Jesus the terrorist

JesusHomelessIt’s Holy Saturday, and as a Christian I’m in that strange pause between the abyss of Good Friday and the explosion of the Easter Vigil. I should be thinking about the words of the Creed, “he descended to the dead”, or as the older renditions had it, “he descended into hell”.

The ancient tradition of the Church is that during the time of his death, Jesus offered salvation to all the departed who had come before him. Orthodox icons of the Resurrection show him trampling the gates of hell, pulling up a frightened and diffident Adam and Eve by their wrists.

There is so much more I could say about that, but what I’ve been thinking about, yesterday and today, is how Jesus was guilty and deserved to die.

Christian theology has always emphasized that Jesus was sinless and did no wrong. He was tempted and did not yield; he carried out the will of his Father, but humankind rejected what he offered. The crucifixion was a rejection of divine love, the ultimate horror, injustice to Jesus as man, blasphemy to Jesus as God.

From the point of view of Easter, the point of view of the Resurrection and Ascension, that is of course correct. But it helps me also to look at Jesus from the point of view of those who condemned and executed him.

He came from Galilee–the armpit of a province that the Romans considered the armpit of the Empire. He was yet another itinerant preacher and healer and miracle-worker–or was he? He gathered larger crowds than usual. He was rumored to be connected to the old royal line, descended from David–unlike the Herodians. At least some of his followers wanted to make him king, which would have been a direct challenge to Roman authority. All this peace and love talk, healing the sick, eating with outcasts, breaking down the divisions that keep a society functioning properly, could be a cover for something more.

Then one day this Jesus enters Jerusalem in a sort of triumphal procession. People are acclaiming him as Son of David and King of Israel. Then he’s in the Temple, throwing around a whip, tipping over tables, interrupting the lawful commerce, and saying things about destroying and rebuilding the Temple. Hadn’t they just done that? Hadn’t Herod just finished restoring the Temple that had been desecrated by Antiochus and re-dedicated by the Maccabees? Worst of all, the Roman governor was actually in the city, having come with his soldiers to keep a close eye on things during Passover.

What you have to remember is, first, the Palestine of Jesus’ day was an occupied country, ruled by the Romans with some collaboration from the Jewish religious and political authorities; and second, that the Temple in Jerusalem was not just the religious center of the country, but the political and financial center as well. Jesus threw his own tickertape parade, then walked in and set off a bomb in a location that was the White House, the World Trade Center, and the Vatican all in one. He was obviously dangerous.

In John’s Gospel, Caiaphas the high priest says, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people.” John connects that to the saving nature of Jesus’ death, but Caiaphas also meant, I think, that it was better for them to turn over a dodgy popular figure to the Romans–however popular he was–than to give the Romans any pretext for military action. Better to get Jesus crucified and safely out of the way than to risk Roman soldiers marching through the holy city, killing everyone in sight. Whatever this man is teaching, it’s too dangerous, too volatile. Get him off the scene.

John’s Gospel, and to a lesser extent the Synoptic Gospels, also present the Roman governor Pilate as doing everything he can to avoid executing Jesus. Frankly, this just doesn’t jibe with what we know of Pilate historically. He was a fairly brutal governor who would no more have thought twice about executing a possible insurrectionist than he would about swatting a fly that was biting him. If someone was willing to testify convincingly that Jesus claimed the old Judaean monarchy, Pilate no doubt executed the man with a clear conscience. He was protecting the interests of the Empire and of the locality.

I don’t think Jesus was a terrorist, a zealot, as a recent book has argued. I think the Gospels are fairly reliable about what he did and taught. And I think that what he did and taught, as the Gospels show it to us, is plenty threatening to occupying armies, political collaborators, governments that want to keep the peace at all costs. He ignored the distinctions between men and women, Jews and Gentiles, pure and impure. He healed and ate with people without checking their bona fides. He counseled neither resisting oppression nor submitting, but rather subverting it. He encouraged people to think of themselves as more than worthless peasants, cogs in the machine, drudges in the field, commodities to be exploited. He questioned rules and regulations and dared people to look at their motivations, their beliefs, their inner dispositions.

