Friday, April 27, 2012

Job Transfigured

"I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee" (Job 42: 5).

Some of my readers may not know that I am a armchair bible scholar.  I've read much of the bible in its original languages.  I audit graduate courses in bible and theology for the fun of it.  What a nerd!

One of my nerdy ways is that I enjoy reading translations of the bible that footnote critical problems with the text.  My Hebrew teacher told our class once--and I have found it to be quite true in my own experience--that if the underlying Greek or Hebrew is clear, then the translations will usually be clear; however, if the English translation makes no sense, it is probably because the original makes no sense.  A good critical translation, like the Revised Standard Version* (The New Oxford Annotated Bible), will let you know when the original text is "uncertain" and what the options are and where they come from.

When I read Job again this Lent, I read it in the RSV.  The notes were useful in a nerdy sort of way--just the way I like it.  I don't look for insight in the notes.  I'm just looking for the facts about the underlying text.  

I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I was reading the comment on Job 42: 5.  The commentator points out that God's appearance to Job in the whirlwind neither justifies Job nor answers any of Job's questions: "God has not justified Job, but [H]e has come to him personally.... and intimacy with the Creator makes vindication superfluous."  

Yes! Right and wrong, good and bad, correct and incorrect--all of these categories we fight and attack and strive to be on the right side of--all of these become superfluous in the personal presence of the Creator.

Lest anyone think I am a libertine, I must hasten to say with the Apostle Paul that the commandments of God are "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12).  I am not saying that morality is irrelevant.  Nevertheless, I do say that the commandments exist not so that we can be righteous in keeping them, but that in keeping them we may learn that we are not righteous and thus be led to depend on the righteousness of Christ.  And in depending on Christ, we come to know Him.  And in knowing Him, being right no longer matters.

When God comes to Job at the end of his trial, it is not to clear things up.  "The philosophical problem is not solved" the commentator says in the notes, "but it is transfigured by the theological reality of the divine-human rapport."  God comes to establish rapport--literally, to bring Job back to Himself thus bringing Job to himself.  

On one point, however, I want to disagree with this commentator.  Perhaps it is not so much the philosophical problem that is transfigured, as it is Job himself who is transfigured.  Philosophical problems are generally just that: problems, quandaries, puzzles with missing pieces and thus with no lasting solution.  Although philosophical problems, in my opinion, cannot be transfigured, they do often play a role in leading us to cry out to the One who transfigures us.  And this, I think, is what happens to Job.  Job cannot understand why his experience does not reflect his understanding of God and how God works.  

Job's suffering, and I would argue most deep suffering, has little to do with physical pain and the loss of loved ones, wealth and social status.  Job's suffering has mostly to do with the loss of his theology:  Job's experience was proving to him that God was not who Job thought He was and God's ways were not what he thought they were.  This personal theodicy, personal philosophical problem, personal failure of theology is what fuels Job's crying out to God.  Sure, Job's cry is full of anger and presumption and even a certain amount of defiance.  We can only bring to God what we are; and we are often angry, presumptuous, and defiant creatures.

But just as a mother hears the cry of her baby and is drawn to her, so God hears Job's cry and our cry and comes.  God comes in ways we do not expect: sometimes in a whirlwind; sometimes as a still, small voice; sometimes through a friend (joy, healing and prosperity); sometimes through an enemy (sickness, death and loss).  God comes and we are transfigured.  God comes, not to confirm our theology.  God comes to create rapport, to bring us back to Him and back to ourselves.

*While I recommend the Revised Standard Version (1971) I do not recommend the New Revised Standard Version.  The NRSV has tried to use gender inclusive language creating a monstrosity.  I am all for inclusiveness in the interpretation of the bible.  I even encourage some careful use of inclusive language in liturgical texts--including the bible when it is used liturgically.  However, a translation of the bible as the bible, in my opinion, should be as accurate as possible without whitewashing offensive words, actions, biases or practices.  The bible certainly needs to be interpreted, interpreted by the Church and its Tradition.  However it is a dangerous thing to start intentionally correcting the biblical text to suit the political or theological taste of a particular culture or generation.  Certainly all translations have a bias, but intentional correction is to me onerous because it assumes a kind of arrogance in the face of much profound mystery.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Conspiracy Theories

“Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’
Concerning all that this people call a conspiracy,
Nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled."

