Easter Sunday

easter

Rise! Let us go forth; for you in me and I in you,

together we form one undivided person.

(From an ancient homily)

It took time for those who first experienced the presence of the Risen Jesus to find words to describe it – and even the faith to recognize him. They felt fear and incredulity before recognition fully dawned, the light became stronger and the sunrise of recognition broke over them.

It is the same for us.

There are many things in life’s mystery of which this can be said. But nothing of which it is as true as the Resurrection.

He enters our room without making a noise. He is with us without taking up space. He accompanies us without charging for his time. He is at the centre of everything without forcing our attention. He is invisibly visible.

He is a new way of being, which we are all heading for and which we are beginning to get glimpses of now. He wipes guilt from the doors of our perception.

He surprises us.

He makes death transparent and life radiant.

Lent has launched us.

Easter is everywhere.

We are allowed to say Alleluia again.

Holy Saturday

bere_sunset

A day of transition. Of choosing between patience and restlessness. Of ‘waiting in joyful hope’ or of anger at loss of control.

I told someone recently of a mutual friend who was ‘in transition’, meaning they were at one of those in between periods of life. The person I was telling looked shocked and utterly taken aback. ‘I would never have thought..’ they started to say. As we could say ‘in transition’ of ourselves or of anyone on pretty well any day or in any phase of life, I was surprised by their response. Then the misunderstanding crept out of the corner where all misunderstandings hide. By ‘in transition’ they thought I meant gender change.

This would indeed be a major transition, filled with fear, hope and anticipation by whoever feels compelled to undertake it. But, in fact, the transition of Holy Saturday for the patient Christian is not less. When we reflect on what is happening deep down in the earth, out of sight, far out of reach of the dualistic mind we see an irreversible, evolutionary change is underway. Having crossed the valley of death, Jesus dives deep into all the layers of matter and consciousness from which the human has arisen, through all the stirrings of planetary and cosmic consciousness.

Icons illustrate this as the ‘descent into hell’, the nether regions that remain untouchable and unknowable to the ordinary functions of the human mind. They are  alien to what we think of as civilisation. Reaching this deep mind of creation, Jesus – and perhaps all who die – touches the source where it is also seen as the point of return. In every cycle there is a turning point, where yin transitions to yang and in time yang yields to yin. In every journey there is a point where we shift imperceptibly from being the one who left to one who is arriving.

Hamlet peers into this journey over the event horizon ‘from whose bourn no traveller returns’. What if one traveller does return? What if that unity that allows us to speak of humanity as a whole, not just as a mass of individuals, were to be touched and gathered into one who makes this journey not just for himself but with and, compassionately, for us? What would that say about our life on the daily surface, about the unity of the human family unity and about the meaning of death, our final finality?

It would be worth waiting patiently for, just to see. We would need patience for the coming of that moment of consciousness, called the vision of faith, where we see that the return has happened because it is happening. To rise from this depth would be more than a transition to another point on the spectrum. It would be a complete transformation, a bridging of opposites, the conquest of fear. Not less, in fact, than a new creation. While still going through the cycles of life, we would be already sharing in the mind of the one who returns, seeing through his eyes. We would feel as if – along with all humanity before and after us – that we were, finally, waking up.

Good Friday

Psunday

To all appearances it is not a very good day. So how do we understand the tradition that calls it good? Not because what happened today – the triumph of injustice and the judicial murder of an innocent – was good. Not because humanity missed the opportunity to be changed by one of their own who was ahead – light years ahead – of his time. It is good because of what flowed from the collective failure to accept the message this man carried and  – to those who see him with the eyes of faith – embodied.

When someone we love dies, or in the death of a great spiritual artist, as Jesus was, we feel stricken by all that is lost. We foresee all the events that they will not be there to share with us; we suffer the loss of that unique participation in our life which once enriched us and now leaves us feeling half-dead. 

Death has this effect. But over time, as the trauma of grief reduces and we find we are engaged in life’s challenges again despite ourselves, we discover that the absence is not merely the grey void we thought. It is a new and more spacious dimension of life, pain notwithstanding, in which the physical and psychological presence of the absent person is interiorized. This absent-presence saturates consciousness. It reveals the spiritual in a strangely enhancing way.

Death however is always the great disrupter. It shatters all routines. For a time we live on automatic pilot waiting to see whether anything new will happen – often in despair that it will not.

Pilate was surprised that the crucified Jesus died so soon. The purpose of any death penalty is to have the longest possible deterrent effect. However at the deeper level of meaning the suffering of Jesus is not the main source of today’s good influence. We are not saved, healed, transformed, liberated from illusion by the suffering but by the love shown us by one who was not afraid to love God with his whole self: because, Christian faith goes so far as to say, his self was one with God.

Now we have also seen the inner working of sin – fear, cruelty, denial, untruth, addiction to power. The façades of civilization have been stripped away and the veil of religious institutionalism complicit with power has been rent in two. Seeing life through the eyes of the compassionate crucified one we can never see anything the same way again. The old deceptions, hypocrisies and hidden fears that corrupt all relationships have been disempowered.

