Down the Up Staircase: Whose life will be a staircase for God’s descent to earth?
John Navone SJ FAITH Magazine May-June 2006
The tower of Babel story suggests that human beings are possessed by an urge for grandiosity, to move beyond and above the place where they are. The God of Christians, in contrast, descends from where he is to serve rather than to be served. The God of Christians is engaged in a boundless self-giving, generously filling creation with the splendor of his true goodness.
In Jesus Christ, the community of Christian faith sees the God who comes down to where we are to bring us up to where God is. The kenosis of God is for the plerosis of humankind. God’s self-emptying in Christ is for the fullness of human life in communion, community and communication with God. The divine kenosis is for our participation in the divine plerosis.
When an exhausted Jacob encountered God during the night at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-17), it came as a vision of the ladder upon which angels were ascending and descending. Here at the vital intersection between heaven and earth God descends from the heights to be with Jacob at this lowest moment of his life. God reaches down to Jacob, a man who had deceived his father and brother. God descends and fills the anguish of Jacob’s soul with the promise, “Know that I am with you; I shall keep you safe wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land, for I shall never desert you until I have done what I promised you” (v. 15).
For the Christian community of faith, the divine promise to be with his people is uniquely fulfilled in Jesus Christ, in whom God has come down to fill the void in our lives. God has become incarnate in the person of his Son. The disciples of Christ do not need to travel to some sacred place, for God was present in their midst everyday that Jesus walked among them. Although the disciples continued to misunderstand Jesus’ meaning and identity until after the resurrection they worried about what to do after he was gone. Jesus gives them two ways that they can continue to experience the presence of the living Lord in their lives.
Jesus emphasizes that by maintaining an active, direct relationship between our words of faith and our faithfulness to him, we will experience his presence, and thus God’s presence on earth. He reveals yet another form of the divine presence that will come to them when he promises to send them his Holy Spirit as their Consoler and Helpmate. Unlike previous visitations of the divine — God at Babel or Bethel, Jesus in Galilee — his Holy Spirit’s presence will descend on a global, universal scale.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illuminates the meaning of God’s presence in our lives in its dual emphasis on word and work. The continued gift of the crucified and risen Christ’s presence is especially adumbrated in its last line, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Here word and work come together dramatically. The priest and the Levite, both men of great words, representing formidable examples of verbal faithfulness, utterly fail to incarnate that faith. God’s healing presence cannot reach out to the wounded traveller because these two men will not act as conduits, or “Jacob’s ladders” for God’s descent.
The deepest meaning of this parable is about where Christ is and where we need to be in the no-go areas where the lepers live. The Good Samaritan goes to where the wounded are, the conduit of the one who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and is among us as one who serves. Jesus reveals and communicates for all of us the gift of the divine presence which we may all enjoy. The God who strolled with us throughout the garden of Eden in the days of our innocence still yearns to be with us. The incarnation of Jesus Christ and the continuous indwelling of his Holy Spirit made this possible, at the cost of the crucifixion. Now God joins us where we are, not where we ought to be, for we have a God who goes anywhere and everywhere to get us, even descending into hell itself, to find us.