Frances writes on Sunday’s readings : – This feast has been set by the Church to help us remember and ponder on all that God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. The choice of readings takes us from the very start of Israel’s relationship with God through to the final consummation of our story in the salvation won for us by Christ.
We begin this great epic with a reading from the book of Numbers, (Num 21:4-9). It is an ancient account of how people understood their relationship with their God. Released from slavery in Egypt, it becomes clear that the people of Israel still behaved like slaves; their understanding of the meaning of freedom being too small. When things got tough they blamed God, a tendency we all have still. When plagued by serpents they resorted to what specialists describe as apotropaic remedies, the use of some object designed to avert the evil, and so they erected a bronze serpent on a pole so that those bitten by real snakes could find a solace in looking at it. In other words, just as we find placebos often help in the treatment of illnesses, they did the same. Since they thought illness came as a punishment from God, this righted their relationship with the divine.
Our gospel, from John (3:13-17) takes up this ancient way of thinking in order to transform it; insisting that in the most appalling of deaths, the crucifixion of one unique man, our access to God has been radically transformed. We are now no longer floundering in the dark, reliant on ancient remedies, living in fear of the divine and of his punishments and doomed to despair because of our sinfulness; but are taken into an entirely new relationship with God whom we now know as Father. Our Gospel speaks of the Son whom God the Father deliberately sent as Son into the world to do his bidding, and it makes clear that the will of the Father is neither our punishment nor condemnation, but something quite different and previously unimagined – that we who follow the Son will “have eternal life in him.”
The problem is that our translations give the impression that God, in a mood of sentiment, loved the world and sent the Son to redeem it. Implicit in such a suggestion is the idea that God might change his mind, which is if course the outlook of the Old Testament. In Greek the implications are radically different. By believing in God the Son we enter into the nature of Godhead itself. It is not ‘God so loved the world’, but more ‘this is how God is’. His being and entire identity is love, love exchanged between Father, Son and Spirit. In caring for his creation, the cosmos, or world, God therefore gives himself to the world entirely in the being of the Son. He has no other means of loving us than this immense gift by which we are destined to share in his love for eternity; their love, their being. In this then we learn both more about ‘eternal life’ and about God who throws himself away on us; pouring his very being into his redemptive plan for the world. Salvation then is not a gift detached from the identity of God like some present of colossal value; but, and much more significantly, an invitation to enter into divinity!
This is explored by Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, (2:6-11). In this famous passage Paul explores the meaning of Christ becoming human for our salvation. The emphasis is on the fact that Jesus was always wholly One with the Father, a member of the Trinity; in Greek sharing God’s form or nature, ‘morphe’. As such there was no division between Father and Son. Father is not diminished by Sonship, or as the Greek has it, using a highly unusual word ‘harpagmon’, meaning to be mugged, robbed with violence. Clearly Paul is trying to express the utter unity of the members of the Trinity, in which each is distinct and yet One and in which none of the triad is reduced by the being of the other two, but rather completed and perfected by them, and in which union all three work together for the salvation of humanity. In this great act of self-oblation the Son freely chooses to do the will of the Father by becoming human in the Incarnation, ‘born of a woman’ and ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’. In his earthly life among us, Jesus relies on the power of the Spirit and the will of the Father to empower and guide his actions.
Significantly, as Philippians has it, Jesus assumes the form (morphe) of a slave, the state of unredeemed humanity, harking right back to our Numbers passage in which freed Israel continued to live slavish not redeemed lives. Here we explore the extent of divine love for creation. God the Son sets aside his divinity to take on the dejected state of humanity, our helplessness, our inability to seemingly do anything that will set the world to rights, whether we are thinking about Gaza; the Middle East or more personally in the confusion and distress of our own lives and of those we love. God in Trinity, God as he really is, has entered through Christ the Son into our world, into our being, not as some alien visitor but totally, in all that he/they are. Quite clearly such a vision would have horrified the Jewish outlook with its sharp division between God and his creation, and the enormity of its implications was, Paul realised, precisely what led to the cross, to Jesus’ being killed. God’s action in the incarnation and cross was an intolerable affront, a scandal to the notion that ‘God must keep his clean, removed state’. Here, in this stunning piece of lyric poetry we face the degree of God’s involvement with his creation, no holds barred, his involvement is absolute. This then is why we keep this festival of the Triumph of the Cross, so that “All beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father.” The entire creation joins in this supreme victory in which it honours the Trinity, recognising what Jesus the Son has done. It is a moment of superabundant unity and grace, creation restored, harmony gained, the great triumph of the Son.