In Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29ff), John the Baptist speaks of Jesus, calling Him superior, pre-existent, and anointed by the Holy Spirit. What also stands out is that John twice says, “I did not know Him.” This seems odd given that they were cousins. While it is possible that the text merely means they were not well acquainted, there is likely a deeper explanation. It is as if John is saying, “I knew him, but I never reallyknew Him. I never reallysaw until now the full depths of Him. I did not fully realize His glory until God showed me.”
That John missed seeing these deeper realities is understandable, as the Lord hid these qualities to some extent.In Philippians we read,
[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to cling to; rather, he emptied himself by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he thus humbled himself becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father(Phil 2:6-11).
Jesus, though eternally God, cloaked His glory;He allowed Himself to be seen by most as a mere man. Such is the humility of our Lord!
John is now permitted to see more,and he beholds something of the glory of Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. This is why he cries out, “I did not know him.” We must make a similar journey to the Lord, allowing our faith and understanding of Him to deepen. Is this merely Jesus, the ethical teacher from Nazareth? No, He is far more; He is the Lord! This is our journey with and to the Lord.
Even with one another, there may come a day when we feel compelled to say of someone we have known, “I did not know him.”There are times we see into the depths of a person we thought we knew well only to discover something more (whether good or bad), something surprising.
Sometimes we are surprised in a negative way, such as when someone we thought we knew well does something shocking and sinful. I choose not to dwell on that here. Most of us have had such times when were surprised, were shocked, or even felt betrayed, wondering if we ever really knew the person at all.
In a more positive sense,we ought to presume that there are depths to a person that we do not see or understand. Each of us has some unique glory, some particular gift or role in God’s kingdom, and too often we fail to remember this.
I had such a moment when my sister Mary Anne died.She had been mentally ill all her life, tortured by paranoid schizophrenia and dark voices in her head. Frankly, she frightened me; at other times she annoyed me. When she was taking her medications, she was nearly normal, even if a bit exotic in her thoughts. She loved God; she prayed and dreamed of a normal life with marriage and children. But I never really knew how to interact with her, so I often avoided her.
In 1991 Mary Anne died in a fire,and because her skin had been singed the funeral directors could not adjust her face. Hence, they recommended only a private viewing, with a closed casket for the remainder of the time. At the private viewing I could tell that she had died weeping. I saw her pain as I had never seen it before. It pierced me through, and I wept. I wondered if I had ever really known her, if I had ever really understood her pain and her dignity. I was sad that it took her death for me to understand the depths of her struggle and to recognize her dignity and future glory. The Lord says that many who are last will be first (Mat 19:30).
Many of us never really know the pains and sorrows others have endured. There’s an old spiritual with these lyrics: “Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”
Yes, some of the troubled and “troublesome” people we encounter have sorrows and difficulties that are hidden from us.Most are troubled for a reason. Remembering this may not excuse bad behavior,but it surely helps us be more compassionate and patient.
Most of us fail to appreciate the glory of others.Each person we encounter has a mystery and glory that is caught up into the very love of God. God knew each one of us before we were born (Jer 1:5). He knit us together in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and every one of our days was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). This is true even of our enemies.
Often, we fail to recognize the deep mystery of every human person and to reverence it.St. John the Baptist’s declaration “I did not know Him” reminds us all to be careful toward one another and reverential toward the hidden mystery of all God’s children.
In Heaven there is something called the “communion of saints.”Experiencing this will not merely be like being in a crowd of strangers. Rather, we shall see one another more deeply than we can now imagine. We will see each other in the light of God, knowing one another and ourselves more the way He does. There will be understanding, appreciation, and mutual respect that we can’t even fathom now.
God gave St. John the Baptist insight into the glory of Christ, a glory that was preeminent and divine such that he could say, “I did not know Him.”May God grant us insight into the lesser—though still wonderful—glory in one another. We will never fully know one another here in this world, but may our “I did not know him” be replaced by reverence before the mystery of the human person.
The biblical evidence of Jesus’ divinity is remarkably rich and consistent throughout the New Testament. Although I present many Scripture passages below, I cannot include most of them because doing so would dwarf the rest of the post. Perhaps at some point in the future I will publish a version containing all of the detailed citations. For now, though, let these examples suffice to demonstrate scriptural affirmation of the divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
To begin, recall that the divinity of Christ is a dogma of the Faith (de Fide). The divinity and divine Sonship of Jesus are expressed in all of the creeds. It is perhaps most clearly stated in the Athanasian Creed (Quicumque):
… we believe and confess that Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is God and man. He is God begotten of the substance of the Father before all ages and man born in time of the substance of His Mother. He is Perfect God and perfect man.
