It seems like I strolled through the season of Advent; casually and leisurely experiencing the sites and sounds and festivities. Then, Christmas arrived. It came with all the finesse and force of a 200 ton locomotive. Just minutes before the midnight hour on Christmas Eve, after a long, busy and challenging day, I was standing with several hundred other people holding candles singing perfunctorily, yet loudly, “O Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!”
As a child of the church, I can confidently say I have sung the familiar phrases and refrains of Adeste fideles at least 6,432 times. (Okay, 6,432 times is a slight exaggeration—but you know what I mean) This is a song that I know by heart; metaphorically and lyrically. But that night, in that situation and on that occasion, certain words and phrases began to lift from the pages of the new Presbyterian Hymnal.
Living and breathing within the melody, harmonies and meter of that song are profound and weighty words like
“God of God, light of light.”
“Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb.”
“Very God begotten not created.”
“Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.”
But these are only words. Right?
No! These are not mere words crafted to fit the rhyme in a melody or the meter of a song. These words, when constructed in this manner to form these specific phrases have profound theological ramifications.
The author of the fourth Gospel was a craftsman and a wordsmith; he had an affection for words and was especially enamored with and specifically captured by “the Word.” Hear the eloquence of his opening lines:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5 NRSV)
“The business of the world is carried on by words,” wrote Sir Daniel Hall in his introduction of his Digressions of a Man of Science. (Hoskyns, p. 136) Likewise, John the Fourth Evangelist felt the full weight and pressure of that supposition as he picked up his pen to write down the things he had seen and heard, witnessed and experienced. He knew the majestic power of words for he had been confronted by the words of Jesus. And in that confrontation, John had witnessed God’s unmistakable movement toward humanity; the incarnation.
That Jesus once spoke is more fundamental for our understanding of John’s gospel than is the history of Greek philosophy or the story of the westward progress of Oriental mysticism; even more fundamental than the first chapter of Genesis or the eighth chapter of the Proverbs. (Hoskyns, p. 137) John, too, is concerned with words, because it is his purpose to portray a Jesus who spoke. Therefore, John’s Gospel begins not with “In the beginning was God,” but rather with, “In the beginning was the Word.” John knew and understood that the business of the world depends upon the Word of God both for its creation and for its salvation.
From the beginning, John makes it clear that the words of Jesus are meaningless apart from their relation to the word of God. The words of Jesus are not isolated maxims, detached aphorism, or disjointed commands, powerful, but without connected meaning. Because of their essential unity with God, John is pressed from the plural to the singular, from words’ to word, and from a series of words to “the Word.” (Hoskyns, p. 136) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” (καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος) The Word was not some lesser deity or another God, but everything that God was, the Word was and the Word has always existed.
Because John has witnessed the incarnation, his Gospel is full of movement and that movement is evidenced in the “Prologue.” There is movement from the eternal to the temporal; movement from the divine to the human; movement from creation to revelation; movement from the Word to the Son of God. The Word is God and in Jesus, the Word came forth from God. History itself, for Christianity, is the symbolic locus of encounter with the divine. The realization of the symbolic dimension of history was implicit and operative among Old Testament writers. But in John 1:14, the notion of symbolic revelation becomes more focused and more explicit. (Schneiders, p. 70) “And the Word became in-flesh and tented among us.” Theologian JoAnne Marie Terrell calls it “with-us-ness.” (Callahan, p. 186)
Regardless of the language you choose to communicate God’s movement toward us, John is intent and fixed on his readers understanding fully that God has moved from outside the bounds of history; invaded human time and space and set about revealing God’s live-giving purposes for humanity through and in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, the humanization or “enfleshment” of the pre-existent Logos is flatly declared. (Kysar, p. 45).
