“No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared him.” John 1:18
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” John 3:16
Yesterday NPR interviewed Jeremy Lin. The Harvard graduate crossed paths with the basketball player in school, but this Lin, instead of playing on the courts of New York’s Madison Square Garden, is studying linguistics at New York University. At 5’2″ Jeremy Lin described the comedy of often being mistaken by name over the Internet for the much taller Knicks super star: he tries to break it to people politely that he is not their guy.
When John’s Gospel describes Jesus as “the only begotten God,” the Gospel writer is saying that there can be no mistaking who Jesus is, because Jesus is the only one of His kind. Jesus can’t be duplicated to the degree that Jesus is God Himself in the flesh. The Jesus who has the power to forgive and straighten out all of the rough and bumpy patches in our lives is God alone. If nobody else can reproduce the “Linsanity” of a basket in the last minutes of a nail-bitingly suspenseful game, no other god can truly embody the inbreaking of God’s reign of love on earth. Only Jesus- the One whom Scripture tells us we find it easy to crucify and mock for His foolhardy message about a Love that has the power to save and redeem all creation, including ourselves- can reveal in His very Self who God is and pour His life into us. As Henry Ward Beecher put it, “Take from the Bible the Godship of Christ and it would be but a heap of dust.”
Maybe this is an especially fitting reminder on a day like today. Today is Ash Wednesday, after all. It is a day when Christians all over the world will remind themselves that it is “from dust” that they have come and “to dust” shall go. Because for as much as we every day can go about pretending to be kings and queens of our own little fiefdoms, convincing ourselves that we are in control, have all the answers, and have it together, and living in self-absorption as if we have no end, the sobering truth of the matter is that we will all die, and the “stuff” of our lives will pass away with us. We won’t save the world, nor can we. We aren’t God. The reality is that when we die, even our best and brightest expressions of God’s work in us will be like “straw,” to quote Thomas Aquinas in his twilight years, when he surveyed his own prodigious body of theological work in the scheme of God’s eternity and couldn’t help but come up short.
These days Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of the Simple Soul has become a staple of my bedtime reading, and Porete a newfound spiritual heroine. Porete was executed in 1310 for scandalously daring to believe that God really was Love and that God’s Love didn’t have to be mediated by a corrupt church hierarchy wedded to money and power. Porete’s book, as an effort to impart this Love to spiritually hungry souls, is striking in a number of ways. Maybe most striking is Porete’s treatment of the human will. For Porete, only when we totally annihilate our will to be god and choose to view ourselves as nothing-a process that takes place within the crucible of the Holy Spirit’s work in us- can we truly experience the freedom of living, moving and breathing in the love of God.
In other words, our “nothingness” (our “dust”) is the pathway to God’s Somethingness- which is the very thing in which we have our being in the first place. What does this mean for us? It means that we only experience God’s unmediated love for us to the degree that we lay aside our claims on reality, be they in the form of what our mind, will and emotions would tell us “reality” is, or even what our finest dogmas and theological doctrines would say (because these, too, are like “straw” in the light of God’s very Self). If Jesus is “the only begotten Son,” it means that Jesus is the Ultimate Reality. All other realities must pass away.