Grateful to share this sermon by author Francis Spufford, delivered this February at St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. The full passage is John 1:1-14.

And without him not one thing came into being.

May I speak in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve been hearing the first chapter of John’s gospel at Christmas for decades now. In fact, it feels a little weird to be hearing at any other time. But hearings, and readings, are influenced by occasions. What we notice is guided by what we are asking a piece of scripture to do just then, what sense we are asking its sense to fit into. This isn’t just true of Bible texts in liturgy, of course, or at particular times of the church year. It applies just as much to films and novels, which we get different things from depending on whether we’re ill or well, what age we are, what we’re prepared to hear or hungry to hear just then.

When I was twenty I read Middlemarch and Mrs Dalloway, and Middlemarch seemed to be an extremely earnest novel about social change and the different ways to be unhappy in love, and Mrs Dalloway turned out to be, also extremely seriously, about the nature of consciousness. And all those things are really there in those two novels. But when I was fifty I read Middlemarch and Mrs Dalloway, and to my astonishment I discovered that Middlemarch was now funny, in a waspish and not always very kind way — George, you bitch! — while Mrs Dalloway proved to have turned into a really exquisitely observed novel about, well, being fifty. Whodathunk it?

In the case of John 1 at Christmas, what we are lined up to notice most, by the fact of it being Christmas night or Christmas morning, with the promised child here at last, and Advent consummated or time consummated if you take the longer view, is heaven come down to earth. We tend (I tend) to hear the opening words of that gospel as a glorious zoom shot, beginning with the universe and ending with the local and immediate, rather like the opening of Powell and Pressberger’s A Matter of Life and Death, which starts with the whole cosmos (‘Big, isn’t it?’ says an urbane voiceover) and ends with a British bomber limping home in flames with David Niven at the controls.

Only here, we start with the creation, grandly recapitulating the beginning of absolutely everything in the Genesis story — seem to touch down beside the Jordan at ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John’ but prove to be only mid-zoom, and truly arrive on the ground with ‘And the word became flesh and lived among us… full of grace and truth’. It isn’t the stable we arrive at, because St John’s gospel doesn’t do the nativity, but after the immensities and abstractions, it’s still the ordinary earth, in tight focus. We’re looking at one man by a river, and another man coming up to him: and from there the whole story follows that second man, concentrating on faces and hands, and fish, and conversation, and shouting, and dry roads through the hills, and town walls, and eventually bread and wine, and blood, and flies buzzing around a corpse, and an opened tomb, and a woman’s face made radiant with astonishment. Not on the cosmos; not on aeons, and parsecs, and whatever exactly might have been meant by ‘Logos’ in Greek.

And that’s a good use of the first chapter of John. A good way of hearing it, a good way to have it set us up at Christmas for the story that follows. That human-scaled, ground-level story is, after all, for Christians, the story that matters, the one that defines the nature of the world. For us the universe is made by narrative at least as much as it’s made by physics. But it’s not the only way of hearing John 1, and there are other things to notice in it. In the midst of the Christmas zoom into the incarnation, it matters, yes, that Christ was involved somehow in the creation of the world, because that’s what lets the writer register the necessary irony of the world rejecting him. ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him: yet the world did not know him.’ But for those purposes it doesn’t really matter how St John’s gospel is saying that such a thing happened. If you’re anything like me, then for simplicity’s sake the point being made shakes down in your head something like this: God made the world, Christ is God, therefore when Christ entered the world God did, so of course you could say that the maker was entering what had been made. Again, good enough to support where the gospel is going, and we don’t let it detain us.

But it’s not Christmas, it’s February. So let’s let it detain us now, because the gospel is actually asserting something here that isn’t in that executive summary. And without him not one thing came into being. John 1 isn’t just suggesting that, in a general way, God is the creator and Jesus equals God. It’s saying, specifically and precisely, that Christ in his own person as Christ was integral to the creation; that Christ was integral to the reason why there is something rather than nothing, that the universe exists at all.

