This first post-Christmas blog takes as its starting point the Gospel reading John 1.10-18, appointed in Common Worship as the Sunday Gospel for 3 January. Whether accidentally or deliberately I have not focused directly on the historic changes in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union which will come into force at midnight on 31 December. However the positive way I refer to the word ‘widening’ (see below) perhaps offers a clue to my personal view about this development.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Christmas for me would not be Christmas without hearing in worship – at least once – the great ‘Christmas Gospel’, John1.1-14. This year I heard it twice, first at the online carol service held by Holy Trinity, Geneva, where it was read, initially in French and then in English as the final lesson, and then at the online celebration of the Eucharist with Spiritual Communion held on Christmas Day. It also formed the basis of the Christmas Day sermon.
However I do feel a bit sorry for preachers, that after the rightful appearance of John’s Prologue on Christmas Day, part of the Prologue also appears as the lectionary Gospel (in Common Worship, based in turn upon the Revised Common Lectionary) for the Second Sunday of Christmas – in all three lectionary years. Although as it happens, depending on the day of the week that Christmas falls, there is not always such a ‘Second Sunday’. There is however such a Sunday this year. It feels tough that having given this stunning biblical passage one’s all, on Christmas Day, one should be expected to return so closely to it so soon afterwards, with new inspiration and fresh insight.
There are of course ways round the problem, for those who seek them. I note that a clerical friend of mine is fervently observing this coming Sunday as the commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket and the biblical readings will presumably be chosen with that in mind. Nevertheless that feels to me a bit like ‘cheating’ – though undoubtedly with the best and worthiest of intentions. (I note also that The Episcopal Church diverges pragmatically from the Revised Common Lectionary on this Sunday, so our brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Convocation in Europe are likely to be reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ flight in Egypt or Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey as a boy of twelve to Jerusalem.)
Of course the verses from John 1 selected for the two days are not identical. On Christmas Day John 1.1-14 is read; on the Second Sunday of Christmas the text suggested is John 1.10-18 (though in fact it might be better to begin with verse 9), with the possibility also offered of beginning with verse 1 again if one wishes.
Whichever starting point one chooses, the key difference between the Gospel reading for Christmas Day and this coming Sunday is that this Sunday we will also be exploring verses 15-18. What do these verses add to our understanding of John’s Prologue, and its understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ?
It is interesting that though the Prologue clearly begins by alluding to the Book of Genesis – with an ‘echo’ both of Genesis’ first words ‘In the beginning’, and a focus on light’s primordial role in the story of creation, it seems to end instead by alluding to the Book of Exodus. That is explicit in the remark ‘The law was given through Moses’ (John 1.17), but it is also implicit in the comment, ‘No one has ever seen God,’ (1.18) which almost certainly alludes to the intriguing and puzzling 33rd chapter of the Book of Exodus. The theme of this chapter is the quest for the presence of God, primarily with Moses, but through him also with the wandering people of Israel in the wilderness. Moses pleads with God for him to accompany them, ‘If your presence (Hebr. = ‘face’) will not go [with us], do not carry us up from here.’ (Exodus 33.15)
What is fascinating about the chapter is that within the space of a very few verses we are offered two apparently contradictory views as to whether it is possible for Moses to see God or not. So Exodus 33.11 states, ‘Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend’, but later in the chapter Moses is told by God, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live, ’ (Exodus 33.20)… ‘my face shall not be seen’ (Exodus 33.23). This discrepancy may be partly explained by the likelihood that different sources have been amalgamated together in this chapter, but since I tend to work on the basis that the biblical editors were not stupid or careless, if they allowed such an apparent ‘contradiction’ to remain in the text, it is likely to be for a good reason.
There is much more that I could say about this (and perhaps sometime I will have a chance to come back to it), but briefly I think that posing the question ‘can human beings, even Moses, see God?’ and offering two apparently different answers to it, is a way of inviting us to wrestle with the central paradox and dilemma of biblical and Christian faith, namely, how can God allow Godself to be present with human beings – yet also avoid becoming our talisman or puppet? This conundrum is one with which both the Book of Exodus and the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, profoundly engage with.
The question of ‘presence’ is closely linked to the word ‘glory’, itself a word that is (rightly) difficult to pin down but seems to encapsulate a vision of visible divine presence alongside a sense of mystery. God’s refusal to allow Moses to see his face (though allowing him to see his ‘back’, Exodus 33.18) comes in response to the stark and specific request from Moses, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’
It is telling that the initial climax of John’s Prologue (1.14) uses the word ‘glory’ twice, ‘The Word became flesh… and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only son’. It is, I think, the use of this word at this point, and its obvious link to Moses’ plea ‘Show me your glory’, that triggers the following brief reflection on Exodus 33 in verses 17-18. ‘The Word become flesh’ thus constitutes the answer to this plea of Moses, but it also profoundly differentiates the figures of Moses and Christ.
