February 22, 2015
First Sunday of Lent
Jesus Changes The Common Ground of Life
“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the Good News.”
With Jesus came “the time of fulfillment.”
We should know, when we present the Good News to anyone—which means, when we offer anyone greater knowledge, understanding or appreciation of Jesus—that we are affecting that person’s whole being by offering something that enhances understanding and appreciation of four fundamental things: who we are, what we know, how we should live, and how we should relate to other persons and to the world. That is pretty all-inclusive.
Actually, it is totally all-inclusive, because those four things are the four “transcendentals of being”; that is the four realities common to and found in every being; both in the infinite Being of God and in created beings. Every being is true, good and one.
The four “transcendentals” are not just philosophical abstractions; they are something we encounter and deal with every day, all day, in every human act. We experience them and deal with them in every interaction with anything that exists. And for those who know him, Jesus changes them all. He raises each of the “transcendentals” to a higher level. When we offer greater knowledge of Jesus and of his Good News to anybody, we are offering “life to the full”; that is, the fullness of being, truth, goodness and unity.
If you are not into philosophy—or, more precisely, into the metaphysical tradition of the Greek “pagan” Aristotle, as explained by the Jew Moses Maimonides, the Christian Thomas Aquinas, and the Muslim Abu Ibn Rochd, known in Latin as Averroës—a more groundlevel, Scripture-based explanation will be offered later. But why not see if your own “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) will be enhanced by the clarifications that follow.
The Four Transcendentals
The first thing all beings have in common, obviously, is being. But to understand ourselves as “beings” we have to know that we are and what we are.
That we are—our “existence”—is an ongoing act of creation. We need to realize that nothing in us explains the fact that we are. To know ourselves as existing is to know that God is continuing to say “Beeeee…” If he stops, we return to nothingness.
But by “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” we exist now, not only by God’s creative act, but also by the gift of sharing in God’s own act of Being, God’s divine Life. Jesus changes—and enhances—the understanding and experience we have of our existence. Our existence is not just a human, but a divine act of being. It is “eternal life”—life without beginning or end, which only God has, but we share in it.
What we are—our “essence” or “nature”—is determined by how God designed and equipped us to function. What we are able to do, the operations we are structured to perform, constitute the “end” that defines each particular kind of being; in our case, a “human being.” Humans are beings that can do the kind of things humans are designed to do: not just walk and talk, but know and choose and love. In terms of moral activity, the Ten Commandments are the “operator’s manual” for good human behavior.
But Jesus, by giving us the gift of sharing in his own divine life and Nature, has enabled us to do things only God can do. By the gift of faith we share in God’s own act of knowing, and can know what only God can know, as only God can know it (see Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; Romans 8:14-16; Galatians 4:4-7; 1Corinthians 12:3). By the gift of love we share in God’s own act of loving (see John 13:34; Ephesians 3:16-21, 4:16, 5:25). And because by “grace” we share in the life and nature of God (2 Peter 1:4) Jesus has given us his “New Law” that calls us to live on the level of God. The Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7) is the “operator’s manual” for the life of grace. It tells us what is expected of us as human beings now that we are also divine.
The first thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is our understanding of the first “transcendental”—who and what we are: he transforms the appreciation we have of our being.
The second thing all beings have in common is intelligibility, which we call their “truth.” One of the greatest things we experience about ourselves is our ability to know. Humans have intellects that allow us to perceive the design and intentionality that make things what they are. When we say, “This is a cow,” we are echoing the creative act of God, who designed this creature (perhaps through millions of years of evolution) to be able to function as it does (its essence or nature), and is presently giving it existence to do that. Our perceptive, free judgment: “it is, and it is a cow,” echoes God’s intentional act of creation: “let it be, and let it be as a cow.” In making this judgment we experience ourselves as understanding God’s own thinking and willing. We recognize ourselves as being enough like God to enter into conscious relationship with him through admiration and praise.