It’s a contention that makes it into the Nicene creed: through him all things were made. It’s a contention that, for many centuries, Christians made sense of in terms of the sacred legend of creation offered by the Genesis story. Now, it’s a contention that comes to us in the context of a universe 13.8 billion years old and about 93 billion light years across, where even locally, even just in our own solar system, our tally of the things that were made turns out to need to include not just a few well-warmed and -lighted familiar planets, close in around the lantern of the sun, but a hundred thousand plus dim chunks of planetary rubble out in the Kuiper belt, and beyond, the conjectural billion or so comet nuclei of the Oort Cloud, balls of frozen gas as big as mountains, turning silently in the great dark. Or, going small rather than large, to include within every one of the billions of cells of complex organisms like us, every protein coded for by every codon of every genome. Or, staying local but looking along the axis of time rather than space, the ‘everything that was made’ has to include all the past moments in which the spot this church stands on was red-hot magma; and when it was the floor of a sunlit shallow sea; and when it was the windy shoulder of a mountain range. Or looking forward, it has to take in all the things this place will ever be before the sun becomes a red giant in five billion years or so, and burns the Earth to cinders. All this; all these things at every scale; all these things past, present and to come; all these things visible and invisible, witnessed by human eyes and human minds or existing as yet unsuspected by us. Everything. Big, isn’t it?

And the claim of John chapter one, and of the Creed, is that this inconceivable totality of stuff has somehow been brought into being because of…Jesus. Well; because of what Christianity insists Jesus is, as well as him being the historically-documented travelling rabbi in first-century Palestine. We don’t just say that He was a good man, or an inspiring deliverer of life lessons, or even a virtuous prophet of the one God. We say, following John 1, that he is God’s language. In the beginning was the Word. We say that although our own words are bitten-off bursts of breath, pushed cunningly out through the soft flaps of our larynxes as sounds that carry meaning, this was a kind of speaking by God that was God, that continued to have the whole active fullness of God’s power and love in it, as it was uttered out. By this speech, says Christianity, the universe was created. By this uttering of Christ the Word, into the nothing before there was anything.

Wait a minute, I thought when I first thought about this. Woah; hold on. Isn’t this one of those embarrassing moments when Christianity, as the successor religion, tries to shoe-horn itself retrospectively into Judaism? Bereshit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz — ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’, says the first line of the Hebrew Bible. En arkhei eyn ho Logos, ‘in the beginning was the Word’, says John 1. Look! Out with the elbows; a bit of squeezing, a bit of shoving; excuse me, excuse me, coming through; and now we’ve made a space for Jesus. Now we’ve got our guy in there! Maybe. And also, I thought, what a surprisingly abstract way to begin, and especially to begin a story which, as we know, is going to be very palpable and down-to-earth shortly, and to proceed at foot-speed across the landscape of Galilee. To begin that, with a piece of speculative cosmology. To begin the story of God with us, God among us, God possessing a face like ours, with the idea that before Christ was one of us, he was — what? A kind of alphabetic principle, existing before the dawn of time. A kind of nucleus of information from which creation unfolded. Surprising.

But in fact there’s a long philosophical tradition which conceives of the universe as matter animated by, activated by, some principle of order. John 1’s Logos belongs in a family of ideas stretching back to Plato, and stretching forward, arguably, all the way to Hegel and Marx. In Hegel’s dialectic, in Marx’s dialectical materialism, what stops the world of matter being inert, un-progressive, merely buffeted to and fro by accident? Why, the presence in it of an active principle which draws the confusion and happenstance of human affairs into intelligible order. And, more recently, there’s been an ever-increasing awareness in the sciences of the various roles played by information in natural processes. Hurricanes, dribbling taps, the distribution of different sizes of earthquake, all turn out to obey underlying informational rules. Evolution can be modelled as an algorithm. Thermodynamics can be thought of as a set of processes in which information is and is not conserved.

