By Molly Jane Layton

When St. John the Evangelist wrote the Christmas story, he left out all of the Christmas. There are no angels, no shepherds, no wise men. No Mary, no Joseph, no manger. No birth announcement that a Savior had been born to Israel. No gifts, no Magi, no King Herod.

In fact, one might argue that St. John skipped over the Christmas story entirely, but I’m not sure that is a fair assessment of the prologue of his gospel. If at Christmas we celebrate Immanuel, God coming to live on earth with humanity, then there is a whole lot of Christmas in John 1. To be sure, it is framed differently than in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In these gospels, Christmas is a story, with different acts, character development, and plot climax and denouement. In John, Christmas is a paradox.[1]

A paradox is composed of two (or more) statements that are true on their own, but contradict each other when considered together.[2] When presented with a paradox, we are compelled to try to resolve it, to understand the logical “catch” that allows us to make sense of the apparent contradiction. Sometimes they are easy to resolve, and sometimes they are not. John 1:1 is a classic example of a paradox.[3] It establishes that the Word existed in the beginning, and then gives two apparently true statements that are incompatible when held together: the Word is with God and the Word is God. One being cannot both be with another being and be that other being. Thus, we have to pause here and ask, “Who is the Word?” in an attempt to resolve this contradiction. This question is central to our faith and to our understanding of the Trinity, and yet we may find the solution to this paradox elusive.

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Then the paradox deepens in 1:14 when St. John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt with us.[4] The Word was with God in the beginning and the Word was God and everything was created through him. The Word is the Logos, the rational, creative principle behind the entire universe. And now the Word is flesh, a small, vulnerable piece of that very creation. Here, rather than two incompatible statements, are two incompatible states of being: the Creator becoming the created. And now we see the direct connection between our paradox and the Christmas story so familiar to us all. Our question becomes a little more pointed: “Who is this little baby in the manger?”

Despite their absence from the first chapter of John, we can imagine the shepherds asking this very question when they met Jesus, along with Anna and Simeon and the Magi. And this question didn’t stop with them, but continued to be asked throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, and beyond. The persistence of this question through the ages is a testimony to the essential tenacity of the paradox. We know that the Word is with God and is God. We also know that the Word is Jesus, Mary’s child, born to us over 2,000 years ago. Our limited human minds still struggle to reconcile these concepts.

St. John does not leave us hanging with this paradox, but instead develops it throughout his gospel. While never fully resolving the tension introduced in the prologue, each time he returns to these essential concepts, he gives us a deeper glimpse into the identity of the Word made flesh. For instance, Jesus says in 10:30 that he and the Father are one, which reflects “the Word is God,” but he also says a few verses later in 10:38 that he is in the Father and the Father is in him, which connects to “the Word is with God.”[5]

Now we see that Jesus has an essential unity with the Father, though it is debated exactly what that unity entails. We also see that he has a mutual indwelling with the Father. Our comprehension of the paradox is deepened, and yet it remains unresolved.[6] The paradox climaxes in 20:28 with Thomas’s confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” Here Thomas, faced with the reality of the risen Lord, whose resurrection he had dismissed so easily just a week earlier, recognizes the truth set forth in John 1, that this man is Immanuel, the Word of God come to dwell in the flesh with humanity.[7]

Thomas’s confession is remarkable, and yet it still does not answer the essential questions that the paradox raises about the exact nature of the relationship between the Word and God. Instead, it expresses another important truth: that the response this paradox requires is more about faith and belief than it is about resolution and understanding.[8] Because we cannot definitively resolve this paradox, we must sit with it and think about it and pray over it, as Christians have done for over 2,000 years. Perhaps Mary, who treasured what was said to her about Jesus and pondered it in her heart, understood this best (Luke 2:19). When we ponder this paradoxical mystery, we are drawn into it. We see the human face of the divine Word of God, and we feel the deep love that compelled him to come and live among us, to experience firsthand his creation, so that he might save us through offering his own flesh. St. John calls us first and foremost to belief in this paradoxical truth, regardless of whether we understand its complexity. And it is through that belief in the Word made flesh that we find the salvation promised to the shepherds by the angels on the night of Jesus’ birth.


[1] I discuss the paradoxical nature of the Gospel of John at length in my M.Div. thesis. Molly Jane Layton, “Paradox Unpacked: Jesus as God in the Gospel of John” (Virginia Theological Seminary, 2022), https://vtsbpl.omeka.net/items/show/473.

[2] Douglas Estes, “Dualism or Paradox? A New ‘Light’ on the Gospel of John,” The Journal of Theological Studies, n.s., 71, no. 1 (April 2020): 98, digital file.

[3] Estes, “Dualism or Paradox?,” 103-04.

[4] C.K. Barrett, Essays on John (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), 105.

[5] Layton, “Paradox Unpacked,” 15-18.

[6] This passage later became central to the controversy about Jesus’ identity that ultimately produced the Nicene Creed. See, e.g., T. Evan Pollard, “The Exegesis of John 10:30 in the Early Trinitarian Controversies,” New Testament Studies 3, no. 4 (July 1957). However, debate about the nature of the Trinity and its internal relations persists to this day, despite our adherence to the creed.

[7] George R. Beasley-Murray, John, second ed., vol. 36, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 385; F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 394.

[8] Layton, “Paradox Unpacked,” 8-9.

About The Author

The Rev. Molly Jane (“MJ”) Layton is the associate rector for congregational care and worship at the Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan.

 

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C R SEITZ
1 month ago

A very credible account of the 4th Gospel is that the evangelist did not ‘leave out’ things reported in the synoptics, but presupposed them (R. Bauckham). This explains why he can make parenthetical comments that make sense because he assumes his readers have the preceding accounts in their consciousness. His relationship to them is complementary. A further implication is that the final verse of the Gospel of John is the final verse of a fourfold Gospel collection in which John understands his canonical location as intentionally ‘the last word’ (D. Trobisch). Modern critical study has left us with a model… Read more »