It Was Necessary

yellowTulips1Easter is an occasion of great rejoicing with bells, boisterous singing, and feasting. But do we really know what we are celebrating? The Gospel reading, doesn’t exactly ring out with Christmas joy of angels filling the skies with songs of God’s glory. Instead, we get “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell the women who came to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body that Jesus was not there but had risen. They had come to the wrong place.

A small group of confused women running off to stammer the news to the disciples isn’t exactly a celebration either. The disciples’s thinking the news is an “idle tale” may reflect a masculine condescending attitude towards women, but their reaction also shows how totally disorienting the news was. The Gospel reading ends with Peter running to the tomb to take a look for himself, seeing the empty linen clothes lying about, and then going home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Lk. 24: 12) Still no celebration; just a lot of unanswered questions. Luke continues his Resurrection narrative with two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus with no indication of why they should be going there, implying that they are going the wrong way. Their conversation with a stranger on the way confirms their sense of confusion. Should we, too, be too disoriented to celebrate?

I think the key to understanding the problem lies in the words of the angelic beings: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24: 6–7) The stranger who met up with the two disciples asked them rhetorically: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24: 26) The word “must” is the key here. The Greek word dei is often translated “it is necessary.” In this case, for whom was it “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners to be crucified and then rise on the third day? There is a tendency to think the death was necessary for God, but that suggests that God needed to have God’s own son die a painful death. Many people have a problem with that notion, I among them.

I find the French thinker René Girard helpful here. He interprets the available anthropological evidence as indicating a tendency of archaic societies to solve social tensions by a process that transforms competitive relationships throughout the society into a shared desire to focus on one person and then kill that person who is deemed responsible for the social tensions. The ensuing peace (for a time) is so strong that the victim is then worshiped as a deity. It is this social mechanism that convinces people that it is necessary for “god” that the victim be killed. Throughout this process, the truth of the victim is precisely what nobody knows, except possibly the victim.

This truth of the victim was gradually being revealed in the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, most prominently in the verses about the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, whom the people accounted “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (Is. 53: 4) But then the people realized that they, not the victim, were the guilty ones. God had vindicated the “stricken one,” not the persecutors. It was these passages in Isaiah that most helped Jesus’ followers begin to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.

But on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples had not thought to connect Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Jesus had told them many times that it was “necessary” that he be handed over to be crucified, but they could not understand. How could it be “necessary” that the man who they thought was going to restore Israel should be handed over to death? They assumed it was “necessary” that the guilty ones be handed over, not the innocent. Then, at Passover time, Jesus was deemed to be the guilty one who was causing the tumult by both religious and civil authorities, and so he was handed over. But the disciples had thought Jesus was innocent. Had they gotten their man wrong? Their fleeing when Jesus was arrested suggests they weren’t so sure.

The empty tomb was the first hint that Jesus’ death wasn’t business as usual. A tomb was supposed to have the corpse of the guilty one, but this one didn’t. The announcement of the angelic beings to the women was a stronger hint that Jesus was innocent after all. The women were told that it, although it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over and killed, it was even more necessary that Jesus be raised from the dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed Jesus’ followers that the “necessity” that Jesus die was a human necessity, a necessity of human factors, and that it was Jesus’ rising from the dead that was the true divine necessity. Only then could the disciples have their minds opened to understand the scriptures when the Risen Lord met with them himself. (Lk. 24: 45)

It is gloriously great news and a wondrous cause for rejoicing that we are freed from the human “necessity” to blame a victim who is put to death for the crimes of a society. That is, unless we feel too disoriented about not having scapegoats. Maybe that is why rejoicing in Jesus’ Resurrection is a much greater challenge than rejoicing in the birth of a child who is going to accomplish something great—what, we don’t know. Rejoicing in the necessity that Jesus be raised from the dead requires us to change our minds and hearts in radical ways to take in this news. Most challenging of all, we have to accept and then embody the forgiveness of the Risen Victim when storms of accusation remain the status quo even at this present day. Are we up to the challenge? Will we come to the party?

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

Benedict’s Easter

BenedictChurchStatue1An early Easter throws many things awry, not least the saints’ calendar. St. Benedict’s day is normally celebrated on March 21, but this year, it was transferred to Monday after Easter Week. Thinking about St. Benedict in terms of Easter reminds me of what he said about Lent in Chapter 49 of his Rule.