(Isaiah 8: 12 NKJV)

When I was with my daughter and son-in-law last week, Terry (my son-in-law) showed me a video of Dr. Judy Wood's analysis of what happened to the Trade Tower buildings on 9/11.  I can't find the exact video we watched, but here is one of many on youtube that feature her: .

I must admit, of all of the conspiracy theories I have heard, hers is the most compelling.  

However, the question I asked Terry, and the question that I think we must always be asking ourselves is, "What difference does it make in your life and in your relationship with God?"  

Pick just about any conspiracy theory and for a moment assume it is true.  Then ask yourself, "What difference does it make?"  You still get up in the morning and say your prayers. We still "commend ourselves, each other, and our whole lives to Christ our God," to quote the Divine Liturgy of the Church.  We still love our neighbor, care for the poor and weak, and entrust ourselves to God who "gives us this day our daily bread."  What difference does it really make?

Isaiah, quoted above, goes on to say that we need to sanctify the Lord and fear Him; then He will be our sanctuary and a "stone of stumbling" and "rock of offence" to those who resist Him (Israel and Jerusalem in Isaiah's case). 

The same God whom we trust day to day is the God who will help us even if Israel has a secret super weapon or the U.S. government has secret, silent, invisible helicopters or even if space invaders colonize the earth--although I think disasters listed in the prayer by St. Basil in the fourth century are still much more likely: "Deliver this community and city, O Lord, and every city and town, from famine, plague, earthquake, flood, fire, sword, foreign invasion, and civil war."  That pretty well sums up all the usual suspects.  And if God will deliver us from these, probably super weapons and space aliens are included in the package.
Seriously, the emotional and mental investment one can make in this or that conspiracy theory is just not worth it. And in the end, you find yourself fearing something other than God.  "Him alone you shall fear," the scripture frequently reminds us.
My favourite defence when I am tempted to get caught up in an intriguing conspiracy theory is to recite Psalm 130 (131): "O Lord, my heart is not exalted, neither are my eyes raised up; neither am I carried along in great things, nor in things too marvellous for me..." (SAAS, Orthodox Study Bible).  But I remember it most often in the old King James, the version I was reading when I first encountered this wise and humble prayer of David: "Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.  Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.  Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for ever."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Did Christ Descend Into Hell?

This morning I responded to an e-mail that asked about Christ's descent into hell.  D. wrote me that his non-Orthodox friends thought it made no sense that Christ would enter hell.  Below is what I wrote D.

Dear D.,
Christ is risen!
The huge problem here is in defining hell.  In the scripture and throughout church history, the English word hell has been used to translate and describe all sorts of things.  As you probably know, there are at least four different biblical words/concepts that are translated commonly as hell.  

(Hebrew) the abyss/sheol/grave/pit/etc. All of these refer to the condition of being dead (both for the righteous and unrighteous)--with no hint of afterlife. "The dead cannot praise Thee" (Psalm 115: 17, et. al.).

(Greek 1) hades/hell  Which in Greek thinking is the place of the dead (both for the righteous and unrighteous)--with a clear sense of afterlife: hell is where the dead dwell.

(Greek 2) Tatarus/deepest hell  Which in Greek thinking is the place of the most notoriously unrighteous dead. St. Peter uses it to refer to where the demons are bound. It is a region of hell.

(Greek 3 used only in N.T. by Jesus)  Gehenna/fire/torment.  Gehenna was the name of the dump outside Jerusalem: where the fire always burns and the worm never dies. It is used as a reference to being in torment.

