The Second Sunday after Christmas 2021
What we have just heard as the Gospel passage for this morning, as well as being Sacred Scripture, is one of the great masterpieces of world literature. It is proof, if proof be needed, of co-authorship with the Holy Spirit. You only have to compare it with surviving contemporary documents, or with the work of early Christian writers, to experience its paramountcy. The Talmud of the Jews, Islam’s Quran, the Buddhist Sutras, the Hindu Vedas, all claim outside inspiration, but nothing compares with the prologue to the Gospel of John.
Scholars tell us that it must have been written between the years 90 and 110 of the Christian Era. It is unlikely, they say, that John the apostle, son of Zededee, brother of James, was the author, even though tradition has named the gospel for him.
All we know is that these words were written by a follower of Jesus known as ‘the beloved disciple.’ The conclusion to the Gospel reads: ‘This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony is true.’ But who he is remains a mystery. Many have been put forward as possibilities. Nathanael, Thomas, Lazarus. Of these, to my mind, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, is the most intriguing. The gospel says explicitly that Jesus loved him [John 11:37]; he would then have taken Mary, the mother of Jesus, back to his home at Bethany where he lived with his sisters Mary and Martha. It would make sense of ‘the rumour that went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die’ [as recorded in John 21: verse 23]. Lazarus had already been raised from the dead.
But all of this is speculation. What is not speculation, and what remains the miracle for us, is the text we possess and the one we have just heard read: ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ Someone, somewhere, nineteen hundred or so years ago, took out a pen and wrote down these words. Those who have ever written themselves will know that beginning is the crucial thing. A good beginning, and you’re on your way. But you have to start with a big bang. ‘In the beginning was the word . . .’ is taken directly from the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, where God is described as creating the whole universe. Here God begins to recreate everything in God’s own image.
The story of Jesus in this Gospel never mentions his birth, does away with the crib, ignores the place, the time and the circumstances of his arrival. No shepherds, no angels, no Christmas Crib. ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.’ The incarnation here is a cosmic event, going back to the dawn of creation. Jesus is ‘the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world’ as the Book of Revelation, also written by the beloved disciple, puts it. [Agnus qui occisus est ab origine mundi’ [Rev. 13:8]
If you have come to the Christmas crib this year, looking for a child in swaddling clothes lying in a manger surrounded by sheep, donkeys, oxen and shepherds, forget it: the prologue to this Gospel tells you that the word was made flesh, and that you are the child you have been looking for.
The essential message of this Gospel, and the kernel of this extraordinary piece of creative writing, is that fullness from Him is something which we have, each and every one of us; it is that grace upon grace, the power to become children of God. You are the incarnation this Christmas, you are the word made flesh, you are the holy one of God. You’ve got to believe it, and to act accordingly, otherwise the mystery of Christmas cannot be carried through to this improbable new year we have just entered.
‘No one has ever seen God. It is up to you, who are nearest to the Father’s heart, to make God known . . . [John, 1:18] . . . in 2021.