An Occasional and Meditative Commentary
on the Beginning of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ
According to St. John
An Occasional and Meditative Commentary
Lord, open my eyes to see clearly and without fail what you have prepared for me in the text of scripture.
In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deo, et Deus erat Verbum.
From the outset, St. John speaks at the highest level, to draw us up. Principio is open to multiple senses: it is a temporal principio or an atemporal. Both. Atemporally, the Word was with God as the absolute principle, as unoriginate in substance. Temporally, because St. John speaks of the beginning of creation— creation, which, being apt to change, being in potency to received perfections, is always in time. IN the time of creation, the Word is first, but in eternity the Word is always already there. Principio . . . as the cause, as the marker or measure, as the moment.
Verbum. Christ is the Word. It is the Word we are told was there in Principio. Λογος. The inner word of God, the self-understanding of the Godhead, His wisdom, which is expressive of itself, His self-revelation to creatures, His knowledge of all His effects through himself, His truth, His judgment, His infinite clarity, the Word. That which he spoke to call the universe out of nothingness into being. That by which he creates and recreates, condemns and forgives, makes covenants and implores. His Word which is spoken incompletely in the mouths of the prophets and testified to imperfectly in the faith of the ancients.
Et Verbum erat apud Deum
The Word was with God, in this beginning, temporal and atemporal — the Word accompanied God. There is therefore a distinction already of supposits: one called "God", another called "Word", but co-eternal with the one called "God". But in this distinction we already perceive the relation between the two distinguished. It is by their relation that we are informed of their distinction.
Et Deus erat Verbum.
Now the mode of speaking changes. We have already been shown the Word, the Word's co-eternity, the Word's distinction and eternal relation with the other co-eternal, and now we are told the essence of the Word. First "god " was used to designate the person of the Father, now to designate the essence of the Godhead. Question: does the distinction between person and essence in God nullify the claim that God is not in a genus, or a species? No, because the essence subsists as one, but in 3 persons. The esse of the persons is one.
The Word being God is by the same act of being as God the Father. But they are distinct.
Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.
"Hoc" This one. St. John emphasizes again that the Word is his subject, is co-eternal, etc.
Omnia per ipsum facta sunt
Next he informs us of the agency of the Word. Everything is made "per ipsum". Through him. Again the relationality of the Word's nature within the Godhead is emphasized. The Father does not act alone, nor does the Son. The Father, who was first called "God", acts through the Word, who is called "God" second. And if we recall Genesis 1, we remember again how God is described as creating the world. "And God said, 'Let there be light'. And there was light." Since God does not speak by sounds, and does not change, the account must be taken figuratively. In each act of creation, there are 3: God speaking, the Words being spoken, and God affirming:
—the Word proceeding
—the Spirit as love
The act of the Word in this is to be the expression by which God creates. The intention of God for creatures on the part of God.
Et sine Ipso factum est nihil quod factum est
And he continues, emphasizing the co-creative role of the Word, saying not only that everything was made through Him, but excluding the existence of anything created without Him.
In Ipso vita erat
In ipso, i.e. in the Word, there was life. What is life? Life is the first act of an organized animated body, according to Aristotle. But in St. John's use, we think of life more generally as the principle by which self-moving things seek their end. In the Word there was life. The word is the source of all creation, is the presence in God of the self-knowledge of the Godhead through which God creates the world. The Word is life because, God being both origin and end of creation, and the Word being the mediator between Godhead and creation, the Word is both the principle of origin of the universe, and the principle of the government of the universe, by which it tends toward and achieves its end. Thus the life of every individual thing and the life of the cosmos as a whole, at each moment and though all time, is supplied by the Word.
Et vita erat lux hominum.
That life, then, the life which is the fount of all life, which exists in the Word, is a light of men. What is light? Light is the medium by which we see things. Where there is light, the eye can grasp the forms of what is in front of it, but without light there is blindness. That the life of the Word would be considered "light" is reasonable, because the life of the Word is the principle of the government of the cosmos. But that the life of the Word is said to be a "light of men" is more astonishing, because this implies that human beings are capable of seeing and understanding by that light. This is St. John's first clue as to the relationship destined by God for humanity. If the life of the Word is the light of men, then by the mediation of the life of the Word, men must be made able to grasp some object and understand it. But the dignity of the object grasped is as excellent as the medium through which it is grasped. If, then, men are to understand by the mediation of the life of the Word, then the object they are destined to see by that light can be nothing other than the Godhead itself.
Et lux in tenebris lucet.
