In the Gospel it is 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 downward. Even though he was without sin, Jesus began his public life by joining the ranks of sinners who were being baptized by John in the Jordan. If you were especially gifted, don’t you think you would have said to John, “I’m going to bypass this little arrangement. It’s all right for these other characters but, you know, I’ve got hold of this”? But Jesus said, “I want to join the others in this rite of baptism.” And even though he was full of divine power, he believed that changing stones into bread, seeking popularity, and being counted among the great ones of the earth were temptations. Again and again he opted for what is small and hidden and poor, and declined to wield influence.
In all this it becomes plain to us that God has willed to show love for the world by descending more and more deeply into human frailty. The more conscious Jesus becomes of the mission entrusted to him, the more he realizes that mission will make him poorer and poorer.
God is the descending God. The movement is down, down, down, until it finds the sickest, the most afflicted, the most helpless, the most alienated, the most cut off… Being with the least is difficult enough, but even more difficult is that other step of becoming the least of the least. Our trouble is that we live in a debilitating dichotomy. We listen to this “weakness” stuff, this “servant” stuff, but we just do not believe that the way to God, the way to fulfilment, is the downward way, the way of descent.
We spend our best thinking and energies on the upward way and are distressed if we slip a bit and are not recognized or appreciated. And if sometimes through God’s help we manage a miracle, we hope the recipient will tell everybody. We do not tell the person not to tell. We want our reputation to be enhanced, we want to be known as the one who can perform miracles in Christ’s name.
We do not say that Jesus lived a great life but ended that life poorly. The crowning event of his life was the death that he died, the poverty, the leastness of those final hours. The death is the glory… This expression of total poverty—the dying on the cross—was the total descent and thus the height of the glory. This life, when it reaches the depths, as it reached those depths in Jesus, explodes into infinite newness. The only man ever resurrected was the one who hit the bottom and knew total poverty. He was the one who was resurrected, no one else. And so we have a new injection into the life stream of humanity—a totally new enhancement of the common good.
The ascending way never explodes into newness. We hold on to certain names, remember and sometimes envy their accomplishments and write much of our history around those names. We don’t write history about the poor, the real people… Suppose the only God that exists is the descending God. Suppose the only way to be reconciled to God is to be reconciled with the least, who are at the bottom. If God is going down and we are going up, it is obvious that we are going in different directions. And we will not know him. We will be evading God and missing the whole purpose of our existence.
This is so clearly what God has been showing me lately. The way to life is through the Cross, through that leastness. All of me hungers for that: for littleness, for hiddenness—not for any reasons of perversity, inverted ambition, still less denial or avoidance, but simply because I hunger for God. I hunger for him more than I’ve hungered for anything, and that is where he is—in the little ones, the hidden places, the unsung, the unheard-of, the unwanted.
Honestly, what I have been coming to see is all wrapped up in this. All the stuff we learn to need, to hope for, plan for—fame, popularity, prosperity, satisfaction—are all temptations. So often we misunderstand the idea of temptations. We think of them as delightful, “tempting” naughtinesses, sweet indulgences that we are denied by some austere regulations, but that would be simply yummy once we cast off those shackles and dived right in. But that’s not what temptations are. Temptations are things that lead us away from God, “going up in the world” as they used to say approvingly when I was a kid, away from the littleness, the poverty, the emptiness.
If Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2.7) then how else are we to follow him who said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” (John 12.26)