Words on the Word
Isaiah 52.7-10: Hear, your watchmen raise their voices.
Hebrews 1.1-6: God has spoken to us through his Son.
John 1.1-18: In the beginning was the Word.
‘In the beginning was the Word.’ It’s a pugnacious phrase. Even the most determined atheist will recognise it as biblical. For us, up here in the north, in a climate marked by a Christian tradition rich in words, the associations it evokes are not necessarily appealing.
We may think of Brand, Ibsen’s tortured priest, who constantly rehearsed the ‘Word’ that for him carried a call to enter into himself. ‘Inward, inward!’ That was the principal word Brand heard, sure of finding there, in the sanctuary of conscience, a ‘planet’ fit to become a new world, a microcosmic, self-sufficient paradise. If we go around like this trying to hatch a golden egg hidden within us, we acquire a certain self-importance. The self-important woman or man appears ridiculous, whether or not he or she realises it. The sheriff in the play, the counterpart to Brand’s metaphysical tribulations, listens patiently while the priest trots around speaking of the soul’s stellar night inflamed by the Word, before he remarks: ‘And the stellar night? And the descent of the Word? Say, priest, why don’t you dig into the smorgasbord?’ The sheriff then departs. The impression we are left with is of a ‘Word’ that finds expression in fatigue-inducing chatter.
Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet raised in an environment in which Brand would have felt fully at home, speaks in a poem of ‘The Word made flesh made word again’. We live in a time flooded with words. We regard such a tendency with scepticism, and are right to do so. Once Christianity is reduced to rhetoric, or simply to self-affirming prattle, it becomes intolerable, like warm Fanta with the fizz gone out of it.
Maurice Dumont’s image of the Brand, the haunted preacher, from 1895. Wikimedia Commons.
We should, then, look a little more closely at the Prologue of John. For surely it cannot affirm, ‘In the beginning was chatter?’ No, of course not. John wrote his Gospel in Greek. His word for ‘Word’ is logos: ‘In the beginning was the Logos.’ Logos gives us a word we use a lot: ‘logic’. Logic stands for coherence, order, and clear thinking. John tells us that the Child in the manger, the Word became flesh, is the Bearer of sense; he provides the measure by which all other reality must be considered.
Who is this Newborn? The question occupies all those drawn towards Bethlehem: the shepherds, the magi, Herod, even the angels of God. Once Jesus is grown up, the mystery becomes more urgent still. He asks a lot of those who follow him. What right has he so to do? One fine day, when Jesus realised that his Father’s will, what had to be done for the salvation of the world, would lead him to the cross, and that not much time was left, he asked his own: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They answer a little coyly: ‘Well, a prophet, perhaps?’ Peter exclaims: ‘You are the Christ’, that is ‘the anointed one’ (Mk 8.27ff.).
To acknowledge Jesus as prophet and anointed is a fine thing bearing witness to the realisation that he carries wisdom from God and represents something unique in the world’s history. Still, we remain within history. A prophet, an anointed one may carry an eternal message but will have to be contextualised, his teaching interpreted on the basis of shifting paradigms. One can be inspired by such a person. But would one let him define one’s existence afresh, would one give one’s life for him? Not necessarily. Even Peter’s confession, ‘You are the Christ’, was insufficient when it came to the crunch. Exposed to personal risk, Peter said, ‘I know him not.’
Peter’s confession must acquire depth through Johannine insight. We know that John was especially loved by Jesus; that he, a contemplative, was a man capable of love. ‘Only the lover knows‘, wrote Elsa Morante. John’s knowledge let him rest on Jesus’s breast, listening out for the heartbeat of the Word; it let him remain steadfast at the foot of the Cross while others fled; it let him run past Peter on the way to the empty tomb; it enabled him, on Patmos, on the Lord’s day, to see Jesus ‘as he is’ (1 John 3.2), as ‘Alpha and Omega, he who is and was and is to come, the Almighty’ (Rev 1.8). This accumulated knowledge, born of love and tested by reason, was his point of departure when he came to write his Gospel.
‘The divine Logos has become flesh!’ He who is the logic origin of all things, the hermeneutic key to all there is, the ultimate meaning of life and death, joy and pain, exile and homecoming. Rightly understood, the Word of God is the paradigm by which all things are judged, the cornerstone that is at the same time a stumbling-block for unbelievers.
The Church’s message to us on Christmas Day is clear: Do not diminish the Word! Don’t wrap it up in relativising cotton. Do not judge it; let yourself rather by judged by it, that is (for this is how the Bible understands ‘judgement’), let its reveal the deepest truth and potential of your being. Let it resound as it resounded ‘in the beginning’. Then the Word separated heaven from earth, light from darkness, the upper waters from the lower waters, revealing a universe that is understandable, beautiful, oriented, and purposeful.
The Word still works thus today, if we let him. For he, the Word, does not impose himself; now, as then in Bethlehem, he waits for a room in this world’s inn; he waits for us to have fidelity and trust to let him in and allow him to renew, reform our lives. A sign of the presence of the Word is the logical arrangement of things that otherwise tend towards chaos. That such ordering is possible is what the watchmen of Zion are called to raise their voices to proclaim, full of joy and wonder. Christ, the Prince of peace is our peace (Eph 2.14). He brings clarity, not unclarity. The Word who was in the beginning is the same today and forever. May the Word renew our world, our Church, and guide our steps into the paths of peace. Amen.
The eternal Logos is logically Pantokrator, the living criterion by which all living beings are tried. Image from the cupola of Sancta Sophia in Kyiv.