X By Any Other Name

Christmas  |  John 1:1-18

[Alternatively, Second Sunday After Christmas, not observed in 2016]

For the second Sunday after Christmas, or this year for Christmas, the Revised Common Lectionary offers John 1:1-18 as the Gospel reading. (You may also see a passage from Matthew referenced, there being some variation among lectionaries.)chi

The prologue of John is famous. These are the words offered in advance of the more ordinary telling of the Gospel story, and they begin, as most stories do, at the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word” is a recasting of the opening words of Genesis, the penultimate “in the beginning”.

At Christmas we often see the shortened form of Xmas, ‘X’ as used for ‘Christ’ even by the ancients in the times before storefront displays and decorated trees, and ‘Xmas’ itself for hundreds of years. The X of Xmas is not the ‘x’ of modern English: it is a Chi, an ancient Greek letter and the first in the name of Christ, written as Χριστός in the Greek alphabet.

The opening verse of John is, in fact, called a double chiasm. What does that mean? The thought structure of the verse, in Greek, would form two of our letter x’s, or two of the Greek letter Chi’s. Here is what the pairing of ideas look like using the Greek word order (different than the word order of the English translation):

The Beginning (God)                                          The Word


The Word                               With God


God                                           The Word

If you connect each reference to God (left to right to left again), and each reference to the Word (the Logos, or Christ – right to left to right again), you will have drawn two x’s. Or two Chi’s. The Gospel is using the image of the letter ‘X’ to emphasize the unity of God and Christ.

And yes, people in the ancient world did listen for that kind of thing, just as should we hear a modern day speaker offering a list of Light and Love and Life, we would expect the next item in the list to begin with an ‘L’ as well.

There is another comparison here in the beginning of this Gospel. It is a comparison of Jesus, the light of the world, and John the Baptist, who we are told quite plainly was not the light. It is an odd thing, surely, for an opening passage. Why bring out such a contrast, and right at the outset, if it did not have some overarching meaning for what was to come?

John, very much a human being, came to live in the wilderness, and the Gospel tells us that all John could do was point out the light to others. There is the obvious sentiment, of course: all we ourselves can do is point to the light.

There must be something more.

Right through the end of this passage in verse 18, the Gospel writer keeps alternating between the nature and work of Christ and the nature and condition of human beings. The contrasts go something like this:

God was in the world; we did not know God; God gave us power to transcend humanity (verses 10-13).

God became as us; we have not seen God; God the Son has made God known to humanity (verses 14-18).

God is starting with us where we are and taking us where we could not go.

Christians tend to take the later verse of John 3:16 and put it on every card, bumper sticker and billboard in the world. Perhaps we might consider that John 1:12-13 as a better summary of the Gospel message.