God has a problem—an insoluble problem.
Having charged humanity with caring for all creation, humanity rebelled, dragging itself and all creation off into death. What is God to do? Just overturn our rebellion? No, humanity’s choice to live or die must be respected. That’s what “responsible choice” means. And humanity seems hell-bent on choosing to destroy itself. Well then, God must leave us in our self-chosen ruin. But God loves us and wants us healed. And there’s the conundrum. It would take divine power to put life back in us, so …what? God needs a willing and obedient human who is also…God? That’s nonsense. Where’s God going to find such a person? The answer is both terrible and surprising.
Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint
I wonder if we’re too familiar with God’s solution to the human problem. We take it for granted that God should assume a human nature and become a man, and don’t see the scandal in it. It has ceased to be a source of wonder for us. It fails to shock. Perhaps it is the result of knowing the story from childhood, as was my case. Children so easily accept all manner of contradictory fables from packratty tooth fairies to Easter bunnies laying…eggs. If the idea of a God-man is absorbed in those carefree days of impossible possibilities, before the watchful dragon of the intellect has grown vigilant, they slide on into our adult consciousness without any scrutiny.
Of course, teaching children about God’s great “stooping to save” is infinitely preferable to not doing so, but it does lend to it the cast of a common ordinary event. But ask any thinking person who meets Christianity for the first time as an adult, and they will tell you how ridiculous and incoherent the idea of a God-Man sounds. It’s a critique we must hear and embrace. And St. Asinus doesn’t intend to solve the scandal of it here. Explaining how God managed the feat is a worthy goal…just not mine. I want to talk about how it answers the great problem of humanity’s failure to be what God intended.
I raise the shock aspect for the narrative purpose that this bizarre story does its best work on us only once we acknowledge that what God chose to do there on that starry night in Bethlehem was inconceivable (in the Vizzinian sense of the word). Yet it becomes a window into the very heart and agenda of God. For only a God who cares very deeply for the plight of the world would conceive and execute such a costly plan.
That God did desire to reclaim the world is made clear from the moment of its Fall. In the very act of declaring to Adam and Eve the consequences of their choice—painful childbirth, laborious toil, a world now resistant to their governance—God declares that one is coming who will “crush the head of the serpent” and whose “heel will be crushed” in return. Throughout history this has been understood as the first proclamation of the gospel—the protoeuangelium as theologians call it. And more God announces that it will be one of Eve’s offspring—one “from the woman’s womb”—who would address this new deathly reality, and do so by a fatal crushing of the serpent’s offspring and power.
This thread then passes down through the Old Testament with great anticipation, thudding and thumping its way through history—reaffirmed in the covenant with Abraham, visualized in the tabernacle sacrifices, enthroned in the line of Davidic kings, crystallizing in the prophets as the Messiah— Meshiach, the Anointed One—or when translated into Greek—“the Christ.”
You can begin to feel the imaginative import of all this in the cryptic words of the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, the darkness has covered the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but Yahweh rises upon you and his glory appears over you…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow a light has dawned.”
This one promised by God was coming to be the light in darkness and the way back to God. And yet, with all this preparation and anticipation, the actual thing God did, is so wondrous that no one saw it coming when it came. For this Redeemer was not merely to be the fruit of Eve’s womb, a child of the human race, but the very Son of God, second person of the Trinity, Jesus, who took to himself a true and full human nature, and in Mary’s womb, became like us in every respect, sin excepted.
Now again, I’m not here to explain how God managed this. I need to talk about it what it means to the big question of our great need and God’s great response. We have to remember what God’s ultimate goal was. To put it in Jesus’ own words, “That God’s name would be hallowed, God’s will be done, and God’s kingdom come here on earth just as it is in heaven.” Now this is just a more poetic way of stating Adam and Eve’s original mission. This is what God put them into the world to do in the first place. It was our first vocation in the world.
So now this Messiah comes to fulfill that mission first given to humanity and to address the brokenness that entered when humanity rebelled. This one comes to restore the world to his Father and to reestablish, proclaim, and reassert his Father’s kingdom in the land of the shadow. Behold, the light has dawned, Morning has come!
