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The Arthur Wainwright Rose



& the Word

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.

Sonnet 123: William Shakespeare

Words forming in the mind ... for an essay, an article, a speech, a conversation. And we soon become aware of the passage of time, 'thy continual haste', as Shakespeare says. But it is true, also, as he writes, 'I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee'. The value of the thoughts that emerge from the mind are entirely separate from the passage of time. They bring reality to the day or night in which they are conceived and delivered. Perhaps not for posterity but at least for the illumination of the moment.

From time immemorial, there must always have been words couched in a lingua franca which served to bridge my time event with my neighbour. Maybe they were fewer than we are used to in the talkative times we live in - at least in the cities of today. Our daily lives have always been marked by what we have said or not said in conversation. Even the the solitary person can 'kill' time in occasionally talking to herself or himself! We all have the feeling that we must strive to be 'true, despite thy scythe and thee.'

Statesmen, writers, poets and dramatists may seem to be the voice of a nation in any period of history. And yet we all have the desire to make a contribution, however small, from our own experience and vision. It is part of our being human. While the possibility of our achieving this has ebbed and flowed throughout history, our ancestors, however far removed from the 21st century, would have had the same desires. It was into this living current of human striving that Jesus of Nazareth was born. He was a 'typical' man, a Jew with ancestral links. Alongside the stories in Matthew and Luke of Jesus' birth from a virgin there is also the witness of both genealogies in the gospels that Jesus was linked with the tribe of Judah at a point in time.

Whatever we may think of those facts, the fourth gospel has a much more complicated view of Jesus. As one writer has put it, the author of John seemed to be working with two transparencies superimposed on one another. The first one shows Jesus in the gospel being a man like us - even if the words seem heightened - and the second transparency shows what appears to be a supernatural being: 'In the beginning was the word (logos) and the word was God ... And the logos was made flesh and dwelt among us.' Confusing? How do we reconcile these apparently irreconcilable views of Jesus?

On the simple historical level, the attitude that Jesus was a man like us (although raised by God to become Lord) seems to have been retained for at least the first two centuries. But, whatever the reason, from then on it was the second transparency of the 'man from heaven' that took over and became the church's dogmatic view. But much depends on our understanding of those first words of John's gospel about the word, the logos of God.

As many people know, the Greek idea of logos was of a rational principle in the universe. By the end of the first century the Christian movement was facing wider opposition than from the Jewish nation. The author of John was aware of this and perhaps was facing these alternative, Gnostic, semi-mystical, Eastern myths and practices which became a strong counter to the progress of Christian communities in the second century. So, on one view of the complexity of John's gospel, there is a brilliant fusing of the person of Jesus between our knowledge of him as one of us and yet, after his death, the divine Son with the Father.

On a second view of John's complex story, Jesus, as the Word of God (the logos), is emphasised as the pre-existent one already in heaven, with God and sent by him to earth. There are brief hints of this in St Paul but not in the other gospels. If we take this view which became the dominant understanding of Jesus, we are dependent upon a view of God which is that the divine does indeed inhabit a 'space' separate from the universe which has been termed supra-natural.

From there, on this view, the logos, God himself, descended to earth and was made man, and eventually returned to heaven. One could say that this emphasis on the pre-existent logos coming to earth means that Jesus was not fully a man. Theologians have filled libraries with ideas of how that could be accepted.

Now it is true that we do believe that 'God was in Christ' as Paul writes, and that Jesus revealed God to us in his lifetime. He was unique in doing so. Prophets had been able to say 'This is the word of the Lord ...' but we can even say in faith that Jesus was God for us.

As we have seen, the more limited understanding of that crucial phrase 'and the logos became flesh' seeks to understand God and Jesus in some literal human way rather than in the extraordinary and wonderful understanding that God had this 'plan' or 'vision' which he would bring to fruition at a point in evolution, in history, as his in-depth communication with us. God would speak with us in that moment in a way we could understand. It was a plan rooted in the history of Israel.

This problem of the nature of Jesus as the Word of God and yet one flesh with us in everything is important for us to consider in an age when the humanly 'unbelievable' is no draw, as perhaps it once was. The conversation of the gospel, of the words of Jesus as the revealing of his real person, is one of those human points of bridging the human realities of life, aside of the relentless process of Time - when
'This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.'

"When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him." As he spoke thus, many believed in him. (John 8:28-30)

Copyright © Aelred Arnesen

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