Tuesday, March 10, 2015

If you are the Son of God. . .

I recently read through the Lukan description of Christ's temptations in the desert, and I was fascinated by the questions posed to him by the Devil. Specifically, I am intrigued by the repeated refrain: If you are the Son of God. . .

It seems to me plausible that the time spent in the desert by Christ had to do with his sense of identity, his knowledge of who he was. Previous to this, he had been baptized by John in the Jordan River. There God had spoken to him: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3.22). Immediately after this, he is driven by the Spirit of God into the desert to endure temptations. The temptations of the devil are motivated by the question of Christ's identity as the Son of God. For this reason, it seems to me that one of the problems Christ had to wrestle with in the desert was exactly this: is he really the Son of God? And what does this mean?

Nikos Kazantzakis addresses this problem in his work The Last Temptation of Christ. Now that is a work of fiction, a product of the author's imagination, but it seems to me he is right in proposing that Christ might have wrestled with the question of his own identity. We must remember that Christ had a human nature such as our own, subject to doubt and fear and uncertainty. It would have been part of the process of the sanctification of his human nature, its redemption and transformation, that he come to learn of his identity over time, rather than being sure of it from the beginning. Moreover, it would make no sense that he be tempted by the devil with reference to his identity, if he were sure of it at all times.

But what could it mean for Christ to do this? What is the significance of Christ's coming to struggle with his identity as Son of God for our sake?

I think it is not a coincidence that Luke describes Adam, the prototype of humanity, as the son of God in the genealogy immediately preceding the temptation narrative (3.38). If Christ comes to perfect human nature and to repair it from its sinful inclinations, he must come to repair humanity's understanding of its relationship with God. For this to happen, he must be told, as man, that he is God's Son, the Beloved (3.22). He must come to learn that, before anything else, God is the Father of humanity, and therefore loves humanity and cares for it. After all, what else apart from this unshaken trust in God's benevolence could give Christ the strength to die for humanity, to leave himself in the unmerciful hands of those around him who call for his murder? Thy will be done -- such is the prayer of the one who knows God loves him!

This is a process that has to be repeated in us, as well, as we learn to be Christians; the conversion of Christ's humanity, so to speak, is the model of the conversion of our own. I've said elsewhere that Christianity is about learning that God loves you, and that this love is expressed most clearly in what Jesus Christ has done for us. We too have to begin to understand that God loves us. This thought must transform our minds, transform our hearts, transform our understanding, transform our thinking. This is how we can obey Jesus' intimidating imperative to trust in God at all times -- because we are convinced that he loves us, no matter what.

When we are baptized, we should realize that at that moment, God himself speaks to us and says: You are my Son! You are my Daughter! When we are led through difficult trials, often beyond what we think we can bear to suffer, we ought to remember that God loves us. More than anything else, God loves humanity and cares for it. Just as Christ suffered crucifixion but was resurrected to glory, just as he was made perfect through his suffering, so also it may be that our own perfection will come about through the sufferings God permits to come our way. Our own sufferings are a participation in Christ's suffering, but that means that we will participate as well in Christ's resurrection.

Much more can be said. It will have to wait till another time.