We are shattered by this but not destroyed. In place of the old deadening routines a fresh way of being forms. It is too soon to see this new life. But it is already conceived through death, in the womb of the earth, awaiting its birth, ready to begin its transformative growth among us.

Holy Thursday

Psunday

Man does not live on bread alone. But bread is the first level of what feeds us and keeps us going. We need to ensure that we don’t eat too much of it and to recall that the materially hungry also need our help in finding what they need. Distribution of food exemplifies both physical health and the health of justice in any society.
 
The Eucharist was conceived in the last Passover ritual that Jesus shared with his disciples. He could not have foreseen the great liturgies taking place today in St Peter’s or Canterbury Cathedral. But it is hard to imagine that he did not know that he was plunging into the symbolic life of the ritual and transforming it; or that he might be giving a new expression to it by merging himself with it and with those who, in future, would identify themselves with him.
 
From childhood,  I was reared on Sunday mass and loved it in an unconscious way. In adolescence it lost its meaning for me, as the Church’s ability to address the major issues I was confronting faded. Meditation brought me back to the mass and to the Church in a meaningful and more mature way. I came to experience – and later to understand – that the meaning of the Eucharist is essentially the meaning of meditation practiced in Christian faith. The real presence is in the ritual as much as it is in the silence of the heart. This combination, for me, was explosive.
 
Bread and wine symbolize the first level of food. But we don’t go to the Eucharist to fill our stomachs (it seems the early Christians were a bit more rowdy than us, their sedate, passive descendants sitting in pews, and they went over the top in their celebrations). The Eucharist is a living physical symbol and enactment of the real presence. But it is also a sign of the kind of life we would be living in the world if we were really present to this real presence. This is the challenge. And only meeting this will ‘bring people back to the church’ (if that is how we want to put it). The Eucharist is not a closed club privilege. It is a witness to those who are not in the club that it is not a club but an open-hearted community.
 
The real presence of Christ is radicalizing. It is a threat to every power structure that humans have ever constructed, including Christian structures, including the often strange roles that clergy and laity play out together. The minister of the Eucharist is not the priest, but Christ himself – a nice idea often invisible in the practice but still an essential truth. Community, not hierarchy, is the message even though human beings long for hierarchy and some measure of subordination in order to feel safe. Liturgical change, for this reason, is usually the most bitterly resisted kind of change.
 
When a rich person or a celebrity comes to communion he does not demand more of the bread or a better chalice to drink from than that shared with the poor. The Last Supper is the first proclamation of radical equality that revolutionizes the relations between men and women and children – and of humanity with the planet. 
 
This message is so fresh in every celebration that we need meditation after communion to absorb it. To unite and embody the inner and outer presence.

Wednesday Holy Week

Psunday

I have been reading the three-volume biography of Kafka for some weeks, surprised at myself for plodding through it. He had an uneventful life revolving around a few compulsive obsessions including his irrepressible need to write and his perfect ear for literature. It was the compulsion to write that made this insurance lawyer who could not commit to love or escape from his parents one of the prophets of the modern era. His insight into the dehumanizing effect of bureaucracy and the sense of personal oppression and alienation caused by contemporary life speaks to us still with moving intensity.

In The Trial he describes the sickening influence of unjust power structures crushing down against the innocent. The Passion narrative of the show trial at which Jesus was condemned to death evokes the same nightmare scenario when paranoia is exposed as not imaginary and we see that we are indeed the innocent target of malevolent enemies.

But with Jesus this nightmare of persecution, though as real as a Stalinist purge, does not overwhelm him as the innocent victim. This is because he simply does not allow himself to identify himself as a victim. He is a sacrifice. And so there is a quite different outcome.

For a religious person – of any faith – the complicity of religious authorities in the injustice committed against Jesus is deeply disturbing.  So, to the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was the compliance of the Christian churches with the Nazis. In these cases we see – as today with the alliance of the Russian Church with its political regime – how power, false prudence and privilege corrupt faith.

Power is a flow of energy. If, from whatever source, it bears the virus of corruption it carries it to every part of the system. As the monstrous corruption of power turns personally against him, Jesus confronts it with rationality (‘if I have said nothing wrong why do you strike me?’), equanimity and silence. His own power, flowing directly from his source of being, confronts and engages with the systemic corrupt power held by those who have declared him to be the enemy.

When power is corrupted, the darkest shadows in human nature surface, from top to bottom of the hierarchy. The sadism of the death camps, or Srebrenika, or the inhumanity at Guantanamo authorized by civilized politicians on Capitol Hill are reflected in the torture and cruelty described in the Passion narrative.

Pilate, the consummate successful politician, is the foil of this confrontation between pure and corrupt power. His creepy question ‘what is truth?’ answers itself as he washes his hands of the injustice he has permitted. Every power system thereafter will see – and be forever disturbed – by seeing the innocent victim as the only character to walk away from this drama of corruption with integrity.

