We have been looking at a series of letters written by Henri Nouwen to his nephew, Marc, discussing his Christian faith. In the first letter, Nouwen talks about how Jesus is the very heart of his existence. In the second, he talks about how Jesus is the God who sets him free. In the third, Nouwen's focus is on the compassion of Jesus. Today, we begin our reading of his fourth letter to Marc, in which he examines the significance of Jesus "descending" to be with us. If you happened to miss any of the previous devotionals, they can be found in the previous posts on Facebook and are also available under the Pastor's Desk tab on our church website (irvingtonumc.org
Letter 4: Jesus: The Descending God (Pt. 1)
The fourth letter opens with Nouwen telling his nephew of his recent return from France where, with other priests, he was invited to celebrate the Eucharist (Holy Communion) in the cathedral at Strasbourg. He speaks of the impact on him of the enormous cathedral, the high altar, and the rose window. Then he gets to the heart of this letter: his desire to share with Marc the love of God made visible through the life of Jesus.
"I said at the beginning of this letter that I wanted to write to you about the love of God become visible in Jesus. How is that love made visible through Jesus? It is made visible in the descending way. That is the great mystery of the Incarnation. God has descended to us human beings to become a human being with us; and once among us, he descended to the total dereliction of one condemned to death. It isn't easy really to fell and understand from the inside this descending way of Jesus. Every fiber of our being rebels against it. We don't mind paying attention to poor people from time to time, but descending to a state of poverty and becoming poor with the poor - that we don't want to do. And yet that is the way that Jesus chose as the way to know God.
The Apostle Paul writes (in Philippians): 'Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.' Here is the way of God's love .. The descending way of Jesus is the way to a new fellowship in which we human beings can reach new life and celebrate it happily together.
How is it possible for the descending way of Jesus to give rise to a new kind of community, grounded in love? .. As you know, I have noticed one thing in particular living in the Netherlands and that is that increasing prosperity has not made people more friendly toward one another. They're better off, but that new-found wealth has not resulted in a new sense of community. People are more preoccupied with themselves .. there's more competitiveness, more envy, more unrest, and more uncertainty. Success has isolated people and made them feel lonely .. And the question that lies hidden most deeply in many hearts is the question of love. Who really cares about me? Where do I really feel secure and cherished? .. When I was in Bolivia and Peru, I got to know a fair number of poor people .. their houses were dark and damp, their food inadequate, good clothes too expensive, work not to be found. And yet, it was there that I learned what joy and thankfulness are. There I learned to laugh, how to be sociable and to have a really good time, and I learned something new about love.
In the gospel, it's quite obvious that Jesus chose the descending way. He chose it not once but over and over again. At each critical moment he deliberately sought the way downwards .. Again and again you see Jesus opts for what is small, hidden, and poor, and accordingly declines to wield influence. His many miracles always serve to express his profound compassion with suffering humanity; never are they attempts to call attention to himself. Often he even forbids those he has cured to talk to others about it .. In the four accounts of Jesus' life and death you can see clearly that the more conscious he becomes of the mission entrusted to him by God, the more he realizes the mission will make him poorer and poorer .. On the cross, when Jesus cries out to God, only then do we realize how far God has gone to show us his love."
As you begin writing letter #4, what would you say about God's descending love? How would you put into words what it means that God chose to become human - to be born, to grow up from childhood to adulthood, to give up all worldly wealth and live a simple lifestyle when he could have had it all, and then to die on a cross as people laughed and jeered at him? After writing those thoughts, what does this mean, if anything, about how we are to live our lives? Next week we will look at Nouwen's final thoughts on Jesus as God's descending love and finish our fourth letter.
Have a great week and God bless!