Today’s Gospel, which is something of a Christmas repeat from the Christmas Mass During the Day (that’s right, in case you didn’t realize this, there are in fact four different sets of reading for Christmas… it’s kind of a big deal!). It is the famous “prologue” of the Gospel according to John. It’s opening lines are some of the most famous lines in all of history: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And while this is followed most closely by what is likely the second most famous line from the Gospel of John “And the Word became flesh,” I’m not convinced that this is the most important part of this Gospel passage.
Not that every part of the prologue isn’t important, quite the opposite, but the ending of this prologue, that which bridges this opening of the Gospel with the body of the text, is way too often overlooked. I’m talking about the very end, these lines:
No one has ever seen God.
The only-begotten Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.
If you’re not paying attention, you can miss it. And most of us, I would bet (myself included), don’t pay nearly enough attention to what is actually proclaimed in the Gospel. We usually hear something we recognize, if only vaguely, and then our eyes glaze over and we zone out. Right? It’s too difficult to stand in one place, listen, and concentrate for five whole minutes. We’ve all been there before!
But what is overlooked here is one of the most beautiful things in the Gospel, and it’s central to our faith as Christians and why we get this repeated (in case you missed it on Christmas day proper) during the Christmas octave in which we still find ourselves.
The author of the Gospel of John is saying here that prior to the Incarnation, prior to Christmas morning when God became one like us, born in the flesh as a human being like you and me, no one, no one had ever seen God. Humanity had known God, had — by virtue of our existence, through nature, in prayer, in divine revelation and scripture — been in relationship with God; but no one had ever seen God. That changes with the Incarnation.
The word “revealed,” as in “Jesus Christ has revealed God,” is from the Greek word that gives us exegesis (ἐξήγησις). This is more than an image or a sign of God, but is the very expression (pressing-out), the very “making real,” the very unfolding, explaining, understanding, presentation, true presence, concretization, self-disclosure, and so on, of God.
I once had a christology professor who is probably the only person I know who possibly loves John 1:18 more than I do, who liked to say that a paraphrase for this final line of the prologue is to ask and respond:
Want to know what God is like?
Look at the son! Look at Jesus Christ — what he does, what he says, how he lives — and you will know how God acts, thinks, and desires!
We believe that God has indeed entered the world as one like us but, even more, as the end of John’s prologue affirms, we believe that God has fully revealed (auto-exegesis) God’s self in the historical person Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call The Christ.
Christmas is more than a celebration of a newborn, it is the celebration of the very exegesis of God.