Awet Andemicael and Adam Eitel discuss the mystery, language and lyricism in John 1:1-18. The text is appointed for the Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
It’s very, kind of, simply written, and yet it’s so rich and so profound.
Welcome back to Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study.
Each week here, you listen in on a pair of professors from Yale Divinity School. They talk through what they found interesting about a passage from the upcoming Revised Common Lectionary. I’m Helena Martin, a student here at Yale Divinity School and an Episcopal priest.
This episode, we have Awet Andemicael, Associate Dean of Marquand Chapel, and Adam Eitel, Assistant Professor of Ethics.
They’re discussing John 1:1-18, which is appointed for Sunday, January 2, the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. The text is read for you by Mike Libunao-Macalintal, Marquand Liturgical Assistant.
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.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
You know, Adam, when I read this passage, I can’t help but wonder what it must’ve been like for the first people who actually heard it read. It’s such an extraordinary passage, such a powerful way of beginning of the Gospel of John, which has such a different tone from all the other canonical gospels.
And I just wonder: did it hit people like a ton of bricks? It’s that thing about the Gospel of John in general but that’s so distilled here, where it seems so simple. Me with my very limited Greek, even I can read portions of this. So it’s a very kind of simply written, and yet it’s so rich and so profound, and it is such an extraordinarily powerful way of distilling and expressing the whole concept of the incarnation of Christ. And to start a gospel that way, it strikes me just so fascinating that he made that choice. And so poetic to begin it that way, that I just wonder what effect it might have had on the first people who would have read it—or more likely heard it read in the assembly.
You know, when you wonder about how it must’ve been heard, I’m just thinking here about the extent to which what’s being said here is ever really heard by anyone, except by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
There’s so much mystery in it. “From his fullness, we’ve received grace upon grace” that indwells him, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who no one, as it says here in verse 18, has ever seen. In the Catholic tradition, we talk about mystery, and it means something different than, you know, a mystery, like a who done it.
That’s a mystery, a mystery, and that sense is, you know, a puzzle to solve. There’s something unknown to be learned. There’s some confusion to be unraveled. Well, there is some unknown in all this, something to be learned. Our confusion is kind of brought to the surface immediately—confusion about God, about ourselves, about the world, about our place in it.
But the mystery here, in the sense I mean, is more like the kind of mystery you would hear when someone says something, say, about the mysteries of the rosary. Mystery is a kind of entry, a kind of portal, a kind of beckoning, almost like a—
I remember when I was a kid. And, you know, if you were playing in a pool that had a drain in it, and you got close to the drain, you could feel your foot kind of being sucked by the suction of it. That’s what I think of when I think of the mysteriousness of all this and what a mystery is. It’s something by which we’re pulled into the mystery of God’s own life.
Yeah. I know what you mean. It’s funny that passage about “from his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.” That was definitely, with all of the richness of this passage, that was what jumped out at me the most. But I definitely appreciate the distinction between a mystery as a puzzle to be solved versus a mystery as something to be experienced, something to be lived into, a kind of encounter, yeah. Or a quality of encounter, maybe. I don’t know if that’s the right way of putting it.
And one of the interesting things about the range of artistic forms is that sometimes using visual arts or musical arts or poetic arts are ways in which we can convey or experience a dimension, that is something like, and something that actually is mystery.
Prose can also evoke mystery. This is a good example. But we often think of prose prosaically, of: just the facts, just the surface, this is what’s being said.
But so often, even those words used, arranged in prose and poetry as lyrics to music or other modes of expression, then become a, as you say, kind of a portal to something that pulls us toward a reality beyond what we can explain, or what we can see or experience.
The theological mystery being brought to us is the mystery of the incarnation. How God can be, how Christ Jesus can be both God and human, that the logos was made flesh. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” And in that God-human, we’re able to see the glory of God. You know, “We have seen his glory that of a father’s only son.” So there’s that kind of radiance to what is being expressed in these words—behind these words.
