I was eight or nine years of age when I was chosen, with a few of my school friends, to be an altar server in our local Church. With the priest facing the sanctuary wall, his back to the congregation, Mass then was mostly a private ritual conducted by the priest, entirely in Latin, which congregations witnessed as spectators. There was little or no congregational participation, and no dialogue, apart from the altar servers making a few responses in Latin.
To the anger of some Catholics, this Rite of Mass was superseded in the 1960s by the Mass as we know it today where now all the prayers of the Mass and the Scriptures are in our own native tongue; and where the priest and people fully participate in the celebration.
This old rite of Mass ended with the priest, his back to the people, inaudibly reciting in Latin the text of today’s Gospel. It began in Latin as: In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum … and translates as In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Of the four Gospels, St Mark’s begins with the baptism of Jesus. Matthew and Luke begin theirs with stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy. However, St John begins his Gospel with a poetic theological reflection. It opens by going back in time and using the very first words in the Bible – in the beginning … in principio … Here John presents Jesus as existing from the very beginning of time, taking human form or becoming incarnate here on earth, then being rejected ‘by his own’ only to eventually be raised in glory. Thus in that introduction John gives us a summary of the life of Jesus.
He describes God as becoming human in Jesus as ‘the Word was made flesh, [he] lived among us and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father …’
The easiest way to understand what John means by referring to Jesus as Word becoming flesh is to think of how and why we use words or language. I am using words now to convey my thoughts to you. Words are the means we use to communicate with each other. In John’s Gospel Jesus is presented as the definitive WORD God uses to relate or communicate with us. So Jesus as the WORD is the visible human expression of God, the channel through whom God enters into a relationship with us, in a way we would understand and thus be drawn into the life of God.
As we leave behind another year and enter a new one, it is good for us to remember why God became human, beginning as a vulnerable child. It’s so that whatever life throws at us, we are not alone. Jesus , the Word made Flesh, is with us, now and always.
Holy Name, Jesmond
2 January 2022