"The fundamental polarity of human life between what is and what ought to be, between lack and fulfillment, between determination and freedom, is not abnormal; it is the norm. Every person is exposed to it because of the inescapable structure of human formation." (Adrian van Kaam, The Transcendent Self, Dimension Books, 1979, 172.)

Gospel For Christmas Day

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

JGospel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me’. ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1–18 – ESV)

Introductory notes

This Gospel text is generally known as the Prologue to John’s Gospel.

“The Prologue is a foyer to the rest of the Fourth Gospel (as John’s Gospel is often called), simultaneously drawing the reader in and introducing the major themes. The following parallels between the Prologue and the rest of the book immediately stand out, although as we shall see there are many others of a more subtle nature:

 

Prologue

Gospel

the pre-existence of the Logos or Son

1:1–2

17:05

in him was life

1:04

5:26

life is light

1:04

8:12

light rejected by darkness

1:05

3:19

yet not quenched by it

1:05

12:35

light coming into the world

1:09

3:19; 12:46

Christ not received by his own

1:11

4:44

being born to God and not of flesh

1:13

3:6; 8:41–42

seeing his glory

1:14

12:41

the ‘one and only’ Son

1:14, 18

3:16

truth in Jesus Christ

1:17

14:06

no-one has seen God, except the one who comes from God’s side 1:18 6:46

 “Not only so, but many of the central, thematic words of this Gospel are first introduced in these verses: life, light (1:4), witness (1:7), true (in the sense of ‘genuine’ or ‘ultimate’, 1:9), world (1:10), glory, truth (1:14). But supremely, the Prologue summarizes how the ‘Word’ which was with God in the very beginning came into the sphere of time, history, tangibility—in other words, how the Son of God was sent into the world to become the Jesus of history, so that the glory and grace of God might be uniquely and perfectly disclosed. The rest of the book is nothing other than an expansion of this theme.” (A D Carson, D. A., The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 110-11.)

“If John has been described as the pearl of great price among the NT writings, then one may say that the Prologue is the pearl within this Gospel. In her comparison of Augustine’s and Chrysostom’s exegesis of the Prologue, M. A. Aucoin points out that both held that it is beyond the power of man to speak as John does in the Prologue. The choice of the eagle as the symbol of John the Evangelist was largely determined by the celestial flights of the opening lines of the Gospel. The sacred character of the Prologue has been reflected in a long-standing custom of the Western Church to read it as a benediction over the sick and over newly baptized children. Its former place as the final prayer of the Roman Mass reflects its use as a blessing. Indeed, it took on a magical character when it was used in amulets worn around the neck to protect against sickness. All these attestations of sublimity, however, do not remove the fact that the eighteen verses of the Prologue contain for the exegete a number of bewildering textual, critical, and interpretative problems.” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), Yale University Press, 2008, 18.)

“The description of the Word with God in heaven before creation is remarkably brief; there is not the slightest indication of interest in metaphysical speculations about relationships within God or in what later theology would call Trinitarian processions. The Prologue is a description of the history of salvation in hymnic form, much as Ps 78 is a poetic description of the history of Israel. Therefore, the emphasis is primarily on God’s relation to men, rather than on God in Himself. The very title “Word” implies a revelation—not so much a divine idea, but a divine communication. The words “In the beginning,” although they refer to pre-creation, imply that there is going to be a creation, a beginning. If this poem was going to concentrate on God Himself, there would be no beginning. The Prologue says that the Word was; it does not speculate how the Word was, for not the origins of the Word but what the Word does is important. The Prologue does not proceed in the direction of its Qumran parallel cited in the NOTE on vss. 3b–4. There in good Hellenistic fashion God’s knowledge is stressed as a creative factor; here in the manner of the OT God’s Word is stressed. We shall discuss the background of the concept of “the Word” in App. II, but we may emphasize here that the whole cast of the hymn as salvific history removes it a distance from the more speculative Hellenistic world of thought. As Dodd, art. cit., p. 15, points out, no Hellenistic thinker would see a climax in the Incarnation, just as no Gnostic would triumphantly proclaim that the Word had become flesh.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 23-24.)

in the beginning: “In the Hebrew Bible the first book (Genesis) is named by its opening words, “In the beginning”; therefore, the parallel between the Prologue and Genesis would be easily seen. The parallel continues into the next verses, where the themes of creation and light and darkness are recalled from Genesis. John’s translation of the opening phrase of Gen 1:1, which is the same as that of LXX, reflects an understanding of that verse evidently current in NT times; it does not necessarily give us the original meaning intended by the author of Genesis.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 4.)

From the outset, John reminds us that he is bearing witness to a radically new of being, one that comes from God through Jesus. In John 3:3 we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus that “unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God”. And, you “must be born of water and the spirit” (3:5). The reference to “the wind/spirit” (pneuma) is noteworthy. In Genesis 1:2 we are told that “God’s spirit hovered over the water”. In Genesis 2:7 it is by “the wind/spirit” from God that humanity is created. In one of the post-resurrection appearances, John uses the same word when he tells us that Jesus “breathed on (the disciples) and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit (Pneuma)”. St Paul refers to this as a “new creation” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). The “kingdom” proclaimed by Jesus, according to John, is no ordinary “kingdom”.

was the Word: “‘The Word was’ is akin to the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus in the Gospel proper. There can be no speculation about how the Word came to be, for the Word simply was.” (Ibid.)

Reflection

Rollo May (1909-1994) was an American psychiatrist. He gained a well-earned reputation as a deep thinker who spoke wisely and lucidly about the human condition. In 1975 a series of his essays was published under the title, The Courage to Create (W W Norton & Company). May offers an observation which is helpful to our understanding of Christmas:

"Dogmatism of all kinds – scientific, economic, moral, as well as political – are threatened by the creative freedom of the artist. This is necessarily and inevitably so. We cannot escape our anxiety over the fact that the artists together with creative persons of all sorts, are the possible destroyers of our nicely ordered systems." (76)

Authentic creation not only defies “dogmatism of all kinds” it defies human control of all kinds. Creation is subversive. It breaks and breaks free of human expectations. Creation is gift not conquest. All authentic creation belongs to God, even if you and I, like Mary, are the bearers of that creation.

Christmas – the creation of the God-man – is subversive. Even for the person of faith, a certain anxiety lingers because the Creator has acted in a way that destroys our “nicely ordered systems”. The Great Artist has given us a creation that cannot be but is:

"... have you thought that He stained Himself, soiled Himself, being not only with men, but Himself a man ... And it wasn't that He put on man like a jacket to take off at night, or to bathe ... But man He was, as man is man, the maker made Himself the made; God was un-Godded by His own hand ... He was God from before the beginning, and now never to be clean God again. Never again. Alas! ... Hosanna!" (H.F.M. Prescott, The Man on a Donkey, (Vol. 2), Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952, 510-511.)

John’s Prologue – our Gospel text for Christmas Day – echoes the first words of the Book of Genesis:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

God is the Supreme Creator, the Source of all creativity. And the stamp of God the Creator is found in all that exists. The Book of Genesis, however, tells us that the human being, of all beings, has a unique relationship with God the Creator. Again Rollo May’s words are helpful: “We express our being by creating. Creativity is a necessary sequel to being.” (8) This is another way of saying that we are “made in the image and likeness of God” (see Genesis 1:27).

Christmas, the great creative act of God, will ultimately triumph over all the anti-creative forces we human beings endlessly invent. The call of Christmas is to let the Creator’s creating work continue in each of us – everywhere, all the time.