Then, if this were not complicated enough, there are the apocalyptic descriptions such as lake of fire, river of fire, and the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  As apocalyptic pictures, they are not meant to be taken literally (do we take the four horsemen literally?). Nevertheless, people often use these images to describe "hell"--or use the word hell to refer to these images.

Adding to this are the many Medieval visions (often influenced by European mythologies and Scholastic speculation) of hell.  Examples are Dante's inferno in the Roman Catholic West and the toll houses in the Orthodox East. 

Finally, as materialists--or at least living in a materialist culture--we tend to think of hell and heaven as "places" other than where we are. Heaven and hell in contemporary culture are "places" people "go" when they die. These places are two: heaven were the good go and are happy and maybe rewarded for being good and/or accepting Christ (Armenian), or just being lucky and chosen (Calvin); and hell is where the bad go and suffer and are punished for all the evil things they have done.

So you can see why, for a contemporary non-Orthodox Christian, it makes no sense for Jesus to descend into hell--"Why would he go there? That's where the bad go to suffer what they deserve."

However, in the Orthodox Church and in the early church and the scripture, hell was understood as the condition of being dead, or as the dwelling of the dead, synonymous with "the tomb."  Therefore, in as much as Christ really died, he really entered hell and raised all mankind--which will be manifested in the general resurrection on the Last Day.

As far as suffering and torment are concerned, these are conditions which have nothing to do with a place one goes after he or she dies, but everything to do with an inner disposition of the soul. Just as one need not die before beginning to experience eternal life, so one need not die to begin experiencing eternal torment. Death only brings the experience that we have begun in this life into the next life, which is not a place so much as it is a new condition of existence.

So, D., the problem here is semantic. What is hell?  If hell is the place where bad people go to suffer the punishment they deserve, then certainly it makes no sense for Christ to go there. But such a hell does not exist as far as Orthodox Christians are concerned. Hell for us is the "dwelling" of the dead; so in as much as Christ really died, Christ really entered hell. And, in as much as Christ rose from the dead, all who die and have died are raised: "Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation" (John 5: 28, 29).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who Crucified Christ?

The hymns for Holy Friday force us to look at the insanity of those who crucified Christ.  Sometimes the reflection is put into Christ's mouth (as below), or sometimes in the mouth of His Mother.  

When You were led to the Cross, O Lord, You said, "For what act do you wish, O people, to crucify me?  Is it because I have strengthened your cripples?  Is it because I raised your dead as from sleep, healed the woman with an issue of blood, and showed mercy on the Canaanite woman?  For what act, O people, do you desire my death?" But you shall behold Him whom you have pierced, O law-transgressors, and know that He is Christ. 

Some translations name "the people" as "the Jews," or "the Judeans," which has a certain historical accuracy about it, a specificity that I usually encourage.  Religious experience is generally too mental.  Emphasizing a specific place and time and people helps us escape from our fantasy, our imagined--often romanticized--Christ.  Generally speaking, I think our religious experience needs more, not less specificity.

However, in this case, I think "the Jews" or "the Judeans" are not useful translations.  Too quickly when we hear these words our minds imagine someone else.  That is, we imagine some ancient people that we are not a part of.  Or, and this is the worst scenario--a scenario that has played out tragically through out history--we imagine that "the Jews" equates to the people who though the ages have called themselves Jews.  According to this scenario, our neighbours are responsible for Christ's crucifixion, not us.  And this, my brothers and sisters, is not the teaching of the Church.

Certainly Christ was a Jew living in Roman Judea, and so "the people" who crucified Christ were Romans and Jews--who else?  They couldn't ship in Norwegians to do the deed.  Christ was crucified by His people, the people whom He healed and raised from the sleep of death.  So today, when we speak of those who crucified Christ, we can only be referring to ourselves, we who have received Grace, we who have been healed, we who have hope in the Resurrection.  We are the ones who crucified Christ.

