by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.” John 3, 16-20
Well over 50 years ago, my fellow novices and I had to read and study a book written by a German systematic theologian, Ludwig Ott. His book (published in 1952) was entitled Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, with the sub-title Crucial Truths to Save Your Soul. As well as listing “unchangeable” Church dogmas, Ott provided a categorical list of God’s distinguishing qualities. God was described as being omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent – in plain English: present everywhere, all-knowing and all-powerful. The book was promoted as a complete list of every dogma that Catholics were expected to believe. Anyone who did not believe what was set down was regarded as cursed or worthy of excommunication. Just one example of the dogmas listed in the book’s more than 500 pages was: “If anyone shall say that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, anathema sit – let him(sic) be anathema – worthy of excommunication. Ott attributed this statement to The Council of Trent, Session VII, Canon 5, 3rd March, 1547.
Fortunately, our Church has become less dogmatic, and together with other Christians around the world, next Sunday we will celebrate God as a God of unconditional love. Countless Christians have rediscovered the meaning of the gospel verse heading this reflection. In fact, one often sees large banners at sporting events and on T-shirts worn by marathon runners inscribed with nothing more than “John 3, 16”, displayed in the hope that those who don’t already know its reference will go back home and find the verse in their bibles.
Thankfully, the God we encounter in Scripture is the essence of love – a very long way from the God described by Ott. Mind you, Ott was not alone. Countless philosophers and theologians of his era, and before, described God as “first cause” or “unmoved mover” or “the source of all created matter”. Yet, again and again, Scripture presents God as personal and loving, as one who pursues us endlessly out of love. The God who loved us into life wants us to know that we are always beloved, no matter how far we drift away from letting ourselves experience that love.
Repeatedly, John’s Gospel and Letters remind us that God is love, and that we, made in the image of God, are made for love. As Christians, we have come to believe that God is love in its fullness and best, and that we are created to reflect that love to our world, to everyone we encounter.
Today’s gospel reading is the last part of the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Council of Elders(Sanhedrin). Nicodemus had heard about Jesus and his teaching and, for the sake of anonymity, had come under the cover of darkness to get first-hand experience of Jesus and his teaching. In the course of their conversation, Jesus challenged Nicodemus to let go of simplistic, one-dimensional images of God and to embrace a mature, adult approach to God. Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of a God whose Spirit of boundless love is alive in the world, of a God who is always taking the initiative to be with us human beings, despite our fragility and failings, of a God who is constantly present to us in the whole of creation, a God who longs for us to be at peace with one another rather than estranged because of difference and division, a God who is present in every expression of compassion, forgiveness and love that we make. In speaking of being “reborn from above” Jesus was inviting Nicodemus (and us) to be open to the God who created us out of love, who sent Jesus to embrace our humanity so that we might grow to become like him, and who breathed into us and our world the fullness of love in the sustaining Spirit.
Philosophers and theologians somehow lost the message of Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, and replaced it with lifeless and loveless dogmas. Across centuries, there have been people who seem to have sought the comfort that comes from certainty. Ludwig Ott compiled a long list of “beliefs” which would give Catholics who adhered to them the security of knowing they were on the right track. A little after he published his book, an educationist by the name of Benjamin Bloom produced a book entitled A Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which suggested that a person could claim to be educated once he or she had progressed through six levels of educational achievement. For Bloom, education was a process of progressing along a continuum, beginning with knowledge and moving from there to comprehension and then on to application, analysis, synthesis and finally to evaluation. So the search for certainty was not confined to religion. But certainty in religion eliminates the need for faith, and in education, it seems to ignore the reality of individual differences in personality and in our varying capacities to assimilate life experience.
In the latter part of the last century, the great German, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) described modern, western culture as having lapsed into a “wintry season” in which Christianity was no longer dominant. He proceeded to describe God as “holy mystery”, a living, loving being who provides warmth and sustenance in winter. While we human beings, according to Rahner, will never fully grasp this holy mystery, it has touched us through the person of Jesus who came among us as one like us, and who reflected in his life the boundless love of God.
Even more recently, another distinguished theologian and writer, Sr Elizabeth Johnson in her book, Gracious Mystery, states that the compelling reason for the incarnation, for God becoming one of us in the person of Jesus, was love: “The Word became flesh so that God who is love could enter into deep personal union with the world, the beloved. This would have happened even if human beings had not sinned” (Elizabeth Johnson, p.40, Bloomsbury, N.Y. 2007).
However well or inadequately we understand the mystery we call God, we know that we were created for love and that there is something within us that draws us beyond ourselves in the direction of transcendence. Our faith assures us that it is only God who will satisfy that thirst or desire. In our limited understanding we know that God’s love is expressed in three different but interconnected ways – in creation, seen in all its beauty, in ourselves and in our efforts to reach out in love; in the person of Jesus, the perfect expression of God’s love in human shape; and in an intangible Spirit that breathes inspiration, creativity, imagination into us, into those around us and into the ever-evolving universe which envelops us. Trinity Sunday invites us to celebrate the mystery of Divine love let loose in our lives, our world, human history and all of creation. Moreover, let’s not forget that one of the best and closest experiences of Divine love is reflected to us through the struggles of human love, and that the arms of God embrace us through the human arms and hearts that hold and nurture us.