Why would we want to think about Lent when we have just survived it and are now celebrating Easter? Well, Benedict famously thinks we should practice lent all year round. That means we should practice lent during Easter too. And here we thought we had Lent over with for a year! So why would we want to go back to Lent? For one thing, Benedict thinks that we should “wash away the negligences of other times” during Lent. That’s really a good thing to do all the time, rather than waiting for Lent to do it. Benedict also says that we should “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” If it’s Easter already, what do we need to look forward to it? But when we realize Benedict wasn’t thinking about looking forward to jelly beans and chocolate, it becomes clear that Benedict has an eschatological yearning in mind.

Longing for Easter, of course, is yearning to actually live the life of the Resurrection. Benedict expresses this Easter yearning at the end of the Prolog to his Rule when he says that we shall run with “our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” Sounds like a good thing to have all year round. It is this Easter Joy that Benedict says we should run toward, not walk and certainly not dawdle. Benedict’s admonition to long for Easter helps us understand why we should run towards Easter even though Easter is already here. It is one thing for Easter to arrive in the course of days. It is another thing for God to inspire us with the life of Jesus’ Resurrection all year round. It is yet another thing for us to be inspired by the Resurrected life of Jesus. Washing away our negligences and running rather than wasting any more time helps us to be inspired by the Resurrected life by opening our hearts to the “inexpressible delight of love.”

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Handing Ourselves Over

crosswButterfliesLuke’s version of Jesus’ Resurrection is much the gentlest among the synoptic Gospels. No earthquakes and no women running off so afraid that they can tell nobody what they had seen at the empty tomb. The women were, indeed, terrified of the two men in “dazzling clothes” who appeared to them. But by the time, but before long they have remembered, with prompting from the men in white, Jesus’ words to them.

Among the words the women were reminded of was that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified.” (Lk. 24:7) The key word is that Jesus was “handed over.” Jesus was put into the power of the sinners. However, something much deeper had happened than that. If we look back to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with the fear that his ministry had come to nothing, but then he handed himself over to his heavenly Abba. (See Gethsemane) It was only after handing himself over to his Abba that he allowed himself to be handed over into the power of sinners.

The death of Jesus is also portrayed more gently in Luke than in Mark or Matthew. Luke does not include Jesus’ anguished cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” although Jesus did cry out in a loud voice. What he then said was: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk. 24: 46) At the last, Jesus in handing himself over to sinners, had really handled himself over to his heavenly Abba. The words, in themselves, seem serene, but, in Gethsemane, where Jesus made his decision to hand himself over, his stress was so great that his sweat became “like drops of blood.” Commending himself to his Abba was not easy.

On Easter morning, Jesus found himself alive because he did not try to grab his life with force, but rather, Jesus had given it up. Grabbing his own life with force would have entailed using force to lead an insurrection against the Roman Empire. In doing so, he could, for a time have thought that his ministry had come to something after all. But by trying to make his life secure, he would have lost it. (Lk. 17: 33) In receiving his life from his heavenly Abba, Jesus had the Abba’s life to give to all. This is why it was futile for the women to look for the living among the dead. (Lk. 24: 5) Jesus, very much alive, was not there. He was among the living, walking on the Road to Emmaus, seeking to make Cleopas and his companion more alive than they were, so that their hearts would burn as Jesus explained the scriptures to them. If Jesus had not given up his life to gain it, he would not have had such overflowing life to give to others.

We too, are called to hand ourselves over to Jesus’ heavenly Abba. As our world grows more violent, we are tempted to do something rather than hand ourselves over to our Abba, but doing something in violent situations tends to keep them violent. Instead, we need to create space for the heavenly Abba to give us the life He gave to His own Son. In this way, we participate in Jesus’s death and in his glorious Resurrection.

Rising to the Life of Christ

crosswButterfliesWhen St. Paul says in Romans that we are baptized into Jesus’ death, what kind of death are we baptized into? An aged person drifting off while asleep? A ritual death with no consequences? No, we are baptized into the death of Jesus. This particular death, the one we are baptized into, is a judicial death resulting from collective violence. This is the shameful death of an alleged insurrectionist at the hands of an Empire. This death was caused by the meltdown of rivalry in the society of first century Jerusalem, exacerbated by the betrayal and cowardice of Jesus’ closest followers.