We are told next that this light, which is in the Word, and which is the light of men, shines into the darkness. By this image, St. John conveys to us the starkness of the dissimilarity and distance between God and creatures. The LORD is He Who Is, and in Him is life, which is the principle by which all things are, and by which all things seek their ends. The light which illuminates all things, which is the light of men, which is the radiance of the Godhead, shines into the darkness. What is creation, then, but darkness? The radiance of the Sun consists in its being the source of its own light, so that everything else which is illuminated by it is, in itself, dark. The light of the created world is a borrowed light, which throws back, imperfectly, a reflection of the infinite light of the Godhead toward the cosmogenic center from which flows all truth, order, and existence. And it is only what faces the light that is illuminated, and it is only illuminated insofar as it can return the light toward its source.
This phrase can also be understood as a description of the mission of Christ. Christ is the Sun, whose light, grace, radiates into the darkness. Christ is the Word, the light, sent by the Father, into the darkness of the world which does not know Him. The light shines into the darkness.
Et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.
And the darkness has not comprehended it. Comprehenderunt is taken in multiple senses. In its most obvious sense, it means to comprehend, to understand. This way it foreshadows what St. John will tell us shortly: that he came unto his own, and they rejected him. The light, shining into the darkness, is not understood by the darkness, and the darkness rejects the light.
In another sense, comprehenderunt suggests the fullness of a thing's grasp of another. The light shining into the darkness is not encompassed by the darkness, or enclosed in darkness, or measured by the darkness, but remains foreign to the darkness, unmastered by it, unmeasured by it, with it and in its midst but utterly foreign to it.
In a third sense, comprehenderunt could suggest being overcome. The light shines into the darkness as one side of a dualism ventures forth into the territory of the other to do battle. And it is not overcome by the darkness. The darkness may seek to obliterate the light, but the light of the Word, which is the light of men, which is in the Word as Life and shines forth into the darkness, is not overcome by the darkness which is its enemy.
Fuit homo missus a Deo
The change of subject is startling, but we notice that from the description of the Word, we passed to the description of the Word's creative act, and to the description of the Life which exists in the Word, which is the light of men, and then to the shining forth of that light into darkness. Now in a similar vein we learn of a man who is sent, and sent — like light is sent into the darkness . . . like the Life of the Word shining into the world . . . like the light of Christ blazing forth from the Godhead in the first moment of creation — to enlighten men so that they might see their God when he appears.
Cui nomen erat Johannes
St. Thomas divides St. John's introduction of St. John the Baptist into four parts: a man, sent by God, named John, who came as a witness. The name "John" means "graced by the LORD". That St. John the Baptist was the precursor and not the Messiah is clear from this name, since to be an object of grace is to be distinct from grace itself, since what receives a thing cannot be the source of what it receives. John receives the grace of his mission.
Hic venit in testimonium
He came in testament. John comes as a witness. This has at least two senses: first, that he comes to proclaim the truth about the one coming after him; second, that his coming is the fulfillment of a testament (something proclaimed, some covenant earlier announced) made by the prophets. St. John is one announced, who himself comes to make an announcement. There is something wonderful in this declaration hic venit. John arrives among us, but where does he come from? Not from heaven, but, being merely a man, he comes from among us. The testament he comes to bear is something already announced, which is being perfected through his mission. St. John the Baptist is transformed by the mission given to him, and is cleansed (as we learn in St. Luke's Gospel) in the womb for his mission. As God says to the prophet Jeremiah "before you were born, I consecrated you". The purification by which John is prepared for his mission reminds us also of the purification he calls us all to undergo in preparation for the arrival of the Word in our midst. Parate viam Domini! John is purified for his mission, we are purified before the reception of the Word, because our nature is broken and stained with sin from the time of our conception. The one who comes from among us in order to proclaim the arrival of the Word who brings us true light, is purified just as an unclean vessel is purified before it is used to pour out clean water. And the water John is sent to pour out upon Israel is the water of conviction which leads to repentance, so that, in a spirit of contrition and humility, we will be ready to receive the living water of grace given by Christ.
Ut testimonium perhiberet de lumine
He came in testament, so that he might give testimony concerning the light. He came in witness, so that he might witness. John is the first to see, the first to witness the advent of the Word publicly. What had taken place already in the hidden light of Christ with Ss. Mary and Joseph is proclaimed openly by John in the place of repentance. It is those who come to John to be convicted of sin who stand by as John announces the presence of the Word in our midst. John is the model of preachers. He comes to prepare the way, so that we might recognize the one arriving, but also so that we might in turn prepare the way, and announce, as he announced, the coming of Christ.
