The prologue of John’s gospel has everything: poetry, mysticism, creation, redemption. It is a hymn to the pre-existent Christ, the Word who is “light.” It announces the stunning good news that those who believe can become “children of God.” It celebrates the abundance of the glory we have seen in Christ. It names the lived experience of believers as “grace upon grace.” The emblem of Saint John the Evangelist has traditionally been the eagle, because of the soaring grandeur of the prologue of John’s gospel. Its reputation for graceful flight is well deserved.
John’s gospel is not, however, a story about shepherds and angels. And for that reason, although it is the assigned reading for the Mass on Christmas day, most of the souls who attend will not hear it. Many priests routinely avail themselves of the permission to use other readings in place of the readings proper to the Mass of Christmas day. “People want to hear about shepherds and angels,” a pastor I once worked for told me, “and that’s what we give them.” I’m convinced this represents a loss.
One of the reasons you hear for setting aside the prologue is that it’s “too abstract.” But that’s not actually a fair description. It’s better understood as mystical, and that is something different. Here’s one way you can tell: little children of preschool age, in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, delight in the symbolism of light. They readily understand that Christ is the light, and show it in their drawings. Paschal candles and the color yellow are recurring themes in these drawings; the Christ child gives off rays of light, the Good Shepherd is robed in light, and sheep receive light from the Christ candle. Their delight in Christ as light is obviously not because little children are good at abstract thinking. It’s because they respond to the simple yet profound signs found in John’s gospel.
Light is also a liturgical sign. And liturgical signs are always, by their nature, concrete. But—and here’s the rub—they function as access points to mystery. Here is where I think the church’s ministry too often fails: it does not show people how to enter into mystery. Much sensitivity is needed to bridge the divide between the secular world and its habits of mind, and the sacred, to which gospel and liturgy invite the faithful.
So much of adult life is about facts. Modern people approach reality in ways that tend to be functional and pragmatic. For many adults, entering into a sacred text like the prologue of John’s gospel is like trying to understand and speak a foreign language: the language of sign and symbol, the language of mystery. In this language, words and images point beyond themselves, employing multiple allusions. They reveal now one facet, now another, of something that can be explored but never fully explained: the mystery of God. The infancy accounts of Matthew and Luke are rich with symbol, too, but the mystery is easier to miss. If listeners don’t get down beneath the narrative it remains just a familiar story: Mary, Joseph, the child; a census, the trip to Bethlehem, no room at the inn.
“In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / and the Word was God” is simply not that sort of narrative. The “plot” of the prologue, if you will, is the contest between good and evil. The stark opposition between darkness and light, with the triumph of light over darkness, forms the lynchpin of John’s story.
No wonder people don’t get it. Churchgoers at Christmas expect a tableau. John, instead, gives us a trajectory—from the dawn of time to the gift of salvation. In the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, a child is born. In the prologue of John’s gospel, believers are born—“not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” In a certain sense, we are all players in John’s prologue—whether we embrace or reject the Incarnate Word—in a way that we are not in other tellings of the Christmas story.
Indeed, John’s prologue recapitulates the dynamism of the paschal mystery of Jesus, who died yet rose again and brings others to share in a new life with God. The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke have paschal allusions too, but their more vivid references to evil—the machinations of Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight into Egypt—are found in other episodes not read on Christmas day. Shepherds and angels adore the child. They do not threaten his life.
The prologue of John’s gospel, however, names Christ’s rejection outright: “He came to what was his own, but his own received him not.” I suspect the naked truth of these words causes more discomfort than the image of a newborn babe ever will, despite the fact that if you try you can find a parallel between swaddling clothes in a manger and the burial cloths in Jesus’ tomb.
The liturgy of Christmas offers an array of witnesses—in the Vigil, and in the Masses at night, at dawn, and during the day. We need them all. But perhaps especially we need John on Christmas day, with his witness to the light that “shines in the darkness,” lest we hear again the familiar story of Christmas but miss what’s most essential about it.