As we tell the Nativity story, we naturally recall the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and those who came to see the infant as well as the events related to the birth. Still, the Nativity is not only about what happened in Bethlehem but what is happening now.
Customarily, on someone’s birthday, we give him or her gifts. At the first Christmas, Christ was God’s gift to the whole world. On this Christmas, God still gives us gifts through Christ.
John’s Gospel starts with his Prologue (Jn 1:1-18), which we use as our Gospel for the Masses on Christmas Day. The Prologue opens with the words, “in the beginning” because that is where God’s gifts begin.
In the Prologue, John uses a unique name for the Son of God, the “Word.” Why “word”? We communicate with each other through words. God has always spoken to us through His Son, His Word. Especially during Jesus’ earthly life, everything that Jesus did and said communicated the Father. Jesus told Philip, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). God continues to speak to us through His Word.
The Word was with God in the beginning (Jn 1:1). In fact, John tells us, “the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). All of God’s gifts came to us through His Word: “Through Him, all things came into being, and apart from Him, nothing came to be” (Jn 1:3). Even we, ourselves, came to be through His Word
Although the Word was the “life” and “light” of the world, humans were oblivious to His presence: “Whatever came to be through Him was life and this life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not overcome it… …through Him the world was made… He was in the world… but the world did not know Him” (Jn 1:4-5, 10).
The Word was the “life” or the “light that shines in the darkness” not only at one point in history. The Word continues to be the life and the light in the darkness that surrounds us.
In becoming flesh, the Word came to us as the visible light, as Thomas Aquinas explains: “God came in the flesh so that the darkness might apprehend the light, i.e. obtain a knowledge of it. As Isaiah said, ‘The people who walked in darkness saw a great light’ (Is 9:2)” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 141).
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Thomas reflects: “’The Word was made flesh’… to show the greatness of God’s kindness to us” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 169).
If an important person personally came to us to deliver a message, we would be overwhelmed. Thomas describes God’s eternal Word taking our flesh as “God’s kindness to us.” Such “kindness” is unimaginable.
As John had said, the Word was already in the world but we did not recognize His presence. Thomas observes: “He came where He already was… For He was there … but He came by assuming flesh. He was there invisibly, and He came in order to be visible” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 143).
The visible Word reveals the Father through His own “flesh.” John declares: “The only-begotten Son, ever at the Father’s side, has revealed Him” (Jn 1:18). The Word is Truth, as Thomas Aquinas states:
The human nature in Christ attained to the divine truth itself, that is, that this man should be the divine Truth itself. In other men we find many participated truths, insofar as the First Truth gleams back into their minds through many likenesses; but Christ is Truth itself. Thus, it is said, ‘In whom all the treasures of wisdom are hidden’ (Col 2:3) (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 188).
As humans, we are constantly seeking truth. We evaluate information media and people with whom we interact, regarding how reliable they are, how closely what they say is true. Ultimately, God’s Word is the Truth.
John declares that the Word is “full of grace and truth… From His fullness we have all received, grace following grace. The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:14, 16-17).
Thomas reflects that Jesus communicates grace and virtue to us:
These words can be explained in relation to His dignity as head, i.e., inasmuch as Christ is the head of the church. In this way it is His prerogative to communicate grace to others, both by producing virtue in the minds of men through the inpouring of grace and by meriting, through His teaching and works and the sufferings of His death, superabundant grace for an infinite number of worlds, if there were such (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 190).
Thomas calls our attention to the fact that Christ is the source of grace: “Christ is the origin, as a fountain, of every spiritual grace… Grace is dispensed to us through Him and from Him” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 200).
According to Thomas, one grace leads to another grace: “We have received of the fullness of grace what is described as grace upon grace… of His fullness we received grace, and upon that grace we have received another…” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 203).
God’s Word transforms us so intensely that we become God’s children: “Because ‘the Word was made flesh,’ He made it possible for us to be made sons of God. ‘God sent His Son… so that we might receive our adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 165).
Thomas relates Christ’s birth with our becoming God’s children:
The fruit of the coming of the Son of God is great, because by it we are made children of God. ‘God sent His Son born of a woman… so that we might receive adoption as children’ (Gal 4:5). And it was fitting that we, who are sons of God by the fact that we are made like the Son, should be reformed through the Son (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 149).
John declares: “To those who did accept Him, He gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (Jn 1:13).
We “accept” Jesus through believing in Him: “To receive Him is to believe in Him, … as Ephesians states, ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Eph 3:17). Therefore, they received Him, who believe in His name” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 157).
Thomas reflects that, as we are becoming children of God, we are being formed in the image of the Son, and our being God’s children is a participation in the Son’s likeness:
But if we consider the Son, insofar as sonship is conferred on others through a likeness to Him, then there are many sons of God through participation. And because they are called sons of God by a likeness to Him, He is called the First-born of all: ‘Those whom He foreknew, He predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the First-born of many brothers’ (Rom 8:29) (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 149).
We take on the likeness of God: “We become children of God by being made like God…First, by the infusion of grace; hence anyone having sanctifying grace is made a child of God” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 150).
Thomas illustrates this infusion by two passages: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery… but the spirit of adoption as children” (Rom 8:15); “Because you are children of God, God sent the Spirit of His Son into your hearts” (Gal 4:6).
Sharing in the sonship of the Son, our actions become similar to those of God: “We are like God by the perfection of our actions, because one who acts justly is a son: ‘Love your enemies… so that, you may be the children of your Father’ (Mt 5:44)” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 150).
God gives us the power to act as children of God through grace:
Even free will, if it is to be moved to receive grace, needs the help of divine grace… He gives power by moving the free will of man to consent to the reception of grace, as in ‘Convert us to Yourself, O Lord,’ by moving our will to Your love, ‘and we shall be converted’ (Lam 5:21). And in this sense we speak of an interior call, of which it is said, ‘Those whom He called’ by inwardly moving the will to consent to grace, ‘He justified,’ by infusing grace (Rom 8:3) (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 154).
Our conformity in the image of the Son is a process that continues until we come to our final goal, in which our souls and even our bodies are transformed:
We are made like God by the attainment of glory. The glory of the soul by the light of glory, ‘When He appears we shall be like Him’ (1 Jn 3:2); and the glory of the body, ‘He will reform our lowly body’ (Phil 3:21). Of these two it is said, ‘We are waiting for our adoption as sons of God’ (Rom 8:23) (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, 150).
Although, our complete transformation as children of God, being conformed into the image of His Son, is a process, this process is happening now.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
All quotations are from St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, Vol. 1, trans. James Weisheipl, O.P. and Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1980).