INCARNATION: STORY OF THE WORD

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us”. We frequently hear at Christmas time these words from the Prologue to the Gospel of John announcing the Incarnation. At Christmas, those who attend Night Mass hear the story of the birth of Jesus according to the Gospel of Luke. In Parishes it is the story which needs to be heard again at the Day Mass. For those communities who celebrate the Night Mass, the Prologue of John’s Gospel is proclaimed in the morning. We need to hear the Christmas story so familiar to us, but we also need to follow it up with the deeperreflection on the story given in this Prologue. We need to explore the immensely important significance that this child Jesus born in Bethlehem is also the Word of God made flesh, that he is both God and human. Here is the great mystery of the Incarnation by which the infinite God became a finite human.

The Prologue, 1,1-18, is similar to the overture to an opera. God reveals himself in his Word and this introduces thethemes of the Gospel story that follows. As I looked at this famous passage for this reflection, I noticed that the first thirteen verses give us a story. Then for the final verses, there is the change to “we” as the Word is made flesh. Weneed to ponder and be amazed at what this means for us. The Prologue begins by outlining the story, then the second half draws out the consequences which will be explored by the Gospel. With this, the evangelist introduces many words which will be key in the Gospel, words that have a surface meaning like “life” but also the deeper meaning of “eternal life”.

We begin therefore with the story, 1,1-13 which unfolds in three parts: the Word and creation, 1,1- 3b1, then the lightcoming into the world, 1,3c-9, with also introduces John (the Baptist). The third part, 1,10-13, describes the Word’s mission in the world with people’s reactions and responses. The Word is not named so we will aim to read this Prologue like a first time reader, even though we are not.

In the beginning, therefore, was the Word. The Word is of enormous importance throughout the Old Testament. “In the beginning..” recalls the book of Genesis with God creating by his Word: “Let there be light…” There is the Law, the ten commandments are called The Ten Words. The prophets frequently speak of the Word of God. Above all, there is the wisdom tradition of the OT where Wisdom is closely linked with God, the hymn in Proverbs chapter 8, for example. Wisdom and Word are specifically linked in the Wisdom of Solomon (Wis 9,2). The Word therefore was present before creation with God and was God but not exactly the same as God. The Word was then with God at creation.

Then we hear how life came into being with him which is already a hint of the Incarnation and made clear with the true light coming into the world. This light the opposing forces of darkness cannot overcome. Here John (the Baptist) is introduced as the first witness to the light. John is known to have lived at a particular time and place so by introducing John here, the evangelist is providing a historical anchor to the Prologue. Important is that John’s witness to the light and the insistence that he is only a witness to the light, to the Incarnation, which will be the starting point for the whole story of this Gospel.

The true light therefore came into the world and an outline of his story is outlined. The world may be the created world or it may be the world which did not know him. In particular we hear that his own people did not accept him. Yet, those who did receive him are those who believe in him.Believing, the call to a full commitment to Jesus. Here we have a call to a choice which the Gospel will explore inmany ways. Believers have a new birth by the power of God, becoming children of God. A new community is already being formed.

And so the Word became flesh. Now we hear the of community’s response and our response. Literally, we are told “hepitched his tent among us”, recalling God’s presence with his people in the desert following the Exodus. His glory which we behold is the visible sign of that presence, similar to the scene of the Transfiguration in the other gospels. The whole gospel of John with its emphasis on glory may be described as a transfiguration, the visible sign of the Incarnation. The close relation of the Father and the Son is indicated, full of the grace which is the truth that the Son brings.

A brief comment is made about John’s witness and role before the fullness we have received is explained.  The grace of the old Law given to Moses becomes grace and truth. The story of the Word reaches its climax when the Word made flesh is finally identified as Jesus Christ. Word and God are Son and Father. The Son is close to the Father’s heart while through the Incarnation he has in the human Jesus become present in the world.

With that, the Gospel story begins as John publicly give his witness to the Incarnation.

Fr. Patrick Lombard O.Carm

Footnote: 1    For verse 3, there is an important choice to be made. I follow modern translations from 3c-4: “What has come into being in him was life…” My reason is that there is a change of tense for the third “being”. Older translations, Douay, AV but also ESV keep verse 3 as one sentence which to me has always looked rather awkward.

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