The Shaken Empty Tomb

lightingEasterFire (2)Matthew says there was an earthquake when the angel of the Lord came down, rolled away the stone of an empty tomb and sat on it. Both the earthquake and the empty tomb give us apt images for the way we experience Easter this year.

An earthquake turns the world turned topsy-turvy in a short time and that is exactly what the COVID-19 pandemic has done. Suddenly everything is out of place. Church, the place of refuge in hard times has become a place of danger. Schools are empty. Community is suddenly located on the Internet where social critics have said it is conspicuously absent.

The earthquake has Eastertide, like the tomb, feeling empty this year. The boisterous celebrations with trumpets and choirs aren’t happening. Here at the abbey, we celebrate the Easter Vigil the way we usually do except for simplifying the lighting of the Easter fire and the procession. But we usually have a lot of people join us for the liturgy and this year nobody can come. The church will feel empty. We usually have a party after the Easter Vigil. This year we will not because there is nobody to have a party with.

At Easter, we usually skip the empty tomb and jump to celebrate Jesus’ being raised to life, which is quite a lot to be excited about. The empty tomb is mentioned in all four Gospels but it seems beside the point when Jesus is walking around, still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion yet very much alive.

The earthquake and the empty tomb go together. An earthquake shakes everything up, leaving us with a lot of empty space. And that’s what the empty tomb is: an empty space where the body of Jesus was supposed to be. Since, in Matthew’s Gospel, the angel wastes no time in telling the women that Jesus is risen and the women run into Jesus himself almost immediately on their way to tell the disciples, we are not given time to reflect on the empty tomb. The other evangelists, especially John, give us more time for this.

But let’s linger at the empty tomb just a bit in this time of loss and fear of more loss. The empty tomb is a hole in the Resurrection. How can the Resurrection have a hole in it? Isn’t the Resurrection about the fullness of life? But emptiness and fullness go together when it comes to the spiritual life. We go through life with gnawing desires that can’t be filled and sometimes shouldn’t be. Usually we don’t even realize it. If we stop and reflect, the emptiness stares us in the face. That is why many prefer not to stop and reflect.

When an earthquake like the pandemic strikes, we are so shaken up that it is very hard to avoid thinking about what really matters in life and what doesn’t. Things important yesterday aren’t so important today. The disciples thought they knew Jesus pretty well but when Jesus allowed himself to be handed over to the Jewish and Roman authorities and be crucified by them, they weren’t so sure they knew Jesus after all. Wasn’t he the one who was going to redeem Israel? Doesn’t look like he’s done that.

The earthquake and the empty tomb give us the space to empty out our preconceptions about Jesus, and what it means for Jesus to reveal God to us. One of the preconceptions is the need to organize society around who is “in” and who is “out.” Jesus was cast out of the city and crucified so that society could come together in his absence. But Jesus’ absence, the empty tomb, becomes the center. And in this empty center, Jesus comes to greet us and to tell us not to be afraid. Strange words to hear in the midst of a frightening earthquake and in an empty tomb. Can we hear these words? Can we empty ourselves enough to let the greeting of Jesus fill us with a new life that is beyond our understanding, a new life that will transform the crisis of today and the crises we will face in the future?

Myth Become Fact

crosswButterfliesOne of the more memorable phrases culled from C.S. Lewis is Christ is “myth made fact.” The notion kind of sneaked up on Lewis during the process that lead to his conversion to Christianity.  An offhand remark by his friend T.D. Weldon, a fellow Oxford don and, like Lewis at the time an avowed atheist, made a deep impression on him over the years: “Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. It almost looks as if it really happened once.” Of course, that is precisely the claim of the Gospels.

Lewis’ insight is worth comparing with René Girard’s view of Jesus in relation to mythology. Girard, of course, also studied Frazer’s writings about deities, mainly vegetative deities, dying and rising. Frazer, seems to have absorbed Jesus into the other myths, blurring the distinction between them. Girard, on the other hand, believes that both the myths and the Gospel accounts refer to real events. Here, he also differs from Lewis who seems to have thought of myths as something like cosmic poetry, dealing with timeless truths, such as the vegetative cycle in temperate climates where nature, like Persephone, dies and then rises again. For Girard, all myths, in their origins, are made fact.

Girard’s thesis of sacred violence asserts that social tensions in early societies were resolved, if they were resolved at all, by collective violence that was very real. Mythology then became something of a cover up of this event while still alluding to it. The rising from the dead in such mythology would be the deification of the victim who, in retrospect, was seen as the solution for the problem for which the victim was earlier blamed. Tying such mythology into the vegetative cycle raises suspicions for me that this development, if it did not originate in agricultural societies, was greatly furthered within them. After all, the claiming of land by a tribe would easily inspire other people to desire that land. In such a setting, social tensions leading to the victimage mechanism would happen much quicker than in hunter/gatherer societies. Girard’s thesis also suggests that the real cycle is not in nature but in human activity. That is, an act of collective violence holds a society together for only so long before it needs to happen again. The mythological cycle, then, is a vicious cycle.

