Jesus and the Rich Man: “Do you want me to tell you easy things?”

The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is a careful reconstruction of a Roman villa. Funded by the estate of a 20th century oil billionaire, it is a lavish display of the wealth of two eras: the ancient world and our own Gilded Age.

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

–– Hebrews 4:12-13

 

Is that why we come to church––to be pierced by the sharpness of God’s word, to have our innermost selves laid bare to the eyes of the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid?” [i]

Not all the time, surely. Who could bear that? In a world of sin and strife, we all need an oasis of rest and refreshment, a word of consolation and encouragement. But God is not always easy, as our first two readings make clear.

“Today my complaint is bitter,” cries Job. “God’s hand is heavy despite my groaning. . .
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” [ii]

And the Psalmist who sings of goodness and mercy, and a soul restored by divine presence, is now heard to cry out one of the most terrible lines in all of Scripture:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [iii]

No, God is not always easy. And neither is Jesus. One moment he’s the Good Shepherd, saying “Come unto me, all you who struggle and are heavily laden, and I will refresh you,” and the next moment he’s challenging you to change your life.

The poet John Berryman captures this contradictory quality when he says that Jesus’ words were “short, precise, terrible, & full of refreshment.” [iv] Another poet, James McAuley, echoes the image from Hebrews in his own poem about Jesus:

He thrust his speech among them like a sword. . .
And told them nothing that they wished to hear. [v]

Today’s gospel, Mark 10:17-31, is a case in point. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” At first, Jesus gives the stock answer, like something out of the catechism:

“You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

The man, impatient for an answer he has not yet found, shoots back, “Yes, Teacher. I’ve always kept those commandments, even when I was young.” This gets Jesus’ full attention. The text tells us that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. That’s such an interesting description. He looked at him and loved him. It sounds a little like love at first sight. There isn’t another sentence quite like it in the gospels.

If this were a movie we’d get a closeup of Jesus’ face, taking in the man’s truest and best self with a gaze that is both affectionate and inquisitive, as though his eyes are asking, “Are you the disciple I’ve been waiting for so long to show up, the disciple whose singleness of heart, shorn of all lesser desires, wants nothing but the only thing truly worth having?” Then we’d cut to a closeup of the man’s face, so earnest and hopeful, on the verge of finding at last his heart’s true desire.

But then Jesus says to him, “There’s just one more thing you need to do; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”

We can imagine the man’s expectant face slowly collapsing into disappointment. This is not what he wanted to hear. He lowers his head and stares at the ground, trying to absorb the shock of Jesus’ shattering directive. Then he gets up and backs away slowly, like a boxer reeling from a punch, until he finally turns his back on Jesus and disappears into the crowd. As Mark reports, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I’ve had to listen to this gospel many, many times in the liturgy––for seven decades. And as a North American person with more privileges and possessions than most of the earth’s inhabitants, I have always shared the agonizing discomfort of that man who found it way too hard to give up everything for the sake of the gospel.

Some Christians have taken this story quite literally. In the 3rdcentury, a wealthy young man named Antony heard it read at Sunday mass. He could not escape the feeling that the words were aimed directly at him. As soon as the liturgy was over, he rushed out to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and move to the desert, where for the next 80 years he lived a life of radical simplicity and exemplary sanctity––a life which had a great impact on the development of monastic spirituality.

A thousand years later, another wealthy young man shocked his family and friends when he renounced his worldly goods to embrace a life of poverty, service and prayer. We are still in awe of that man, Francis of Assisi, who found himself utterly unable to say no to Jesus.

In the 20th century, Dorothy Day would sacrifice the comforts of her class to live in solidarity with the poor, founding the Catholic Worker and devoting her heart and mind and strength to the vision of a just and peaceful society.

Many other saints have done the same. And even though you and I are not going to walk out those doors this morning to give away everything we have, we cannot repress the questions which the story of the rich man poses for us. We’ve heard this gospel before, and we’ll hear it again. And each time we must wonder, what is it trying to say to us?

There is no single answer, no single response to the challenge of this gospel. It’s a story, not a rule, and most Christians have not felt compelled to take Jesus’ words to the rich man in the demandingly literal way of an Antony, Francis, or Dorothy Day. But this gospel will never cease to trouble us with questions about both personal and social economics. Is the common wealth of society justly distributed? What is true wealth in God’s eyes? And where does our own treasure lie?

In first-century Palestine, wealth was measured more by the amount of land you owned than by the number of things you had. And since land acquisition usually came through the default of debtors who could not keep up their payments, wealth at the top was accrued at the expense of those further down the economic ladder. More wealth for the rich meant more poverty for the rest.

We have a similar imbalance in our own day. Right now in America, the richest 10% own 77% of the nation’s wealth. The 20 richest individualsown more than the entire bottom half of the population. As wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, the poverty of the many grows wider and deeper. As in the time of Jesus, those at the top get richer by taking from those below them. The recent tax cuts are a perfect example, siphoning huge increases in wealth to the rich, while cutting survival assistance to the needy. Fewer school lunches for poor children, more private jets for the rich.

But if ours is an age of grotesque economic inequality, it is also an age of remarkable private generosity. We have come to look upon billionaires and wealthy foundations as the solvers of public problems, as they dispense impressive grants to improve the lives of the many. So when Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos give away enormous sums or underwrite beneficial actions, are they in fact doing what the rich man fails to do in the gospel story? Are they doing what Jesus asked?

Anand Giridharadas has studied this critical question, and in his provocative book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, he argues that the powerful rich who address problems without changing the very conditions that create those problems is at best a failure of social imagination. A lot of good may be done by the rich, but the system that perpetuates the wrongs being addressed remains firmly in place. In fact, such acts of benevolence provide justification for the continuation of the status quo, making it appear more benign than it really is.

In a recent talk in Seattle, Giridharadas put it this way:

“You can tell rich people to do more good, but you can never tell them to do less harm. You can tell them to give back, but you can never tell them to take less. You can tell them to share the spoils of the system that benefitted them, but you can’t ask them to concede that system.” [vi]

If this is true, then the question that Jesus poses to the rich man, and to us, is not simply about the individual stewardship of our personal wealth, but about our willingness to work and pray for a very different kind of economy.

As biblical scholar Ched Myers has argued in his commentary on this gospel story, if you want to enter God’s kingdom, you have to make an exodus from the dominant paradigm of economic inequality. “The only way [into the Kingdom],” he says, “is to restore to the poor what is theirs by the right of community justice.” [vii]

Perhaps a better term for the Kingdom of God would be the Economy of God, something that was first described in the Book of Exodus. God delivered the people of Israel from the unjust slave economy of Egypt, and then spent the next 40 years providing a desert workshop, trying to teach them a new economy, a new way of living together––without greed, fear, or self-protective violence.

In the desert, God’s people learned to depend on what the Lord’s Prayer calls “our daily bread” – whatever each day provides for you (“give us the bread we need today”).

In Egypt, the idea was to accumulate enough stuff that you didn’t have to depend on others. You didn’t have to trust that you would be provided for as you went along. You could live without God and live without neighbor. But in the desert, you needed God and you needed each other. Whenever the Israelites tried to hoard the manna that fell from heaven each morning, the manna would rot.