Many passages in the Old Testament express the qualities of the coming Messiah:
a prophet (see Dt 18:15,18)
a priest (see Psalm 109:4)
a shepherd (see Ez 34:23ff)
King and Lord (see Ps 2, Ps 44, Ps 109, Zach 9:9)
a suffering servant (see Is 53)
the Son of God (see Ps 2:7, 109:3)
Emmanuel (God with us) (see Is 7:14, Is 8:8)
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Father of the World to Come, Prince of Peace (see Is 9:6)
Eternal King (see Dan 7:14)
Many passages in the New Testament ascribe divine qualities to Jesus:
omnipotence, manifest in the creation and the conservation of the world (see Col 1:15-17, 1 Cor 8:6, Heb 1:2ff)
omniscience – In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3).
eternity – He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:17).
immutability (see Heb 1:12, 13:8)
adorability (see Phil 2:10, Heb 1:6)
In the New Testament, the Father attests to the divine Sonship of Jesus:
See Mt 3:17, 17:5, Mk 9:7, Lk 3:22, 9:35, Jn 1:34, and 2 Pet 1:17.
In the Gospels, the Lord Jesus gives testimony to His own divinity and self-knowledge. He is of noble stature. He is aware of His dignity and power and expresses it frequently.
Jesus indicates that He transcends the prophets and Kings of the Old Covenant.
Jonah and Solomon (see Mt 12:41ff, Lk 11:31ff)
Moses and Elijah (see Matt 17:3, Mk 9:4, Lk 9:30)
King David – See Mt 22:43ff Mk 12:36, Lk 20:42ff
He says that the least born into His Kingdom will be greater than John the Baptist who, until that time, was considered the greatest man born of woman (see Mt 11:11, Lk 7:28).
Jesus teaches that He is superior to the angels.
The angels are His servants and minister to Him (see Mt 4:11, Mk 1:13, Lk 4:13).
The angels are His army (see Mt 26:53).
The angels will accompany Him at His second coming and do His will (see Mt 16:27, 25:31, Mk 8:38, Lk 9:26).
Jesus appropriates divine actions unto Himself and thus sets forth an assimilation unto the Lord God.
He declares that it was He who sent the prophets and doctors of the Law (see Mt 23:34, Lk 11:49).
He gives the promise of His assistance and grace (see Lk 21:15).
He forgives sins, which power belongs to God alone (e.g., Mt 9:2).
He, by His own authority, completes and changes some precepts of the Law (See Mt 5:21ff).
He declares Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath (see Mt 12:8, Mk 2:28, Lk 6:5, Jn 5:17).
Like the Heavenly Father, He makes a covenant with His followers (see Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20).
Jesus makes divine demands upon his followers.
He rebukes some for lack of faith in Him (see Mt 8:10-12, 15:28).
He rewards faith in Him (see Mt 8:13, 9:2, 22:29, 15:28, Mk 10:52, Lk 7:50, 17:19).
He demands faith in His own person (see Jn 14:1, 5:24, 6:40,47, 8:51, 11:25ff).
He teaches that rejection of Him and His teachings will be the standard of final judgement (see Lk 9:26, Mt 11:6).
Jesus demands supreme love for Him, which surpasses all earthly loves (see Mt 10:37,39; Lk 17:33).
He accepts religious veneration by allowing people to fall at His feet, an honor due to God alone (See Mt 15:25, 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 28:9,17).
Jesus is well aware of His own power (see Mt 28:18).
He works many miracles in His own name.
He transfers this power to His disciples.
Jesus knows and teaches that His own death will be an adequate atonement for the forgiveness of the sins of the whole human race (see Mt 20:28, 26:28).
Jesus appropriates to Himself the office of Judge of the World, which according to the Old Testament (e.g., Ps 49:1-6) God would exercise (e.g., Mt 16:27). His judgment extends to every idle word (see Mt 12:36) and will be final and executed immediately (see Mt 25:46).
Jesus knows that He is the Son of God.
Jesus clearly distinguishes His claim in this regard from His disciples’ relationship to the Father. When He speaks of His own relationship with God He says, “My Father.” However, when He addresses the disciples, He calls God “Your Father.” He never unites Himself with them in the formula “Our Father,” thus maintaining a distinction (see Jn 20:17).
Jesus first reveals Himself to be the Son of God in the temple, when He remarks to Mary and Joseph that He must be about His Father’s business (see Lk 2:49).
Jesus claims to be both Messiah and Son of God in the presence of the Sanhedrin (see Mk 14:62). The Sanhedrin deem this to be blasphemous.
