Our Lord turns a very significant phrase at the end of this morning's Gospel. At first, it might sound like a grammatical error, but let me assure you that it is not. He says, "Before Abraham came to be, I am."
We can be sure that it is not a grammatical error by the reaction of the Jews to this statement: They tried to stone him to death! Now, if our Lord had said something like «Before Abraham came to be, I was,» the Jews would simply have dismissed Him as someone who was exaggerating, or at worst as a liar -- in neither case would they have picked up stones to throw at Him.
The reason they became so violent was that our Lord's phrase was, to the Jewish mind, a fairly explicit claim that He was God, or at least someone equal to God. Such a claim -- which they presumed to be a false claim -- was the worst sort of blasphemy; a crime that warranted the death penalty under God's laws.
While the Jews didn't know God's name, or at least feared to pronounce it, they did know this essential attribute. God is the eternal unchanging One to whom all time -- past, present, and future -- is one great moment. God was the One who never spoke of Himself with words like «I was» or «I will be» but only as "I am." Even when Moses asked Him quite directly what His name was, He identified Himself only as "I Am Who Am."1
Thus, the Jewish people, and the Christians who followed after them came to understand God as the ground of all existence. That everything that exists comes from Him, yet He came from nowhere; always existing, and the first cause and prime mover of all existing things.
They also realized that such timeless existence implies that God is perfect and unchanging. He is perfect because there is no possibility of adding anything more to His existence. He never changes because change would imply either acquiring something that He lacked or giving up some of His existence. St. James describes Him as "the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration."2
It is not surprising, therefore, that God's law is as unchangeable as He is Himself. He is as offended today by idolatry, or adultery, or murder, or whatever, as He was ten thousand years ago, or will be ten thousand years from now. For, again, all of these things take place within the unchanging eternal moment of "I am."
Likewise, it is not surprising that the Modernists who would like to change the Catholic Faith are unhappy with phrases like "I Am Who Am." The Jerusalem Bible, for example, translates it as "I am who I am," sounding like God was telling Moses to mind his own business.
The Modernists would also have us believe that the sacred scriptures are nothing more than the "shared feelings" of the Jewish people and the early Christians. They deny that the God Who Is ever actually revealed Himself to mankind in an overt way -- and they claim that God's truth changes as these "shared feelings" about Him change over the centuries.
So in Modernism we see the absurd notion of creatures defining their Creator; of personal feelings defining truth; and of emotional opinion defining morality. Many of the problems in today's world stem precisely from the misguided concept that committees and congresses and commissions can rearrange the eternal and everlasting standards of God's truth and morality to fit the convenience of the current moment.
But as Catholics we have the privilege of knowing that "Christ appeared as the high priest of the good things to come."3 We know that the God of all existence, the "I Am Who Am" has entered human history and has made His perfect self and His unchanging truth known to us.
For we are not perfect. We rejoice, therefore, that He who is perfect determined from all eternity to free us from our imperfections. We rejoice that even though Abraham is dead and the Prophets are dead, our God always Is -- and we have been called to receive an eternal inheritance in Christ Jesus our Lord.