In this third weekend of Advent 2020 reflection, one can ask what was the experience that Jesus’ disciples were trying to articulate when they declared in a variety of ways that God was revealed in the very human Jesus? The question has contemporary significance as well. What is the significance of Jesus Christ and Christianity today, when human suffering, accelerated Covid-19 deaths, and hardened and hateful political polarization so characterize our contemporary life situation?
What emerges when we trace the Jesus images in the Gospels is a portrait of a human life in which the human opens to the Divine. In our earliest Gospel, Mark, we read: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time is fulfilled,’ he said. ‘The Reign of God has come. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15)
Most biblical scholars agree that the reality of the Reign of God lies at the very heart of Jesus’ life and message. In the text from Mark we see the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had probably spent some time under the influence of John the Baptist but then recognized and responded to his own unique call from God.
The “Reign of God” is a religious image. It is based on the metaphor of God being depicted as a king. By proclaiming the Reign of God Jesus was using figurative language that evoked the living tradition of an experience of God acting in history. For Jesus, God is not out there or up there but present and active in the events of everyday life, here and now, near and with us. The Reign of God is a new awareness and a creative human environment. The Reign of God meant that God’s justice would replace injustice. It meant that the poor and the marginalized would be reintegrated into society. The content of the Reign of God is reflected in Jesus’ sayings, parables, and actions – in all the contours of his life and ministry.
Jesus experienced God’s presence and influence as close, near, and very personal. God for Jesus was not a cold-hearted taskmaster. He experienced God as an understanding, compassionate, and forgiving “Father.” (Jesus grew up in the Hebrew tradition which pictured God as male. An Hebraic anthropomorphism. God of course has no gender. God can be pictured just as much as “Mother” or “Father.”)
Jesus explained life in the Reign of God very particularly in his parables. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, Jesus teaches a universal love that also extends to one’s enemies, whether they be personal enemies in the village or those of a particular group or nation. For Jesus the barriers between insiders and outsiders are broken down. Perhaps Christian political leaders should also be good Samaritains?
The human Jesus opens our eyes to all that God means and enables us to see all that God is. Those who experienced Jesus experienced God’s revelation in his life. Their full understanding came after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Recall Matthew 27:53-55 “After Jesus’ resurrection….When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’” One of my favorite post-Resurrection narratives is about the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35): “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’”
It is through the human Jesus – “Son of Humankind” and “Son of God” — that people were enabled to experience all that the word “God” means. We find that realization is so clearly expressed in the Fourth Gospel with its strong post-Resurrection belief and understanding. Recall, for instance, these passages: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26); “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19); “Whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (John 12:45); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9); and finally, “[Just as God] has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9). The Christian way of life, as I wrote last week, is a life of spirituality: a journey through and with Christ into the life of God. Life in Christ is a mystery to be lived. To live in Christ is to live what the Apostle Paul called “a new creation.”
I would emphasize that to be a Christian is not primarily to be “a religious person.” The historical Jesus was not anti-religion but religiously critical. (Something for next week’s reflection.) It is important to remember that Jesus came to show us how to be truly human much more than how to be religious. In the depth of our humanity-shared-with-others we meet the living God. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
To be a Christian is to be a whole human being; and Jesus is the portrait of that wholeness. Consider the faith system in which Jesus’ own life was nurtured. He broke religious boundaries again and again in his attempt to call people into a new humanity and to introduce them to a Divine presence manifested in the fullness of his own humanity. Anything that teaches one to hate or violate another cannot be of God. Jesus’ disciples saw and experienced in him a rare integrity. Each person whom Jesus met seemed to have the potential to become whole, to be invested with infinite worth.
God was likened by Jesus to a wide variety of images. God was like a father who welcomed home the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). God was like a shepherd who searched for the lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7), or like a woman who swept diligently until she found a lost coin (Luke 15:8–10). The God Jesus seemed to know was one in whom all were welcome to come (Matthew 11:28).
Christian spirituality requires that one take time to sit back and contemplate. It is through quiet contemplation, not speedy data-processing, that we effectively process our experiences and truly explore the mystery of life. The contemplative mind sees reality in its wholeness not just in its parts. Jesus took time to contemplate as well. Recall when he began his ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that after being baptized by John the Baptist he retreated to the Judean Desert to pray. Through contemplation the historical Jesus came to understand his identity with God. Luke reminds us that “He frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray.” (Luke 5:16)
Material for our own contemplation: Jesus and the mystery of life. Jesus knew joy and the camaraderie of his close friends. He also faced anger and rejection from narrow-minded religious leaders. He knew fear and anxiety. Recall his “agony in the garden” as he contemplated his own torture and death at the hands of the Romans. “Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” (Matthew 26: 38 & 39)
Jesus, who uniquely cared, served and loved, suffered at the hands of oppressive religious and political authorities. He lived the mystery of life: the Reign of God. He did not abandon God. God did not abandon him. His reassuring message for us is that God has not abandoned us either, although, like him, we can experience dark days.
As I reflect on Jesus and on the mystery of my own life, I recall what Franciscan friend, Richard Rohr, wrote last month:
“Jesus teaches that right relationship (i.e., love) is the ultimate and daily criterion. If a social order allows and encourages strong connectedness between people and creation, people and each other, people and God, then you have a truly sacred culture: the Reign of God. It is not a world without pain or mystery, but simply a world where we are connected and in communion with all things.
“Who can doubt that this is the sum and substance of Jesus’ teaching? In the Reign of God, the very motive for rivalry, greed, and violence has been destroyed. We know we are all part of God’s Beloved Community.”
And so we journey on…..
PS A clarification about an item in last week’s post. I had included a strongly misogynist text often attributed to Albertus Magnus. It appears however that many contemporary scholars attribute that text not to Albertus Magnus but more likely to one of his followers. Albertus Magnus was however a misogynist as was his famous student, Thomas Aquinas, who cited with approval Aristotle’s infamous affirmation that “the female is a misbegotten male.” Aquinas himself declared that women are “defective and misbegotten.”