Jesus tells a story of Himself in the Parable of the Evil Husbandmen, thus confessing himself to be the only Son of God.
Jesus is aware of being one with the Father (The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30,38)). The Jews respond by accusing Him of blasphemy.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus indicates that
He is eternal (Before Abraham was, I am (Jn 8:58)),
He has full knowledge of the Father (see Jn 7:29, 8:55, 10:14ff),
He has equal power and efficacy with the Father (see Jn 5:17),
He can forgive sins (Jn 8:11 et sicut supra),
He is Judge of the World (Jn 5:22,27 et sicut supra),
He is rightly to be adored (see Jn 5:23),
He is the light of the world (see Jn 8:12),
He is the way, the truth, and the light (see Jn 14:6),
His disciples may and ought to pray to the Father in His name (see Jn 14:13ff, 16:23ff),
His disciples may pray to Him (see Jn 14:13ff, 16:23ff),
the solemn confession of the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” is acceptable and in fact an act of faith (see Jn 20:28).
Here are a few other New Testament passages on Christ’s divinity:
And we know that the Son of God is Come and has given us Understanding that we may know the true God and may be in His True Son, this is the True God and Life Eternal (1 John 5:20).
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (Jn 1:1-14).
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped … and every tongue must confess to the Glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:5-11).
… to them [the Israelites] belong the patriarchs and of their race, according to the flesh is the Christ, who is God over all blessed forever (Rom 9:5).
Looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).
But to the Son [God says]: Your Throne, O God is for ever and ever (Heb 1:8).
Well, I hope you get the point. Those who state that Jesus didn’t know He was God or that He never made divine claims haven’t read enough Scripture. Jesus is Lord; He is God. All things came to be through Him, and He holds all creation together in Himself. Those who deny His divinity will one day fall to prostrate before His glory (see Rev. 1:17).
Here is a powerful clip from the movie The Gospel of John. The words you will hear are taken directly from Scripture.
As a priest I am called to preach and teach, and I must look to Jesus Christ as my model. In this I refer to the real Jesus, the Jesus of Scripture. He clearly loved God’s people, and because of that he could not abide a limited notion of salvation for them. Jesus zealously insisted that they receive the whole counsel of God. He insisted on a dignity for them that was nothing less than the perfection of God Himself (cf. Matthew 5:41).
As a teacher, Jesus often operated in the mode of the prophets. Prophets have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Yet despite Jesus’ often fiery and provocative stances, the Scriptures speak of the eagerness with which many flocked to hear Him.
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).
Sent to arrest Jesus, the temple guard returned empty-handed saying, No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).
And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words, which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).
And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).
Jesus was a complex preacher and teacher. Let’s consider some of His qualities and ponder the sort of balance that He manifests.
I. His authority – The Scriptures often speak of the “authority” with which Jesus taught. The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia, which means teaching out of (one’s own) substance, speaking to the substance of what is taught. Jesus would often say, “You have heard that is was said … But I say to you …” (cf Mat 5 inter al). Jesus spoke from His experience of knowing His Father and of knowing and cherishing the Law and its truth in His own life. He brought a personal weight to what He said. He knew of what He spoke; He did not merely know about it.
This personal authority was compelling; even today, those with this gift stand apart from those who merely preach and teach the “safe” maxims of others without adding their own experience. Jesus personally bore witness in His own life to the truth He proclaimed—and people noticed the difference.
How about you? You and I are called to speak out of the experience of the Lord in our own life and to be able to say with authority, “Everything that the Lord and His Body, the Church, have declared is true because, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it and come to experience it as true and transformative.”
II. His witness– A witness recounts what he has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears, what he himself knows and has experienced. Jesus could say to the Jews of his time, If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him, and I keep his word (Jn 8:55). He attests to what He personally knows; He is not just repeating what others have said.
While we cannot witness immediately to all that Jesus could, for He had lived with the Father from all eternity, as we make our walk we can speak to what the Lord has done in our own life and how we have come to know Him in conformity with His revealed Word.
III. His respect for others – The Latin root of the word “respect” gives it the meaning “look again” (re (again) + spectare (to look)). Frequently in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel, there appears the phrase, “Jesus looked at them and said …”
In other words, Jesus was not merely issuing dictates to an unknown, faceless crowd. He looked at them, and He looks at us. It is a personal look, a look that seeks to engage us in a very personal way. He is speaking to us. His teaching is not merely for an ancient crowd; it is for us. He looks to us, and He looks again. Are we looking? Are we listening?
Do you look with respect to those whom you are called to teach or to the children you are called to raise? Do you engage them by your look of respect and love?
