Thursday in the Fifth Week of Lent: Genesis 17:3-9, John 8:51-59.
Today’s readings compare God’s foundational covenant with Abraham and the New Covenant He offers through Christ. The terms of the covenants change, both the scope of God’s promise as well as the requirements from humanity. The constant, however, is the Word of God, providing the providential ordering of our lives.
What stands out for me in the first reading is the earthly terms of the covenant God establishes with Abraham. Note the earthly elements: making him “exceedingly fertile,” giving him “the land in which you are now staying, the whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession,” and changing his name from Abram (“Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“Father of Many Nations”). God’s plan seems to be one of choosing the patch of earth and people that He will till and tend, waiting for the fruit that it will bear. This fruit, of course, is Mary, and in turn, Christ.
Even the terms of the covenant placed upon Abraham and his offspring are very earthly. Genesis reports God’s command in the verses after today’s reading: “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” Symbolically and bodily, this is very important. The very organ for procreation, the method for being “exceedingly fertile,” will be marked for God. It will be exposed in a symbolic opening of one’s heart to be a servant of God. This is a permanent mark of a tribe, more permanent than pagan piercings, more indelible than tattoos. There is no hiding or turning back from this bodily mark in this world.
Circumcision lays the foundation for Moses and the generations after him when God presents them with a multitude of laws. The Abrahamic nations needed to live with the incontrovertibility of circumcision so that later generations could accept more prescriptive laws intended to keep them pure in body, mind, and spirit. Into this people, Mary was born miraculously without sin via the Immaculate Conception. And the prescriptions on purity and a cultural willingness to accept God’s law prepared her to accept the Incarnation of Christ in her womb.
Returning to our reading, let’s dwell for a moment on the opening verses: “you are to become the father of a host of nations. No longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham.” This is the essence of the Word of God: to create, to name, to make manifest His plans. No other “word” operates in this way. I might name my dog “Thunderbark,” but that doesn’t make his bark actually sound like thunder. In fact, our act of naming things often describes what we see, hear, touch, smell, or in some other way process through our senses. God’s Word, on the other hand, is creative and generative in that reality conforms to His Word rather than His Word describing what already exists. He is the Creator — He makes it exist.
We know from St. John that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, specifically the Λόγος (Logos). In the prologue to his gospel, he gives us the most influential Christian text on the Logos: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. … All things came into being through him … And the Logos became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:1, 3a, 14). Logos, as I have noted in a previous reflection (The Life-Giving Word) is only partially defined by the English “Word.” It does literally mean “word,” “discourse,” or “account,” but by the time John writes his gospel, it had about 600 years of philosophical meaning attached to it as well. There are several threads that likely would have influenced John:
- The writings of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.535-475 BC) and his followers, who took the word logos that was already in common use and gave it more of a philosophical meaning, that of the reason or truth inherent in the world. From here we can see how Aristotle formulates logos as “reasoned discourse,” one of the three modes of persuasion.
- The writings of the Greek Stoics (c.300 BC – 200 AD), who spoke of logos as the active reason pervading the Universe. They used the term λόγος σπερματικός (logos spermatikos) to mean the generative principle of the Universe that creates and takes back all things. This sounds a lot like God, which they intended, since logos for them was a type of spiritual or supernatural “ordering essence” in things.
- The writings of the Hellenized Jew Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 40 AD), who takes the Stoic philosophy a bit father. He calls Logos “the first-born of God,” and writes, “the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.” But for Philo, the Logos is an intermediary divine being, a demiurge that is God’s instrument of creation, and this is soundly rejected by the developing Christian Church that upholds the equality and consubstantiality of the Son and the Father in the Trinity.
