Seeing, hearing, feeling Christmas

Photo: Kieran White, Unsplash.

My earliest memories of Christmas are full of sensory details: the sight of a Christmas tree decorated with lights, the sound of wrapping paper being crumpled up and strewn across the living room, the feel of a fluffy blanket warming my skin, the smell of wood burning in the fireplace, the sweet, tangy taste of gingerbread cookies melting on my tongue. Even now in my adult years, I experience Christmas as a time of sensory delights.

The author of the epistle of 1 John takes a similarly sensory approach to describing the wonder of Jesus’ incarnation. Although this may not be a traditional Christmas text with shepherds, wise men or a star over Bethlehem, 1 John 1:1-4 offers its own sort of Christmas reflection on the incarnational mystery of God becoming flesh that can be seen, heard and touched. This is indeed a Christmas delight!

The text opens by delineating the many sensory ways in which the author’s community has experienced the incarnated Christ: they have heard him, seen him with their eyes and touched him with their hands (1:1). That is, despite Jesus’s preexistence (“what was from the beginning”), his incarnated reality cannot be denied. 

In fact, in each of the first three verses of the epistle, the author repeats the Greek verb that is translated as “we have seen.” This repetition underscores the visibility and evidence for what might seem like an impossible occurrence: the incarnation of the eternal God in human form. It is as though the author is saying, “I know it sounds unbelievable, but we really have seen this with our very own eyes!”

Furthermore, the author of the epistle asserts that this figure, described as “eternal life,” was “with the Father” and is now revealed to the author’s community (1:2). The transcendent God had become flesh!

What the text relates in just a few words here has profound theological significance. In the Old Testament, God allows Moses to view God only from behind (Exodus 33:17-23). The divine is too much to see with human eyes. 

Yet, this same divine figure is now fully revealed in the person of Jesus, who is seen, heard and touched by the author of this epistle. 

The magnitude of the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ seems to be so immense that within the span of just a few verses, the epistle’s author reiterates that this revelation is one that the writer’s community “declares” (1:2-3) and “writes” (1:4) about to the letter’s audience. In other words, this incredible revelation is one that the author’s community cannot keep to itself. 

The author provides a rationale for this announcement: It is so that the joy of the author’s community might be fulfilled (1:4). Incarnation is meant to be experienced as a cause for celebratory joy.

At the time of this epistle’s composition, there was likely a growing influence from Gnostic groups. Such groups would have emphasized keeping special knowledge secret for only a select few initiates. The author of 1 John, however, seems to be intent on announcing to anyone who has ears to hear that God has truly been revealed. Jesus can be seen, heard and touched. 

Our own experiences of Jesus in this holiday season are not likely to be as sensory as those of the epistle’s author. We cannot directly see, hear, or touch the incarnated Christ. Nonetheless, the words of 1 John 1:1-4 may offer a new lens for considering the mystery of the incarnation. 

This passage might encourage us to consider the cosmic significance of the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. While the sleepy shepherds and mysterious Magi might strike a familiar chord, the language of 1 John 1:1-4 makes this story not only one that can be experienced viscerally. It also connects to the grandiose promise of something as lofty as eternal life. 

The biblical author reiterates that this message must be shared. Here we discover a gentle nudge for our own behavior this Christmas season. With what audiences might we share this good news? What friends or family members could be encouraged by a reminder that we live in a world where a transcendent deity has become an immanent reality? 

In sharing our own wonder at this mystery, we, like the epistle’s author, might find our joy made complete.  

Melanie Howard

Melanie A. Howard is assistant professor and program director of biblical and theological studies at Fresno Pacific University in California. Read More

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