When God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush and told him that he must go to the Egyptian pharaoh and tell him to let the Hebrews go, Moses asked him his name. “Who shall I tell him is sending me?” God replied. “I am who am. Tell him that ‘I am’ sent you.” This “I am who am” is God’s way of indicating to Moses that he is the Supreme Being— the one who exists of himself and from whom all other existence flows. You and I exist because we have received existence from someone else. God is the ultimate being from whom all other existence comes. That’s what “Supreme Being” means.
In the gospel according to Saint John, Jesus makes the surprising statement that Abraham, who lived 1800 years before him, saw his day and was glad. So his hearers exclaim: “What? You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham, and Abraham has seen you?” To which Jesus replies, “Before Abraham came to be, I AM.” This is the most powerful of all the “I am” statements of Jesus as given to us in the gospel according to Saint John. Jesus is claiming here quite clearly that he is God. Not the Father, but God nonetheless.
To help us understand this concept of the eternity of God so that Jesus can say “Before Abraham came to be, I am” let’s remember that one of the symbols of God is the circle. A circle is a line that has no beginning and no end. Let’s think of this earth on which we live. We here in the United States look up and see the sky—sun, moon, stars. The people who live directly opposite us—I think in India or some part of Asia—also look up from their homes and see the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. The sky surrounds this earth of ours and every person on earth can look up and see it. God surrounds history, so that every person who ever lived or will ever live can look up and see God. He was present to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Saint Dominic, and now to us.
As God, Jesus is eternal with no beginning and no end. That’s what he means when he says “Before Abraham came to be (1800 years before that), I am.” As man, Jesus is IN time and space. He was born as a man about 2000 years ago; he was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, spent his public life on the shore of the lake of Galilee, died and rose in Jerusalem. Therefore, as God, Jesus is eternal and outside of time and space. But as man, Jesus is subject to time and space. If he wanted a drink of water, he had to lower a bucket into a well and get it. If he wanted to cook fish for his apostles as he did, he had to make a fire, and then wait until the fish was cooked on it either by frying in a pan or roasting over an open flame.
You and I live in time. And Jesus comes to meet us in this time of ours. He meets us in the scriptures, in the Church, especially in the Holy Eucharist, in other people. When we deal with him, we can be as close and as intimate as any two friends ever were, and yet we are relating to the eternal, all-powerful God. This is what the apostles had to learn. And when they learned who Jesus is, then they gladly spoke of him in their preaching, and as gladly laid down their lives in martyrdom rather than retract what they said or stop preaching about this Jesus who IS before the past existed and before the future comes into being. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.