In the third chapter of John’s Gospel is found that well-known phrase, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Recently, I heard Dr. Alexander Shaia speak about this particular sentence as part of a larger presentation to a group of clergy. He reminded us that “world” in John’s ancient Greek language and world view meant something a bit different than our reading today of that word in English. He suggested that it would be more faithful to John’s understanding and meaning if we translated the passage in this way: “For God so loved us in our unknowing (or ignorance) that God gave us the Christ so that we would not be locked into time and live only for ourselves.” Admittedly, this is not so much a linguistic translation as a translation of ideas, and Dr. Shaia believes that this phrase captures better what John intended to say, given the thought-world he inhabited.
If we meditate on this translation of John’s ideas, it points us toward a key idea in our own tradition, and indeed in most of the world’s spiritual traditions: that we are ignorant of the deeper meaning and nature of life. We do not know who we really are — made in the image of God, on a spiritual journey that is meant to transform us so that we become more and more like Christ. Because we do not know who we are, we become locked into a this-world perspective that is bound by time rather than timelessness. Rather than adopting the perspective of eternity, that is, the perspective of God, of the divine, we operate from a this-world perspective, a world defined by time that is always running down or running out. We chase after the things of this world, believing that these have something to do with who we really are. And, in the process, we forget our true selves — we forget that our life is truly rooted not in the time-bound world, but in the timeless eternity of God. The Christ seeks to wake us up from this unknowing, from this limited perspective, in order to open us up to our true identity and the authentic nature of life.
At the end of her book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes, “Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.” She points, I think, to the trinity that makes up the deepest longing of the human spirit: to live creatively, peacefully and joyously. If we think deeply about our lives and our desires, I think that we will find that they all really boil down to these things. We are constantly searching for them in the time-bound world where things are always running out and running down. So, most of the time, we catch glimpses of them, brief moments, but they do not last, and so we keep running after them.
If we realize that, ultimately, creativity, peace and joy are rooted in transcendence, in God, in eternity, then we realize that the only way to begin to experience this trinity lastingly is through spiritual practice. Armstrong suggests that the heart of that practice is kenosis, or self-emptying, and compassion. That Greek term kenosis is an often used term in the Christian tradition to speak of the quality of self-giving that we perceive in God (who is always giving of God’s self in creating and sustaining the universe) and that we especially see in Jesus, whose entire life is about giving of himself for others. As Jesus himself says, it is in giving our lives away that we find life. In other words, it is only when we transcend our own egos and go beyond our limited self-interest that we can begin to transcend the time-bound, this-world perspective that is our habit and begin to take on the perspective of eternity, that we can begin to touch the root of lasting creativity, peace and joy. Of course, when we begin to go beyond ourselves, we also deepen our compassion as we begin to desire creativity, peace and joy not only for ourselves but for our fellow human beings and perhaps even all creatures. And so we are moved to act with compassion toward others, to allow Christ to act compassionately in and through us, to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others.
In Christ, God has loved us in our unknowing and our ignorance so much that God seeks to awaken us to the true source of the creativity, peace and joy that we long for. As we approach the gateway into the Lenten season, perhaps we might reflect on how we have or have not accepted this invitation to awaken. How do we move beyond ourselves? How can we grow in self-giving and compassion? For that is what we must do if we seek a life that is truly, deeply and lastingly meaningful.