Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow....
Today is a day of quite ordinary brutality. A man is dragged through the streets of a city, then impaled on an instrument of torture until he’s dead. This sort of thing happens all the time, every day, somewhere in the world.
I used to weep for Jesus, but now I weep for the world, for all the victims of ordinary brutality. If we “look and see” we must look in two directions: to the Crucified one, and to the world’s brutalities, both overt and subtle, that find their deep meeting-place in him.
I dare hope that my tears are somehow part of Jesus’ own tears for the same world which he loved; that they are even connected with God’s own tears for the dark despoilation of soil and souls, of forest and family in this still glorious creation, full of so much good.
How can anyone who believes that the creation is fundamentally good not recognize the insidious power of evil that arises from, and through the human heart to misuse earth and its creatures in destructively self-aggrandizing ways? How can anyone who believes that human beings are made in the image of a great Goodness not realize that the seeds of that goodness—our capacities for love, generosity, mutuality, cleverness, creativity and assertiveness—can grow up in crooked ways that blur and twist that image into sinister patterns?
Good Friday unmasks the face of the world and of our human nature, such an organic part of creation—a face dark with ugliness and evil as well as radiant with goodness and beauty.
There is a deep strand of Christian piety that would, perhaps inadvertantly, isolate Jesus’ suffering as some magical transaction between God and Jesus that floats above the world, “saving” it in some hidden metaphysical sense. I do not deny any truth that may be in metaphysical musings, but for me the story of Christ’s suffering points out in all directions to the ordinary brutalities and injustices of the world. His Way of responding to this brutality is not his special possession, but an open path and power for those who would inhabit this world redemptively.
Our salvation comes not simply and solely from Christ dying on the cross, but from the way Christ died, which is of one piece with the way he lived. This is a way he “opens for us in his flesh” and draws us into participation in it through the Spirit. Thus the life-blood of his own Way, his very Spirit, begins to circulate through us for the healing not only of the world, but of our own divided souls.
He bore our sins, they told each other as they looked back on his earthly life, and carried our diseases. They said this because it seemed an apt description of how he interacted with the sick, sin-haunted and afflicted during his brief and vivid ministry.
As indicated in the previous blog post, such interactions cost. As any good healer or helper knows, in order to be really present, one must attune to the “vibe” of another’s sorrow, pain or distress, and thus resonate with the sufferer. The newly-discovered “mirror neurons” in our brain begin, quite literally, to reflect the other’s state of soul. We not only “bear with,” but sometimes actually bear some part of their dis-ease in our own hearts, minds and even bodies.
A Mysterious Exchange
If we do so, a strange alchemy can occur that is one of the central mysteries of human encounter: by sharing what ails them, the sufferer “offloads” it, as it were—”unburdens” themselves. The core of health in them has more breathing room, their feeling of isolation can be dispelled, and a sense of connection with the listener’s care or concern awakens the mother-love memory in their very cells and promotes healing. Their soul, their core self, has been “retrieved” or “ransomed” from burden of sin and guilt, sickness and isolation, or disturbance and lostness.
Such salvation only happens when some deep exchange has taken place: a ray of the healer’s love has been transmitted to the sufferer, and some of the sufferer’s burden has been transferred to the healer. Current psychological wisdom tells us we must be clear about our borders, avoid “taking on” others this way too much or too deeply. This may be good advice for helping professionals dealing with dozens of people each day. It’s true up to a point. But I’m not sure healing relationships have such clear-cut borders.
The way such exchanges happen naturally among us suggests to me that what Jesus' friends said about his "bearing our sins" arises from and is connected with just this human experience. He bore with the evil done to him by not responding with evil. And bearing our sins on the cross, whatever else that means, is a deeper form of what we can experience with each other.
He had done it his whole ministry, and now he enters tastes more deeply the depths of human sin and sadism—and somehow makes room for it, somehow connects this crampted, mean frenzy with the spaciousness of God in his own heart.He makes room for the world, sins and all; makes room for life with its all its beauty and horror; makes room for the Divine itself to bear all of this in the wellspring of Its own life-renewing heart.
The Jesus of our gospels is clear about his mission: “the Son of Man is come to seek and save the lost, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 18:11, Luke 19:10). But it is a mistake here to think that he speaks here primarily of his death.
