2nd Sunday of Christmas
2nd SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
The Word became flesh
Authors place emphasis on the first page of their books to give the reader a bird’s-eye view of their work. The page does not only say that it is pleasant and attractive material to read but it also sets the tone and prepares the reader to comprehend what is to come. The first page should highlight the key features of the book to whet the interest and curiosity of the reader.
To introduce his Gospel, John composes a sublime hymn, so high as to merit him, rightly, the title of ‘eagle’among the evangelists. In this prologue, as in the overture of a symphony, we will try to identify the reasons (to be further developed in subsequent chapters): Jesus—sent by the Father, source of life, light of the world, full of grace and truth, the only Son in whom the glory of the Father is revealed.
In the first stanza (vv. 1-5), John seems to take off into an image dear to Wisdom and Rabbinic literature: The ‘Wisdom of God’ depicted as a beautiful and delightful woman. Here’s how ‘Wisdom’ introduces herself in the book of Proverbs: “The Lord created me first at the beginning of his works … The abyss did not exist when I was born … The mountains were not yet set in their place, nor the hills when I was born … I was there when he made the skies … when he made the sea with its limits … when he laid the foundation of the earth, I was close beside him” (Pro 8:22-29). This is personified in the book of Sirach, which states that Wisdom embodied herself in the Torah, the Law, and set up her tent in Israel (Sir 24:3-8,22).
John knew these texts well and—perhaps even with a little polemic against Judaism—adopts them and applies them to Jesus, who, according to him, is the ‘Wisdom of God’ who came to make his dwelling among us. It is Jesus, and not the Mosaic law, who reveals to the people the face of God and His will. He is the Word, the last and final Word of God. He is the same Word by which God, in the beginning, created the world.
Moreover, unlike the personified Wisdom (Sir 24:9), the Word of God—in that Jesus became flesh—has not been created, but ‘was’ with God, existed from eternity. For Israel, Wisdom is “a tree of life to those who claspit” (Pro 3:18). John makes it clear: The Wisdom of God manifested itself fully in the historical person of Jesus. He is no longer the law, but the source of life.
The coming of this Word into the world divides history into two eras—before and after Christ; darkness before (without him), light after (in his presence). The Word that, like a sword, penetrates deep into everyperson and separates within him the ‘son of light’ and the ‘child of darkness.’ The darkness will try tooverpower the light, but will not succeed. Even the negative human response will be suffocated and, eventually, the light will prevail in the hearts of each one of us.
The second stanza (vv. 6-8) is the first interlude introducing the figure of John the Baptist. It does not say that ‘he was with God.’ John is just a man raised up by God for a mission. He was to be a witness to the light. His role is so important that it is mentioned three times in just two verses. He was not that light, but was able to recognize the true light and to point out him to one and all.
The third stanza (vv. 9-13) develops the theme of Christ—the light and the people’s response to his appearance in the world. The hymn opens with a cry of joy: “The true light was coming to the world.” Jesus is the true light, as opposed to the illusory glitters, wisps, mirages, and the misleading glow projected by the wisdom of the people.
A lament immediately contradicts this enthusiastic cry: “The world did not know him.” It is the rejection, opposition, and shutting out of the light. People love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil (Jn3:19). Not even the Israelites— “his own people”—welcome him. Yet they would have recognized in Jesus the ultimate manifestation, the embodiment of the ‘Wisdom of God’, the wisdom that “among all the people had sought a resting place in which to settle,” and in Israel, she had found her home. The Creator of the universe had given her this order: “Pitch your tent in Jacob; Israel will be your homeland” (Sir 24:7-8).
The rejection of light and life by people, even the most prepared and well-disposed, is surprising. Jesus, too, will one day be surprised by his own countrymen’s incredulity (Mk 6:6). This means the light that comes from above is not imposed, does no violence, leaves free but places people before an inescapable decision: they must choose between “blessing and curse” (Dt 11:27-28), between “life and death” (Dt 30:15).
The verse ends with the joyful vision of those who believed in the light. Believing does not mean giving one’s own intellectual approval to a package of truths, but accepting a person, the ‘Wisdom of God’, who identifies himself with Jesus. To those who trust in him shall be granted an unheard of ‘right’: to become the children of God. It is the rebirth from above, of which Jesus will speak to Nicodemus (Jn 3:3), a rebirth that has nothing to do with natural birth linked to sexuality, to the will of man. In a nutshell, the generation that comes from God is of another order; it is the work of the Spirit.
The fourth stanza (v. 14) “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” is the highlight of this prologue. This is the Gospel’s words we will listen to on our knees. The first Christians are still full of admiration about the mystery of God, who for love strips himself of His glory, empties Himself, and takes up His abode under our tent.
‘Flesh’, in biblical language, connotes the human in his appearance of being weak, fragile, and perishable. One senses here the dramatic contrast between “flesh” and “Word of God,” expressed so effectively in the famous passage from Isaiah: “All flesh is grass and all its beauty as the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will forever stand” (Is 40:6-8).
