“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince)
Growing up as a Catholic in Ireland, and then, later, working as a missionary priest for many years, the week before Easter – what Christians call Holy Week – was always central to my sense of meaning and purpose. Jesus, of course, was the focus of the week. Today, my spirituality focuses on expanding consciousness, both individual – my own – and society’s, and Jesus no longer plays (or at least seems to play) a central role for me. However, at times like this, I experience a sense of something akin to loss or at least nostalgia. Where did Jesus go? So I am using this Holy Week as an opportunity to immerse myself in the story of the life and death of Jesus to see what it stirs in me now.
To help me with my immersion I’ve been re-reading a book by Marcus Borg called, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (2009) that distinguishes between the historical Jesus and what some call the Christ of faith, which is the understanding that developed after the death of Jesus. The historical Jesus we know little about, except that he was a wisdom-teacher whose particular wisdom threatened the conventional wisdom of the day and led to his death. The ideas about his divinity and the salvation he brought – the Christ of faith – were generated out of the experiences of the followers of Jesus after his death and the communities that formed around the experiences. These ideas developed and evolved over many centuries into the teachings and beliefs that shaped many of our lives. Moreover, these ideas continue to evolve, which, for me is equally important.
Holy Week presents the earliest ideas about Jesus as the Christ of faith though they are ideas that are still in the form of stories-as-memories versus the more developed, dogmatic statements that came later. The high-points of Holy Week are Palm or Passion Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Passion Sunday is the story of Jesus’ decision to walk his talk, so to speak. Already there is the sense of paradox that characterizes his entire process in this strange scene of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem – the center of power that he is confronting – as a hero figure: the people lay palm fronds before him and acclaim him as king, but he, in keeping with his ‘subversive wisdom’, is riding on a donkey.
The Holy Thursday story describes the time when the destiny of Jesus is presented in terms of his larger significance: ‘Do this in memory of me’ he tells his followers the night before he dies. ‘This’ – which refers to the ritual he is enacting but also, clearly, to his teaching – is essentially about living in communion with everyone and everything in the world that like us are expressions of the same life-force that constitutes our lives. Good Friday is about what this entails: it is the apparent contradiction of crucifixion when you have to lose your life in order to find it; when you have to let go of the illusions that constitute your sense of reality in order to discover a deeper truth with others. Resurrection is seen in the strange examples of this discovered truth: Oh, so that’s what he was saying….that’s what it all meant.
These resurrection experiences were all forms of deep spiritual awakening. But, like all such experiences and the ideas they generated – whether in Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam – they were shaped by many things, including the cultures of the day and strong, influential individuals. None of this makes them invalid or even less true, rather it simply highlights that truth emerges in different ways and in many different contexts.
The work I have done with Dialogue reflects this process of awakening and resurrection. I have defined Dialogue as participating in the emergence (dia) of truth or meaning (logos). Marcus Borg actually uses the word logos to help explain the emergence and evolution of the Christ of faith. One of the more theologically developed Gospels – the Gospel of John – offers an example in its opening lines: ‘In the beginning was the logos and the logos was God, and the logos was with God….and the logos became flesh.’ Logos is understood as the blueprint of all life that, for Christians, is manifested in a special way in the person of the historical Jesus. This does not suggest, however, that Jesus is the only such manifestation of God/Life/Being: the only logos. In fact, it is accepted by most scripture scholars that the historical Jesus had no such understanding of himself as ‘the son of God’ in the unique sense that we tend to use this term.
Dialogue, for me, has become the process of making sense or meaning (logos) of things in the place where we find ourselves. All of these places have their stories of heroes that point the way. The important thing is not which of these heroes is greatest (and then insisting that he be the hero for everyone, which is the direction that an earlier form of missionary work, that I was part of, took). Rather the important thing is to understand the way that we all make sense of things. This is the reason why I am (re)immersing myself in this Christian tradition even as I find myself seemingly far removed from the forms that once were central to me.
Immersing myself like this in the world that shaped me is important for a number of reasons: One is to help me become more aware of how I see the world, and understand what assumptions I use to construct reality for myself. Another is to help me better appreciate that others have their own – different – ways of seeing the world or constructing reality for themselves. The third, and most important reason is so that I can better bring my unique – but clearly relative – truth to other levels of interaction that will allow new and deeper truths – logos – to emerge.
So, maybe this is what I’m trying to do with this Holy Week immersion: I am not simply attempting to resurrect the historical Jesus as the center of my life; rather I am trying to remember and acknowledge what and who I am deep inside (as someone shaped by this historical figure-become divine symbol), so that I can bring this valid and unique perspective in a more skillfully conscious way to the continuing critical conversation to discover and understand the logos that underpins all life. This, it seems to me, is as vital a conversation for us, and our children, as any other.
For that to happen in the deep, rich way that is needed to generate meaning and purpose that is relevant to us all, we all need to immerse ourselves in our roots. For there is no one who experiences life in a vacuum: there is no ‘immaculate perception’ for any of us, including – perhaps especially – those of us who would claim such objectivity because we have stepped away from our cultural (and religious) roots. Even if we have rejected not only the literal or magical interpretations of our particular scriptures but also the principles and values and structures of the religious cultures of our childhood (or even our grandparents) we have inevitably internalized many elements of that religious culture that constitute the particular lens through which we encounter the world and make meaning. For example, I can see where my rather reactive attitude to authority comes from, but also my sense of justice.
In order to participate in the continuing critical dialogue we need today to find meaning and purpose, we all need to immerse ourselves in our histories: our own Holy Weeks. So I invite you to immerse yourself in whatever tradition that shaped you, one that you may have long since stepped away from. For the stories remain in us like cellular memories, even if we are two or three generations away from the ancestors who practiced the rituals that the stories generated.
Perhaps my sense of something akin to loss or nostalgia comes from my intuition that the Dialogue – about Jesus in my case or about Buddha or Mohammed, or about religion in general – is not over. Perhaps it has not been done as creatively or skillfully as it might: certainly not in this generation.
Do you feel that tug: to do this right; take a closer look at what was maybe so important one time; and explore what it is you’re feeling a hunger for now that other things don’t seem to fill?
Already half-way through Holy Week, I can see that Jesus, for me, is a manifestation of Christ – the blueprint or template (logos) of all living things: certainly an evolved manifestation, though not, thereby, unique in the sense of superior to all others; but clearly unique for those who know him. In that sense he still does play a critical role, the way an important ancestor whose genes you have inherited does, or the way someone you have spent a lot of time with when you were younger still touches something deep in you. Like the Little Prince’s rose. What’s your story? Your rose?