I enjoyed very much my seven years as a member of the tutorial and academic staff of Westcott House theological college in Cambridge. One of my regrets however (due partly to the fact that theological college staff are very busy!) is that I did not take the time while I was there to engage deeply with the writings and ideas of Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott, the college’s founder and after whom it was named. Bishop Westcott was a shining example of the Anglican theological, spiritual and pastoral tradition at its best. Certainly I consider him an exemplar for what it means to study the Bible in a way that is both academically rigorous but also grounded in the life of faith. It is of course well known that Westcott especially cherished the Gospel of John. He also penned a wonderful comment about scripture that I treasure:
‘The whole record of revelation is a record of the manifestation of God’s glory. The Bible is one widening answer to the prayer of Moses, Show me thy glory, which is the natural cry of the soul made for God.’
It is obvious why writing this reflection has reminded me of Westcott’s words – quoting from Exodus 33. It is a lovely description of the Bible to speak of it as a ‘widening answer’ to our human plea to be shown God’s glory. That word ‘widening’ is important – suggesting, as I think Westcott intended to, that our encounter with scripture as both individuals and as part of the Christian community, is to be cherished precisely because there are always more and greater truths about God that we are being invited to discover.
And there is of course a guide on this road. In verse 18 we learn more about him… the ‘only Son’ who is as close to the Father’s heart as the beloved disciple will be to the Son’s own at the Last Supper.
The last word of John 1.18 is ἐξηγήσατο. In transliterated Greek it reads exēgēsato, which is a clue to what I am about to say. It is not completely clear what the English translation of this word should be – though the NRSV chooses ‘has made him (the Father) known’. It has been suggested that ‘has opened the way (to the Father)’ would be an alternative possibility. But if you look at the transliterated Greek a couple of lines above you may see in the letters the word ‘exegesis’ – and you would not be wrong to do so. Because, quite literally, one credible translation of this word in this verse which forms the climax to the Prologue of John is that Christ is described as ‘exegeting’ the Father. ‘Exegesis’ is of course normally understood as the art of interpreting Scripture – or other written texts. It invites us to explore in detail the factors that brought them into being, the art of the words that make them up, and what they might be saying to us in our contemporary situation. To reflect on Jesus Christ as the ‘exegete’ of the Father opens up to us insights that may be both creative and profound.
Above I referred to Bishop Westcott as an exemplar of the best of the Anglican tradition. There is also another Anglican bishop that I would place in this bracket, though the difference is that in his case I was privileged to know him personally. It is Bishop Kenneth Cragg, whom my husband and myself were proud to be able to call a family friend. Kenneth is best known for his important role in Christian-Muslim engagement. But he was also a poet and a wordsmith, and one of the privileges of being on his Christmas card list was that each December we received a card, typed on an increasingly wonky typewriter, with a poem that Kenneth had written for that Christmas. Eventually many were collected together and published in a lovely book The Lowly Lintel, of which I have a copy. But it is the wonky originals that are my real treasure! One Christmas Kenneth wrote a poem The Exegete (subtitled – naturally! – in Greek and Latin ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο …. ipse enarravit). Drawing on John 1.18, it explores the idea I have raised above that the life of Jesus Christ, exegetes for us the ‘text’ of God and the ‘text’ of our world. It is (like many of Kenneth’s later writings!) quite demanding to read, but I invite you to take the time to look at it carefully and discover its half-hidden treasures, which are exploring what it means to speak of Jesus Christ as exegete:
The text of our perplexity
Life’s heavy score of scars,
The puzzle of identity
Intention in the stars.
Vast depths of far elusive space,
The human comedy,
Long centuries of earth’s disgrace,
Their toll of tragedy.
What exegesis could suffice
These riddles to explain
Or must the necessary price
Eternal drama did enact
Through finite birth to show
The infinitely gentle fact
Our yearning souls should know.
The fact a Father’s Son-like deed
That seeks our low estate.
Consents our motherhood to need,
All mothers consecrate.
With text of self-expending grace
In far redemptive reach
The Name, the narrative, the Face
His Galilee did teach.
The final paradox of truth,
Gethsemane by night
Where wrong and hate made wilful proof,
Of darkness over light.
Divine compassion legible
The sovereignty proved credible
With nail-torn honesty.
This school of faith, this blessed sign
Of love’s veracity,
Perpetuate in bread and wine
Of these insignia possessed,
Doubt’s ministries refined,
Be Christ-discipleship confessed,
 B.F.Westcott, The Revelation of the Father, London; Macmillan, 1884, p.164