Tuesday Holy Week

Psunday

The Last Supper weaves a high level of consciousness around the polarities of friendship and betrayal. It refuses to see one without the other. It refuses to make an eternal enmity between them – as we do when, hurt or rejected, we say we will never communicate again with the person who caused us this suffering.

In this open and vulnerable state of mind Jesus walks across the Kedron Valley to Gethsemane, a small estate where he was used to pray. In the light of the Passover moon he would have seen the funerary monuments already built there. Muslims, Christians and Jews have since added their graves to this place of ancient memories. Once when I meditated in Gethsemane with fellow-pilgrims, I faced an olive tree reputedly 2500 years old which the eyes of Jesus would have seen. I also noticed some small red flowers I had seen earlier on the slopes of Galilee where the Sermon on the Mount was given. I wondered whether seeing these ‘lilies of the field’ on his last night, Jesus remembered his home and more peaceful days – days when he taught, before he was called to live, to be, his teaching with every cell and fibre of his being.

In this garden, in the night’s silence, he took a few close companions to pray. They fell asleep. In his solitude, he was overwhelmed by sorrow and the fear of death reared up from where it hides in each of us. Everything in him rejected his destiny; but something else appeared in this moment of panic. This was a sense of deep connection and ultimate purpose. With this he moved from panic to peace and acceptance. ‘Not my will but as you will it to be.’

‘In his will is our peace’, Dante said. But the word ‘will’, implying some contest of wills or clash of egos, may mislead. ‘Point of view’ or ‘way of seeing’ conveys the meaning better. We do not merely surrender our will to the divine will – surrender usually preserves a pocket of resentment. There is no violence done to us or by us in the union that happens between our way of seeing and the vision of God.

In this union of vision the illusion of our self as a separate individual is finally transcended. It is replaced by the self-recognition of a unique solitude. Centred, grounded in this solitude Jesus meets his betrayer’s kiss and the armed guard that comes to arrest him under cover of darkness. He is never more alone and never more equally connected to both friends and enemies. He is bound and led away to a mock trial, not as a victim but a universal symbol of freedom.

A singular detail in the story as told by Mark has intrigued readers since the beginning. A young male follower wearing nothing but a linen cloth was also arrested but escaped and ran away naked. Perhaps as tradition says, it is Mark himself. Because the figure is both anonymous and autobiographical, many readers find themselves identifying with this very vulnerable and for the moment rather absurd disciple of the Master.

Monday Holy Week

Psunday

Immediately after the dark and apparently motiveless scene of Judas selling his teacher for money, Jesus instructs his disciples to prepare the Passover which he will eat with them. This celebration of family, friendship and solidarity with the past will include the betrayer.  What would it say of Jesus as a teacher if Judas was excluded?

The exchange between Jesus and the disciples about preparing the Passover meal to be celebrated in Jerusalem is quite detailed. He tells them what to do and who they will find and where – an upper room with divans and cushions : a middle-eastern eating space for reclining not Leonardo da Vinci’s quattrocento table. The impression we receive is that he is actively preparing for what will happen to him. Some people, who know they are going to die and have accepted it, cease to be victims of their mortality. From the hospital room or bedroom where they will die, they become more concerned about others than themselves. Death becomes more than an individual, terrifying extinction but a passage for a group of people tied deeply together by bonds of love and faith. And wherever there is love and fidelity hope is never far away.

The upper room – later called the cenacle – is not just a rented hall but a community space. Tradition says that it is the room where the disciples gathered on the day of the Resurrection and later for Pentecost. It is not a virtual community – as we have come to understand it – but one physically connected and identified with particular space. As with Bonnevaux – increasingly for our community – the space feels filled with a living presence.

The shared meal (that became the Eucharist) was meant to be a joyful gathering; but a shadow is cast over this one by the consciousness of the coming betrayal. The old Fathers of the Church agreed that Judas took the bread and wine with the rest. It is an important detail because it shows that the shadow in ourselves – and the darkness in the world before and since – is absorbed by the very light it tries to block. What seems a contradiction (as to those excluding people from the Eucharist) then becomes a paradox in which transformation happens and reality is realized.

This is my body: this is my blood. Two Greek words with distinct, overlapping meanings point to the gift he is making. Sarx (flesh), Soma (body). If he meant sarx it would be a rather gruesome gift – the cannibalism that people thought the early Christians were practicing. But soma means the whole embodied self. If a woman gets disturbing blood-test results her family don’t just hug her flesh but her whole body-self. The pain of the flesh is relieved by the love experienced in the body. Perfect abs and biceps may be the attractive wrapping of our self; but we love the whole embodied person, even when they lose tone and put on weight.

Before the physical and mental suffering for which he was preparing them, he was touching them, as Leonard Cohen says, with his ‘perfect body’ and, even more, including them in it.