Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Divinely Human, Humanly Divine

Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas 2

John, one of the two sons of the fisherman Zebedee—the “sons of thunder” according to Jesus—seems to have been part of the same radical, anti-establishment Judaism that propelled Stephen the deacon to his lynching death. Reportedly a follower of the fiery John Baptizer before he met Jesus, he was a passionate devotee of the dream of the Kingdom, extreme in his judgments and his loves.

The gospel traditionally attributed to him is also the most extreme and passionate of the Four, with its Qumran-like contrasts of light and darkness, good and evil, love and (though it is never named as such) hate. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Fourth Gospel contains the most passionately exalted assertions about the nature of the man Jesus, who is seen as nothing less than the eternal Word or Wisdom of God, the divine Glory or Shekinah, “pitching its tent” among us—that is, shining from the heart of our very own fleshly nature.

Divinization of the human in pre-Christian Jewish tradition

It may very well be the case that such an exalted view of a Tzaddik, or Righteous One, is part-and-parcel of the “third force Judaism” in which John, John Baptizer and Jesus all moved, distinct from the aristocratic ruling Sadducees or the law-codifying Pharisees, rather than being an import from the Greek world, as many biblical critics have contended. In addition to the startling revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls (whoever imagined Jewish monks, after all, or "unbloody sacrifices" of bread and wine?) more than two generations of Christian scholars have now revealed more fully the apocalyptic and mystical landscape of “inter-testamental” Judaism, in which the “divinization” of great spiritual heroes like Enoch and Melchizedek is a major theme.

The tales about both involve ascending into heaven, clothing with divine glory and enthronement in power and glory, and sometimes return to earth. Enoch himself was said to have returned to earth after his heavenly glorification, cloaking his Glory, to teach the way of righteousness (1). So also, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel claims to have had a heavenly ascension experience during his lifetime. (John 3:12-13).

According to the newly emergent, but strong, school of ‘early Christology’ scholars, Jesus may have lived in a stream of Judaism quite ready to believe that a human being manifesting such Spirit-power in healing, preaching and moments of spiritual rapture, was nothing less than the earthly presence of a humanly divine and divinely human Light and Life (2). The Jews, unlike the Greeks, were content to assert a paradox like this, rather than trying to figure out the exact relationship between humanity and divinity, a task which led to many later, and perhaps unnecessary, theological headaches.

Beholding with the eyes of love

Which brings me back to John, traditionally believed to be the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved.’ Whatever this may mean beyond ‘his favorite,’ it surely implies some kind of affectionate relationship that opens the eyes of the lover to see the gold at the heart of the beloved in ways others may not see as clearly. Infatuation may indeed blind us to our love-objects faults, but enduring love sees into the soul. Such love is likely to include moments of ‘ordinarily transfigured’ vision when the Beloved is adored and praised—which is to say, worshipped (as in the old English form of the wedding vow: “with my body I thee worship”).

The English mystic and author Charles Williams sees such love, which can appear in deep friendships as well as enduring sexual partnerships, as humanity’s “most common experience” of the Divine Love. For the passionate and 'beloved' John, direct experiences of the earthly form of Jesus as the "tent" of Divine Glory—-the way Jesus smiled, walked and laughed as well as his mighty deeds and powerful words—-may well have been far more important proof of a divine humanity than any stories of Enoch or Melchizedek.

In Jesus’ presence, John had felt the actual embrace of the Divine Glory, “grace upon grace” (John 1:16) He was among the first to know this, but he was not the last, by any means.


1. When Enoch was taken into heaven God enthroned him, “set a crown upon his head in the presence of the heavenly family and called him the little lord....his body was turned into celestial fire--his flesh became flame, his veins fire, his bones glimmering coals, the light of his eyes heavenly brightness, his eyeballs torches of fire, his hair a flaring blaze, all his limbs and organs burning sparks, and his frame a consuming fire.” See Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews (online at http://philologos.org).

2. Notable among the ‘early Christology’ scholars (who rattle both the cage of conventional orthodoxy and minimalist interpretations) are: Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament; Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God; The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy; and The Risen Lord: The Jesus of History as the Christ of Faith; Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.

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