This Messiah comes to fulfill that mission first given to humanity and to address the brokenness that entered when humanity rebelled.
Now we might have expected him to carry out such an earth-shattering task through acts of great power and glory—to draw attention to his own divinity, his own status as the divine son. He certainly had the right to do this—and even does so with sufficient clarity for anyone who has eyes to see it. But in Philippians chapter 2, St. Paul draws a different picture of how Jesus went about his work. He images it as an act of “emptying.”
In the first 4 verses of that chapter, he expresses a desire that Christians in the church in Philippi would love each other and work together, specifically by their laying aside their pride and even their rights in acts of humble deference for each other—each interested in the welfare of the others. Then in verse 5, he identifies the pattern or model of this kind of behavior—it is, of course Christ.
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be clutched at, 7 but emptied himself, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
It is central to Jesus’ mission that he did not come in this first advent to proclaim himself (his second advent of course will be a different story). He came to do the will of another, to proclaim another’s kingdom, to hallow someone else’s name—his Father’s. As the apostle John says, He came “to show us the Father,” and in that proclamation to overthrow the powers of sin and brokenness.
How many times does he say it? “I have not come to speak my own words but those which my Father gave me” and “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Jesus is constantly pointing the finger not at himself, but his Father. His own prayer shows this… It is his Father’s name, kingdom, and will that he seeks to announce in the world. On the very precipice of his death, does he not prayer, “Not my will, but Thy will be done?” This absolute commitment to his Father’s name, will, and kingdom, says Paul, consisted in a great humbling. He lays aside the glory and exaltation that is his due as the divine Son. The whole of Jesus’ life and work can be seen as one great “laying aside” of the glories that are his rights so that the glory of his Father may be seen through him.
Now we must understand that this is little more than the first and most basic mission of being human. It was the vocation given Adam and to us, that he and we rejected. We were made so that we might live in all things for the glory of the Father—that this might be the most precious thing to us, the driving value of all we do. That in the working of our hands the Father’s name may be hallowed, his kingdom revealed, his will done. In short, St. Paul calls Jesus the Last Adam because he fulfills the work that Adam and his children were unable and unwilling to do.
St. Paul calls Jesus the Last Adam because he fulfills the work that Adam and his children were unable and unwilling to do.
Consider how deep goes Christ’s humbling of himself: The meanness of his birth in the hay, the obscurity of this childhood, the dusty sorrows and isolation of his ministry, and the ignominy of his death. In all things Jesus is in essence saying, “I am doing the work you, Father, have sent me into the world to do.”
Consider his baptism. Jesus doesn’t need a baptism for the repentance of sin. Yet he humbles himself to this baptism in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” And whose voice speaks from heaven and says in essence, “well done, my son, I am pleased.” Jesus’ first act of ministry is to lay aside his rights as the king of kings and align himself with sinners, with us. To show solidarity with his, dare we say it, his brothers and sisters in the flesh—with me.
Then come the temptations in the wilderness. And, one way of understanding them is that each of the temptations invites him to exalt himself in his own time, to back away from the road of the sin-bearer he has just assumed in his baptism. “Make these stones bread,” says the tempter; a simple feat for anyone who wants to reveal himself to be Divine. But a human must pray “give us our daily bread,” and then wait upon God. Jesus says in essence, if it is the Father’s will that I die of starvation in the wilderness, so be it. I will not glorify myself on my own terms outside the Father’s agenda and timetable. So too with “here, take all the kingdoms of the world under your authority,” and even the “cast yourself off the temple roof, the angels will come to help you because, of course, you are the son of God.” Now scripture teaches that Christ will of course take to himself all the nations one day, and do so with all the angelic host in tow. But this was not the Father’s timetable. Christ maintained his fast and his humility in the face of great adversity. “Who of us,” asks Paul, “has endured and resisted such temptation?”
