The other day I began teaching a new jailhouse group my Christology 101 course. We start with John 1 and go from there. I decided to keep it simple and spent the entire session focusing on John 1:1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Suffice it is to say, in the ensuing hour we did not even finish discussing the sentence. I must say, such a small portion of scripture yields such a great expanse of truth. What blew the inmates away was the expansiveness of the identity of the Word — the co-eternal, pre-eternal, pre- and post-Incarnate Christ. Bible-only believers claim that the Word of God is the Bible. But we Orthodox know that Word to be Christ. Holy Scripture tends to be looked on as an organizing feature of the Church.
The “who came first, God or Christ” discussion that had plagued Christianity since its inception was a moot point because God and the Word are timeless and the concept of Word, or logos, Word and Reason, move beyond human reasoning. “The Word is not a human Word,” said St. Basil the Great. “For how was there a human word in the beginning, when man received his being last of all?”
In this eternal setting, before the establishment of time, God chose to introduce His pre-existent Only-Begotten. “But why omitting the Father, does he proceed at once to speak of the Son? Because the Father was known to all; though not as the Father, yet as God; whereas the Only-Begotten was not known,” said St. John Chrysostom. Unknown does not mean non-existent.
Humans have always known that something else lurks beneath and beyond our existence. Atheists and others deny it, but buried deep in even the most staunch nonbeliever’s being is the concept of this radical deep underpinning of the cosmos. Why is it that man has religion? Because we are rational beings. Embedded within this rationality is God Himself, Who is revealed only partially and on a subconscious level to those unaware or unconvinced of the Word.
Still, the Word Himself, as the Only-Begotten, the God Who walked in the flesh upon this earth to save all, invites lengthy discussions when discussing the pre-New Testament Word. The pre-Incarnate Word that was not yet Christ born to the Theotokos Mary. Only perfect understanding of God’s universe will “get” this aspect of God, but a deep oceanic sense of mystery pervades the discussion. Chrysostom wrote, “As then when our ship is near shore, cities and port pass in survey before us, which on the open sea vanish, and leave nothing whereon to fix the eye; so the Evangelist here, taking us with him in his flight above the created world, leaves the eye to gaze in vacancy on an illimitable expanse. For the words, “was in the beginning,” are significative of eternal and infinite essence.”
St. Augustine’s reflections on John 1:1 excite the intellect as it moves into this ocean beyond the port of understanding. “The Word of God is a Form, not a formation, but the Form of all Forms, a Form unchangeable, removed from accident, from failure, from time, from space, surpassing all things, and existing in all things, on a kind of foundation underneath, and summit above them.” Thus, Christ, as the Word, gives us the firm ground of our existence, filling the void of knowing the Who of Creation, and giving us the journey’s goal — the summit — so plainly in view that to stray from it is to die partially. Thus, we must be faithfully adrift, heading always towards Christ, living fully in the light of the Word.