And we are the ones who continue to crucify Christ.  This is the teaching of the Church.  This is why we remember Christ's death and burial and third-day resurrection the way we do.  We crucify and are crucified with Christ.  We die and are buried with Him.  And we rise a New Creation, healed by the One we have killed.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Speaking of Beauty, Continued

Speaking of beauty, tonight is the third of the Bridegroom Matins. The hymns for this service compare the repentance of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with expensive myrrh, with the avarice of Judas, who having been with Jesus and experienced his miraculous power personally, still on this day contemplates betrayal for the sake of financial gain. Here is the first hymn in the sequence setting up the comparison:

The adulterous woman, O Christ, who approached thee and poured on thy feet ointment with tears, was delivered by thy command from the rottenness of iniquity. But thine ingrate Disciple, who was fully possessed of thy grace, rejected it, and wallowed in the mire, selling thee out of love of silver. Wherefore, glory be to thy compassion, O Lover of mankind.

The penetrating spiritual power of these hymns lie not only in their theology, but also--and I would argue most powerfully--in their use of poetic juxtaposition. In fact, if you look too closely, if you try strictly to align the hymns with the specific accounts recorded in the Gospels, you will miss by a wide margin the message the hymns are meant to convey. **

In poetically contrasting the harlot and Judas, the Church helps me to see myself mystically as both. I am the sinful woman with tears at Jesus' feet; yet I find also Judas abiding in me: even at the most sacred moments I have thoughts of taking and acquiring for myself, thoughts of betrayal. And again I offer to Jesus the most precious myrrh of my life, my resources, my all--I pour it all out on His feet. Then my mind slips into indifference and too quickly the Judas in my mind runs off to bargain for the priceless One. Tears and hardness. Both are in me, and the hymns of this day help me to see it:

When the sinful woman was offering her spice, the Disciple was bargaining with the transgressors of the law. The one rejoiced in pouring out the spice of great price, while the other hastened to sell the priceless One. The one came to know the Lord, the other was separated from the Lord. She was freed, and Judas became a slave to the enemy. Indifference is evil, and repentance is great, which last grant us, O Savior, who didst suffer for us, and save us.

Ah the wretchedness of Judas! For, seeing the adulteress kiss his feet, he was thinking with deceit of the kiss of betrayal. She loosed the braids of her hair, and he was bound with wrath; instead of spice he offered rotten evil: for envy knoweth not how to honour what is worthy. Woe to the wretchedness of Judas, and from it O God, save our souls.

The repentance that we spend our Christian lives working out is an ever deepening look at the sin that has been lodged in our soul, the Judas within us; and it is an ever deepening offering of that self to God. These are the tears of the harlot. The one who sees no Judas in himself, perhaps, can make little sense of this continual turning with tears back to God, this continual weeping at Jesus' feet, this continual offering again of the precious myrrh of our lives. But this is why the Church has given us these hymns with their poetic juxtaposition. By reflecting on both the offering of the harlot and the betrayal of Judas, perhaps we can all catch a clearer glimpse into our own hearts. And if we can do that, then perhaps we can in the rhythm of the life of the Church both shed tears with the harlot and rejoice with Myrrh-bearers at the glorious PASCHA of Christ.

**For example, you will notice on a close reading that the hymns of the Church elide the accounts of the anointing of Jesus once by a harlot earlier in His ministry and again before his death by Mary the sister of Lazarus. Similarly, for the hymns of Lazarus Saturday, the Lazarus of the parable is elided with the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. This is not because the hymnographers didn't know their Bible (You may laugh, but this is a serious criticism some Evangelicals lodge against Orthodoxy and many of the poetic prayers of the Fathers. It seems that if the interpretation and application of the Scripture by the ancients and those who are or seem "too Catholic" does not agree with contemporary linear models, then it must be because the ancients had not read the Bible very well. Really, people say these things to me with a straight face.) The truth is that a poetic interpretation and application of Scripture seeks not merely to repeat the facts of the record, but rather to reveal the meaning of those facts in a way that penetrates our hard hearts. You might even say that in many ways, both anointings of Jesus reveal the same mysteries, and by eliding them poetically we can better open those mysteries to our minds weakened, perhaps, by too much linear thought.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Beauty and Virginity