And life itself, or at least all life of which we are so far aware, proves to run on information, to be animated by the four-letter alphabet of DNA. A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s write the code of life. Write the book of life, newspapers are prone to say, lifting a phrase from Revelation, when covering stories about gene-sequencing. They do it because this language-like basis of biology seems to put it irresistibly close to Christian scripture’s script-based theory of creation, at least on the level of pleasing metaphor. When a friend of mine, writing a book about the sequencing of the C. elegans nematode, which came before the human genome project, went looking for a title, there it was waiting. In the Beginning was the Worm. Um, just in case anyone is confused, here — or Richard Dawkins turns out to be sitting at the back — let me be clear that I do not think the existence of DNA proves the truth of the first chapter of John’s gospel. Family resemblances, again; that’s all we’re talking about. A surprising spread of ways in which, in different domains, the picture recurs of a universe ordered by speech-like or language-like principles.

The difference in what John 1 proposes is that here, in Christianity’s picture of creation, what pulls the universe together, what comes breathing out from God to summon matter into being, is not any old order but specifically Christ-like order. And we know what Christ comes to do, in the universe; the rest of the gospel tells us so. He comes to us to heal the broken-hearted, to deliver captives, to restore sight to the blind. To proclaim, and then to enact, mercy. Mercy is what he does; God’s mercy is what he is.

So, if he is also the principle of order that writes creation, then what is written into creation, through and through, end to end, everywhere, like the words in seaside rock — is mercy. The logic of everything, the purpose of everything, the business of everything — is mercy. We do not often spell out to ourselves what this means, but perhaps we should. To Christians, the business of thunderstorms is mercy. The business of sand-dunes is mercy. The business of the birds in the hedgerows is mercy. The business of ‘the endless forms most beautiful’ spun forth by evolution is, somehow, mercy. Out in the Oort Cloud, the business of a mountain of frozen methane faintly glimmering in the starlight, is mercy.

A strange kind of mercy, though. Life’s beautiful forms are often ferocious. Blake was asking a real theological question about the tiger, tiger, burning bright: ‘What immortal hand or eye/dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’ Did the word of divine mercy really do the tiger’s teeth? The order of the universe is one that appears to be thoroughly indifferent towards the good of creatures like us who can be struck by lightning, scratched by thorns in the hedgerows, infected by the Ebola virus. (Which is, yes, elegant in its way.)

Perhaps we need to look at this from further back. From out of the specific range of our immediate human interests. Perhaps we need to say that creation is merciful in the sense that there is anything rather than nothing in the first place. That given that there is something, that that something appears to be tuned towards producing complexity rather just simplicity. That even though the thermodynamic rules of creation point one way ultimately, and one way only, down towards the dead level of heat death, in the meantime creation allows for a myriad of cunning little heat engines to support local exceptions to the rule. Among them, all living things. Among living things, us. Perhaps it is mercy that we bundles of water, carbon and phosphorus, organised briefly into selves that last not much longer in the scheme of things that water organised into waves, nevertheless know ourselves to be present; and know each other, while we last, and know what it is to love and to make, and in that resemble in our temporary way the creator of all things.

Perhaps it is. That must be part of an answer we are not ever going to know the whole of. But it seems a cold comfort, and one — how can I put this? — better attuned to the abstract cosmology in the first words of John’s gospel than it is to the human-sized story that follows. Thank heavens it moves from one to the other. Thank heavens Christian theology insists on both. For if the advantage of listening to John 1 away from the Christmas zoom to Bethlehem is that it makes us pay attention to Christ in creation, the gospel carries us swiftly all the same to a man beside the Jordan, ‘full of grace and truth’.

If you think that mercy is too cold, too abstract, too incomplete, as a principle shaping galaxies, then you may consider your viewpoint endorsed. God, it seems, agrees with you. Christ agrees with you. Mercy is not completed by the creation of the universe, the gospel tells us. Mercy is not complete, the gospel says, until Mercy himself, in person, enters into creation. Not as a principle. Not as an alphabet of underlying order. Not as a distant benevolence. But as one of us, as vulnerable as any of us to the sharpness of the tiger’s teeth, to the brevity of our existence, to the danger and indifference that seems inseparable from matter’s beauty: and wearing the thorns of the hedgerow as a crown.