IN WHAT GOD DO YOU BELIEVE IN?
It is not enough to believe in God. It is important to check what you believe about God.
The Muslims profess their faith in Allah, the creator of heaven and earth. He is the one who rules from above, who established righteous prescriptions and holy prohibitions and watched to reward those who observe and punish those who offend. They do not understand that he took on human form and can g meet and talk with people. Is this the God we believe in?
Among the African tribes with whom I lived, God is invoked only in times of drought. It is believed that rain comes directly from him. For other needs, they appeal to the ancestors. Whether or not God is interested in diseases, misfortunes, the harvest of the fields or people's affairs is not even asked. Is this perhaps our God?
To these questions, we may answer in the negative. However, let’s ask ourselves: what image of God lies behind the widespread belief that on the Day of Judgment, the Lord will critically assess every person’s life? To whom do Christians usually run under challengingtimes to beg for grace? Let us face it: we worship a God who still retains many features of pagan deities; susceptible, strict and distant.
Today’s feast is a relatively new one in the liturgical calendar (only around 1350). Through reflection on the Word of God, it offers the opportunity to purify the image we hold onto and discover new and surprising features of his face.
• To internalize the message, we repeat: “Show me, O Lord, your true face.”
First Reading: Exodus 34:4b-6,8-9
Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai as the Lord had commanded him, taking along the two stone tablets.
Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, theLord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, “If I find favorwith you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.”
In the Bible, words spoken by God are widely recounted. He begins to speak in the book of Genesis. However, we must wait until the end of the book of Exodus to hear a wider presentation of himself from his own lips. What he says is contained in today’s First Reading. One day Moses asks God to show his face, and he replies: “You cannot see my face because man cannot see my face and live” (Ex 33:18-20).
The longing of Moses is an expression of everyone’s dream: to see God, to know the most intimate and profound secrets of his person. To respond to this desire, God reveals himself as gracious, filled with compassion, a patient, merciful and faithful Lord, who shows loving kindness to the “thousandth” generation (‘thousandth’ comes from the original Hebrew text, not ‘thousands’ only, as demonstrated by our translation) who “forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex 34:6-7).
The pagan peoples imagined God as a powerful and terrible sovereign, always prone to vent his anger against anyone who violated his laws or did not offer sacrifice. He meted out punishment in the form of disease and misfortune to those who did not please him. The God of Israel reveals a completely new face to Moses. He is not unpredictable or touchy, threatening, or a demanding and capricious Supreme Being, in front of whom we cannot but tremble and live in anguish. He looks tenderly at people, understands their mistakes, and loves them always, even in sin.
His primary feature is mercy. This term evokes in us a certain unease because it is instinctively associated with the idea of the compassionate benefactor. He graciously grants forgiveness from the height of his impeccable rectitude but tolerates a residue of guilt and shame in those who sin. The Hebrew word used here refers to the bowels. It indicates the most intimate and profound feeling that we can imagine what a mother experiences towards the child she carries in her womb. The sublime expressions of this love are the words that God addresses to the Zion in fear of being rejected because of her sins: “Can a woman forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child of her womb? Yet though they (bowels) forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15).
With bold anthropomorphism, Hosea puts on the lips of the Lord this declaration of love for the bride, Israel, who has betrayed him: “My heart is troubled within me and I am (my bowels are) moved with compassion” (Hos 11:8). There is no stronger guilt than what his mercy provokes. The human reacts in a passionate and impetuous way. God is slow to anger, patient, tolerant and forgiving. He is not impulsive and never seeks revenge. This characteristic of God has penetrated deeply into the Jewish and even into Muslim spirituality. It is also often mentioned in the Bible. We recall the moving prayer of the Psalmist: “But you, O Lord God, are merciful, slow to anger and faithful. Turn to me, take pity on me; give your strength to your servant” (Ps 86:15-16).
Today’s passage does not include verse 7. Those who read the text in the Bible, however, inevitably will come across it. It is better to mention and clarify its meaning. God continues His revelation by stating that “he shows loving kindness to the thousandth generation and forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet he does not leave the guilty without punishment, even punishing the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” It is a puzzling statement that seems to contradict what has just been said.