I have no doubt that the same self-styled Christians who oppose gay marriage, who want women out of the workforce, who affirm capitalism as a God-given economic system, who think the poor deserve their poverty and the rich their wealth, would be standing right next to Annas and Caiaphas recommending that Jesus be crucified. These are the same people who were offended by a statue of Jesus as a homeless man, sleeping on a bench–the same Jesus who said of himself that he had nowhere to lay his head. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that they worship a homeless man who was executed as a terrorist.

Readings and offerings

I’ve been roaming the blogosphere lately, looking for new writers to read, and by curious chance (or perhaps divine guidance) I came across this post by Cat Treadwell, “Sacred Reading”. Cat, a Druid, writes movingly of reading a book about a woman’s stay in the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky, made famous by enclosing the writer Thomas Merton, and being struck by the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina, sacred reading. Lectio is a slow, ruminative, prayerful encounter with the sacred, primarily in the Christian Scriptures, but also, potentially, in other texts and other ways of seeking meaning.

I myself was struck by finding a pagan Druid writing of Christian monastic life and spiritual practices when I have lately been restless and unhappy after immersing myself in much the same sort of reading for months. Now I was seeking pagan bloggers, druid bloggers, new pagan books.

In early 2013 I transferred my church membership to a new parish (new to me, that is, not to the area) and had contentedly identified myself as Episcopalian, no qualifiers, for the past year. At least, that has been my story. I put books on magic and pagan topics in empty Amazon boxes, determined to give them away, yet somehow they never found their way out of the apartment. My New Hermetics pantacle, my Tarot decks, my tiny statues of Buddha sitting zazen and Isis on her throne lingered in my possession, along with books I never even considered giving up. And since the beginning of this year, more or less, the words of the Daily Office have withered, disconnected from the actual relationship I am having with Jesus, and I have been missing another deity I used to have a relationship with: Antinous.

I have said all along that I think Antinous pointed me toward my Episcopal church and said, “Visit one more time. You’ll see.” I felt that if I asked for his help again, politely, he would be inclined to give it.  He has this in common with Jesus: He does not turn people away, regardless of who they are. He excludes no one. (Jesus’s followers haven’t always lived up to that principle, but I think the Gospels are pretty clear that it was his modus operandi.) And the Bithynian Boy has indeed calmed my anxieties and helped to clear my mind over the past few days.

The truth is, while I’ve been an Episcopalian most of my life, I’m not sure I’ve ever been a monotheist. I remember having two children’s Bibles, one with simple crayon-like drawings and retellings mostly of the Gospels, the other with “religious” paintings of a Protestant kind in which Jesus was, quite bluntly, a blond-haired, blue-eyed hottie. I know I spent a lot of time staring at the illustration of Jesus, naked to the waist, standing thigh-deep in the waters of Jordan at his baptism.

At the same time, I owned or borrowed from the library numerous books on mythology, especially Greco-Roman and Egyptian, and on world religions. There was a lavishly illustrated Time-Life volume I borrowed many times that included a two-page illustration of the Hindu pantheon, done in popular devotional style; photographs of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox liturgies; cool black-and-white photos of Zen monks, and chapters on Judaism and Islam as well. I always read far ahead of my grade level and quickly graduated to the mostly-text books on the adult side of the library, on comparative religions, archaeology, and the ancient world.

As near as I can remember, if you’d asked me what those Greek, Egyptian, Hindu gods were doing now that everybody knew Jesus was The Real God, I would have said something like, “They’re retired now.” They weren’t in charge of everything any more, because Jesus, but they certainly existed. I don’t think I ever doubted that they existed. Maybe all those color photographs helped me to understand that all those other people actually took their religions seriously, even if they weren’t Protestant Christianity.

A chance mention somewhere, on someone’s blog, most likely, led me to look up meanings for the placement of Jupiter in my natal chart, in the sign of Gemini. I actually suffered the old cliche of a sinking stomach as I read that Jupiter in Gemini can be a religious dilettante, attracted by everything, always hungry for new information, but not very likely to settle down with one particular path or practice.

