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"Transfiguration" by Carl H. Bloch, Danish Painter, 1834-1890. Oil on Copper Plate. Public domain. Source: www.carlbloch.com.
Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Beholding—John 1:1-18 (Mark Davis)

To behold is to stand somewhere between the passiveness of being a pawn in the trajectory of fate and the activity of making the world ourselves. Beginning with the act of beholding grants us necessary perspective upon our political acts and identities.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The gospel of John begins with a magisterial prologue, using clear echoes from the creation story of Genesis 1, from which it gets its opening words, “In the beginning.”[1] In this sense, John’s account of the incarnation of Christ is set within a universal perspective that is quite different from the particular perspective that one gets in Luke’s beloved story. Whereas Luke has particular places, persons, and a specific time, John’s account transcends time and place, situating the story of Christ prior to the genesis of everything that is. If John has a “Christmas” story per se, it is in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is here that the story becomes time-dated.

What follows in verse 14 is marvelous: “and we beheld his glory, glory as an only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth.” Here lies the response to a story located in the universal depth of the prologue. We beheld. To “behold” is the action—more correctly the interaction—of the human and the divine. “Behold” is part of a family of verbs that fit uneasily into the customary division of active and passive verbs. Technically, to “behold” is an active verb, but it does not have the quality of initiative, like speaking, doing, thinking, or making. It would be better understood as an “interactive verb,” because to behold is to assume that something else, something outside of one’s volition, is already at play and eliciting the response of beholding. Again, with echoes of the Genesis account of creation, God interactively “saw” what God had made, before God very actively “pronounces” it good.

The interactive act of beholding not only resists our customary division of verbs, it challenges our customary understanding of human agency. To behold is to stand somewhere between the passiveness of being a pawn in the trajectory of fate and the activity of making the world ourselves. To behold means that the first act of humanity in the Christmas story is not the mother conceiving, the carpenter fashioning a crib out of a feeding trough, or the Magi traveling and bearing gifts, but is more akin to Mary’s act of “treasuring these things in her heart.” There certainly is volition involved. One could choose not to behold, to ignore or to attend to other things—like issuing a decree for a census, studying other movements of the stars, or turning back to one’s sheep. To behold means to stop rendering one’s attention elsewhere and to allow that which is happening to captivate one’s full attention. It is a recognition and assent to the significance of what is at hand. For John, it is a matter of beholding “glory as an only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth.”

Another Hebrew Bible reference—not necessarily one that John intentionally echoes, but one which likewise insists that current events be viewed within their larger universal context—would be God’s response to Job after Job and his companions question God’s own justice. ‘Really?’ God asks. And for three chapters God mercilessly shows Job what majesty really is. The foundations of the earth itself, the boundaries of the oceans, the flow of rivers, the movements of the planets in their orbits, the stars in their courses—does Job dare to question the wisdom, the justice, the capacity of the one who makes all of this possible? Likewise, when John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, it is not just the birth of a child, a special child, or even a super-child. It is the power of life itself that takes on human existence. That’s the glory that John says we beheld when God was incarnate in Christ. He is, per Paul Tillich, the presentation that elicits the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the tremendous and fascinating mystery on which we cannot bear to look and from which we cannot bear to turn away. That is the interactive act of beholding.

This interactive act of beholding is particularly compelling when we consider what it means politically. If politics is about the exercise of power, what does the interactive act of beholding do to our estimations of power? We might wonder what a difference it would make if Caesar Augustus had beheld such glory, considering the vastness of the universe as the context for appraising his empire, before issuing his decree for a census. As impressive as the Roman Empire appeared to be in its historical moment, what was its significance if one considered the expanse of the sun, the moon, and the stars in the heavens? Or the madness of King Herod—what is the power to slaughter children when compared to the power of taming Behemoth and fixing Orion in its place? The proper exercise of power for Caesars, kings, presidents, bosses, pastors, and even parents is first to participate in John’s Christmas story, to behold the glory of the universe that comes to us in Christ. Only from that humiliated perspective can one properly and appropriately reckon with power.

John’s prologue does more than lend his gospel a philosophical tour de force. It demonstrates the sheer majesty in which every story of power and purpose takes place. In the beginning, there was the power of existence itself. And this power became flesh, as we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. Those of us who read on in John’s gospel—of Jesus’ acts, his teachings, his prayers, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection—are beholding grace- and truth-filled glory, the absolute context of any exercise of power. Until we practice the politics of beholding, encountering that upon which we dare not look and from which we dare not look away, we have no idea what power really is.

[1] Like the Septuagint and the Hebrew account of Genesis, John’s first verse actually begins without a definite article, “In beginning.”

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