Gospel for Christmas Day (25 December 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Mass during the Day
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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1:1-18 – NRSV).
Here is an alternate translation by the Johannine scholar, Raymond Brown:
In the beginning was the Word;
the Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God.
2 He was present with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things came into being,
and apart from him not a thing came to be.
4 That which had come to be in him was life,
and this life was the light of men.
5 The light shines on in the darkness,
for the darkness did not overcome it.
(6 There was sent by God a man named John 7 who came as a witness to testify to the light so that through him all men might believe—8 but only to testify to the light, for he himself was not the light. 9 The real light which gives light to every man was coming into the world!)
10 He was in the world,
and the world was made by him;
yet the world did not recognize him.
11 To his own he came;
yet his own people did not accept him.
12 But all those who did accept him
he empowered to become God’s children.
That is, those who believe in his name—13 those who were begotten, not by blood, nor by carnal desire, nor by man’s desire, but by God.
14 And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
And we have seen his glory,
the glory of an only Son coming from the Father,
filled with enduring love.
(15 John testified to him by proclaiming: “This is he of whom I said, ‘The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me, for he existed before me.’”)
16 And of his fullness
we have all had a share—
love in place of love.
17 For while the Law was a gift through Moses, this enduring love came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; it is God the only Son, ever at the Father’s side, who has revealed Him (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 3-4).
“The first page of the Fourth Gospel is one of the most dense passages in the New Testament, a synthesis of the author’s christology and theology. There have been many attempts to discern the literary structure of this ancient Christian hymn. Most follow a movement in time, from preexistence (vv. 1–2) into creation (vv. 3–5), proceeding through the story of the human condition until the high point of the incarnation (vv. 6–14). The final part of the hymn deals with the subsequent reception of the incarnate Logos (vv. 15–18) (cf., for example, Lagrange 2–34). Others have traced a chiastic structure, which means that the same themes are repeated around a central statement: e.g., A-B-C-B´-A´ (cf. R. A. Culpepper, “The Pivot” 1–31). This Christian hymn, however, may follow some of the well-established patterns of biblical poetry, especially the use of parallelism. A hint that such may be the case is found in the twofold reference to John the Baptist (vv. 6–8, 15), which troubles most attempts to find a formal literary structure for John 1:1–18. These Baptist passages indicate that the hymn has three sections:
I. The Word in God becomes the light of the world (vv. 1–5)
II. The incarnation of the Word (vv. 6–14)
III. The revealer: the only Son turned toward the Father (vv. 15–18).
“Within these three sections there is a statement and restatement of the same message. Like the motion of a wave running up the seashore each section carries the same message farther. Not all four themes are dealt with in each section, but the hymn states and restates them in the following fashion:
(a) The Word is announced or described (vv. 1–2 [I], 6–8 [II], 15 [III]),
(b) The revelation brought by the Word is coming into the world (vv. 3–4 [I], 9 [II]).
(c) Humankind responds (vv. 5 [I], 10–13 [II], 16 [III]),
(d) and the object of belief is described: the only Son of the Father (vv. 14 [II], 17–18 [III]).
“The Prologue plays an important role in the rhetoric of the Fourth Gospel. John 1:1–18 informs the reader that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the preexistent Word and that life, light, and divine filiation flow from an acceptance of the story of the unseen God revealed by the incarnate Word. This story perfects the former gift of the Law given through Moses. However, this theology and christology have only been affirmed. The reader has been told who Jesus is and what he has done, but an important question remains unanswered: how did this action of God in the human story take place? Only a Johannine story of Jesus can answer that question” (Francis Moloney SDB, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998. 34).
In the beginning: We are reminded of the Book of Genesis accounts of creation: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Genesis begins with creation; John refers to creation (vv. 3–4), but soon turns to what Paul calls ‘new creation’ (Jn. 3; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Both in Genesis and here, the context shows that the beginning is absolute: the beginning of all things, the beginning of the universe” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England: Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 113-114)
the Word: There is no need to look in the Greek philosophical or Gnostic traditions to find the source of John’s expression here: “However the Greek term is understood, there is a more readily available background than that provided by Philo or the Greek philosophical schools. Considering how frequently John quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, that is the place to begin. There, ‘the word’ (Heb. dāḇār) of God is connected with God’s powerful activity in creation (cf. Gn. 1:3ff.; Ps. 33:6), revelation (Je. 1:4; Is. 9:8; Ezk. 33:7; Am. 3:1, 8) and deliverance (Ps. 107:20; Is. 55:11). If the Lord is said to speak to the prophet Isaiah (e.g. Is. 7:3), elsewhere we read that ‘the word of the Lord came to Isaiah’ (Is. 38:4; cf. Je. 1:4; Ezk. 1:6). It was by ‘the word of the Lord’ that the heavens were made (Ps. 33:6): in Gn. 1:3, 6, 9, etc. God simply speaks, and his powerful word creates. That same word effects deliverance and judgment (Is. 55:11; cf. Ps. 29:3ff.). When some of his people faced illness that brought them to the brink of death, God ‘sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave’ (Ps. 107:20). This personification of the ‘word’ becomes even more colourful in Jewish writing composed after the Old Testament (e.g. Wisdom 18:14, 15). Whether this heritage was mediated to John by the Greek version of the Old Testament that many early Christians used, or even by an Aramaic paraphrase (called a ‘Targum’), the ultimate fountain for this choice of language cannot be in serious doubt” (D A Carson, op cit, 115).