But Jesus, as we said above, has changed our understanding and experience of knowing God and God’s creation. He has let us share in God’s own divine act of knowing. And he has revealed far more than we could ever have guessed about God’s plan and purpose in creating the world and the humans who live in it. When he says “the kingdom of God is at hand,” we know what that means (see Ephesians 1:9; Colossians 1:12). In doing this, Jesus has enhanced our appreciation of ourselves as “knowers,” and our appreciation of everything we know. We are the “light of the world,” and we see everything by God’s divine light (Matthew 5:14; John 1:9, 8:12).
The second thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is our understanding of the second “transcendental”: he transforms our experience of truth and of ourselves as knowers of truth.
Everything to which God is giving existence is good. If it were not, God would have no reason to give it existence. What we call “evil” is a lack of existence, something missing, in a good being that exists. Usually this is some defect in the way the being is functioning or “operating” (from opus, “work”), some action that is not according to its nature, not ordered to the end for which it exists.
When we say humans are “evil,” we are not talking about their being, but about their activity. In the same way, when we say people are “good,” we usually mean, not that their being as such is good (which it is, because God is holding them in existence), but that their behavior is “good” because it is the kind of behavior God wants from human beings—or, if we are talking about those who have been “reborn,” from divine human beings.
That is the third difference Jesus makes. By sharing his divine life with those he has made members of his own body by Baptism, Jesus changes the expectations we have of ourselves and others. Everything we do now should be, not just “good” but good as God is good; that is, divine (see Matthew 5:20; 19:17; John 13:34; all of Romans; 2Corinthians 5:21). He calls—and empowers—us to radically upgrade our lifestyle; to make everything we say and do reveal the presence of God’s divine life and of God’s Holy Spirit within us. The goodness of our daily life and lifestyle should be a visible embodiment of God’s own goodness and love.
The third thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is the way we understand, experience and live out the third “transcendental” of our being: our goodness.
When we call something a “being,” we mean that it is existing by one single act of existence. Ultimately, this means we are judging that God is giving it existence as a single whole; not as a collection or colony of beings. If a cow really is a cow, then everything it is made of is cow, not bone, or skin, or carbon atoms. What exists is the cow; everything else is receiving existence, not as a distinct being, but as a part or aspect of a whole.
There is a lot of metaphysics behind this. We are dealing with the age-old, fundamental problem of “the one and the many.” This is not the place to give it a full, or even an adequate, treatment. But the key to recognizing a being as a being is the judgment we make about the intention of the one giving it existence; that is, God. This judgment isn’t arbitrary; it is based on our own judgment about what we are looking at. Is the cow really a cow, or just a collection of atoms? Our act of judgment, when we say “It is,” is the echo of God’s act of saying “Let it be.” If, in fact, the thing really is what we say it is, then we have understood what God is giving existence to. And whether we are right or wrong, whatever the “being” is, it is “one” because it is receiving one single act of existence, and receiving it as a single whole.
What, we ask now, has this got to do with our understanding of ourselves and our life in this world?
At this point we will go beyond philosophy, which relies on reason alone, and into “theology” (from theos, “God,” and logos, the “intelligibility of”). We rely here on the divine revelation that God is Three in One: the Holy Trinity of three Persons in one Being—Father, Son and Spirit, who are one and the same in Essence (or Nature) and Existence. The Three Persons are “one in Being’ (or, in the unfortunate obfuscation of the new 2011 “Roman-English” translation of the Mass, “consubstantial”), which means that each Person has everything the others have, and that when they act “outside of themselves”—that is, in creating or dealing with creatures—they all act together as one. They differ only as “Persons”; that is, in their relationships, which are identified by their interaction with each other.
This is not the place to attempt a clarification of the mystery of the Trinity! The previous paragraph is given only as background to explain the role of relationships in every creature’s existence, and above all in the life of humans created explicitly in the image and likeness of God.