The Video above is called "Why Beauty Matters." It is done by British philosopher, Roger Scruton. It is perhaps the best contemporary argument for beauty that I have ever encountered. Beware, however, it is PG-13. Many of the examples of ugly "art" have to do with bodily functions--nothing salacious, mostly just crude and offensive. Nevertheless, Scruton makes his point clear arguing that art is about beauty and the transformation of what is common, even tragic, into something sublime and even divine. He goes so far as to equate beauty with religion. I seem to remember him saying that he thought they both had the same function. I wouldn't go that far; however, certainly beauty and religion must be closely related. I think it is as though beauty gives wings to religion and religion gives context and content to beauty. But I am no philosopher, so don't push me too hard on this.

And speaking of beauty, tonight is the second of the Bridegroom Matins taking us through the week of Christ's passion. I find these services to be among the most beautiful in the Church year. The poetry of the hymnography is such that one can spend the whole year meditating on these hymns chanted only once a year. Tonight one of the foci is the parable of the ten virgins. The following is part of the synaxarion, the explanation of the meaning of the parable as it is applied in this service:

On this day we make remembrance of the Parable of the Ten Virgins which Jesus spake along with others as he was coming to the Passion. It teaches us not to rest as though safe in virginity, but to guard it whenever possible, and not to desist from any virtues and good deeds, especially deeds of mercy, which make the lamp of virginity shine brilliantly. It teaches us also to be ready for our end, not knowing when our hour is coming, as the wise virgins were ready to meet the bridegroom, lest death overtake us and close the door of the heavenly chamber in our face, and we hear the terrible judgment which the foolish virgins heard, Verily, verily, I know you not (Mt. 25:1-13).

What I find particularly poignant in this reading is the sentence, "It teaches us not to rest as though safe in virginity..." You might well ask, "How can this apply to married people or others who are not virgins?" The answer is simple: virginity does not refer most centrally to biology. Sure, virginity has a biological manifestation; but what the Church is talking about when it exhorts us to virginity is a state of pure devotion. Virginity is a devotion of the heart which manifests itself in behaviours that proceed out of a pure heart and are appropriate for one's state in life. Even great harlots can become virgin brides of God.

But this is not the point that is important. What is important is that even virginity is not enough. The parable says that all ten are virgins, yet five are wise and five are foolish. The wise brought extra oil. The Church teaches us that we must bring extra oil: that is, we must add to virginity "virtues and good deeds, especially deeds of mercy, which make the lamp of virginity shine brilliantly."

It is not enough merely to carefully guard your own life. It is not enough just to keep yourself pure. To purity must be added good deeds, especially deeds of mercy. Salvation is a matter of going out of yourself and mercifully attending to others. This is what Jesus does. You cannot find salvation by focusing only on purifying yourself. And perhaps this also ties into beauty. Beauty helps pull us out of ourselves. It stimulates an eros which--coming from a pure heart, or at least a heart that is seeking to be purified--can create a longing in us to care, to love, to show mercy. The effect of eros on an impure heart is the longing to possess and consume. And so we must be very careful, especially in our good deeds and acts of mercy, that we not at some deep level actually be seeking to possess and consume under the guise of charity.

Nevertheless, even if we cannot love perfectly, we must love. We must learn to be virgins. We must learn to appreciate beauty and from a heart that is being purified let that beauty draw us out in acts of compassion, mercy and good.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Joseph, the Earliest "Symbol" of Christ

At the first Bridegroom Matins, served on Sunday evening of Palm Sunday, the Church commemorates Joseph the All-Comely (Joseph the son of Jacob in the book of Genesis). The Church holds up Joseph as the "earliest symbol of Christ."

