Christmas Day (III)

Words are limited unless they take concrete shape

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December 25, 2023

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Commentary on John 1:1-14

John’s audience would have been familiar with the first few words of the prologue, “In the beginning.” When they hear that phrase, they are immediately reminded of the book of Genesis, which narrates the creation story. The first chapter of Genesis intricately describes the beginning of creation when God turned chaos into an orderly form and brought the universe and all creatures into existence simply by uttering a word. The story articulates the creative power of the word and God’s engagement with the universe.

John’s point that the word became flesh should be read also in the backdrop of the Gnostic Christian traditions of John’s time that denigrated the suggestion of the divine taking the human form. From their perspective, because the flesh is inferior and possibly evil, the divine can never manifest itself in the form of flesh. Seen within this context, the story of the word becoming flesh forcefully counteracts the Gnostic worldview and ideas about flesh, and sanctifies the flesh.

John’s use of that phrase—“in the beginning”—in the prologue also reminds readers that God continues to act in history and engenders an anticipation of yet another divine intervention in human history, an intervention that will have immense significance for humanity. John reminds readers of the role of the word in the process of creation and of its life-giving power. The focus is no longer primarily on the process of creation or the creation itself, but on the journey of the word that brought the universe into existence. The word that created the universe now becomes the created and enters the universe.

As Gail O’Day and Susan Hylen helpfully observe, John is not yet using the word as a synonym for Jesus in the first two verses, but rather as a metaphor or a vehicle.1 The word is “God’s self-expression” and later Jesus’ self-expression as well. The word is a metaphor about God because it reveals the nature and attributes of God. Word becoming flesh has a theological and christological dimension. It also has an ecclesial and communal dimension.

On a theological level, in calling attention to the timelessness of the divine, John highlights how God remains consistent in a world that seems unstable and chaotic. The word that John describes is eternal and undefined by the confines of time, but the eternal seeks to dwell among us in a specific period of time. The text reveals the word’s ability to transcend time and manifest itself in various forms and contexts. The word is both eternal and particular. It is universal but simultaneously particular. The seemingly abstract word takes a concrete form in a specific time in human history.

The word becomes flesh through Christ and helpfully disrupts the human state of affairs. Just as God intervened amid chaos at the beginning of the universe, God again disrupts the status quo of business as usual. John is setting the stage for an introduction about how God placed God’s body on the line for the sake of people. It is a theological and christological introduction that speaks to the many aspects of Jesus’ mission in subsequent chapters in the gospel.

On an ecclesial level, the word becoming flesh suggests that declarations of commitment to justice actually need to take concrete shape, dwell among the victims and put one’s body on the line. Words have creative and transformative power, but solidarity can only occur when words become flesh and take concrete form. John will later introduce the various characters who respond in different ways to this paradigm.

There is Judas Iscariot who eloquently declares his commitment to the poor when he says, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages” (12:5). The narrator quickly clarifies that Judas was a thief who was only interested in serving his own interests. Implicitly, the narrator contrasts Judas with Jesus, who had already demonstrated his commitment to the poor. John had already noted how Jesus contrasted a good shepherd with a thief (John 10). The thief comes to steal and destroy, but Jesus is the good shepherd who will lay down his life for the sheep (John 10).

Later in the gospel, when Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, insists on putting his fingers where nails were and putting his hand in his side, Jesus shows him the parts of his body that bore marks of his bodily suffering and death on the cross. In doing so, he proves that he is not simply a great teacher who speaks eloquently about commitment to justice and solidarity, but he also puts his own body on the line for the sake of others.

Words have power—transformative power—but solidarity can only occur when it takes its bodily form and identifies with people and dwells with them in their lived contexts. The text is about the power of words but also about how words are limited unless they take concrete shape. The introduction of John the Baptist as a witness illustrates this point well. John bore witness to the nature and mission of Jesus through his words, but ultimately he placed his body on the line. The Greek verb martureo, which is generally translated as “witness,” implies that witnessing to truth is a dangerous task and often exacts a bodily price such as John paid with his life.

On yet another level, John’s prologue calls attention to how one might choose to deploy the power of words. Words have an amazing ability to breathe life into people and can rejuvenate people and communities during critical moments. But if and when words are misused, they can cause significant harm. In these polarized times, John’s powerful introduction to Jesus calls us to be attentive to how we employ words and toward what end.

How will John’s readers respond to this insightful prologue that seems abstract on some level but is very down-to-earth? Will they simply theologize and articulate great words about solidarity with the powerless, or will they translate words into actualized witness? Will they use words that give life to others rather than those that cause harm?


  1. Gal O’Day and Susan Hylen, John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 26-27.