For Girard, then, the Gospel narrative of Jesus dying and rising is not the historicization of a timeless truth, but an instantiation of a scenario that had been happening in reality, in time, since the dawn of humanity. What’s new about the Gospels is that the story is told straight out and the victim is claimed to be innocent and was unjustly murdered. For Girard, it isn’t so much a case of myth become fact as the truth behind myth revealed.

As a Christian, Lewis retained sympathy for the myths of dying and rising deities, regarding them as great poetry. Girard, of course, is not so affirming of mythology, as he sees it as obscuring the truth. However, Girard’s point of view does not necessarily mean that myths are bad poetry. Moral goodness and ascetic goodness are not equivalent, after all.

There is a deeper reason though for being open to Lewis’ sympathy. It was the pathos of a deity like Balder who was killed through collective violence that moved Lewis, and it was the same sensitivity that should make the passion of Jesus deeply moving as well. (Interestingly, Lewis went through a period where the dying pagan deities moved him more than the story of Christ; perhaps a residue of his resistance to conversion.) Although a myth such as that of Tiamat, who was blamed for Babylon’s primordial chaos and torn to pieces, does not try to inspire sympathy for a victim the way the Psalms of Lament do, we can see a woman victimized by the people who made a strenuous effort to avoid seeing what they were doing.

There is a deeper reason for sympathy for myth. Deplorable as the countless acts of collective violence were and continue to be, Girard’s thesis also demonstrates how profoundly people were caught up in this mechanism so that they could not escape without intervention from God. It is precisely this intervention from God to free humans in bondage that Paul celebrates time and again in his epistles. If we need this intervention from God in Christ, then we are hardly in a position to be judgmental against the first humans that fell into the same traps we do.

Transfiguration of the Material World

transfigurationThe Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor is celebrated twice in the Church Year. The celebration on the last Sunday before Lent stresses the event’s preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. The celebration in August, being a standalone feast, can be seen as a celebration of Creation in all its materiality. Since there is no feast of the Creation, any celebration that points to our origins in God’s creative Desire is for the good.

That Jesus’ body and his clothing should be transfigured by a dazzling light is about as powerful a sign of the goodness of the material world as anything could be. The only fly in this primordial ointment is the suspicion that if the material world needed to be transfigured, then it wasn’t all that perfect to begin with. That is, the material world is impure, at least to some extent, and needs to be purified. Eastern Orthodox writers, however, suggest that it wasn’t that Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, but that the disciples’ eyes were opened so that they could see the transfiguration that, for Jesus, was an ongoing reality.

The powerful and startling story of the transfiguration of Seraphim of Sarov emphatically illustrates this truth. Seraphim was discussing spiritual matters one night with his disciple Nicholas Motovilov when suddenly Nicholas saw his staretz engulfed in transfiguring light. When Nicholas remarked on this, Seraphim said he had not changed but Nicholas’ ability to see had changed. Not only that, but Nicholas, unknown to himself, was also shining in the same transfiguring light.

If we can see all of the material world from the simplest atoms to the grains of dirt to squirrels and cats to humans in the transfigured light in which they, we, are all created, we will not reach out to grasp anything out of a lust for ownership or push anything or anyone away with expulsion. (See Connecting our Desires.) The catch is that we must be transfigured ourselves in this same light in order to see the transfigured glory all about us.

This need brings us back to the second and more fundamental meaning of the Transfiguration: the redemption of the groaning created world (Rom.8) by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. If our vision of reality is occluded by society’s tendency to hold itself together through the victimization of others through ownership and/or expulsion as Egypt was under Pharaoh, then we will not see the transfigured truth of the world under the Risen forgiving Victim breathes the Paraclete through our eyes and mirror neurons to show us the truth. (See Mirroring Desires.)

Yes, God’s act(s) of Creation is the beginning of the universe but Creation is also each present time of the universe up to and including the present moment and Creation is the End of the universe in the sense of being its goal. It is God’s creative work in redemption all along that has alerted us to the truth of Creation, starting with the deliverance of a ragtag group of slaves expelled from Egypt, continuing with the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile to the Resurrection of Jesus where Mary Magdalene enters a garden to recalls the Garden of Eden and mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener.

May we open our eyes to see this renewed glory within ourselves and around us, a glory filled with God’s Desire for all Creation.

How Are We Saved?

yellowTulips1The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that   has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard,  opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.