1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
1:2 He was in the beginning with God.
1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being
1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
1:11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
1:14 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.
A Question or Two:
- What might it mean to say “the Word was God?”
- What is it that makes “Word” and Deity somehow compatible?
Some Longer Reflections:
The beginning of the gospel of John is loaded with Loaded Words: Beginning, Word, Life, Light, Darkness, World, and Flesh, to choose a few.
Each of them needs a capital letter or it looks wrong. And most of them (as is the case with all loaded words with capital letters) mean more than will fit into any single translation.
The first word, ἀρχῇ, is the ordinary word for “beginning.”
But nothing in John’s story, especially not the ordinary stuff, is ordinary. The word ἀρχῇ shows up as a root in “archaeology,” which is the study of artifacts from the deep past, the beginning of human life and society. So the notion of “beginning” is tied up in notions of things that are very old. But we study archaeology because we imagine that human beginnings teach us something about the human present. Archaeologists, if you listen carefully, are always finding links between the things that human beings cannot stop doing and artifacts that reveal the first time human beings did that particular thing. We grow crops; we build shelters; we use language; we paint. All of these things are studied by those people who study beginnings, and what they discover about beginnings sheds light on human life now. At least we expect it to.
The second word, λόγος, means “word,” of course, but it also means “logical principle.”
In ordinary usage, it can mean “story,” which makes sense, since stories, in order to make sense, need some kind of narrative logic. In a Jewish text it also means Torah, which also makes accumulating sense, since most of Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is narrative, and since the logical principle of the universe is Torah.
Life, ζωὴ in Greek, is next.
The Greek word gives us “zoology,” which is not the study of zoos, but also is not the study of human beings. The Greek word is thus broader than the English derivative, but the development of the root in English reveals something worth noting. The Life that came into being through the Word appears to include animal life. At least the word ζωὴ does not exclude that life. This fits with patterns seen (but not often commented upon) in Jewish Scripture, where God’s breath makes a human being into a nephesh chayah, which has been translated on occasion as “a living soul.” The same word, nephesh (translated as “soul”), is used in other passages to name the Life of animals.
This Life is identified with Light, φῶς, from which root English grew the word, photography, which refers to writing with light.
This Light, we are told, shines in the Dark and is not overcome. This truth can be confirmed by standing outside, especially on one of these longest, darkest nights of the year, and looking at the stars that speckle the sky. The Dark does not extinguish the Light, it does not even threaten it. In fact, the thing that makes it difficult to see the light of the stars at the other side of the universe is not the Dark, but the light of the town in which I live. Dark actually helps our seeing, because it makes the light stand out. Though John’s storyteller knew nothing of this, it is worth reflecting on how Light connects us to the actual other side of the universe. In the vast Dark of space, light comes to our eyes across lightyears of space, allowing us to see not just across vast distances, but also into vast depths of time. This is especially true if you look at photographs written with light from huge telescopes. These photographs tell us the story of light from stars that may very well have long ago burned out, stars that write the story of the very beginning of the universe.
The word for “world” is much more interesting in Greek than in English.
The word κόσμος gives us the word “cosmos,” which (to my ear) suggests the vastness of space. But it also gives us the word “cosmetologist.” The Greek word is more interested in the beauty of the universe than in its vastness. You can see this also if you look at photographs write with the aid of the Hubble telescope. Galaxies and nebulae, gas clouds and varieties of stars, all stir awe even as they remind us that these beautiful things are actually places so far away that human beings will never go there. That has not stopped us from telling stories (mostly in the form of science fiction and fantasy) of human events transported to these places impossibly far away. If you read such fiction, you will have noticed that we tell such stories in order to imagine bigger, brighter, darker, stronger, and weaker things than other fiction generally allows us.
The last word (for now) is Flesh, σὰρξ, is similarly loaded, but in (somehow) the opposite way.
This shows up best in Hebrew and in texts in Greek that are still dreaming in Hebrew. And John clearly has a Jewish imagination. In Jewish Scripture, any talk of Flesh is also talking about Body. This is true here in the beginning of John’s story. The λόγος, the organizing principle of the universe, the Light that links us to all of Space and all of Time, the link that allows our imaginations to reach beyond, always beyond, that λόγος becomes a Body. A body. A single, limited body, defined by its location in one place at one time, known by its individual particularity and by its resemblance to every other body (every-body) in its family, evidence of its genetic bondage to them. Bodies grow taller and then shrink as the pads between their particular vertebrae shrink. Bodies grow older and can never reverse this process. And because the particular cells that make up any particular body have a limited lifespan, bodies die. All of them, whether they had an origin (ἀρχῇ) as the logic (λόγος) of the universe, spanned by light (φῶς) shining in the darkness of the beautiful cosmos, all of them die. Bodies die because they are fragile.
That may be the most important Christmas reflection out of this beginning of John’s story for this year.
Bodies die because they are fragile. This is true when cities like Aleppo are destroyed in raging warfare. This is true when drinking water is contaminated by yet another “completely unlikely” oil spill. This is true when another ordinary disease weakens and finally kills another ordinary body, even when that ordinary body is a mother or a grandfather or a newborn baby.
John’s story does not have a manger, or a baby Jesus to be placed in that manger. But John’s story has a body. An ordinary body, a son, to be clear. And it is this ordinary body, not the universe-spanning Light, that lets us see glory. Look carefully at the translation above. The glory that we see in this translation (unlike other, older translations) is not the glory of “the only Son of the Father.” It is the glory of a father’s only son. An ordinary father. An ordinary son.
There is something about the fragile, ordinary particularity of the Incarnation that may need extra reflection this Christmas. The glory at the beginning of John’s gospel is a fragile glory, rooted in our astonishment at the birth of our children and at the death of our parents.
We have been reminded of our fragility lately, and of how ordinary we are. The problems we face are going to be solved, not by Superheroes that guard the entire Universe. The problems that we all have to solve, the problems worth thinking about at Christmas, are problems that call for ordinary people who solve the particular part of our problems that they can reach, the part that they have any chance of understanding.
This is what the Incarnation suggests this year at Christmas.