1 John 4:7-10; Mark 6:34-44
The unbelievable, incomprehensible gift of the Incarnation is simply too big to celebrate as a single feast. So Christmas merges into Epiphany and both spread out into the days around them. Epiphany is actually the oldest of the Christmas celebrations – giving us, in stories and in theologizing, some hints of what this gift is all about – helping us get our heads around something really too big to grasp. In the readings around Epiphany we see a Jesus whose identity as God’s Son is revealed at His baptism, a Jesus who works wonders like multiplying bread, healing lepers, and walking on water. But perhaps most directly we hear today in 1 John who/what God actually is – love.
The Greek word we translate as “love” really means something else. It would be better translated as “self-giving”. Doing so gives us fresh insight into this familiar passage. Listen anew to the author of 1 John: “My friends, let us give ourselves to one another . . . whoever fails to do this does not know God, because God is pure self-giving. The ‘epiphany’ of God’s self-giving, is shown in that God sent His only Son into the world.”
Jesus, beyond wonderworker, beyond teacher, is God’s own self, the ultimate manifestation of God’s self-giving.
Tomorrow’s first reading follows immediately from today’s, and, taking the next logical step, gives us explicitly the true reason for Christian behavior – the ultimate basis for Christian ethics – “. . . if God gave Himself for us, then we should give ourselves for one another . . .” St. Paul makes the same point at greater length in his letter to the Romans. Indeed, with the light provided by today’s passage from 1 John, we see that the whole of the New Testament says this in one way or the other. But 1 John says it most simply and most clearly; “God is self-giving.”
Subsequent generations of theologians have developed whole systems of moral theology, but they all boil down to this. Christian ethics is simply a response ethics. No set of rules, however reasonable, can either capture or limit that response. God’s self-giving is too wonderful to grasp, but most certainly too wonderful to ignore. Having been given Jesus, the only possible response has to be to give ourselves. It does not seem like much in comparison. But it is all we have to give. We have to give it all.
By Robert Heaney