Observant visitors to the Northwest Nazarene University campus may notice the cornerstone on our learning commons, a stone mounted in the wall featuring four Latin words chiseled in stone: “Verbum caro factum est.” These four words are the hinge for today’s gospel reading, and can be argued as being foundational to all of Scripture.
On this second Sunday after Christmas, our lectionary texts remind worshipers of God’s redeeming work, who gathers the faithful like a shepherd (Jeremiah 37.10c), grants peace to Jerusalem’s borders (Psalm 147.14), and unites all created things together under Christ (Ephesians 1.10). For churches that do not celebrate Epiphany on 6 January this year and substitute those texts on this particular Sunday, there is good news: the Revised Common Lectionary references the first chapter of John’s gospel in all three years of the cycle, so this crucial text is not lost on a congregation if missed during a particular year.
John’s gospel launches with vivid poetry reminiscent of the first verses of Genesis. Both Old and New Testament texts point to beginnings, but John borrows a rich term from Greek philosophy: logos, to describe an essential divine attribute. Translated into English as “word,” it is more than merely a fragment of communication. In Greek philosophy, logos is deeper, richer, and broader, understood more like an activating principle that saturates all of creation. John masterfully uses logos to appeal to his contemporaries who were the product of a Hellenistic education while not obscuring the introduction to his gospel for those who lacked a Greek philosophical upbringing.
John constructs his philosophical introduction of the eternally existent logos as not only creator and giver of life and light, but also in deeply personal terms. For John, the logos is not an inanimate word, but literally a person living among the created order who is able to make us God’s own children!
Eugene Peterson puts John’s description in vivid, everyday terms: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (1.14). Whether in Latin, Verbum caro factum est – or English, “The Word became flesh,” one can argue that those four words in either language are the most essential summation of the entirety of Scripture. Every Christian doctrine hangs from this scaffold. In Latin, the noun in Scripture’s most foundational sentence is quite literally “verb,” underscoring how Jesus actively joined our human condition!
Jesus “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. Literally, John’s language is less about proximity than it is about perceptibility: Jesus dwells in us, or within us. Jesus “rubbed off on us” and now we carry him inus. As significant as the miracle of DNA is, which reveals how we carry our family predecessors around in our genes, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of God, dwells within all who receive him, empowering us to become “children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (NRSV).
Several years ago, Eugene Peterson was asked how his Message paraphrase was given its title. He recounted how he and his family brainstormed a variety of titles, which they sent to his publisher. The Message was not on their list, and Peterson had no idea who nominated the winning title. Theologically, Peterson’s title is spot on: Jesus is the message – or word – or definition of God. One of my former professors used to teach, “God is the kind of Father who would have a Son like Jesus.” Today’s gospel text reminds us that the corollary is also true: Jesus is himself the kind of living message who defines God the Father.”