John’s telling of Christmas seems rather basic at first. There is no pageantry or angels. He offers no narrative or a mention of Mary and Joseph. Just the simple words: “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.”
However, when taking a closer look, the first thirteen verses of John make those simple words an invitation to go both back in time and into the future. This invitation starts with John’s first five words, “In the beginning the Word …”
The Beginning of John’s Christmas
The first nothing is evil reminds us that no thing is inherently evil. Everything belongs. Yet, all too often we fail to grasp where or how we belong. As a consequence, we tangibly feel the second nothing is evil. We live with a sense of disconnect and displacement. It is as if we are trapped in the nothing, and experiencing this nothing is evil.
So as John begins, he invites those who find themselves trapped in nothing to remember the divine activity from the beginning of creation. God invites all creation to embrace our inherent belonging. And this voice that for generations echoes throughout time and space, telling us we have dignity and calling us to lives of purpose, that voice of unfailing love and faithfulness is now radically amplified as the Word takes on flesh.
John’s Christmas opens as he takes us back to the beginning to remind us of a future that has always been and is now coming into being.
John’s Other Christmas Beginning
But this is not the only way John tells that story in those first five words. After all, knowledge of the Genesis account would be somewhat limited to John’s Greek audience and I cannot help but wonder if they might misunderstand the story as grossly as we do when we turn Genesis into a science book. So John has no choice but to the story again but in a different way. Who is it that was in the beginning that becomes flesh? The Word, or in the Greek, the Logos.
Describing the Logos, fifth century BCE philosopher Heraclitus writes:
But of Logos that always exists, people are uncomprehending … for although all things happen according to the Logos, they are like people with no experience when they experience words and deeds such as I expound distinguishing each thing according to its nature and pointing to how it is.
Confused yet? Perhaps we can break it down.
John’s Christmas Word
In these few words, Heraclitus identifies something eternal that behaves according to a law or rule. It is the idea that there is something beyond us that becomes the framework we use to guide our behavior. That thing is what Heraclitus calls the Logos. Here we might call this living by spirit. John emphasizes that the true Logos is a spirit of love.
And yet, Heraclitus argues that even though the Logos is here and active in our midst, most people remain unaware of its existence. They are too caught up in power and desperately seek to form some kind of identity on their own. This scrambled attempt to make ourselves worthy keeps us from hearing let alone believing the voice that speaks grace and peace into their lives. As a result, the Logos remains accessible by all yet accessed by few.
One cannot help but see how John references Heraclitus’ Logos not just in the use of the Greek word, but in the way John describes the Word as there in the beginning, as the author of creation, and being the source of understanding and light while simultaneously remaining largely misunderstood and rejected. What John brings to bear that Heraclitus never envisioned, is that the Logos takes on flesh to become more known.
What John Invites a Christmas
So whether starting with the Hebrew creation story or Greek philosophy, John opens his Gospel with the clear message that divine self-revelation and humanity making sense of our place in the cosmos are interlinked. At Christmas, God wants us to hear that we belong. That is what makes the silent night a holy one, God in the flesh says we too are holy.
We were in the beginning and we will be for eternity. It is John taking us back to the future for Christmas.
Video: Introduction to Heraclitus by Academy of Ideas
While not the most interesting video, this video offers a simple introduction to Heraclitus which can help us understand what John means by the Logos.
Book: Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community by Craig R. Koester
This is my favorite resource on the Gospel According to John. Rather than giving a verse by verse analysis, Koester explores themes and symbols. In other words, he honors the way John is written.
Look in the mirror and say, “I belong.” If you are really feeling it add, “I am holy.” What feelings stir up when you do? How might believing this change the way you approach life?
One common Christmas story we have not covered is the visit of the Magi. We will do that next week.