Seventh day in the Octave of Christmas, 31 December – Gospel


Commentary on John 1:1-18

There are three occasions when we read the Prologue of John’s gospel during the Christmas season. The first is at the Daytime Mass on Christmas Day, the second on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas and today, New Year’s Eve.

This magnificent passage provides a powerful opening to this gospel. It lays out the main themes of John’s gospel – Life, Light, Truth, the World, Testimony and the Pre-existence of Jesus Christ. He is the Incarnate Logos or Word, who reveals God the Father to us. It was originally probably an early Christian hymn and parallels closely two other great hymns quoted in the Pauline letters – one in the Letter to the Colossians and the other in the Letter to the Philippians. All speak of Jesus’ special relationship to God as his Father.

Its opening words are the same as the very first words in the Old Testament, “In the beginning…” But, whereas Genesis is really speaking of the beginning of our created universe, John goes back much further to the infinite beginnings of God himself. And in those beginnings we find the Word already existing. The Word was in a close relationship with God and the Word was of the very same nature as God.

The term ‘Word’ has a number of inter-related meanings. For us a word can indicate a person (man, woman…) or a thing (house, table…). But here Word indicates an active and creative word (somewhat akin to the power a great work of art can express). The Word as distinct from the Father is also seen as the instrument through which God creates (“All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be”). And Word also points to God as the ultimate source of all meaning and reality. Jesus then is the Word of God, God’s self-communication – through him the world came into being and through him we are led to God as the source of all meaning for our lives. That meaning is totally beyond the power of our human minds but Jesus opens the door a little for us to see more than we could manage on our own.

The two great gifts that come to us through the Word are Life and Light. Later Jesus will say, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life” and “I AM the Bread of Life” and he will also say, “I AM the Light of the world.”

The Light that is Christ shines in the darkness of our world. It is a light that cannot be overcome because it represents the ultimate values of Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Justice and Love, Compassion and Fellowship, Freedom and Peace.

The coming of the Light was prepared for by John the Baptist. He had been sent by God, just as Jesus himself is sent by his Father. John himself was not the Light but gave witness to the Light. In addition to John, there are many testimonies to Jesus: the Samaritan woman, the Scriptures, Jesus’ works, the crowds, the Spirit and his own disciples. And, finally, we might add – each one of us.

Jesus was fully inserted in the world, the world which owes its very existence to him and yet it did not know him. ‘Know’ in the sense of not recognising him or acknowledging him to be what he really is. The Gospel also records, surely with sadness, that the Word came to “what was his own”, namely, Israel but his own people did not accept him. That, of course, is a generalised statement because there were many, including all the first followers of Jesus, who were Israelites. But the leadership by and large (again with exceptions like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea) did not accept him and even was instrumental in his death.

Those, however, who did accept the Word were given the power to become children of God. As such they are brothers and sisters of Jesus the Word. And this does not happen simply by natural birth or because they were born into a particular community but by the choice of God. A Jew was someone born of Jewish parents and circumcised and who chose to observe the Law.

Then comes the dramatic statement: “the Word became flesh”. The Word took on our human nature in all its fullness. He did not have, as some people believed, just the external appearance of a human but was through and through a man “like us in all things”. And he lived right among us. The Greek term literally means he “pitched his tent or tabernacle”. In the Old Testament God was believed to be present to his people in the Tent of Meeting. The Word in his humanity is the new presence of God among us. And we might add here that in our times the Christian community, as the Body of the Risen Christ, is now the tabernacle of Jesus’ presence in the world.

And then ” we saw his glory”, namely, the glory of God’s visible manifestation of his power, which formerly filled the tabernacle and the Temple, is now found in the Incarnate Word, Jesus, God’s only Son. It is a presence “full of grace and truth”. ‘Grace’ is the love of God as experienced in our lives and ‘Truth’ is that wholeness and integrity which reflects the deepest values we associate with God.

And now, “from his fullness we have all received”. That is the fullness of Grace and Truth, of which we are given a share, a share which we hope will grow with time. It is “grace in place of grace”. The grace of the Old Covenant is now replaced with the richer grace of the New. Or it is “grace upon grace” as the grace of the Old Covenant is enriched by the grace of the New.

Obviously, the text is very rich and dense and needs a lot of reflection, more than can be shared in a brief homily. And, as I have said, the same message is really given by Luke in his more down-to-earth story of the conception and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In truth, the two passages complement and enrich each other.

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