IV. His love and patience for sinners – Jesus could be very tough, even exhibiting impatience, but He is willing to stay with us in a long conversation. One text says, When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them at great length (Mk 6:34). Yes, He teaches us at great length; He stays in long conversations with us. He knows that we are dull of mind and hard of heart, so He persistently and consistently teaches.
Do we do that? Or do we quickly write people off? Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who, frankly, was quite rude to Him at first (John 4). He had a long conversation with Nicodemus, who was also at times resistant and argumentative (Jn 3). He had a long conversation with His Apostles, who were often slow and inept.
V. His capacity to both afflict and console – Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” but just as often said “Woe to you.” Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. All of us fall into both categories. We need comfort but are often too comfortable in our sins. A true prophet fears no man and speaks to the truth of God.
A true prophet has no permanent allies to please and no permanent enemies to oppose. The determination of every moment is based on conformity or lack of conformity to the truth of God. Jesus said to Peter, Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah. (Mat 16:17), and He gave him the keys to the Kingdom and the power to bind and loose. But in the very next passage, Jesus says to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! (Mat 16:23)
VI. His parables – Stories are an important way to teach. A story that registers with us will rarely be forgotten. It is said that Jesus used more than 45 parables; some are full stories while others are just brief images. He used parables to link His sometimes-complex teaching to everyday life and to plant a seed of truth for our further reflection.
Parables are also like riddles. They admit of various interpretations. A good parable leaves its listener wanting more, seeking a definitive interpretation.
Parables are powerful for variety of reasons. Learn stories and learn to share them!
VII. His questions – Jesus asked well over a hundred questions in the gospel. Here are just a few: “What did you go out to the desert to see? “Why do you trouble the woman?” “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you say this of me on your own or have others told you of me?”
Good teachers ask questions and do not rush to answer every question. A question is pregnant with meaning; it invites a search. The Socratic method uses questions to get to the truth, especially on a personal level: “Why do you ask that? “What do you mean by this?” “Do you think there are any distinctions needed in your claim?”
Here is a list of one hundred questions that Jesus asked: 100 Questions Jesus Asked Read them; they will make you think—a lot, I hope!
VIII. His use of “focal instances”– Jesus does not propose to cover every moral situation or every doctrinal truth in one afternoon. He uses “focal instances,” through which He illustrates principles.
A good example of can be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where, to illustrate the principle that we are to fulfill the law and not merely keep its minimal requirements, Jesus uses several examples or focal instances; He speaks to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In Mathew 25:31ff, the Lord uses the corporal works of mercy to illustrate the whole of the Law.
These are not an exhaustive treatment of the moral life. Through the use of illustrations, the Lord asks us to learn the principle of fulfillment and then apply it to other situations.
Good teachers teach principles because they cannot possibly envision or address every scenario. Having instructed their students in first principles, they can trust that their students will make solid decisions when faced with a new situation.
IX. His use of hyperbole – Jesus uses hyperbole frequently: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven (Mk 10:25). If your eye scandalizes you, gouge it out (Mat 5:29). There was a man who owed ten thousand talents (over a hundred thousand years’ wages) (Mat 18:24). It would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a great millstone about your neck than to scandalize one of my little ones (Mat 18:6).
It’s hard to forget effective hyperbole. Who of us can forget Jesus’ parable about the man with a 2×4 coming out of his eye who rebukes his neighbor for the splinter in his? I often tell my congregation, “Go to Mass, or go to Hell,” which is my way of saying that missing Mass is a mortal sin.
Good teachers use hyperbole at the right moments.
X. His use of servile fear – Jesus often used fear-based arguments. He warned of Hell, of unquenchable fire, and of the worm that does not die. His parables feature of a lot of summary judgments at which people are found unprepared, are excluded from Heaven, or are cast into darkness. Jesus warns of the wailing and grinding of teeth. He also warns of a permanent abyss between Heaven and Hell that no one will be able to cross.
Many today are dismissive of fear-based arguments, but Jesus used them; He used them a lot. I guess Jesus never got the memo that this is a poor way to teach! For the spiritually mature, love can and does replace the need for fear-based arguments, but, frankly, many are not that mature, and a healthy dose of fear and the threat of unending regret is often necessary.
To teach as Jesus did is to include warning of judgment and of Hell.
XI. His anger and zeal – Jesus does not hesitate to express His anger and grief at the hardness and stubbornness of many. One day He said, You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt 17:17) And in Mark’s Gospel we read, And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was furious and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them” (Mk 10: 13-14).
Yes, Jesus memorably cleansed the temple and drove out iniquity there. He engaged in heated debates with the Jewish leaders and with unbelievers. He did not hesitate to call them hypocrites, vipers, liars, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets.
