God’s Sabbath Rest

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years (Lk. 13: 13–17) is one of many healing miracles where the Evangelist emphasizes its occurrence on the Sabbath. These healings were provocative to the Jewish leaders because they interpreted the Sabbath law to preclude any kind of work. Jesus clearly intended to challenge that interpretation but there is a deeper teaching about the Sabbath that he wants us to learn.

We see hints of this deeper teaching in these stirring words from Isaiah about the Sabbath:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 58: 13–14)

For the prophet, one dishonors the Sabbath by grimly pursuing one’s own interests instead of delighting in the Lord. In healing the crippled woman, Jesus was not pursuing his own interests, but that of another. More important, the healing caused much delight in the Lord on the part of the people who witnessed it except for the Leader of the Synagogue. A bit earlier, before speaking specifically of the Sabbath, Isaiah expressed God’s commendation of those who offer food to the hungry and “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” ( Is. 58: 10) Jesus obviously thought that satisfying the need of an afflicted woman is a way of honoring the Sabbath.

Psalm 95 refers to God’s “Rest” to mean both entry into the Promised Land and the Sabbath Rest as God’s intended end for humanity. The rebellion of the Israelites in the desert threatens to prevent the Israelites from entering God’s “Rest” on both levels. (Ps. 95: 11) The author of Hebrews picks up this theme in its eschatological dimension, noting that Joshua had not led the Israelites into the ultimate Rest when we cease from [our] labors as God did from his.” (Heb. 4: 10)

The author of Hebrews returns to this eschatological theme at the end of the letter when he contrasts the frightening dark cloud of Mount Sinai that the Israelites came to with our coming to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12: 22–24) Once again, we have corporate rejoicing. More important, we have the “better word” of Jesus, the Forgiving Victim in contrast to Abel’s blood that inspired vengeance from which God had to shield the murderer.

The Psalmist’s warning that those who murmur against God and Moses will not enter into God’s Rest and the author of Hebrews’s use of the same threatening tone for those who refuse the warning from Heaven sound vindictive but the “better word than Abel” suggests otherwise. I think we do better to realize that God’s Sabbath Rest isn’t so restful as long as we grumble like the Leader of the Synagogue. Nobody was casting him out of God’s Sabbath Rest; he just wasn’t having any part of it.

Inspired by Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week, most Christians celebrate the Sabbath on that day when we celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ at the altar. Since the Resurrection points to the ultimate meaning of the Sabbath, I would think it is not too much to see this healing by Jesus as one of many foretastes of the Resurrection, an encouragement to celebrate new life from the bondage of illness and injury and social oppression. The healing of just one person seems a small thing compared to the heavenly crowd in Hebrews but the whole crowd rejoiced in the healing, indicating that healing one person entailed healing the whole community. This group rejoicing suggests that the Sabbath Rest is hardly a boring, static existence but a dynamic rejoicing in the interests and healing of others which leaves no room for murmuring and rejecting God’s blessings. We should be too busy rejoicing for that.

Sight and Vision Recreated

sideAltarsIcons1When I last posted a blog post on the story of Jesus healing a man born blind (Jn. 9), I suggested in passing that Jesus’ daubing the man’s eyes with mud mixed with his spittle and asking him to wash it at Siloam recalled the creation of the first human out of clay in Genesis 2. This time around, I noticed that this detail is repeated three times to give it a strong emphasis. First when John narrates the action, second, when his neighbors ask him how it is that he can see, and third, when the Pharisees question the man. This is three times in the span of nine verses. Then, after confirming with the man’s parents that he had indeed been born blind, the Pharisees ask him again how he regained his sight. The man offers to tell his story yet again but the Pharisees cut him off. Even so, we have been reminded once again of what Jesus has done. That’s a lot of emphasis.

This thrice and almost four-times repeated telling alerts us to the importance of the link between this miracle and creation, thus making it an act of re-creation. The obvious symbolism of blindness and sight suggest that Jesus is re-creating something more than eyesight for the man born blind. What blindness is Jesus healing? According the French think René Girard, humanity has been blind since its birth by what he calls the “scapegoat mechanism.” That is, since the dawn of humanity social tensions have been solved through suddenly uniting against a victim. Girard also says that this scapegoat mechanism only worked for early societies because people were blind to what they were doing. Girard then argues that it is the Gospels that have definitively revealed the truth of the scapegoat mechanism. (For an introduction to Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

This story indeed thrusts us right in the middle of the scapegoat mechanism and the blindness it causes. We can see the ever-increasing circles of persecutory violence depicted in this story from the disciples’ assuming that the man was born blind because somebody sinned to the Pharisees expelling the healed man from the synagogue and setting their sights on Jesus.

