Today we find ourselves at the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross. As such, we encounter an additional Gospel reading, from the Gospel of St. John, 3:13-17. The reading is very short in number of words. The reading is very deep in meaning to us as followers of Christ!
The verse immediately before today’s Gospel reading (verse 12) speaks volumes to us about how we should look at our “knowledge” or “understanding” of things relating to the Kingdom. Jesus says, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Jesus is speaking here with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who, unlike the other Pharisees, does not wish to immediately condemn Jesus for things not clearly understood about Him or His teachings. He comes (like last Sunday’s young man) with a pure heart, sincerely wanting to embrace the truth, and through the truth to find the way to Heaven.
Our Lord’s statement about His telling us earthly things and our inability therefore to grasp heavenly things is reminiscent of the Feast of Transfiguration, where the Apostles Three were shown His glory as far as they could bear it.
As if it were necessary to somehow “seal” our inability to understand the heavenly while being earthly, Jesus presents another phrase that is beyond our understanding. No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.
Let’s break down this phrase. He has not yet arisen, therefore He has not ascended, but He says that He has. In order to ascend, the Holy Fathers (many) say that descending precedes ascending. But the hard spot is that Jesus says He is IN heaven.
Do we need further proof that our human understanding should be focused not on the “things of heaven”, but rather on the things that can lead us to heaven. Focus on that which leads from earth to heaven! About the above phrase from John 3:13, St Hilary of Poitiers says:
By what perception of human understanding can we comprehend that He ascended where He was before, and He descended Who remained in heaven? The Lord says, ‘What if you should behold the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?’ Can sense apprehend this? The Son of Man—Who is in heaven—descends from heaven. Can reason cope with this? The Word was made flesh– can words express this? The Word becomes flesh, that is, God becomes man. The man is in heaven; the God is from heaven. He ascends Who descended, but He descends and yet does not descend. He is as He ever was, yet He was not ever what He is…. If we understand Christ even in this way, we shall know Him. If we seek to understand Him further, we shall not know Him at all. (On the Trinity, 10.54)
This is preparatory material for our coming to the very foot of the Cross of Christ in this coming week. For how are we to comprehend the Life of all succumbing to human death, and yet living?
We must confine our thoughts to that which is revealed by God as within our ability to grasp. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, (1Cor 15:3) Simple. Easily grasped by any with faith. And like it, this. Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast. (Ps 131:1-2)
Let us take the example of the Apostle Philip, who desired to know more, but knew that there were limits, Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us. (John 14:8) In this request he showed an all-too human lack of understanding. The Lord responded in love to Philip, as He will respond to us in our humanly constrained understanding. And He will show us all we need to know—as far as we can bear it—to give us the tools that lead to Theosis.