Well now lots of important things have been said about Christmas over the past 72 hours, but there’s one very important thing yet to say concerning this season, and that is that Emma and I have now seen the Downton Abbey Christmas special and the Doctor Who Christmas special so please feel free to discuss them over coffee! It’s been fascinating actually that Facebook and other social media have been almost as full with people begging their friends and associates not to spoil the surprise for them concerning the goings-on in the Grantham household as they have been with people rejoicing in the birth of the Christ child! But Emma and I are up-to-date now so you’re safe to talk to us about either of them!
Christmas, of course, is not one day but 40 days of celebration, but in the few days before the feast itself I, like many others, was so focused on getting as far as Evensong on Christmas Day that it took a lot of effort to remember that I was preaching two days later. I was walking through the Close about a week ago after the early morning service, talking to a friend about the festivities to come. We’d exchange the pleasantries about how busy we both were, and about all things we have left to do, including writing Christmas cards, most of which I still haven’t done like most years, but that’s okay because we still got 37 days of Christmas to go! They were reflecting on the seemingly rather peculiar set of feast days which come hot on the heels of Christmas itself. And I’m afraid in our early morning stupor neither of us were that articulate and today’s feast, this glorious feast day on the third day of Christmas, was labelled by one of us, I won’t tell you which, fumbling for our words, as “the feast of, oh you know, him, crazy weird guy”! Neither of us could quite drag to the forefront of our minds anything more articulate to say about St John the Evangelist than that at 8:05 in the morning. So I apologise to St John on our behalf for branding this the feast of “crazy weird guy”, but what we were both trying to do in our clumsy fashion was to recognise that in St John we find someone who tells the story rather differently.
If you read the New Testament in order, which I don’t necessarily recommend, you munch your way through Matthew, Mark, and Luke before arriving at John and then reading John’s account of Jesus’ life it feels rather different. Here is metaphor, here is symbolism of a different order: talking about a different order, the events of Jesus’ life are presented that way as well - many of them in completely different chronological arrangement to the previous three Gospels. We all know how St John’s Gospel begins, I’m sure, because if you’ve been to church regularly over the last couple of weeks you will have heard it read aloud in some cases by the senior minister present, perhaps by the Deacon at the Eucharist, or in our case unusually at the carol services by a child: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: he was in the beginning with God"... and so on. Verses and verses of dense, complicated, beautiful, but very, very difficult theological language. A risky business starting off a book that way. I’m not sure how many creative writing courses would recommend that style. But John wants to front-end his gospel if you like with a big statement about the nature of the person of Jesus Christ. He wants to say, "everything that is coming, everything that I’m going to say about this man" - because of course there is no Christmas, there is no childhood narrated in John’s Gospel - "everything about this man matters because of who and what he is: the Word of God". This is why everything else matters. This is why everything else works. This is why Christmas is important: and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory. That’s why what’s depicted over there in the manger scene matters to John, even if he doesn’t narrate it like that, because what you see there in the baby amidst the straw, wrapped in swaddling clothes and surrounded by his parents, gawping shepherds, strange and peculiar looking people from another land, and of course rather uniquely in the Salisbury crib scene, by a cat, is the Word made flesh. What John is saying is, when you look at that baby, you see what God is like. You see what God is like, and so when you trace the story of this baby from the manger to the cross and beyond, you see God’s life. You see what a perfect human life would look like, because you see God living one.
And this kind of stuff comes up over and over again in John’s Gospel, so that at the very end of the gospel which we heard this morning, two days after hearing the very beginning read in church, it’s still pretty dense, it’s still pretty complicated. We hear the story of Peter and John himself, who of course only gets referred to as “the one whom Jesus loved” at this point, and this rather convoluted conversation between Jesus and Peter about what John’s fate will be. And the gospel ends with either hyperbolic overstatement or the literal truth but either way in and ecstatically beautiful way which is even more beautiful in the Greek actually, “there are also many other things that Jesus did: if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Yesterday was the feast of Stephen, the first person to die for articulating Christian faith. Tomorrow is the feast of the Holy Innocents, one of the most haunting feasts of the year, when we remember the slaughter of the boys aged two years old and under by Herod the Great in his attempt to eliminate all possibility of a baby growing up to challenge his rule. And sandwiched in between them is the feast of “crazy weird guy”. St John the Evangelist. And thank God for that arrangement of feasts. The three days after Christmas tell us something rather important about how it’s all supposed to work. It’s supposed to work because of who Jesus is.
The news doesn’t become cute and cuddly over Christmas time. I was in the hospital just before Christmas for another procedure and the hospital seemed pretty full of ill people to me: people don’t stop being ill, or diagnosed, over Christmas. People don’t stop being deployed to war over Christmas. Burglars don’t stop robbing people’s houses, petty and greedy leaders don’t stop dominating and persecuting and abusing their people and their neighbours over Christmas. People don’t stop dying for their Christian faith over Christmas, or for that matter for their Islamic faith, or their lack of it. Christmas is not, for all of the delightful cosy and candlelit traditions which I love and which I thoroughly enjoyed, a time of peace. It is a time of prayer for peace. It’s a time when if you like we re-member, in the real sense of that word, re-energise, and re-engage with the fact that the world needs to change profoundly from the way that it is. And St John helps us to do that. Sandwiched in between two feast days remembering deaths, none of them natural, all of them brutal, all of them motivated by fear, is the feast of St John reminding us not to look for God somewhere else. Not to search for him in the heavens, or to route through the pages of ancient books to find him, but recognise that the principal place in which God is found, is in a baby, and a rootless preacher, and a political prisoner, and a convicted criminal, whose footsteps spread not only the harmonies of good news, but which spread power for you and me and all people to become “children of God”.
The message of St John’s Gospel, the overwhelming message, is the message of light. It is confident assertion that where the feet of Jesus tread, there is a light which follows, and which is of a completely different order to anything else in the world. As we heard in our epistle, “this is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
The Dean preached at Midnight Mass about the darkness of the world. And rightly to, because if we are to make Christmas worth anything, we have to see the darkness of the world but, crucially, we have to see it in context. In the context of the darkness of the world are those bright, shining, transfiguring footsteps of Christ. And they don’t stop shining. You have to look pretty hard for them sometimes, because they are crowded out by greed and jealousy and hatred, people try to hide those footsteps behind piles of other stuff because those footsteps make us afraid and suspicious and they threaten to lead us where we don’t want to go, but they don’t stop shining. Sometimes they are tiny, like the prints of a brand-new baby taking his first crawl across the floor, sometimes they’re large and confident like a man striding along the seashore in Galilee, sometimes they appear faltering like a convicted man carrying the cares of the world on his shoulders. But they never stop shining. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” That is the context for the darkness of the world. Perhaps the reason why St John seems so peculiar is that he could see that quite clearly. And how would it be if the world could see itself in the context of the shining footsteps of the Prince of Peace? How would your life be different? How would mine? Remind the darkness of its context when you encounter it. Remind the darkness that the night around it is as bright as the day. Remind the darkness that the light has so much to say that all the books of the world have not the capacity to record it.