The Self-Understanding of Jesus

The Incarnation is ultimately a mystery, and so whilst it is interesting to ponder the how and why of its happening, we must always be ready to admit that here we stand before something that so gloriously transcends the limits of our understanding that we can only kneel before it in adoration and awe. Having said this, to the extent to which we are able to reflect on it, the Incarnation, as the central Christian mystery, can reveal to us many things for our edification, and help us to better understand our relationship with God through Christ, as well as the discipleship which flows from that relationship.

I would like to reflect here on how Our Lord understood His own divine identity, particularly in terms of the filial devotion that He had (and has) towards the Father. I hope that by trying to understand how Jesus comprehended His own experience as fully God and fully man, that this might shed some light on the reality of the Hypostatic Union, and also make more clear the words of Saint Luke’s gospel, where we read that Jesus ‘increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man’ (2:52). Regarding this latter point, it is clear that as a true human being, Jesus would have increased in stature and in favour with man; but how is it that He increased in wisdom and in favour with God?

Firstly, I would like to address the question of the self-understanding of Our Lord. It is an article of faith that He is and was the Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, who had united Himself with the human nature of the man Jesus of Nazareth so inseparably so that we can say that Jesus is the Son of God. Given that this is the case though, how is it that the man Jesus understood this union? I would submit that one very good way of entering into this mystery is to consider the relationship that Jesus had with God the Father – it is in and through this relationship (the way He speaks about Himself and the Father, the many times that He goes off to pray to the Father, and the way in which His will is always seen as subordinate to the will of the Father) that Jesus’ sonship, and therefore divinity, is revealed.

There are many instances which could be used to illustrate the importance of this, but I will restrict myself to just a couple, the first of which is from the eleventh chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel (vv.25-27):

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will. All things have been delivered to my by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Here we find Jesus explicitly stating that the one He calls Father is indeed ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ and also that the relationship between Him and the Father is one of tremendous, even exclusive, intimacy – to the extent that ‘no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son’. It is also the case that the will of the Son is so aligned to the will of the Father that only He can truly know the latter, and so only He has the ability, and the authority, to reveal it. All this suggests a relationship of deep familiarity, to the point where although Jesus makes clear that the Son and Father are distinct from one another, their wills are so close that they are, in a profound sense, united (c.f.; John 10:30).

But, even though we can learn from the above how closely Jesus identified Himself with the Father and His will, we are still left with the question of how this Father-Son relationship was experienced by Our Lord. The key can perhaps be found in a passage from Saint Luke, where we read that ‘in these days he went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God’ (6:12). This is something we find often in Luke’s gospel (e.g.; 5:16; 9:18; 9:29; 11:1) – that Jesus retreats to a place away from the crowds, to be alone and pray to God, who as we know from the passage in Matthew above, He identified with His Father.

It is strongly suggested that the kind of prayer that Jesus practised in these circumstances is what we would describe as contemplative prayer – silent adoration in the presence of God, and communion with Him at a level beyond, though not excluding, verbal communication. It seems likely that it was in this contemplative, or mystical, sense that Jesus’ experience of the Father, and therefore of being the divine Son, was most concrete. Being truly human means having a human mind and soul as well as body – the human nature of Jesus could not have been overwhelmed by the divine in such a way that it would therefore undermine or exclude these aspects of the human experience.

It is therefore more likely that Jesus’ realisation of being divine would, whilst being something constantly known to Him, have been known in a way that is perhaps analogous to our contemplative knowledge of God, albeit at a greatly heightened level, and so would require these regular retreats from the crowd in order to re-establish and renew His comprehension of it. Being truly human, His mind would be, like ours, subject to fatigue and distraction, so regular periods of prayer would be necessary for refreshing His innate sense of filial closeness to God.

A helpful comparison may be the experiences of many of the saints, who were led in prayer to such a level of closeness to God that, whilst their essential human-ness remained, with all its limitations, they were also brought to a knowledge of Him that transcends normal experience, even to the extent that, through their adoption as children of God in Christ, they felt increasingly one with Him. If this is the case with ordinary human beings, how much more must it have been the case with Our Lord, who was already by nature in contact with God at a level of closeness and intensity that we cannot possibly imagine! And yet, being truly human, He would have needed to ‘enter into’ that relationship which was His by nature and by right.

Also, just as the saints, in their experience of increasing closeness to God in prayer, describe a feeling by which they forget themselves and their will is drawn ever closer to the divine will, so must Jesus have experienced (humanly speaking) a certain level of self-forgetfulness in prayer, whereby He too lost Himself in order to find Himself (c.f.; Luke 9:24). To be the Son is to know the Father, but as the Son had united Himself to a human nature, this knowledge constantly had to be rediscovered and renewed by a paradoxical forgetting of Himself, that His human will could always be perfectly aligned with the divine will at the root of His being.

It is this sense in which Our Lord had to ‘discover’ anew His divine identity in prayer, to rediscover the utter realness of His divine sonship, and it is this which may shed some light on the passage in Saint Luke which talks of Jesus growing in wisdom. For if this closeness with God, this intimacy with the Father, was properly basic to Jesus’ experience and self-understanding, must He not then have had to learn by experience that this was not true of the rest of mankind? Especially as a child, must it not have been something of a shock to Him that other children did not know God in this way?

Jesus, to be fully human, must have known God in the same way as we do – as the source and ground of our very being – and yet, as divine, must have done so in a way which reaches far beyond our imagining, to the extent that He knew God as God knows Himself, as the Son knows the Father eternally. For the young Jesus of Nazareth, who experienced life as we all do, by encountering people and things, accumulating knowledge of particulars and the differences between them, it must have been a shock of sorts to find out that other children, and other adults, did not relate to God in this way.

This way He grew in wisdom, and as He did so, grew ‘in favour with God and man’ – with man, because His moral purity and integrity of character impressed all those whom He came across, and with God, because He was growing into a greater awareness of His incarnate nature – that this relationship which He had with the Father was something that set Him apart from others, and that because of His being at one with the will of the Father that He must therefore implement that will in the world, whatever the cost. The dogma of the Incarnation is, at its heart, as much about who God is in His essence as the dogma of the Holy Trinity, which flows naturally from the former.

Jesus, as the Son of God, lives constantly as One who is ‘in the bosom of the Father’ (John 1:18), seeing everything in the light of that reality and of the Father’s will, yet, as He shares our human nature, He must have also periodically had to forget Himself and retreat into the depth of that relationship, unveiling the roots of his divine identity and relating this knowledge to the way in which the rest of us understand ourselves. By the very nature of the case, this is something that is beyond our understanding and remains a mystery to us, but to the extent to which we can also forget ourselves and enter into the reality of that filial relationship with the Father which we enjoy through our sacramental incorporation into Christ, we may be able to gain some idea of this beautiful paradox.

Knowing that the Son of God took human nature upon Himself for our salvation is a wonderful thing, but to consider that the way in which He understood His relation to the Father was in some way similar to the way in which we, through Him, can also relate to the Father is even more astonishing. When we pray, through Christ Our Lord, we associate ourselves not only with the eternal bond that exists between Father and Son, but also insert ourselves into the lived experience of the incarnate Son – we partake, however distantly, of the way in which He related to God during His life here on earth. Such is the degree to which Our Lord involved Himself in the human experience, and made available to us that wondrous relationship of intimacy with God. As Psalm 118 says, ‘this is the LORD’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes‘ (v.23).

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