Even his death, Paul says, was an act of humility. Does the Son of God deserve death? Has one who has never sinned deserve sin’s wages? Of course not. Thus Jesus says, “I will lay down my life. No one takes it from me.” He voluntarily embraces death, the final mark of the sinner, because by that act his Father will reclaim the whole world. But Paul puts a final sting into it in verse 8—“even death on a cross.” Don’t miss this further humbling of the Christ. Not just any death, but death on a Roman cross.” Deuteronomy 17:26 told us that “Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree.” Understand, in the previous century the Romans had nailed any number of would-be Messiah’s to crosses. It was how you recognized a false messiah. He ends up dead at the hands of Rome. So here is Jesus the true Messiah, so willing to do only his Father’s will, that he submits, not just to any death, but even the sort of death that would appear to falsify everything he ever said.
Would I be so willing to die that sort of the death? Does my willingness to lay aside my rights for the Father’s glory extend so far as that—to abandon my own reputation? In my more honest moments I know the answer. This was an act that had to be done on my behalf. It is an act of which I am incapable.
But that’s not the end. Paul reminds us that the crushing humility of Christ was not the final word. In his Father’s good time, there would be justice—even glory. Verse 9…
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Do you understand? Even Christ’s resurrection and glorification, even his restoration to that highly honored place at the right hand of the divine throne is done for the glory of his Father. This is why the resurrection is so important in Christianity. By that act the Father affirms that the Son has done well—has successfully completed the work he was sent to do. It’s the resurrection that washes away the stigma of the cross, so much so that the early church and we with them think of the cross as a symbol, not of defeat, but of victory. In the resurrection, Christ is restored to his place of honor and glory, and because he was truly and fully human, humanity is raised with him, and ultimately the whole of creation shall be restored at his human hands.
What is the result? Christ has both established a new way of being human and fulfilled God’s original plan for humanity. The usurper has been dethroned, and God’s plan from the beginning has been reestablished. A human sets upon the throne of creation, ruling with justice and righteousness. But more than this, a whole new human race has been born, of which Christ is the first fruits. He is the new Adam of a new way of being human. He is the king and head of this new humanity, and he is the redeemer of the old. In him, all things are made new.
Christ has both established a new way of being human and fulfilled God’s original plan for humanity.
And what does all this have to do with me? I shall explore in another homily what this means ethically and practically to how I live, but for now I want to consider the broad strokes of what it means to who I now am.
If Jesus Christ has established a new humanity over against Adam’s old humanity. Then it seems important to ask which sort of human am I? Am I a child of the old first Adam—Adam the rebel who fades and dies, or am I a child of the new and last Adam—the one who ever lives to the glory of God the Father? Certainly we are born members of the old humanity. That’s just another way of stating the problem, or as St. Paul says it, “In Adam, all die.”
We can’t help but be born that way. When as a teenager I yelled at my parents, “I didn’t ask to be born,” well, it’s true. I just woke up in the world already broken. From my earliest memories I was already a rebel.
But there’s an alternative. Several times Paul uses the language of “adoption” to describe it. John too writes in the beginning of his gospel that “to all who did receive him, who believe on his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” My father Adam betrayed me into death, but I am now presented with another Father—a heavenly one—who has made a way for me to join a new family—to become a brother of Christ.
In that new family relationship all that is true of my big brother Jesus gets credited to me—all that is true of his humanity, that is—I don’t get to become divine as he was. Although interestingly enough, many Christian traditions—like Eastern Orthodoxy—actually do speak of our “deification”—a being welcomed into the divine nature itself. It’s a great truth and great mystery, but a little beyond the point here. For now, stick to the adoption image.
All that Christ did is now credited to me—his death becomes my death, and one day his resurrection will be too. Or if you want to say it in reverse, I died with him on that cross and one day I shall rise as he did.
Do you see how this answers the question? I have not been left in that old dying way, what Peter calls “that futile way of life inherited from my forefathers,” but have been invited to enter into a new way of being human. The question remains before me every day and in every choice, will I?
Join us next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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