The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > Advent reflection: “the life was the light”

Advent reflection: "the life was the light"

By: KAYA WEAVER

To reflect on the arrival of Jesus this Advent season, the dancers and I studied John 1:1-18 (NRSVUE) with an eye to the question: what was the first thing John wanted readers of his Gospel to know about the arrival of Jesus and what it meant? New questions arose as we read the passage, and these framed our discussion.

 

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.

 

Does John refer to “light” and “darkness” literally or metaphorically?

The opening phrase of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning,” points to the opening of the Hebrew Bible, which starts the same way in Genesis 1:1 (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1908). John’s imagery of light and darkness also recalls the first day of creation. We turned to Genesis 1 (NRSV) to get a more detailed picture of light and darkness in biblical imagination.

 

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 

 

In Genesis 1, “darkness” is already present before God speaks the first creative word; darkness characterizes the unordered, empty state of things before God intervenes. 

 

3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

 

When God speaks, light emerges and pushes darkness aside. God begins to order and form creation by demarcating a space for darkness and a space for light. No longer does darkness cover everything. Likewise, John highlights the indelibility of light shining in the darkness. The life that God makes through the Word pushes aside darkness, and as long as they are creating, darkness is kept in its place.

 

What is the relationship among Word, God, life, and light?

To untangle John’s interwoven metaphors, we drew a diagram that looked something like this:

 

The overlapping “God” and “Word” text shows that God and the Word are not only together but also identified with each other. The light beam pointing from “God/Word” intersects both words to show that God created through the Word and both participated in the creative act. “Life” identifies the result of that creative act, and the bright color seeping from “Life” represents the light, which John identifies with the life that God and the Word created. The black background signifies the darkness, which is displaced by the light.

Drawing this image helped us see how in the same way that light overtakes darkness, life pushes aside inert, uncreated emptiness. The light in the visual representation also suggested to us a connection between God/the Word, the living things that they create, and the ongoing pushing away of darkness. The Creator puts something into the creation which emanates from the creation to push aside the emptiness of non-creation.

 

What is the symbolic significance of the light?

 

John 1:6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 

Earlier, John the Gospel writer identifies “life” created by God through the Word with “light.” He describes John the witness, who speaks about the light but “himself was not the light.” Created beings on their own do not push away the darkness; “the true light” is a particular person whose arrival John the witness anticipates and who gives others light that shines in the darkness.

 

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 

John the Gospel writer continues in the theme of creation and life, but he shifts from the imagery of light to the imagery of birth, distinguishing birth “of God” from birth of physical means. The movement conveyed by the image of being “born…of God” parallels the movement in verses 1-5 where life comes into being through the Word. The light coming into the world gives people “power to become children of God.” The light is someone who enables the connection between God and created beings signified by the beam of light in our diagram: being brought into life by God. This person infuses created things with life that defies the emptiness of non-creation as birth defies non-being.

In order to be filled with the light that shines in the darkness, to be a life that doesn’t simply return to nothingness, a person needs the connection with God that the light brings, or that exists through the Word.

 

What changes when Jesus arrives?

 

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, himself God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

 

Jesus, the Son of God, is the embodiment of the Word through which life comes into being. He is the light which “enlightens everyone” so that light can shine through us against the darkness. John writes that though this light was already in the world, “the world did not know him.” People were born “of blood” and “of flesh,” but not receiving the light, this birth didn’t convey the fullness of life that comes through being “born…of God.” The Word became perceptible to our senses to make God known, so that we could receive the Word and the connection we need to have life.

One implication of John’s message in chapter 1 is that we have an active role in receiving life from God. God gives us life in creation, yet we must know God and accept the light of God’s Word. On the other hand, God is not passive after the initial act of creation or physical birth. The Word, who is God, comes to us and reveals God, making God known so that we may receive the light. Jesus’s arrival is a clear act of God’s initiative to be known and to be received rather than hiding in mystery or giving up on ignorant humanity. The advent of Jesus is a sure sign that God relentlessly pursues us in love. No matter how far we are from knowledge and acceptance of God, God has already come to us at Christmas and given us a way to know God and have life through Jesus.

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