The “Last Gospel” is the name given to the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John (John 1:1-14, the “Prologue”) as part of the concluding rites in the Extraordinary Form. However, it is not included in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. This omission is unfortunate inasmuch as the Prologue makes important points that should not be forgotten. Nonetheless, the Last Gospel, which began as a private devotional practice, may continue to be used in this manner.
Mark begins his Gospel with the baptism of Christ. Matthew and Luke begin with Christ’s birth. John, however, begins with the “beginning,” which is with God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (“In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.”)
The word verbum is translated from the Greek word logos (λόγος). Scholars agree that logos had a far richer meaning than “the Word” for ancient readers. They agree that it was a synthetic term with multiple layers of meaning for Greeks and Jews, as well as Christians. Providing a bridge between the pre-Christian and Christian world, logos referred to the order of the cosmos, divine emanation, and also the principle of divine reason.
The term “Word” has a specific and irreplaceable meaning. Replacement words would not only distort its specific meaning but would send Christianity on an erratic and dangerous path, essentially contradicting the meaning of the Last Gospel. This point may be evinced, interestingly enough, in Goethe’s tragic play, Faust. In one particular scene, Faust is in a perplexed state of mind as he is endeavoring to translate the opening passage of St. John’s Gospel. He struggles to find the proper meaning of the word logos, which the Evangelist tells us “was in the Beginning” and is that “by which all things were made.” The learned doctor rejects the orthodox version of the opening passage—“in the Beginning was the Word”—because, he argues, every word is an expression of a “thought,” which, therefore, must come first. He then writes, “In the Beginning was the Thought.” Upon further reflection, however, he dismissed Thought since thought itself does not have the capacity to generate the word. Thus, he substitutes Power: “In the Beginning was the Power.” But he finds this expression also to be unsatisfactory, for power is nothing unless it is put forth in a “deed.” Finally, he writes: “In the Beginning was the Act.”
Scholars of this great drama have pointed out that the confused state of Dr. Faustus, combined with his rejection of the true meaning of the Johannine Prologue, brought his mind into a fit state for listening to the suggestions of the Tempter. It is precisely at that moment in the play that the evil spirit, who has a special antipathy for the words of St. John, is able to exercise his sinister influence over Dr. Faustus. We wonder whether the modern world is in a similar confused state of mind when it distorts the Gospel message. The tempter would like nothing more than for the Gospel of the Lord to serve his own purposes. In hindsight, Goethe seems extraordinarily prophetic.
By elevating Thought above Word, Goethe also elevates the cogito (ergo sum) of René Descartes, who is alternately identified as the Father of Modern Philosophy and the Father of Modern Confusion. For Descartes, “I think therefore I am” introduced a new understanding of man as a “thinking thing” (as opposed to a “knowing being”) and assigned to thought an independent reality. Secondly, by ascribing a pre-eminent position to Power, Goethe epitomized the “Will to Power” philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the founder of the “God is dead” movement. Finally, by giving primacy to Act, Goethe’s Dr. Faustus encapsulated the thought of Karl Marx for whom the fundamental imperative was no longer to understand the world but to act upon it—to change it. Religion, therefore, became the “halo of woe,” and the “opium of the people.”
Goethe has shown us, though somewhat indirectly, that a mistranslation, however slight, can lead to disaster. We should not be followers of Descartes, Nietzsche, or Marx. Descartes represents thought without a body (without flesh); Nietzsche offers power without love (rejecting an essential Gospel command); Marx calls for action without foresight (the rejection of reason). All three represent the perfect antithesis of what the Last Gospel signifies.
The “word” is the right word. According to John, the Word is understood as an utterance coming from the Father which so perfectly mirrors and manifests God that it is God and assumes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The essential mystery of the Word becoming flesh—the Incarnation—is that the Eternal Word took on human nature, becoming identifiable with mortal man in everything except sin. Concerning the redemptive and unifying significance of the Incarnation, St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “But the fact that God was willing to unite human nature to himself personally points out to men with greatest clarity that man can be united to God by intellect, and see him immediately. It was, then, most suitable for God to assume human nature to stir up man’s hope for beatitude” (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, c 54).
The Last Gospel may have lost a great deal of its liturgical status. It has not, however, lost either its theological or philosophical significance. As the Word, it avoids the one-sidedness of the Cartesian, Nietzschean, and Marxist heresies, while opening the door to a rich and profound meditation that unites the Beginning with the Redemption. The Last Gospel represents the Alpha and the Omega of the Christian story.