Ut omnes crederent per illum.
The threefold description of the activity of St. John the Baptist concludes here. He came in testimony, to bear testimony concerning the light, so that all might believe through him. He came, he came to testify, he came to testify so that they might believe. Here the earlier mention of the life in the Word, which is light, finally makes contact with the elicited act on the part of humanity which we perform by the light of the Word: to believe, to have faith or assurance. It is through the instrumental agency of St. John the Baptist that we are to believe, to assent to the Word when He arrives. The order of the proclamation of the Gospel is consistent: the preacher is purified, the preacher is sent to testify, the testimony of the preacher is received, the testimony received readies those who receive it, and they, when they receive it, are then prepared to receive the Word, when He appears. Theologians speak often of the prevenient grace which prepares the soul to receive sanctifying grace. St. John's mission was that of all preachers: to prepare the way of the Lord, and to be a natural vessel which bears the supernatural prevenient grace by which we can assent to the Truth when it is given to us supernaturally. And the goal of all of this, so far as John's agency is concerned, is to enable us to have faith. But the agency of the Word, when He appears among us, extends far beyond this.
Non erat ille lux, sed ut testimonium perhiberet de lumine.
The Baptist is not the light. The light, again, is what the life of the Word is in relation to men. Notice that not only is the Baptist not himself the light which is the life in the Word, but he does not himself bear that light to men, but only testimony about it. Thus the followers of the Baptist have not themselves already received the light of faith, but have received testimony about it so as to expect its arrival, to be prepared when He appears.
Erat lux vera
The light, identified with the life of the Word, is now called "true". The true light, or the light which is true. We speak of a thing as "true" when it possesses the nature of a thing fully, and not imperfectly or according to some lesser analogy. A true tree is not a tree by analogy (as for example are the painting of a tree or a shrub which is likened to a tree) but belongs fully to the genus "tree", and has all the actuality of a tree that makes it a tree. In this way the light is called "true" because it has the fullness of the nature of light. But what is it to be "light"? The scientists speak of light in one way (as electromagnetic waves or radiation), but in the first place to be light is to be the medium by which things are seen, as we have already mentioned. So the true light is the light which possesses the fullness of what it is to be the medium by which things are seen or known.
Quae illuminat omnem hominem
The Word, which is being identified as the "true light" here, is now said to be that which illuminates all men. In what way does the Word illuminate all men? Actually, the Word illuminates all men, because to be human is to have the capacity to know things intellectually, to see them as they are and grasp their natures. This intellectual grasp of things differs from the ordinary sensate knowledge of things held by all animals, and works by a different sort of light. Where visible light is necessary to receive the visible forms of things, the light of the intellect enables us to grasp them as what they are. The physical eye lights upon shapes and colors, but the eye of the intellect lights upon being. And so just as the physical light which is the medium of sight is that which receives, by its interaction with each particular visible object, the color of that object, and is potentially all colors, so the light which illuminates the intellect of man must be that principle of being which is the basis of the essences of all things. In ordinary experience it would be wrong, I think, to identify the Word with the natural light of the intellect, since it is not by the light of the Word indwelling in the mind that we understand what things are. However, this understanding and illumination is in every case merely an approximation of the illumination and understanding provided by the Word, who is the exemplar and principle of all understanding.
Speaking potentially, the Word is the light which illuminates all men, because without the agency of the Word indwelling in the mind, it is impossible to receive the true light of faith, and without union with the Word in heaven, it is impossible to receive the light of glory, which is the final perfection of the intellect.
Venientem in hunc mundo.
First, St. John introduced us to the Word, his existence within the Godhead, his agency in creation, his significance for mankind as life and light. Second, he introduced us to the precursor, St. John the Baptist, his being sent, that which he was sent for, and the limitations of his agency. Now finally we are told about the event for which the Baptist was sent as precursor. The true light is coming into the world. Notice that when we think of this light coming into the world, we think of two things: first, the light illuminating the world, and making evident the truth of the things of this world; second, the light illuminating the minds of men, and making it possible for them to see truly the things which are beyond this world, in God.
The fact that He was "coming" into this world suggest motion on the part of the one coming. From the normal human perspective, it is reasonable to think of the world as that to which things come. But consider that the Word does not change, and God does not change, so that if we consider what actually is being transformed in the process of the light coming into the world, we must conclude that it is the world which is being drawn closer to God, the world which suddenly radically intersects with the personal existence of the Word, and is forever transformed by that intersection.
