Part 1 posted Jan 24, 2010
Let us continue our reflection on the Mystery of God which we started a few postings ago. There we emphasized the importance of encountering the Mystery of God in our lives, in the depths of our heart and in everything around us. Now it is fitting that those of us who are Christians reflect on this encounter in the light of Holy Week which is upon us. The Triduum, the celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are in reality one feast, one mystery celebrated in three modes. And it is this one great feast which should lead us to an ever-deepening encounter with the Mystery of God. For in the Christian context we are plunged into that Mystery most deeply through the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection.
There is a very prevalent hazard for Christians who especially have not been exposed to the spiritual and mystical traditions within Christianity to view Jesus in a superficial way–as God rewarding me for doing good or punishing me for doing bad or as God holding my hand “in a personal relationship” while “I do this” or “I do that.” It is that very “I” which should be deconstructed in the light of the Mystery of God. So when we say we need to “look at Jesus” it certainly is not in this superficial sense. And this applies even more so to the reality of the Risen Christ.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians there is this passage, which is one of those absolutely critical and central and crucial passages in the whole New Testament:
“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself [literally: “became nothing”] taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human beings. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (2:3-8)
In Christian faith and in Christian theology it is asserted that we as human beings encounter God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ and we have “knowledge of God” most deeply through and in Jesus Christ. When we look at Jesus we see directly into the Mystery of God. But as mentioned before, this does not at all take away the mystery. Hardly. In fact if we allow ourselves to be drawn into this Mystery by Jesus, it may take us to places where our language and our concepts will fail us. So in the quote above Paul invites us to look at Jesus, but he has stripped away all physical and historical details and focuses on the key characteristic that Jesus reveals about God: God is self-emptying, self-negating. This perhaps sounds too radical a statement, too large a claim. But recall that the sign of the cross is present in every Christian church; it is the central symbol of Christianity–it says something about the very nature of the God in whose presence we always stand, and this moment is not just one moment in a string of moments in Jesus’ life, but the climactic moment. And recall that the Gospel of John plainly tells us: when we “see” Jesus, we see the Father. Also when John tells us that “God is Love,” this is also what he means–not some feeling or emotion or sentiment. This Reality, then, the “Mind of Christ”, which is Absolute Love, which is a dynamic of self-emptying, self-negation, is seemingly alien to our “everyday fallen existence” –which in turn is one built on self-promotion, acting in self-interest, being self-centered, confusing this ego identity as “us” etc.–and so plunged into the realm of death. But Paul also tells us that the “Mind of Christ” is there in us now as gift, as a liberation from this false identity of “fallen existence.” Following Paul and adapting some language from our Buddhist friends, we can say then that we must discover the Mind of Christ in our ordinary everyday mind. From the Christian perspective, to do this we must REALLY look at Jesus and follow Him and let what we find carry us into the depths of the Mystery of God, this life of self-emptying.
Now the key focal point of this and of what Paul tells us is Good Friday. This radical and total self-emptying of Christ on Good Friday is called in Greek: the kenosis of Christ. We need to stop and ponder that historical fact–the crucifixion. There was a controversial movie a few years ago entitled The Passion, which was a very realistic portrayal of how the events of Good Friday unfolded. It was controversial for several reasons, not the least of which was the accusation by some religious people that the movie so emphasized the torture and suffering of Jesus that it distorted the Christian message, that it somehow separated it from the Resurrection, which is the real meaning of Christ. There may be some truth in that criticism, but actually the movie has a 10 second clip right at the very end which points to the Resurrection and it is this very scene which is more “wrong” than the gruesome scenes–more about that later. Yes, in Western Christianity there have been in the past periods when the suffering of Christ was separated and looked at in an isolated and unhealthy way–that’s a whole topic in itself. As said above, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are really one Feast, one Mystery, one Event. You cannot separate and isolate any one moment from it. The problem modern Christians are more likely prone to is to gloss over Good Friday and slide into Easter Sunday as if it were a “band aid” on the human condition. The Resurrection is there with the Easter bunny and the colored eggs. That’s why religion almost never shakes one up at the roots of one’s being, never disturbs you out of your “comfort zone,” never seems to shake anything up. Lets ‘fess up — we don’t really want to look at Jesus on Good Friday–it can put a crimp in our shopping. That’s why we miss the real meaning of the Resurrection and how it takes us into the Mystery of God.
