By Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
The prologue to the Gospel of John — Chapter 1, verses 1-18 — consists of a poetic hymn of great beauty and symbolic power. In centuries past the words themselves were thought to contain spiritual power so the prologue was often read over the sick. It also used to be recited by the priest at the end of the liturgy.
The prologue itself has been likened to the overture of an opera — it contains all of the themes that will be developed throughout the Gospel. Make note of some of the special words like “light,” “truth,” and so on and then watch for their repetition in later chapters as their meaning and application are unfolded.
Let us examine two of those words: “life” and “truth.” Life (zōē) is used 36 times in John, 17 of these with the qualifier “eternal.” This is the life not of world to come but world above. Jesus — the Word of God — is identified with life itself. The logos or Word which is life (zōē) (1:3-4) came into a world alienated from God (1:10-13). He has the power of life within himself (5:26) and anyone who receives eternal life through belief in Jesus passes from death to life (5:24). Jesus can grant it to anyone whom he wishes.
Jesus insists that he has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly (10:10) and that he alone has the power to lay down his life and take it up again. In 11:25, he tells the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life, and that anyone who believes in him will live even if they die, and anyone who lives and believes in him will never die.
A literal or superficial understanding of these words is absurd: many devout people have died. But John’s seemingly mundane words always have a transcendental meaning, and here he is definitely not speaking of biological life and death. The life that Jesus grants — eternal life — is living in the presence and awareness of God. Believers in Jesus experience eternal life even while still living their earthly life. In order to prove his claim to be able to give life to whomever he wishes, he promptly goes to the tomb and restores physical life to Lazarus. But this is not a resurrection, for Lazarus will still have to die again.
Truth is another of those rather vague and illusive Johannine terms. In 1:14, Jesus is described as full of grace and truth. What can that mean? In the encounter with the woman at the well in 4:24, Jesus denies that the worship of God can be tied to any particular place. The time has arrived for all true worshippers of God to worship Him in spirit and truth.
Jesus promises his audience in 8:32 that they will know the truth and the truth will make them free. Human knowledge is not what he had in mind, despite the dismaying tendency of many libraries to inscribe that verse over their doors.
Jesus told a perplexed Pilate that he had come into the world to witness to the truth, and Pilate responded with a rather weary and cynical, “What is truth?” not realizing that truth was quite literally staring him in the face. In fact, Jesus identifies himself in 14:6 as both life and truth and as a visible manifestation of the Father. This means that Jesus lives totally in God and God in him, and he is able to manifest the true God and the truth about God to a world ensnared in ignorance. Only by knowing and experiencing God directly and personally will we be freed from fear and ignorance and live as free children of God.
John is subtle and complicated. We should be wary of throwing Johannine verses around to prove theological points. John’s “truths” are meant to be experienced personally, not analyzed or rationalized.