Our Gospel reading today was that wonderful resonant Prologue to St John’s Gospel which we hear, often several times, during the Christmas period, but which, speaking for myself, we less often stop to think about.
As often as not, when we hear it at Christmas, we hear it in the language of the 1611 Authorised King James version. Wonderfully resonant, but dated, language. Language that we can so easily wallow in for its beauty and not think about too much. Actually, it’s not even 1611 language. 93% of the AV, we are told, is a straight crib from William Tyndale’s 1534 final revision of his own work.
I don’t want to divert today too much on to Tyndale, but I do want to point out the most obvious difference in this chapter as between Tyndale and King James’ scholars. Where the AV consistently uses the male personal pronoun, ‘him’, Tyndale consistently uses ‘it’. AV has, for example, all things were made by him, but Tyndale has all things were made by it.
Who says that inclusive language is a new idea?!
Back to our subject.
Here are some words to think about:
What happened before the beginning? On this fundamental question, we cannot do much better than St Augustine in the 5th century. He sidestepped the issue by arguing that time itself was created with the universe. The ‘genesis event’ is in some ways as mysterious to us as it was to St Augustine.
These are not my words. They were written recently by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, Lord Rees.
We can take ourselves back to fractions of a millisecond after the Big Bang, but that’s it. No further. For me, the most rational – or least irrational – explanation for how it all began is God.
Our reading begins, In the beginning was the Word (usually printed with a capital ‘W’). I know nothing of Greek, so I must rely on other sources, but the Greek word translated as ‘Word’ (with a capital) is ‘logos’. About the only thing that logos does not mean is ‘word’, in the sense of a bit of a sentence.
Wikipedia offers that it derives from a Greek word meaning ground; if you like, the basis of everything. It also has several other meanings within the area of philosophy and logic, but let’s stick with ground.
You will surely know people who don’t like having their photograph taken. The psychologists argue that this is because they fear that in some strange way something of themselves will be taken away, lost for ever.
Similarly, the Jews could not bring themselves to express the name of God. The name itself was somehow too precious to be enunciated by mere mortals. So they would find ways around the problem, and in this case the Gospel writer used logos.
So as I understand it, St John is saying, quite simply, ‘In the beginning’ – that is, before the Big Bang – ‘was God’. But he goes further, the Word was with God and the Word was God.
Is this not just going round in circles? We speak of Jesus as ‘the Son of God’, and in our terms, ‘son’ follows ‘father’. This is an area that caused much debate in the early church. Remember that Jesus left many clues but few outright statements as to who and what He was during his 30 years here on earth.
For 300 years the church argued and debated. Jesus left it to His followers to work things out and to try to make sense of what they had seen and heard. And that is still the case. He leaves it to us to think things through. The Gospels – and the Bible in general – contain a great deal that is allegory and parable. We are to apply our God-given minds to it.
In conversation with my nephew just after Christmas, I referred to reading books about theology, and how theology was developing. He was surprised, as he thought that it was all fixed and settled. I disabused him of that one!
In our Creed, we say ‘being of one substance with the Father’. There had been those, the theologian Origen among them, who thought that Jesus somehow came after God the Father, just as we would superficially use the terms ‘father ‘ and ‘son’.. This debate was also known as the Arian controversy, after another theologian, Arius. In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine summoned a great Council of the Church at Nicaea to decide what was to be regarded as ‘orthodox’ and what was to be regarded as ‘heretical’.
The decision came down against the Arians. Jesus Christ was there from the beginning. If I say that He is one and the same as God the Father, I will be accused of heresy. There are those who will say that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are, if you like, three sides of the same coin – three aspects of the One Being; three personas.
The orthodox understanding is that the three ‘persons’ are separate, but so bound together by love that they are at once three and one.
So we have In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.
and towards the end of the chapter,
….the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
As I said, debates about the nature of Christ rumbled on for 300 years, with various ideas and understandings being argued about. With that timescale, it is perhaps surprising that St Paul wrote as he did in his letter to the Colossians. As far as we know, this letter was written around AD 50, barely 20 years after the first Easter.
Here we have
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first-born over all creation. For by him all things were created…… All things were created by him and for him…… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things…….by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
We speak of ourselves as being made ‘in the image of God’. That invisible, untouchable bit of us that we call ‘soul’ contains, we believe, something of God.
So St Paul says that Jesus Christ, born as a man, also contains in Himself that same image of the invisible God. One of many ideas later regarded as heresy was that there was a sort of assistant, subsidiary God, called a demiurge, who was responsible for the physical universe, and quite separate from the spiritual side. This left God, the Supreme Being, with no direct responsibility or interest in the physical world.
This idea also came to be rejected by the church. Here we have Paul, only 20 years down the line:
All things were created by him and for him…… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.
No standing back and taking no interest there!
‘by him and for him’
Are we to think that we were created as a sort of plaything ‘for him’? This is also not our Christian understanding. He created us within the universe so that He could love us and care for us.
Those who have travelled in space and observed the vastness of space say that it is hard to believe that we are the only sentient beings in that universe, the only ones ‘made in God’s image’, and for my part I don’t see that we need to be. If God is indeed all-powerful, why should there not be other creatures ‘made in His image’.
And to take a parallel question, why should any of us assume that we, the most numerically successful species that has ever walked the earth, are actually the end-point. What further evolution has God in mind? After all, the Sun and the planets started to condense out of the interstellar gases about 4.55 billion years ago, and our Sun has about another 6 billion years to go before it runs out of fuel. We are less than half-way through. And never mind billions, Homo Sapiens has been around for only a few thousand years.
In the beginning was the Word, and I suspect that He – It – will be around long after our particular bit has evaporated.