There are many aspects of Joseph's life that make him a symbol or type of Christ. First, he is the only major character of the Old Testament who has no record of any sin associated with his life. As an early representation of the Christ who would come, Joseph prophesies with his life that the Christ would be without sin.

Joseph is beloved of his father, and this leads his brothers to envy him. And out of envy they throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Similarly Christ is envied by his brothers, the Jewish leaders, and handed over as a captive to the Roman authority. As Joseph finds himself a slave under the authority of a foreign power, so Jesus is handed over out of envy to a foreign power.

Moreover, Joseph must further resist temptation even in his humbled circumstance. The hymns of this day say that the Egyptian woman, Potiphar's wife, was to Joseph a "new Eve" by trying to seduce him. But Joseph resists temptation, fleeing naked from Potiphar's wife--which symbolizes pre-fall innocence. In aggressively resisting temptation, Joseph finds again the innocence of Eden. Jesus also resists all temptation, fasting in the wilderness and sweating great drops of blood as He reaffirms his submission to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus goes to the Cross as a completely innocent man, submitting completely to the will of His Father, and holding no resentment. With the innocence of Adam in the Garden, and of Joseph fleeing from the "new Eve," Jesus offers Himself to all Mankind as a ransom to death.

Most stirringly, however, I think Joseph prefigures Christ in his continued humiliations and his lack of resentment against his brothers, but rather interpreting all of his sorrows in terms of God's will for their salvation. Joseph first has his robe stripped from him by his brothers, then he is thrown into a pit. Next he is sold into slavery. Then, as a final blow, for the sake of righteousness he resists Potiphar's wife, and finds himself slandered and cast into prison. And if that were not enough, in prison he interprets the dreams of the butler and baker, receiving from the butler the promise of speedy delivery--which does not come. It is several years later when Pharaoh has his dream and the butler remembers Joseph in prison. The humiliations of Joseph come one on top of another. Lower and lower he sinks until all hope seems to be gone. And then, suddenly, he is raised up to be ruler of the whole land. And when Joseph's brothers finally come to him begging food (and fulfilling the dream Joseph had as a boy), Joseph holds no resentment against them but tells them that what they did was actually God's will to save many people.

Jesus also experiences successive humiliation, however, for Christ the humiliation is something He has taken on himself voluntarily. Christ does not cling to his prerogatives as God, to his power, to his greatness; but He humbles himself and becomes a human being. As a human being, he becomes a servant--and not just the servant of one person, but the servant of all. He resists the devil and finds himself handed over to be condemned in a mockery of a trial. And condemned, he is beaten mercilessly, and hung on a cross to die where he asks the Father to forgive those very ones who have killed Him, "for they don't know what they are doing." And so he dies and descends into the realm of the dead--into prison--and there not only rises from the dead, but with Him Christ also raises all who were dead. Light enters darkness, thus darkness--the darkness of death and hell--no longer exists.

Joseph prefigures this descent and rising. We too can in a sense prefigure Christ, if we will allow ourselves to learn from Joseph, when we are brought low by life's injustices, tragic accidents, and our own human weaknesses. If, like Joseph, we can learn to entrust ourselves to God even in the pits and prisons and economic servitude we find ourselves in, and if even here we can resist temptation, then we too can proclaim Christ through our lives. We too can witness that from the depths when we cry, God hears us.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Fruit of Life: Raising Lazarus

