Commentary on John 1:1-14
When I served a two-point rural parish, we held the Christmas Eve service in one church and Christmas Day in the other.
I loved the change in tenor as we moved from the hoopla and mystery of the Eve with emotions running high in the darkness of night to a more normal-feeling worship in late morning Christmas Day. It seemed as if we had concluded a long and brilliant novel that came to a climax on the Eve and returned to earth again (the denouement in literary terms) on Christmas Day. Everyone was more subdued. The pressure was off. Christmas Day was a big sigh.
And yet, the Gospel reading for the Nativity of Our Lord III, Christmas Day, contains all of the most difficult theological assertions Christians ever hear. John 1:1-14 asks us to believe in the unbelievable notion that God became human. More than that, it says that Jesus existed before time began, before anything was anywhere. Jesus was “in the beginning … ” and we don’t know when that was or where or how time began except for the faith that God created with breath and love.
This short passage assures the unity of all things, but it also introduces the idea that disunity exists in the midst of unity. Unity and disunity are, so to speak, hand-in-glove — paradoxes locked together.
- Unity: What came into being was brought into being “in him.” “He was in the world (the cosmos) … ” “He came to what was his own … ” We can say this two ways: the Word — the Beloved, Jesus — is in the world, and the world is in Jesus.
- Disunity: Light “shines in darkness … darkness did not overcome it … ” The text suggests that light and dark oppose each other. Darkness is capable of “overcoming” the light, even though the light does not allow that to happen.
We sing this paradox in hymns like “Holy God, Holy and Glorious” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #637). Here are verses 4 and 5 which sing of wisdom as folly and living by dying:
Holy God, holy and only wise,
wisdom of great price,
you choose the way of folly:
God the crucified,
and we behold your wisdom.
Holy God, holy and living one,
life that never ends,
you show your love by dying,
dying for your friends,
and we behold you living.
Paradox names the conundrum of the incarnation. The risen one is the crux of the trinity by the birth of the divine as flesh and blood.
A translation from The Inclusive Bible1 emphasizes the conjunction of the one who was born of Mary and the Word: “The Word was present to God from the beginning.” (John 1:2) “Through the Word all things came into being … ” (John 1:3) “Though the Word came to its own realm, the Word’s own people didn’t accept it.” (John 1:6) Instead of referring to the Word as the man Jesus, using the male pronoun (in both NRSV and Inclusive translations, “Word” is from the Greek logos), this language engages our imaginations with the expansive “truly divine” side of Jesus’ identity.
The incarnation is the stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23) because it is inconceivable that the infinite can be contained by the finite. How can stars fit in a quart jar? Dear Martin Luther helps us to see the inhabitation John’s prologue announces:
God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it. He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attended clearly and mightily in Holy Writ … For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, over a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? … His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself; yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it.2
In the Isaiah reading and in Hebrews, this huge dichotomy — God-beyond and God-within — is stressed. Both truths are key assertions at Christmas because, as we celebrate one part of the majesty of Christ on this day — the birth — we cannot fathom its importance without its inconceivable enormity.
The primary message of these texts on this day when much of the world is glowing (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear) is the incredible end to dualism. God has inhabited our Earth, our flesh. We have cause to look around us with awe. We have reason to be flattened with admiration for the creator when we simply stand in the rain or bite into a carrot or hold someone’s hand. It is all miracle — not only that we are here to behold this marvel but that God’s own presence attends our every breath.
How might we, then, treat each other differently? How might we comprehend the value of trees and minerals and water? What laws might we impose on ourselves to do honor to our awe of Earth and the universe? What limits might we want to make on our human greed in gratitude for God’s unthinkable self-giving?
1 Priests for Equality, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007).
2 Martin Luther, “That These Words of Christ..,” in LW, vol. 57 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 57f.