Now when the people of Israel came into the Promised Land, they succumbed to the trap of accumulation like the rest of us. But they did not entirely forget their desert wisdom. In the concepts of Sabbath and Jubilee, as well as the impassioned exhortations of the prophets, the Economy of God opposed the concentration of wealth through accumulation, while advocating the circulation of wealth through redistribution.

The Economy of God is an interdependent, communal condition where there are no more divisions of rich and poor. So when Jesus says that the idea of a rich man getting into the kingdom is as absurd as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, is he judging individual behavior? Or is he saying that in the Economy of God the categories of rich and poor will vanish with the just distribution of divine abundance?

The Economy of God is not like our commodity economy, where things are accumulated, hoarded, and protected by the threat of force. The Economy of God is a gift economy, where the gifts of creation and the gifts of human labor and skill are freely shared, the way manna was shared in the desert by the Israelites of the Exodus.

We practice that economy in this church every Sunday. Every time we break the bread and share it at Christ’s table, we remember the economy of grace taught to our ancestors. The eucharist is a rebuke to the selfish economics of haves and have-nots. It is an invitation into a new way of living and being together.

Is this too much to ask? The rich man in the gospel thought so. But as Wendell Berry reminds us, “The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent upon what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”

When Jesus invites the rich man to let go not only of his wealth, but also of his participation in an unjust economy, he is calling him out of his comfort zone into an entirely new way of being. That’s what Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do. As one of my former theology professors, Harvey Cox, has said,

Meeting [Jesus] always seemed to shake people up. He constantly pushed them to think beyond their own immediate interests, to picture themselves in a variety of situations in which choice and action were required – in short, to use their imaginations.” [viii]

In 1969, BBC television aired an unusual production on the life of Jesus, written by the brilliant David Potter. [ix] My favorite scene in this film shows Jesus trying to convey another one of his most challenging teachings––in this case, to love your enemies. As he moves among the crowd, Jesus gets them to embrace one other, as in our liturgical Passing of the Peace.

“Go on,” he says, “love each other. See? It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s easy––easy to love your brother, easy to love those who love you. Even the tax collector can do that. But tell me, tell me, happy people, what is so extraordinary about holding the hands of your brothers and sisters? Do you want me to congratulate you for that, for loving only those who love you? But I say, love your enemy. Love your enemy!

[The crowd is taken aback. Some murmur in protest.]

Love those who hate you, love those who would destroy you,
love the man who would kick you and spit at you. . .

[The protests grow louder.]

Listen to me! What I’m telling you now hasn’t been said since the world began.
I bring you the Way. I am holding up a light in the darkness. . .

 We cannot divide ourselves. We must love each other. . . Pray for your enemy, love your persecutor. . . It is easy to love only those who love you. Would I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?

Jesus might have said the same to the rich man. And to us.

Do you want me to tell you easy things?

 

 

 

 

[i] Collect for Purity, The Holy Eucharist Rite Two, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

[ii] Job 23:2, 16.

[iii] Psalm 22:1.

[iv] John Berryman, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” Love and Fame (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970). Berryman attributes the description to Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165).

[v] James McAuley, “Jesus,” Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess & Peggy Rosenthal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104. McAuley (1912-1981) was an Australian Roman Catholic.

[vi] Originally delivered September 20th, 2018, at Seattle’s Southside Commons as part of the Town Hall Civics lecture series, it was broadcast on the Seattle NPR station, KUOW, in their Speakers Forum: https://soundcloud.com/kuow/anand-giridharasdas-full-talk-at-southside-community-center

[vii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

[viii] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard (New York: Mariner Books, 2004), 25-6.

[ix] Son of Man (BBC, 1969), directed by Gareth Davies. Irish actor Colin Blakely played Jesus. Dennis Potter, who wrote the script, also wrote the strange and brilliant serial drama, The Singing Detectivein the 1980s.

Preaching on Jesus, Divorce, and the Kavanaugh Problem

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

 –– Mark 10:11-12

 

Is there any way to hear these words without wincing? It’s not exactly a preacher’s favorite text. We’d rather skip ahead to the part about Jesus blessing the little children. Divorce is a very painful subject. It’s painful to experience, painful to watch, painful to think about, painful to remember. But Jesus doesn’t sound very pastoral here. Don’t his words just add to the pain?

Certainly some Christians, and some churches, have used this text to judge and shame those whose marriages don’t endure. Some have even used it to deter spouses from leaving abusive or dangerous relationships. But I think that kind of hardheartedness to be a sadly mistaken reading of both the context and the content of this gospel passage. Let’s take a closer look.

In the full passage on divorce in Mark 10:2-12, there are actually two different conversations. One is public, and one is private. In the first, “some Pharisees” approach Jesus to “test” him. The Greek verb for “test” is the same one used by Mark for what Satan does to Jesus in the wilderness. So we know it’s not going to be a friendly dialogue. It’s going to be a verbal contest.

This happens a lot in the gospel. The Pharisees try to trip Jesus up, make him say something that will turn the people against him. In this case they ask, in a public setting where everyone can hear his answer, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Well, divorce was a hot topic at the time. Some Jews said yes, some said no. Whatever Jesus answers, think the Pharisees, he’s going to turn off anyone who takes the opposite position.

But Jesus doesn’t fall for this trap. Instead, he reframes the question in two ways. First of all, he makes it personal. The Pharisees present the question as abstract, not about a particular person’s situation but about a hypothetical “man.” But Jesus knows that the bond between two people is not theoretical but very personal and situational. So he asks his inquisitors, “What did Moses command you?”

In other words, “As individuals who wonder WWMD––what would Moses do?––tell me how you interpret Scripture when the question affects you personally? When Scripture and tradition speak on this matter, what do they say to you?”

It’s the kind of tactic Jesus used when he was asked about keeping the Sabbath. He made it personal and situational: Who among you wouldn’t bend a general principle when the need arises? The Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around.

So the flustered Pharisees, hoping to evade the existential dimension of divorce, try to keep the conversation theoretical. “Moses,” they replied, “allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Jesus now has them on the run.

“Why do you suppose Moses said this?” he asks. “It’s because your hearts are so hard, that you just aren’t very good at marriage. Nobody is, actually. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to let go of your selfishness and your power struggles and learn to give yourselves to one another with the same sacrificial self-offering that defines the divine life.”

Well, he didn’t exactly say it that way, but his employment of the Genesis image of two becoming one flesh implies everything which we believe about our calling as human beings: to give ourselves away for the sake of others, to live not for ourselves alone but in communion with one another. This is true whether you are called to be married, or to be single as Jesus himself was. The Trinitarian God desires that our lives reflect the divine life, that we be bonded with one another in a most holy communion. And woe to anyone who tries to divide and separate those whom God has joined together.

That was Jesus’ public teaching, and his inspired and exalted view of our vocation to love one another evidently reduced the Pharisees to silence. We imagine them slinking away, shaking their heads. Then Jesus and his disciples go inside, where they can speak more frankly as friends.

