(This is the fourth article in a series written for Lent. Having stolen Met. Ware’s chapter titles, I am finding that my writing bears limited resemblance to what he has written in his book, “The Orthodox Way”. Hence, do not blame him for the content that follows.)
I find myself struggling to write and I am not sure why. I ask God’s grace to be with me and guide me this evening as I begin again.
Perhaps the most obvious source of my difficulty is simply not knowing what to say. That God became man in the person of Christ is central to our faith and yet we can no more explain it than we can explain the Trinity.
Sadly, our efforts to do so have too often created divisions among us. Just as regrettable are the many absurd if not delusional notions out there that lead more people to dismiss the faith than to embrace it.
I do not want to fall into either of these traps.
If my words do not encourage others in the faith, they ought not be written.
Let me begin with these oft-quoted words of St. John the Evangelist:
For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16)
While these words have undoubtedly consoled many Christians, I find myself struggling with them – not because I don’t believe their message to be true but more because I do not understand them.
What does it mean for God to have a Son, an “only Son”, yet one who has existed from the beginning?
Certainly we do not believe that God had a wife, engaged in a human reproductive act and she produced a son who carried His genes.
This kind of father-son story would be more characteristic of the tribal gods that surrounded the ancient people of Israel. God’s children were led along a very different path in the revelation of the One God.
What emerges in the account we are given of God sending His Son to save us are certain core truths – but truths cloaked in mystery.
For us to come to salvation, our Messiah, our Christ, needed to be both fully God and fully human.
For Jesus to be fully human, He needed to be born of a human mother, to take on flesh and blood in the very real sense of the word.
If He had come among us in any other way, e.g. bursting through the clouds on a chariot of fire, we might have been impressed – but we would have doubted that He was truly human since we would not know where He came from.
For Jesus to be fully God, His birth of a human mother needed to be different from every other birth. He needed to come forth from God – to be sent or “given”. Hence, He was born of a virgin.
Did Father then “create” Jesus? Did He “beget” Him?
It seems that the answer to this question is both yes and no – a paradox that again bespeaks a profound mystery that transcends human reasoning.
As part of the Trinity, Jesus is uncreated God. There was never a time when He did not exist.
As a member of the human race, Jesus was created. He began life as a fertilized egg in His mother, developing a body like any other, being born into human history on a specific date. There was a time when He did not exist – or at least He did not exist as a human being in time.
Our confusion occurs, of course, because we cannot see outside of time. The latter makes sense to us, the former goes beyond our understanding.
I wonder if this is why the words “Father” and “Son” were given to us. They are words that we can understand and relate to.
If we were told that our God has three persons who love each other and that we are to love each of them, we would have no way of conceptualizing this sort of love.
But we do understand the love of a father for his son and we can comprehend the enormity of the gift when a father sacrifices his son to save others.
From a Biblical perspective, we have been given the story of Abraham and Isaac to prefigure our Father’s sacrifice of His Son.
As important as this foreshadowing is, let us consider a scenario closer to our own experience.
A father sends his son into a burning building to try to rescue the children trapped inside, knowing that the odds are great that his son will not make it out alive. It is his only child he sends.
A mother sends her son to rescue a young child caught in the crossfire of warring gangs outside their home, knowing well that he may take a bullet. It is her only child she sends.
Let’s imagine that both sons die in the rescue attempts. The grief of these parents would be overwhelming. They would feel quite literally that they had sacrificed a part of their very own selves that others might live.
But the gift of God our Father far exceeds the sacrifices of these hypothetical people. For He sent His Son, not for the innocents, but to rescue the arsonist who set the house on fire in the first scene and to save the gang members whose violence terrorized the neighborhood in the second.
He gave completely of Himself in order to save those of us who don’t think we need saving. He poured Himself out in the person of Jesus for those among us who may not even care to be saved.
He wants it for us – because He knows far better than we do what we need if we are to experience the fullness of joy.
One might question though how this is a sacrifice for God. After all, He remains God and the death of His Son is but temporary. He knows from the beginning that Jesus will be raised.
As much as this question lures us with its human logic, I cannot let myself be drawn into this erroneous thinking. It reduces God to the level of our humanity.
Although all human metaphors for sacrificing one’s child involve heart-rending suffering, we cannot conclude from them that God suffers when giving us His Son. (See my previous article, The impassibility of God, for an extensive discussion on whether God suffers.)
The words of John’s Gospel are not to teach us how much God suffers but how complete and total is His love.
The evangelist has no choice but to use human words and imagery to help us understand what we have been given – and surely even they fall short of the reality.
The reality of such a love is beyond our imagining.
Not only has it been given to us in the person of Jesus, but we are invited to have a full share in this love.
Jesus, as God-as-man among us, not only reveals to us who God is but also reveals to us who we are.
Though we were made in the image and likeness of God, the corruption of sin has kept this from being fulfilled in us. Having entered our death voluntarily, Jesus’ absolute act of love brings to perfection this image and likeness in His human self.
He does not merely rescue us from death, as though rescuing us from a burning house, so that we can later die again.
Rather, He demonstrates in His own person what we were made to be and becomes the Way we are to follow to arrive at the eternal Love.
Indeed. “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…”
To Him be glory. Amen.
Your words DO encourage; keep talking.
I could quote a lot that encourage me, but I’ll take these for now: “I wonder if this is why the words ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ were given to us. They are words that we can understand and relate to.”
I’ve always avoided thinking about the troublesome (for me) idea that God has a son, but the way you put it eases my mind. Somewhat. So maybe they are “just” terms. They provide an insight into something that is deep and true but also beyond.
But what really encourages me is that you both believe AND try to make sense out of what is beyond and at the same time revealed.
Thanks, Al. Your comments encourage me!
Another thing that I find troublesome, though I try not to dwell on such things, is the convention of referring to the Father as the “first person” of the Trinity, the Son as the “second person” and the Spirit as the “third person”. (Who decided to number them?) Not to mention that the Father is “eternally begetting” the Son. (This seems to alter the accepted meaning of “beget” – so why use the word at all?) Or all the controversy about from whom the Spirit proceeds (and that “proceeding” is somehow different from being “sent”).
Fr. Stephen wrote in one of his comments a while back that “Father” was more of a name and certainly not a reference to God having gender. I liked that way of thinking. Hence, I tend to think of the Persons of the Trinity having names: Father, Son (Jesus, being His human name) and Spirit. (This far better than calling them “1, 2 and 3”.)
I do not mean this discussion to be irreverent. Rather, I think it best that we acknowledge that we have no understanding of such matters and simply humbly pray the way Jesus showed us.
👂(I ‘ear you)