A parent who never reacts with anger risks misleading his child into making light of or not being serious enough about wrongdoing, disrespect, or stubborn unrepentance.
We must be careful of our anger, however. We do not have the kind of control over it that Jesus did; neither are we as able to see into people’s hearts as He was. There is a place for anger and Jesus uses it—a lot, actually. Anger signals an important teaching and rebukes a lighthearted response.
XII. His refusal to compromise – There was in Jesus very little compromise about the serious teachings of doctrine or issues related to our salvation. He said that either we would believe in Him or we would die in our sins (Jn 8). Jesus also said that He was the only way to the Father and that no one would come to the Father except through Him. He declared that no one who set his hand to the plow and looked back was fit for the reign of God. Jesus said that no one who would not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him was worthy of Him. We are told to count the cost and decide now, and we are warned that delay might be deadly.
Much of this is countercultural in today’s world. Many insist on a softer Christianity, in which we can love the world and also love God. Sorry, no can do. A friend of the world is an enemy to God.
Jesus teaches His fundamental truths in an uncompromising way. This is because they are truths for our salvation. Following these truths vaguely or inconsistently will not win the day. Some disciplines need to be followed precisely. To teach as Jesus did involves insisting that the fundamental doctrines of our faith be accepted fully and wholeheartedly.
XIII. His forgiveness – Forgiveness may not at first seem to be an obvious way of teaching, but consider that teachers often have to accept that students don’t get everything right the first time. Teaching requires a patient persistence as students first acquire skills and then master them.
While setting high standards, Jesus offers forgiveness, not as a way of denying perfection but as a way to facilitate our advancement by grace and trust.
XIV. His equipping and authorizing of others – Good teachers train new ones.
Jesus trained the Twelve and, by extension, other disciples as well. He led and inspired them. He also prepared them for the day when He would hand on the role of teacher to them. We who would teach need to train our successors and inspire new and greater insights.
Teach me, Lord, by your example, to teach as you taught and to preach as you would have me preach.
The Gospel from Thursday’s daily Mass contains memorable but often misunderstood lines:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest … Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
The most important word in this sentence is the word “my.” Jesus says, my yoke is easy; my burden is light.
What is a yoke? It’s a wooden truss that makes it easier to carry a heavy load by distributing the weight across a wider part of the body or by allowing the weight to be shared by two or more people or animals. In the picture above, the woman is able to carry the heavy water more easily with the weight distributed across her shoulders rather than in her hands. The load is eased by involving more parts of the body. Yokes are also used to join two animals and help them work together in pulling a load.
What is Jesus saying? First, He is saying that He has a yoke for us. That is, He has a cross for us. Notice that Jesus is not saying that there is no yoke or cross in following Him. There is a cross that He allows, and He allows it for a reason and for a season.
Easy? Jesus says that the cross he has for us is “easy.” The Greek word χρηστὸς (chrestos) is better translated as “well fitting,” “suitable,” or even “useful.” In effect, the Lord is saying that the yoke he has for us is suited to us; it fits us well and has been carefully chosen so as to be useful for us. God knows that we need some crosses in order to grow. He knows what those crosses are. He knows what we can bear and what we are ready for. Yes, His yoke for us fits us well.
But notice again that little word: “my.” The cross or yoke that Jesus has for us is well suited and useful for us. The problem comes when we start adding to that weight with things of our own doing. We put wood on our shoulders that God never put there and never intended for us. We make decisions without asking God. We undertake projects, launch careers, accept promotions, and even enter marriages without ever discerning if God wants this for us. And sure enough, before long our life is complicated and burdensome; we feel pulled in many different directions. But this is not the yoke of Jesus; this is largely the yoke of our own making. Of course it is not easy nor does it fit well, because Jesus didn’t make it.
Don’t blame God; simplify. Be very careful before accepting commitments and making big decisions. Ask God. It may be good, but not for you. It may help others, but destroy you. Seek the Lord’s will. If necessary, seek advice from a spiritually mature person. Consider your state in life; consider the tradeoffs. Balance the call to be generous with the call to proper stewardship of your time, talent, and treasure. Have proper priorities. It is amazing how many people put their career before their vocation. They accept promotions, take on special assignments, and think more about money and advancement than their spouse and children. The burdens increase and the load gets heavy when we don’t ask God or even consider how a proposed course of action might affect the most precious and important things in our lives.
Jesus’ final advice, then, is this: Take my yoke and only my yoke. Forsake all others. Simplify.
