THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD
Isaiah 52: 7-10; Hebrews 1: 1-6;
John 1: 1-18 (Or John 1: 1-5, 9-14)
by Jude Siciliano, OP
John wrote his gospel for the majority Greek Christian audience that characterized the late first century church. When he wrote the Gospel message had spread well beyond its first local Jewish community. You can imagine the difficulty John faced since he could not draw upon the Jewish traditional hope for the messiah. Thus, he had to reflect on the beliefs about Jesus the first Jewish converts had and figure out a way to address his Greek readers. His resolved his difficulty by drawing upon what he found in the Jewish tradition that might speak to Greek believers: the Jewish notion of word, and in particular, the Word of God. For the Jews, God’s word is active and dynamic. As we see in the beginning of Genesis, the Word is the source of creation. For people in the East, once a word is spoken, it has a life of their own. Remember the blind Isaac giving a blessing to Jacob, thinking he was really blessing Esau? Even though the fraud was discovered, once the word of blessing was spoken it had an independent existence and could not be taken back. In later Jewish writing the term "word of God" became synonymous for God. A devout Jew hearing the term "word of God" would think "God." Similarly in Jewish Wisdom literature, Wisdom was also identified with God, and was used in the way God’s Word is – as active, creative and life giving.
When John looked at Greek thought for a parallel to the Jewish sense of Word and Wisdom, he found the notion of "Logos." It is translated in today’s gospel as Word. For the Greeks, Logos meant Word, or Reason, in the same way the Hebrew texts speak of Word and Wisdom. The Greeks had developed a philosophy of the Logos. For them it was the ordering principle of the world, the pattern for all created things. All had life and design through the Logos, which controlled all living things. Thus, John could address a Greek Christian in terms of the Logos, but still be faithful to the Jewish roots that spoke about the Word of God.
Some years ago I had an opportunity to visit the underground War Rooms in London. In these bunkers deep below the central London streets, Winston Churchill and his councillors devised and conducted the war strategy for the embattled British people. It was also in this place that Churchill wrote and broadcast his stirring speeches to the English citizens suffering, along with Churchill and his colleagues, the awful Nazi blitz. During England’s darkest hour these speeches did much to keep British spirits from collapsing under the awful pounding of the bombs. No one hearing these words could doubt the power of words to revive and even create life in the human spirit. We have tended to doubt the promises many politicians make during their campaigns, labeling their speeches as empty words. We have also doubted words we hear daily, like the promises about dishwashing detergents advertized on television. But we still have enough encounters with the effects of words to know how powerful they can be. Just ask the surviving British people who remember Churchill’s words, or those here in our country who found Martin Luther King’s words so life-giving during the struggle for civil rights. In these experiences and others like them, we get some sense of what John is saying when he says, "the Word was God," and "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."
Recall how the other evangelists begin their gospels. Matthew first gives Jesus’ genealogy, locating him in a Jewish–Davidic lineage. Mark starts with John the Baptist’s preparation for "the One more powerful than I" (1:7). While Luke begins with the Infancy narrative. John’s beginning is very distinctive; in the Prologue to his Gospel we heard today he takes us back before creation. The two opening verses repeat four times "was" – the Word was in timeless existence; was in relationship to God and was God. John first uses the past tense, "was," to indicate the pre-existence and pre-eminence of the Word. But notice how he shifts to the present tense, (verse 5), "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it." All of creation came through the Word, it is the source of life and has come to bring light where sin has caused darkness.
John is not just speaking about the past. After he establishes the power and authority of the Word, he makes it clear that God has not stopped speaking the light-bearing Word, "light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it." Don’t we need this Word’s creative power and light in our world? What feels old, tired, violently shaken, discouraging, and "under the shadow of death," is still being addressed by God through the Word. The Word’s entering our world and taking flesh among us did not happen just two thousand years ago. Today we don’t just celebrate a 2000 year old birthday. Rather, the Word continues to take flesh among us today and, despite the devastating effects of darkness in our world – as I write this, the newspapers today speak of the threat of starvation for millions of people in Afghanistan, and the ongoing darkness the pandemic casts throughout the world. Nevertheless, God’s light will not be overcome.
John’s Greek hearers, receiving this message about the divine Logos, would believe that God would never let us be overcome by chaos and the disorder caused by sin. The Jewish Christians hearing this message about God’s Word, would be assured that the very source of creation is still at work to bring light where darkness seems to hold sway. Whether of Greek or Jewish origin the faithful hearer knows that God dwells within us and joins our struggles to overcome forces that have their origin in our human deviation from God’s message and plan for us.
Since we are soon to begin a new year and may be wondering what new year’s resolution to make, John might be suggesting one to us today. In the light of the power of the Word, and the reminder that the Word’s taking flesh is present tense, we might resolve to a more attentive and disciplined listening to the Word of God. There are many places God speaks to us, but our touchstone for the Word is the Bible. What about a new year’s resolution to be more faithful and prayerful in our reading of Scripture? If the parish publishes next Sunday’s readings in the bulletin then a daily ten or fifteen minutes’ reflection on one of those readings each day holds a life-giving promise for us as we enter the new year.
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