Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
We have now entered into what is called Passiontide, a two week period before Easter in which we focus specifically on the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We mark this season by shrouding the crucifix. This mini-season within a season is an Anglican distinction, though it has some roots within the early Church. We see now a new emphasis in our Lenten journey. Lent so far been much more about our repentance and penitence, and now we are shown what all that was for as we turn to the identity of Jesus Christ our Savior.
We shift to a new emphasis in order to move our meditation from ourselves and our own sin to Our Lord Himself. He, really, is the object of our penitential meditations because it is to Him that we cry for mercy. The more we understand His identity, the more we understand his work of redemption for us. The readings for this week offer us three important lessons about Christ’s identity and one important lesson about his action.
The first lesson we must see is that Jesus Christ is God. The Epistle alludes to this fact, and Christ Himself in the Gospel claims this fact. In an extended argument with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus announces: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” He is using here, the name of God that God announced to Moses at the burning bush. To understand just how radical this sort of claim, just look at what the Jewish leaders do in the next verse! They pick up stones to kill him! They claim that Jesus is a devil and that his power is demonic.
So, we as readers come to see the tension held in the text. If the world is true, then Jesus is not. But if Jesus is True, then the world is not. Ha, not much has changed, has it?
Jesus’ claim, is that He is fully, completely, eternally God. Holy Scripture is full of this same claim. St. John begins his Gospel: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” St. Thomas addressed Him as his Lord and his God; and St. Paul declares that He is “God over all, blessed for ever;” and the prophet Isaiah, that He is the mighty God, the Everlasting Father;” and St. Paul again, that He is “our great God and Saviour;” and St. Jude, that He is “our only Sovereign God and Lord.” And in our liturgy, we acknowledge Jesus as God–take for example the Gloria, in which we sing: “Day by day we magnify Him, and we worship His Name ever world without end.” That would, of course, be idolatry if he were not God. We as Christians make this great claim–that Jesus Christ is God.
The Second great lesson about Christ’s identity is that He is the Son of God. In the Gospel passage, Jesus claims: “If I honour myself, my honour is nothing; it is my Father that honoureth me, of whom ye say, that he is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying.” His claim we must take at His word, that while he is God, He is the Son of God. We might in English be tempted to say that He is God though He is the Son of God. But that is not correct. We should rather say that He is God because He is the Son of God. This is a mystery to us, and a mystery that we cannot naturally attain–it is revealed to us in Scripture. Christ tells us Himself, “as the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself.” And St. Paul says, that He is “the brightness of God’s glory, and the express Image of His Person.” [John v. 26. Heb. i. 3.] Christ’s sonship reveals His person. Within the Trinity there are Three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And it was the Second person of the Trinity, the Word, the Son of God that becomes man. And that brings us to the third lesson.
The third great lesson is that Jesus Christ is fully man. Now this point the Jewish leaders would have agreed with us, but they only saw Christ’s humanity and could not see that that humanity was bound to divinity. This week on Thursday we celebrate one of the great High Feast Days of the Church: the Annunciation: March 25th, 9 months before Christmas. On that day, the Holy Ghost overshadowed the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity took on flesh as a miniscule embryo in her womb. On that day, God became man and took the true humanity of Mary and bound His divinity to it. By that action, humanity was lifted up and transformed through the union with the divine and Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God.
These three important points (that Christ is God, that He is the Son of God, that He is fully Man and Fully God) teach us about the identity of Christ which is imperative to know as we reflect upon Christ’s work on earth. Knowing his identity helps us understand his actions more deeply. Let me give you one example to show this from the Epistle.
In the Old Covenant, man could approach the presence of God only once a year, on the feast of Yom Kippur. This was done in a highly ritualized manner in order to protect the High Priest so that he enter the Holy of Holies in purity. He wore many different vestments, much like what we wear today. On the outermost garment, like a chasible, was hung a breastplate. On the breastplate were twelve stones, signifying the twelve tribes of Israel. So, once a year the high priest would approach the Holy of Holies and bring the people of Israel on his heart before God to atone for their sins. This was the moment of atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar–and this day was a type or shadow of Christ’s work. As St. Pauls says: “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh; how much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
As the High Priest, Christ entered the Holy of Holies. And instead of bearing upon him the twelve stones signifying the twelve tribes of Israel, Christ bore humanity itself through assuming human flesh. He comes before the throne of God offering Himself on behalf of humanity. He comes before the throne of God offering Himself for each and everyone of you all sitting right here. And guess what? His one, holy, and perfect sacrifice is still what we join each and every time we offer up the Mass. During this Passiontide, may our meditation upon Christ’s identity help deepen our love, our appreciation, and our devotion to Our Lord so that we may offer ourselves to Him in His sacrifice and that He may more dwell in us and we in Him.