There are lots of part of the Bible that we associate with Christmas and evoke the atmosphere of Christmas for us. The stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, for example, or Isaiah’s prophecy that “to us a child is born”. Hearing one of these passages read in the dim light of a candlelit carol service really feels like Christmas for many of us.
There are, however, other passages in the Bible that speak about the meaning and significance of Christmas that we might not first associate with the season. One such example is the opening section of John’s first letter – 1 John 1 verses 1 and 2:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1,2)
These words contain a very simple but deeply profound description of Christmas: ‘The life appeared’. If you tried to describe Christmas in three words you couldn’t do much better than that. ‘The life appeared.’
It’s a good description because first of all, it speaks about birth. Childbirth is all about a new life appearing. That life is already there, safe in their mother’s womb. But we eagerly await their arrival and for that new baby boy or girl to make their appearance.
You can certainly see Christmas that way. Mary and Joseph awaiting the arrival of their son, Jesus. A new life appearing in the strange setting of a stable.
But Christmas is more than that. John chooses his words carefully. He doesn’t say ‘a life appeared’ but ‘the life appeared’. Every birth is precious and wonderful, but Jesus’ birth is not just one among many. It is far more than that.
John begins his letter like he begins his gospel – right back at the beginning of time. “That which was from the beginning…” This life born in Bethlehem is not just a life but he is the life. The life that has always been, and always will be. Not just a life, but the source of all life. God himself becomes born as a tiny baby.
Just stop and think about that for a moment. The life and power and nature of God became reduced down to the size of a baby. The limitless became limited to human form. The uncontainable become contained in six pounds or so of podgy flesh. No wonder the shepherds marvelled and the wise men worshipped. God became human. The life appeared. The life of God became a living human being; the all-encompassing power and love and goodness and majesty of God appeared and made himself known.
Which then leads to another amazing truth. At Christmas, as Jesus was born, God could be touched. The eternal life who has existing before time became a person who could be poked and prodded. Who could be held and hugged. Who was physical and tangible and real.
That is so important for us to hold on to this Christmas. We have moved into a virtual world of Zoom and FaceTime over the past year. I am sure we give thanks for the technology that we can use, but it makes us long to touch and to be touched. Even the simplest of handshakes seems like a big deal and a lost treasure. To touch and hold and hug others seems so distant, so impossible through the medium of a computer screen.
That is why we need to listen to what John tells us. The life appeared and he could be touched. So many people think of God as distant and detached. Many other religions could affirm the first few things that John says: what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at, perhaps through dreams or visions or revelations. But only Christianity goes that one step further to say “and our hands have touched.” Only the Christian faith says that God is there and God came to be touched.
Just think about that for a moment. What have you missed over the past year? What physical interactions have you missed out on? What physical touch do you look forward to having once again?
God knows our desire to be touched, because he came to touch and to be touched. He came as a baby who was helpless without his parent’s touch to feed and look after him. He became a man who touched lepers, laid hands on the sick, embraced his friends. He had hands forced upon him to nail him to a cross. He invited Thomas’s hands to touch him to prove that he has risen from the dead and conquered death.
The life appeared and the life came to be touched. As we experience a Christmas two metres apart from so many, let’s remember that God comes to touch and be touched.