Friday, November 19, 2010

Is the Cross the victory of love over justice?

I'm sure that most Christians would answer "Yes" to the question. I wonder, however, whether we always grasp what it means.

Somewhere I came across the description of the Crucifixion as a "family matter" within the Trinity. Not having found the original reference, in Moltmann I think, I have spent years coming back to the image: father and son at odds with Sophia mediating - a family like our own so often. On the cross, Jesus continues to be human, to represent the powerless child confronted by the all-powerful father, asserting his freedom. It is the freedom to forgive, against all the dictates of 'natural' justice.

Legend tells us that when Clovis, the king of the Franks, heard for the first time, from Saint Eloi, about the arrest of Jesus in the garden, he drew his sword and call his house knights to ride with him to Jesus' rescue. When we heard this story at school, we knew, even then, that Clovis had got more wrong than simple confusion that the event was long over We may not have articulated it then but the arrest is necessary to the story, to the evolutionary event of the Passion. As Vanstone  outlines in The Stature of Waiting (Darton Longman & Todd. London. 1982. ISBN 0-232-51573-5), Jesus choses to become the object of action rather than the actor - he "hands himself over", joins the victims, the prisoners, the bed-ridden.

The processes that the evangelists describe suggest to me that, purely in legal terms, Pilate was obliged to find Jesus guilty, thus he experiences hearing a verdict which is deserved - if only under the secular law. He is again handed over, to be flogged and to the people's verdict. He was, indeed, rejected and despised.

In the justice of his father, he can claim redress. He does not. He goes against all logic and demands that the Righteous Judge forgive. Traditional sermons present Jesus' "Forgive them" as a challenge to us to forgive but the text is clear: he is challenging the Father. He is going against the judicial view, not simply the legalistic. He even challenges the ethical.

What then do I make of his final 'handing over', his consigning himself to the Father? This, for me, is the most touching moment and the one which truly marks the victory. The 'beloved Son' trusts, unreservedly, the Father's love and, thereby, becomes a channel for that love into all of Creation as its representative.

There is no question of 'substitution', nor of 'paying the price of our indebtedness'. It is love, pure and simple, transformative and, thereby, salvific.

If we, then, are to try share in this transformation for ourselves, which is, surely, the promise of the Resurrection, we have to let go of justice in favour of love. When Saint Paul instructs us not to resort to the courts to settle our disputes, the meaning goes far beyond breaches of contract or, even, retribution for law-breaking. I hear a challenge to forgive and forgive and forgive. After all, seventy times seven may not even be enough times.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Life as Pilgrimage - 1

Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? Not the organised trip to the Holy Land or the annual trek to Walsingham in the company of fellow-pilgrims. I mean the sort that takes you into the unknown. Your destination may seem clear but the way there is across seas and plains in those areas of the map marked "Here be dragons". Perhaps you are the sort of person who has done all the research and sets out, all preparations made, with confidence, light-hearted. Or perhaps, like me, your mind has been so dazzled by the goal that the way there has rather slipped your notice. And coming to the days before departure, we desperately try to foresee all the eventualities of such an undertaking.

This was how it was in the closing days of March 2001. It could so easily have been a well-planned expedition. There had been quite enough time. Particularly when it is realised how many years had led me to the moment when we were sitting in the Kuwait Air 'plane, waiting to take off for Kuwait City and New Delhi at the start of our pilgrimage to meet the Dalai Lama.

All the threads of life appear to weave together as I look through my memories to try and find the first moment that I became aware of the Dalai Lama. It must have been during the 1950s. Probably the first time that I came across any mention of Tibet was in Hergé's Tintin Au Tibet. The occasion of our decision to go to India was a film, Kundun, half a century later and one of the first questions that I asked Dorje, our guide in Dharamshala, was whether it was true that Tibetans stuck out their tongues in greeting: it was almost all that I remembered from Tintin. And, of course, there was Sam Jaffe in Lost Horizon and the lama in Kim.

Another memory is of the cover of another book, Lobsang Rampa's The Third Eye.

I have learned not to mention this book in the company of serious-minded people, particularly Buddhists. To most people, "Lobsang Rampa" was no more than a fraud and perhaps he was. But, to me, at about 14, even with my growing scepticism, I was entranced and not a little horrified. Some years later a girlfriend's father who was a Zen Jew gave me a more measured picture.

It wasn't until the late '70s and early '80s that I began to take meditation seriously. I can clearly remember the first time I experienced 'non-experience', the silence the other side of the inner (and outer) chatter, although I cannot be sure of the year, around 1978, I think. It was as if all the previous experiences of retreats and, particularly the Ignatian 30 days a decade earlier, had burst into blossom.

After that and especially during the times I was working with CF and people with AIDS, I became increasingly aware of both the power and the limitations of a meditation practice.

Buddhism came back into my life from counselling clients. One in particular was a Zen practitioner. It was my habit to discover as much as I could about clients' 'context': their reading, beliefs, musical preferences and so on. I would get them to tell me about them, particularly if they were unknown to me. I would read up and listen in so that I learned their language. As a result, I began to look at Buddhist texts and anything else I could lay my hands on. I was hooked.

During my training as a Spiritual Director, we were invited to find an image for our spiritual journey. My own was a sort of Monopoly board where the squares were people who have influenced or marked me. The dice take me in an apparently random order, from person to person, each with a gift - some good, some less good. In the past 20 years the number of 'random', 'coincidental' encounters with Buddhism and Buddhists has increased. They have reshaped my pilgrim's journey and have been a source of great comfort and challenge.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Field of Reeds

One of the attractions of the Egyptian afterlife was the Field of Reeds (Aaru), the place of bliss if one's heart is no heavier than Ma'at's feather. To get there, the soul has to go through trial and judgment.

In the Book of Exodus, Yhwh parts the Yam Suf to allow the Children of Israel to go forward towards the Promised Land by escaping Pharaoh, his slavery and his 'false gods'. And Yam Suf means "sea of reeds", not Red Sea.

Noticing this coincidence, I am led to reflect that modern archaeology now suggests very strongly that there was no 'exodus' as described in the Bible and that Israel was progressively settled by waves of immigrants from Egypt and elsewhere across centuries, and that there was no single War of Conquest. If this is the historical fact, what, I wonder, do we make of the Exodus story?

If the original writer knew the facts, there must be a subtext and I would suggest that it was written simply to demonstrate Yhwh's victory over 'false gods', not as history. And there is a subtext for Christians too: not about power but about Christ's setting all of humanity free from slavery.

Even the Buddhist mind can find an allegorical lesson about going beyond.