“We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you / because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”
We have just heard the Passion of our Lord according to John. The opening scene is set in the Garden on the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane. Here Jesus is arrested. The Temple gendarmerie, tipped off by Judas, are sent by their bosses to take him. Unlike Adam who hides from God among the trees, Jesus steps forth to meet his adversaries. He takes the initiative. “Who are you looking for?” It’s an almost exact repeat of his first words in the Gospel: “What are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth”, they reply. And Jesus says, “I am he.” In the Greek, it’s just two words. “I am”. And those two words come three times in four verses: twice from the lips of Jesus and once repeated by the evangelist. This is huge. This is St John giving us the key to the rest of his story. This is the door into the Passion, into Easter.
Why do I say this? What is going on? Let’s explore. At a first level, Jesus is simply self-identifying. “Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth”. “That’s me”. That would be banal, but it is there. Judas is standing there, but Judas doesn’t say, “That’s him.” Jesus speaks. Jesus owns up to being who he is, even though it will cost him his life. A little further on, Peter three times says he is not the Peter who used to go around with Jesus. Twice he says the very opposite of what Jesus says; he says, “I am not”. He lies. He denies Jesus, denies himself. Jesus, by contrast, says “I am”. He speaks truth. He takes responsibility. He assumes agency. He shows his integrity, his courage. There’s something for us to ponder.
But there’s far more here, of course. At the very beginning of Israel’s exodus from Egyptian oppression, from a burning bush the Lord reveals his holy name to Moses. He says “I am who I am” or “I am he who is” (Ex 3:14). Jesus is echoing this. And when he does so – it’s almost comical – the squaddies sent to arrest him fall backwards like a pack of cards and end on the ground. Well they might! Jesus indeed, throughout the Gospel of John, has been echoing, appropriating the divine name. Often with a predicate, “I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life”, but sometimes, more momentously, by itself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). Or again, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he / I am” (Jn 8:28). And now in the garden, among the trees and bushes, preparing the new creation and the new exodus, we hear three times “I am”. In Jesus’ time, such reverence did the Jews have for the Holy Name, that only one person once a year, could pronounce it, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur: the High Priest. In the chapter before (ch. 17), Jesus has just prayed what we call the high-priestly prayer. How much is happening in this garden! A new creation beginning, a new exodus underway, a new High Priest coming forth to offer the sacrifice of the true atonement. Jesus is all of these things. He’s fulfilling all the types and figures of the past. But all because he is “I am”. He is the Son of the Father, God from God. And we are about to see his glory.
And so we say, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” So in a moment we venerate / reverence a crucifix, but through and beyond we adore the crucified. “One of the Trinity has been crucified”, says an ancient Council.
And this is huge. This triple “I am” is huge. It is the God-man who is going to die and rise for us. So, what happens in the death and resurrection of Christ – the Easter thing – the central focus of our faith and our hope – the mystery re-enacted in every Eucharist – divine love exposed – goes beyond anything else. Easter goes beyond all the goodness of the world, beyond all the evil that’s forever wracking and wrecking it. This is something tenderer than any tenderness and stronger than any strength, something completely human and wholly divine, all for me, all for everyone. Easter does something that no-one and nothing else does or can do. In the language of St John, it “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). It “advocates” for us (1 Jn 2:1). It “expiates” for us (1 Jn 2:2). It “undoes the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). It “overcomes the world” (1 Jn 5:4). It “consecrates” us “in truth” (Jn 17: 19). It “gathers into one the scattered children of God (Jn 11:52) and “draws all things to” itself (Jn 12:32). It reveals the glory of the Father and the Son (cf. Jn 17:1). It brings the Father’s love for the Son into us, and him into us (cf. Jn 17:26).
“Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth”. “I am”. Three times, “I am”.
2020 was a wretched year. Going back, 1940 was too. In 1940, in the niche world of early Christian scholarship, an ancient Easter homily was quietly published. It’s the earliest we know of. It dates from a century more or less after the Gospel of John. It’s from the pen of a bishop, Melito of Sardis. At the end he just lets Jesus do the talking: “I am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ…I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand” (Peri Pascha, 102-103).
“Who are you looking for?” “I am.” May he, may all this, be real to us!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 2 April 2021)