I thought about this, and prayed about it, and finally said to myself, I’ve just turned forty-eight. I could live another fifty years or more. Instead of trying to fight this trait in myself, how about turning a bug into a feature? How about just going with the flow and see where it goes?

So tonight the triptych I made for Antinous, my statues of Buddha and Isis, my stones and feathers, rocks and shells, joined my icons of Christ, the Virgin of Tenderness, and the Trinity on my mantel and on the table below. My best photo of my grandmother is there, along with icons of Julian of Norwich, my beloved spiritual mother these thirty years, and Perpetua and Felicity, early Roman Christian martyrs whom I venerate during Lent. Incense is burning and tea lights are lit, offerings to the holy powers. Tomorrow I will go to church, sing Lenten hymns, hear the Word preached, and receive the body and blood of Jesus at his table where all are welcome. Tonight, I feel calm. In the midst of this topsy-turvy time of warmth and cold, longer days, Lent over here and Purim over there, Ostara and Holi and at last the crocuses are opening, the birds are singing, I finally feel calm.

Into the cloud

Today, on the last Sunday of Epiphanytide, we heard the Gospel of the Transfiguration, as related by Matthew. My rector preached on how, after the vision has faded and Peter, James, and John are still prostrate from panic and confusion, Jesus doesn’t reprove them; instead, he tells them to get up and not to be afraid. The same verb which our translation rendered “get up”, my rector said, is used to mean resurrection. Jesus tells his disciples to be raised and not to fear.

The first lesson, from the Hebrew Scriptures, spoke of Moses going up on the mountain to receive the Torah from the LORD. From the description of fire, light, and cloud, smoke, vapor, it sounds like he’s walking straight into a volcanic eruption. But the point that mostly caught my attention is that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain with God, receiving the Law for Israel.

In three days it will be Ash Wednesday, and the likelihood of singing the well-known hymn “Forty days and forty nights” is very high.

Forty days and forty nights thou was fasting in the wild;

forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled.

We tend to associate Lent with Jesus’s fasting in the desert after his baptism, during which time he was tempted by Satan. Surely he was also contemplating his vocation, seeking his path, asking in prayer to be shown the work God wanted him to do, the God who had so unexpectedly called him son. But that’s not the only event in Scripture marked by the symbolic forty days and forty nights. There’s also the floating of the ark on the flood waters, Noah and his family and a lot of very smelly animals waiting for the rain to stop and the waters to subside. The ark was carved on baptismal fonts; Lent is the journey of new Christians toward baptism.

And there are those forty days and forty nights Moses spent in dialogue with God, receiving the law. Moses entered the cloud, and what happened there is something no one can know except Moses and God. Gregory of Nyssa looked at this story and wrote a Life of Moses in which progression into the cloud is progression into knowledge and love of God and unity with God. That same cloud is the controlling image of the famous medieval work on contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowing.

This Lent, I’m going to try to imagine myself less as Jesus, wandering in the desert, hungry and thirsty, tempted by the slanderer, and more as Moses, climbing the mountain which is also the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration, getting closer and closer to God.

The work of the second degree

In the Middle Ages, when glorious cathedrals were built with hand tools and muscle labor, a man who wanted to be a mason would apprentice to a master mason while he was still a boy. He would work his way up from doing menial labor to support the skilled workers, to learning the skills of the craft, to being competent to work on his own. At that point he would be called a journeyman, and he might journey around to work with other masters than his own, to learn new things, to hone his skills. Eventually, he would produce a work, a master piece, that qualified him to be called a master and to take apprentices of his own.

This three-level system of training, in which one master taught small groups of students, applied for hundreds of years in a wide variety of professions. It was paralleled to some extent in other professions, such as the progress of a monk from novice, to junior brother in simple vows, to senior monk in life-long solemn vows. When the symbolic system of masonry passed from the hands of people who actually raised buildings into the hands of educated men with time to speculate on its meanings, somewhere in the early eighteenth century, Freemasonry retained those three levels of training, its three degrees.