He was in the beginning with God: This second verse refers to the Word as “he”: “Who might ‘this man’ be? ….: ‘John intends that the whole of his gospel shall be read in the light of this verse. The deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God; if this be not true the book is blasphemous” (Barrett, Gospel 156)” (Francis Moloney SDB, op cit, 35).
All things came into being through him: This theme appears elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures. For example, St Paul writes: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). In the Letter to the Hebrews we hear the author say God “has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:2). The Book of Revelation proclaims: “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation” (3:14). “John may share the language of some hellenistic philosophy, but his strong doctrine of creation radically avoids the dualism in which much of that tradition is steeped” (D A Carson, op cit, 118).
a man sent from God: John’s significance is found in his being sent by God. He has a particularly task to do: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him”. Later we will hear John testify: “‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”. And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God’” (John 1:32-34).
coming into the world: Just as John is sent by God into the world for a special reason, so too the Word is “he whom God has sent” (3:34): “Few could read the Fourth Gospel for the second time without recognizing that the coming of the Word into the world, described in the Prologue, is nothing other than the sending of the Son into the world, described in the rest of the book” (D A Carson, op cit, 122). See for example: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (4:34); “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (5:23); “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5:24); ““I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (5:30).
the Word became flesh: “For the first time since v. 1, the term ho logos, ‘the Word’, reappears. At this point the incarnation, the ‘in-fleshing’ of the Word, is articulated in the boldest way. If the Evangelist had said only that the eternal Word assumed manhood or adopted the form of a body, the reader steeped in the popular dualism of the hellenistic world might have missed the point. But John is unambiguous, almost shocking in the expressions he uses (cf. especially Barth, pp. 85ff.): the Word became flesh. Because succeeding clauses in this verse allude to Exodus 33:7–34:35, it is tempting to think this first clause does the same. The ‘tent of meeting’ was the place where the Lord ‘would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend’ (Ex. 33:11). In Exodus Moses hears the divine name spoken by God himself, and this is followed by God’s word written on two stone tablets. Now, John tells us, God’s Word, his Self-expression, has become flesh.
“This is the supreme revelation. If we are to know God, neither rationalism nor irrational mysticism will suffice: the former reduces God to mere object, and the latter abandons all controls. Even the revelation of antecedent Scripture cannot match this revelation, as the Epistle to the Hebrews also affirms in strikingly similar categories: ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ (Heb. 1:1–2). The Word, God’s very Self-expression, who was both with God and who was God, became flesh: he donned our humanity, save only our sin. God chose to make himself known, finally and ultimately, in a real, historical man: ‘when “the Word became flesh”, God became man’ (Bruce, p. 40) (D A Carson, op cit, 126-127).
Reflection – “Close to the Father’s heart”
Human communication is frail yet full of all sorts of potential. At its best, it can be the bearer of love and affirmation, clarification and helpful facts, it can build and strengthen relationships. At its worst, it can be the bearer of hate and denigration, obfuscation and “alternate facts”, it can destroy and undermine relationships. We can use communication – whether it is through words or silence, rituals or symbols, physical gestures or facial expressions – to reveal and conceal, to cut and to heal.
Our capacity for communication is evidence that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Today’s Gospel – John 1:1-18 – reminds us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things came into being through him”. Jesus is God’s communication of Love. In him, God is saying: “Will you let me love you?”
We are at our best – our most human – when we use the great gift of communication with reverence and with care. It may help to remember that good communication is born of silence. It comes not from us but through us. Communication can be such a beautiful thing, a life-giving and enlightening thing. A liberating thing!
Both the beauty and the fragility – vulnerability? – of human communication is suggested in the following passage from a novel by John Gardner: “The girl at Buzz Marchant’s had a squeezed-shut face. She was a good girl, no doubt. Pretty, kind in the usual ways. Not intelligent, no, but not all saints were intelligent either. The thing was – he struggled to get hold of it, nail it down once and for all – but again it came merely to this: she had a face that marked her, singled her out not as the bearer of any particular virtue or defect but as, simply, the bearer of her singleness. In adolescent dreams one coupled with radiant beauties, with indefinite and lovely faces, but then one day it all turned real …: a girl one knew, with a name, brittle hair, a chin just a little too deeply cleft. That was love, if it was anything. Not the other. Not the sunlight, but the sunlight entrapped in the cloud” (John Gardner, The Sunlight Dialogues, Ballantine , 1973, 631). Not the sunlight, but the sunlight entrapped in the cloud!
At the very end of today’s Gospel we find a moment of “the sunlight entrapped in a cloud”: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”. Christmas is preeminently the celebration of the birth among us of one “who is close to the Father’s heart”. This is the ultimate communication. And it might get lost amidst the busy-ness and noise, the stress and materialism that accompanies Christmas time. It would be unfortunate at a time of gift-giving if we missed the greatest gift of all.
My suggestion is that we approach these days with a listening heart. Slow down. Be a little bit more deliberate. Be attentive – especially in the most stressful moments. God’s Word is constantly being spoken to you personally: “Will you let me love you?”