Today we shift our focus from the events in the stable to asking what does this all mean? Luke told us about that marvelous night when Jesus was born – the angels and the shepherds – Mary pondering all these things in her heart. This is great story telling. Now John comes along and says to us, “this is what all this means” – the Word which was in the beginning is now dwelling in our midst as one of us.
So, what does all of this mean? Especially when we consider that there are more than two millennia separating us from the event. This is something theologians have been wrestling with since the day of Pentecost, and we continue to wrestle to this day.
For the ancient Israelites and Jews, the Word represents God’s creative power. It was by means of God’s spoken word that the heavens and the earth were created. Jewish people even regard their own spoken words as dynamic, as having an inherent power. This is why many Jews are careful with their words. They are careful in pronouncing blessings and curses, and in choosing meaningful, significant names for people and places. They also believe that the Word represents the “Wisdom” of God which is intrinsically creative.
The expression “the Word of God” can even refer to God himself. Out of reverence for God, whenever he was mentioned in the Scriptures as having human feelings and actions, some people substituted the name of God with the phrase “the Word of God” to avoid anthropomorphism. This overscrupulous paraphrasing, however, overlooked the fact that sometimes God does indeed act personally with humankind in ways that we, as humans, can identify with both emotionally and practically.
Certain strands of Greek philosophy held that the world was created by a mediator called the Word or Logos. The Greeks considered that all matter was evil and so a transcendent, spiritual God could never have been in contact with evil, base matter, let alone create it. However, the Greeks also recognized the beauty, order, and rhythm of the universe, and saw it as the work of a divine creator. Greek philosophers came up with the idea that the supreme God created the universe through an agent: the Word or Logos.
This Greek idea, that the world was created by the Word, interestingly enough, originated in Ephesus, where John wrote his Gospel. It was the Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus in 560 B. C. who came up with the idea of the Word as, not only the agent of creation, but also the sustainer and controller of the universe (cf Heb. 1:2-3).
Heraclitus also saw the Word as the Judge of Truth, and the mind, or Reason, of God. His philosophy spread and became established in many branches of Greek philosophy. The Greeks saw the Word, or Logos, as the creating, guiding, and directing power of the supreme God, so John cleverly used this Greek concept to introduce Jesus to his Greek readers.[i]
Keep in mind that the New Testament, especially the Gospels were written forty years or more after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The world had changed for the Jews as well as the Christians. Hence, there was a need to link Jesus’ life with the people’s world view and their understanding of that world view.
It’s the same for us. Our world is vastly different from the world Jesus and the earliest disciples knew. Bishop N. T. Wright in his seminal work, Paul: A Biography (2020 reprint) stated that if Paul were to walk into either a Christian or Jewish worship service today, he would not recognize the service Jewish or Christian.
In other words, our understanding of the Gospel and of the early fathers and mothers in the faith have evolved; just as our liturgical practices have evolved through two millennia of lived experience. How we understand the Christ-event is nothing like the understanding of that same event that emerged in the last quarter of the first century, or the understanding of those who went before.
There is a story about Thomas Merton (known as Fr. Louis in his monastery) was speaking to a group of his novices:
“There is only one thing for anybody to become in life.
There’s no point in becoming spiritual — the whole thing is a waste of time. What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity to be you. But the catch is that of course our full identity as monks and Christians is Christ. It is Christ in each of us. … I’ve got to become me in such a way that I am the Christ that can only be the Christ in me. There is a Louis Christ that must be brought into existence and hasn’t matured yet. It has a long way to go. There is a Louis Christ [a Thomas Merton Christ], a you Christ, a me Christ — each one of us is called and graced to be our true self — the self that God has made us to be.”
To put it a different way as St Irenaeus said, “God has become what we are, what I am, so that I/we might become what God is.”
My dear friends in Christ, we will continue to wrestle with what Christmas means, and that is one of the gifts given to us in this holy season.
[i] Marg Mowczko at margmowczko.com