Let us turn to the Russian Orthodox Church for a moment. These people have a reputation for really focusing on the Risen Christ, and it is true to a large extent–you really haven’t celebrated Easter yet until you have been to an Easter Vigil at a Russian Cathedral! But what is less appreciated by Westerners is the very real and sober grasp of the kenosis of Christ in Russian theology, spirituality and culture. They have a very existential grasp of Good Friday and those lines from Paul we quoted above. The Russian religious mind is eager to follow Christ in his self-emptying, self-sacrifice, no matter where that takes it–even to human degradation and human folly. They have an intuitive feel for this self-emptying dynamic, and they know that it is at the core of all truth, all beauty, all glory, all life, all reality. That is why you will find in Russian spiritual writings a strong dose of humility as a requirement of the spiritual path. This is not a self-serving version of humility as in “Aw shucks, I’m not so good, etc.”, but it is a profound abasement of one’s ego before the reality of God. And it is manifested even physically as when Fr. Zosima bows before even those who would demean and degrade him because he knows that God is present also in them. As an illustration of that, Russian religious culture has a model of holiness that is seldom found anywhere else but is quite in abundance even today in Russia: the Fool, or more precisely, the Fool for Christ. These people could be found all over Russia by the hundreds of thousands in 19th Century Russia. They did not have the credentials of religiosity; they did not have the credentials of respectable society. Sometimes they would put on the appearance of being mad; sometimes they would hang out at brothels or tavens; sometimes they would just be smelly homeless vagrants–and many, many times, they would really be truly imbecilic or mad, but the Russian religious sensibility detected the presence of this self-emptying Christ in them especially, so there was no distinction made between those who put on a holy mask and those who were lost in that degraded reality. In a sense this is why Rasputin fooled(no pun intended) so many Russians into idealizing him–he seemed to be a type of Fool for Christ. But not if you looked carefully!
This kenotic movement by God, this self-emptying into the deepest and darkest corners of the human condition cast an overwhelming spell over the Russian mind and culture. The “humiliated Christ” slinks unbeknownst through much of Russian literature, appearing in many guises and symbols. Most modern secular critics have little or no awareness of his presence across the pages and across the sweep of the culture–even into contemporary times. There is a marvelous little book–very rare and extremely hard to get–that delineates this figure in the Russian literature of the past 100 years or so: The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought, by Najda Gorodetsky. When this kenotic dynamic is apprehended through the “Russian lens,” then we begin to appreciate the power of their celebration of the Resurrection and how the Humiliated Christ and the Risen Christ merge into one Reality.
Very closely related to this but coming at it from a Western perspective is Louis Dupre’s The Deeper Life, one of the best “little” introductions to Christian mysticism. He begins by speaking of poverty and emptiness:
“That ultimate poverty is also the true humility. Too often we confuse humility with false modesty. We secretly hope that if we accuse ourselves of imperfection, God may contradict us, asserting that we are not all that bad. But God will not contradict us, for imperfection is real and goes to the core of our existence…. True humility consists in the honest acceptance of my imperfection. The meaning of this humility and this poverty is not simply that of being a means to an end. It is not motivated, as many think, by the idea that by giving up ambition and possession now I shall be compensated for it later. Rather than being a means , poverty is a method of giving way to God. Since to be united with God is simply to be devoid of oneself, poverty and humility are the goal….God means absolute emptiness and poverty.”
A fundamental humility, then, is not a pretending of this or that about oneself, much less is it a neurotic self-hatred that afflicts so many, but it is an existential manifestation of a very deep emptiness and poverty which is one’s real identity–it becomes a total openness to life uninhibited by private desires and ambitions. In Christian terms it becomes a following of Christ, a disciplship in his kenosis, and into the Mystery of God. Again Dupre: “In poverty and humility I abandon all that I have and even let go of what I am, in order to reach the uncreated core of my being–God’s own creating act. God himself dwells in the absolute poverty that knows no possession, not even that of a name. As we move more deeply into that divine poverty, we shall be less and less inclined to place labels on God or His creatures.”
Again Dupre: “Negative theology means far more than that we find no adequate names for God. It means, on a practical-spiritual level, that there exists no failproof method for reaching God, and hence that my only hope lies in the humble awareness of my inadequacy. My lack of faith, my psychic limitations…, the radical worldliness of my age, this is the dark cloud I must enter deliberately if I am to find God at all. It is the cloud of my own estrangement, my own waylessness. No spiritual life can take off without passing through an intense awareness of the emptiness of the creature…. This message seems far removed from the aspirations of a culture predominantly bent on self-fulfillment and self-achievement.”
