Today is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. You will appreciate that I have some affinity with and affection for a Christian writer whose name I bear. But I want to draw attention to John as a non-writer today.
The Gospel bearing his name begins as none of the other three do: with an extended theological reflection on Jesus as the Word of God. John sustains this marvelous meditation for just a few verses, then mixes it in with the career and testimony of John the Baptist until verse eighteen—and then drops the whole “Logos” thing for the rest of the book.
John clearly aimed to glorify his Lord in the loftiest terms available in the Hellenistic world, and he did. Christians have marveled and mused and meditated on these verses ever since. But he couldn’t keep it going.
Why not? Well, for one thing, John was a fisherman by trade. Not a lot in his background to work with in producing extended disquisitions on the most abstract and general themes in the highest intellectual reaches of his culture.
For another thing, however, John wisely follows the old writer’s workshop dictum: “Write what you know.” John begins his first epistle with, yes, a brief reference to the Word, but then focuses on what he knows:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard” (I John 1:1-3).
John was overwhelmed by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He tells us at the end of his Gospel that “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Too much to say! So he says what he knows, and focuses on that which will reveal the heart of the good news.
Fisherman John was in good company in writing what he could and then stopping. One of the greatest minds the Christian Church has ever produced, that of Thomas Aquinas, encountered God in prayer one day so powerfully that he stopped writing his massive summary of doctrine, the Summa Theologica. “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”
A few centuries later another Christian genius, the scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal who gave us one of the classics of Christianity—and mere notes toward a book he never got to write—the Pensées, encountered God in prayer and could only mutter, “From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve … FIRE … God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not of the philosophers and savants. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.”
The Word so exceeds our words!
Let us write theology with the greatest diligence and creativity we can muster. Let us preach with accuracy and eloquence. Let us share the gospel with precision and vivacity.
Let us not, however, forget that the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, has made us his Words to the world (John 15:27). As Paul says about the Corinthians, “You are our letter,” you yourselves are the communication of God.
In these twelve days of Christmas, therefore, may we be like John, who wrote so splendidly about the Incarnation only to exhort his readers, “Let’s not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (I John 3:18).
As my friend Carolyn Arends reminds us, Emmanuel is indeed “God with us,” and we praise him at Christmastime “now in flesh appearing”—but so we, too, are the Word made flesh.
O come, let us adore him, and declare the Word as much as we can—using words, as Francis of Assissi said, when necessary. (Here’s the video of Carolyn’s terrific song.)