December 31, 2017
Commentary on Sirach 24:1-4.12-16; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-18; John 1:1-18
TODAY’S GOSPEL is the same as that of Christmas Day (Daytime Mass). In fact, this is the third time* this Gospel is being read during the Christmas season and with good reason. It is the Prologue which opens the Gospel of John and a magnificent manifesto of the Incarnation, when God entered our world in a very special way. Of course, God has always been present in our world but the Incarnation is an altogether new, more intimate and striking presence.
The coming of God’s Word
“In the beginning…”, that is, before any created thing existed…, “the Word was with God and was God”. Through his Word – logos in the original Greek – God expresses, reveals himself, just as we express and reveal ourselves by the words and signs by which we communicate with others.
God’s Word, however, is not just a spoken word; it is productive, creative… “Through the Word all things came to be…” From the 50 billion or so galaxies to the tiniest sub-atomic particle and everything in between. That creating Word also brings life. “All that came to be had life in the Word…”
And this life is also light. Jesus later on will confirm that he is the Light of the world. Through that light we can penetrate the darkness which surrounds us, we have a vision of life, we can see the direction our lives need to follow… And indeed we ourselves, bathed in that light, are to be a light for others. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his followers in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14).
Nevertheless, the world which had its being through the Word did not know, recognise, or acknowledge his presence. Sadly, the people among whom he was born also, by and large, rejected him. “He came to his own people and they did not accept him.” But to those who did accept him, that is, put their trust in him and aligned themselves with him, he gave power to be in a special way God’s children.
Of course, by creation we are all – at least passively – children of God. Here, by our acceptance and commitment, a deeper relationship is set up with Jesus as our Brother and therefore for us as a Son or Daughter of God.
Entering our world
The deep mystery of the Incarnation is then expressed by John. The Word in the world was born
not of human stock (two human parents)
nor urge of the flesh (through sexual desire and physical intercourse)
nor by the will of any human being
but of God himself.
God is the direct Father of Jesus. Yet he was also born of a woman, Mary. And so “the Word was made flesh”. John does not actually say – as some modern translations put it – the Word was made ‘man’, ‘became a human being’. No, he became flesh, sarx, a word with many negative connotations, something, in Paul’s letters, opposed to the Spirit.
John then is saying that the Word, in Jesus, entered fully and totally into our frail human condition. He was a real human person who could be seen heard and touched, a person who had ideas and feelings (anger, fear as well as pity and compassion). Jesus the male human is no mirage, a mere appearance (against the Gnostics and Docetists) but flesh and blood as we are. ‘Like us in ALL things but sin,’ as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us.
“He lived among us” or, more literally, “pitched his tent among us”. This throws us back to the time of the Exodus, reflected in today’s First Reading from the Book of Sirach, which very much echoes the Gospel: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High [the Word of God]… I had my tent in the heights and my throne in a pillar of cloud [the Word was with God and was God]. Then the creator of all things instructed me, and he who created me fixed a place for my tent. He said, ‘Pitch your tent in Jacob, make Israel your inheritance’.”
In the time of the Exodus the presence of the Lord was with the wandering Israelites in the tent or tabernacle in which were kept the tablets of the Law and the Ark of the Covenant. John, then, is saying that the presence of God is now in a new tent, the human body of Jesus. And, like the Israelites’ tent in the desert, the ‘tent’, the human person of the Word, is right in our midst. (And Paul will go further and say that the Christian community is the ‘tent’ or ‘temple’ where the Risen Christ really lives and works in the world.)
The Word in the Child
All this is very symbolical and abstract in a way but it is all expressed in more visible and accessible terms in the story of the stable at Bethlehem. The message is exactly the same in both and we need both for our full understanding. For through the Word made flesh we are able to get a glimpse of the glory and beauty of God. Through him we get to know to some degree what our God is really like.
“No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who makes him known.” Jesus is the pontifex, the bridge builder, between God and ourselves. When we see the Child in the stable, we see God but we may be tempted to stop at the humanity as the totality. We have always to keep before us the two poles: the Word that exists from all eternity and is totally beyond our understanding and the Child born during a tiny window of history in a very small and obscure place.
The Word came for us
And now, the Gospel says, “from his fullness we have all received”. The Second Reading, from the Letter to the Ephesians, speaks of our close links to that Word. “Before the world was made” – in the very beginning before all things came to be – “God chose us, chose us in Christ.” He chose us to be “holy and spotless”… And how is that to be done? By living “through love in his presence”. For God had determined that “we should become his adopted sons and daughters”.
That is our calling, our vocation. That is what Christmas is about. That is what Christianity is about. To live our lives in total faith and commitment to the Way of Jesus, to live in love for all our sisters and brothers.