Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent – Revealed in Hiddenness

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent – Revealed in Hiddenness

Readings: Genesis 17:3-9, Psalm 105, John 8:51-9. 

The readings during Passiontide remind us of the ways in which Christ – the faithful Jew – fulfils the law and prophecy of the Hebrew bible and, by His Paschal suffering, cuts a new covenant, offering healing and salvation to all.

In today’s gospel, the Pharisees ask of Christ the crucial question – who is He? Who is this man who claims to offer everlasting life and to have seen Abraham? What is Jesus claiming about Himself? Ironically, the sneering tone of their question presumes that He cannot be greater than Abraham, but His response manifests the heart of the Christian message of Good News: “before ever Abraham was, I AM.” With these words, Christ reveals that he does not simply come after the Old Testament as its fulfilment, but he stands before it and works through it: Christ, as the eternal Son of the Father, exists before the creation of the world, and it is as preparation for Jesus Christ and for His work of redemption that God calls Abraham and establishes the Jewish nation.

‘I am’ – a seemingly innocuous phrase, but one that John gives a curious priority, placing it upon the lips of Christ forty-five times in his gospel, most notably as Jesus claims to be the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), the gate of salvation (10:9), the Good Shepherd (10:11), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, the truth and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1). To Jewish ears, this phrase – ‘I am’ – is straightforwardly a divine title: it is the ineffable and mysterious divine name, יהוה, the term used by God to refer to Himself, revealed by God to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14), and considered by the Jewish people too holy to be spoken aloud.

And so in His response to the Pharisees, Christ appropriates this name for Himself: He identifies Himself with the most-high God, the one who – as God – depends upon no other for his existence, and gives being to all things. Christ’s divinity, therefore, is not merely ‘functional’ but real: Christ not only does ‘divine things’ – bringing healing to all who gaze upon Him as the Serpent in the desert (Numbers 21:4-9) – but is actually the true God, present in human flesh, working by His own power.

The Pharisees clearly understand Christ’s claim: this is why they try to stone Him, and why Christ is forced to hide and escape. It is Christ’s claim to be God that offends them, and which continues to offend many to this day, as a seemingly blasphemous and unthinkable doctrine. Yet whilst Christ is forced to hide His body from the Pharisees, the truth about Himself has been hidden all along, because the Pharisees did not see with the eyes of faith.

During these final days of the season of Lent, through prayer and penance, we are turning to the Lord, asking him to purify our eyes of faith that we may more and more see the divine presence in the world, and particularly that we might see the ways in which Christ is present to us, that we may dare to believe the words He speaks about Himself: “before ever Abraham was, I AM”.

Oliver James Keenan OP

fr. Oliver is Master of Students of the English Province, teaches dogmatic theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, and has recently been appointed Director of the Aquinas Institute.