No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him (Jn 1:17-18).
In class the other day, sensing that the attention span of my students was about to snap, I took immediate action, and suggested a Composition of Place to try and jump-start whatever lay hidden under the hood.
“Suppose you had just popped into the chapel to pray,” I said, “and reaching for your bible you discover that most of the New Testament had disappeared. Only the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel remained. Would that be enough to establish Christianity?”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Since timing is everything, I waited a moment or two, letting the loss of all but a few hundred words of Holy Writ sink in, then told them that, of course, those few words written by the Beloved Apostle himself, John the son of Zebedee, who reclined his head upon the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, would furnish quite enough evidence on which to found the faith and the hope and the love of Christianity.
There were several audible gasps (always a sign of life), so I went on, telling them that one could do worse than to begin with the one whom pious tradition speaks of as the clear-eyed eagle, who saw more deeply into the things of God than any man living. In a stirring tribute paid to the author of what St. Clement of Alexandria has called “the spiritual gospel,” the lofty movements of whose soul have lifted him far beyond the reach of mortal men, St. Augustine writes:
He soared beyond the flesh, soared beyond the earth which he trod, beyond the seas which he saw, beyond the air where birds fly; soared beyond the sun, beyond the moon and the stars, beyond all spirits which are unseen, beyond his own intelligence and the very reason of his thinking soul.
Having heaped such praise upon him, Augustine then wants to know what John saw. What discoveries awaited him on the far side? If the movement of our world tends, as the poet T.S. Eliot reminds us, “In appetency, on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future,” what enabled him to escape? What did John see?
Soaring beyond all these, beyond his very self, where did he reach, what did he see?
Augustine will answer his own question with the opening words of the Fourth Gospel, those absolutely horizon-shattering words on which everything we know and believe depends:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (1:1-2).
There is no end of instruction, in seems to me, in the fact that the Apostle John, in communicating his vision, will draw upon a few very simple and declarative words, his repeated use of which enables him to express what is finally inexpressible. Words like water, thirst, bread, hunger, light, life, love, grace, glory. All perfectly good, hardworking words, used over and over by a master wordsmith to ensure that the message he’d been commissioned to tell got through to the reader.
And what is that message of which the Fourth Gospel remains the purest expression of New Testament theology? To begin with, it is not like anything to be found in the three synoptic gospels, whose accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were written much earlier. The shape of John’s gospel, while in no way at variance with the disclosures of the other three, is configured to ends very different from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. His is a testimony concerning all that he had seen and heard, and the story he tells begins far beyond the horizons of this world. Indeed, one might describe the Fourth Gospel as a score of the most exultant music, animated by rhythms transcendent to the entire time/space continuum. Even as those rhythms are destined to resonate precisely from within the human setting. And the author appears not at all shy in letting us in on the score, which lifts us right off the page into realms of purest divinity. Augustine, in his moving panegyric, has certainly caught the tune, telling us that John, in the sheer sweep and sublimity of his music, “soars very high, mounting beyond the darkness of the earth and fixing his gaze on the light of truth.”
So high does the Blessed Apostle go, in fact, that one might almost suspect him of harboring secret gnostic sympathies, of wanting to take leave altogether of the material world. Of course, in going up, he necessarily meets Another coming down, God’s own Word, arresting his ascent in mid-flight. Here is the perfect self-utterance of the Word, speaking the Father’s name from all eternity; whose interception of John’s upward thrust, will draw him ineluctably back down into the world he must not flee, nor despise, but rather welcome as the place where the redeeming Word speaks salvation to men.
I was once offered a glimpse from someone, an old professor perhaps from long ago, who said that the best way to appreciate the Fourth Gospel was to see it in operatic terms. Look first to the Overture, he advised, where the author announces the themes he intends to set out in the course of telling his story. And in that light the whole Johannine world will open up, revealing the great chords to be played from start to finish. How beautifully they sound the depths of the mystery of God! Beginning with the eternity of the pre-existing Word: “He was in the beginning with God” (1:2). That between the two there is perfect metaphysical parity, neither one subordinate or inferior to the other. It is the theme of the absolute equality between God and his Word, so necessary to the maintenance of the divine trinity. Because, were the substance of the Godhead to suffer either division or diminishment in the movement or procession from Father to Son, the faith of Christianity would self-destruct, and we should all be Arians.
Only then do we come to the next theme, which is that the creation of all things is the result of this self-subsisting Word having conjured them into being. The Word is the agent, the architect of existence; he is, to use the language of Plato, the Demiurge, who freely fashions a world out of nothingness. As John’s gospel puts it: “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (1:3). Why this must be so is because in him is to be found the very principle of life, the generative matrix itself. “The light shines in the darkness,” John assures us, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). It enjoys thus an invincibility, a sheer indestructible incandescence that cannot ever be eclipsed by anything; a continuous flash point of eternal energy erupting into time, which both creates time—and all things bound by time—and which time itself cannot dim; an intensity of light and life of equal and eternal duration, in other words.
Which brings us to the very cusp of the theme of absolute, climactic importance, namely the Event of Incarnation itself, i.e., the unheard, unforeseen enfleshment of God, who in coming among us as man enters fully into the brokenness of the human estate. The Latin is incomparable in its simplicity:
Et Verbum caro factum est (1:14).
Why then did he come? Was it merely to make the crooked lines straight again? Yes, there is that aspect to the business. But there is more to Incarnation than God setting about the work of undoing the awful damage wrought by sin. He comes in search of fallen man, not simply to shovel the dirt out from under him, but to raise him to the status of an adopted son or daughter of the Father. A destiny of inconceivable grandeur awaits us all, which is nothing short of divinization.
And the price of admission? Only that we acquiesce in the gift given. Nothing more. A summons that we are free to refuse, as did those who were his own when he first came among us.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name…(1:12)
The Prologue wants to tell us all this. To show us. The glory of the Father shining upon the face of Christ, so that we too might shine like the Son. The very one who, in becoming our brother, invites us to enter the household of God. As though we too were the siblings of Jesus. And there, amid countless angels and saints, including our dear and blessed Mother, we shall see resplendent with unending glory the face of God himself.