The disciples, who aren’t always so quick to understand their difficult teacher, want to know how his exalted idea of marriage applies to the specific question of divorce. We may wish for a more nuanced report of their private discussion, but all we get is the verse linking divorce and adultery, a saying which has caused so much trouble and hurt over the years.

The assertion that the remarriage of divorced persons is equivalent to adultery sounds extreme and unrealistic to us today. And it conjures up in our minds the pointed finger of judgment and shame, an image which hardly fits our understanding of Jesus as the model of compassion, the friend of those whose lives are fraught with brokenness and pain.

When we hear the phrase, “commit adultery,” it can sound like a specific act of a salacious nature, reinforced by countless movies. But in the original Greek text, the word “commit” is not even there. The verb Jesus uses is “adulterate,” and it is rendered in the passive voice, suggesting a condition or state of being rather than a specific occurrence. A more literal translation of the text would say that “whoever” experiences a broken marriage “is adulterated.”

Adulterate, from the Latin verb to alter or change, means to dilute or weaken an original substance by the admixture of other elements. When love is mixed with something less than love, it becomes adulterated. So perhaps we can hear Jesus’ words more as a statement of fact rather than an accusation or judgment.

There can be bad reasons for ending a marriage, and there can be good reasons. But a failed marriage, whether broken by commission or omission or irreconcilable differences, is an alteration, an adulteration, of the original intention expressed in the marriage vows: to be united in heart, body and mind.There is undeniable pain in such a ripping asunder, but there should be no condemnation or shame. We all come short of perfection, in relationships and a lot of other things. But God loves us anyway.

Marriage can be hard work, for any number of reasons. And try as we may, it doesn’t always work out. Divorce happens: it’s sad and it’s hard. But whether our story be sweet or not sweet, God is always in it with us, wiping away the tears and turning darkness into light.

That is my pastoral reading of the gospel text. But I find a prophetic word in it as well, a word that couldn’t be more timely at this moment in America. You see, when Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, he is also addressing the unequal distribution of power, not only between men and women, but between the powerful and the vulnerable.

In Jesus’ day, the divorce debate wasn’t about the degree to which a couple was expected to fulfill a romantic ideal. It was about the vulnerability of women and the exercise of male power. Jewish law allowed the husband, but not the wife, to end a marriage whenever he wanted. For a first-century woman, the consequences of divorce were devastating. If she didn’t have any family to take her in, her choices for survival were either begging or prostitution.

We know that Jesus always sided with the vulnerable, so we may read his critique of divorce as a forceful way to address the harm inflicted on women by the gross inequity of power between the sexes. This was not just an ancient problem. Despite all our best hopes for social progress, we have all seen in recent days how gross that inequity remains.

We have seen a white male judge seethe with sarcasm and rage in his Senate confirmation hearing. We have heard a white male Senator respond angrily to the accusations of abuse survivors by saying, “We shouldn’t have to put up with this!” And we have witnessed a white male president lead a laughing mob in the mockery of a woman who has suffered sexual assault, while claiming at the same time that the really scary thing is that the powerful might actually be held accountable.

It seems bizarre to see abusers, and the enabers of abusers, to act as if they are the real victims. But the analysis of writer Rebecca Traister helps us make sense of this strange reversal of victim and oppressor. Traister has just published an important book called Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, examining the role of disruptive anger as an engine of social change. And in it she asks the question of who has the right to be angry in our society. As we have seen in the Supreme Court hearings, it’s okay for white males to openly display their rage, but women and minorities had better learn to keep it hidden.

Now we know that women and minorities have plenty to be furious about. But why are all those privileged white males so undisguisedly angry? It’s because anger is a weapon powerful people use to protect their power. As Traister puts it:

“It’s powerful men saying, ‘We shouldn’t have to put up with this. We shouldn’t have to listen to and absorb and in any way have our power diminished by, or assent impeded by, the angry dissent of these people who have less power than we do.’ That is very openly what they are angry about.”[i]

This is why, in what was essentially a job interview, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could weep and rage freely about his own victimhood without suffering immediate disqualification. As Traister explains, making exaggerated claims of personal suffering is a common response by the privileged when they are challenged from below. She writes:

“[Their] hyperbolic language of injury and death gives you a sense of perhaps the degree to which the power of a particular kind of white man is so tied to his identity that the lessening of that power feels like a death. The fear that facing any kind of repercussion at all for power abuse is tantamount to ‘revolution,’ to ‘social upheaval,’ to ‘violent insurgency.’ Right? That’s the language they immediately go for.”[ii]

Have I wandered too far from the gospel here? I don’t think so. While the topic of divorce, and our pastoral and compassionate response to it, is a critical one, touching most of us in one way or another, Jesus’ persistent objection to inequity in general––and the abuse of power that flows from it––is also something that needs to be high on the agenda of every faith community.

As God’s coworkers, laborers in the vineyard of love and justice, we are called to resist “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” That’s what we promised in our baptismal covenant, and this vocation is more critical than ever as the love which binds us becomes adulterated by inequity, selfishness and fear.

This is a time of crisis on so many levels, but we are not yet acting as though this is true. And perhaps the greatest emergency of all is “the lack of a sense of emergency.” [iii]

My brothers and sisters,
we have so much work to do.
Sleepers wake!
The wolf is at the door.
This is not a drill.

Therefore, rise up, you saints of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
to serve the King of kings.

Rise up, you saints of God,
God’s kingdom tarries long;
Lord, bring the day of truth and love
and end the night of wrong!

 

 

This homily on the gospel for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost will be delivered at Faith Episcopal Church in Poulsbo, Washington.

[i]Rebecca Traister, from an interview on All In with Chris Hayes, MSNBC, Oct. 2, 2018. Her book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, was published on October 2 by Simon & Schuster.

[ii]Traister, “Women, Rage and Power,” on Why Is This Happening?, a podcast with Chris Hayes (Sept. 27, 2018): https://art19.com/shows/why-is-this-happening-with-chris-hayes/episodes/5f30cc4e-bc1f-4b73-a920-4eca8960db25

[iii]Martin Heidegger, q. in Santiago Zabala, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 2.

Reading in France

Dormitory, Abbey of Senanque.

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. . . If [the pilgrim] does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him.  

 – Simone Weil

I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking a river in France. Late summer blooms sway in the gentle breeze. The trees resound with birdsong. Back home, my country is in turmoil. What a week to be away! 

The stakes are high in the U.S., and I celebrate the rising of the women and the trembling of the patriarchy. But to be unplugged for a time need not be escape, but renewal. As the Dordogne rolls on placidly below me, I think of a line from William Stafford:

What the river says,
that is what I say.

Dordogne River, La Roque Gageac.

It’s a vacation. And yet, the book here on the table under the umbrella is Robert Coles’ Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. A reflection on the life and thought of the uncompromising French thinker and radical believer, whose posthumous influence has been so profound, is bound to put the placidity of a pleasant afternoon into question. What is one to do with a voice that says so matter-of-factly, “Salvation is consenting to die”?  

Crucifxion, Abbey of Saint Foy, Conques.

