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2nd Sunday before Lent

26 January 2024

4 February, Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Psalm104.26-end; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14

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ONE scholar has compared theories about how John’s prologue was composed with attempting to iron a pleated garment in a way that makes the pleats go in another direction. I like that homely image. It expresses how we absorb the Fourth Gospel’s viewpoint, even though we cannot be sure which community produced it, or how it was compiled, or how it relates to other New Testament theologies. The moment we look behind what we know, trying to reconstruct origins, we are working against the grain. We can press and press the fabric, but the original configuration is still imprinted.

The prologue includes some powerful theological terms — “Word” (logos), “grace” (charis), “fullness” (pleroma, 1.16) — which are never mentioned again. Is this a sign that another hand has composed it? Or that the author of John’s Gospel is really a compiler of different sources? One suggestion is that it was a hymn that the Evangelist repurposed. That fuels further speculation about whether the “Logos/ Word” idea pre-existed the Christian faith.

If the prologue had a separate origin, that fact would not invalidate the Gospel’s truth. After all, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are not undermined by their separate infancy narratives. It would show only that Christians did then what Christians do now: gather evidence/ideas/signs, which express their experience of “God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5.19).

We must not lose sight of the fundamental power in John’s enigmatic prologue. It was not written to keep theologians on a gravy train of metaphysical speculation, but to speak plainly to its audience, as “good news”: as an introduction to the salvific story of Jesus Christ. Its purpose, in every verse, is proclaiming that good news.

We do not need to know the historical “how” and “why” of the prologue’s composition before we can make sense of it. It is sensible to take it as it seems: an introductory section, providing a divine context for the human Jesus, and directing how we “read” him from the moment of his first public action (being baptised: 1.29). Taking the text as we find it is not intellectually lazy: it is simply an admission that we have the document as Christians have encountered it from the end of the first century. In this form, they have found it to be both faithful and meaningful. And so can we.

When we read, in Paul’s letters, passages of rigorous and sometimes confusing theological argument, they confirm that early Christians, as well as later ones, went in for deep theological speculation. This included argument about the nature of God, his purpose and providence, his disclosure in sacred texts, and his means of communication with his creation and in human history. It is reasonable, then, that John includes some fruits of this early reflection. Then, his listeners and readers can join up what Paul mostly leaves as separate spheres: the earthly life of the human Jesus and the cosmic significance of the eternal Christ.

John reveals the nature of his Gospel — a sign of the new covenant — by echoing the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning”. In Genesis, the “beginning” referred to God’s initial act of making. In John, the “beginning” is a beginning of being. It comes before creation. The same simple verb is used three times (en: “was”), but each time it shifts allusively — from existence, to relationship, to description. In John’s Gospel, complex truths often hide within simple forms.

Both beginnings touch on darkness and light, and on things coming into being. But John quickly focuses his attention on humankind and human nature. Even if we found clinching proof that John the Baptist was a prosaic intrusion into the poetry of some hypothetical hymn, it would make no difference to the point of John the Evangelist’s placing him there. The so-called intrusion exists to put it beyond doubt that, however holy a human being could be, however truth-full his message, “he was not that light.” The true light is Christ, and none other. The calling of every holy human being is “to bear witness to that light”.

The message of this Gospel is so mind-bogglingly important, so ineffably precious, that I must express as plainly as possible what I believe to be its message. But wait: the Gospel has done that already. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

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