God never punishes, neither in this world nor in the next. He only loves and saves. When the Bible talks about his punishment—and it often does—it uses a language that belongs to an archaic culture. It is a metaphor that must be translated into our language of today. In reality, what is called ‘God’s punishment’ is nothing more than the consequence of human sin.
Sin comes from the Latin ‘peccus’ that indicates a person with a bad foot; walks with a crooked gait. It produces dislocation, loss of sense of direction, even the catastrophe of falling into a ravine in a worst-case scenario. No one goes about in search of this type of trouble. Everyone aspires to happiness and joy, but some miss the target “without knowing what he is doing” (Luke 23:34); he causes disaster, tragedy, self-harm, or another suffering, at times even affecting future generations.
God does not punish those who make mistakes; he does not compound human evil with his own evil. God intervenes, but only to save, to remedy trouble caused by sin. The name he wanted to be called is ‘Jesus’ because—as Matthew says — “he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
The passage ends with a plea for forgiveness. Israel has become idolatrous by building a golden calf and distancing itself from its God. Moses immediately puts the Lord’s mercy to the test: “We are a stiff-necked people, pardon our wickedness and our sins and make us yours” (v. 9). Moses shows he has imbibed the revelation of the Lord by immediately responding to God’s offer of a covenant with his people.
The first message of this feast is then a call to revise our image of God. Do we still think of him as the ‘executioner’ of sinners, or do we understand that he is rich in mercy? Are we convinced that “in his great mercy, he revealed his immense love? As we were dead through our sins, he gave us life with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5)?
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Brothers and sisters, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones greet you.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
This reading includes the last sentences of the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. These expressions are sweet, full of tenderness, as the chairperson of a community meeting should always be. Joy is the first and most beautiful sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God into the heart of a person. It is the result of the discovery of God’s true face.
As recommended by the apostle, the community where the brothers and sisters are happy, encourage each other and cultivate the same feelings tends toward perfection. They live together in peace and are united to the God of love (v. 11). This is the image of the life and beatitude of the Trinity. The holy kiss exchanged by those who believe (v. 12) is the expression and the sign of the love that unites the divine persons, which expands to embrace the disciples.
After these brief recommendations, Paul greets the Corinthians, using the same formula we use today in the liturgy of the Mass: “The grace of Christ Jesus the Lord, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (v. 13). These were most likely the words with which, in the community of Corinth, the sign of peace and the ‘holy kiss’were exchanged. With this formula, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Father is the one who took the initiative to save people, destining them to eternal happiness in his family. The Son is the one who fulfilled this work of salvation by his coming into the world and his fidelity unto death. The Spirit, the love that unites the Father with the Son, was poured out in the heart of every Christian in baptism. From the moment this gift is received, we become part of God’s family, the Trinity.
We understand why this Trinitarian formula was used as the sign of peace. The unity of the community members comes from the fact that they belong to the family of God. They are children of the same Father, brothers and sisters of the only Son and animated by the same Spirit.
Gospel: John 3:16-18
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son intothe world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
They are only three but tightly packed verses. They constitute the Gospel passage today. They would be enough to correct any distorted image of God still present in the minds of many Christians—that of the stern and inflexible judge—and open their hearts to trust in his love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him may not be lost” (v. 16). These words can represent the summit reached by biblical revelation on the meaning of creation, life, and human destiny.
Contemplating the revelation of God’s plan in amazement, John discovers that God’s gratuitous love is at the origin of all. Unlike what he says in his first letter—where he sees this love spilling itself over into the Christian community (1 Jn 4:7-12)—here the evangelist attends to the unfolding of endless horizons: the love of God expands, irrepressible, unstoppable and fills the entire ‘world.’ We are at the antipode of the famous statement: ‘The world in which we live can be understood as a result of disorder and chance; but if it is the outcome of a deliberate intent, this must have been the intent of a devil.’
Although it may seem strange, the image of the God who loves people has struggled to establish itself in Israel. It had to wait for the prophet Hosea (eighth century B.C.) to find it for the first time. This reluctance was because, in pagan religions, the rapport of love with the divinity had ambiguous connotations of a sexual nature. John, who has seen with his own eyes and touched with his own hands the word of life (1 Jn 1:1), arrives to say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8); love that manifested itself in giving his only begotten Son as his gift to the world. He has not only given him in the Incarnation; he delivered him into human hands to die on the cross. There he has shown his true face, totally unveiled.