In mundo erat
He was in the world... St. John has told us that the Word was coming into the world. Now he says that "he was in the world". This is taken in two senses: in one sense, it speaks of the immanence of the Godhead, and therefore of the Word, in the created order, the existence, persistence, and natural agency of which is directly dependent on the constant presence of God. God is always in the world, not locally, but (as St. Thomas tells us) by his power, which created and sustains it, by his knowledge of all things which are present to him immediately, and by his essence, which stands in an immediate relation to all things and is utterly simple and therefore everywhere.
In a second sense, St. John speaks of course of the incarnation, the personal and local presence of the Word in the world in the human nature of Jesus Christ.
Et mundus per ipsum factus est
He was in the world, and the world was made through him. St. John next highlights the relationship between the world and the Word. The world was made through the Word of God, and now the Word stands locally within that which he made, like a builder who had walked into his completed house. Note that the Word stands in the world as Jesus Christ standing within space and time, but also as the eternal Word standing within the human nature of Jesus Christ, and allowing himself to be confined (so to speak) by the limitations of that nature. Christ takes on the world as a garment, which he has made, and surely the whole of creation has no greater dignity than that which it gains by being taken up to clothe the Word of God.
Et mundus eum non cognovit.
Several questions occur: What is the mundus referred to here? What is the mode of knowledge which it fails to attain? How is it that it does not know the Word, whose life is the light of men? The world spoken of seems clearly to be the world of humanity, which is clear, I believe, from the fact that the faculty of knowledge is attributed to it. This verse is a condemnation of the world, of humanity, for failing to recognize the master which created it, when he had dignified the world by making himself locally present within it. In what way do men fail to know the Word? The failure is not to know the person of Jesus Christ, but to know him as the Word, and therefore to know the Word as present in the world. Why do they not know? Because they are turned away from the light.
In propria venit
He came into his own. What is it to belong to someone? What was the Word coming into that was his own? And in what way was it his own? Belonging, I think, means that someone has care of a thing and charge over its disposition, so that not only is the business of its ordination to an end a concern of the one who owns it—the way the thing achieves its end is under the power and influence of the one who owns it. In this way the end of that which is owned is subordinated to the end of the owner, and the manner of its activity toward that end is directed in accord with the will of the owner. By this understanding, the propria into which the Word comes is the created world. But more particularly, more obviously, the Word comes to his own people, and it is this reading which seems stronger, given the second half of the verse. The Word comes to Israel, the chosen people, the people who were set apart as his own from the time of Abraham. And he arrives among them.
Et sui eum non receperunt.
And his own did not receive him. Here we see that St. John probably is speaking of Israel, and not of the created order at large. Recall that the natural world gave certain signs of recognition at the advent of the Lord. But the people of Israel did not recognize him or welcome him. He was despised and rejected.
Quotquot autem receperunt eum
St. John follows up his previous condemnation of the world for not receiving its Creator with a qualification: but however many received him. The world did not receive Him, but some number within the world received Him. This raises the question for us, which we failed to discuss earlier: what does it mean to receive Him? To accept Him, to recognize Him, to welcome Him, to treat Him with the honor due to Him... St. John will clarify further as he proceeds through his Gospel.
Dedit eis potestatem filios Dei fieri
He gave to them the power to be made sons of God. The logic of this line is wonderful, because it seems to express most concisely the working of grace. The Word gives, to those who receive him, the power, to be made sons of God. There is an extraordinary alternation of agencies here. The first act is on the part of the Word: to create. Then secondly, God sends the precursor, who acts on His behalf: to prepare. Third, the Word comes into the world. Fourth, some number of those in the world receive the Word. Fifth, the Word gives power to those who receive him, and this power is a power of those who receive Him. Sixth, the power enables those who receive the Word to be made: it is the power to become obedient to the formation of another. Seventh, it is the power to be made filios Dei, sons of God: to be made anew by God as a child of the Godhead, and therefore to be made a participant, as all children are participants in the natures of their parents, in the nature of the Godhead.
His qui credunt in nomine ejus
Now St. John doubles back. He has completed the first full account of the aim of salvation, which was suggested already in the line "et vita erat lux hominum". As we proceed, the message will only become clearer and more definite. Here we get a clarification of who it is who received the Word, and therefore who will receive this power to be made: those who believe in his name. Note that this "credunt" is put in the present tense. It is a general offer, not something restricted to the time of the Advent of the Word among us, or to the generations of Israel alive in those days.
