12 January 2009

Humanity as Covenant reality: "If you See me, you see the Father who sent me"

In today's first reading from the "letter" (it is more a homily) to the Hebrews, as a piece of extolling the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ, the author contrasts this with the "partial" revelations associated with the prophets, with Israel more generally (and even, some commentators suggest, with other religious traditions).

Now revelation is a tricky word. It has a number of meanings including some of progressive depth, extension, and intensity. For instance, it can mean to show or make manifest, to divulge, or lay bare, and is often limited to the idea of telling us about something or someone. A magician may reveal the secret of a signature trick. The last few pages of a mystery novel may (and we hope does!) reveal the killer of the Lord of the Manor. A Catholic catechism may reveal truths about God that some religions simply don't reflect and so, in this sense, be a "fuller revelation" of God than those other traditions. As important as this sense of revelation is (and it is genuinely important!), it is relatively superficial, partial and fragmentary. Discipleship therefore includes this kind of knowing and revelation but is not limited to it.

Another (and related) meaning of the word revelation is to make known. Thus, a child who is loved deeply and effectively by her parents will make that love known in many ways throughout her life. In such a situation we can know about the parents’ love without ever really knowing the parents except as the author of Hebrews describes as partially and in fragmentary ways. A person of faith will make known the effects of God's mercy and grace in her life, and so forth. Revelation in this sense is a matter of witnessing to something WE KNOW, something that is real for us in more than an intellectual or notional sense. It goes beyond divulging information or laying bare secrets, and it goes beyond simply sharing things (like the identity of the murderer in the novel, or even the idea that God is Triune, for instance), but it remains a partial or even fragmentary revelation, and once again, Christian discipleship includes but is not limited to this sense of revelation.

But in the New Testament revelation has another meaning as well, a meaning which includes, but also deepens, and intensifies both of these other senses of the word while going beyond or transcending them. It is this sense especially that refers to the Christ Event and revelation in its fullness. For revelation in the NT also means to make something (in this case, GOD) real in space and time. By analogy, at some point, for instance, a bud will spring forth as the realization or making real of something which was only potential before. A human being who is deeply loved or known by another will become someone she only had the potential to become apart from this being loved, and will, to some extent, actually become an image of the one who has loved her so. This is similar to revelation in the example of a child loved by parents above, but it goes beyond it as well. What the author of the letter to the Hebrews is concerned with is a spectrum of meanings, but especially this last sense. This form of revelation, this making real, is not merely about knowing God, therefore, but about being known by him in that uniquely intimate Biblical sense of the term "to know", and then living out that reality, that BEING KNOWN so exhaustively that God himself is met in the one so known.

According to the author of the "letter" to the Hebrews, the prophets were revelatory and spoke God's Word into their own situations with power, but this revelation was partial or fragmentary. Sometimes it was merely about God, often it witnessed TO God, and in ways it was God's own word as well, but never was it more than partial. God was not incarnate here, he was not allowed to actually live amongst us fully, nor were the prophets known fully BY God. The Scriptures themselves tell us this about the prophets by making the Word they spoke foreign to them and often spoken in spite of themselves. Similarly the covenant they and their people celebrated was still somewhat external to the Israelites; it was not exhaustively embodied by them, their humanity itself was not a matter of BEING covenant (though it clearly pointed to this and called for it as its own completion and perfection). Again, it was a more partial or fragmentary revelation of God’s presence and power.

Jesus, on the other hand, concerned himself with making God real among us in a way God willed to be, but could not be apart from another's cooperation. Jesus gave his entire life and his entire self to this. He was attentive and responsive to (that is, through the power of the Holy Spirit he ALLOWED HIMSELF TO BE ADDRESSED AND KNOWN BY) the Word of God in a way which put God first and gave him unhampered access to us and to our world. Jesus was human in a way which defined a new and authentic humanity in terms of complete transparency to God and this meant in terms of covenant or communion with God; likewise it defined God similarly --- as Communal or relational, dialogical, and covenantal. He was human, that is, he was one who was KNOWN BY GOD in a way which allowed God to be Emmanuel, someone he had not been before. In the process this BEING KNOWN by God made of Christ a new Creation, the new and everlasting covenant, a new and exhaustively human being which makes God real amongst us in a fresh, authentic, and definitive way.

Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension is the "event" where God is allowed to assume a human face, speak with a TRULY human voice, love and heal and support those he loves with human hands, provide a hearing for those needing it with human ears and a human heart. More, he is implicated into the realm of human sin and death, places he could never go himself (by definition these are literally godless places apart from Christ); he is made real as God-With-Us even there and transforms and defeats them with his presence. It is the place where human and divine destinies are inextricably wed and made one. And all because Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, was exhaustively responsive to the Word of God and embodied or becomes the COMMUNION which is true humanity and (the sacrament of) true divinity all at one time.

In today’s Gospel this fullness of revelation with its call to discipleship, this call to become "fishers of men," is a call to this kind of humanity: a humanity constituted as covenant life where the very nature of both humanity and divinity, different as they are from one another, are revealed as Communion with one another, not as some form of solitary splendor or autonomy; humanity here is defined in terms therefore of knowing and BEING KNOWN BY GOD, not as an activity we engage in (as, for instance, might be true of a prayer period during our day), but as someone we ARE. To be human and to become fishers of men in this sense is not merely to let others know about God, or to bring others to a new religion with doctrines they have never heard; more, it is to bring them to a new humanity, a humanity which is defined as communion with God, and means embodying the Word of God as exhaustively as we are capable of in the power of the Spirit.

It is an immense challenge and vocation, one we share with Christ and only achieve in Him and his unique incarnation of the God who would be God-with-us. This is a humanity where God in Christ will be allowed to walk where he could not walk otherwise, where he is made real where otherwise he would and could not be (the Greek notion of omnipresence notwithstanding!). It is a humanity which itself is a sacramental reality and where --- if, and to the extent, we live out this vocation fully by becoming disciples in THIS sense --- God in Christ turns a human face to the world and that face is our very own.