This is the beginning of a series on the Gospel of St John that will appear over the next few months. This Gospel is read by the Church during Lent and Easter, but only in small parts. Through the Liturgy it is impossible to have a continuous reading of the Gospel unlike those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These series of reflections will, I hope, assist you in a continuous reading of this Gospel.
The Gospel of St John is written on a number of levels, the historical, the symbolic and the spiritual. These levels cannot be separated, as the spiritual meaning emerges from the historical and symbolic, and draws out the deepest meaning of the life of Jesus Christ. Every word and every nuance expressed through the tenses of verbs has a meaning. There is no wasted language. Two overriding themes emerge throughout the Gospel, first the systematic replacement of the Feasts of the Jews with Jesus Himself, and second the inauguration of the final times through the birth of Jesus Christ. The end is already being realised. The effects of Christ’s victory over sin and death are felt now within the world.
The Gospel begins with the Prologue (1:1-18), which explains Jesus’ relationship with the Father, through the relationship of the Word to God. The Prologue is divided into three parts, the first (vv1-5) explains that the Word in God becomes the light for humanity.
The first line of the Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (1:1) displays a conscious relationship with the opening of the Book of Genesis, ‘In the beginning’. This beginning is prior to time. The deliberate use of the imperfect tense by St John expresses the timelessness of the relationship between God and the Word. This relationship is dynamic rather than static. The English word ‘with’ does not do justice to the true meaning of the Greek word ‘pros’ which is best expressed as ‘turning towards’. So the Word is turned towards God. The literal meaning of the next phrase is ‘Everything that God was, so the Word was’. St John is setting the scene for a proper understanding of the Incarnation, which is to demonstrate that there is no lack of divinity in Jesus Christ.
This final phrase of the Our Father is also found in Jesus’ final prayer to the Father, ‘I am asking you to protect them (the apostles) from the evil one’ (Jn 17.15). The reality of evil is always intensely personal, whether as evil suffered or as temptation endured, but our salvation includes the whole human family. Hence the prayer is ‘deliver us’.The communal reality of sin, its resonating consequences, is being transformed into the solidarity of the Church, which is described as the ‘communion of saints’.
The Church does not understand evil as an abstraction, but as referring to a person, the devil. This is the one who tempts, who literally throws himself across God’s plan (dia-bolos in ancient Greek). The definitive defeat of Satan has begun through the death and Resurrection of Jesus, and the consequences of which will be to free all creation from corruption.
This will reach its fullest completion at the end of the world. Yet now the world resembles a spiritual battlefield. Though ultimate victory is assured, the present situation looks very different, and the temptation to fall away and to lose hope is ever-present.
The prayer to protect from evil, therefore looks to the future as a prayer for peace and the grace of perseverance in expectation of the return of Jesus Christ.
The final doxology, ‘for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever’ takes up the three first petitions of the Our Father, but are now proclaimed in adoration as having been accomplished through Jesus Christ. This forms the Liturgy of heaven, where Jesus will restore everything to the Father when He hands over the Kingdom to Him. The great journey of faith will then be completed, all its complexities and difficulties will dissolve as the God who is love will be all in all.
This now completes the four-year long systematic explanation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. From next week I will be beginning an explanation of St John’s Gospel.
Temptation is the root of every sin, and giving in to temptation causes sin. This petition asks us not to yield, and thus implores from the Holy Spirit the power of discernment. This power helps unmask the spurious glamour of evil, and grasp the individual choices necessary for the growth of the inner person. Everyone is open to temptation to evil, but as this comes from elsewhere is in itself is not wrong. This is something rarely grasped, and the continual reality of temptation upsets many believers. However the reality of temptation, which Jesus explained to His disciples when He told them that ‘Satan would sift you like wheat’ is something different to succumbing to temptation, following Eve in the Garden of Eden. The reality of temptation does demonstrate the evil inclinations that lurk within our inner selves, and thus makes the believer aware of his or her interior weaknesses and thus the need for spiritual healing.
Jesus demonstrates that it is only through prayer that temptation, which is a matter of the heart, can be overcome, when He resisted the offers of Satan in the desert, and accepted the cup of sacrifice in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Our Father calls us to vigilance, something for which Jesus prayed in His final prayer on His last night, ‘Keep them in your name’. (Jn 17:11)