Man of Clay

20 Apr

The Gospel Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent this year was the story of the man born blind, from the Gospel of John. (John 9:1-41) As is often the case in the Gospels, Jesus is said to have been simply “passing by” (John 9:1) a place when he encounters a person in need, in this case the blind man near the Pool of Siloam.* This account is fascinating because of its many themes, for example light and darkness and the contrast between them, discipleship, sacrifice, conversion, and salvation. The passage also recalls God’s intimacy with humanity in Creation and in the human condition of exile and of earthiness, of which God became a part by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

 

From the moment He began to assemble the world, God has never worked for His own benefit but for that of His creation, which He pre-eminently and lovingly initiated and now sustains. References to creation are central to the Gospel of John, therefore in St. John’s opening verses God is defined as the source of all that exists:

 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came to be through Him…” (John 1:1-3)

 

Here, John uses the Greek word ‘logos’ to describe God. According to St. John, our God is the ‘logos’ sought by the Greek philosophers as well as by Christians. God is the ultimate purpose or goal of everything. However, in co-opting the Greek concept of logos into Christianity, St. John presents God as the being transcendent over all, which leads to the short-sighted interpretation by some of a God who set the universe in motion, then retreated into the distance. But this remote God of deism is the ancient Greek logos, not the Christian God best and most concisely defined, if one may define God in human words, by St. Matthew as “Emmanuel- God is with us.” (Matthew 2:23)

 

The human mind is incapable of comprehending the closeness signified by the name “Emmanuel”. While St. Matthew focuses immediately on the emanence of God, St. John progresses more slowly toward the same characterization of God. Near the end of his Gospel, John also portrays God as intimate with humankind, especially when Jesus asks St. Peter three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-19) At this point, Peter still does not understand that the Lord is asking more of him than to love as one would love just any friend; Jesus commands Peter-and us- to love unconditionally, as He loves us. After all, John writes earlier in his Gospel that Jesus chose us first (cf. John 15:16), and the same disciple re-iterates in his first letter that “we love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

 

Thus, St. John’s Gospel, which begins with the depiction of God as the all-powerful transcendent Creator and concludes with several mentions or implications of Jesus having chosen us, as imperfect as we are, to share in His intimate love, reads more like the story of a deliberate journey.

 

Christ’s journey according to John is therefore our journey also. From the time God created humankind, we have been in a continual interaction with Him, and along the way we have been in a perpetual struggle to understand our God who transcends us infinitely yet is in close contact with us. St. John’s prologue captures this paradox inherent in the human-God relationship: The image of the transcendent Creator-God in the Johannine Gospel’s opening verses gives way to the image of a God we can know and recognize because we are able to see Him physically as Jesus Christ. St. John writes:

 

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

 

 

 

Indeed, in the Lord Jesus we have seen the very source of all glory, of all grace, and of all truth, but often of our own free will we remain blind to His message and to our ultimate goal of union with God toward which we are all called. Thus, St. John precedes his affirmation of the Incarnation with this verse: “He came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept Him.” (John 1:11)

 

Since we have not accepted Christ fully, we have neither properly comprehended nor acted according to “the law given through Moses” (John 1:17) of which Jesus, who by precedence is greater than the old law, is both the fulfillment and the mediator. Therefore, John’s prologue concludes with the passage: “While the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed Him.” (John 1:17-18 )

 

God is first revealed to the human senses through the work of Creation. The Divine Author of the universe is said in Genesis to have recognized the goodness of each element and being in the world, and how everything fit together according to His perfect life-giving plan. In fact, the declaration that “God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) appears six times in the first chapter of Genesis.

 

Not only did God see the greatness of His own works, but He chose to create a being- humankind- that would be uniquely capable of sharing in the wonder at what the Lord had made and of rejoicing in it. (cf. Psalm 118:25) God gave us the responsibility to nurture His creative gift of life- to be pro-creative, as it were. Then He gave us another gift at least as great: that of free will. Therefore, humankind was designed in the image and likeness of God Himself. No other creature has the same privilege. God “looked at everything He had made, and He found it very good”, (Genesis 1:26) especially because it was revealed to and appreciated by human beings.

