Thursday of the Fifth Week in Lent
(Genesis 17:3-9; John 8:51-59)
Today’s gospel was part of a longer passage that used to be read on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. It became the source of the tradition of covering sacred images during the last two weeks of Lent. The statement that Jesus hid from the Jews who were about to stone him was taken as a cue to veil all statutes. Today covering images is optional. In any case, the processional cross should not be veiled until Good Friday. However much some people think it important to continue the custom, it is external to the meaning of the passage which is very significant in itself.
In the dialogue with the Jews, Jesus asserts that he existed before Abraham. He also says that he has intimate knowledge of the Father. From these statements the Church has concluded that He is God like the Father in all things except their mutual relationship. The conclusion is given added testimony when Jesus says later in the gospel, “’I and the Father are one.’” Christian theologians have reasoned that the identity of Jesus as God is crucial for the atonement of human sin. If he were not God as well as human, then his sacrifice could not have made up for the sins of humanity. Only the work of a human of infinite greatness – a God-man – could restore the justice that was taken away through sin.
Atonement may sound remote even unimportant as we consider Jesus’ cruel death. But in thinking through why that death meant more than any other in history, we have to ask who Jesus was. Certainly other good people have offered themselves in sacrifice for the good of others. Certainly other innocent people have undergone similarly brutal deaths as Jesus. But because Jesus is God, his death could bear the sins of the world.