Once we know what death we are baptized into, we know what life we are raised to. In his risen life, Jesus showed no resentment or vengeance to those who had gathered to put him to death or had dispersed out of cowardice.  Moreover, Jesus was not entangled in any of the rivalrous feuds that are a way of life for most humans. Imagine living without all the entanglements and resentments swirling around and inside of us. Hard to do, isn’t it? That is how radically different the risen life is from the life we live now.

If our “old self” is crucified with Jesus, then we have, like Jesus, died in the place of the victim. That means we have died to our tendency to fuel resentments and resolve these resentments through gathering against the victim, as Paul himself repented of having held the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen and openly approving of what they did.

None of this means that repenting of personal sins and faults doesn’t matter and that becoming free of them is part of the resurrected life. However, Christian teaching has a strong tendency to stress personal renewal to such an extent that horrifyingly sick participation in collective persecution goes unnoticed. That hundreds of thousands of Christians could lynch thousands of black people shows us now, now that the lynching era is over, how easily this sort of group contagion can take over in what is often called an “enlightened” and “civilized” era.

Rather than congratulating ourselves on giving up lynching after roughly a hundred years of the sport, I suggest we take careful note of the growing polarization in our country over social and religious issues. Honest disagreement is not a problem; it’s a good thing, something that keeps us honest. But polarization tends to be conflict for the sake of conflict so that conflict feeds itself and it feeds each one of us. Never mind that polarized conflict is as nourishing to humans as sawdust and glue. What is really dangerous about this polarization is that it easily collapses into collective violence as a way of resolving the tensions.

If we wish to be serious about living the risen life with Christ, we must be baptized by the love and forgiveness of the risen Christ and allow him to gently but firmly remove all the resentments we feed on so as to feed on body and blood of the Lamb of God who reaches out to everybody with vulnerable love.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you be overwhelmed by such a thing in baptism?

A Risen Life Full of Forgiveness and Love

crosswButterfliesHere is my favorite thought experiment: Imagine that everybody around you ganged up on you, leveled incredible accusations against you, and rained savage blows on your body. Your friends either joined in the persecution or slunk away, too afraid to defend you. Your attackers pressed on until they had put you to a most painful death. Imagine further that, miraculously, you found yourself alive three days later. Having already died, you could hardly die again. You have become invincible. What would you do to the people who had mistreated you? How would you approach your cowardly friends?

Perhaps this thought experiment can give us an inkling of how amazing it is that, when this very miracle happened to Jesus, he did not retaliate, but instead, invited everybody to a big whooping party that will never end. After rising from the dead, Jesus continued to do what he was doing before he was killed: gather God’s people in peace by peaceful means only. That is, after his Resurrection, Jesus practiced what he preached in the Sermon on the Mount: return evil with good, hatred with love. The fullness of Jesus ‘forgiving love can be as earth-shattering as an earthquake or as gentle as stepping through a wall.

If Jesus were dead and there was a body in the tomb for the women to anoint, chances are that Jesus’ disciples would either have remained in hiding or they would have reacted to the violent act of the crucifixion with violence. But in Luke the young men in white asked the women: “Why seek the living among the dead?” That is, God did not will the death of Jesus, God willed life for Jesus because that is what God wills for each one of us. As long as we stop at Jesus’ death, we also stop at the grief and anger and that leads to violence. If we move on to the life of Jesus, than there isn’t the same room for grief and anger because Jesus is alive and wants us to be alive in Him.

In short order, Peter passes on the same absence of revenge of Jesus’ persecutors and fullness of forgiving love for them when he tells the people in Jerusalem precisely what they had done, sticking to the bare facts and not adding irrelevant insults the way we usually do in such situations. When Peter’s listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked: “What should we do?” Peter extended the invitation that he and the disciples had received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a far cry from the response we get from most followers of a slain leader. Peter had heard the cock crow, repented and accepted Christ’s forgiveness and love. Peter was a weak human being like the rest of us. If Peter is like us, we can be like him.

See also Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.