Weil’s life was rooted in renunciation, whether it was rejecting the career path of a brilliant thinker or refusing proper nourishment when she was dying in hospital. “For God to be born is renunciation,” she wrote. “The birth of Christ is already a sacrifice. Christmas ought to be as sad a day as Good Friday.”

That may not be a winning sentiment for church growth, but Weil insisted that the life of faith demands no less than everything. Her image of God waiting to eat us is certainly unsettling. Nevertheless, she believed, it’s all about surrender:

“We must give up everything which is not grace, and not even desire grace.”

Isaiah, priory church of Souillac (12th century)

I did bring some lighter reading as well on this journey, but Weil has been an insistent companion. She will not be ignored. Her rigorous ideas, not just conceived but inhabited, beg the question, “So what are you doing with your life? Are you holding anything back?”

As I’ve read Coles’ book, I’ve discovered that some of the places visited on this trip were associated with Weil: Auxerre and Le Puy, where she taught, the Ardeche region where she worked on a farm, and the garden at her college in Paris, where her fellow students, intimidated by her philosophical brilliance, called her “the Categorical Imperative in skirts.”

So I suppose I’m on a Weil pilgrimage by accident. We’ll see where it leads.

Chapel of St. Michel-d’Aiguille, Le Puy.

My itinerary also coincides with the Camino de Santiago, visiting three of the four starting points for the French portion of that great pilgrimage: Paris, Le Puy, and Arles (Vezelay is the fourth).

I walked a 70-mile segment of the French “Way of St. James” in 2010, and all 500 miles of the “Camino Frances” culminating in northwest Spain in 2014 (you can read about the latter here and here). 

Blessing of pilgrims on Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, Cathedral of Le Puy

When I watched a band of joyful pilgrims set out last week from Le Puy after being blessed at the cathedral mass, I felt a little wistful to be only a tourist sightseeing by car. I felt a pull to join them. But then I remembered that for the desiring heart, the pilgrimage never ends.

Pilgrimage is the image Coles used for the all-to-brief life of Simone Weil, which ended at 34 in 1943, a bleak and violent year when, in Weil’s words, “it took a special person to be hopeful.” In our own dark and foolish time, Coles’ summation has particular resonance:

Hers was a modern pilgrimage; she entertained all our assumptions, presumptions, and anticipations – her journey is ours. She experienced, in the few years she knew among us, our buoyancy, our optimism, and soon enough, our terrible discouragement and melancholy. She saw Pandora’s box open, revealing its cheap tricks, its deceptions. She saw clear skies cloud up overnight. She saw all the castles we have built in the skies; she entered them, took their measure, and left with tears or anger, bitterness. In the end only one sight was left for her eyes; in the end, that modern pilgrimage so swiftly concluded, she looked upward, affirmed unflinchingly her last hope, the hope of heaven – and died, one suspects glad it last, glad to be hurrying home, to be with God…

Dordogne River, La Roque-Gageac.

 

All photos by Jim Friedrich

Who Is the Real Jesus?

One of the earliest images of a bearded Jesus (Roman catacomb of Comodilla, late 4th century)

I looked for him and did not find him.
I will get up and walk round the city.
and will look for him whom I love with all my soul.

–– Song of Songs 3:1-2

 

When I teach my seminar on “Jesus and the movies,” I show 20 different actors who have played the gospels’ leading man on screen during cinema’s first century. Every actor has his moments, and some of the cinematic Jesuses are very compelling. But something about the role itself invites the critical knives.

Jeffrey Hunter was 33 when he played Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961).

The casting of teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961) caused some to call the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus”. But “to his credit,”one reviewer said, Hunter “plays the Son of God with embarrassment.” In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the Swedish Max von Sydow, whose art-film resume set him apart from the “Hollywood Jesus” stereotype, was nevertheless slammed for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Another critic added that von Sydow “hardly varies his expression, which is mild suffering, as if he had a pebble in his sandal.”

Ted Neely’s hippie Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstarwas dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair,” while Godspell’s playful Jesus was savaged by Time Magazine as “a teeny-bopper stoned on himself.” Robert Powell’s eyes in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) were just too blue to suit the historical realists. And Willem Dafoe’s uncertain and anxious Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) caused the NPR critic to complain that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who––who wrote the book of love?”

Even positive reviews were tinged with doubt about the viability of portraying the Son of God. Writing about Robert Wilson, who played Jesus in my father’s 1954 film, Day of TriumphNewsweek said that while he doesn’t make Jesus seem “pale or namby-pamby … neither does he make him the red-blooded he-man.”

Interpretive representations of Jesus­—–in theology, painting, and film–– have been the subject of debate from the beginning. Even when he was present in the flesh, people gave very different answers to the question he posed: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s only natural. We humans are a mystery, even to ourselves. Add divinity to the mix, and the interpretive task becomes an endless play of perspectives.

The original “screen version” of Jesus (Hans Memling, St. Veronica, 1475)

I once did a video interview with a young Palestinian woman whose idiomatic phrasing expressed this perfectly. “Jesus is a very big word,” she told me. “You can never get to the end of it.”

When a critic, or one of my students, looks at the screen and thinks, “That’s not Jesus,” it implies that they themselves would recognize Jesus if they saw him. And that guy on the screen just isn’t him!

But if there is no definitive way to play a role so inherently mysterious, then no actor has to be the Jesus. He only has to make us see some things that we may have missed in previous tellings. Painters and preachers will tell you the same thing.

A youthful Christ evoked Resurrection (St. Costanza, Rome, c. 5th century)

Over the centuries, we’ve had Jesus meek and mild, and Jesus the Pantocrator––emperor of the universe. We’ve had the loving Jesus and the angry Jesus. We’ve had the Prince of Peace and the troublemaker, the Man for others and the social revolutionary. We’ve had the Good Shepherd, the Cosmic Victor, the healer, the teacher, the prophet, the mystic, the ascetic, the party animal, the Suffering Servant, the Savior, and the Man of Sorrows.

In 14th-century England, Julian of Norwich pictured Jesus as our nurturing mother. Other cultures have added their own distinct perspectives, seeing Jesus as shaman, medicine man, and exorcist. And what we know these days about Jesus is that he was a feminist, radical, egalitarian, postmodern critic of consumer society.

Revolutionary Jesus (Russia, 20th century)

Martin Scorcese, who directed The Last Temptation of Christ, was savagely criticized for taking liberties with the gospel story. His response?

“You have the choice between my wrong version
and your wrong version
and somebody else’s wrong version.”

Every narrative is fictional, a version from a particular perspective, with some things emphasized and some things left out. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted story, or an uninterpreted Jesus. And that’s okay. The Incarnation means that God is fond of particularity, choosing to dwell in a particular human body in a particular way. And to say that “Jesus lives” means that the particularity of incarnation continues to go on. Jesus keeps turning up in many guises, seen through many eyes.

Jesus is a very big Word. So every version will be “wrong” in the sense of being incomplete. That is why diversity of interpretation is a blessing. The reception of revelation is a collective act performed over time. The four lives of Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John establish this principle of interpretive diversity at the very beginning of Christianity. Each gospel offers a distinctive perspective, a different Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus is a rebel who challenges the oppressive powers: the clergy, the demons, and the empire. His revolution is a mystery that most fail to see or understand, except a few followers to whom “the secret of the Kingdom has been given.” The revolution seems to fail in the end, but then there is the empty tomb and those strange angelic words:

“He is not here.
He goes before you into Galilee.
You will see him there.”

