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Christmas According to John

Posted on: December 20, 2020

Category: Theology

Christmas According to John
When it comes to Christmas and the birth of Jesus, my favourite gospel is Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew has four interesting women in the genealogy of Jesus, and Matthew knows that Jesus has an unknown father. These two elements make the birth of Jesus in Matthew fascinating. Sometimes I like Luke with the joke about the Shepherds in a barren field receiving unbelievable news that no one hears. I rarely turn to John, which is a peculiar gospel that holds no birth of Jesus story at all.

The Gospel of John starts not with the birth of Jesus but with a hymn about the Word. The Greek for “word” is logos; John starts with a hymn about the Logos. “In the beginning was the Word” is how most English Bibles translate the Greek, but the profound nature of the Greek does not always come across. The “beginning” is “arche” (αρχή) in Greek. It’s not only the start of something; it holds the sense of the model of something, the principle or originating power. In ancient Greek thought, when we go back to the beginning of something we are going back to perfection, to what something is in its pure form.

When the writer of the Gospel of John says, “in the beginning,” it is not really a phrase that says, “when things started.” The phrase carries the meaning of when things were pure being. We could translate the gospel opening to say, “when the world was perfect,” which implies the Genesis account of creation when God brings order to everything “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).

The second important word is the “Logos” or Word (usually capitalized). When John writes, “In the beginning was the Word,” the meaning is that at the very start there was order. The Logos or Word is the order of the universe. Even more than “order,” it is the content of sensible things. In Greek thought, everything that exists has within it the remnants of the Logos. The degree to which the Logos is in things is the same degree to which things are ordered or chaotic, true or false. The more Logos, the more perfect.

The opening lines of the Gospel of John are usually thought to be a later addition to the gospel by another hand. The inspiration might be the opening of Genesis or the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8:22. It is possible the opening lines are inspired by the secular philosophy of the day. Regardless of how this prologue of John came about, it is the only form of a birth story in the gospel.

There are two things that happen in the prologue. One is that the Word becomes flesh, and the second is that the world does not recognize that the Word has become flesh. When John relays that the Word became flesh, the meaning is that in Jesus is the perfection (the Logos) of humanity. It’s really an expression of the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. We are all supposed to be “Jesus” because he is the Logos from the beginning appearing in human form. He is what human beings are meant to be. I think this is somewhat important to underline. The Gospel of John does not give us a Jesus who is completely beyond us. The Jesus of John is who we were born to be in the beginning.

The problem for John is that the world does not get it. So all around us is darkness, which here means distortion, of what is meant to be from the beginning. If we think about the distortion of the Logos and what that means, we start to understand these opening words from the gospel. Distortion means that love becomes impossible. The distortion of the Logos, in John, means that the voice of love is not heard. Furthermore, distortion in John means not only that the voice of love is not heard but that the power of love is misdirected. Love moves from “loving others” to the distortion of “loving the self.” It is the jealousy of others over Jesus, in John, that results in the death of Jesus. This is quite different from the synoptic gospels where Jesus is perceived as a threat to Roman imperial power. In John, this threat is not present. Instead, the distortion of divine love causes the death of Jesus.

The Gospel of John has no birth of Jesus scene, no particular time for the birth, and no announcement of good news for the poor. It does not make a great gospel for Christmas. (Perhaps one could put an ornament on the Christmas tree simply stating “Logos.”)

Nevertheless, John does have a message for Christmas: if ego-centric love is the motivation for our lives, there will never be good news for the earth. The heart of the good news is a divine love that is the true nature of the world. In John, divine love is what has always been and what is always meant to be.

©By David Galston

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