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24 December. John chapters 16-18
Chapters 17 and 18 are the conclusion of Jesus’ last speech to his disciples. They are immediately followed by the betrayal in Gethsemane and the trial by the two high priests and Pontius Pilate. These are the readings of Holy Week (the approach to Easter). So what can they say to us at Christmas?
One word you hear a lot in church at this time of year is “glory”. It occurs thirteen times in the Bible readings and liturgy for Christmas Eve. The angels at Bethlehem called out “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace to men of goodwill”. The opening of John’s gospel that will be read at midnight services around the world tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us; we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
It is easy to talk about glory when we celebrate a miraculous birth. But what did Jesus say about glory as he was about to die? “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (17:1-5).
It may seem counter-intuitive, as does much of Christianity when you think about it carefully, that someone about to be crucified can talk about his death bringing glory. ‘Glory’ as a concept is closely related to ‘honour’, which itself is something less important in our society than it often was in the past or still is in other cultures. Someone may be honoured for having an important role in society, or for doing something brave or selfless, or for bringing about justice. No-one is honoured by receiving a death sentence, are they? But if you think about it, Jesus’ death was a brave and selfless one as he accepted an unjust death sentence in order to start bringing about God’s rule of justice over the whole earth; and far from being the unimportant radical preacher that the Romans imagined, he gained supreme importance when he was resurrected as the eternal Son of God.
So it is that Jesus could speak of God the Father glorifying (honouring) him in his death, as he had glorified (honoured) the Father in his work on earth. Understanding that makes it easier to understand why the angels sang of glory at Jesus’ birth, for at that time only they knew what would come of it.