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Easter Without Miracles

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Jesus was crucified by a conspiracy of Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire. His message was about the ‘good news’ (gospel) of human liberation and the invitation to life in community. The opposition he confronted on the political, religious, and personal levels was not interested in surrendering control to the spiritual power he both embodied and awakened in others. ‘The world’ – a term used in the New Testament as shorthand for this conspiracy of dark forces – had no choice but to put him away. For Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire, surrendering is not an option.

A good deal of energy has been wasted on the interpretation of Easter as a physical miracle where the dead Jesus was brought back to life. The so-called resurrection might as well have been a mere resuscitation, had less time elapsed after his death. Even though the New Testament’s biggest advocate (and probable originator) of the belief in the resurrection of Jesus never mentions an empty tomb or the revival of a dead body – indeed for Paul resurrection (literally a raising up) names the process by which Jesus was liberated, exalted, and glorified to the status of Lord – an overwhelming majority of Christians today have reduced it to a mere miracle of coming back to life.

This is supposed to be significant, as it vindicated Jesus as god’s victim of child sacrifice, who saved us from our sins. It’s essential that the body which came out of the tomb is the same that went in; thus the insistence on a ‘bodily resurrection of Jesus’ – one of the Five Fundamentals of evangelical Christianity. If he wasn’t literally (actually, physically) brought back to life, then death hasn’t been vanquished and we are still in our sin, lost forever. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the miracle upon which the entire plan of salvation turns.

After all, didn’t the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15) say as much?

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 

This sounds very much as if Paul regarded the resurrection of Jesus as a physical miracle. It is necessary, however, to hear these words in the mythological context that Paul had in mind. For him Jesus is the Second Adam (or New Man), the archetype for a new age whose saving work offers a revolutionary counterexample to the First Adam of Genesis. Whereas the First Adam had regarded equality with god as something to be grasped and exploited for his personal advantage, Jesus as the Second Adam surrendered himself totally to god’s purpose (see Philippians 2 for another Pauline meditation on this theme).

For his hubris the First Adam was evicted from the garden wherein stood the tree of life, which is another way of saying that the penalty for his overreaching pride was mortality, or death. As the archetype of humanity (according to this mythology), the First Adam set the pattern for all subsequent generations and was spiritually active (we might say) in each and every one of us – until Jesus, that is. In acknowledgment of the humble devotion and self-sacrifice of Jesus, god ‘raised him up’, metaphorically giving him access to the paradisal tree of life. Identifying with the Second Adam rather than the First makes Jesus spiritually active in the individual Christian. In his letter to the Christians in Galatia Paul says,

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. 

All of this is to show that Paul, who is widely respected by Christians as our biblical authority on the resurrection of Jesus, did not see it as a miracle in history but as representing a seismic shift for human nature and destiny played out in the archetypal realm – that is to say, in the realm of mythology. This doesn’t mean that ‘nothing happened’, but rather that it’s always happening, that it’s poised to happen again, right now, if we’re prepared to take the myth seriously … but not literally. Taking a myth like this literally, treating it as if the figures and events it describes are in the past (or in the case of apocalyptic myths, the future) drains it of life and power, reducing it to something which must be believed or otherwise dismissed as incredible.

So let me come back to my original statement:

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Because he challenged the politico-economic system (Empire) of his day and championed the rights of the poor, Jesus was arrested and crucified by Roman authorities. His advocacy on behalf of the many who were suffering under the boot of Roman oppression, pushed ever deeper into debt just to survive, made him an enemy of those in positions of wealth and power. Empire is not simply a form of government, but a domination system that thrives on the exploitation of labor, the burden of debt and confiscation of property, along with a ruthless response to protest, disobedience, and rebellion.

At the time, religious leadership in Judaism was doing its best to regulate what ‘seemed right’ (ortho-dox) with respect to proper behavior, moral purity, observing the Sabbath, and keeping themselves separate from sinners. Jesus played loose with these rules and even deliberately transgressed on them, to the point where these leaders also wanted him gone. As Orthodoxy takes the mind captive to certain convictions, closing down on meaning and ruling out any sense or experience of the grounding mystery and greater community of life, his refusal to give up creative authority for blind obedience made him a threat here as well.

And his essential message, which had to do with an urgency upon the individual to set aside self-interest (Ego) in service of the greater good, effectively called for a reversal in values and motivation, from the centripetal preoccupations of ‘me and mine’ to a centrifugal engagement with ‘all of us, together’. The ambitions of Ego for security, superiority, significance, and worldly success had to be surrendered for the liberation and fulfillment he promised – and for many it was too much to ask. We can blame Empire and Orthodoxy for putting Jesus away, but ultimately it was (and still is) Ego that sealed his tomb.

In the days that followed, a few of his disciples came to realize that Jesus had been so much more than an individual whose way of life had gotten him in trouble with the authorities. Paul recognized in the memory of Jesus the spirit of a New Man (or Second Adam) who opens for all of us the path to life in its fullness. His spirit – not his ghost but the vital energy and continuing influence of his exemplary life – is as real now as it was then.

It was at this point, by a fresh discovery and reorientation to what Jesus had been all about, that Christ the Lord came out of the tomb.Easter

 

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The Gravity and Glory of Existence

What is the meaning of Easter?

Is it just about someone who died nearly two thousand years ago and came back to life? For almost half its history, Christianity celebrated Easter as its principal message to the world. As the Middle Ages dawned, however, the focus shifted to the Atonement where Jesus was supposed to have accomplished his world-saving work. Since then, Easter has been the ups y-daisy to Good Friday’s (only apparent) tragedy.

Just look at the difference in iconography between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic (Latin) traditions. In the former, Jesus is risen, radiant, and very alive, while in the latter he hangs on his cross, gaunt, emaciated, and dead. And even though the Protestant churches replaced the Catholic crucifix with an empty cross, the centrality of Jesus’ sacrificial death continued into the Reformation. Consequently, the narrative of Easter has been interpreted as God’s “Yes” (on Sunday) to the world’s “No” (on Good Friday) – a great reversal where the humiliation of the cross was trumped by the glory of resurrection, ascension, and celestial coronation (as depicted in so much late-medieval and Renaissance art).

My frustration has to do with how this focus on Good Friday and Easter as events in the career of Jesus, while presumably benefiting the world by extension, keeps them back there in history and locked inside a literal Bible. Perhaps our invention of the literal Bible – of a Bible that must be taken literally – is more a political tactic designed to protect our possession of truth against competitors, heretics, and potential converts, than it is out of reverence for the Holy Question at the heart of existence which it seeks to answer across its pages.

Religion is not principally about the supernatural, immortality, or getting to heaven. It begins (or once began) in the realization that human existence is not entirely enclosed by nature and instinct, but stands rather as an open question that subsequently gets worked out (but never finally satisfied) in our quest for belonging, identity, and purpose. This open question calls to us from a beyond within ourselves and asks “Why am I here?” – the primitive and mystical origin of the later philosophical conundrum “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Religion, then, is the more or less systematic way that this question of existence – this Holy Question – is answered. We call it holy because it has the character and feel of otherness, of addressing us from elsewhere. Perhaps because it is so relentless and restless, refusing to leave us alone, human beings universally have acknowledged it as “Thou.” Significantly, in our Bible the recurring word “repent” refers to a turn in response to being called.

Everything in religion, from its symbolism and mythology (sacred stories), to its rituals and devotional practices, is in effect an elaborate answer to this Holy Question of why I am here, why you are here, why are we here together. Where do we belong? How are we related? What are we here to do?

Even our theological construct of God as the supreme being who created the universe, watches over us, puts expectations on us and holds us accountable, is a projected personification of what human beings have believed to stand on the sending side of the Holy Question.

So when I contemplate the story of Easter, I want to listen for how it answers the question “Why am I here?” I won’t be distracted by the popular, and as I said, very modern assumption that the truth of the story is reducible to historical events – supernatural interventions and miracles purported to have happened long ago. There’s no need to trade our twenty-first century cosmology (theory of the universe) for the first-century cosmology assumed by the Gospel writers, where the up-and-down traffic between earth, heaven, and the underworld presented a perfectly acceptable plot for sacred story.

Since it’s not concerned with describing objective events, I don’t need to leave my intellect at the door before entering the imaginarium of myth.

With the Easter story, as in any sacred myth, we need to stay observant for those epiphanies at the surface where something more is being said or shown. Such locations are marked by images, metaphors, and archetypes that, as it were, pivot the axis of meaning from the horizontal plane of the narrative plot in order to engage deeper (or higher) dimensions. This is where we find an answer to the Holy Question, and if we stay engaged at this level, without allowing the metaphor to flatten out and lose its power, we stand a chance of being confronted and grasped by a profound truth.

For me, there is one image in the Easter story that speaks in this way. It’s not the empty tomb or the angels or even the appearance of the risen Jesus to early morning visitors. Actually, it is an appearance of Jesus, but one that happens on Easter evening among the company of disciples who had closed themselves inside a locked room out of fear that the authorities might come looking for them next.

Only the Third and Fourth Gospels (Luke and John) include this epiphany – this archetypal answer to the Holy Question “Why am I here?” – so it either originated with Luke (who wrote earlier) and was adapted by John, or it was circulating in some early Christian source outside them both.

So there stands Jesus, probably in his skivvies or buck naked. (He had been stripped of his clothes while hanging on the cross, and, according to John, the linen cloths that some women had used in his funerary preparation on Friday evening were found neatly folded inside his burial cave Sunday morning.) “Relax, it’s okay” – or “Peace be with you,” he says to his friends. And then …

Gravity_GloryAnd then the risen Jesus holds out his hands and feet, bearing the wounds of crucifixion where spikes had been driven through into wood. (In John’s version he also shows them the gash in his side where a Roman spear had confirmed his death.) The wounds of a dead man borne in the body of a living man.

That’s the image, the answer to the Holy Question. It’s presented in the myth as an ironic metaphor, one that contains a contradiction (a living dead man) and holds open an irreconcilable paradox.

If Jesus is The Archetypal Man in early Christian mythology – and this is clearly the case as the apostle Paul pointed out many times in his writings (which predate the Gospels) – then in this particular story he is representing all of us; or more poignantly, each of us.

A human being is both subject to the gravity of existence and the bearer of its glory.

During his brief public ministry, Jesus had demonstrated deep compassion for those afflicted under the grind of abject poverty, chronic pain, spiritual emptiness, and political oppression. Instead of preaching to them of pie in the sky or training them in techniques of meditative detachment, he got down into their suffering with them and did what he could to help them out. (The stories of miracle healings, which all the Gospels employ in their portraits of Jesus, carry this memory of how Jesus stepped into the suffering of others with caring support and saved them from despair.)

In addition to taking on the human condition evident in the afflictions of others, Jesus was remembered by the way he accepted – but not merely in a passive mode; rather, how he embraced – his own mortality, especially with the growing prospect of a violent death on his horizon. His challenge to the disciples to “take up your cross,” even if the overt reference to crucifixion was a gloss added later by storytellers, expresses an understanding that commitment to human solidarity and liberation will likely land one in trouble with authorities.

And Rome loved its crosses.

In the face of death, Jesus didn’t back down. As the political and religious heat grew around his notoriety and it was clear there would be no way out, he remained steadfast and resolute in his vision of a world free of bigotry, dogmatism, violence, and fear. True enough, he died for his belief – but more importantly, for the way he demonstrated his belief in action.

Perhaps at first, in the period of time represented in the story as a sabbath of sorrow when all hope seemed lost, Jesus’ vision was regarded a failure.

At some point, however – and again, a three-day event cycle in the narrative probably conveys the meaning of complete transformation, as it still does in contemporary fiction and film – someone in the company of mourners remembered the character of their leader as one who had lived a compassionate, brave, and authentically human life. Upon reflection, he had shown them how to combine grace and courage, passion and humility, how to live like you’re dying.

This is where I think the Holy Question surfaced in the consciousness of Jesus’ bereaved disciples. “Why am I here?” The gravity and glory of human existence had been paradoxically revealed in Jesus, and the ironic metaphor of him standing there in their midst – a living dead man, a man who answered the Holy Question by living fully into his death – ignited their hearts and started a revolution.

Just before he leaves them, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Now it’s your turn.”

That’s what Easter means to me.

 

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Life in Perfect Freedom

Recently in my blog bibletracts (bibletracts.wordpress.com) I’ve been exploring the meaning of resurrection. The timing is right for two reasons. First, the liturgical year of the Church is now approaching the season of Easter, the Christian holy day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, because resurrection is fundamentally misunderstood when its meaning is fixed to something that supposedly happened to someone nearly 2,000 years ago. Treating it as a fact of history only apparently takes it seriously, when in reality a literal reading cuts the energizing nerve of resurrection altogether.

Biblical literalism is a one-dimensional reading that takes the Bible at face value. The attraction is that it effectively eliminates the potentially corrupting intervention of interpretation. There is nothing to interpret – it’s all right there on the surface, in what it says. A decided advantage to other approaches is literalism’s permission (and forgiveness) not to think critically.

But a literal reading of the Bible is then faced with the need to choose between contradictory texts: Who killed the giant Goliath, for instance, David (1 Samuel 17:51) or Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19)? As well as inconsistent “reports”: Did all of Jesus’ disciples abandon him at his arrest (Gospel of Mark), or did a few stay with him to the very end (Gospel of John)?

The energy it takes to cleverly maneuver such obstacles in order to justify a literal reading gets tied up at the surface, so to speak, when the reader might break through to deeper meaning. “Deeper meaning” doesn’t get us closer to facts (which is a modern delusion) but closer to the experience – the encounter, insight, crisis, or realization – that inspired the production of meaning in the first place.

Why should we want to treat the resurrection as anything other or beyond the historical miracle of Jesus coming back to life? The absolute and exclusive nature of this historical claim is typically used to set Christianity apart from other religions and to sanction its own errant denominations. If we loosen our grip on the resurrection as an historical fact, won’t we also lose our standing as the one true religion?

That’s assuming validity to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion, or that it’s even meaningful to speak of a “true religion” in the first place. As I’ve worked that one over in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-f3), I want to move more specifically into an exploration of the originary experience of resurrection and its expanded architecture of meaning.

Architecture of Meaning

Let’s start with the resurrection taken as a miracle, which refers to a supernatural intervention suspending or breaking into the nexus of historical cause and effect. As miracle, the resurrection was a unique event that happened many centuries ago, whereby God intervened on the natural course of events and raised the dead Jesus back to life.

As long as we don’t look any more closely at it, the resurrection-as-miracle is free to sit there in a mental vacuum without much context or background. Again, this is precisely where it is most useful to our efforts in staking an exclusive claim on truth.

But where do we learn about the resurrection? We didn’t witness the historical event ourselves, nor did we get the news from a living first-hand witness. Instead, we find it in a story.

Orthodoxy tries to protect its claim at this point by insisting that the so-called stories are really eye-witness accounts of historical facts. Or if they are not exactly eye-witness accounts (no one claims to have seen Jesus coming out of the tomb), then the authority of the Bible as “God’s word” makes them just as good or better. That leaves us with the resurrection as an absolute (stand-alone) fact, and the story of the resurrection a literal account. Done and done.

As far as the story is concerned, we are faced with the challenge of determining which “account” is the most literal. The Gospels don’t match up in full agreement on such details as who discovers the empty tomb, how the news gets out, and whether anyone sees Jesus (presumably risen) afterwards. Maybe these details don’t really matter. But then again, if it’s supposed to be God’s word to your ears and the proof is in the miracle, then errors in detail make the whole thing a little less reliable, don’t they?

A closer look at the story of the resurrection reveals an emptiness or openness at the key location where the decisive proof is supposed to be found. The abandoned and now-vacant tomb is not exactly proof of a resurrection. “He is not here” is all that can be said at this critical moment in the plot. In the narrative section just before this point we see Jesus hanging dead on his cross, and in the subsequent section we see Jesus alive again – though interestingly not in the earliest Gospel (Mark).

The orientation and balance of the Gospel narratives around this turning-point of the tomb suggests that the resurrection story is more than just a factual report. At this point (in this discussion but also in the Gospel story) we begin to get the sense of the narrative as not merely describing the mechanics of a miraculous event long ago, but as speaking to us from somewhere deeper within. We are being invited into the myth.

Although its career began in the simple idea of a narrative “plot,” myth is a term used in literary theory to identify a certain kind of story. A myth is not necessarily a story about the gods, but one that serves to orient our human concerns and aspirations inside an ultimately meaningful universe. It was only after we reached the presumption that our myths were factual reports that myth in general got downgraded to misleading fiction, deliberate deception, and erroneous beliefs (as in “The 10 myths of weight loss”).

The true meaning of a myth has really nothing to do with the objective accuracy of what it says, but rather with its power to touch, awaken, and direct human consciousness to the deeper mysteries of life and death.

In the Gospel myths the storyline has been elaborated in slightly different ways around this threshold symbol of a tomb. The action plot of the story moves through (or over) this threshold to the “other side” where the jubilant announcement is heard: “He is risen!” As threshold, the symbol occupies not only this horizontal axis of the temporal plot, but a vertical one as well, inviting our descent from overt meaning into a deeper register of awareness. Now the tomb begins to resonate in relative isolation from the narrative background and action sequence, serving to carry or “bear across” (metaphorein) our contemplative focus from surface meanings into the depths of mystery.

Meaning is our mind’s effort to qualify the mystery of being alive and living toward death. If all that elaboration at the surface is to  orient our existence inside an ultimately meaningful universe – and be meaningfully relevant – then some acknowledgment must be made of this one inescapable fact. And yet, perhaps by putting our focus on the end of our life’s sentence we are missing the real insight here.

Each moment comes and goes. The present arises, passes away, and rises again. From quarks to quasars and throughout the fragile web of life stretched in between, existence moves according to a rhythm of emergence and dissolution, rolling into waves and unwinding again, holding on and letting go. We see this all around us, but when it comes to contemplating our own final release we tense up and grip down in fear.

In actuality we are progressing through an indeterminate sequence of losses – that is to say, if our ambition is to hang on and make it through.

But what if we could let go? What would happen if we could find the courage to surrender ourselves to the provident grace of this moment, into the spacious emptiness of this present mystery? Beliefs, which are really conclusions from the past, would give way to faith, the ever-present act of resting fully in the Now. No longer would we (barely) live as hostages to our convictions, taking life in the name of truth. Instead, our peace would be timeless, our love boundless, and our joy would have no end.

This is how Jesus was said to live. When he died, those who understood him best knew that it wasn’t over. To the degree he had offered his life out of the spontaneous generosity of each moment, no tomb could hold him for good.

 

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Easter Reality

Religious high holy days are anchored deep in myth and symbol. These are times when true believers – as well as the larger number of unaffiliated and “occasional pilgrims” – step into the sacred stories and reflect once again on the miracles of old. Too many of them probably do this out of family obligation or annual custom, gazing on the holiday symbols with the wondering eyes of their youth.

The following day, however, they will be back at it – back at life in the real world. No miracles here. No angelic visitations, virgin births, voices from the clouds or revived corpses in the news. It used to be that these and other miraculous events were regarded as signs, still very much set in story and not encountered in contemporary life, pointing to a higher realm of being that supports this one.

Signs are significant because they signify things. Meaning is all about reference – this pointing to that, one thing leading to another, and all of it making sense in the Big Picture. Once upon a time (here I go telling a story) people lived inside a Big Picture, and mythology served the valuable function of pulling them back from the daily distractions of secular life and reorienting them in a single coherent system of meaning.

I say “once upon a time” because people today generally don’t live their lives with a Big Picture in mind. If there is one, it’s the rather cold and indifferent cosmos of science, now somewhere on an unfathomable timeline between BANG and FIZZLE (or maybe CRUNCH). For quite a while, as modern religion was losing its market share in the intellectual landscape of the Western mind, church leaders blamed science for the vacancies in their pews. Empirical skepticism (“I’ll believe it when I can measure it”) was accused of producing secular atheism (“God can’t be measured, and therefore doesn’t exist”).

But here’s what really happened.

The sacred stories began losing currency, not because they were scientifically discredited, but rather because they became increasingly irrelevant to daily life. And as the symbols lost their power to signify, the metaphors closed up on themselves and degenerated into “miracles.” Consequently the Big Picture that had oriented human beings for so long fell apart. Now – occasionally, on high holy days – we pause to fetch from the wreckage those dim reminders, those alien curiosities from another age.

So what becomes of these articles of religious nostalgia? If symbols need stories, and stories need other stories; and if all these stories (the collective mythology of a culture) comprise the Big Picture that once made life meaningful, what purpose is there in dusting the icons, pressing the vestments, and singing the hymns if we don’t really know it as our truth?

I didn’t say “believe it,” for we can make ourselves believe just about anything. There are a lot of true believers who talk a lot about god, read their Bible religiously and do their best to take it literally. If the biblical god doesn’t bust through the starry canopy and talk to us as he once did, it’s only because we live in the Last Days and he is busy preparing for the Final Judgment.

As for Jesus, Christmas got him into our world and Easter got him back out. It all happened a long time ago, but he’s coming again. Just you wait. In the meantime – and it is a mean time – we have to keep the faith, resist the devil, legislate for (our) religion, and guard our stuff.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “God – Guns – USA.” Now that’s a very small picture, which can be found all around the planet today. Just insert another god and a different tribe, and that truck might be driving down the road in Syria or Kenya or North Korea.

What can Easter mean in a time when evidence of god is lacking but the testimony for god is all too out-spoken and dogmatic? Just because it’s “in the Bible” doesn’t automatically make it relevant. After all, the Bible is testimony, not evidence. Furthermore, it’s a very special kind of testimony – not exactly the eye-witness accounts as many true believers defend it these days, but creative testimony, poetic testimony.

As mythology, the Bible wasn’t written as retrospective journalism on objective miracles and actual encounters with a supernatural personality. Rather, it issued from the creative imaginations of people just like you and me, inspired by the realization that their lives (just like ours) opened up to a greater mystery.

In those moments, in those places, and in the company of those rare and illumined ones who seemed to live in unbroken awareness of this mystery, the everyday world was touched, elevated and glorified with a higher significance.

Jesus came with a message about compassion, charity, and unconditional forgiveness. He not only talked it but he walked it as well, living it out in his dealings with others – in the company of his friends, in his encounters with strangers, and in the presence of his enemies.

It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of his growing reputation and grew uneasy over his dangerous influence on the people. Dangerous because he was waking people up from the trance of personal self-interest, religious orthodoxy, and militant nationalism.

The authorities were nervous that this trouble-maker might shift the axis of control that protected their privileged position as deputies of god and brokers of salvation. They quoted scripture in self-defense, accused Jesus of going against tradition, and at last succeeded in charging him with heresy, atheism and disturbing the peace (also known as the trance-state of spiritual sleep). He was executed and his followers disbanded.

But then, maybe among a small band of his discouraged survivors, memories were recalled and weaved together in stories. In recalling his words they remembered his message, and as his message reignited their hearts they realized that his vision was still short of fulfillment. The spirit of Jesus was not gone but now lived in them. The torch of his cause was theirs to carry forward.

An empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes are not evidence, but only the absence of evidence. They are signs, metaphors, and symbols opening out to a greater mystery. They say, “Not here.” But where then? Exactly where is Jesus alive?

Up in heaven, if you believe in heaven. In the sacraments of the Church, if that’s your thing.

I would say that if what we are calling the spirit of Jesus is not evident in the way we live and treat each other, then we’re still waiting for Easter.

 

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