In the late nineteenth century, Freemasonry unexpectedly shared its lodge system of government and its three basic degrees with a number of alternative spirituality movements. As a result, the Wiccans, Witches, and Druids of twentieth-century neopaganism usually underwent training programs that involved three degrees. Freemasons speak of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason; the Druid order to which I formerly belonged called its degrees Apprentice, Companion, and Adept. There’s a basic commonality in the descriptions of the degrees across traditions: The first degree is about learning the system; the second degree is about proficiency in working the system; and the third degree is about teaching and embodying the system.

If you have any interest in neopagan witchcraft or Wicca, and have contact with other interested people, for more than about a month, you will start to hear complaints about the proliferation of “Wicca 101″ books and the dearth of advanced materials. Month after month, year after year, new books for beginners in witchcraft get released, books about the first degree, while if books on second or third degree topics are being written, they’re not getting published. And if you peruse a few large bookstores, or the websites of a few prominent publishers, you will see that the complaints are justified.

I achieved First Degree in my Druid order, but not Second. I could never quite get myself organized to tackle it, which in retrospect was probably a sign that I should have given up on the druid system much sooner than I did. Sometime last year, I began to think about the three degrees and the teachings of the Church and to ask myself, What would it mean to be a second-degree Christian?

It’s not that the Church doesn’t have equivalents to the degrees, at least theoretically. Ascetical theology speaks of three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination, and unification. The devout soul moves from being purged of sins and vices, to being illuminated with knowledge and love of self, others, and God, finally to being united with God. At times people in these three stages were spoken of as beginners, proficients, and perfects, although I think the Cathars rather ruined that for everybody else in touting their celibate, vegetarian perfecti as superior to the not-very-celibate or self-denying Catholic priests of their day. Even the common, external progression from baptism to confirmation to vocation (marriage, monastic life, holy orders, or some combination of the above) suggests the three degrees, although I think the analogy is a false one.

In my early twenties, while I was working at a Christian bookstore, I came across a book that took seriously the idea of what you might call second-degree Christianity. That book was Christian Proficiency by Martin Thornton, a priest of the Church of England. It made a deep and permanent impression on me, and it must have done so for other readers as well because it’s still in print. For Thornton, a proficient was any Christian who was willing to embrace a Rule of Life and commit to regular Eucharist and Sunday worship, daily formal prayer (such as Morning and Evening Prayer from the Prayerbook), and some kind of private prayer. To make Christianity a practice rather than just a theory of life made one a Proficient.

I decided last year that I was going to take myself seriously as a Proficient, a Christian of the second degree. I was out of practice, so to speak, but I was far from a beginner in the way. I had a large knowledge of theology, spirituality, Church history. I had some experience with living by Rule. And I had, and have, a genuine desire to pray more, pray better, pray more deeply than I ever had before.

Being second degree means showing up at church on Sundays and holy days, regardless of how I feel. (Usually this is not a challenge, as I actually feel better *after* Eucharist than I did before.) It means saying the Office regardless of how I feel, and doing it with some solemnity. I have always liked to have candles and incense with daily prayer, and recently I began wearing a dedicated shawl during times of prayer, which makes me feel I have a vestment. I do spend more time in private, informal, open-ended prayer than I used to, though still not as much as I want to. (Sometimes one gets sucked into the Internet, or the newest levels of Angry Birds.)

Perhaps the hardest thing, strangely enough, has been carrying out my decision not to read “Christianity 101″ books any more. Today, for example, I finished a book on Julian of Norwich that I seem to have begun back in November of last year. It was only around 275 pages long (and that includes a copious portion of notes), but there were times that reading it was like banging my head against a brick wall. At times I actually moved my lips while reading it, or read parts of it aloud. I never blamed the author, just my failing eyes and my tired middle-aged brain. But today I finished it, I felt like I understood it, and I began reading another scholarly Julian book that started life as a doctoral dissertation. I’ve been reading and studying Julian for thirty years; I don’t need any more Julian 101 books. I need to have the courage of my experience.

What topics can you stop reading introductory-level books about? What do you need to read, or do, or change in order to work the system, to make your Christianity a practice and not just a theory? How can you solemnize your commitment to prayer, peace, justice and love? And what might it look like, feel like, be like, for you to be third degree, to know some kind of unity with God? I think more of us in the Church need to step up, light our candles and put on our prayer shawls or whatever feels right, and start answering those questions. Out loud.