 

Genesis’ second chapter tells the story of Creation slightly differently than the first, but the message of the primacy of God’s creative goodness remains. Chapter Two of Genesis describes the initial state of the earth as a land without shrubs or grass- only soil. (cf. Genesis 2:5) According to the story, there was also a stream below the ground- an unseen but nevertheless present source of life that was “welling out of the earth and was watering all the surface of the ground.” (Genesis 2:6) From the beginning, the soil was being prepared to give forth life, and it did so according to God’s command:

 

“The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)

 

Fundamentally, then, without God we are nothing but clay. God alone gives life to that clay by breathing His Spirit into it, but we are free to close ourselves to God’s breath of life and therefore to attempt a futile way of pride in the absence of the Lord. A soul that has within it the seduction of sin has no room for the Spirit. Satan, who is presented in Genesis as “the most cunning of the animals that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1), and as “the demon lurking at the door” (Genesis 4:7), knows this, and therefore blinds us to the reality that sin signifies death (cf. Romans 6:23, Genesis 2:17), not only of the flesh but especially of the soul.

 

However, sin and death hold no power over God, whose immediate response to human disobedience was to promise a Redeemer. The consequences of sin are dire, as God reminds Adam in the Genesis account: “For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.” But the Eternal Judge’s sentence is preceded by an even sterner rebuke of the force behind all evil, in which Satan’s final destruction is foretold: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

 

Revelation refers to this final victory of God over the devil in nearly the same terms as in Genesis. The Apocalypse also includes the image of a war between a serpent or dragon and the woman and her offspring, described as “those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.” (Revelation 12:17) The final battle begins in Heaven, from where Satan is expelled by “Michael and his angels.” (Revelation 12:10-7**) God’s ultimate victory is presented here as if it has already occurred:

 

“Now have salvation and power come,

and the power of our God

and the authority of His Anointed.

For the accuser of our brothers is cast out,

who accuses them before our God day and night.

They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb

And by the word of their testimony;

love for life did not deter them from death.

Therefore, rejoice, you heavens,

and you who dwell in them.

But woe to you, earth and sea,

for the Devil has come down to you in great fury,

for he knows he has but a short time.” (Revelation 12:10-12)

 

We are indeed witnessing God’s defeat of the prince of darkness in the present, yet we are, paradoxically, still waiting for it. God is with us, yet He is so distant from a world crippled by disregard for human life. We await Christ’s return to a world where human beings are not safe from having God’s gift of life forced away- a world that denies the right of children to be born, that allows persons to be killed for their faith or because they are too old or sick to be worth caring for, and that permits armed conflict to decide temporary ownership of land and of resources at the permanent cost of so many military and civilian lives alike. Less glaringly but perhaps as critically, authorities in several developing countries pay lip service to the need for proper education of their children, while they line their own pockets with the spoils of economic growth.

 

In the last century, there have been more martyrs than in the previous nineteen centuries of the Church’s history combined.*** With human complicity, Satan is thus making good use of his short time to raise havoc. However, there must be hope, and there is hope, as long as we recognize that the goal of the human journey is to unite our earthly existence with strength and with the peace of the Holy Spirit.

 

Jesus has promised to send us the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), and God is with us “always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) God is present now, about and within us, and Christ will come again as one like us, but in the fullness of that which is human and earthly and of that which is divine and one with the Spirit in the way humankind was meant by the Father to be.

