Collect


Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

O almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

John 1.6-13

John 1.6-13

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Here two more of the chief themes of the Gospel of John (along with wisdom, light, and life, as we saw previously) are introduced: those of witness or testimony, and of birth in the spirit.


I think it was the Gospel of Mark that has been described, I forget by whom, as essentially a study of the death of Christ with a long prologue and a very brief epilogue. The same could almost be said of John. The idea of the trial of Jesus is continually present; the text challenges the reader, putting him as it were in the judgment seat of Pilate: it is continually presenting the testimony of witnesses to Jesus, and particularly the miracles, which are treated very much as evidence, as the testimony of the chief Witness, the Father. (The Greek word for "witness" is martus (marturo being the verb form), from which we get the English word "martyr.")

The first witness called to the stand in this great trial is St. John the Baptist. John is very different from the other three Gospels in many respects (hence the term Synoptics, meaning those who see together, to refer collectively to Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but all four Gospels make specific mention of the Baptist and his ministry. It may seem strange to a modern eye, since we are accustomed to two thousand years of Christianity; but at the time, it was by no means evident to everybody that St. John the Baptist considered himself and his function subordinate to that of Jesus. The Gospels themselves record speculation at the time that he was himself the Messiah, and his disciples continued to exist quite independently of the Christian Church for decades after his death. (Indeed, there exists to this day a small sect called the Mandaeans, living chiefly in Iraq and Iran, who believe that the Baptist was a great prophet but that Jesus was a fraud.) The choice on the part of all four evangelists to draw attention to the link between St. John the Baptist and Christ was therefore extremely important: it established the relationship between the two, and in fact made sense out of the Baptist's ministry, which would otherwise be somewhat confusing -- he came preaching apocalypse and repentance, and then died, so ... so what? If, as the Gospels report, he was specifically preparing the way for Jesus, then his mission does make sense.


Let's see: dreadlocks, ate honey and bugs, wandered around outside 
all the time, ranted at people ... Maybe we owe hippies an apology.

The word "sent," used to introduce the Baptist, is an important one in John. It is related to the word normally translated "apostle," literally "sent one" or "emissary." The idea of a Divine mission handed down to the great prophets was certainly nothing new to the Jews. It would have been a little more foreign to the Greek-speaking audience; Greek and Roman paganism were not churches or theological movements, as Judaism was, and the idea of a prophet per se wasn't really a part of their culture; they had seers and diviners, certainly, but the notion of revealed truth wasn't a staple of their religious ideas as it was for the Jews. John leaves out the missions of the Twelve and of the Seventy noted by the Synoptics (e.g. Luke 9.1-6 and 10.1-24); but, as we shall see, His conferring of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles after the Resurrection, and His commission to them, closely mirror His own mission from the Father, and echoes the frequent Synoptic motif of the Apostles being given the very authority that Jesus Himself exercised on earth.

The reference to "the true light which gives light to everyone," or, as the King James charmingly phrases it, "the light which enlighteneth every man," suggests a few passages in St. Paul -- notably the opening section of Romans and his sermon on Mars Hill. It is a commonplace in some circles to talk as though Johannine literature is all loving (meaning "nice") and Pauline literature is all hellfire. Those stereotypes are, of course, superficial, but the funny thing to me about them is that they are very nearly the reverse of the truth. Nearly everything that Scripture has to say about Hell is to be found in the books attributed to St. John; from St. Paul, as C. S. Lewis rightly pointed out, come the only verses that suggest a legitimate hope for the salvation of every single person. The supposed opposition between these two Apostles and their schools of thought is in my opinion absurd -- their points of view show to my mind several striking similarities (such as their availing themselves of Greek philosophical concepts for theological and spiritual use), and complement one another.


Yeah, this dude'll be coming up a lot. I was raised a Calvinist.

The word "world" is another important one in Johannine thought. In Greek, it is kosmos, from the verb for "to arrange," and particularly to arrange beautifully or pleasingly -- hence the English "cosmetic." There are other words sometimes translated "world" in the New Testament, but this one is a favorite in John, and it is used in two senses. One may be illustrated by the justly famous verse 3.16: "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son". The other can be illustrated in 16.33: "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." The first uses "world" in the ordinary sense -- it was the customary Greek word for, well, the world as a whole, rather the way we use "universe" today.* The second is a specialized use, possibly finding its roots in the Jewish apocalyptic worldview, inherited by Christianity, which tended to think of the world as being in the power of evil angels: it uses the term in the sense of a "world order," and a corrupt one, alienated from God. That the world does not recognize the Logos here suggests the second meaning; but either or both may well be intended. John is extremely fond of word-play, irony, and similar sorts of humor -- indeed, to my mind, one of the most underrated characteristics of all four Gospels is how funny they can be (usually from Jesus, and often employing a Pharisee or a disciple as the straight man).

