Traditionally John chapter one is read on Christmas Day. Verse one of John goes like this: En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos pros ton en theos, kai theos en ho logos. Which we usually render: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.
Without getting too deep into the intricacies of translation, however, we might focus on three words: en, the imperfect tense of the verb eimi, or to be; theos, which is one of the names used for God in the Greek; and logos, which can mean word, story or logical rationality.
Starting with theos – this is the translation of the Hebrew Elohim, which is the name used for God understood as Justice: so Theos is used to describe a God who acts to restore justice, seek retribution, or to punish wrongdoing.
As for the imperfect of eimi, this is sometimes best rendered as “what used to be the case”; an ongoing action in the past, or an incomplete action in the past.
Richard Swanson in his book, Provoking the Gospel of John. suggests one possible translation, assuming that en refers to a state that used to exist, and logos is logical rationality, we might end up translating the beginning of John something like, “Things used to make sense, and what made sense used to be Justice, and Justice was what used to make sense.”
We might say John is referring to some sort of social-religio-political vertigo – things just are not the same as they once were. Which was certainly the case when the fourth gospel was written. We note that John, like Mark, has no Christmas story like Luke and Matthew. John looks at the current situation – the time between two failed revolts against the Roman occupation in which Jerusalem lies in ruins, the people of Israel are scattered, and there are only a few people returned to live in Jerusalem, understood as the center of the universe. Since that time the Jewish people have primarily lived in diaspora, a word meaning anywhere but Israel. The world had been turned upside down, and this is the world into which we encounter Jesus for the first time as a fully developed adult person. A person who represents the logical-rational world we once knew – ruled by a Just God, a God of Justice.
Is it a stretch to say that we live in just such a world? I am currently reading a book of poems about the tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, another on being Latino in America, and a book of essays of what it is like to be African or African descent and living in America. A young woman spent several weeks in our country calling our attention to the effects of climate change as wild fires rage in Australia in the southern hemisphere, and above the arctic circle in the northern hemisphere. All the while I find myself, the son of an Army veteran who served n WWII and during the “Korean Conflict” in efforts to bring about “world peace,” and yet have lived my entire lifetime with the US involved in a seemingly never-ending series of wars and armed conflicts. As I was driving into Georgetown this week-end I passed an entire homeless tent city in a highway underpass. Not long ago we rejoiced and danced in the streets when the Berlin Wall was torn down, now we are hell-bent on building a wall on our southern border. Needless to say, there is more that connects our time on this earth to the time that John was writing than there are differences.
Yet, this is the world that John writes that God as Justice chooses to live in, or more correctly, in which to dwell – which literally means “to tent,” recalling the forty years after the Passover-Exodus, thereby connecting Jesus to the long and complicated time-line of the Jewish people. That is, God as Theos, as Justice, comes to shine the light of Justice into the dark corners of John’s world to give us one more chance to be the people we are called to be – born to be.
There can be no denying that if things ever “used to make sense,” they sure do not make much sense now just as they did not seem to make sense back then. Given the shape of the world then and now, why on earth would God-Theos want to tent among us?
A poet of our own time also struggles to get it just right. Madeliene L’Engle in her book Winter Song, offers another vision of Christmas. She wonders just how or why this God-Theos or Logos-Word would choose to tent among us in a world in which words like evil, hate, enmity, fear, aggression, war, nuclear weapons, cloning, murder, and darkness seem to be the daily coin of the realm.
This is no time for a child to be born
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn –
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn –
Yet love still takes the risk at birth.
If we close our eyes and listen to the poets, John and L’Engle, we can catch a glimpse of the light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness has not overcome. We can catch a glimpse of the Logos-Word tenting among us as risky and unlikely as that seems.
Why? Because it is time. It is time for the Christ to be born in our hearts and minds. It is time for us to see the Light – the light that reveals Justice. In catching a glimpse of this light perhaps a bit of our darkness is dispelled, and we are drawn ever closer to the Light, to the Theos of Justice, to the Logos-Word, and suddenly the world makes a little more sense than it did a week ago, or a month ago, or years and years ago.
Just a glimpse is all that we need. Perhaps it is all that we are given.
But it is enough. More than enough to dispel a little of our present darkness and draw us ever closer to the light, the true light, which even now is coming into the world. And for this may we quietly in the stillness of John’s cosmic nativity give thanks. Amen.