Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: God Has a Name and a Face

The first chapter of the Gospel of John characterizes the coming of Christ as ‘the Word made flesh.' Jesus came to give substance and form to our understanding of the great God of the Universe. In him we see - in the flesh - what God is like. Jesus came to give God a name and a face. "If you have seen me," said Jesus, "you have seen the Father." The Christ who came 2,000 years ago keeps on coming as Christmas takes on a name and a face in strange ways and through strange people.

When I see people putting up outdoor Christmas decorations I am reminded of a story a colleague and friend, Dr. Rodney Wilmoth, told several years ago.

This family had the custom of putting large plywood letters bordered with Christmas lights on their roof each year. The letters spelled "NOEL". It was an unusual piece of decoration. One year the father was slow in getting the letters up on the roof. Finally, late one Saturday afternoon, in mid-December, he got the project underway. The letters were large and hard to handle. It was a very windy afternoon, and he was heard to mutter some rather ‘un-Christmasy' comments under his breath as he struggled with the bulky plywood letters. When at last he finished, he climbed down the ladder triumphantly, and instructed the children to plug in the lights. When the lights came on and blazed against the dark sky, everybody roared with laughter. He had put the letters backward. Instead of "NOEL", he had spelled "LEON".

I never did learn what the errant father did, or said, about the situation. I was afraid to ask, but I think I might have left the letters just as they were. Very few people know what "NOEL" means, though we sing it each year, but everybody knows somebody named "LEON". If Leon came by and saw his name in lights on a house, I am sure he would be pleased. Christ is the name we give to he Light that God sent us, but it's OK to call him Leon

Christmas, in its deepest meaning, always has a name. Christmas never becomes real until it becomes specific. Our gifts to one another at Christmas, like God's gift of Christ, always carry a name. Merry Christmas, Leon, wherever you are.

We can offer many theological ideas to explain the ‘Incarnation' - the divine becoming human. But the simple explanation of Christmas is that in Christ we see God. In this metamorphose we become aware of the fact that not only is Jesus like God, God is like Jesus, and always has been. This is a startling discovery to people who have an unhealthy fear of God.

In the heart of London is a place known as Trafalgar Square where there is a memorial to England's great naval hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Specifically, it memorializes the battle of Trafalgar off Spain's southern coast. There, on October 21, 1805, the British fleet under Nelson defeated the French and Spanish fleets. It was one of the greatest naval battles in history. It gave England undisputed control of the sea. Nelson was wounded and died during the battle. He was brought back to London and buried in a crypt in St. Paul's Cathedral.

In the middle of Trafalgar Square stands a tall column with a giant statue of Horatio Nelson on the top. But Nelson is so high above the passers-by that his features are indiscernible from the pavement. In 1948 something was done to remedy this situation. An exact replica of Lord Nelson was placed at eye level where it could be seen, touched, examined, and appreciated by the people walking in the square. They brought Nelson down from his colossal column to where common men and women in the streets could see him.

When evangelist Billy Graham visited American soldiers during the Korean War, he always visited the hospitals to pray for the wounded. One day while visiting a hospital, he met a boy who was lying face downward in a canvas cradle because his spine had been injured. A hole had been cut in the bottom of the cradle so the soldier could see through to the floor. As Graham was talking to him, the young soldier said, "I would like to see your face, Mr. Graham." So Billy Graham slid on his back under the bed, like changing the oil in your car, so the boy could look down at his face.

In Christ, God has brought His face down to us. This is what Christmas means. Not only does God see us, but in this event and in this person we now see God. This is one of the central ideas of the Christian Faith. During Advent, and specifically on Christmas Day, we celebrate this act of God in Jesus, the Christ.

May our celebration of this season reflect our deep gratitude to God for this saving revelation.