The reference to his own did not receive him is the first mention of another recurring pattern in the Gospel of John, that of Christ and His people and message being rejected by the Jews. "The Jews" here are decidedly and specifically a religious rather than a racial group -- they'd have to be, since of course Christ, His Mother, and the Apostles were all Jews themselves. It has been suggested, given that the disciples were almost all from Galilee, that it may even specifically mean the Judeans as opposed to Galileans (though I personally feel that's reading a little too much into the text). There is broad scholarly consensus that John was written after "the Nazarenes" had been decisively expelled from the synagogues; the primitive Christians had led an uneasy existence among the Jews for some decades, going to the synagogue partly to hear the Scriptures and perhaps partly to evangelize, and celebrating the Eucharist privately among themselves; but by the end of the first century, especially after the failure of the Christians to support the Jewish revolt in 66, they were excommunicated by the religious leaders throughout the Mediterranean. Judaism was a protected religion in the Roman Empire, and it may be significant that it was around this same time that Nero initiated the first formal persecution of the Church**; we are told, in a resentful and dispirited sort of way, by the second-century document The Martyrdom of Polycarp (St. Polycarp himself, coincidentally, a disciple and successor of St. John the Apostle), that the Jews were eager to assist in the execution of convicted Christians.

The bitter history of Christian anti-Semitism -- if one can meaningfully call anything so horrible, and so horribly ironic, Christian -- does come from such sources as these. But I think it a serious mistake to classify the Gospel itself as anti-Semitic; like all of the New Testament except Luke and Acts, its author was almost certainly Jewish and was quite plainly steeped in Jewish thought, taking its essential premises for granted. It was certainly used to justify anti-Semitic sentiment later, but that could in principle have been adequately dispelled by an appropriate attention to the texts that "salvation is from the Jews" and that "the gifts and call of God are irrevocable."

He came to his own, and his own did not receive him, but to those who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Here we come to a theme that resounds, not only through the whole book of John, but through the entire New Testament: it is conversion of heart that counts, not physical descent from Abraham. This reaches back to the words of Samuel and the Psalmists that "to obey is better than sacrifice"; it echoes the words of the Baptist: "Do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones"; again it finds parallels in St. Paul: "not only to the adherents of the Torah but to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all". The colossal newness of Gentiles as Gentiles, rather than as converts to Judaism proper, being full participants in the New Covenant, is lost on us today. The whole point of the covenant under Moses had been to maintain the purity, the separateness, of the people of Israel; and it was essential at the time, because of the incessant tug to polytheistic syncretism that every other surrounding nation exhibited.*** John has, as a recurring motif, often expressed ironically or even unintentionally, what Acts cites from the mouth of SS. Paul and Barnabas as an epigram: "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles."

The threefold "born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man" is slightly puzzling. The NIV renders it as "not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will," which, though freer than I like in a translation as such, may well be an accurate interpretation. Alternatively -- or additionally -- it may be meant as an apposition to the "born of water and of the spirit" in chapter 3, to which this calls forward. The pairing of blood and water is common in Johannine literature (though generally they are together rather than contrasted, and are probably meant to suggest the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist); "the spirit" is often contrasted with "the flesh" in the New Testament, John 3 being a prime example.

It is possible that the specific mention of "not of the will of man" is an allusion to the Virgin Birth; it does specifically use the term meaning "man" or "husband" (same word in Greek, aner), rather than the general term anthropos which means "man, human, person." There is also a minor textual variant (supported chiefly by quotations in the Church Fathers rather than manuscripts proper) which reads who was born rather than who were born, making these phrases refer to Jesus rather than to those who believe in Him. Though the Blessed Virgin Mary is an important character in the Gospel of John, as we shall see -- she appears both at the inauguration of Christ's ministry and at His "hour" of glorification, the Crucifixion -- the Nativity is never directly addressed, as it is in Matthew and Luke. There are, however, a number of verses like 1.13 -- 7.42 and 8.48 are examples -- that may be ironical (and, on the part of their speakers, quite unintentional) allusions to the Virgin Birth of Jesus.


Better get used to her, too.


*It's been pointed out that the three phases of recorded history -- the Ancient, the Mediaeval, and the Modern -- are illustrated in certain ways by their choice of term for "everything." The Ancients called it kosmos, laying their emphasis upon its order and beauty as a harmonic system. We call it the universe, laying our emphasis upon its combination of uncountable, diverse elements, that all nonetheless obey the same set of laws. The Mediaevals, however, called it creation, choosing, unsurprisingly, to view it chiefly through the lens of its relation to God.

**The novel Quo Vadis, basing itself perhaps on Josephus' writings about her, represents Nero's wife at this time (a woman named Poppaea Sabina) as a Jewish proselyte. It is possible, especially if the Beast of Revelation 13 is indeed intended to refer to the Emperor Nero (as seems likely), that the Whore of Babylon is in part meant to suggest Poppaea, who was notorious for her intrigues, and was accused of moving Nero to murder both his mother and his first wife.

***This may also be the reason that images -- of the true God, as well as idols -- were for the most part forbidden by the Torah. Some, such as the images of the cherubim in the Temple, were specifically commanded, showing that the prohibition of images was not intrinsic and categorical; but the idolatrous conventions of the Ancient Near East was, again, oriented towards polytheism, nature worship, syncretism, and especially fertility rites, all of which would tend to dilute the essential otherness of God that the Torah constantly enjoined upon the Jews. Chesterton has some very illuminating remarks to make on this subject in The Everlasting Man.

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