So stop “yoking around.” Take only His yoke. If you do, your burdens will be lighter. Jesus says, “Come and learn from me. I will not put heavy burdens on you. I will set your heart on fire with love. And then, whatever I do have for you, will be a pleasure for you to do. Because, what makes the difference is love.” Love lightens every load.
This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for although Christ our Head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He ascended, we too have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan; it is something I am actually experiencing. An old Baptist hymn says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love lifted me, when nothing else could help. Love lifted me.”
Yes, if we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.
I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event that the apostles witnessed. The Lord, by His own power, is taken to Heaven. In so doing He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again: Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in (Psalm 24:7). In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:
The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment. Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. As a summons to faith, Jesus had once said, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them by saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.
The Rescue – In the Ascension it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. In His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text, which affirms that: Therefore, it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier, just after His death, descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now, for those He had justified, came the moment to ascend with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradisiacal garden; they have entered Heaven.
The Rejoicing– Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today presents a song they likely sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord, the most high, the awesome, is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!” They were even singing this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher, than I’ve ever been lifted before!”
II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – When Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). So, when Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When Christ ascends, we ascend.
But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider the following humorous example about our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and push the button for the top floor, although the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, my whole body will get there (unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place). So it is also with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our head, we are already in glory. Some members of His body have already gotten there. We will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our head. If we hold fast and remain members of His Body, we are already enthroned in glory with Him. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.
III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven in order to abandon us. In fact, He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending (without abandoning us) He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:
Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit: Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). Later He says, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So, the Lord goes so that He might, with the Father, send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.
Harvest– Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s Gospel is that there are often intentional double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes his resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us, from His Father’s right hand, to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus, the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! And it is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.
Help– At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links His ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12). We must not understand that asking in the name of Jesus is some incantation. To ask in His name means to ask in accordance with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the apparent and puzzling victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor….so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven, we have the help of the Lord’s grace, which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.
Habitation– Simply put, Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes indeed, He has the blueprints out and a hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us so that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.
Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher (than we’ve ever been lifted before). Yes, love lifted me, when nothing else could help; love lifted me.
Several of the Resurrection accounts stress that Jesus showed the disciples His wounds. On one level we can understand that He was trying to make clear to them that the same Christ who was crucified stood before them; He was not a ghost or an apparition or simply someone who looked like Jesus.
When Christ rose, He took up His same, true body, but it now manifested a perfected glory. When we rise on the last day, the same will be true of our bodies. Why, then, were Christ’s wounds visible in His glorified body? Are not wounds and scars inconsistent with a glorified body?
St. Thomas Aquinas provides five reasons that Christ’s wounds are fitting in His glorified body. His reflections, from the Summa Theologiae III, Q. 54, Art. 4, are beautiful and poignant. St. Thomas’ words are presented below inbold, black italics, while my remarks appear inplain red text.
It was fitting for Christ’s soul at His Resurrection to resume the body with its scars. In the first place, for Christ’s own glory. For Bede says on Luke 24:40 that He kept His scars not from inability to heal them, “but to wear them as an everlasting trophy of His victory.” Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxii): “Perhaps in that kingdom we shall see on the bodies of the Martyrs the traces of the wounds which they bore for Christ’s name: because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body.”
Christ’s wounds are a dignity not a deformity, a sign of love not of loss, an indication of obedience not of onerousness. Through His wounds the Lord can say, “Here is what the world did to me, yet I live. Here is the cost of your redemption and the lavishness of my love.”
Secondly, to confirm the hearts of the disciples as to “the faith in His Resurrection” (Bede, on Luke 24:40).
This is what theologians refer to as “continuity.” The wounds demonstrate that the body that died on the cross is the same one the disciples see standing before them. Jesus has not taken up or fashioned a new body or a similar one; He is truly risen. The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, which literally means “to stand again.” The word “resurrection” means the same thing: re (again) + surrexit (he stands). None of this would be true if a different body were before them, no matter how similar. Thus, Christ’s wounds confirm the truth of the resurrection.
Thirdly, “that when He pleads for us with the Father, He may always show the manner of death He endured for us” (Bede, on Luke 24:40).
Beautiful! The picture here is of the Son, Jesus, showing His wounds to His Father and saying, “See how I have loved them, Father. Have mercy on them.”
The Book of Hebrews says, Consequently, Jesus is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself (Heb 7:25-27).
Fourthly, “that He may convince those redeemed in His blood, how mercifully they have been helped, as He exposes before them the traces of the same death” (Bede, on Luke 24:40).
To those who doubt the Lord’s love or His understanding of our trials, Christ’s wounds speak tenderly and clearly of His love and of the price He was willing to pay for us. His wounds are more eloquent testimony than any words could be. Is God merciful? Does God understand or care at all about our condition? Look to the wounds of Christ; dwell in them; take shelter in them.