John Calvin used the language of accommodation to describe the movement of the Triune god toward humanity. Karl Barth said the incarnation was an “extravagant condescension,” a movement downward that outweighs even the inconceivability of the divine majesty of God. “Flesh, all that we are and exactly like us even in our opposition to Him. It is become that he makes contact with us and is accessible for us.” Now the Word, God’s self-revelation, has become human, incarnate, in order to speak to humanity in words that humanity could understand. (Schneiders, p. 49)
For John, the “Word in-flesh” supersedes the philosophy of reason, the work of Lady Wisdom and the law given through Moses. The Word in-flesh is an event of equal, if not greater importance than creation. The identity of the Word has now been revealed, it is Jesus Christ, God the only Son. John 1:17 is the first time the explicit name “Jesus Christ” has been sounded in the prologue, because that name only enters the story at the incarnation. At the incarnation, the story of the Word becomes the story of Jesus. Jesus is not the cosmic word of vv.1-2, but the Word in-flesh of vv.14-18. (O’Day, p. 27)
John will invest his entire gospel efforts showcasing the identity of the Word in-flesh, relaying the power of the words of Jesus and pointing to Jesus’ function as revealer of God’s life-giving purposes. In the Gospel of John, Jesus, the Word in-flesh will confront the unjust and death-bringing ways of the ruling elite (John 2:13-22), He will bring wholeness, healing and abundance (John 6:1-4), He will constitute a community of believers and give them concrete ways of being together (John 13), He will effect forgiveness and release (John 20:23), and he will open the door to the Household of God. (John 1:12; 19:27). John has borne witness to these words and actions of Jesus Christ. John sees and knows that the world, including God’s chosen people, is dark, fallen and sinful and in need of spiritual re-birth. John knows that re-birth is only available through the preexistent, enfleshed Word. (Kostenberger, p. 41)
In making the journey to that “far distant country,” the second person of the Trinity laid aside his heavenly garments and slipped into the flesh of a naked new born. His mother wrapped him in a piece of cloth and placed him in a feeding trough. The significance of God taking on human flesh cannot be overstated. And the Gospel writer adds richer nuance by use of the verb ἐσκήνωσεν. (John1:14) The verb is most often translated “lived” or “dwelt,” but it literally means “put up camp or tented for a while.” The meaning would not have been lost on John’s first readers. God has come to take up residence among humanity in a way even more intimate than when he dwelt in the midst of Israel in the tabernacle. (Kostenberger, p. 41) Even deeper, ἐσκήνωσεν intimates that Jesus is on a journey and camped out in this world for a time as part of his itinerary. (Kysar, p. 45) The Gospel writer will further develop this theology and employ the words of Jesus Christ to invite his readers to respond and participate in the journey.
It is important to notice the introduction of the first person plural pronoun in John 1:14. With its appearance, the perspective of the prologue shifts from observation to confession. This incarnation is both human and divine, both transcendent and immanent. Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man; not a mixture of the two, not a spiritual mode, nor a mythological marvel and certainly not a super human being. “What is at stake,” as Athanasius said, “is our salvation.” “The doctrines of transcendence and immanence,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr., “are both half-truths in need of the tension of each other to give the more inclusive truth.” (Callahan, p. 186)
Therefore, when we hear the word, even speak the words and our hearts are pricked by the power of the holy Spirit, we move from observation and mere utterance to confession: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father, through him all things were made. for us and our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. (Nicene, 1.2)
So Christmas comes, but it does not come silently. Christmas comes with the full force of an invasion proclaiming the Word of life. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” (The Message, John 1:14)
So, when we put words to melody and sing Adeste fideles, we are not just singing another Christmas song. Rather, we are articulating the theological profundity of the faith of the ages. God has come. God is with us; God is for us and God is in us! “O’ Come Let us Adore Him—O’ Come Let us Adore Him! O’ Come Let us Adore Him—Christ, the Lord!!”
Attridge, Harold W., Editor. Harper Collins Study Bible / New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Harper One, 1989.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I.II. Edinburg: T. & T. Clark, 1956.
Callahan, Allen Dwight. True to our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press , 2007.
Hoskyns, Sir Edwyn. The Fourth Gospel. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1947.
Kostenberger, Andreas J. John. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic , 2004.
Kysar, Robert. John, the Maverick Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press , 1976.
O’Day, Gail & Hylen, Susan E. John. Louisville: Westminster Knox Press, 2006.
Schneiders, Sandra M. Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. New York: Crossroad, 2003.