Saturday, December 26, 2015

God Incarnate



Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν.
πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν
ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων·
καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος, ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης·
οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι’ αὐτοῦ.
οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ’ ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός.
Ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, ὃ φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον, ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον.
ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν, καὶ ὁ κόσμος δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω.
εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν, καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸν οὐ παρέλαβον.
ὅσοι δὲ ἔλαβον αὐτόν, ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν τέκνα θεοῦ γενέσθαι, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ,
οἳ οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς ἀλλ’ ἐκ θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν.

While Nativity Season typically brings to mind the accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke, the prologue of the Gospel of John always seems to add a certain profundity that the miraculous births of Luke and Matthew seem to lack. From the very depths of the Deity, God has definitively breached the divide between His eternity and the temporal world.

For the textually inclined, there is a variant reading of verse 13 (see underlined) attested to in the Old Latin and Syriac textual traditions. It reads (paraphrasing for lack of the actual text in front of me) "who not from sin, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man, but from God was born." Rather than refer to "τοῖς πιστεύουσιν", verse 13 (in these two textual traditions) refers back to the incarnate logos. That this variant appears in two disparate traditions as the Old Latin and the Syriac is somewhat perplexing. It seems random and one is pressed to determine whether or not some exchange took place between one or the other, or whether or not they are both independent holdovers from an alternative Greek text of John that otherwise hasn't been preserved - likely because it had little to no currency in Egypt where a great portion of our extant manuscripts were preserved.

Jerome, in his rather erratic revision of the Old Latin text of the New Testament (truth be told, Jerome really didn't apply his translating prowess outside of the Old Testament), made sure to change verse 13 to what we now call the majority reading and in so doing definitively stamped out the variant from the Latin Church as a consequence of the Vulgate eventually becoming the dominant Latin text. There is a rather eclectic group of scholars and others with a background in the ancient languages that prefer the variant reading. De Vaux preferred the variant reading and famously followed it (and provided accompanying notes) in the text of the La Bible de Jérusalem. This was in keeping with the broader philosophy behind editing of the sacred text in the La Bible de Jérusalem, a scholarly endeavor which sought to communicate as much as possible the subtly of the text and the complexity of the manuscript tradition in a vernacular Bible.

For full disclosure, I prefer the variant reading over the majority text. One of the strengths of de Vaux's work was his determination to demonstrate rich diversity of the manuscript tradition, a quality severely under appreciated by both conservative dogmatics and the liberal propensity for insisting on accessible vernacular editions.

Regardless of the text one chooses to follow, the characteristics Johannine dualism demonstrates itself early and definitively in the prologue. Once thought to be the product of gnostic or platonic influence, the Qumran scrolls have readily demonstrated that John's dualism a stream following from a river of thought running through Second Temple Judaism, especially in Apocalyptic literature and early mystical texts. We can now say with fair confidence that John's dualism is 1) entirely Jewish, 2) was "in the air" Jesus of Nazareth breathed, and 3) is actually pretty diffused in the New Testament.

The idea that there is a divergence between "the World" and God runs throughout the New Testament. John's gospel, however, frames this divergence as a reality that is apocalyptic in nature and demands a response from whosoever has received the unveiling. The coming of the Only Begotten is part of supernatural drama that in theme resembles the ancient chaos myth. The war to establish equilibrium in the universe is no longer fought in the heavens alone - it has poured forth and become part of the created order. As John's prologue readily alludes, we are eventually compelled to choose - God or the World, we can't have both.

With the exception of perhaps the Apocalypse, one can only imagine that were the canon up for re-certification, John's gospel would likely be voted out. John refuses to allow the reader any luxury or indulgence, he does not see the "World" as something to reach compromise with, nor something to which we should "open our windows." We are presented with two contrasts, God and the World/flesh/the will of men. To choose one is to follow a very different path from the other. In this respect, it is hard not to see an ascetic praxis lying beneath John's gospel in addition to an apocalyptic reality. So, consider John's gospel and the Christianity therein and compare it with the re-engineered Christianity that is coming to the foreground in the West, a Christianity that is reducing every ancient principle to socio-political action or psychological models, a Christianity that is determined to subvert moral world of the sacred text and tradition to the indulgences of a post-moral/post-modern West.

There are those who would say that the moment the Edict of Milan came into force, Christianity was compromised. It is a fair argument. The difference between now and then is that rather than "the World" seeking to make peace with Christianity, Christianity is seeking to accommodate itself to "the World." True, we occasionally get to choose between liberal and conservative colors, but the choice is still the same: sacrifice your principles and find comfortable footing in a secular world that essentially rejects them.

John's gospel is the conscience of Christianity, the perpetual memory of Christianity's foundational experience and earliest strata of Theology and praxis, speaking to us with words that will often make us uncomfortable when we consider our own orientation towards God. God became incarnate, to take men and women away from the same mischief many churches are seeking to accommodate in our own day.


1 comment:

  1. Yes, thank you for this reflection. I have myself thought that the general consciousness about Christmas has been impaired due to the emphasis on and marketing - religiously as well as commercially - of the Matthaean and Lucan nativity narratives: it is hard to make kitsch out of the Joannine 'Logos' and, though the shepherd/crib/wise men tableau has inspired much poetry and music, it does not, in my view, offer or encourage - at least in usual hands - a richer meditation on the profundity of Incarnation. Hence the oft-heard refrain, even from Church-goers, that "Christmas is for the kids" (like Santa and the reindeer). I make a point of reading John's Prologue every Christmas. I think it belongs, or would serve well, in the Mass, new or old.

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