Logos, Love, and Light: Reflections on the Incarnation - St. Bernard's

Logos, Love, and Light: Reflections on the Incarnation

Dec 7, 2021

Matthew Pietropaoli, Ph.D.

Near the beginning of the Gospel of John we read: “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” What word is St. John referring to here? In short, he is referring to Christ, the only begotten Son of God, who is born as a baby on Christmas. In the original Greek, St. John stated that Christ is the “Logos.” Logos can be translated numerous ways: it may mean “reason or rationality,” or it may mean "study of” (as in bio/logy or theo/logy). So why does it get translated as “Word” at the start of the Gospel of St. John? Words direct us toward things, toward events, objects, ideas, which are seemingly removed from our current orbit of activity. That is, words make present to our minds what is often absent in our direct experience. Upon hearing, for example, the word “Verlot,” my mind goes to that small hamlet in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state where I spent the summer of 2005 interning for the US Forest Service.

Furthermore, at Christmas, God makes himself present to us in a direct, tangible, immediate, and amazing way. To quote from St. Paul: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus . . . emptied himself . . . being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate.” Hence, the Incarnation: the cosmological event of God becoming a human being, born of a woman, 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. The long-awaited Messiah, the long-desired savior, the hope of mankind for whom so many had so patiently waited for so long: He came among us in a small town, in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, surrounded by farm animals and laying in a manger. God was here now on Earth. In other words, the God who had previously seemed absent and remote was now fully human, fully part of the human story. God became completely present to and identified with human life that first Christmas. Thus, God’s Son, the one so come among us, whom St. John references as Logos, is likewise the Divine “Word,” the love of God made real and really present to a world seemingly removed from that same God. More so than any word spoken before or since, this “Word” which “became flesh” has shown, once, for all, and for always, the infinite and tender mercy of God, “who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to us and for our salvation. The love of God, spoken as Christ, is thus central to Christmas.

But so is light. Returning to the opening of St. John’s Gospel, we note immediately that this narrative also contains numerous references to light (e.g., “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it”). Christ, therefore, is simultaneously the Love of God, the Light of the World, and the Word of God. All three terms refer to one and the same divine being. Each term, in its own way, makes reference to a particular aspect of Christ. Christ, as Word, is thus God’s Love made manifest and present in human life, for, as we saw above, words make things (e.g., God's Love) present to us. He is also the Light of the World, as He comes to bring illumination to us trapped in the darkness of sin and hopelessness and “to guide our feet onto the way of peace” (as the “Canticle of Zachariah” states). Love, Light, and Word hold together in unity and purpose in the divine and human person of Jesus Christ. He is the Love spoken to humanity to shine the Light of God on us and into our hearts.

Of course, at this point the obvious conclusion is that in order to receive the Word (which is also the Light and the Love of God), our minds and hearts must be properly opened. The Light of God only can be fully present and active in a person whose heart and mind are appropriately positioned. We clear the tangled mess of our minds and hearts so as to facilitate the dawning of God’s Light within us, much as an opening in a forest is cleared of the tangled system of trees and underbrush which prevent the light from shining through. The Word is spoken in and through Love as shining Light insofar as we are properly open-hearted and opened minded to receive it. As we clear away the messiness of our hearts this Christmas, we likewise allow to shine in and through us some expression of the Love, Light, and Logos of God.

Now, however, we see that this Love of God is NOT a one-time event, separate and removed from us by 2000 years. Rather, it is an event re-played throughout history to the extent that this same love is likewise made present in and though us. Our often-silent acceptance and expression of eternal love is our participation in and imaging of the birth of Christ. Love made visible in an infant “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and enfolded in the tender embrace of His mother is re-iterated, re-instantiated, and re-incarnated in our own willingness to share in and be channels of that same gentle and eternal mercy and kindness. Mary’s “yes” to being the mother of Christ can thus become our own “yes”, our own surrender to the love birthed through us into the world. We, in our own way, in own remote corner of the world, can perhaps be present-day images of the coming of eternal love into the world. That is: through us, there can be made manifest in the world the same love brought to fullness in the birth of Christ.

In addition, however, we now see more clearly that this sharing in and re-presenting of the Incarnation, this allowance of the Logos of the God who is Love to be expressed in and through us, occurs only insofar as we have become an open space in which light can shine and illuminate. That open space is not a mere surface level re-arranging, not a quick exercise of clearing some of the tangles and briars of the heart. It is not an easy or readily performed exercise of "getting ready for Christmas." The heart which makes possible and is the place of the incarnation of eternal love spoken in and through us must be correspondingly deep and unencumbered so as to facilitate the advent of the Word of God (Logos) within it.

Put more directly: only on a level far more profound and meaningful than most seasonal presentations of love—i.e., a level of love often beyond normal words, even such as “I love you”—there can be manifest in us and expressed though us the Logos of God’s Love. The God who is Love—eternal, infinite, totally unconditional—becomes present in the place in us which opens up to and flows from that same eternity, infinity, and total unconditional-ness. Where our concepts come to nothing and our words often fail us is precisely where we can genuinely and truly encounter and accept the re-manifestation of the Incarnation, the coming of the Logos of Love as the Light of the World. The true hallmark of the Christmas season is not so much falling in love and readily expressing it in words but more so the willingness to abandon ourselves to the open place within which serves as the present-day manger of God’s Love born into the world.

I’d like to close with the following—and I might add quite beautiful—poem from St. Teresa of Ávila:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

All I would add to these words is that our re-manifestation of the Incarnation hinges upon our prior willingness to journey past the sentimental and embrace the silent space within, to go to the place where God’s Logos comes to dwell and be expressed within our lives lit up by the glory of God’s eternal Love.

Dr. Matthew Pietropaoli received his BA from St. Anselm College and his MA and PhD from the Catholic University of America. His dissertation concerned the thought of German-American philosopher, Hans Jonas. Matthew has taught extensively at the undergraduate level, including courses on ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics. He was fortunate enough to grow up near the Adirondacks, which instilled a life-long love of the natural world. Dr. Pietropaoli teaches courses in our Master of Arts in Catholic Philosophy program.