John’s gospel describes Jesus coming into the world in a very different way to the traditional Christmas story. John does not describe Mary’s story, or the birth, or the angels and shepherds, or the magi. But he doesn’t avoid the central theme of the Christmas story altogether and instead describes it in a remarkable and curious way.
Having revealed Jesus as THE Logos and that this Logos took on skin and fat (Greek: sarx) John then includes this amazing verse:
“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18 ESV)
This is an amazing verse which reveals that Jesus was at the Father’s side and came to us in order to make Him known. Jesus swapped unlimited perfection for limited imperfection so that we might know the Father!
But this verse tells us something much more profound and amazing.
As always, when translating from the original Koine Greek into English certain words throw up a challenge which makes the task far from straightforward. In this verse the word which we read as “side” (Father’s “side”) is the word “kolpos” in Greek.
Kolpos has a number of meanings, none of which seem to be a good fit.
Kolpos is a kind of pocket which is made by creating a fold in your outer tunic and sits at your side. This is the usage which appears to have been used to end up with “at the Father’s side”. But is John really giving us an image of a pocket Jesus?
Another common use of the word kolpos is a gulf or a bay and so the image of the Father’s arms embracing to form a ‘bay’ within which He holds the Son is also used in some translations which read, “in the bosom of the Father”.
But there is another meaning which is just as common as the other two, and perhaps even more so. The other meaning is “womb”.
You can see why the translators didn’t go for this option because it wouldn’t make sense to refer to “the Father’s womb”.
But what if by avoiding what seems to be a nonsense the translators are in fact missing the point? What if John is less about a literal interpretation of his words and more about us grasping something deeply profound?
A father may not have a womb but the womb shows us something about the relationship that the child in the womb has to its mother. In the womb the child has life in itself and yet that life is entirely dependent and sustained by the mother. In order to live the child simply has to be. There is no effort required, no work, no striving, no need for the child to offer anything back to the mother in order that its life is sustained by the mother. The child simply has to be.
So if we insert “womb” into John’s words, and apply “unique son” in the right place too (see this reflection for ‘monogenēs theos’), then this is what they tell us:
“No one has ever seen God; the unique son of God, who is in the Father’s womb, he has made him known.”
The unique son of God, sustained in the Father’s womb, just being: this is the God that Jesus has come to make known.
Jesus moved from the Father’s womb as one with Him to be formed in Mary’s womb as one with us. This is John’s revelation for us.
This Advent may you know that Jesus has come to reveal a God who is a Father who nurtures us in His ‘womb’.
May you know that to be His child and to receive His life and love all you need is to ‘be’.
May you experience the effortless, life-giving kindness of the Father’s womb and, like Jesus, emerge to make the Father known.