And where is Galilee? It’s where the story began, so there is in Mark this circular motion which takes you back to the beginning to look again at the story in the light of the Resurrection, and this time maybe you start to see what’s really happening, you start to see who––and where–– Jesus really is.

Matthew’s Jesus is the rabbi, the divine teacher who conveys to us the mind of God in the Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom parables, and the representative suffering that seems to fulfill and redeem Israel’s destiny. His gospel starts with Emmanuel, the newborn child who is God-with-us, and it ends on a mountain top meant to recall the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, with Christ’s promise that “I am with you always.” As in Mark, Jesus is a story that never ends.

Luke gives us the compassionate companion who embraces the poor and the outcast. Only Luke’s Jesus speaks of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Unlike Mark’s gospel, which keeps circling us back to the original story of the historical Jesus, Luke’s version propels us forward into the future of the risen Jesus, who continues among us as the Spirit-filled church, manifesting divine presence in the breaking of the bread and the healing of the world.

Supper, George Tooker (1963)

John’s Jesus is the most variant of them all. The divinity of his Jesus is clearly visible from the start: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Fourth Gospel resounds with the divine name first revealed to Moses: “I am.”

I am the light of the world.
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the true vine.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the door.
Before Abraham was, I am.

Some people worry about whether Jesus actually said any of these things during his earthly life, as if they could only be true if spoken by the first century Galilean Jesus. But if Jesus is risen and living and with us always, then to have these words spoken through the voice of the inspired community, the Body of Christ on earth, expands rather than violates the norm of authenticity. Read the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17) as if they are spoken by the risen Christ, and John’s Jesus feels more like revelation than invention.

Whatever the historicity of John’s Jesus, he is the one many of us have met––as the bread of life, the deep well of living water, and the door between the worlds by whom we make our own safe passage through death into life.

The foundational narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were only the beginning of the process. Now it’s our turn to add to the story of Jesus, from the particularity of our own experience. How, exactly, do we tell the gospel according to us?

 

Hans Memling, Christ Blessing (1478)

 

Related posts:

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

Ten Questions to Ask About Your Own Picture of Jesus

Faith Meets Works: And the Winner Is . . .

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jesus open eyes of a man born blind (1311)

Without faith, no good work is ever begun, or completed.

–– Caesarius of Arles

 

A homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the longest running debates in Christianity is the one about faith and works.
Which is primary? Which is more necessary?
Are we saved by faith alone, or do our works matter as well?
Is our salvation due entirely to God, or do we ourselves play any part in it?

This argument goes all the way back to the New Testament. As James asks in today’s epistle, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14)

James is responding to the notion that we are saved sola fide––by faith alone–– and not by anything we ourselves are able to do. He seems to be dissenting from St. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith,” worrying that it could weaken our ethical motivation.

If the good works that we do make no difference in whether we’re saved––because God is as gracious to sinners as s/he is to saints–– then what’s the point of working hard to do the right thing?

Like the workers in the vineyard, can’t we just show up at the last minute and receive the same wages as those suckers who spend the whole day sweating in the hot sun? (As if our own reward is the heart of the matter!)

Such a caricature, of course, does little justice to the nuanced reflections on faith and works by great thinkers like Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. But still, in the end, it is fair to ask whether the whole debate is more a matter of language than substance. What do we mean by “faith,” or “justification,” or “salvation?” Without getting too far into the theological weeds, I’ll just say that such words, whatever their particular meanings, all signify a state of being tuned in to the divine way–– a condition shaped by and conformed to what James calls “the royal law”: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, the life of faith is the life of love, mirroring the eternal self-offering of the Holy Trinity in our own manner of living each and every day. When we no longer live for ourselves but for God, anxiety about whether we’re good enough is the last thing on our minds. When we surrender our lives to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, good works are simply who we are and what we do as Love’s chosen instruments.

Good works are not a means to an end, a way to glorify ourselves or earn heavenly rewards. They are simply what happens when God is in us and we are in God.
If you are a blazing fire, you give off heat and light.
If you are “Christ’s own for ever,” your actions are radiant with love and justice.

As Jesus put it, “Let your light so shine before others,
that they may see your good works and give the glory to God” (Mt. 5:16).

Jesus was speaking from experience. As St. Peter said in one of his sermons, “because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Today’s gospel, cramming multiple healings into two paragraphs, fits Peter’s concise description of Jesus as a man who went around doing good, a man in a hurry to repair the world.

Good works have been called the fruits of faith, because they make the inwardness of faith visiblein a way that others can see, and nourishingin a way that others can taste. “Good works are witnesses to the Christian faith,” said a fifth-century priest named Salvian, “because otherwise a Christian cannot demonstrate that he has that faith. If he cannot show it, it may as well becompletely nonexistent.” [i]

Where would the world be if we were all faith and no works? The hungry can’t eat our ideas. The vulnerable won’t get much protection from our “thoughts and prayers.” Intention without implementation is pretty useless, as James reminds us in his Epistle:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).

There was once a man whose heart was so broken by all the pain and injustice in the world that he cried out in anger and despair, “O God, see how much your people suffer! See how much anguish and misery there is in the world! Why won’t you send some help?”

And God answered, “I did send help. I sent you.” [ii]

So where do we start? There’s a world of hurt out there. Can we make a difference? Scripture gives high priority to serving the poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, including the outcast, protecting the defenseless, tending the sick, visiting the prisoner, and guarding Creation. At a time when the exact opposite of all these things is being carried out by the highest levels of our government––with the enthusiastic approval of a shockingly high number of white Christians––we can become exhausted, if not despairing, just thinking about the immense labor of resisting evil and preserving the common good.

That’s when works need faith as much as faith needs works––faith that another power is at work here; faith that we aren’t doing it by ourselves. In fact, repairing the world is not a humanproject at all. God started that work, and God will finish it. Meanwhile, as God’s hands and feet in the world, we chip in as best we can for our brief span. Be not afraid. God is always out there ahead of us, hard at work.

God is out there in the attorneys fighting to protect and reunite the children and parents being separated and abused at our southern border. God is there in the faith communities offering protection and sanctuary to the victims of bigotry and racism. God is there in the striking prison inmates who refuse to be treated like animals. God is there marching in the streets against gun violence and environmental suicide.

Oh wait. Is this mixing religion and politics? Of course it is, because religion and politics have always been inseparable, if what you mean by politics is that people actually matter, and the common good actually matters. In a 1979 manifesto, activists Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson defined politics in what I would call religious terms:

“Politics is the way we live our lives. . . It is the way we treat each other, as individuals, as groups, as government. It is the way we treat our environment. It is the way we treat ourselves. Politics has to do with where we shop, what we eat, how we maintain our health. It has to do with the kinds of schools we create, the energy we use, the neighborhood organizations we build, the work we do. Politics involves our way of seeing the world, of developing our consciousness, of awakening our whole selves. It has to do with our attitudes, our values, our innermost dimensions.” [iii]

Of course, for many of us the work of repairing the world is relatively quiet and local most of the time. Random acts of kindness and so forth. As Wendell Berry says, “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling . . .” [iv]

A writer named Bob Libby gives a lovely example of this. He liked to go running at the beach, and whenever the tide was low he saw an old woman “walking along the shore in her white tennis shoes, floppy straw hat, and oversized print dress. She always carried a crumpled brown paper bag that matched the texture and color of her skin.”