John’s Logos is not a synthesis of these definitions, nor does he simply “borrow” from these more developed and earlier systems, which many scholars want to claim. I think that is a condescending and belittling statement that discounts the true divine revelation at work in John’s Christology. Certainly, he did not invent the word Logos, but he instills the particularity of Jesus’s person that other philosophies employing Logos simply do not contain. Much like Christ reformulates our understanding of the terms life, death, and father, he gives new meaning to the word Logos. That being said, I think we must consider the vibrant meaning this word already contained by the time John uses it. It does translate to “word,” but it’s fair to say that John also understood it to mean reason, a generative principle in the universe, and an ordering essence.
By insisting that Jesus Christ is the Logos of God and the Son of God, he says that this particular Jew who died on a cross around 33 BC was the ordering essence of the Universe, reason and truth incarnate. Thus, when Jesus speaks, the generative Word of God, the Logos is brought to bear in the world. That same Word that gave Abraham his name and established circumcision to prepare the fertile soil that would bring forth Jesus Christ as its fruit is, in fact, dwelling in Christ. Every time Christ speaks in John’s gospel, He brings forth real truth, and He is sure to remind us that He is sent from God and is speaking God’s Word, not something He generated Himself as a man. We hear of no one else in sacred scripture who makes this claim.
So, the question is, how can you resist the Word of God, the Logos of the universe? How can you doubt it, not trust it? A few verses before our gospel reading today, Jesus asks this very question: “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (Jn 8:46). He then answers His own question for them: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” This is a continuation of yesterday’s gospel reading and reflection; Jesus is trying to remind them of who their spiritual father is, namely God the Father. He points out that their disbelief in Him stems from their fundamental distance from God the Father. They reject Him because they have already rejected the Father in spirit.
The exchange in today’s gospel, the remainder of chapter 8, displays just how much they have rejected the Father and, in turn, how far they are from accepting Jesus and the Kingdom he offers. Their response to him (just before the reading picks up) is “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They have devolved into name-calling, certainly not the sign of people who hold God dear to their hearts. Then, they take up jeering: “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? Or the prophets, who died? Who do you make yourself out to be?” They are not open to hearing the content of his words in the least. They are just picking out phrases he says to throw them back and wound him. Their rejection is complete when they pick up stones to throw at him; since their barbed words seem not to work, they try to carry out the violence physically. All of these words and actions come from a sinful spirit, a soul being fed by Satan and not God.
What exactly is Jesus trying to say to them that garners this barrage of insults? The text sounds like Jesus desperately wants to break through to them, saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” This sentence is worth examining. The first half of the sentence occurs so often throughout the gospels (John writes “Amen, amen,” while Matthew, Mark, and Luke use a single “Amen,”) that it is the most characteristic thing about his speech patterns. Jesus is the only one to use it at the beginning of His statements rather than the end of a prayer or as a confirmation of some other saying. And all of these writers have chosen to keep the Hebrew word “Amen” even though Greek has a word for “truly”: ἀληθῶς (alethos). So, “Truly I tell you” and “Verily I tell you” are not good translations here. There is no reason to translate a word that we regularly use in all of our prayers. To get at what “Amen” means other than “truly” “or “verily,” let’s turn to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s fantastic Introduction of Christianity, where the entire first chapter delves into this question: “‘Amen’ simply says once again in its own way what belief means: the trustful placing of myself on a ground that upholds me, not because I have made it and checked it by my own calculations but, rather, precisely because I have not made it and cannot check it” (75). This Hebrew word expresses that one’s being is grounded in belief and faith. It marks the rootedness of oneself in the faith of our singular God. It could easily be translated as “I believe” when used at the end of a prayer or when receiving the Eucharist. Ratzinger goes on to write:
The Christian attitude of belief is expressed in the little word “Amen”, in which the meanings trust, entrust, fidelity, firmness, firm ground, stand, truth all interpenetrate each other … The indivisibility of meaning, ground, and truth that is expressed both in the Hebrew word “Amen” and in the Greek logos at the same time intimates a whole view of the world. … For to believe as a Christian means in fact entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world; taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly (76, 73).
