Here’s an extract from The One True Light, my new book of advent readings based on John 1.
“In the beginning …” (John 1 v 1)
My father’s father was a butcher from North Yorkshire. He would collect animals from the train and then drive them through the village to be slaughtered behind his shop. My mother’s father was Scottish. He moved to Darlington in County Durham to work at the steel mill. He would come home each evening with livid burns up his arms…
Many biographies start a generation or two back with the subject’s parents or grandparents.The aim is to build a picture of the kind of family and conditions a child was born into.
Not John’s Gospel.
As John settles down to write the story of a man called Jesus, he thinks of his earthly parents, and of their fathers and forefathers. But the clock keeps spinning backwards until he draws breath and slowly writes, “In the beginning”.
Immediately, we understand that this is not an ordinary story of an ordinary person.
John’s “in the beginning” is not the start of one person’s life. This is the start and source of all life. This is the story of creation. The words echo the opening words of the opening book of the Bible. Genesis 1 v 1 reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. John is retelling the story of creation with Jesus the Word at the centre.
So this is a big story. It’s not the story of one person, but of every person. This is my story. And your story.This is the story of the universe, and specifically of planet earth.
* * *
The story of creation in Genesis 1 came to a climax when God formed the first human being, Adam. John’s “Christmas story” will also come to a climax with a man taking on human flesh. Genesis shows us the first man—Adam. But Jesus will be “the last Adam”. In both cases a man enters the world. Jesus is coming as the true Adam or the true man.
But Jesus is more than a new, improved human being. This is not simply “Humanity 2.0”. John could have started with the story of the birth of Jesus. That’s what Matthew and Luke do. But John wants us to realise that, unlike the story of any other human being, the story of Jesus does not begin with his human conception. It’s true that Jesus was born as a human being in our world. But that’s not when his story begins. His story goes back to the beginning. Indeed the story of Jesus doesn’t even start “in the beginning”. For, as John will go on to say, Jesus already “was” in the beginning. His story has no beginning for he “was” in eternity. He has been for ever.
Did you know that Santa once threw a punch? The name“Santa Claus” is derived from “Saint Nicholas”. Nicholas was a bishop who attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. The council had been called in response to the teaching of a man called Arius, who claimed that Jesus was a created being. He was willing to affirm that Jesus was the first created being and so supreme in creation, but, according to Arius, he was created. In other words, there was a time when Jesus did not exist.
The story goes that at first Nicholas listened quietly to the arguments of Arius. But in the end he could take it no longer. He stepped across the room and slapped Arius across the face. So maybe on Christmas Day we should punch heretics instead of giving presents. (Or maybe not.)
The point is that this truth mattered deeply to Nicholas. It was not just a debating point—it was of crucial importance for the salvation of our souls. If Jesus was created, then he is not truly and fully divine. And John is clear: Jesus the Word already “was” in the beginning.
But why does John start here, looking back to the beginning of creation? Because the story John is about to unfold is the story of re-creation. The world God made is no longer the same world in which we live. God made a good world, a beautiful world. And there are still signs of that all around us. But there is also evil and pain.
Our world is broken. And we are the ones who broke it.
John starts “in the beginning” to give us a hint of what Jesus will do. Jesus is going to mend the brokenness of our world. The story of creation went into reverse when humanity rejected God. Creation gave way to de-creation. God’s beautiful world began to unravel. But Jesus is about to pick up the pen, as it were, and write the next chapter—another chapter of creation.
In the beginning…
thank you that you have rewritten the story,
thank you that you are reordering our world.
In your mercy,
come and rewrite my story;
come and reorder my world.