For those of us who had something of a “eureka!” experience upon encountering Girard’s thought there is the danger of thinking that this insight into the scapegoat mechanism is a quick fix. Now we know the problem; we can fix it and stop persecuting people any more. It doesn’t work that way and the creation imagery in John’s story tells us why. John is telling us that we need the same radical make over in order to see that a person born blind needs in order to gain intelligible sight. If we need to be recreated in the same way, then the preliminary insight into the scapegoat mechanism is only the beginning of a long journey of being re-formed into Christ. The baptismal imagery of the water washing the clay deepens this need for re-forming.

Those of us working with Girard’s thought now have a history if several decades of struggling to become more and more aware of ways that we scapegoat others. One of the more dangerous pitfalls is what we call “scapegoating the scapegoaters.” This sounds and feels so righteous, but it falls into exactly the same pattern as the Pharisees we are denouncing in this story.

Girard’s insight into the scapegoat mechanism is not a quick fix; it is a very slow fix that takes a lifetime of prayer, meditation, alert practice in our social relationships and, most of all, constant vigilance over our inner pull toward scapegoating others. All this time, we have to be as malleable as moist clay so that God can re-create us and re-form us in God’s Desire for us and for humanity.

Two books I have written dealing with the practicalities of spirituality are Tools for Peace and Moving and Resting in God’s Desire.

Treasures in Clay Jars: Veiled Missions

GregoryIcon1When Paul says that “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake,” (1 Cor. 4: 5) he is forcefully rooting his identity not in himself but in Christ. We are easily prone to the illusion that we each have a self that belongs to me and is mine to do whatever I please with it.

This illusion of an individualistic self is the veil “that has blinded the minds of the unbelievers who are perishing.” It is the “god of this world” who has cast this veil. The veil is what René Girard identified as the persecutory mechanism that has marred humanity since the dawn of civilization. It was precisely this system that was exposed in the Gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. When Paul says that the Gospel is veiled to those who are perishing, he does not mean that God is casting people into hell; he means that as long as the Gospel is veiled, we perish in our own violence without even realizing it. When we are not rooted in Christ so as to proclaim Christ rather than ourselves, we are caught in the winds of human desires that carry us in all directions, all of them prone to collective violence. Moreover, we fall into cunning and falsification of God’s word and the shameful things we hide. These reflections seem to continue Paul’s discussion in the previous chapter of this epistle of the veil that covers the faces of Jews when they read the Torah, but by universalizing the veiling, Paul moves the unkind words about his own people. Universalizing the veil has the great advantage of showing that neither Jew nor Gentile has the thicker veil; all of us have it when we fall into systemic scapegoating violence.

Paul appeals to creation as providing the light that takes away the veil and gives us a glimpse of the world as it is meant to be. “For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord” (2 Cor. 4: 6). It is the fall into systemic violence that has obscured this glory. It is inspiring that this glory of the created world shows us the face of Christ, a hint that Jesus planned to enter into Creation to enjoy the world with us and didn’t come up with the plan to be incarnate just to make repairs when things went wrong.

It is perhaps this vision of creation unveiled that inspired Pope Gregory to discern what elements of the English culture could be converted rather than rejecting them wholesale. He advised Augustine of Canterbury to convert the temples rather than destroy them. Of course, just as we have to practice discernment as to what must and can be converted and subverted in another’s culture, we have to practice the same discernment with the veils placed over our own faces by our own culture. The famous story of how Gregory, before he became pope, was inspired to promulgate an English mission is a case in point. Upon seeing some fair youths in the slave market in Rome, Gregory asked who they were. On being told that they were Angles, Gregory, in uttering one of the most famous of puns, said that instead, they should become angels. If anything embodies the persecutory mechanism, it is slavery. Chesterton suggested that Gregory could (or should) have meant: “not slaves, but souls.” The veil lifted enough for Gregory to see the youths as humans in need of salvation and, as pope, he sent a mission to do just that, but the veil did not lift enough for Gregory to agitate for the abolition of slavery, much as he was willing to be a slave himself for the sake of those in need of his pastoral care. That job was left to an energetic descendent of the people converted by Gregory: William Wilberforce.

Preaching in the face of such veils, not least our own, is a daunting task and it is no wonder Paul urges us not to lose heart in the process. It is enough to make us feel like clay and Paul tells us that feeling like clay is exactly the way we should feel when faced with the task of preaching the Gospel. When we realize that we are made of clay, as Genesis 2:7 teaches us, we appreciate what a great gift are the treasures inside the clay jars that are us, a gift from God so that we can “commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).