Ancient Near Eastern deities were dynamic beings. Their presence was manifested through actions like storms, fertility, omens, war, justice and judgment, orgasm and childbirth, illness and healing, drunkenness, prophecy and dance. In a way that challenges Western thinking, these signs of divine presence were so symbolic of individual gods that the actions themselves took on divine qualities.
‘I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely.’ (Jn 17:13)
In what act of love have you seen God most clearly?
In what acts are you closest to the humble and crucified Jesus?
How do you continue the Son’s mission to reveal divine love?
Astarte, the goddess of childbirth, was not just present during childbirth; she was in fact the experience of childbirth. Similarly, Dumuzi (biblical Tammuz, see Ez 8:14), the god of fertility, was not just present in the spring; he himself was the sap rising in the date-palm. These actions were not just signs that pointed to another, unseen reality. They were epiphanies of that reality, a place where the divine showed itself present in the human realm.
John’s Gospel and epistles bear the imprint of this ancient thought. Although the God that John understood came from a Jewish tradition that was rigorously monotheistic and transcendent, it was a tradition rooted in Near Eastern thought. John understood God to possess all the dynamism that one would expect of an ancient deity. God’s activity was love. As John understood it, love was more than something that pointed to the presence of God or symbolized the qualities of God. Love was God. Every loving act was an epiphany of the universal creator.
God sent the Son to teach us this reality. Throughout his ministry, Jesus revealed the true nature of God, which was love. In John’s mind, Jesus himself was the clearest epiphany of divine love. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet to teach humanity to love as God loves. Jesus goes to his crucifixion to serve even those who do not love in return. When Jesus prayed for his disciples to be “consecrated in the truth,” he prays that they reflect God’s holiness by believing in the reality of divine love and reflecting it in their own actions. As this week’s second reading professes, “Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.”
The selection of Matthias to take the place of Judas shows how that mission continues. Judas’s treachery and death left a gap in the community. The apostles had a choice: Leave the gap for Jesus to sort out at his expected return, or act in Jesus’ name themselves and commission a new apostle. That they chose the latter shows how strongly they had come to identify with Jesus even before the Spirit arrived at Pentecost. For all their faults and weaknesses, those closest to Jesus recognized a portion of his wisdom in themselves, especially when they prayed and discerned as a group.
Today’s disciples must continue the same mission. God sent Jesus into the world to show us the divine nature, which is pure love. As Jesus taught it, this love is entirely centered on others. God does not obsess over himself, accumulate goods or honors, judge others with indifference or revel in sex, violence or power. The divine self that God shows us in Christ is humble, poor, self-controlled, understanding and a servant of all. The life Jesus built around these qualities transcended even death and brought new life to any who lived the same way. Those who continue the Son’s mission and live by the same virtues will continue to make God present among us with each act of love.