So what is “Amen” when it is used by Jesus not as a confirmation of belief but as an introduction of something he is saying? I believe He is affirming that He is the firm ground on which we can stand. He is the source of the Amen, the Logos that is truth and meaning. And I don’t think this is just a clever rhetorical trick he uses to establish authority. It pours out of him 50 or so times in the New Testament, part and parcel of the truth He gives as a gift to humanity. After He says, “Amen, Amen,” He says λέγω ὑμῖν (legō hymin), which translates to “I say to you” or “I am telling you,” but legō just as correctly translates to “teach” or “command.” Thus, we can just as truthfully translate the first half of his statement, amēn, amēn, legō hymin to be: “The truth is here, I am teaching it to you.”
The second half of his important statement is “whoever keeps my word will never see death.” As you might imagine, there is more depth here than first appears in our English translation. The verb “keeps” (τηρήσῃ / tērēsē) means to “watch over,” to “guard,” and to “observe.” And, lo and behold, “my word” is logon (from logos). As we have detailed, since Christ is the Logos, when he says “observe my logon,” we can understand this to mean “whoever upholds the truth I bring to the world.” The entire statement has the lyrical feel of a proverb because the next verb “see” is θεωρήσῃ (theōrēsē), so we have some alliteration and rhyme between two verbs of beholding: tērēsē and theōrēsē. And let’s not think he means “experience” death when he says “see death.” This verb theōrēsē means to see in the sense of “to observe (as a spectator)” or “to contemplate (as in the mind)” and thus is much more consistent with the meaning of death as a type of sleeping, an inferior force in the world compared to the life from the Logos, as we discussed in the reflection on Lazarus, See the Glory of God.
I know that this has been a long examination of a simple sentence, but where have we arrived? I think this changes the tenor of the statement to be less of a desperate “listen to me!” to more of a confident declaration of His truth and revelation of His Being. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death” can be also translated (in the context of this discussion), “The truth is here, I am teaching it to you; whoever upholds the truth I bring to the world will never be held in the thrall of death.”
To tie this back to our opening observation about the contrast between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant given by Christ, God’s promise is no longer earth-bound. In fact, it’s about transcending the scope of earthly concerns, specifically death, and accessing the divine. For our part, our requirement is almost absurdly simple: uphold in our hearts the truth Christ brings into the world. Of course, in practice, this turns out to be harder than it sounds.
Jesus’s final statement in today’s reading also speaks to the revelation of his being, and this one really throws the Jews into a fit. They scoff and ask how he can possibly know that Abraham saw his day and was glad. His answer: “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” Whoa! We get his signature opening of truth and the statement that their spiritual and ethnic father was γενέσθαι (genesthai), that is, “brought into being,” and before that, he (Jesus Christ) “is” — a different verb, εἰμί (eimi), which means to exist, not to be brought into being. He affirms John’s prologue that he is the Logos made flesh, that He exists from the beginning, with God and of God. By telling them that Abraham was glad for His arrival on earth, He also affirms that He has existed throughout all time, has been with all of the prophets and is above them.
As we say in the Liturgy of the Hours, “He is the first-
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:15-19a).
What is the sum total of all these heavy theological concepts that come together in Jesus Christ? For me, if I am a Christian, I accept all that Christ reveals as Logos, as truth, as God. What He tells us today is that when we accept Him (“guard” his Logos in our hearts), we are accepting a reality of God’s providential plan for humanity. In his 1998 Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, Pope Saint John Paul II writes, “The word of God reveals the final destiny of men and women and provides a unifying explanation of all that they do in the world” (81). Do we allow this to happen? Is our worldview fundamentally Christological? Do we interpret all of history through Christ or do we think that he’s just one voice among many holy voices? Do we think that has some truthful things to share with us or do we accept that he is the very truth and meaning that have ordered the universe from the beginning of time?
These are important questions — he forces us to make a choice because only by accepting His truth can we transcend death. If we want sanctification, divinization, and salvation, we have the Way, the Truth, and the Life right here with us.