The Glory of God: A Christian Understanding

by Michael Potemra

It has been reported that Marc Cardinal Ouellet was one of the top three vote-getters on the first ballot in last March’s papal election. He is by any definition a significant figure in global Catholicism, and he is young enough, at 69, that his ascent to the top job in the future cannot be ruled out. The following is from his new book, The Relevance and Future of the Second Vatican Council, just published by Ignatius Press (it’s a translation of a French original published last year):

When we look at Christ’s self-annihilation, we see the crucifix, and we think: This took place during the time of the Incarnation, and then everything went back to normal; he is risen; so the kenosis [self-emptying of Christ] is finished. Well, that is not the way it must be seen: The Resurrection is the glorification of the kenosis! The Resurrection is the demonstration that the movement of descent, of abasement, of self-annihilation for the other is God’s way of being; it is his glory. His glory is to be absolute love, absolute self-gift. It is his glory to make us enter into that movement of gift because we are in his image.

This is not a novel or an unorthodox insight, but I have rarely seen it expressed so bluntly. It is at the heart of the Christian mystery that a God who was omnipotent, and therefore entirely capable of creating a perfect and perduringly impeccable universe, chose instead to 1) create a world that would break down and need redemption and 2) act, himself, to provide that redemption. The famous “Exsultet” hymn proclaims that Adam’s sin was a felix culpa (“happy fault”) because it “earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer”; Cardinal Ouellet is indicating that acting as a Redeemer, self-sacrificing, is of the very nature of God.

This sense of the bringing of brokenness into the heart of God is challenging. Revelation 21:4 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, as it for very many people — and for good reason: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” If I understand Cardinal Ouellet correctly, the “former things” do not simply “pass away” into pure nonexistence, as a bad dream might; they pass away, instead, in the sense that they are transformed by the self-donating God: The “descent,” “abasement,” “self-annihilation” of God makes the terrible circumstances (the “former things,” the situation of the felix culpa) of that descent holy and beautiful — which is to say, redeemed.

Man, whether he be atheist or Hindu or Christian or what have you, has an innate religious sense, a desire to worship the being we conventionally call God. Man also is uncomfortably aware of the fundamental wrongness that exists in what is still a stunningly beautiful universe, and wants it to be cured. The God described by Cardinal Ouellet is a provocative answer to these two basic human desires.