 

In the meantime, we lament our separation from the Spirit, as in the words of Job: “Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay? Will you then bring me down to dust again?”… “If He were to take His Spirit to Himself, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to the dust.” (Job 10:9, 34:14-15)

 

God responds to our cries as He did to those of Job, as in the lyrics of the Lenten hymn that inspired this article: “¿Como le cantaré, Señor? ¿Como le cantaré?…Hombre de barro soy. (How do I sing to thee, O Lord?…A man of clay am I.”), reminding us that “[we] are all works of His hands.” (Job 34:19) When we wonder how in this earthly exile we are to sing praises to a faraway God, the God within us gives us the words of the Psalmist to sing:

 

By the rivers of Babylon

we sat mourning and weeping

when we remembered Zion.

On the poplars of that land

we hung up our harps.

There our captors asked us for the words of a song;

 

Our tormentors, for a joyful song:

“Sing for us a song of Zion!”

But how could we sing a song of the LORD

in a foreign land?

 

If I forget you, Jerusalem,

may my right hand wither.

May my tongue stick to my palate

if I do not remember you,

if I do not exult Jerusalem

beyond all delights. (Psalm 137:1-6)

 

Another psalm speaks especially poignantly of God’s relationship with humankind:

 

Out of the mouths of babes and infants

You have drawn a defense against your foes,

to silence the enemy and avenger.

 

When I see your heavens, the work of your hands,

the moon and stars that you set in place-

What are humans that you are mindful of them,

mere mortals that you care for them?

 

Yet you have made them little less than a god, (cf. also Hebrews 2:9

crowned them with glory and honour.

You have given them rule over the works of your hands,

put all things at their feet:

All sheep and oxen,

even the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, the fish of the sea,

and whatever swims the paths of the seas.

 

O LORD, our Lord,

how awesome is your name throughout all the earth. (Psalm 8:3-10)

 

One must stand in awe of God who allows us to hold a great treasure- His very self- in “earthen vessels.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) Extraordinarily, God uses the very ordinary clay that He created us from in the first place in order to heal us. In this way, Jesus’ curing of the blind man, neither because of the man’s sin nor that of his parents but for God’s glory to be shown, (cf. John 9:3) is a metaphor for God’s merciful healing power manifested toward us. Our duty is to respond to the Lord’s grace with ever-increasing love, even though we, who are still on the journey from having been created and having fallen to being redeemed and then fully united with God, cannot understand the paradox of our own existence.

 

St. Peter knew how fragile he was, and how easy it is to stumble on the way to Heaven, yet our first Pope made an inspiring confession of faith, lived and died in the Christian way that he comprehended only faintly, and is now in Heaven as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. A Basilian priest here in Cali frequently recites a prayer just before Communion that is attributed to St. Peter and that summarizes our journey as people of clay yet people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. Though we often fail to recognize His presence, Christ journeys with us as He accompanied St. Peter: Through our Lenten recognition that we are but clay, through our celebration of Christ’s Resurrection that is also promised to those who follow Him, and toward Pentecost, when we are given the Holy Spirit and commissioned to go out and to live and to preach the Gospel. Thus, we pray with the divinely-appointed Rock among the Apostles:

 

I believe, Lord, and I confess that you are truly the Christ,

Son of the Living God,

who came into the world to save sinners,

of whom I am the first.

 

Receive me today, O Son of God, as a participant in your mystical Supper,

for I shall not reveal the mystery to your enemies,

nor shall I give you a kiss as did Judas,

but like the thief I confess to you [and I pray]:

 

Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your Kingdom.

Remember me, O Teacher, when you come into your Kingdom.

Remember me, O Holy One, when you come into your Kingdom.

 

Creo, Señor, y confieso que tu eres realmente el Cristo,

Hijo de Dios vivo,

que viniste al mundo para salvar a los pecadores,

de los cuales yo soy el primero.

 

De tu mística cena, o Hijo de Dios,

recíbeme hoy como participante,

pues no revelaré el misterio a tus enemigos,

ni te daré un beso como Judas,

sino como el malhechor te confieso:

 

Recuérdame, o Señor, cuando vengas a tu Reino.

Recuérdame, o Maestro, cuando vengas a tu Reino.

Recuérdame, o Santísimo, cuando vengas a tu Reino.

Amen.

WRS

 

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