What then could ever be equal to these good tidings? God on earth, man in Heaven; and all became mingled together, angels joined the choirs of men, men had fellowship with the angels, and with the other powers above: and one might see the long war brought to an end, and reconciliation made between God and our nature … and hope abundant touching things to come. St. John Chrysostom
When people today want to share their thoughts about a recent TV show or movie, they often say “spoiler alert” to warn others that, if they haven’t seen it yet, important plot elements, twists and turns and surprises, may be spoiled by the ensuing discussion.
This is a recent phenomenon. Bill Shakespeare, for one, apparently had no concern for dramatic surprise, at least not in his prologue to Romeo and Juliet:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
Imagine if M. Knight Shyamalan began The Sixth Sense with a narrator saying (spoiler alert), “By the way, Bruce Willis is a ghost.” Yet Shakespeare wants you to get one thing straight from the start of his famous play: Romeo and Juliet are going to kill themselves in the end and as a result finally bring their families together.
For Christians, the biblical story, from the Law through the Prophets and other Old Testament Writings, culminates in the Gospel. The four books that bear that title, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all emphasize that the end should have been clear from the beginning: Jesus is the promised Christ, the “seed” of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). The second century Apologists, such as St. Justin the Philosopher and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, went to great lengths to demonstrate this, cultivating a Christological biblical theology.
Accordingly, St. John the Theologian begins the prologue to his Gospel with, well, the beginning: “In the beginning was the Logos” (John 1:1). The what?
The Greek word logos has a wide range of meanings. I can mean simply “word,” as it is often translated, or “saying.” But by the time of Christ, it had a refined, philosophical meaning as well, indicating that divine reason or ordering principle by which the universe holds together and obeys set laws. St. John masterfully combines these two, drawing upon the creation account of Genesis 1 in which God speaks the world into being: “All things came to be through it”—the Word or Logos that “is God” (John 1:1)—“and apart from it nothing that exists came to be” (John 1:3). So, too, the concept perfectly translates the Hebrew idea of divine Wisdom personified, through which God created and sustains the world.
St. Augustine even claimed to have encountered all these ideas in the “books of the Platonists.” Though the Logos doctrine originated with Heraclitus and was developed by the Stoics, by the middle period of ancient philosophy all the schools borrowed from one another. Ancient Jews borrowed from Greek philosophy as well, and ancient Greeks and Romans were fascinated by “Barbarian wisdom,” even Jewish religion in particular. This makes sense given the biblical teaching that the Wisdom of God can be found throughout all creation. The Jews had the Law and the Prophets, but all people had the natural law and, through philosophy (the “love of wisdom”), at least some glimpse, however imperfect, of God.
“But that ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’ [John 1:14], I read not there,” says St. Augustine. While there is much to learn from worldly wisdom, it has its limits. Indeed, though foreshadowed in the Law and the Prophets, in Jesus Christ the Gospel proclaims something new to all people: “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
But what is the Gospel? For that matter, what is a gospel?
One early occurrence of the word “gospel” (evangelion, appearing below in the plural) sheds some light on what our Evangelists intended. It is a late first-century BC inscription explaining why all calendars would henceforth begin with the nativity of Caesar Augustus:
Since providence, which has ordered all things of our life and is very much interested in our life, has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior both for us and for those after us, him who would end war and order all things, and since Caesar by his appearance surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings [evangelia], not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the good tidings [evangelion] through him; and Asia resolved it in Smyrna.
Thus the gospel of Caesar was the good news of the kingdom of “a savior” and “god,” who “would end war and order all things,” bringing peace and hope to the world forever … in particular by keeping the Parthians from conquering Roman lands and brutally suppressing all civil unrest. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is superficially similar in the first part but importantly different in the second part. That is, it is also the good news of a Savior, the Son of God, “of [whose] kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33), who brings an end to all hostilities, order to all things, peace, and hope … by submitting to the Cross, suffering the death of a criminal—ridiculed, abandoned, naked, and alone—yet rising again to new life, victorious over death, the devil, and sin.
As if to bring this comparison to mind, St. Luke references a census enacted in Syria and Judea during Augustus’s reign: “it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city” (Luke 2:1, 3). This same census brought the Holy Virgin and St. Joseph to Bethlehem, fulfilling the prophecy that the Christ and Savior of the world, to whom “the Lord God [would] give … the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:32), would be born in his ancestral home.
St. Luke traces Jesus’s earthly lineage, as does St. Matthew, who begins his Gospel with Jesus’s genealogy (every priest’s favorite Christmas Gospel reading). Despite his royal pedigree, however, Jesus’s earthly family had no king’s fortune to sustain them. We know this because when his parents brought the offering for Jesus’s circumcision to the Temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with the Law, they offered “[a] pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24), which was only allowed if the mother “is not able to bring a lamb” (Leviticus 12:8). It is possible, indeed likely, that they couldn’t afford one. Craftsmen like St. Joseph would have been among the lower socioeconomic strata of Roman society, living at or perhaps only slightly above subsistence. That said, we do know they brought with them “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
Meanwhile, the first story in the Gospels of Mark and John (also found in Matthew and Luke) begin with St. John the Forerunner:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the Prophets
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
Who will prepare your way before you.”
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’” [Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3]
John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:1-4)
While one might think this an odd divergence, in the early Church both Nativity and Theophany were celebrated on the same day. Thus, they all begin liturgically in the same place. And what did John preach to “prepare the way of the Lord”?
“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”
He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”
And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”
Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”
So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:7-14)
The judgement of God is at hand, and what does the Forerunner tell the people to do? Repent, be baptized, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, do not defraud others, do not pressure or slander anyone, and be content with what you have. This, too, is part of the prologue to the Gospel, the essential orientation needed to understand the whole story. The Logos of God, through which the world was made, has taken on flesh for our salvation. Those who wish to receive him and avoid being “thrown into the fire” ought to be baptized and reform their lives, including the economic sphere of life, each in his or her own vocation.
While all other prophets could only say, “He is coming,” John alone had the honor of saying, “Look! There he is!” And what did he expect from Jesus? “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
Yet even this did not come about as John expected:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?”
But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.
When he had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
Thus all four Gospels witness that the “Spirit of the Lord was upon” Jesus, “Because the Lord … anointed [him] to preach the gospel to the poor…” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).
But, alas, the Gospel is too big for just one essay! In the next, I will further explore that “gospel to the poor” and examine with the Fathers of Church some principles by which it relates to and fulfills the Law and the Prophets.