His qui credunt in nomine ejus. To those who believe in his name. What does it mean to believe in someone's name? What is a name? A name is a signifier by which the mind identifies some concept or impression of a thing which has been received by it in the past. Names point to the essences of things. The names of persons tell us who they are: where they are from, what they are called, what their reputations are. Though in practice a name may say little, the full name of a person can be thought of as nothing less than the story of their genesis and journey through life. To possess the name of a thing is to possess what it is to be that thing. To know the true name of God is to grasp who God is, to have the power to call on God personally. This was perhaps the greatest mystery of the Mosaic covenant: possession of the Name of God. What does the Word have to do with the Name of God? The Word is in God, and is God, and is therefore the fullness of the expression of the essence of God in himself, from himself, to himself. There is nothing in the essence of the Godhead that is not in the Word. The Word, then, is the Name of God, the true Name of God, as spoken by God to Himself, and grasped fully by Himself, comprehensively, in a way that no creature can ever approach.
To believe is to think with assent. Belief is of two basic sorts: apprehension and judgment. Some belief is in judgments, which are synthetic acts of the mind comparing two notions and affirming or denying their relationship with each other in a thing. But before judgment and after judgment there is the belief which is simply the mind's immediate grasp of what is, from which judgments are formed, and to which judgments contribute as they are made. Evidence of the primacy of apprehension can be found in the simple fact that one cannot quantify the number of beliefs one holds, because beliefs, as propositions or judgments, are merely potential particular expressions of general apprehensions and ideas about the reality of things.
To believe is to think with assent, and to believe is always in one way or another a recognition of what some thing is, or is not.
What is difficult in believing in the Name of the Word is that the Word as Word cannot be seen, but the Word as present personally and locally in the world, can be seen, but in such a way that the world does not recognize Him for who He is. Thus the condition: to receive the power St. John has spoken of (the power to be made a son of God), one must first receive the Word, that is, one must believe in His name. But in order to believe in this Name, one must first be given the ability to see. And what is that thing, the medium by which we are made able to see what things are? Light. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines into the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it. Within the very process of receiving the grace of Sonship, there is another process of receiving the grace of Faith, which is preceded in turn by the process of receiving the grace of Preparation. At every turn there is a dance of presence, calling, reception, offering, becoming, in which the agency of humanity is both instrument of and respondent to Divine action, so that in the end, while it seems that those who receive this gift are free all along, and are choosing to do or not to do, to succeed or to fail, there is no part of the act of transformation which is not accomplished by the illumination, arrival, presence, sending forth, and gift of God.
Qui non ex sanguinibus
St. John's Brücknerian ascent in this prologue to the heights of glory continues. He has told us that those who believe in His name will be given the power to become sons of God. Now he explains. Sons born not of blood. St. Thomas tells us that the relationship between a parent and child, the relationship of paternity or filiation (depending on the direction considered) is based on the act of generation. And generation is the procession of a living thing from a conjoined living principle. It might be added that generation is truer insofar as the one proceeding is of a like nature to that from which it proceeds, and therefore perfect when the one proceeding is of the same nature as that from which it proceeds. Blood, in common speech and the ordinary metaphor (of the English language, at least, and I will venture to extrapolate), represents the character shared by those united by bonds of paternity and fraternity. Blood stands for the common form of the family. When St. John tells us that they are not born of blood, he indicates that the mode of generation between these sons of God and God is not the same as natural, material generation. It is not a bodily generation, but a spiritual one.
Neque ex voluntate carnis
Not only is the generation by which we become sons of God one which occurs by the communication of a physical form, or one of physical relationship; neither is it one that occurs out of the will of the flesh, or animal desire. And, since the will of the flesh can be understood to mean (as it often does in the New Testament) the inclinations of the body as deformed through the presence of concupiscence.
Neque ex voluntate viri
Nor from the will of man. This generation occurs not by the communication of a physical form, nor by the inclination of the flesh to reproduce, nor even by human will. What makes us children of God is nothing in our bodily nature, nothing desired by physical appetite, and nothing accomplished by the human will. Consequently we must admit that the re-generation of man as a child of God is accomplished passively, not by the one re-generated, nor by the merely human willing of any instrumental cause (preacher, teacher, etc.).
Sed ex Deo nati sunt.