Lastly, “that in the Judgment Day He may upbraid them with their just condemnation” (Bede, on Luke 24:40). Hence, as Augustine says (De Symb. ii): “… So will [Christ] show His wounds to His enemies, so that He who is the Truth may convict them, saying: ‘Behold the man whom you crucified; see the wounds you inflicted; recognize the side you pierced, since it was opened by you and for you, yet you would not enter.’”
Such powerful and moving word, in this case from St Augustine. There is also a refutation of the idea that God is simply harsh on Judgment Day. In effect, He will say, “I endured suffering from you out of love for you. When I was on the cross, the soldier pierced my side. My heart was literally opened for you and still you would not enter. What more could I have done than to allow your own sins to be your redemption? Still you refused.”
In spite of receiving lifelong graces and unmerited favors and blessings, in spite of God’s call echoing in their depths, many still refuse God’s offer. It is a tragedy that some hearts are so hardened. Christ’s wounds testify to the justice of God’s only (and final) recourse: allowing them to live apart from Him. Accepting the choice of their free will, God’s last act is simply to recognize their refusal and say, “you would not enter.”
In the Gospel for Wednesday (Wednesday of the First Week of Lent) the Lord says, This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah (Lk 11:30). What is the sign of Jonah? Does it apply today?
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke present two signs of Jonah, one of which particularly concerns us here.
First Sign: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus invokes Jonah in a twofold way: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:40). In this image, Jonah’s descent into the belly of the whale is a sign of the Lord’s descent to Sheol. For the sake of brevity, I would like to set aside this first sign and go on to discuss the second sign of Jonah. (Matthew’s Gospel sets this second sign forth in essentially the same way as does the Lucan version.)
Second Sign: In the Lucan version, read at today’s Mass, the mention of the whale is omitted and only this second sign is declared: This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here (Luke 11:29-32).
But what exactly is this (second) sign of Jonah? On one level, the text seems to spell it out rather clearly. Jonah had gone to the Ninevites with this message: Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed (Jonah 3:3). In response, the Ninevites (led by their King) repented, fasted, and prayed. Seeing their actions, God relented and did not destroy them. So on one level the sign of Jonah is the message “Repent or die.” Just as the Ninevites heard Jonah’s warning, put faith in it, and were spared, so the people of Jesus’ time should put faith in His warning to repent and believe the Good News. If they do not, they will meet with great disaster.
What would cause this disaster? The description of the sign of Jonah taps into the historical context of Jonah’s ministry, but applied to the people of Jesus’ time it has a polemical tone. Let’s consider why.
When Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, he resisted. He must have thought that it was a no-win situation for him: either they would rebuff his prophecy (and likely kill him) or they would heed his message and grow stronger. (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the mortal enemy of Israel, and Jonah had no interest in seeing them strengthened.)
When Jonah made his announcement of imminent destruction, Assyria did repent, and in their strength they would become a rod in God’s hand to punish Israel. Isaiah the Prophet had well described Israel’s crimes and said that punishment would surely come upon her from Assyria. God would use Assyria to humble and punish His people, Israel. Here is a key passage in which Assyria is described in this way: … Assyria, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets (Isaiah 10:5-6).
Here, then, is a deeper meaning of the sign of Jonah: if Israel will not repent, then God will take their power and strength and give it to a foreign land that knows Him not. These foreigners will shame and humiliate Israel, inflicting God’s punishment on them.
This is humiliating to Israel on two levels. First, a pagan country would repent while God’s own people would not. Second, they are conquered by a foreign and unbelieving people. The destruction by Assyria was a devastating blow to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and resulted in the loss of the ten tribes living there. Only Judah and the Levites were left in the South as a remnant.
Let’s apply this understanding of the sign of Jonah, first to Jesus’ time and then to our own.
In Jesus’ time the sign of Jonah meant that if Israel would not repent and accept the Gospel, God would take it from them and give it to the Gentiles. Jesus says elsewhere to his fellow Jews, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit (Matt 21:43). Just as ancient Israel’s refusal to repent led to its destruction by the Assyrians, so Israel’s refusal to repent in Jesus’ time would mean destruction by the Romans (in 70 A.D.). This was prophesied by Jesus in the Mount Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-36). According to Josephus, more than a million Jews were lost in this horrible war.
