25 December 2018
‘In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God’
Christmas Day, Tuesday 25 December:
11 a.m.: Christmas Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick
Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1: 1-4; John 1: 1-18.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘In the beginning was the Word’
I find this is one of the most dramatic opening lines in any great work of literature. And I believe the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to Saint John, is one of the great works of literature, as well as my favourite book in the Bible.
‘To begin at the beginning’ – these are the opening lines of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas (1954).
Or I might begin with words from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol. In Chapter 12, the White Rabbit puts on his spectacles.
‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asks.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
TS Eliot’s ‘East Coker,’ the second of his Four Quartets, is set at this time of the year and opens:
In my beginning is my end.
And he goes on to say:
In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon …
The opening words at the beginning of a play, a novel or a poem – or for that matter, a sermon – are important for holding the reader’s or the listener’s attention and telling me what to expect. Begin as you mean to go on.
That is why I am surprised that Charles Dickens waits until the second sentence in David Copperfield to say: ‘To begin my life with the beginning of my life …’
For Saint John, there is no annunciation, no nativity, no crib in Bethlehem, no shepherds or wise men, no little stories to allow us to be sentimental and to muse. He is sharp, direct and gets to the point. He begins the Fourth Gospel at the beginning, at the very beginning: ‘In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1: 1).
The narrative translations with which we are so familiar often miss the poetic and dramatic presentations of this Gospel. But the Prologue is first and foremost poetry. It is a hymn – a poetic summary – of the whole theology of this Gospel, as well as an introduction to it.
This opening section of Saint John’s Gospel, the Prologue, is an introduction to the Gospel as a whole. It tells us that the Word, the Logos, is God and acts as the mouthpiece (Word) of God ‘made flesh,’ sent to the world in order to be able to intercede for humanity and to forgive human sins.
The Prologue is of central significance to the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Prologue can be compared with Genesis 1, where the same phrase, ‘In the beginning …,’ first occurs along with the emphasis on the difference between the darkness and the light.
In this reading, Saint John introduces us to a number of key concepts he uses in the rest of his Gospel: ‘life,’ ‘light’ (verse 5), ‘believe’ (verse 7), ‘world’ (verse 9), ‘children of God’ (verse 12), and ‘flesh’ and ‘truth’ (verse 14). And the Logos, the incarnate Word of God, is decidedly at the centre of all that is being said.
When Saint John speaks later of life in the sense of ‘eternal’ life, the Prologue has already established that from the beginning in Christ the eternal God and source of life is present and is among men and women for that purpose.
In Christ, God enters into all the ambiguities, difficulties, and trials of human life. He comes to live among us people as one of us, revealing God at first hand, and offering new life as the source of life from the beginning.
He firmly connects the Logos, the Incarnate Word of God, with God (verses 1, 2); creation (verses 3-5); the world and its response (verses 6-9); his own people (verses 10, 11); his children (verses 12-13); the disciples and witnesses (verse 14); and to a particular historical person, Jesus Christ (verse 17).
Finally, verse 18 re-emphasises the intimacy of the relationship of the Incarnate Word with the Father.
This reading is a challenge for us to think carefully and deeply about the implications of the Incarnation, the Christmas story, and to apply this concept in all its fullness to our life and our world. For all its broad, cosmic scope, the Prologue presents a direct and personal question to readers of all times: will the one who reads believe and share in the fullness of grace given by the One who has come from the Father to dwell among us?
I miss Canon Giles Fraser’s weekly column in the Guardian, which came to an end last year as that newspaper moved to a new format. But, some years ago [6 December 2014], he tried in that column to summarise Christmas values: ‘ “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” is how Jesus expresses his mission in Saint John’s Gospel. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote Irenaeus in the second century. In other words, the point of Christianity is to generate a deeper form of humanism.’
TS Eliot writes,
In my beginning is my end ...
In my end is my beginning.
Christ comes among us on this day, and in his birth, life, agony, death and resurrection he is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. He is coming with a vision and a promise of a world where all of the barriers that separate us – poor and rich, North and South, male and female, Jew and Gentile, nation and nation, home-happy and homeless – will be no more.
His coming is just the beginning of the Good News and the beginning of hope. The Gospel reading on Sunday morning was a challenge to us to prepare the way of the Lord: he casts down the mighty and raises up the lowly, he lets justice and righteousness go before him, peace is the pathway for his feet, we must do justice and make peace.
Christmas Day is not the climax or the end of the Christmas story. It is just the beginning.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
John 1:1-14 (NRSVA):
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 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.
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Post Communion Prayer:
God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.
Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Introduction to the Peace:
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)
You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:
Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:
The Advent Wreath:
On the Advent Wreath on Christmas Day, the last of the candles, the central white candle, is lit, symbolising the Christ Child arriving as the Light of the World. The other candles in a circle surrounding it were lit during the Sundays of Advent and represent the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Purple), the Prophets (Purple), Saint John the Baptist (Pink) and the Virgin Mary (Purple).
As we light our Advent candles, USPG is inviting churches and parishes to join in praying for the world church as it responds to the needs of the people and communities it serves.
USPG suggests this prayer when lighting the last candle:
Christmas Day (White Candle), Jesus Christ
Holy God, your only son was born
with no home and laid in a manger;
fill us with compassion
for all in need today.
Bless all who work for dignity,
healing and peace
and give us generous hearts
to respond to your most generous gift,
of Jesus Christ our Lord.
177, Once in royal David’s city (CD 11)
184, Unto us is born a Son (CD 11)
172, O come, all ye faithful (CD 10)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org