Returning to the idea of generation discussed above, we can see the reasonableness of the limitation of this power to God alone. If generation is the procession of a living being from a conjoined living principle, and to become a child of God one must, so to speak, be re-generated as such by God, then God, being a pure spirit and therefore co-extensive in his substance with his own intellect and will, must perform the act of re-generation by his mere will. To become a child of God is nothing other than to be known by God and loved by God as a child of God. We think of the line from the Roman Canon: Quam oblationem tu, Deus, in omnibus, quæsumus, benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque facere digneris... in which we ask, in the person of the Priest, who acts in persona Christi, that God would enroll and regard the offerings placed before him, so that they might become the Body and Blood of Christ. What makes them become the Body and Blood of Christ is nothing more than being regarded and enrolled as such by God, whose knowledge of things as they are is the cause of their being what they are. God's knowing and loving us as His children is what makes us his Children. And this not simply in a legal fashion, where the enrollment or recognition effects nothing aside from a change in aspect under which the thing is considered, but in a real fashion, as fundamentally transformative of what we are.
And what is this change brought about by God's recognition and will that we be his children? It is not like any other act of creation, though all such acts occur by the power of God's knowledge. Where other acts of creation lead to the being of creatures which, while bearing a distant analogical likeness to the creator, and participating in their own finite way in the act of existence by which God sustains the whole universe, this act of filial re-generation unites us to the Godhead in our natures, in what we are, so that the humanity which we were born with, of blood, and the will of the flesh, and the will of man, is superseded and transfigured by the divine nature, to which we are conformed and joined. In this moment of adoption we become like so many prodigal sons, estranged from a Father we had never properly known, only to feel the call home to become members of his household. And the path of the present life is simply the journey home to that reunion, which is in a profound way a first meeting.
Et Verbum caro factum est
The Word was made flesh. Recall what St. John has already told us: without the Word nothing that has been made was made. If the Word is to become anything, that means not that the Word is suddenly coming into existence, but that something is coming into existence which is united perfectly with the Word, which is the expression of the interior and eternal self-understanding of the Godhead. The Word was not always flesh, but became or was made flesh. Thus this incarnation is a temporal event. It happens at a particular "when" in history, and just like all historical events, it is finite. There was a moment when God was united to something created, when something was created which was in its very act of being united to God. Notice the union of passivity with impassivity; uncreated being with created being; eternity with history. This union is paradoxical. It is not contradictory, but it is unexpected because it involves the conjunction of radical opposites.
Furthermore, the Word unites itself to flesh. Since flesh is material and particular, this means that the union is not merely a moral or spiritual union, but a union with a particular material thing. And since flesh is the flesh of a living thing, this means that the Word unites itself to a particular living thing which possesses flesh. The Word becomes embodied in an embodied being.
Et habitavit in nobis
The Word dwelt. The Word made a home, resided, lived, stayed. The union between the Word and flesh was a stable union, a union involving an entire life and way of life of the one with whom the Word united himself, so that that full life, its stable conditions, its activity, its dwelling in the world, are expressions of the Word and actions of the person of the Word.
The Word dwelt among us. The union of the Word and a creature is a union which is not only stable, not only with something having a living material body, but is a union which places the Word personally in our midst: union with a particular human being, who acts as a human being, who dwells as a human being among other human beings, who associates with us as a human being.
Et vidimus gloriam ejus
And we have seen His glory. What is glory? St. Augustine defines it as clara notitia cum laude, which could be rendered as "brilliant renown with praise". Glory is the effusive luminosity which proceeds from something's goodness, which the basis of its praise. The world was created for the glory of God, i.e., as an expression of his goodness shining forth in the form of creatures, and returning to Him to offer praise and adoration. To see the Glory of God is to grasp how the whole created world points back in reflection to the infinite goodness of the one who made it. But to see the Glory of the Word is something different: it is not merely an acquaintance with the goodness of God as creator, but with the personality of the Word, who brings us into the Godhead as children and not merely as distant creatures.
Gloriam quasi Unigeniti a Patre
St. John's claim that "we have seen His glory" clashes a bit with the description Isaiah gives of Christ: "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." What does it mean that "we have seen His glory"? There are several possibilities. On one hand, it could be the glory of the Cross, at which St. John stood with the Mother of God, watching Christ perish. Or it could be the glory of the Resurrected Christ, who was witnessed several times by the disciples gathered together. Each of these would require us to read vidimus as a literal seeing with the eyes. It is possible, however, that vidimus refers to a spiritual seeing, which is to say, a coming to know. Perhaps St. John speaks in the person of all the faithful, who have become acquainted in grace with the glory of Christ. It seems to me most plausible, however, that St. John is referring to his experience in Mount Tabor, when Christ was transfigured before the group of three closest apostles, and it was announced from heaven "This is my beloved Son."
