Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 77 (78); Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
With just one exception, whenever the Bible refers to an only child, it is in reference to the child’s death. (The exception is Proverbs 4.3). In the Book of Judges, for example, we read of Jephthah, a judge, who made a foolish vow. If the Lord helped him in a particular campaign, he would sacrifice the first living thing he met on his return home. To his dismay, this turned out to be his daughter who was his only child (Judges 11.34).
The prophets speak of the particular sadness involved in mourning for an only child (Jeremiah 6.26 and Amos 8.10). Zechariah in particular speaks of a time when a spirit of supplication will be poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem and a fountain will be opened to cleanse them. When they ‘look on the one whom they have pierced’, he says, ‘they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps for a firstborn’ (Zechariah 12.10; 13.1).
This sense of special sadness continues in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of Luke who notes that three of the children restored to life by Jesus were the only children of their parents: the widow’s son at Nain (chapter 7), the daughter of Jairus (chapter 8), and the teacher’s son (chapter 9).
The most important of the only children of the Old Testament is Isaac. He was the child miraculously given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. The promises made to Abraham, through him to the Hebrews, and through them to the whole world, rested on Isaac. Bizarrely, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). He is to take Isaac, ‘your son, your only son, whom you love’ and offer him as a burnt offering to God. Isaac himself carries the wood for the sacrifice though he is unaware of who the victim is to be. At the last moment God intervenes, satisfied that Abraham has passed the test, and a ram is offered in place of the boy.
The Jewish people believed that the promised Messiah would be raised up by God as a reward for the faith Abraham showed on that occasion. This is what Saint Paul is thinking of when he says that ‘God did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 8.32). He spared the son of Abraham but he did not spare his own son.
The most important references to an only son in the Christian scriptures are those passages in the writings of John where Jesus is described as the only son of the Father. Keeping the story of Abraham and Isaac in mind helps us to understand what is happening between the Father and Jesus.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son, we are told, so that everyone who believes in his name may be saved through him (John 3.16-18). The first letter of John famously declares that ‘God is love’. We know this because ‘God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him’ (1 John 4.9). The promises first made to Abraham are fulfilled in ways beyond anything old father Abraham could have imagined. Just as Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice, so Jesus takes the cross upon his shoulders (John 19.17).
The prophecy of Zechariah is fulfilled in the moment of Christ’s death. His side is pierced with a spear. The inhabitants of Jerusalem look on the one whom they have pierced (John 19.37). The fountain opened in the heart of Jerusalem is the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ. John tells us that the glory of Jesus is the glory ‘of a father’s only son’ (John 1.14). This means death, the death of a beloved child, in all likelihood a sacrificial death.
It seems strange that we must look to the cross of Jesus to see his divinity. What glory is there in this man dying without beauty, ‘from whom others hide their faces’ (Isaiah 53.3)? We think we know what God is, what is appropriate for God and what is not. So we transfer the ‘glory’ to some other moment in the story. We cannot see it in the cross. But no one has ever seen God, John tells us, so how can we be so sure of what is or is not fitting for God? ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1.18).
It is in the death of Jesus that God is revealed because it is in his death that the love which God is, the love of a Father and his only Son, is finally revealed to the world.
You will find here another homily for today's feast.