Her name was Maggie, and she’d walk along with her head down, pausing occasionally to stoop over, pick something up, and examine it. Then she’d either toss it away or put it in her bag. Libby assumed she was collecting shells, but when he asked her about it one day, she said, “Not shells at all. Glass. Sharp glass. Cuts the feet. Surfers land on it. It sure ruins their summer.” [v]

It doesn’t take much to make the world better, does it? As John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can. [vi]

I’ll leave you with one more story, a parable by Megan McKenna:

There was a woman who knew the world was falling apart. Every day the news made her more depressed. But one day, as she wandered sadly through her town, she had the impulse to step into a little shop she had never noticed before. To her surprise, standing behind the counter was Jesus! At least he looked like all the pictures she’d ever seen of him.

 So she went over and asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.” “Oh. What do you sell in here?” “Just about anything!” “Anything?” “Yep, anything you want.” Jesus leaned forward. “What do you want?” “Um, I’m not really sure.” “Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

 So she did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. When she returned to the counter with her very long list, Jesus looked it over. Then he glanced at her with a smile and said, “No problem.”

 Then he bent down behind the counter, picked out a bunch of different small packets, and laid them out in front of her. “What are these?” she asked. “Seed packets,” Jesus said. “You take them home to plant, then you nurture them and help them to grow, and one day in the future there will be others to come and reap the harvest.”

“Oh,” she said. [vii]

 

 

 

[i] Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2007), 336.

[ii] David Wolpe, Teaching Your Children About God, q. in Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (New York: Scribner, 1996), 317.

[iii] Ibid., 330. McLaughlin and Davidson were part of the New World Alliance, an idealistic project to create a “transformational politics.”

[iv] Wendell Berry, q. in Brussat, 341.

[v]Bob Libby, Grace Happens, q. in Brussat, 341-2.

[vi] q. in Brussat, 360-61.

[vii] Adapted from a story in Megan McKenna, Parables, q. in Brussat, 359. McKenna has the woman walk out without buying anything, like the rich young man who decided following Jesus was too hard. My wife, also a preacher, thought the congregation should be left with the woman’s final response still undecided. So I ended it with “Oh.” But I can’t help hearing the disappointment in her voice.

 

Mountains to Try Our Souls

The author in the North Cascades, August 2018.

For once I stood
In the white windy presence of eternity.

–– Eunice Tietjens, “The Most-Sacred Mountain”

 

For most of European history, people found little pleasure in mountain landscapes. Mountains were a nuisance––obstacles to travel and economically unproductive. And they had little value as scenery. Their artless, irregular shapes disturbed classical ideals of order. Christians of the Middle Ages would allegorize the chaos of wild wastes and broken stones as the unsightly rubbish of a fallen world––the postlapsarian antithesis of Eden’s gentle and harmonious garden. As late as the eighteenth century, travelers crossing the Alps drew the curtains of their carriages to prevent any upsetting glimpses of geological chaos.

Yet the theological mind has long been lured by the sacredness of mountains––the places where earth dares to reach for heaven, and the solidity of matter converses with clouds. Their alien, forbidding environment evokes the mysterium tremendum, that dangerous energy “beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.” [i]

Dante and Virgil as the foot of Mount Purgatory (after a 14th century illumination)

Dante’s Purgatorio provides the supreme western model of physical ascent as transformative spiritual pilgrimage. Its seven-story mountain offers neither picturesque scenery nor recreational adventure. It’s no place for the casual or careless visitor. It exists only as a rigorous ordeal of purgation and rebirth. Such mountains are best avoided unless you want to change your life.

In contrast, Dante’s Italian contemporary, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) left us a rare record of medieval mountain walking as an appreciative outing unburdened by excessive meaning. When he ascended Provence’s Mount Ventoux in the spring of 1336, he became “the first to climb a mountain for its own sake, and to enjoy the view from the top.” [ii] That may be a slight exaggeration, but Petrarch’s enthusiastic write-up of his day-hike does feel closer to Wordsworth than to Dante. He took pleasure in the nearness of drifting clouds and the distant vistas of snowy Alps and the Mediterranean blue.

Petrarch remained medieval when he reflected on the allegorical dimensions of his walk. “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain,” he told himself, “happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life.” And when he opened the copy of Augustine’s Confessions he always carried with him, the passage that caught his eye made him worry whether he had been enjoying the creation more than its Creator. If only he had brought Mary Oliver instead!

But still, the Italian humanist couldn’t really renounce the pleasure of that walk. “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote. Centuries would pass before it became common practice to climb mountains simply because they are there, and embrace the experience as an invigorating challenge. [iii]

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Anglican theologian Thomas Burnet’s response to the Alps in 1671, we can foresee the emergence of a more modern sensibility. But it didn’t come easily. Still deeply imprinted with Europe’s cultural aversion to mountains as the “ruins of a broken earth” and “a dead heap of rubbish,” Burnet was appalled by the Alps’ “ghastliness,” disorder, deformity and lack of symmetrical balance. They threatened his understanding of God as the Great Architect whose glory shone in Creation’s meticulous design. “I was not easy,” he confessed, “till I could give my self some tolerable Account how that Confusion came in Nature.” [iv] But at the same time, he was unable to dismiss the Alps’ emotional impact.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, in her classic study of the “aesthetics of the infinite,” describes the drama of Burnet’s fierce struggle between head and heart:

“Whenever we look among his passages on wild nature, we find conflict between intellectual condemnation of asymmetry and emotional response to the attraction of the vast. . . If Burnet could not forgive Nature for her confusion, he could not deny the effect of her vastness. . . The emotions he felt among the Alps were enthusiastic, primitive, and violent and as such repellent to a disciple of Reason.” [v]

Burnet tried to resolve his inner conflict by writing The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), blaming Creation’s visual disarray on the Flood––and the human sin that caused it. The post-diluvian mess of mountains and other wastelands was therefore no failure of intelligent design. The Divine Architect was off the hook. Neat, but I suspect that the unnerving wildness of the Alps continued to haunt Burnet’s dreams.