This seems to me to explain St. John's next line, gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre. Glory as of the only one begotten by the Father. Note that this unigeniti connects to the earlier discussion of our divine filiation under grace. Inasmuch as we are made children of God by the will of God, Christ remains the only begotten son of God. We are made children, but He is begotten a child. The Son proceeds from the Father by the very nature of the Father, in their eternal and inseparable bond. But we proceed from the Father by an act of free choice, which makes us (unnecessarily!) united to the Godhead under grace.
Plenum gratiae et veritatis
That the glory of the Word is "full of grace and truth" can be understood on the part of the Word, and on the part of the Word's action with respect to mankind. On the part of the Word himself, the glory of the Word is "full of grace and truth" because in His human nature, every act of his created body and soul is suffused with the grace of personal union to the Godhead, as St. Thomas points out, and because the Word is Himself the truth of the Godhead subsisting within the Godhead, just as all three persons are subsisting Truth. On the part of the Word's action with respect to mankind, His glory is full of grace, because it is the source of the sanctification of mankind, and the principle by which we are transformed into children of God. And it is full of Truth because, concomitant with this transformation, we receive the Truth of the Godhead in faith, and ultimately in glory, which enables us to know He Who Is as He Is.
Joannes testimonium perhibet de ipso, et clamat dicens: Hic erat quem dixi: Qui post me venturus est, ante me factus est: quia prior me erat.
Again St. John returns to the action of the Precursor. He gives testimony concerning the Word. He cries out. And the words St. John chooses to report of the Precursor come from late in his ministry, so that they indicate both the nearness of Christ's arrival in his public ministry, and the extent of the Baptist's prior prophesying about him. "This was the one whom I said: He who is to come after me, was set ahead of me, because he was before me." The play of post, ante, and prior is pleasing: John wants us to anticipate the coming of Christ, but to recognize his superior rank, and to see the superiority of Christ as grounded in his temporal priority, which is of course his eternity.
Et de plenitudine ejus
Note that now the fullness ascribed previously to the Glory of the Word is applied directly to the Word himself. And the fullness of the Word, who is full of grace and truth, has become a source.
Nos omnes accepimus
From the fullness we have all received. Who are "we"? The "we" who have seen His glory, perhaps, or even a broader "we". Perhaps the "we" among whom he made his dwelling.
Et gratiam pro gratia
This next phrase is difficult. The ordinary translation I have come across renders it "grace upon grace" or similarly, indicating that the pro communicates an abundance. But given the meaning of pro, it seems more correct to say, with an alternative strain of translations, "and grace in place of grace". This sense not only matches the meaning of the words better, but explains the subsequent movement of the line. St. John is about to talk about the relationship between Moses and Christ. Moses brings grace of a sort, and Christ of a different sort.
Quia lex per Moysen data est
Next, St. John mentions the law given through Moses. What is the law of Moses? The law of Moses is divided in to three parts, according to the aspect, application, and intention of the law. One part is judicial, in that it is meant to describe the right government of Israel in its sojourn through Sinai, and later in its settlement of Canaan. One part is moral, and describes the moral perfection of Israel, attempting to frame by prohibitions and prescriptions the sort of communal and individual action necessary for human happiness. The third part, perhaps the longest, is ritual or ceremonial, and describes the procedures necessary for the maintenance of sacrificial purity, the proper handling of various aspects of life which fall within the bounds of the morally permissible. This third part establishes an order to the ordinary life of the people of Israel which directs what is permissible and good toward the attainment of a higher end: communion with God. I would not presume to order these three bodies of law relative to each other, but that they are given in positive precepts through Moses tells us something about them, relative to their object: they are a descriptive outline of something which Israel is meant to approach. Some in Israel (some kings, some prophets, some individuals, some periods of time) live up to this invitation, and enter into the intended communion. However, the law itself is not sufficient to get one to that point. It is a marker or a guide, not the attainment of the goal itself.
Gratia et veritas per Jesum Christum facta est.
In contrast to this mention of the law given through Moses, St. John informs us that grace and truth are made through Jesus Christ. Gratia is a difficult word, and if one pauses to reflect on it, it is clear why. Grace is not a natural concept. The natural analogues to the concept of grace are something offered freely, or good favor. But the concept itself transcends these notions altogether, just as grace transcends nature and the natural order of things. It is my belief that the following lines clarify what grace means. However, in the meanwhile it is clear that the grace and truth offered through Jesus Christ are somehow the fulfillment of the indications or directives given in the law of Moses. What was circumscribed and defined in precepts is now given as a mode of life directly participated and understood.
