Coming to the Prologue of John’s gospel is like arriving at the foot of Mount Everest. We gaze upon it’s stunning height and grandeur. The difference is that Everest can still be climbed on our own strength, even be it by a few. At the foot of this mountain, I just want to point out a few stunning peaks, just a couple of words in the Prologue – ‘Beginning’, ‘Word’ and ‘Life’. Even if we see it only from below, it’s still worth the while.
John begins the gospel with words every Jew would have recognised instantly. “In the beginning…”. These are, as we recognise, the opening words of Genesis. What does it mean to talk about a ‘beginning’? Is this a beginning, as we would say, ‘the Mass began fifteen minutes ago’ or ‘this child was born – had a beginning – ten years ago’. Many people of course, tend to read the beginning in Genesis as simply a beginning of the world in time, which causes no end to their problems and confusions. The Greek arche or Latin principium, translated ‘beginning’ can also be translated ‘in the principle’ or ‘in the origin’. This is not so much a beginning in time, as much as a beginning in God.
At the start of the new year, we stand at the beginning of something. We have all kinds of hopes, fears, dreams, there are things we want to begin anew. The Church gives us this gospel to help us begin properly. Everything, John says, has its beginning in God – and if we try to begin anywhere else, we will be lost. And we will fail. And here, John is going to introduce something else – the Word – as the beginning, or rather, the principle, of all creation. God – and his Word – is the beginning. It is a beginning which is always new because this Word is the source of life.
In the beginning, this Word creates and gives life to all things. This beginning is not a once-spoken event. God did not start the world, like some people imagine and forget about it. If he did, we would all disappear instantly. The beginning, the arche indicates that this is something continuing. God has to keep his life flowing in order for the world to stay in existence. God is always creating anew. And God does that by speaking his Word over the world.
Why did John say, ‘the Word’? The Greek word translated as ‘Word’ is Logos which can mean a few other things. The Stoics understood logos to be the rational principle by which everything exists, and which gives the essence of all that exists and that of the rational human soul. It can also refer to the inner thought, what we conceive in our mind, even before we speak – and so some have used ‘reason’ as a translation for logos. But it can equally convey the expression of the thought, and so Word remains a good translation. But there is a lot more to using ‘Word’ rather than just the best approximate translation.
When I speak a word, it is, in a sense, part of me. It arises from me and even as I speak it, it is something that remains mine. When I stop speaking, however, what keeps that word in existence comes to an end. That word is no longer audible. It has disappeared. But it’s effects can remain. Words have the power to change reality. A word of kindness can bring someone back from the brink of despair. And indeed, a cruel word can destroy someone. You might forget saying something, but another person can live with its effects for a long time. Words are the basis for communication. Our communication creates communion – or can break it.
These are human words, which have such power. What about God’s word? In the Old Testament, God always acts by means of his ‘word’. In the Scriptures, there is no difference between God’s word and his power or action. When God says, it happens. He said ‘let there be light’ – and there was light. Like the snow and rain which come down and renew the earth, the Bible says, God’s word comes to bring life, healing and renewal to all of creation (Isaiah 55:10–11). All that came to be had life in him, as it says. But what kind of word is this? This word, through which God keeps everything created, existing, is his own word – which is a dialogue of love from his heart. John would later say, God is Love – and his Word fully expresses that Love of the Father. As God’s Word, it is what makes possible any, and all communion in the world. This Word of Love is what keeps everything held together. This Love is the source of Life the world.
The problem however, is that we can turn away from this Word or try to find a quicker way to it. Adam and Eve turned away from the Word which was given them in the beginning and it immediately brought death into the world. The experience of this death is what we all live with. Everything that goes wrong in our life – experiences of physical suffering and of course death but also the brokenness we experience in ourselves, in our relationships, the losses we face, this and a lot more is what the Bible collectively calls ‘death’. They all start with the spiritual death we have when we are cut off from the source of life. From then on, we look for this life in all the wrong places. In accumulation of money, power, in pleasure.
At the beginning of the year, at the beginning of the gospel, John stands at the top of this mountain – Mount Everest if you may – and points to us this place, where to begin. This place which has all we long for – life, light and love in abundance. But how do we get there? Any human means that we take will fail. This Word is reason itself, but it is not something we can obtain through our studies. It is life itself but not something that the best medicine and money can buy. It is love itself, but not something that can be won through any fleshly means. This is what Adam and Eve tried at the beginning. They tried to find a shortcut and failed, bringing darkness and death into the world. And into this darkness, this pain, the Word which first banished darkness at creation, comes again. This Word, which can’t be reached, John says, amazingly, has taken flesh among us. Literally, he has pitched his tent among us. He has come into our poverty, pain and death, so that we can be free.
The way up this mountain, which John finds, is what he gives in the rest of the gospel. The Baptist who points to this light is the one who points the first disciples, John and Andrew to him. They ask him – Rabbi, where do you live? (Jn 1:37) Where have you pitched your tent? And Jesus replies – Come and See. It is not a quick formula he gives them, but an invitation to friendship. This is discipleship. The would-be disciples go and stay with him and follow him. At the end of the gospel, John would rest his head on Jesus’ bosom. Here, he would hear Jesus’ heart beat with love for him, the secret of life eternal. That friendship is the way up the mountain. This is the invitation of the gospel. John invites us into a deeper friendship with his friend and Lord, Jesus Christ.
We all have our plans as we begin this year. Have you asked, what God’s plans are, though? He is waiting for you at this beginning. How is he inviting you at this time to deeper friendship? To hear his voice, a word of life, each day in the Scriptures? He has drawn closest to us, most of all in the Eucharist. Here he has pitched his tent. Take time as you begin to listen. Here you can find life, light and love.