My Religion

My religion is an intense, personal relationship, a romantic and even erotic relationship, with a God who has never not been present in my life.

My religion is a psychological process of exposing more and more of my self to the Light.

My religion is a system of myths and symbols, stories, songs, poems, pictures, canon and apocrypha and fanfic, that provides meaning and enables me to create new meaning in my life.

My religion is a part of my cultural heritage, my self-identification as a white North American of primarily English descent. The great poets of my religious tradition, Herbert and Donne and Eliot, are also great poets of my language and culture.

My religion is a refuge for my solitude. And my religion is a social activity tied to my place in a particular neighborhood.

My religion is a map of the universe, a description of the way things work, a story that illuminates the facts. And my religion is a practice, a discipline, a daily agenda, just as surely as Zen Buddhism is.

My religion is all of these things simultaneously. It’s not one or the other. It has nothing to do with belief; it has everything to do with trust. Doctrine is a usable map; theology is a discussion of the map. The map is, of course, not the territory, but it’s a useful guide to the territory. The territory is reality itself.

My religion is a way and a path, a house and a home, a story and a dare. That the way is well-travelled, the house well lived in, does not make the story and the dare less exciting.

I actually hate writing book reviews, so you know I must like this book

It has been a few years since I went looking for books on the Rule of St. Benedict and Benedictine spirituality. While Esther De Waal’s classic Seeking God is still in print (and I am currently re-reading it), I think Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People has become my new first recommendation, the book I would offer someone who knows nothing about St. Benedict or why laypeople, especially Protestant laypeople, would want to hang out with monks. It’s clear; it covers the essential themes of Benedict’s teaching in a fresh and accessible way; it is directed to a specifically Protestant and even Evangelical audience, with an extensive appendix on the Reformers’ critiques of monasticism in their day; and it has an excellent recommended reading list that includes De Waal’s book and many others, both popular and more scholarly. I recommend it very highly.

The discontent of my winter

We observed the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord at my church this morning. We don’t observe many holy days that aren’t Sundays, outside of the biggies at Christmas and in Holy Week, but this feast conveniently fell on a Sunday this year. In his sermon, my rector remarked that when he was searching online for information about the feast, he found more posts from witches than from Christians.

In the old reckoning, before the twentieth century’s liturgical reforms, before the Gregorian calendar, this day was the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of spring. Once it was called the Purification of Our Lady, and the main focus was on the ritual purification required by the Mosaic Law for a woman who had given birth before she could be reintegrated into the community. The Law prescribed a withdrawal of forty days for the mother of a son, eighty for the mother of a daughter; hence, this feast made Christmastide, too, a season of forty days.

Despite the joyous nature of its festivals, Christmastide is often harder on me than Lent. I don’t deal well with winter. This year we’ve had unusually cold temperatures and unusually large amounts of snow, by Mid-Atlantic standards; my snow boots are starting to show some wear after sitting in the closet, pristine and pure, for several years. I long for longer days and temperatures above freezing, for a chance to wear the cute fleece jacket I bought in late autumn instead of my heavy black down-filled coat, for more light, more light.

All the Scriptures and songs of Christmastide are about light. The divine Light comes into the world, embodied in Jesus, and the natural light grows as the earth tilts and turns and we celebrate the growth of the Word made flesh. But not fast enough; not fast enough. Even now there’s a winter storm approaching my area, and if there are any snowdrops or crocuses out there, they may be covered over by morning.

Yet the shift in nature’s energies that occurs at this moment of the year, whether you call it Presentation, Purification, Candlemas, or Imbolc, always brings some relief to me, and perhaps to others who suffer from the loss of light for three months. Already there are signs that, as so often happens, my creative energies have been renewed, and they’re ready to push up from the darkness like sprouting bulbs, showing new and unexpected flowers. The orchid I’ve had for over five years has put out a stalk with buds for the first time since I’ve owned it. I think I, too, will be putting out some new things in the coming month.