By H. Boone Porter
This joyful feast of our Lord’s birthday casts its own radiance on the doctrine of creation, and the feast itself is in part illuminated by that doctrine. St. Paul first wrote of Christ as the new Adam, and the theological understanding of the incarnation is, in part, derived from this mysterious insight.
Of the passages in which this theme is pursued, the most apt for today is the discussion in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Here Paul begins by comparing the spiritual darkness of those who do not believe the Gospel with the illumination and enlightenment of those who do. He speaks of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (verse 4). This is indeed what we are celebrating today, and on the following days, as we keep the twelve days of Christmas.
Light and image are both distinctive terms in the creation story at the beginning of Genesis, and they prepare us for what is to follow as Paul meditates on creation in terms of the incarnation and in terms of his own life. Verse six is one of the most beautiful he ever wrote:
Seeing it is the God that said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” who has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Here we have the explicit comparison of God’s first great act of creation, the making of light (Genesis 1:3), with the coming among us of Jesus Christ, in whose face we see the glory of God. We find this thought expressed poetically in the third stanza of the beloved early nineteenth-century carol, Silent Night (Hymnal 1940, no. 33):
Son of God, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
Much the same thought inspired Phillips Brooks half a century later when, after having visited Bethlehem, he composed his famous carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem (Hymnal 1940, no. 21) with the words
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
Going on in the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians, Paul pursues his meditation. We are only clay vessels (verse 7), as of course was Adam. We hope not to be found naked (chap. 5, verse 3). We are given God’s Spirit (verse 5; same word as breath in ancient languages). And finally (verse 17) “Wherefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old things are passed away: behold, they are become new.” The life he gives us is always new life; his covenant is always the new covenant. To the Christian, the awareness of Jesus as newborn among us is a disclosure of reality that never grows old.
The themes of creation, light, and image were taken up later in a most striking way in the first chapter fo the Epistle to the Colossians. It is a passage we will be returning to again at a future time. It speaks of praying unceasingly,
Giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to share the inheritance of the saints in light; who delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (verses 12-15)
God first created us in his image, but in his incarnate son we see that very image itself. He is the plan, the pattern, the mold for true humanity. It is by being brought into union with him, by being conformed to him, that we become fully human in the way our Creator intended. As members of his kingdom, we share “in the inheritance of the saints,” as the adopted brothers and sisters of him who is “the firstborn of all creation.”
Let us partake of the joy of that glorious kingdom today, as we celebrate his earthly birth. May our Christmas this year be richly blessed through him who is the source of all blessings, and to whom be all praise and worship, in time and in eternity. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our December 25, 1977 issue.