Deum nemo vidit umquam
No one ever has ever seen God. This hearkens back to Moses descending from the holy mountain, his face alight with the vision of the Most High. What was it that Moses saw? Regardless, the point remains. No one has ever seen God. God is invisible, eternal, transcendent, infinite. He cannot be seen, and if he were seen he could not be comprehended.
Unigenitus Filius, qui est in sinu Patris, ipse enarravit.
The only-begotten son, who is in the bosom of the Father—he has made him known. St. John's habit of cyclical repetition continues here. Christ is referred to again as the "only-begotten". But now that description is enhanced by the addition of "qui est in sinu Patris". What does it mean to be close to the Father in this way? What does it mean to be held in anyone's bosom? Clearly the idea indicates a very strong personal bond of love. But it also, since neither the Word nor the Father are material beings in their divine essence, indicates ontological proximity.
Finally, He has made Him known. What was never seen by any human is witnessed to by the Word, who is in the bosom of the Father and knows Him.
Et hoc est testimonium Joannis, quando miserunt Judæi ab Jerosolymis sacerdotes et Levitas ad eum ut interrogarent eum: Tu quis es?
And this is the testimony of John, when the priests and Levites of the Jews sent to him from Jerusalem that they might ask him: Who are you? John bears testimony. The priests and levites of the Jews send to John for information. They are in Jerusalem; he is not. St. John does not say that they came to him themselves, but that they sent to ask.
Et confessus est, et non negavit, et confessus est : Quia non sum ego Christus.
And he confessed, and did not deny, but confessed: "That I myself am not the Christ." St. John makes clear that John is not uncertain of his role, and that he does not attempt to usurp Christ's position.
Et interrogaverunt eum : Quid ergo? Elias es tu? Et dixit: Non sum. Propheta es tu? Et respondit: Non. Dixerunt ergo ei: Quis es ut responsum demus his qui miserunt nos? Quid dicis de teipso?
And they asked him: Then who? Are you Elijah? And he said: I am not. Are you the Prophet? And he responded: No. Therefore they said to him: Who are you, that we might give a response to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself? There is something to be said about this succession of questions. Who is "the Prophet"? Why is it Elijah in particular that they expect? Simply because he was taken up while still living?
Ait : Ego vox clamantis in deserto : Dirigite viam Domini, sicut dixit Isaias propheta.
He said: I am the voice of one crying in the desert: make straight the way of the Lord, as Isaiah the prophet said. This line is very beautiful.
Et qui missi fuerant, erant ex pharisæis. Et interrogaverunt eum, et dixerunt ei : Quid ergo baptizas, si tu non es Christus, neque Elias, neque propheta?
And those who had been sent were from the pharisees. And they asked him, and said to him: Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? St. John indicates something to us, both about those who are speaking to the Baptist, and about the Pharisees who sent them. What it is that he is telling us should become clear as we proceed. The first thing to note, however, is that as we have already seen, those who are sent to ask about the Baptist anticipate the coming of the Christ, or the return of Elijah, or of "the prophet" (Moses?). Now we see additionally, that they associate the act of baptism with this return. If the Baptist is not one of these figures who is expected to usher in a Messianic age, why does he baptize? Baptism seems to be reserved.
Respondit eis Joannes, dicens : Ego baptizo in aqua : medius autem vestrum stetit, quem vos nescitis.
John responded to them, saying: I myself baptize in water: but in the midst of you stands one, whom you do not know. John's statement here seems to indicate that his baptism is a natural baptism, not a spiritual one. He will elaborate shortly. But note that he contrasts his water baptism with the presence of someone they do not know. This not knowing hearkens back to the earlier lines about not recognizing and not receiving the Word.
Ipse est qui post me venturus est, qui ante me factus est : cujus ego non sum dignus ut solvam ejus corrigiam calceamenti.
It is he who is to come after me, who was made before me: I myself am not worthy to loosen the tie of his shoe. Here John repeats the line we have already heard and discussed about the temporal and spiritual order of Christ and the Baptist. He adds to it an expression of profound humility: he is not worthy to bow down at Christ's feet and perform the least act of service for him.
Hæc in Bethania facta sunt trans Jordanem, ubi erat Joannes baptizans.
These things happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. John chooses to baptize in the Jordan. The Jordan of course has rich significance in the history of Israel. It is the river of transition, the river of healing, it marks the border between the holy land and the profane lands beyond it. John stands in the profane lands and leads people into the Jordan to cross over. He himself stands outside, but directs people inward.