The sixth week of Great Lent is the countdown week to the resurrection of Lazarus.  The resurrection of Lazarus is a pivotal point in Jesus's ministry in at least two ways.  First, in raising Lazarus who had been dead four days, Jesus manifests to all his absolute power over death.  The hymns of the Church tell us that this final manifestation of His power was particularly for the purpose of making clear to His disciples that his own death was voluntary.  Having complete power over death, Jesus gives His life, no one takes it from Him.  In St. John's Gospel, this is further reinforced by the soldiers falling down when Jesus speaks to them when they come to arrest Him--falling down twice. At the same time, the raising of Lazarus is also the pivotal act that forces the religious leaders to do something to stop Jesus.  The high priest realizes that now all of the people will believe in Him, as we see manifest on Palm Sunday.  The Gospel tells us that the crowd had gathered because they had heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus.  The religious leaders fear that the crowd's enthusiasm for this prophet would upset the tenuous peace they currently enjoyed with the occupying Romans and, perhaps most importantly, their own position of power vouchsafed by the current state of affairs.  And so in this divine act of raising Lazarus, Jesus both triggers the final chain of events leading to His arrest and crucifixion and manifests His authority over the whole process, even over death itself.   But isn't this the nature of existence as we know it?  The fruit manifests the tree, and within the fruit are the seeds of new growth, of the next level, of the new life?  When Jesus the Life of all speaks, the fruit is life, even for a man four-days dead.  And the seed of this fruit is His own death, which manifests even greater life--all in the tombs shall rise! In our own lives this too is what we experience.  The actual fruit of our lives, as disappointing as it often is, manifests what kind of tree we are--fallen, sick, in need of transformation.  Yet this disappointing fruit, our failures, our mistakes, our sins, bears the seeds of new life; for how we respond to our failures to a large extent determines our growth. Jesus, the Life of all, enters the world of our experience and by the laws of creation--fruit bearing seed--He plants the tree of resurrection in the middle of the earth.  This is the Tree of Life which grew in Eden of old, the Tree whose fruit we now eat as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Fifth Sunday of Lent: God Is On Our Side

In the Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent (Mark 10:32-45), we read of Jesus again predicting his death to his disciples.  However, his disciples are not hearing him. They are thinking about who of them will be the greatest, who will sit on the right and on the left.  
From the disciple’s perspective Jesus is invincible.  Jesus has power over demons and sicknesses; power over blindness, deafness, leprosy and epilepsy; power even over the sea, the wind and death itself.  Jesus is invincible.  He had even shared some of this power with them, and they themselves had healed the sick and cast out demons.  For the disciples, Jesus is none other than the Messiah come to save God’s people from evil and unjust oppression.  God was on their side, it was manifest, how could Jesus’ talk of rejection, betrayal, scourging and death be anything but yet another parable that they don’t understand?
God is on our side.  We’re going to win.  Let’s start planning the seating arraignments for the victory celebration.
But Jesus tells his disciples that they don’t know what they are talking about.  They don’t realize that the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God both in heaven and on earth, is nothing like the kingdoms of this world.  There is no ruling over in the Kingdom of God.  There is no authority over in the Kingdom that Christ establishes.  But “among you,” among the disciples of Jesus, “the greatest is the servant of all.”  This is the way of God’s Kingdom, this is what it is like to have God on our side.
Certainly, after the Ascension of Christ, a certain structure entered the community of the disciples.  There were overseers and elders, bishops who were first and bishops who were second and third.  This structure and use of authority in the Church is necessary, but should not be confused with the Kingdom of God.  Similarly, at various times, certain groups of people, cultures, governments and nations have embraced Christ and done what they could to Christianize their structures, ways and relationships.  This is good, it is great, but it is not the Kingdom of God.  Structure and authority are necessary in the realm of this life, but God is with us not to vouchsafe life as we know it, but rather to lead us into the life of the Age to come.  God is on our side to lead us to His side.
Jesus has makes it pretty clear that having God on your side does not mean things are going to work out as you suppose.  Having God on your side means that you are the servant of all.  Having God on your side means that you live not to be served but to serve and give your life for many.  Having God on you side means not using your power to blow away your enemy.  Having God on your side means that death is not the end, so suffering has a meaning, maybe even a purpose.  Having God on your side means that you win, but you have to lose everything first.