Yeah. I was thinking, looking here at another passage from verse 18, it says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
One of the things I think that happens to a lot of people—certainly it has happened to me—especially the more you wade into the world of academic theology. You acquired, or you think you acquire, a certain sophistication that renders some of the language, that you might’ve used once upon a time to describe God, kind of inert or toothless. But here, we’re told by the writer of this Gospel, that what it means in part for Jesus to be God the only Son is that he’s close to the Father’s heart.
And what speaks to me is this notion of being close to the Father’s heart—the language, the hiddenness of God is figured here. Not as a kind of divine abyss, but as the heart of a father, the affection of a parent. And what’s hidden to us in God, in some ways, I guess is precisely that. And I suppose its hiddenness pretends to it just its profundity. It’s not hidden because it’s obscure. It’s hidden because it’s boundless.
And that to me—I don’t know about you, Awet, but I need to know that. I need to hear that.
Yeah. Yeah. You know, two thoughts came to mind in response to what you were saying. One thing I’m just thinking about. I haven’t read this in a long time, so I may not be quoting this right. But I’m thinking about, Bonaventure’s, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum: The Journey into God—The Soul’s Journey into God, is what it should be.
What a cool book!
Yeah, I know, right? And just think about the last chapter I think is chapter seven or the last section, where he’s making the crossing, having gone through all these different stages of meditation and kind of thinking through various aspects of creation and just trying to kind of get getting deep into following this sort of pathway into the depths of understanding God, then there is this crossing over.
It’s, “Let us die, then, and enter into that darkness.” It’s a sense of crossing over into the depths of who God is. That is a kind of darkness. That is what he would call a dazzling darkness.
So anyway, Bonaventure is referring back Pseudo-Dionysius. This idea of a dazzling darkness. So, a kind of mystery that is mystery—not because it’s God hiding God’s self from us—but the fullness of the glory of who God is and of what God is expressing in the mystery of the incarnation, in the reality of the possibility of a creaturely relationship with God, in the mystery of the Trinity, all these things that we think of as the theological mysteries. They are a darkness because it’s a dazzling darkness. It’s so bright with the light of who God is that we’re not able to absorb it all.
And so, we can experience it as in Christ being close to the Gather’s heart. That just was one thing that struck me.
It’s a fascinating passage in so many ways. And Irenaeus refers to it many times, and he talks about all the different what he calls false teachings that are interpreting in different ways. But what really strikes me now thinking about this is, I mean, there are some ways in which we would talk about Christ Jesus, because God the Father, you know, the first person of the Trinity is not physically manifested—is spirit. And the Holy Spirit is spirit. But Christ Jesus was incarnate. There’s a tendency, at least for me, to think about Christ as being less mysterious than the other persons of the Trinity, if that makes sense.
Yeah. Well, Jesus is my buddy. And I’m not going to lie. I definitely, Jesus is my friend. Jesus is my brother. I talked to Jesus in very, very informal ways.
And so I definitely, you know—I think that can be a really healthy and powerful thing to understand Jesus because Jesus is one of us. He chose to become one of us. But at the same time, Jesus is also, you know, Christ Jesus is also this vast mystery who was with the Father in the beginning, who is the embodiment of this glory, whose fullness is the source from which we all receive.
So to be able to put that together in the same picture is a big challenge, but it’s so important for us to remember that the one who is close to the Father’s heart, through whom we too become close to the Father. That intimacy and that tenderness and that kind of down-to-earth-ness that—just that gritty, day-to-day reality of Christ as part of my daily life. That same one is also at the right hand of the Father, is also the Word who was with God from the beginning.
So, just to recognize that Christ is the visible manifestation, the visible incarnation of the hidden God, but also himself is one who is a vast and deep mystery that we can’t explain or wrap our minds around any better, really, than we can about God the Father or God the Spirit.
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Chapter, Verse, and Season is produced by Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey, and me, Helena Martin. Our theme music is by Calvin Linderman.
Thanks to the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School, as always. And thank you to Dean Andemicael and Professor Eitel for joining us this week.
We’ll be back next Monday with another conversation from Chapter, Verse, and Season.
New Revised Standard Version Bible
Copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Host: Helena Martin
Producers: Helena Martin, Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey
Music: Calvin Linderman