St. John’s Christmas Sermon
I would like to take the opportunity this Christmas season to reflect, however inadequately, on one of the most magnificent passages in the Scriptures, indeed one of the gems of the Western literary tradition: the prologue to the Gospel of John. In many ways, the essential meaning of Christmas is contained in these elegantly crafted lines.
John commences: “In the beginning was the Word…” No first century Jew would have missed the significance of that opening phrase, for the first word of the Hebrew Scriptures, bereshit, means precisely “beginning.” The evangelist is signaling that the story he will unfold is the tale of a new creation, a new beginning. The Word, he tells us, was not only with God from the beginning, but indeed was God. Whenever we use words, we express something of ourselves. For example, as I type these words, I’m telling you what I know about the prologue to the Johannine Gospel; when you speak to a friend, you’re telling him or her how you feel or what you’re afraid of; when an umpire shouts out a call, he’s communicating how he has assessed a play, etc. But God, the sheer act of being itself, the perfect Creator of the universe, is able utterly to speak himself in one great Word, a Word that does not simply contain an aspect of his being but rather the whole of his being. This is why we say that the Word is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God;” and this is why St. John says that the Word was God.
Then we hear that through this Word “all things came to be.” The Logos of God would necessarily contain the fullness of rationality and order, for he is nothing other than the mind of God. Hence when the Father made the universe, he “consulted” the Son, the way that an artist might consult a preliminary draft or an architect a diagram. The Word is the prototype in which all forms of reasonable structure are implicitly present. And this is precisely why the universe is not dumbly there but intelligibly there, why it is marked, in every nook and cranny, by reasonability. As I have argued elsewhere, this mystical theology of creation through the Word is one of the conditions for the possibility of the physical sciences, for every scientist must assume the intelligibility of what she investigates.
Next, we are told of a “man sent by God” whose name was John. The Baptist came, St. John tells us, “as a witness to speak for the light,” for he was not, himself, the light. From time immemorial, God has sent messengers, spokespersons. Think of all of the prophets and patriarchs of Israel, indeed of every sage, philosopher, artist, or poet who has communicated something of God’s truth and beauty. All of these could be characterized as witnesses to the light. The point is that the one to whom the Baptist bears witness is someone qualitatively different, not one more bearer of the Word, however impressive, but the Word himself. What is being held off here is the tendency—as prevalent today as in the ancient world—to domesticate Jesus and turn him into one more in a long line of prophets and seers.
“He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him.” In that pithily crafted line, we sense the whole tragedy of sin. Human beings were made by and for the Logos and therefore they find their joy in a sort of sympathetic attunement to the Logos. Sin is the disharmony that comes when we fall out of alignment with God’s reasonable purpose. But then comes the incomparably good news: “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” It is a basic principle of nature that nothing at a lower level of being can rise to a higher level unless it is drawn upward. A chemical can become part of a more complex structure only if it is assimilated by a plant; a plant can become ingredient in a sentient nature only if it is devoured by an animal; an animal can participate in rationality only if it is taken in by a human being. By this same principle, a human being can become something higher, not through his own efforts, but only when a superior reality assimilates him. The Church fathers consistently taught that God became human so that humans might become God, which is to say, participants in the divine nature. In a word, we can become children of God precisely because God reached down to us and became a son of man.
The entire prologue comes to its climax with the magnificent phrase, “the Word was made flesh and lived among us.” The gnostic temptation has tugged at the Church, on and off, for nearly the past two thousand years. This is the suggestion, common to all forms of puritanism, that the spiritual is attained through a negation of the material. But authetic Christianity, inspired by this stunning claim of St. John, has consistently held off gnostism, for it knows that the Word of God took to himself a human nature and thereby elevated all of matter and made it a sacrament of the divine presence.
The Greek phrase behind “lived among us” is literally translated as “tabernacled among us” or “pitched his tent among us.” No Jew of John’s time would have missed the wonderful connection implied between Jesus and the temple. According to the book of Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant—the embodiment of Yahweh’s presence—was originally housed in a tent or tabernacle. The evangelist is telling us that now, in the flesh of Jesus, Yahweh has established his definitive tabernacle among us.
All of this sublime theology is John the Evangelist’s great Christmas sermon. I would invite you to return to it often this season in prayer and meditation.