Inserting St. John the Beloved Disciple’s feast day into the midst of the Christmas Octave makes a powerful statement: if you wish to really get at what’s going on in these days of Christmas, to see into the hidden mystery of who Jesus is, take up St. John’s Gospel and read in faith with trembling hands.
The Gospel begins not with the nativity of Christ “according to the flesh” — as the Apostles creed in Latin words it, natus ex Maria Virgine, “born of the Virgin Mary.” It does not commence with the tense and heart warming story of Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, Magi and animals gathered in a Bethlehem cave. Rather, St. John begins by unveiling before our eyes, amid thick clouds of worshipful incense, the nativity of Christ “before all ages” — as the Nicene creed in Latin words it, ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula, “born of the Father before all ages.” Before Bethlehem, there was, in the eternity of God, an ineffable nativity playing out — again, in the Nicene Latin creed, Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, genitum non factum, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”
It’s hard to even breathe when you let yourself “fall” into what stands behind those words.
Every time I read his Prologue, I am never without a fresh sense of awe as I am thrust back to the dawn of creation. Referring to the pre-incarnate Word, St. John says in 1:3, πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν, “All things through him came into being, and without him came into being not one thing.”
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. In the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel we are thrust back into the innermost mysteries of the all-holy Trinity, whose deepest secrets are laid bare in the naked, newborn flesh of Christ.
Lastly, the Church in her liturgy begins on this Feast to walk us through the three letters of St. John. These letters possess neutron-star density, unpacking for the Church the implications of the Incarnation of a God who is not just loving, but who is love. I so enjoy just looking at the beauty of those Greek words of 1 John 4:7 in which St. John sums up the entirety of the Sacred Scriptures in a single phrase: ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, “God is love.”
I’ll leave you with this Arabic hymn that for me catches the esprit of John’s contemplative sighting: