Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
"So be it, Lord, thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away, Thy kingdom stands, and grow for ever till all they creatures own thy sway."
“In the beginning was the Word…. And the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent amongst us”: this sets the scene for this Sunday. This year we are celebrating the 2nd Sunday of Christmas with the feast of the Epiphany celebrated on its traditional date, the 6th January. This is far from being an exciting title for this Sunday at a time of many important feasts but this gives us an opportunity to pause and take stock. There is always the need as I have mentioned before, for us to follow the example of Mary the mother of the new born child. We are told she pondered all these things and treasured them in her heart. So too must we and this Sunday guides us to this deeper reflection.
If so far during this Christmas season the emphasis has been on stories and our responding to them, now we move to poetry. Poetry is an effective way of looking below the surface and drawing out that deeper meaning and significance of these great events we are remembering. I am not myself great with poetry, but hopefully in this reflection I will make some comments from the readings and open them up so that you can respond further yourselves.
We can recall too the saints celebrated on 2nd January. They are known as the Cappadocian Fathers with St Basil the Great and St Gregory Nazianzen being celebrated today. There is also Basil’s younger brother St Gregory of Nyssa who is not so influential though just as important. The three were important Greek theologians during the 4th century, developing the doctrine of the Trinity following the Council of Nicea and resulting in the Creed we proclaim today. In the West, St Hilary of Poitiers and especially St Augustine of Hippo have dominated thinking about the Trinity. The writings of all these saints have moulded our understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation which we are celebrating at this time. Crucial at that time were the Arians who claimed that the Son was subordinate to the Father. Thus St Basil could write: ‘By two words St John has admirably contained the concept (of the begetting of the Son) within tangible boundaries: he says “In the beginning was the Word”. Thought cannot reach beyond
was, or the imagination beginning. No matter how far your thoughts travel backward, you cannot get beyond the was. No matter how hard you strain to see what is beyond the Son, you will find it impossible to pass outside the confines of the beginning. Therefore true religion teaches us to think of the Son with the Father’ 1
That comments on the Gospel for this Sunday, the Prologue from the Gospel of John which is also provided as the Gospel for the Christmas Day Mas. As a presentation of the Incarnation, this Prologue has a key role in Christian tradition.
Looking at it, what stands out are the two statements about the ministry of John, (who is never called the Baptist in this Gospel). His role has now changed; both comments emphasise John’s role as a witness. In the other three Gospels his role is to be a prophet. Much could be said about prophecy and witness but we can say that a prophet speaks within the community whereas witness is to the world outside the community. Thus some are called to be prophets but all are called to be witnesses. John’s special place in the Gospel of John is to start the story as the man sent by God so that all might become believers. His believing and his witness open the story which follows the Prologue. These two comments within the Prologue itself have the effect of anchoring the Prologue to real life, what is being proclaimed is not abstract but a real experience of the presence of God in the world.
Only the first John comment forms a unit of its own. The second is part of the build up to the naming of Jesus Christ. Here it is notable how this name is not given until the end, as a climax to the whole. My way of reading the Prologue would be to take it as a broad sweep leading up to this climax. The first part speaks of the eternal Word as St Basil notes. The themes of life and light are introduced. John is then the second part, the witness, calling all to become believers.
The third part tells of the Word in the world and the various ways it is received. Finally, the fourth part 2 proclaims the Word becoming flesh and (literally) pitching his tent among us. To this John bears witness. The evangelists now reflects on the consequences, the unique revelation of God brought by Jesus. This last part moves from the Word to “grace and truth”.
Overall we can go through this Prologue and see how every key word in John’s special vocabulary is introduced. “Glory” needs a mention. In a reflection some months ago I commented on the Gospel of John as one long transfiguration, referring to the scene in the other Gospels were the three disciples had a precious glimpse of his divine glory. The back up for this Prologue comes from the Old Testament themes of wisdom and word. The first is represented this Sunday by the extract from the hymn to wisdom in Ecclesiasticus.
It is good to read the whole poem. Word is represented by the Psalm. Both have links to the Gospel Prologue, both have a tendency in the Old Testament to be personified. It is the Gospel of Matthew which presents Jesus as the Wisdom of God whereas it is here in John that he is presented as the Word of God.
The consequences of all this for us are profound because the Word of God is for us both the Bible and Jesus himself. The result I would say is that the Bible is not a rule book for us but rather a conversation book. Important is the Exhortation Verbum Domini from Pope Benedict XVI which takes the Prologue as its framework. The Pope as Josef Ratzinger has been influential on this topic ever since he was present as an expert adviser (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council. He insists that the Christian faith, unlike Judaism and Islam, is not a religion of the book as often stated but: “Christianity is the “religion of the word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word”. We can say the Word of God is for us a sacrament.
To all of this therefore we must respond. This may explain the way the reading from the letter to the Ephesians has been gutted because its reflection about our redemption in Christ has been taken out. We hear just the initial blessing and the prayer of thanksgiving that follows. It is the latter, the second paragraph of the reading which must also be our prayer:
May your hearts be enlightened that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe...
1 St Basil the Great On the Holy Spirit 15
2 John 1,14-18