The two halves of the statement (a typical Hebrew parallelism, as in the psalms and provers) define and modify each other: his way of ‘ransoming’ is to ‘seek and save the lost’ by everything he does, and is. For in him the image of God which is the formative core of our own psyches (defaced as it may be in us) shines with particular intensity; in him the eternally-springing Life of the Divine itself is at work in a fully human nature. And so he is already ‘resurrection and life’ to ‘those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,’ as St. Luke describes the mission. Which is to say he brings ransom by his very life-force, not just his dying.
If you are the leper begging for cleansing along the roadside, he ransoms you, redeems you, right then and there, from the exile of your leprosy. If you are the beloved daughter of the centurion, he ransoms you from your death coma (and highly probable death) by reaching deeply into your soul with such intimate words of love: talitha, cumi. If you are bound by the guilt or consequences of your sin, his startling words of forgiveness and his even more surprising command to take up your bed and walk jolts you out of the dark pit you were in, ransoms you back into active life. After all the word ‘ransom’ means to be delivered from evil of any and every kind, internal or external.
But what’s the payment then? Ransoming captives or redeeming something in a pawn shop involves ‘paying’ the ransom. Work like casting out demons (or working with the insane, if you prefer), like healing diseases, surrounding people with the loving acceptance that releases them from the power of their sins—this kind of work costs. The harder cases don’t work out without ‘prayer and fasting,’ as Jesus tells his disciples who couldn’t heal a convulsive boy.
Such deep dedication can cost one’s very self, the outpouring of one’s soul and spirit, virtually one’s life blood. Ask any dedicated psychologist,psychiatrist, or pastor, any caring social worker, any shamanistic or charismatic healer—even any mother or father knows deep in caring for an infant who needs such care to be ransomed and redeemed from lack of proper brain development.
So Jesus’ death is of a piece with his life. And as the Story is told, his ransoming didn’t even stop when he breathed his last.
The death of the Maccabean martyrs was seen by some Jews, before and during the life of Jesus, as having the same power as the Temple sacrifices. I have suggested in previous blogs that this is a primary background for the disciples' seeing Jesus’ death as a once-for-all martyr’s sacrifice "for our sins." The emphasis in such a belief is not on blood, or even death itself, but on the self-offering of a life in obedience to God, even if it sometimes leads to death.
As St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the great 4th century theological tells us:
“It is inconceivable that God should have found pleasure in the blood of his only son.”
The sacrificial language of the New Testament is neither about propitiating the wrath of God, nor about currying favor, but rather stands in a long line of development stretching back into prophetic Israelite religion which holds that “to obey is better than sacrifice." Already in the prophets there is a vitriolic attack on the use of sacrifice to propitiate God’s wrath or buy God’s pleasure. The prophets believe do not believe that sacrificial rituals do any good to deliver one from sin’s consequences. The only remedy is turning from destructive behavior: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (see Amos 5:21-25).
The Alexandrian Jew Jesus ben Sirach (author of “Ecclesiasties” so called because it was a favority “Church Book”) carries this theme forward by declaring “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin” (Sirach 3:30). The unknown writer of Tobit says, “Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High” (Tobit 4:11). It is living a moral, God-like life in the community that is “the sacrifice,” especially when we reach out in charity to those in need. There are similar developments among Greek and Roman philosophers explaining the “spiritual” meaning of their temple sacrifices.
It is not surprising, then, to hear St. Paul describing his own self-giving and the generosity of others in sacrificial-language terms when he commends the Philippians for some gifts they have sent him: “I have been paid in full through the gifts you sent me, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). Likewise, he speaks of his own imprisonment in the extravagant language of his Mediterranean culture: “I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and offering of your faith” (Philippians 2:7).
Christ’s gift of his whole life, not just his death, as an outreach of God’s love for us. When Jesus says he has come to “give my life as a ransom for many” he does so in this context—to give his whole life as a whole act of obedience to God’s reconciling love.
I am a Christian in New Jersey with deep roots in and respect for the "generous orthodoxy" tradition of spiritual wisdom and for the insights of other spiritual pathways. Increasingly concerned about what this world-wide wisdom, particulary the Abrahamic prophetic message, should be saying about current affairs, both religious and secular, I finally decided to do this blog. Beside this, I love science fiction/fantasy, great mystery novels, world history, political history, poetry, music of most any kind, tennis, and art.
All these blogs are copyright by Robert C. Morris, all rights reserved.