More specifically, we want to explain how humans, who are many, are nevertheless called to be one with each other and with the whole of creation. Each individual human is “one in being” by receiving one unique act of existence from God. But this “transcendental” of individual unity that makes each of us “whole and entire” as human beings, nevertheless leaves us “incomplete” and unfulfilled as persons. As a human race, we are meant to be parts of a whole, of a community, a “common unity” formed through interactions with others that give us our “identity” as persons. We who are identified as beings by being “one” with ourselves, are only identified as persons through our relationships, formed by interaction with other beings; especially with those on the same level of being as ourselves—other human persons—and with God.
Since God is what he is, Three Persons in one God, God’s Oneness is not intelligible apart from the relationships that diversify the Three Persons. Since we are what we are, multiple persons created in the image of God, our individuality is not intelligible apart from the relationships that make us one in the “common unity” of the human race. The same reality—relationship—that diversifies God’s unity unifies our diversity.
So relationships are essential to authentic human living. The “oneness” that is a transcendental of our limited, finite being cannot be understood, and does not make sense, unless we see it as including a need for relationships. To be authentically true and good in the oneness of our finite being, we need to be in relationship with other persons—as God, who is absolutely One, True and Good in his infinite Being, exists as a Relationship between three divine Persons.
Unlike God, however, we are not “one in being” with any of the persons with whom we are in relationship. In spite of all our interactions, each of us remains isolated in the oneness of our individual being. The closest we come to unity is the “common unity” found in a community of persons.
But Jesus has changed that. The community, the koinonia or “fellowship,” into which he has called us, is not just a “common unity” of interaction. It is a common unity of being, a common unity that comes from sharing in God’s own divine Being and Life. Those who are one with each other “in Christ” are one with each other as the Father, Son and Spirit are one. Jesus prayed at the Last Supper “that they may be one, as we are one… that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:11, 21).
Our unity with each other is the mystery of God’s own divine unity: “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” It is “the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit.” (1John 1:13; 2Corinthians 13:14;
This fellowship (koinonia) is “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things,” the mystery “that has now been revealed by the Spirit.” This mystery is that, not only the Gentiles, but all who are “in Christ” have become “one body” and “one in being” in Christ. Jesus took flesh and died to “create in himself one new humanity” (see John 1:1-13; Ephesians, chapters 2 to 4).
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4).
On ground level, this changes our relationship with very other person (whom we must presume to be sharing in the divine life of grace). It calls us to interact with them divinely: to love others as our own body, as the body of Christ, and to love everyone else with the same divine love Jesus gives to us.
We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15; see 5:29; John 5:12).
The fourth thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is the way we understand, experience and live out the fourth “transcendental” of our being: our oneness. It cannot be authentically understood or lived without the inclusion of relationships. And Jesus has transformed our relationship with each other into a mystery of sharing in the unity and diversity of the Trinity. To be one is to be one with one another as the Three Persons of God are one.
Relationship with the world
The change Jesus brought to the understanding we have of our oneness is a double change: it affects our relationship with other persons and our relationship with everything else in the universe.
As human beings, we already have a responsibility for this world that God gave to Adam and Eve. We are “stewards of creation” (Genesis 2:15-19). But because Jesus has made us by Baptism sharers in his messianic mission as Prophet, Priest and King, we are also “stewards of his kingship.” We are responsible for bringing every area and activity of human existence under the lifegiving reign of God. This changes our relationship with everyone and everything around us. Our oneness is a oneness with the cosmos. We cannot enclose ourselves in our own private well-being, or even in our limited nationalistic patriotism, as if the whole of life on this planet were not our concern. God’s “plan for the fullness of time” is “to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth… God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:16; and see 15:25).
The change Jesus brought about in the way we understand and live out the fourth “transcendental” of our being, our oneness, changes the way we look at and interact with everything else in the world. We cannot refuse the relationship of responsibility that we have for everyone and everything else on the planet.
That enhances our existence.
Do I choose to let Jesus change the “ground of my being”—the way I understand and live out the truth, goodness, and oneness that characterize my being?
Pray: “Lord, I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
Practice: Think deep. Reflect on the four “transcendentals of being.”
Discuss: How has Jesus changed your understanding of yourself?