In our time, I suggest that the sign of Jonah may be active. I know that this may be controversial, but it seems to me that many Christians and Catholics in the decadent West have stopped loving life. Birth rates have dropped dramatically and are well below replacement level. We are on our way to aborting and contracepting ourselves right out of existence. God has loosed judgment on us in the form of the sign of Jonah. He seems to be saying this to us: “Fine, if you do not love life and are not zealous for the faith I have given you, then disaster is upon you. Others in this world still do appreciate larger families and are zealous for their faith. And even if they (like the Assyrians of old) are not Christian, I will use them to humble and punish you. They will grow and increase while you decrease. Perhaps when you are punished by a people who do not respect your religious liberty, you will repent and begin to love life.”
In the European Union today, the birth rate is about 1.6 children per woman. Globally, Muslim women average 2.9 children. Do the math and realize that Europe as we have known it is coming to an end. In the United States the birth rate is 1.8 children per woman. In general, the Catholic world in the West is in decline, both in terms of our birth rates and our zeal for the faith. We are surely being diminished by our culture of death and decadent sloth.
Is it the sign of Jonah upon us today in the decadent West? You decide.
Continuing our reflection on the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, let’s ponder a moment that was glorious in its significance and fulfilment, yet was missed by nearly everyone.
Joseph and Mary had brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him there. As they ascended the glorious steps to the Temple Mount, they were fulfilling a requirement of the Law.
You are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons’’ (Ex 13:12-15).
Although they were fulfilling an obligation, something much more dramatic was taking place. To understand what, we must look back to 587 B.C.
The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem and the unthinkable had happened: the Holy City of Jerusalem had been destroyed and along with it the Temple of God. Inside the Temple had been housed the precious Ark of the Covenant.
Recall what the Ark of Covenant was in the Old Testament. It was a gold-covered box of acacia wood, inside which were the two tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments, the staff of Aaron, and a vial of the manna. Even more important, in this ark dwelt the very Presence of God in Israel; here He was present as nowhere else. This is certainly our belief today regarding the tabernacle in Catholic churches: though present everywhere, God has a true, substantial, and real presence in the Eucharist reserved there.
The Lost Ark – Incredibly, the Ark of the Covenant was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Some thought that Jeremiah had hidden it in the mountains. Others, that the priests had hastily secreted it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Still others argued that it was taken to Ethiopia. But the Ark was gone.
Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of Holies was restored, but the Ark was still missing. The high priest still performed the yearly ritual and entered the Holy of Holies, but the room was empty. Some argued that there was a spiritual presence in the Temple, but in fact the Ark and the certain presence of God were missing after 587 B.C. Something—someone—was missing. The very Holy of Holies was an empty room. The Ark and the presence of God it carried were missing. The Ark, the mercy seat, was gone. Would it ever be found? Would it ever be returned to the Temple? Would the Holy Presence of God ever find its way to the Temple again?
The ascent to Jerusalem is a steep one. Mountains surround Jerusalem and it sits at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews made the climb, they sang the psalms of ascent (120-134). As Joseph and Mary ascended, they too sang the words that instilled joy:
I Lift up mine eye to the mountains from whence cometh my help (Ps 121). I rejoiced when they said to me let us go up to the House of the Lord (Ps 122). To you O Lord I have lifted my eyes (Ps 123). Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (Ps 125). Out of the depths I call unto you O Lord (Ps 130). Let us enter God’s dwelling, let us worship at the Lord’s footstool. Arise O Lord and enter your dwelling place, You and the Ark of your strength (132). Come and bless the Lord. You who stand in the House of the Lord Lift your hands to the Sanctuary and bless the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion (134).
Singing these songs, Mary carried Jesus. The climb was even more difficult when carrying a newborn, but the burden was sweet. Then came the final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. They probably entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. They went up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls, and emerged on the bright Temple platform.
God had returned to His Temple. He and the Ark who carried Him were now found: Mary, the Ark, carrying Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God Himself, true God from true God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found; God was once again present among His people on the Temple Mount. Scripture says,
And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? (Mal 3:1-2)
What a dramatic moment, yet remarkably understated by God! If I had directed the moment I would have called for blaring trumpets, claps of thunder, and a multitude of angels. Everyone would have fallen to his knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to His Temple.
Despite the significance of this moment, only an elderly man and woman (Simeon and Anna) recognized it. They alone understood that they were in the presence of greatness and marveled in it.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophetess, Anna … Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2).
Yes, this was the moment that had been anticipated for centuries. The Ark of God (Mary) had been found and God (Jesus) had returned to His temple, but only Simeon and Anna noticed, understood, and celebrated.
What about us? At every Mass, Jesus, God Himself, is present. Do you notice? Do you really see Him or do you see only the priest and the human elements of the Mass? Are you Simeon? Anna? Mary? Joseph? Or are you like the many on the Temple Mount who missed the dramatic moment of God with us?