“No man hath ascended to heaven except he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man…” In saying this, our Lord builds upon the conversation with Nicodemos about the necessity of being born again, which had just occurred. Nicodemos had called Christ “Good Master” and the Lord had reminded him that no one is good except God – thereby pointing to His own divinity. Here in this statement, the Lord again emphasizes His own divinity by pointing out the unique circumstance of His incarnation. Unlike men who were born of human parents, Jesus reminds us that He has entered this world by descending from heaven being begotten not of a human father, but being the Only Begotten Son of God, sharing the same essence of His Father. He has taken flesh and become man by drawing His human nature and body from the Virgin thus claiming as well the title “Son of Man”. Clearly here He proclaims the whole mystery of His incarnation.
This claim however was not made simply to prove His divine/human origin, but He then goes on to teach us the purpose of His incarnation for he puts everything in the context of “ascending” to heaven. Christ has descended from Heaven, joining Himself to our humanity and taking on flesh, in order that by being joined to Him we might ascend with Him to heaven. This, by the way, is the reason that our Lord did not proceed directly to heaven after defeating death, but He rose again from the dead and ascended bodily to heaven. In this manner, He glorifies our human flesh and nature and opens the path for those of us who are also part of His Body, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, to ascend with Him into heaven. If only the One who descended from Heaven ascends again to Heaven, then our only hope to ascend to heaven is to join ourselves to Him and to become one with Him.
Having pointed out to us the necessity of being joined to Himself, our Lord then proceeds to tell us how this might be accomplished saying, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is a clear allusion to the crucifixion and the necessity of entering into death in order that death might be destroyed. If we would overcome death, we must enter into it, not alone, but with Christ who voluntarily laid down His life for us and by His death did destroy death. At the command of God, Moses placed a brass serpent on a pole in the midst of the camp of the Hebrews in order to provide a cure for the deadly bite of the plague of serpents. Now we who live in the “camp” of this world and who are surrounded by the serpents of sin whose bite leads to death are called to look upon Jesus Christ Who was Himself raised up on the Cross. He is the One Who offers us deliverance from death if only we rely wholly and completely upon Him. Last week we remembered the necessity to deny ourselves – here now we see the necessity to “take up your cross”, that is to enter into His crucifixion and die to the world.
Beginning with His own incarnation, our Lord has proclaimed to us first the necessity of being united to Himself in order for us to ascend into Heaven. He has also showed us the means by which we are joined to Him – by participating also in His crucifixion. This speaks to us of the sacrament of baptism in which we are buried with Him the tomb of the water and then are raised from the water of baptism, being born again and having new life which is drawn from Him rather than from earthly parents. This is the first of the sacraments and opens the door to participation in all the sacraments which are the avenues by which we touch God and He touches us as He pours out His deifying grace upon us.
Now our Lord tells us why He has done this and we hear one of the most oft quoted statements of our Lord across all Christian confessions: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes upon Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life is of course the life in union and communion with God for He alone is eternal and so if we wish to overcome death and partake in eternal life, we will look to Christ and seek to be united to Him. This is the great act of God and the whole reason for His incarnation. “God became man that man might become god” – so says St Athanasius speaking of the incarnation. And indeed this is exactly what our Lord has just taught us in the Gospel. He loves us and desires that no man should perish. To that end He descended into His own creation and taking our humanity upon Himself He destroys the barriers, that is sin, death and the devil, and opens the doors to heaven that by partaking of His divinity we might ascend with Him to heaven. The reason for all of this is His own great and unbounded love for us.
In order to sum all this up and to remind us again of the purpose of this great mystery, He says finally that , “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but that through Him the world might be saved.” Here again is the great truth that He descended from heaven, took on our flesh and human nature from the Virgin. Being born of her into the world, He took upon Himself the whole of our life, from beginning to end, in order that He might deify it, He provides the means by which we might be saved and participate in His divine and eternal life. When we are crucified with Him and buried with Him through the sacrament of Holy Baptism we are able to henceforth partake of His deifying grace through the sacramental life of the Church. This grace then is incorporated into us as we follow Him, living according to the way that He has shown us, surrendering our own lives and taking on His instead.
God loves us and indeed because He loves us has descended Himself and taken on our flesh. By sharing in our life, even to the point of our death, He has opened the way that we might ascend with Him to heaven and participate in His divine life. God has indeed loved us greatly – now all that remains is for us to love Him and to leave behind our own life and take on the life that He offers for this life is eternal – it is His life. Truly He has taken on our life in order that He deify it and join us to Himself offering to us His own life. He has descended to us in order that being joined to Him we might ascend with Him and live in eternity in union and communion with Him.