After laying this groundwork, Dupre then goes on to address the particularity of the Christian mystical journey, the following of Christ in His kenosis. He quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola:
“I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world.” This “imitation of Christ” is absolutely essential to Christian mysticism–not in the sense of some external, superficial mimicry, where one is constantly looking “in the mirror” to see how one is doing, but much more in the sense of plunging deeply into the human condition both in oneself and in others, unafraid and open to the suffering one will find there.
Dupre, reflecting on Good Friday: “Christian piety has always sought an intimate presence to Jesus’ Passion rather than a mere commemoration of the past… To be with Him in the present of His agony and rejection when no triumph was in sight, that is to be where He really was. But to be present to His hour means more than to be present there in feeling. It means entering into the dark reality of my own suffering, loneliness and failure. Only in the brokenness and pain of life am I with Him where He continues to live His agony….How dare I call what possesses so little dignity “suffering”? Whenever I lift my eyes to the crucified Savior it is mostly to move away from my private misery, certainly not to move into it. Nevertheless, Christian piety teaches that very suffering of mine, however despicable and even sinful in its origins, is Jesus’ agony in me. Comparing my pain with Jesus’ Passion may seem blasphemous. But all suffering began with a curse. His as well as mine. Whether pain has its roots in private weakness and failure, or whether it is inflicted by an entire universe of weakness and failure, the effect remains the same. To him who suffers, suffering always means failure. Jesus’ words on the cross–My God, my God why have you forsaken me?–do not express the attitude of one who is performing a clearly understood, effective sacrifice. They say what suffering has said from the beginning of the world and what it still says in me: In this I am hopelessly alone.”
The old Black slave song had a line: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?” Was I there in my suffering–for that is where He is being crucified–in me, not in Jerusalem. Again Dupre: “Perhaps I shall be able to accomplish no more than silently to accept my inability to accept. But not more is expected: to confront my bitterness, rebellion, greed, jealousy, rage, impatience is to encounter Jesus’ agony in my own. I must find Jesus’ agony also in those private worlds of suffering around me, which I am so reluctant to explore and so unable to comprehend. Here also I am invited to accept, without understanding, Jesus’ agony in the uncouth, the uncivilized, the unlovable. On Good Friday failure itself has become redemptive. That Jesus fails in me is the joyous mystery of the union between God and me.”
Hard to speak of the Resurrection after those words! But it is precisely here that we truly find the Risen Christ–because, remember, the kenotic Christ and the Risen Christ are one–because if Jesus “is crucified” in me and in that wretched person over there, He is also the Risen Christ in me and in that person over there. The light of the Risen Christ shines through absolutely every darkness–nothing can overcome it. The Resurrection begins on Holy Thursday and continues on through Good Friday , and we become aware of it and acknowledge it on Easter Sunday! For the Resurrection is not a “resuscitation” of a dead body; it is not one event in a sequence of events–a kind of interruption of death; it is not “picking up where one left off” at death–a kind of things continue on and on–that would be a bogus victory over death. Recall that in the Gospel resurrection narratives both continuity and discontinuity are present and emphasized. The Gospel makes a point about the “sameness” of the Risen Christ with the crucified Jesus–afterall he shows his wounds. But there is also a profound discontinuity, a difference–he is also hardly recognizable even to his closest associates. The Gospel struggles with language here, and it would be a mistake to read these passages in a simplistic and superficial way. The Gospel presents in story and symbol hints and evocations of a radically new reality. Suffice it to say that the “victory over death” is not an overcoming of just a physical death–no, here death encapsulates a whole realm of darkness, weakness, fear, falseness, misery, frozenness, egocenteredness, despair, disintegration, etc.–our “fallen existence.” In perhaps a bit of overstatement, we can say, with all due respect to our Buddhist friends, that the “Risen Life” is what they mean by Enlightenment or Nirvana plus_____. What that plus is we only discover through faith. But the Resurrection is a liberation from all fear, all darkness, all falseness and self-deception, all manipulation, etc, and a liberation into a life suffused with spontaneity and unconditional joy and boundless freedom. We discover that the Risen Christ is our true identity because He has made us one with Him. St. Paul: “It is now not I who lives, but Christ in me.” People who speak of “dualism” or “monism” are fiddling with language while the Mystery remains.
To be continued in Part III, the Mystery of God and the Holy Trinity.