Paul shows that he understood this miracle of love when writing to the Romans, he says: “But see how God manifested his love for us, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In the face of this gift, what is required of a person? One thing only: that they trust, abandon themselves into God’s arms—as does the bride with the groom—who hands herself to him in immense love and in the certainty of meeting life.
When we think of God, who became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, sometimes we mistake considering this fact as but one episode, a sad parenthesis of his existence. He came among us, remained a little more than 30 years, suffered and died on the cross, then returned to heaven, far away, happy to have regained his former state. That is not so. Our God took on our human nature and remained forever one of us. He has not pulled himself out of our world. He is and always remains the Emmanuel, the God-with-us (Mt 28:20).
One of the most balanced articles of the Jewish faith is about God who judges everyone’s deeds. The same Messiah was awaited, not as one who helps us to overcome sin but as the executor of divine judgment. This belief also shows itself in many texts of the New Testament: John the Baptist announces an impending judgment from which no one could escape (Mt 3:7-10); Paul preaches “a great punishment on the day of judgmentwhen God will appear as a just judge. He will give each one his due, according to his actions” (Romans 2:5-6); Jesus himself uses the image of the court at times: “I have never known you, away from me, you evil people” (Mt 7:23).
In the Gospel of John, neither the Father nor Jesus appear as judges who condemn, but only as saviors: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world; instead, through him, the world is to be saved” (v. 17). “For I have come, not to condemn the world, but to save the world” (Jn 12:47). They seem to be contradictory texts; in reality, while using a variety of language and images, they affirm the same truth: God’s judgment is always and only salvation. It is not a judgment pronounced at the end of life. It is the valuable assessment that the Lord puts today in front of every person so that their choices may be guided by true wisdom, not that of this world which leads to death, but that of Christ.
The third and final verse of today's passage is read from this perspective. In it, the responsibility of each person in front of God's love is highlighted. “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned. He who does not believe is already condemned” (v. 18). God does not pronounce the judgment at the end of time, but now. It is the person who, trusting in Christ and his word, chooses life. Refusing God’s plan of love, a person decrees his own condemnation.
Today we are called to welcome the joy that God offers, but we can also commit the folly of delaying or even refusing his embrace. He expects an immediate ‘yes’ from us because every moment spent in sin, in the rejection of his love, is a wasted opportunity. What is the criterion, the reference point specified by God, to gain a wise and correct judgment on the choices we should make in life? We find the answer in a group of texts that present Jesus as a judge in John's Gospel. “I ??came into the world to carry out a judgment” (Jn 9:39); “The Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (Jo 5:22). On his person, on his proposal of life and values, ??he preached that the Father would assess every person's existence, and He would decide on success or failure.
It does not state that in the end, he will forever refuse those who did wrong, who followed other criteria, other judgments. God does not cast out anyone; “he wants all to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). Paul presents the absurdity of this condemnation with a series of rhetorical questions: “If God is with us who shall be against us? Who shall accuse those chosen by God? He takes away the guilt. Who will dare to condemn them? Christ who died, and better still, rose and is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us?”(Rom 8:31-34). The conclusion is obvious: “No creature will ever separate us from the love of God which we have in Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
However, at the end of life, when God “will test the work of everyone” (1 Cor 3:13), the conformity or discrepancy of each person’s interaction with the person of Christ will appear clear. God then indeed welcomes all in his arms, though some will be forced to admit to having managed poorly and hopelessly wasted the unique opportunity that was offered to them. The work of this person—warns Paul—“will become ashes; although he will be saved, but it will be as if passing through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).
READ: The Gospel proclaims the inexhaustible depths of God’s love that gives away the Son to redeem humanity.
REFLECT: Being a communion of love, God gives us the fullness of Himself and His Love. So, like the Trinity, we are all called to be in communion in Love as well.
PRAY: Communion and solidarity are what we need in this globalized but greatly divided world. We pray for the unity of all the children of God. We also pray for the daily gift of grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinitarian God in our life.
ACT: How can we be agents of unity? It is when we build bridges, not walls, in our communities.