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The Scandal of Christianity

Christmas I - January 1, 2023

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

The first portion of this sermon offers an exegesis of the prologue of John’s gospel (1:1-18).

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 + Psalm 147 + Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 + John 1:1-18

Behold! I bring you tidings of great joy: for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! My sisters and brothers, I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.

The Gospel we proclaim today is among the most beautiful, sublime, and christologically rich passages in all of scripture. The provenance (that is to say “the origins”) of these opening verses, or “prologue” of John’s gospel, is likely to have been an ancient hymn, familiar to Johannine Christians, and adapted here to serve as a kind of overture to the entire gospel.

As we will see, there is structural and literary evidence to suggest this prologue was added to the front end of John’s gospel shortly after the gospel was written, in all likelihood to defend Christian orthodoxy from competing gnostic or Marcionite views that taught Jesus was never really human, but only appeared to be human. A heresy we now call Docetism. The first verse alone is unmatched in its terce and unequivocal attestation to the divinity of Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Echoing the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning” (from the Hebrew “B'ereshit” or in John’s Greek, “En arche”) the Evangelist no doubt intends a direct parallel between the creation of the world in Genesis, and the dawn of this new creation in John.

The Word through whom all things came into being in Genesis: “Let there be light,” “Let dry land appear,” “Let the waters bring forth swarms of every living creature….” That very Eternal Word of God (he says in vs. 14) now “became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose public ministry the gospel goes on narrate.

This is a radical claim about which we must remain vigilant of the temptation to domesticate. Indeed, we must ever remain vigilant of the hope it offers us, and the demands it makes of us, lest a more palatable, but inevitably vacuous, form of Christianity succumb to the demands of empiricism or secularism.

To divorce Christianity from what many would think of as the “intellectual embarrassment” of the Incarnation, is to excise the very heart of our faith, to extricate the very soul of Christmas. For in the moment when Christianity ceases to be a theological scandal, it becomes (as Christ would tell us) like salt that has lost its flavor – worthless, except to be trampled underfoot.

And that is because “Incarnation” is the inevitable outcome of a God who is Love (1 John 1:1-14; 4:8, 16). The very mystery of Christmastide is the celebration not only of the birth of Christ, but by extension the celebration of God’s full embrace of the cosmos, and all it contains.

The Word-Made-Flesh at the Nativity reveals a divine love that is not merely agape but eros. A God whose love is not merely transcendent but passionate, a consummate love, that will stop at nothing less than an absolute and unequivocal union between God and Creation – between eternal Word and mortal flesh.

In other words, “[John’s] prologue does not say that the Word entered into flesh or abided in flesh, but that the Word became flesh…[and is] now inextricably bound to human history.” (Raymond Brown, Anchor Bible Commentary: The Gospel of John I-XII, 31).

As Christian tradition will come to articulate through the language of “deification,” the Incarnation is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. As Athanasius would famously summarize: “God became human that humanity might be made divine.” The purpose of the Incarnation – of God become flesh – is that we who are born of the flesh might be made divine – that is to say, we too might be made children of God – partaking in the divine nature, inasmuch as God participates in human nature through Christ.

This exchange of natures – human and divine – that the church calls deification is perhaps even more scandalous than the incarnation itself. And this is precisely what the entire chiastic structure of John’s prologue points to at its core, in what we are calling “Section F.” As the early church abundantly attests, to become “children of God” is John’s language for what the church will come to call deification, a divine-human union rendered by the Word-Made-Flesh.

This is the truth hidden in the very heart of Christmas, not only the scandal of the Word-Made-Flesh but the scandal of our very flesh being penetrated, entered into, indeed transformed into the divine. So, we conclude with where we began: proclaiming boldly this very scandal of Christmas, the scandal of a God who in Christ has joined our very nature unto his.

A scandal whose beauty is expressed more poetically by the 10th century theologian, St. Simeon, than perhaps by any other church father. That in Christ, the Word-Made-Flesh, God has taken into himself “Everything within you that is hurt, everything that seemed to you dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged…” Everything in you that that is weak and ephemeral, everything that is subject to death and decay, now “transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in His light.”

Merry Christmastide!

+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


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