science I do not have" (ACC, NT IV, 40). With Luther, "Whoever refuses to accept it in faith, to believe it before he understands it, but insists on exploring it with his reason and his five senseswill never master this doctrine" (LW, 22, 8). And you'll have no comfort from the Eternal Word made flesh as long as you keep trying. But even in believing this there is still no comfort unless you also believe the immortal, invisible, omnipotent God is bosom buddies with the Babe in the manger.
The Church Father's delighted in verse 18: that the only begotten Son "is in the bosom of the Father". By contrast, only our most literal translations keep that phrase. Others translate "by the side", "close to the Father", "in closest relationship", or something that misses the Spirit's point or at least dulls it. Chrysostom says that after telling us that no man has seen God at any time, John doesn't, as we would expect, tell us the Son has seen him. No, he tells us that the Son dwells in the bosom of the Father. And, says Chrysostom, "'To dwell in the bosom' is far more than to see'" (ACC, NT IV, 56). Augustine speaks of the "bosom" as God's secret place that only the Son knows. Ambrose said it's "a kind of innermost dwelling [place] of the Father's love and of His nature in which the Son always dwells" (Ibid., 54). According to Chrysostom bosom implies Father and Son "'have full conformity and agreement of substance.Their knowledge is identical and their power equal." For Cyril of Alexandria, the bosom of the Father suggests "'the Son is rooted in [the Father] by an unchanging sameness of substance and grows, as it were, from Him"' (Weinrich, John 1, 123).
St John in the upper room describes himself as being "in the bosom of Jesus". This indicates the phrase doesn't describe a child seated on his father's lap but bosom buddies. But Jesus relationship to the Father is more intimate than John's relationship to Jesus. While the Spirit says John is in the bosom of Jesus, He says Jesus is into the bosom of the Father. You are to see, think of, suspect no disconnect between the God you can't see and the God you can. All that God wants you to know of Him, His will, love, mercy, and grace are found in the Man Jesus. You are never to speculate about what God might think, do, or will. You know all the Father wants you to know in the Person, Works, and Words of the Son who is always into His bosom.
For Father Luther this is the difference between tasting God and sniffing Him. If you just sniff God you can't beat back Satan, Sin, or Death when they attack. You sniff God when you know only the invisible God based on the laws of nature or those given by Moses. Luther called these "left-handed or partial knowledge of God." They give you a whiff of God (LW, 22, 150-3). But that will never repel your 3 great enemies. A mature Luther, not someone supposedly still in the grip of Medevial fantasy, said "little is gained against the devil with a lengthy disputation" (Ibid. 106) based on law or reason. He says he saw the devil beaten back when a person persistently assailed by him crossed themselves and said "'and the Word became flesh'". Such a person, says Luther, "thereby routed the devil." (LW, 22, 106).
The standard Christmas thought, even by Christians, that the Son of God is the Light and Life of mankind is a thought, said Luther, the devil can bare. "But the words God became man' knock all his thoughts to pieces" (Ibid.). Father Luther goes on, "There is nothing more vexing to the devil than speaking about dear Jesus and His incarnation. Therefore, I like it that in church people sing loudly And the Word was made flesh' or And was made man.' The devil cannot stand to hear this, and he has to retreat several miles" (Ibid.). Luther specifically here disavows any superstitious use of words or of the sign of the cross just as I've told you it is not more pleasing to God, or more Lutheran, to make the sign of the cross or not, to bow in the creed or not. But such physical expressions of the faith - like confessing it out loud, singing it loudly, crossing yourself, and bowing your head - do bring into the physical realm the faith you hold in your heart. That is meet, right, and salutary for you to see, for others to see, and it is an in your face to Devil, Death, and Sin who can't see into your heart but do see and hear what's outside it.
The fathers from Adam who walked with God in the cool of the evening, to Abraham who was the friend of God, to Moses and Elijah whom God passed physically by, to John who leaned on the bosom of God, the incarnate God is for us. Anywhere outside of the incarnation, God is a mystery, hidden, whom no man can see and live to tell about it. But Christmas is when God shows His face to the world. Father Luther said, "Through the only begotten Son and through the Gospel [and I would add through the visible Gospel of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion] one learns to look directly into God's face" (Ibid., 157). And there you see the God who gave Himself to keep the Law so that He might forgive you, who died so that you might live free of the fear of death, and who rose to life so that you might never die.
Luther never tires even in later life of steering away from philosophical meditations on the mysteries of God and pointing instead to the child in the manger. High forms of speculation confront us with the "'God who is hidden in His majesty'" and this "'can cast us down into the abyss of temptations about predestination; by contrast the Child Jesus gets us on the path to the heart of the Father'" (Peters, Creed, 173). For Luther if you seek God anywhere else other than the flesh and blood Jesus, you find not him, but the devil. "For the devil wants to divide the divine from the human nature of Christ and to persuade men to seek a direct approach to God" (Luther on Worship, 87).
May we with the fathers find a Merry Christmas on Land, (i.e. on One made from dirt) not floating on an unfathomable sea, in Him who is the Bosom Buddy of the invisible God, tasting in Him all the fulness of the Godhead. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Nativity of Our Lord (20181225); John 1: 1-18