God’s Words – John 1
It’s officially Advent, literally “the Coming”: the Church’s traditional preview of God’s coming to our world that culminates in Christmas. During Advent, mainline churches celebrate with special liturgies, candles, and Advent calendars. Meanwhile, the rest of the world—believers and nonbelievers alike—are celebrating too. Stores fill with Christmas trappings. Radio stations play Christmas music in earnest. Children write Christmas lists. All around us people are making ready. They—and we ourselves—shop and hum and deck every hall in sight, not to mention front doors, eaves and porches, fireplace mantels, and, most especially, that fragrant tree we dragged in from outdoors—or perhaps bought an artificial version of—to prop up in our living rooms. Advent, for most, is Christmas in advance of Christmas, even for believers.
It wasn’t always such a jolly time in the church calendar. Time was, people fasted during Advent. The ancient hymns of Advent were in minor keys and had gloomy lyrics.
“Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel,” the most enduring of them begs, mourning “lonely exile” and “sad divisions” and “gloomy clouds of night.”
Why so gloomy at Christmastime? I wondered as a child, not understanding that Advent and Christmas were not the same, that what was celebrated at Advent—if the word celebrate can even be used—was not so much “the Coming” as the millennia of waiting that preceded it.
Advent is about the absence of a savior—for all those years in the church’s history and for the earthly years of every individual who has not yet come to faith.
For this reason, for me, the first chapter of John’s gospel is particularly powerful during Advent. Unlike the other accounts of Jesus’ coming, John’s gospel begins not with the birth of the Savior but of this world and the poor dark-hearted humans who inhabited it.
“In the beginning was the word,” Jesus’ best friend John writes. Nowadays we capitalize “the word” in our minds and read on, hearing nothing to do with an actual word but merely what we have been taught it signifies—Jesus—and giving it no further thought.
But, consider. In the beginning of time, a word was spoken. By whom? John doesn’t say any more than the writer of Genesis tells us what manner of company God spoke to when he said, “Let there be light,” then sky and water and dry land, then plants and animals, and then, finally, us. With each new creation, God speaks: “And God said. . . And God said. . . And God said. . .”
I have heard and not heard those words for a lifetime, but only recently—while listening to the opening chapters of John’s gospel and Genesis read tandem—did it come to me that, in the beginning, God was probably speaking to someone, since speaking generally involves at least two: the speaker and the one spoken to.
John’s gospel clears all that up, though. God wasn’t alone in the beginning. The Word was there “with God.” And since, as John helps us see, the Word also “was God” and all things were made “through him,” I suddenly saw the creation as a communal event. God and his precious Son were speaking together. And whatever it was the Son said—his words—resulted in our existence.
What were they saying? In my imagination, I hear a son speaking to his father, like one of my brothers wanting to build something out in the garage with our dad. I hear Adam himself, after the creation, chatting with God about the animals he was busy naming.
“Hey, Dad,” I hear Jesus saying. “Let’s make some people just like us. People I can love on just as you love on me?”
And, because fathers like to give their kids good things, Jesus’ Father obliged. So the Word spoke life into us and light into our world. And here we are.
John’s story, a true story of Advent, gets bleak after that. “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world,” he exults, immediately afterwards lamenting, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
It’s a heartbreaking story. We’re Jesus’ creation, his spoken idea—God’s own children, as we learn a few lines later—but from the start we chose darkness and death, lonely exile and sad divisions, in lieu of his love.
Advent is the commemoration of the darkness out of which humans emerged when the Light came into the world, the same dark longing we emerge from upon coming to faith. And without acknowledging the darkness, it’s hard to appreciate to light—Oh! the Light!—when he comes.
Patty Kirk is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She and her husband Kris live in eastern Oklahoma and have two daughters, Charlotte and Lulu, who are in college. She is the author of five books, most recently The Easy Burden of Pleasing God and The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent. PattyKirk-Writer.Blogspot.com.