The Power of the Word

The Power of the Word

Second Sunday of Christmas. Fr Peter Hunter reminds us that the Incarnation is not merely an abstract idea but a concrete person.

You might say that during the Christmas season we are celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation, except that that is far too abstract: really, we are celebrating the birth of a child. Of course, this child is True God of True God, the one who has come to save us from destroying ourselves, the one who has come to satisfy every right desire. Still at the heart of it is the birth of a baby, after a long wait.

When we talk about the fact that God has become one of us in the baby Jesus, it is easy to be struck dumb and say nothing. Sometimes, we are given the false impression that certain things in our faith are mysteries and cannot be talked about. But that is not the Christian understanding of mystery at all. The Christian mysteries are not things that ought to strike us dumb but things that we can talk about and think about from here to Kingdom Come and still not get to the bottom of.

‘In the beginning was the Word…’ Those words from the beginning of John’s Gospel are the beginning of one famous, and of course inspired, attempt to spell out what happened at Christmas.

This can easily sound rather too abstract again, like celebrating an idea rather than a person. Luke gives us something rather more down-to-earth, with stable and shepherds, something amazing no doubt, especially when we think of the choir of angels and their message, but something much more concrete. In John, all those details are gone and he tries to bring home the cosmic significance of it all.

Talking about Jesus as the Word of God can sound rather abstract for a start. We live in a culture where words aren’t taken very seriously. The very people who live by using words, the literary community, have turned their backs on the idea that words can really get to the heart of things. Instead, we are simply bombarded by meaningless phrases meant to make us part with our hard-earned cash: ‘Coke is it!’

The ancient world took words much more seriously. For one thing, most cultures have had in their past some sense that words can have power, that the right words in the right circumstances might make things happen. We see this in our own culture in the interest in spells, a confused belief in powerful words that might change the world.

The Jews who read John’s Gospel wouldn’t, I don’t think, have found it as abstract as we do. Logos, the Greek that is translated ‘Word’ in our text, was for a start the word they used for their commandments. The commandments given to Moses were the Ten Words. And the idea of the word of the Lord would have many resonances for them, so that in the Psalms we read, ‘For ever, O Lord, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens.’

Moreover, they would have had no trouble with the idea of the power of the Word of God: in Genesis 1, clearly alluded to here by John, God creates the whole world by speaking: ‘God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.’

It would still have been astonishing to them that God’s Word might become a human being, and rightly so. To really understand this bit of the Scriptures we have to try to join them in their astonishment at this wonderful, new thing that God is doing in Christ Jesus.

Far from being an abstract account of things, John’s Gospel is trying to get across this astonishing meeting of the cosmic and the everyday. This Word of God, through whom everything was made, has become one of us: ‘we have beheld his glory’.

John gives us a way of understanding the rest of his Gospel: when we see Jesus, we see God, not hidden in human form but revealed to us, shown to us, so that we can behold his glory. The image that we have, the very surprising image we have, of the powerful Word of God, through whom everything was made, is the tiny babe of Bethlehem.

Readings: Sir 24:1-4,8-12 | Eph 1:3-6,15-18 | John 1:1-18

fr. Peter Hunter teaches philosophy at Blackfriars, Oxford, and in Jamaica.