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

By the eighteenth century, such lingering resistance to the sublime began to collapse. When poet Thomas Gray toured the Alps in 1739, he looked upon the same “magnificent rudeness” which had so disturbed Burnet, but he fell for it utterly. “You here meet with all the beauties so savage and horrid a place can present you with,” he wrote in his journal. Rocks, cascades, ancient forests “all concur to form one of the most poetical scenes imaginable.” [vi]

As if the ancient curse had been forever lifted, the mountains would become for nature lovers like John Muir an inexhaustible source of joy and blessing. “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” he wrote about his beloved Sierra in 1911, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” [vii]

But if the mountains can bring such joy, has their wild otherness been forever tamed? Those who climb say otherwise. My friend Robert Leonard Reid, an experienced mountaineer and one of my favorite writers, sees engagement with the high country as inherently spiritual:

“No sport that I know of has spawned a literature as introspective, as probing, or ultimately as religious as mountaineering. The sport causes climbers to experience unimaginable hardships and then, at the ends of their ropes, to plumb their souls for meaning. They emerge from their excursions to the edge of unknowing with insights into their spiritual natures that transcend the possibilities of mere sport. The literature is replete with tales of magic and mystery, of wild humor and terrible sadness and loss and then rebirth––all integral to the practice of climbing, all the result of protracted contact with the unseeable.” [viii]

 

Dante carried upward in a dream to Purgatory’s gate. (Gustave Dore)

I fell in love with mountains as a boy on family vacations at Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada range. There’s a 10,000’ peak above the lake, and the steep scramble to its summit was one of my favorite adventures. I’ve rambled the high country ever since, including Mt. Agazziz (13,899’), Mt. Rainier (14,411’), and Mt. Whitney (14,505’).

I am drawn to the way mountains mean. I sometimes carry a copy of Purgatorio in my backpack. It’s a perfect guide for the pilgrim who seeks “the mountain where Justice tries our souls” (Purg.iii.3).  And a holy mountain was the subject of my first film as writer/director. It was a Pilgrim’s Progress ascending through a series of obstacles, ordeals, distractions and temptations. As the climber nears the summit, a suave Satanic figure urges him to be reasonable and admit the folly of his spiritual ascent. In our disenchanted world, what does the search matter when there’s nothing really to find? [ix]

“The mountain of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb,” said Gregory of Nyssa.[x] He used the word epiktasis (“straining forward to what lies ahead”) to describe the goal of human life, in this world and the next, as the endless pursuit of God’s inexhaustible mystery. Never knowing what’s beyond us is the life of faith. It’s why we keep climbing.

When Moses summited Mount Sinai, he disappeared into the Cloud of Unknowing, the dazzling darkness of divine mystery. Whatever happened to the Hebrew prophet up there, the mountain itself became a foundational archetype for every spiritual ascent. The Arabic name for Mount Sinai is Jebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain.” Although not the tallest of the region’s peaks, its volcanic mass, “rearing its giant brow above the plain, as if in scornful contemplation of the world beneath,” proved a persuasive indicator of its biblical authenticity. [xi] Two millennia of Christian pilgrimage have further burnished its sanctity.

An English pilgrim’s description of its “savage grandeur” in 1885 speaks the language of the serious mountaineer: “The whole aspect of the surroundings impresses one with the conviction that he is here gazing on the face of Nature under one of her most savage forms, in view of which the idea of solitude, of waste, and of desolation connect with those of awe and admiration.” [xii]

There are more difficult ascents, but none more serious. St. Stephen, a 6thcentury monk at Sinai’s monastery of St. Catherine, would stand at the “Shrive Gate” where the 3000-step Stairway of Repentance began, posing to every aspiring climber the challenge of Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in God’s holy place?

You needed to make the correct response if you wanted to set foot on the holy mountain:

Those who have clean hands, and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
They shall receive blessing from the Lord,
and righteousness from the God of their salvation. [xiii]

I climbed Mt. Sinai in 1989, reciting the Jesus Prayer as my tired legs slogged up the final 750 steps: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” At the summit, I celebrated Holy Eucharist with a community of Anglican and Catholic pilgrims. I also managed to drop my binoculars off a precipitous ledge. I had to laugh at this unwilled offering to the mountain. Their untimely end seemed a fitting metaphor for the mystic’s loss of natural sight in the presence of the holy

When I climbed Mt. Whitney nine years later, there would be a sudden burst of sunshine to brighten the cloud-shadowed summit, followed quickly by lightning and snow. But Mount Sinai provided no comparable display of power and might. Whatever the mountain of God wanted to tell me, it whispered in an unknown tongue. When I returned to the world below, this is what I set down in my journal:

Egeria, that talkative 4th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, is strangely mute about her experience on Mount Sinai. “Now that we had done all we wanted,” she wrote, “and climbed the summit of the mountain of God, we began the descent.” We have to wonder: what happened to her at the top? We long for a more eloquent reporter, perhaps a John of the Cross, who could write of his own spiritual progress,

 “The steeper upward that I flew on so vertiginous a quest,
the humbler and more lowly grew my spirit,
fainting in my breast.”

And what did experience at the summit? Hmm––Egeria was right. You can’t talk about it. Whatever I felt is irrelevant. The mountain is not about me; it pays no attention to my comings and goings. And whether such sublime indifference is a matter of annihilation or splendor is the question over which faith hangs suspended. [xiv]

Perhaps silence is the best homage we can offer our holy mountains. What is most valuable can never be possessed. What is most real can never be fully seen. Louis Golding makes the point perfectly in his 1937 account, “I Stood Upon Sinai”:

“I found I had got to the top of Gebel Musa, a grand mountain commanding grand views, but not to the top of Mount Sinai. For the Holy Mountain is a spiritual, not a physical experience. Few men have ever reached the summit, and few will get there again. Perhaps it is only when the Mountain is veiled round with impenetrable cloud, that the Mountain begins to be visible at all.” [xv]

 

The author on the summit of Mount Sinai, 1989.

 

Related Post: “Every common bush afire with God”

[i]Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy(1923), 28.

[ii]Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art(1949), 23.

[iii]You can read The Ascent of Mount Ventouxhere: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/petrarch-ventoux.asp

[iv]q. in Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959/1997), 207.

[v]Ibid., 213, 215, 220.

[vi]Ibid., 356.

[vii]John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra.

[viii]Robert Leonard Reid, “The Mountain of Love and Death” in Mountains of the Great Blue Dream(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 15-16. Reid’s writing about the high country is full of wit and wonder. His latest collection of writings, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West,just came out in paperback.

[ix]Ignatz(1972) is not currently available, but I’m working on it. I took the protagonist’s name from the mouse in Krazy Kat comics, with a simultaneous nod to Ignatian spirituality and the German term for a holy fool. The blockhead game played by the man in black references Death’s chess game in Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

[x]Life of Mosesii.46, in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106.

[xi]Edward Palmer in 1871, q. in Mount Sinai, Joseph J. Hobbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 100.

[xii]Edward Hull, in Hobbs, 123-24.

[xiii]Hobbs, 234.

[xiv]Personal journal, May 12, 1989.

[xv]Geographical Magazine6 (1937), q. in Hobbs, 239-40.

The Names of God

Emperor Constantine and bishops holding the Nicene Creed.

Many years ago, on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, I met a monk from the Orthodox monastery at the foot of the mountain. Michael was a young American, but he rebuffed my curiosity about his journey from a Pennsylvania childhood to an ascetic community in the Egyptian wasteland. “A monk’s past is meaningless,” he said brusquely. Embracing the desert spirituality of renunciations, he had little patience for the inessential. He was terse, acerbic, and opinionated, as harsh and unyielding as the landscape. I was intimidated by this strange and demanding figure. My own thoughts and questions began to seem weightless and trivial in the face of such passionate certainty.

