Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Word Made Flesh

The Christmas season (which does not end with Christmas day but continues until the Epiphany on January 6th) is a time to ponder the glory of the incarnation. There are few passages of scripture that can help us contemplate this mystery better than John 1:1-18. This passage serves as a prologue or a kind of overture to John's gospel as he alludes here to many of the major themes on which he will elaborate in the chapters that follow.

Of course, as a gospel, one of the book's major themes is christology; that is, to explain who Jesus is. John wastes no time in doing exactly that. Immediately, he introduces Jesus as "the Word" or "logos" in Greek. This term was used extensively in both Greek and Jewish philosophical discussions about God leading up to the time of John's writing. While scholars debate which, if any, of those philosophical notions John is drawing upon here to describe Christ, it can at least be said that John wishes to make the point that Christ is the one who reveals the one true God just as God's word had been his revelation to Israel in the past. Therefore, by designating Jesus as "the Word", John is proclaiming that Jesus is now the revelation of God.

However, John also wishes to make clear that Jesus does not reveal God in the same way that the Law or the prophets revealed God. Jesus is not simply a messenger sent by God. John proclaimes that Jesus is God himself by saying that he existed from the beginning and was always with God and is himself, God (v.1). John has simultaneously distinguished Jesus from God by designating him as "the Word" rather than simply as God but has also resolutely identified Jesus with God by saying that "the Word was God". Therefore, this first verse in the Gospel of John is a forerunner to the doctrine of the Trinity which the Church would not completely spell out until 321 A.D. at the Council of Nicea.

However, even this nuanced statement about "the Word" does not capture everything John wishes to tell us about Jesus. John says in v.14 that this Word also became flesh and dwelt among us. This is perhaps the most remarkable statement of all. The word translated in this verse as "dwelt" is the same root word that the Greek Old Testament (also known as the Septuagint) uses to describe the tabernacle (or tent) in which God traveled with the Israelites before Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, John is saying that in Jesus God has tabernacled among us. God has made human flesh his dwelling place in the way that the tabernacle and the Temple had previously been. Jesus is the full revelation of the God who has made himself present among us.

John uses other metaphors in this prologue that will extend throughout his Gospel as well; primarily those of light and life. Of course, it is fitting to think of these metaphors along with the incarnation of God in human flesh for wherever God's presence goes there darkness will be driven away, what was previously hidden will be exposed to the light, and life will reign. Despite the presence of God's light in the world, John tells us that not everyone recognized Jesus as the light. In fact, many people, even his own people rejected him.

Scattered throughout this intense theological discussion of light and life and the God who has become flesh are intermittent references to John the baptist. In some ways this is to be expected since the other three gospels also mention John near the beginning of the story. However, these mentions of John in v.6-7 and v.15 seem out of place to me. It seems like this passage would read much more smoothly and coherently if these references to the baptist were simply taken out and placed somewhere after v. 19.

Nevertheless, I have to imagine that John the gospel writer had some reason to include these snippets about John the baptist where he did. If nothing else, perhaps these references are placed within the discussion about the Word just to draw a sharper contrast between them. Maybe John wants to proclaim as distinctly as he can that even though John and Jesus are both prophets from God, they are in no way equal. Although Jesus was truly human, there is some sense in which John and Jesus do not exist on the same plane of existence. Both historically and as a literary device in the Gospel of John, John the baptist serves only as a witness to the light. He is not the light himself.

In this way, John the baptist probably serves as a much needed model for the Church today. We likely need to repeat this mantra to ourselves: "We are not the light. We are witnesses to the light." Too often, churches today exist soley for themselves and don't witness or point to anything other than their own growth. Instead, we should have a prophetic voice like John's which constantly points people to the one who is greater than we are. The Church is not going to solve all the world's problems or enforce God's will in the world. We were never meant to do that. We are only meant to be an icon, an embodied witness to the God who loves us so intensely that he took on our own flesh and dwelt among us.

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