by Bill Carroll
Like the Gospel it introduces, the Prologue of John holds at least two sets of claims in tension.
On the one hand, there is the universal and efficacious illumination of the divine Light of the Logos/Word/Wisdom, who is forever with God and is God, distinct in person but one in being with the First Person of the Trinity, or Father. We find universal illumination in John 1:4: “in him [i.e. the Logos] was life, and the life was the light of all people” and in John 1:9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
On the other hand, there is particular (and also efficacious) self-manifestation of the God of Love, in and through the historical Incarnation of the Logos/Word/Wisdom, i.e. Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary in our flesh. This is attested by the authorized witnesses who declare, “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.” (John 1:14)
As Christians, we have accepted this testimony, and we are called and commissioned to share it with others. Moreover, we have been given a share in the mission of Jesus himself, so that we share in his very own work of love and forgiveness. Near the end of the Gospel, the risen Jesus tells the gathered disciples “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
Many of us may be suspicious of the ways that the Church has claimed to possess absolute, capital-T Truth. When we have held power, we have often treated our neighbors (Christians and non-Christians alike) poorly, often murderously so. We have not always lived up to the demands of simple, human decency, to say nothing of the Gospel. We have a lot of which we need to repent.
As we look at the Prologue, I want to insist that the Logos is found everywhere, illuminating the whole world and everyone in it. This is an implication of the Word’s divinity. God and therefore the three persons of the Trinity are universally present in all times and places, in all creatures, and in every human being. We may (and often do) turn away from the Light. But God’s Light is always shining everywhere.
Christians have no monopoly on Truth. And yet we do have a true testimony to the One who is the Truth. For us, the Truth is not a rule book, nor a set of true doctrines, but a Person. Jesus Christ, in all that he says, does, suffers, and is, is the very image of the invisible God, in whom all things hold together, as the letter to the Colossians says. (Col 1:14-17)
And what is it that the Incarnation of the Word reveals? The mystery of simple, humble, utterly gratuitous, non-violent, long-suffering, merciful, righteous love, as it is found unsurpassably in Jesus. We know this love supremely in the Eucharistic feast, where we are claimed by a gift we can only receive (and neither manufacture nor control). In the Eucharist, we are called and commissioned to share the love of Jesus with ALL others. No exceptions allowed.
As Christians we are called to bear witness to the reality of God’s love in Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16) For us, that love comes with a particular history, one told in the Gospels and other writings of the New Testament and then summed up in the Creeds. Jesus doesn’t just tell us to love our neighbors; he shows us how. As Christians, we are (or ought to be) prepared to receive all good gifts from God and each other, and to look for truth and light and love in all our neighbors, Christian and non-Christian alike. St. Thomas Aquinas once put it this way: “Every truth no matter by whom it may be spoken comes from the Holy Spirit.”
But none of this means we give up on the Truth we have to share—Jesus Christ himself, the One who lives and dies for us all. Jesus is God’s own love in person. He is the Word-made-flesh and the world’s true King. Never has there been a greater need for his love and gift of community across the divisions we have made among ourselves.
In this season of Christmas, we celebrate his birth in our flesh. We remember all the little ones Jesus loves. We look for signs of his presence and power all around us, especially in the least of these, and those we may consider strangers or enemies. We remember widows, orphans, refugees, and vulnerable children. We remember those who lack their daily bread, clothing, and shelter. (For our Savior was born in poor and vulnerable flesh, with nowhere to lay his head.) We bear witness to the love God showed the world at Christmas and throughout the ministry of Jesus. We recommit ourselves to putting God’s love into practice, living simple, humble, generous lives of love, and working for a more humane and merciful world.
For, in Jesus, the living God has come among us with all the hungers and needs of a child. In Jesus, heaven and earth have been joined. In Jesus, every human being has unveiled in their true reality as a sacrament of divine-human encounter.
Jesus and his love make more room, not less for other ways (at least the non-sinful ways) to be human. And that’s precisely because he stands in starkest opposition to our tight-fisted, malicious, and violent ways of sin of death.
As Martin Luther once suggested, we don’t have to look too hard for Jesus. We already have him in our neighbor.
The Word became flesh. Our flesh. His love will change our world.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
image: Nativity by Kim Gi-chang