Bridging Ideas and Things
by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
Christmas I –– John 1:1-18
27 December 2009
The Prologue to the Gospel of John is the Gospel for the third eucharist of the Nativity of our Lord (through verse 14) as well as for the first Sunday after Christmas Day. John is unique: it shares not one source with the Synoptic Gospels, those that can be “seen together,” or compared, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John shares no outline of Jesus’ life and ministry with the other Gospels; rather, John presents Jesus Christ as the eternal Logos, the creative principle, (or Word) of the Father whose Incarnation (taking on human flesh) echoes God’s original Creation. All people have the choice to accept or reject him. John thus presents Jesus Christ after mature theological and philosophical reflection. Probably John was the last Gospel written.
Lying just beneath the surface and visible, too, on the surface of John is a notion of Platonic philosophy, the theory of Ideas (or Forms). Ideas are perfect, archetypes, changeless, insensible, and heavenly (belonging to heaven). Ideas contrast Things that are imperfect, examples, changing, sensible, and earthly (belonging to earth). Accordingly, earthly Things are imperfect examples or physical copies of heavenly Ideas. In John, the two-tiered world (heaven and earth; perfection and imperfection; light and dark; the will of God and the will of the flesh; spirit and matter) informs most every paragraph. This two-tiered world by no means explains John, but it positions John in a frame of reference, a consistent point of view, used by the evangelist to proclaim Jesus to be the preëxisting Word of God and to reflect upon Jesus’ nature.
The Prologue (1:1-18) sets up the two-tiered word and proclaims several theological propositions consequent to it. “In the beginning,” echoing Genesis 1:1, was the Word (1:1); all things came into being through him (1:3). By the end of verse 3, the evangelist has established the two-tiered world as the principal figure of the Gospel. There is the Word, that is eternal, and Creation, made by the Word, that is temporal. We never leave this figure behind.
Verse 3 also sets forth the first theological proposition consequent to the two-tiered world. The Word is the agent of Creation: “all things came into being through him.” The Word created life, and life is light (1:4). Light shines in darkness, and darkness did not overcome it (1:5).
John (the Baptist not the evangelist) is a witness who testifies to the light; he himself is not the light (1:6-8). The Word was coming into the world as Jesus, life, and light (1:8-10). Some reject the Word; some accept the Word (1:11-12). Those that accept the Word receive power to become children of God whose birthright is heavenly not earthly; “children of God”…“born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13).
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). The Word becoming flesh bridges the two tiers of the world. And in the flesh, we see the Word’s glory, comparable to that of a son. John first proclaims Jesus as the Word becoming flesh (the doctrine of the Incarnation) more than as the Son of God, a prevalent identification of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Then (1:18) John identifies him as the Son.
Through the Incarnation we receive grace. Moses gave the law, but Jesus gives grace. We cannot see God except we see God in Jesus who makes God known (1:16-18).
[The Ven. Howard Stringfellow is Archdeacon for the Diocese of Bethlehem and supply priest for Good Shepherd Scranton.]