When John says that the “Word” became flesh, he does not simply state that Jesus took a mortal body, overlaid with muscles, but that he became one of us. It means becoming like us in everything, including feelings, passions, emotions, cultural conditioning, fatigue, ignorance—yes, also temptation, and inner conflicts, exactly like us in all things but sin.
“And we have seen his glory.” The Biblical man was aware that the human eye is unable to see God. One may only contemplate his ‘glory’—that is, the signs of his presence, his works, his acts of power in favor of his people. “I will have glory at the expense of Pharaoh, his army, his chariots, and horsemen” (Ex 14:18).
The expressions filled with intense emotion in the First Letter of John are echoed in this phrase of the prologue: “That which has been from the beginning, and what we have heard and have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, I mean the Word who is life … The Life made itself known, we have seen Eternal Life and we bear witness, and we are telling you of it. It was with the Father and made himself known to us. So, we tell you what we have seen and heard, that you may be in fellowship with us, and us, with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. And we write this that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn1:1-4). Here, John speaks in the plural, because he intends to report the experience of the Christians of hiscommunity. With the eyes of faith, they are able to grasp—beyond the veil of the “flesh” of Jesus, humiliatedand crucified—the face of God.
The Lord has often manifested His glory with signs and wonders, but he never revealed himself so clearly as in his “only begotten Son, full of grace and truth.” “Grace and Truth” is a biblical expression to imply ‘faithful love’. We find it in the Old Testament, when the Lord appears to Moses as “the God full of pity and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in truth and loving kindness” (Ex 34:6). The fullness of God’s faithful love is present in Jesus. He is the irrefutable proof that nothing can overwhelm the goodness of God.
The fifth stanza (v. 15) is the second interlude. The Baptist reappears, and this time he speaks in the present. He ‘testifies’ on behalf of Jesus; he ‘shouts’ to people of all times that He is unique.
The sixth stanza (vv. 16-18) is a song of joy, representing the community’s overflowing gratitude to God for the incomparable gift received. The law of Moses was also a gift of God, but was not definitive. The external provisions it contained were not able to communicate the “grace and truth,” that is, the force that enables man to respond to the faithful love of God. “Grace and truth” are given through Jesus. His name appears here for the first time.
No one has ever seen God. It is a statement that John often recalled (5:37; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12,20). It is already found in the Old Testament: “You cannot see my face—God says to Moses—because man cannot see me and live” (Ex 33:20). The events, apparitions, and visions of God, as told in the Old Testament, were not of material vision. They were a humane way of describing the revelations of the thoughts, the will, and the plans of the Lord.
However, now looking at Jesus, one can actually and concretely see God. To know the Father, one need not indulge in philosophical reasoning, or lose oneself in elaborate discussion. It is enough to contemplate Christ, to observe what he does, what he says, what he teaches, how he behaves, how he loves, whom he prefers, people he frequently associates with, with whom he goes to dinner, and whom he chooses, rebukes and defends. It is enough, above all, to contemplate him in the height of his ‘glory’, when he was lifted up on the cross. In that highest manifestation of love, the Father has said it all.
The human face of God
The fourth Gospel starts with a very special prologue. It’s a kind of hymn that, from the first centuries, decisively helped Christians to go deeper into the mystery encompassing Jesus. If we listen to it with simple faith, even today it can help us to grow in Jesus profoundly. We’ll only dwell on a few central affirmations.
«The Word of God became flesh». God isn’t mute. God hasn’t stayed silent, enclosed forever in Mystery. God has desired to communicate Self with us. God wants to speak with us, tell us of God’s love, explain God’s project. Jesus is simply the Project of God made flesh.
But God hasn’t communicated Self through concepts and sublime doctrines that only the learned can understand. God’s Word has become incarnate in the tender life of Jesus, so that even the most simple can understand, those who know how to be moved in the face of goodness, love and truth that makes up his life.
This Word of God «has lived among us». Distances have disappeared. God has become «flesh». God dwells with us. In order for us to meet with God we don’t need to leave the world behind, but come close to Jesus. In order to get to know God you don’t need to study theology, but live in harmony with Jesus, communion with him.
«No one has ever seen God». The prophets, priests, masters of the law spoke about God a lot, but have never seen God’s face. The same thing happens today among us: in the Church we talk a lot about God, but none of us have seen God. Only Jesus, «the Son of God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known».
May we never forget it. Only Jesus has told us how God is. Only he is the source of coming close to God’s Mystery. How many meager and barely human ideas about God must we unlearn in order to allow ourselves to be attracted and seduced by that God who is revealed to us in Jesus.
How everything changes when we finally capture that Jesus is the human face of God. Everything becomes simpler and clearer. Now we know how God looks upon us when we suffer, how God seeks us when we’re lost, how God understands and forgives us when we deny God. In Jesus is revealed «the grace and the truth» of God
José Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf