I’M STILL THE ONE
I’m still the one who knelt before you
in monk’s robes, patiently waiting.
You filled him as he called you into being –
– RM Rilke
I recognize what Rilke is saying, for this was my original experience and my journey since then. It was the essential work I was drawn to as a young boy: to access the mystery of the infinite; to sing my song, to dance my dance, to live my life. And thereby to give voice to God; to call God into being, the way Rilke describes.
It sounds almost blasphemous. But in the context of our present knowledge and understanding, are we not indeed the universe evolved to self-reflective consciousness. The stars actually know themselves in my thoughts, while the flowers sing themselves in my songs. So, surely, the universe becomes itself as self-reflective consciousness in us. And surely too we call into being the one that fills us with life. This, I believe, is the essential human-divine reality of life that Jesus Christ symbolizes.
But let me say something about symbol. There are two aspects of truth: facts and meaning. Science is essentially about facts – evidence from experience. Religion is about meaning – interpretation of experience. Science uses the language of description, religion uses the language of analogy and symbol. When science questioned its validity, religion, unfortunately, responded defensively with literalism and fundamentalism. But literalism is the death of religion and fundamentalism fosters fragmentation. Nor is symbol simply a stand-in for meaning like a sign, rather it is a language for expressing meaning that transcends words. Thus a bringing together of hands becomes a handshake – a statement of relationship; and eating together becomes a special meal – a statement of love.
When I was young, Holy Thursday came closest for me to the essential mystery that Jesus Christ symbolizes. Before I understood the science of today I sensed the impossible – wonderful – paradox in the central symbol of Jesus Christ. Good Friday was clearly the human aspect of the mystery: a human being living the deepest existential experience that we all know as suffering and death. And Easter Sunday was certainly the divine aspect: a God emerging from this darkness and death the way a flower emerges out of the dark winter-dead earth. However, it was Holy Thursday where these two aspects were held together in a way that felt real, and that echoed my own deepest experience of God present-in-things; things that called God into being.
The writer, James Carroll – himself a former priest – reflects on this divine incarnation in a recent book called Christ Actually: “…if Jesus were not regarded as God almost from the start of his movement, he would be of no interest to us. We would never have heard of him. Nothing but his divinity accounts for his place in Western culture: not his ethic, which was admirable but hardly uncommon; not his preaching, which was firmly in line with Jewish proclamation; not his heroic suffering, which was typical of many anti-Roman Jewish resisters; not his wonder working, which was attributed to all kinds of charismatic figures in the ancient world. Nothing but a two-thousand-year-old divinity claim puts Jesus before us today.”
Carroll is also an advocate for what you might call Jewish-Christian continuity. The Jewish journey, he says, has been one of continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of its traditions, which are essentially about God’s presence with us. Thus, for example, their exile in Babylon caused them to reinterpret God’s presence as one that transcended place, including the Temple that had been central to their faith. God was now present paradoxically in absence. When they returned from exile God became present in the Torah which described the creation of the entire cosmos and presented a God who transcended not only place, but time.
The Gospels were all written on or after a similar tragedy: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. These Gospels, then, were an attempt to interpret their Jewish traditions in the face of this experience. Thus the Passover meal of Jesus took on new significance for the Jesus-Jews, as Carroll refers to the early Christians, that shed meaning on this tragedy as well as the tragedy of Good Friday.
The Passover Meal was given a new focus and interpretation in the light of their experience of Resurrection and the message of universal Love that Jesus had given them. The poet Milosz describes universal love:
Love means to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills –
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
This is love as seeing and relating. Through this lens, the Passover meal becomes a statement of expanded identity: This is my body, from the human perspective, means, This – earth, water, plant, bird, tree – is my body. While ‘Do this in memory of me’ means, when we eat, remember that we are all this.
When a person realizes this, the poet concludes:
..he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
This is love as service. This is love that washes each other’s feet.
This is my body – from God’s perspective as it were – in the light of an expanded resurrection-based awareness, means a new interpretation of God’s presence. It means that we – everything, in fact – is a reflection of God, ‘a scrap of Divinity.’ While ‘do this in memory of me’ means make me present in everything you do, and help (enable, perhaps) others make me present: ‘..So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.’
This is a big theme in Rilke’s poetry that is echoed in the insights of Thomas Berry and Teilhard de Chardin. Berry focuses on the human-earth aspect, highlighting new mutually-enhancing human-earth relations. He says:
“The human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community or we will both perish in the desert.”
Teilhard focuses on the human-divine aspect, highlighting Christ as the ultimate expression of God-incarnate. He writes:
“Christ has a cosmic body that extends throughout the universe.”
Ultimately we are all Christ as the evolving logos of God, with Jesus as the first-born of a new generation that will continue to evolve and to unfold God. At some stage, we can be sure, we will evolve into a human whose consciousness will see clearly what we only glimpse now – the transcendent, the within; beyond present limits, like death…
Jesus Christ is the symbol of our ultimate reality and identity. And back to symbol again, for a moment, to emphasize that symbol, though there is continuity with its culture of origin, is not confined to any culture but can transcend it, like the symbols of love or unity. In a similar way, symbol is not even confined to the person who expresses it, but transcends him or her, like the symbols that the Buddha or MLK have become. So, to focus on Jesus as the only Christ is to fall into the trap of literalism and what one theologian has called Christolatry. The Jesus-Christ symbol belongs to all and speaks to all of us as the essential reality of the God-Universe, and specifically the divine-human.
This unfolding awareness, this evolving understanding, is the presence of God in the Jewish framework, and the Cosmic Christ in the Christian tradition.
But what does this symbol mean for us today? How can we apply the wisdom of our traditions to the challenges we all face, that range from climate change to cultural confusion and from extreme weather patterns we’re attempting to adjust to, to patterns of extreme violence we’re trying to address.
Clearly our Good Friday today is a world that is breaking apart. It is the dying throes of a culture of individualism gone to extremes as a fragmented, unjust, corrupt and unsustainable society, and as alienated, lonely, depressed and violent people. Trump and company are simply manifestations of this tragic world that is at the root of the challenges we face.
But our Easter Sunday today is the great movement – the cultural shift – that is happening. It is the new life that is rising out of the ashes of this darkness in our women, our school children, our food producers, our healers, our advocates….
And our Holy Thursday symbolizes the unfolding process that brings these two together in the mystery that we call Christ who is the symbol of the union of Life and Universe, God and the world, human and divine. This Christ consciousness is evolving in us into an understanding that will reflect the human-divine reality in a new society. Rilke makes the call:
Now it is time that gods come walking out
of lived-in Things. . . .
Time that they came and knocked down every wall
inside my house. New page. Only the wind
from such a turning could be strong enough
to toss the air as a shovel tosses dirt:
a fresh-turned field of breath….
This will mean a radical shift in the way we understand the world and ourselves: a ‘fresh-turned field of breath..’ For God is not dead, rather the old ways of understanding God are dead.
O gods, gods!
who used to come so often and are still
asleep in the Things around us..
This is the resurrection that is actually happening today in the face of the chaos that threatens to annihilate us. With this kind of vision of the sacredness – the divinity – of all things and all people – to inspire us, we will know what to do to make the kind of world that we dream of: the kingdom of God that is the right of everyone and everything…
Finally, let me return to the Holy Thursday – the Passover-Eucharist – event. Passover, which was Israel’s constitutive event, took on new meaning that night because of Jesus; or, perhaps more accurately, Passover’s essential meaning survived, after the Roman Genocide put Israel’s very existence at risk. In the face of annihilation, the first Gospel – written the year that Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed – describes Jews entering, as they had done before in their history, into their founding liberation – their Exodus – to discover new meaning and a new way forward. For one group, this became the Rabbinic Judaism of the Law that continues today. For another group of Jews, Jesus was a signal that the liberation now had new meaning for them in a new time. God was seen by them as present in everything and everyone, and Jesus Christ was the symbol of this new realization: God as human, human as God. This realization called them to a universal love that inspires us to use ourselves and others – all others – so that they stand in the glow of ripeness… An amazing revelation, and an amazing challenge. A new era of God-with-us.
Rilke heralds this new era:
Once again let it be your morning, gods.
We keep repeating. You alone are source. With you the world arises..
There is one source of all things – ‘With you the world arises..’
gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.
I really appreciate – I’d imagine we all do – that it always seems to take our failures (the cracks where the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen sings) – to awaken us to the new time that is at hand. A little anecdote makes the point. The other evening I attended a meeting on affordable housing. I’d hoped to witness the connection between affordable housing and community – the kingdom of God that is the right of everyone. Affordable housing, it seemed to me, gives us and our children the opportunity to learn about diversity and drive out fear, and thereby build the American community of the future that we will need in order to address the increasingly complex challenges we all face in today’s world. But there was clear anxiety in the room that expressed itself in terms of safety, water issues, and environmental concerns that felt like code for deeper anxieties: about outsiders, and differences. In this, it seemed like a microcosm of the country. I came away realizing that Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday; that awakening requires the opening – the cracks – that only suffering brings. Of course, there is no shortage of this suffering today, so it makes sense to anticipate breakthroughs like the High School kids movement, as we continue (because it is our calling) to do the work of creative dialogue – even in the face of angry resistance.
It is this that is the essential theme of the Jewish journey that produced Jesus Christ and the realization that God is present in everyone and everything in an amazing unfolding that includes us all. The poem of Rilke I began with concludes:
Are you, then, the All? And I the separated one
who tumbles and rages?
Am I not the whole? Am I not all things
when I weep, and you the single one who hears it?
So let us thank God for our Jewish ancestors and their amazing journey that generated wisdom in the face of life’s pain and death, and that generated Jesus Christ as the essential symbol for a new world. For them, God’s presence was reflected in the pillar of fire in the desert, in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the absence of exile, in the Torah on their return, in Rabbinic Judaism that continues today, but also in Jesus bar Joseph who has come to symbolize God present in every created thing, with us humans as the voice of God in a particular way. All of this wisdom – along with the symbols of God’s presence that are reflected in other wonderful cultures – is already giving birth today to a new symbol of God’s presence that will bring hope, purpose, and direction to a global community that is struggling in the face of potential annihilation.
So, Easter – new life – blessings on us all and on all our brothers and sisters everywhere, alive and dead, who participate in the amazing song of God who fills us so that we can call him into being.