Friday, December 31, 2010

John's Prologue

On the last day of the calendar year, the Gospel reading at Mass is the Prologue of John, the first 18 verses of John's Gospel. Prior to the liturgical changes that followed the Second Vatican Council, the first 14 verses were read at the end of every Mass and were known as the Last Gospel. They culminated with the words: "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." Taking the entire Prologue or beginning of John's Gospel, as we do today, one might have the impression that verse 14 is the climax. It isn't.

The Prologue has a chiastic structure. It forms an "X" with the theme of the first verses being repeated in the last verses, and the second set of verses being repeated in the second to the last verses, and the third set of verses being repeated in the third to the last verses. This leaves the most important verses in the very middle. And those verses are not "the Word became flesh."

Take out your Bible and see for yourself, but remember that when the Scriptures were written they were not broken down into verses. The chapters and verses that we now have didn't come about until the 16th Century. So looking only at the number of verses, and not the themes, the verses of John's Prologue are not a perfect chiasm. However, the themes of the verses are what make it chiastic.

The first verses--1 to 5--speak of the Word of God who gives light and life. The last verses--16-18--echo that theme, speaking of the grace that comes to us through the only Son of God who is closest to the Father. The next set--verses 6 to 8--speak of John the Baptist and verse 15 repeats the witness of John. Finally, part three--verses 9 to 11--speak of how the Word came into a world which did not accept Him and the third to the last part--verse 14--declares that the Word was made flesh and came among us.

Which leaves, as the center of the chiastic structure of the Prologue, verses 12 to 13: "But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God." We, the baptized, are at the center of John's Prologue. The Word became flesh and lived, died, and rose among us so that we could become children of God. This happens through the Holy Spirit who joins the baptized to Christ, making us one with Him.

All of this is a way of saying that we are very important to God. Or, as John writes a little later in his Gospel: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." (3: 16). Joined to the Son through baptism, we are now very close to God. How close? The last verse of the Prologue, verse 18, tells us. Joined to Christ, members of His Body, we are, with Him, "at the Father's side."

That translation--"at the Father's side"--is from the New American Bible. There are other translations that make even more clear the intimacy that Jesus and we have with the Father. The Douay-Rheims and King James translations both say that the Son "is in the bosom of the Father." In ancient Hebrew culture, to be "in the bosom" of another described the closest intimacy possible. It was an expression that was used to describe the relationship of a mother and a child, as well as that of a husband and a wife.

The New Revised Standard and New Jerusalem translations have "who is close to the Father's heart," while the old Jerusalem Bible and Revised English Bible translate this phrase "nearest to the Father's heart."

It's natural, when we come to the end of the calendar year, to look back at all the things we've done, and to look forward, anticipating all the things we're going to do in the coming year. I'd suggest that we do our end-of-the-year reflections a little differently. Look back at all the things God has done for you this past year. And instead of looking forward, spend some time savoring your identity. As a beloved child of God through baptism, you are "nearest to the Father's heart." You are "in the bosom of the Father." If we can begin the new year convinced of that, then we will be ready. For what's most important is not so much what we do, but what God has done for us and who we are. We want all that we will do in the coming year to flow from that.

1 comment:

  1. Fr. Jim-wow! This is fascinating to me! I don't know if you have been able to look at my blog lately, but today, as I was praying over the day's readings, that very line that you mentioned as being the most important stood out to me and it is what I wrote my post about today.

    I have never heard of chiastic before, you've given me something new to learn about.

    Thanks so much for this fascinating post-and Happy New Year!