Michael reassured me that Anglicans were his favorite schismatics, but our novelties and lack of theological rigor were clearly not up to his standards. “We do have the Nicene Creed in common,” I said, trying to find a point of agreement. “We recite it in the Sunday liturgy.” I was wrong about that, Michael insisted. Since we use the western aberration of the Filioque clause, we are not really saying the Nicene Creed, but only a defective imitation of it.[i]

In an ecumenical spirit, I said I was happy to defer to the eastern Church on the matter of the Filioque. “Not the eastern Church,” Michael shot back. “It’s the undivided universal Church.” He was fond of absolutes. But what did I expect to find in the wilderness––comfortable small talk?

I thought of Michael last Sunday when I experimented with the creed at an outdoor eucharist on the shore of Puget Sound. We wanted to minimize the use of printed texts, so that the people could keep their eyes on their surroundings rather than the pages of a bulletin. That was easy in the case of repeated chants or choruses, but reciting a long text like the Nicene Creed posed a challenge.

Summary statements of the faith have been a part of Christian practice from the beginning. We are bound together by a shared story and shared understandings. St. Paul proposed a creed of exemplary brevity: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will find salvation” (Romans 10:9). Over the ensuing several centuries, creeds would grow longer and more controversial. The more they tried to say about the mysteries of faith, the more they became subject to critical scrutiny and debate.

Although the liturgical use of creeds remains obscure in its origins, making common declarations of belief eventually came to seem a natural function of the worship assembly as a way of self-definition and communal bonding: “This is why we’re here. This is the story and the reality we belong to.”

Even though individual worshippers may quibble about language and terminology, or differ in their precise understandings of creedal formulations, the fact that we recite a creed together is perhaps more important than its content. What we say about our faith certainly does matter, but unanimous agreement about mysteries beyond all human knowing is not what binds us together. Faith is more relational than propositional. As the Byzantine preface to the Nicene Creed puts it:

So, brothers and sisters, while we have time,
let us love one another,
that we may with one heart and mind
confess our faith.

My concept for the creed in the beach liturgy was to have the assembly chant, slowly and repeatedly, the first words of the Nicene Creed: Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God). Over this unifying sonic ground a cantor would utter a diverse series of words and phrases expressing the names, attributes and activities of the Holy Trinity.

In one sense, the attempt was pure folly. The God greater than anything we can conceive cannot be captured in language. As the Tao says, “One who knows does not speak. One who speaks does not know.” But God, however hidden, wants to be known. God reveals. God addresses. God responds. And we in turn make our “raid on the inarticulate, / with shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.”[i]

Creeds are communal work, hammered out in conversations and councils over time. And I, writing in my study, am no Nicaea. But there is still a certain collectivity in my Credo, a diversity of voices either consciously borrowed or lodged deep within me from forgotten sources. You will hear the Bible and Nicene Creed, Augustine, Bonaventure, Henry Vaughan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eberhard Jungel, Dorothee Soelle, John Bell, Terrence Malick and others. You may wish to differ, delete or add. Consider it a work in progress. Your reactions and reflections are welcome.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God,” several American computer scientists are hired by a Tibetan monastery to program a computer that will speed up the spiritual labor of listing every one of the divine names. It’s a huge number, but the computers can make it happen in a matter of weeks.

‘Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names – and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them – God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.’

‘Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?’

‘There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up … bingo!’

‘Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.’

Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.‘That’s just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at me in a very queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, “It’s nothing as trivial as that.”’

Clarke’s story ends with the scientists fleeing the monastery in the dark, just before the computers list the nine-billionth name. Dismissive of the “superstitious” beliefs behind the project, they were afraid the monks would blame them when the world failed to end as predicted. As they hurry down the mountain, one of them happens to look up. “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Well, for better or worse, I list my tentative and infinitely incomplete “names of God” below. Brother Michael of Sinai would undoubtedly disapprove. But I am not presuming to supplant the Nicene Creed. I only want to explore the possibilities––and the boundaries––of Christian language in liturgical and poetic forms. How can we make the naming of God a prayerful, contemplative and formative experience in a communal setting? What words take us deeper into the Mystery? Do any of them go astray, or have an expiration date when they become no longer fruitful? How do we recognize and welcome the divine names yet to be revealed?

 

Credo in unum Deum

Holy and eternal God, without beginning or end,
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Source of all that exists and the ground of all possibility.

Hidden yet revealed, author of life and mender of destinies,
desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.

Mystery of the world, fount of our being,
inexhaustible and overflowing, grace abounding.

Constant and just, wiser than despair,
the joyful Yes negating all nothingness.

The great I am, beyond all knowing,
the Unnamable whose names are many:
Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver,
Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing,
Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history, ineffable and untamable Spirit.

Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance,
so far beyond us and yet so deep within us,
in whom we live and move and have our being.

Abba, Amma, Father and Mother of us all: personal, relational, intimate;
Love who loves us,
our true home.

+

Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten of God,
who by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
fully human and fully divine,
Word made flesh, living and dying as one of us,
that we might see and know
the self-diffusive love of God,
and at the same time
realize the full and perfected form of our humanity.

As God’s icon, the face of love for us,
Jesus renounced privilege and power,
living without weapons or self-protection,
giving himself away for the sake of others:
servant and sufferer, healer and helper,
shepherd and Savior, repairer of this broken world.

Handed over to the enemies of life,
Jesus died on the cross.
But on the third day he rose again,
breaking the power of death,
opening the way for us
to live in God forever.

+

Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame,
the eager, wild wind of divine surprise:

Quickening power, creative energy, inner light,
dearest freshness deep down things,
the strong force of love drawing all things into holy communion.

Life-Giver, Sustainer, Sanctifier, Counselor, Comforter, Awakener,
disturber of the peace, tender bond of affection,
voice of the voiceless, empowering fire of prophetic imagination,
the breath in every prayer, the longing in every heart.

+

Holy and undivided Trinity,
your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone.
We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism,
marking us as Christ’s own forever, forgiven and free.
And we pray that we may always live in the light of resurrection,
with steadfast hope for the glory to come.

May the faith we confess in this place
be made known in the lives we lead and the choices we make.

Amen!

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Filioque(“and the Son”) was added to the words, “who proceeds from the Father” in describing the “procession” (the movement of self-giving and receiving among the persons of the Holy Trinity––it’s complicated!) with respect to the Holy Spirit. The original Nicene Creed names the Father as the sole source of the Spirit’s procession, but “Filioque”––making the Son a partner in the Spirit’s procession––was later added to the text by the Western Church, creating a major source of conflict with the Eastern Church which continues to this day. The first draft of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer of 1979 tried to drop the Filioqueclause as a gesture of Christian unity with the East, but traditionalists voted it back in (later conventions have signaled the intention to omit it from any futurePrayer Book). I was present for that debate at the 1976 General Convention, which seemed more orderly and polite than what I’ve heard about the Council of Nicaea! My own practice is to omit the clause when I say the Creed. I guess I still haven’t gotten over that conversation with Br. Michael.

[ii]T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets,