The Common Good
March-April 2002

A Mysterious Joy

by Kari Jo Verhulst | March-April 2002

Years ago when my mother was quite ill, a friend copied a poem and surreptitiously slipped it into my Bible.

Years ago when my mother was quite ill, a friend copied a poem and surreptitiously slipped it into my Bible. I discovered it weeks later when, on a train returning from one of my visits home, I opened my Bible in search of comfort, though I doubted I would find any. I still attribute the moment to the hand of God, unsophisticated as that sounds, and the poem has been stuck to my bulletin board ever since.

Suspended

I had grasped God's garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
—Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov's experience of God's sustaining love begat in her the need to put it on paper, a need my friend then shared in his desire to offer her words to me. And in that moment, I felt the everlasting arms, mediated by a slip of paper born of love.

In many ways, the New Testament is just such an offering. Though those witnesses lived in an entirely different world than ours, they possessed that same deeply human desire to share joy. These weeks of Lent into Easter, we are given multiple ways of reliving what Albert Schweitzer calls the "mystical doctrine of redemption through being-in-Christ." I encourage you to read the biblical texts first as poems from fellow travelers who long to share the mysterious joy and sadness of falling and being held. Because that is how the Word comes to life.

 

Kari Jo Verhulst, a Sojourners contributing writer, is an M.Div. student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Suspended," from Evening Train, ©1992 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


March 3

Declared Just
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

"Now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God?" (Romans 5:9). Returning Paul to his symbolic world is helpful in getting at what the apostle meant to convey in this pastoral epistle. It is best read with Paul's conversion fixed firmly in one's memory. Paul has encountered the risen Christ; he meets Jesus first on the road to Damascus but most poignantly in those lovers of Jesus who, despite Paul's oppression of their community, forgive him before he even asks. In being so received, Paul is both convicted of his sinfulness and transformed into a beloved brother of those he has been oppressing.

Beyond his individual experience, Paul has witnessed the power of this forgiveness to make community out of Jew and Gentile. The utter gratuity of God's saving initiative unifies them and guards against turning their faith into what Juan Luis Segundo describes in his book The Humanist Christology of Paul as "a privilege or a negotiable commodity."

Paul's preferred metaphor for salvation—justification—suggests a courtroom in which one is simultaneously tried and acquitted, exonerated to live in right relationship with God and the cosmos. Declared just, one is empowered to live as a just participant in God's restoring work. This image forces us to confront the gravity of sin and of our participation in the suffering and injustice that it breeds. Paul's image of God as both giver and expiator of judgment is expansive, roomy enough to fit oppressed and oppressor into the same courtroom. This God can absorb the angry who cry for revenge, the humiliated so beaten down they cannot see their loveliness, and the arrogant who presume they are above God's justice.

 

March 10

‘Now I See'
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). The disciples ask an honest question: What is the cause of this man's suffering? Their query presumes a traditional explanation of illness, which saw it as a direct result of sin. The social dimension of sin is evident in Hebrew scriptures, but it does not have the final word. While the father's sins extend to "the third and the fourth generations," God's "steadfast love" is shown to the thousandth generation" (Exodus 20:5-6).

The notion of "original sin" stems from reflection upon sin's persistence. Much as we like to blame St. Augustine, the concept did not originate with him. In first-century Judaism, midrashic speculation over Jacob and Esau's enmity in the womb led to the idea that sin before birth was possible. The disciples are simply asking their rabbi for his interpretation.

But for John, sin is not located in relationship to one's parents. He subverts this prevailing assumption by redefining sin in direct relationship to one's receptivity to the revelation of God in Jesus. This relocation broke open the fated causality between lineage and morality, and in today's text between illness and moral culpability. The one written off as "born entirely in sins" (John 9:34) is the only one who can "see" who Jesus is. The one whose simple testimony—"though I was blind, now I see" (9:25)—was discounted, that one now teaches the teachers.

Within this reversal also resides a critical insight into what it is to be human. John locates our salvation in Jesus' entire incarnation, not just the crucifixion. Thus our salvation comes when we see the falseness of humanity defined as power over others and embrace the revelation that to be human is to receive. The one born blind understands a life of dependence and receptivity and must teach so that the "teachers" too can be reborn as dependent, contingent creatures.

 

March 17

Mind and Body
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Ezekiel's marvelous vision offers a window into the Hebraic conception of what it is to be alive. Breath is blown into dry, lifeless bones; the spirit of God takes up residence within. We live because God's spirit pulses through our sinews, flesh, and skin. Isn't death, after all, defined by the separation of spirit from matter?

This is the anthropological context in which Paul is writing, not a dualism of mind vs. body, soul vs. spirit. To the biblical writers, "the body is not something the human person has, but something it is," explained Gustavo Guttierez. The "body" in Romans signifies the person, dead because of sin but now brought back to life through the Spirit of the resurrected Christ (Romans 8:10-11). The body is also Paul's primary way of depicting our incorporation in Christ, stressing our interrelatedness.

The conflict Paul sees exists between competing claims of authority. Flesh, for the biblical authors, "means the human being or any living creature left to its own capacities, to its created substratum as such," according to Segundo. In contrast, "Spirit...means the power of God...giving the creature both the basic preconditions for existence and survival as well as the loftiest and most characteristic embodiments of human qualities." Will we pledge allegiance to God and live according to the "Spirit," or "give our lives to what is not God and...make ourselves the supreme norm of our conduct?" Guttierez asked.

Paul is profoundly aware of human finiteness, describing us elsewhere in Romans as "weak" (5:6, 6:19). But this weakness pertains to the entirety of our beings—mind, heart, body, you name it. In the 16th century, John Calvin picked up on this concept in response to the hierarchy of human faculties that scholastic theology had proposed, ranked according to propensity for sin—the mind and its recourse to reason, the least susceptible, and sexual organs the most. Calvin's democratization of the body—the much reviled concept of "total depravity"—put in this context provides a surprisingly liberating corrective to a Christianity and a culture that for centuries associated women with body and men with soul.

 

March 24

The Scandalous Cross
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54

A friend from college, soon after arriving at Notre Dame for graduate school, removed the corpus from the crucifix that hung in his dormitory room. Unsure of what to do with the body, he put it in his bureau drawer. Raised a good Protestant, he was used to crosses that symbolized resurrection, not crucifixion.

Yet our "covenant with death," as Isaiah 15 calls it, is alive and kicking. Does this afternoon's worth of suffering show us anything besides this? "Why single out this agony?" poet Denise Levertov wonders: "What's a mere six hours? /Hasn't a child /dazed in the hospital ward /they reserve for the most abused known worse?"

The mystery of the cross is far deeper than this. Behind the God-Human suspended in agony is a God who suffers with God's creation. The fullness of this ought not to be lost in declaring God's victory over sin. Doing so, as theologian Jon Sobrino notes, "[dulls] the edge of the scandal of the cross in itself," because what is "scandalous in God's letting his Son die" if that is the only way he could achieve "the greater good of salvation?" The cross is the inevitable end to perfect love's decision to become fully incarnate. In Jesus, Sobrino continues, God so completely enters our reality that God puts himself at our mercy, submitting to go "wherever it leads, without escaping from history or manipulating it from outside."

In this, we see that by nature divine power expresses itself in self-emptying love, and that sin and injustice cannot be eradicated without being borne. God's incarnation is complete. God has irrevocably entered our humanity, and therefore we have been taken into the very heart—a heart that bears the totality of those horrors we both create and endure.

"But Julian's lucid spirit leapt /to the difference: /perceived why no awe could measure /that brief day's endless length, /why among all the tortured /One only is ‘King of Grief.' /The onening, she saw, the onening /with the Godhead opened Him utterly /to the pain of all minds, all bodies" (Levertov, Julian's Chapter XX).

 

March 31

God's Resuscitations
Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

Several years ago, just in time for Easter, Time magazine ran a cover story called "Fact vs. Faith: A Reporter Investigates the Hot Debate Over Jesus." Among the points investigated was the factuality of Jesus' resurrection. In response, many pastors saw fit to use their Easter homilies to redress the article, emphasizing the "literal fact of the resurrection." But in doing so, they accepted that "factuality" is a suitable category for resurrection faith, thus reducing the "truth" of the resurrection to historically verifiable fact.

John's community believed in the resurrection because they experienced the reconciling spirit of Jesus forging out of previously disparate parties a new community of love. That God can transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, when you consider your own capacity to resist loving, is far more amazing than the idea that God can resuscitate a body (why not? God is God).

Jesus tells Mary Magdalene "do not hold on to me" (John 20:17), but commissions her to share her experience with others. We share in her mission, rendering the resurrection credible by living as the resurrected body, bearing Jesus' spirit to the places of death and allowing it to work through us in the struggle to take crucified people down from their crosses.

We awaken in Christ's body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ. He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in his Godhead).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?—Then open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening up to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body

—from St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). Translation by Stephen Mitchell.

 

April 7

Wounds That Reveal Life
Acts 2:14, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:29), Jesus says to Thomas, symbol of doubt for countless generations, a useful moral for Sunday school children that faith, if true, removes all doubt. And yet, at least in the text, his companions' announced encounter with "the Lord" (John 20:25), which he is expected to take at their word, omits a crucial detail: Only after seeing Jesus' hands and side do they "see the Lord" and rejoice.

What kind of super-humanity do we expect from Thomas? To trust that life overcomes death, when he is still reeling from his loss? He's learned to trust the power of death, whose stench lingers on the empty crosses and sick bodies who beg along the road to Jerusalem. Now, with the death of his teacher and friend, the fragile hope he had started entertaining has snapped in two, and he has committed himself to never suffer such foolishness again.

But Jesus honors Thomas' need, and invites him to reach into his wounds, where Thomas finds a hypostatic union of life and death, sorrow and joy, bound together in healing flesh and pulsing tissue. The ineffable mediated, as it must be, by the material, the Creator knowable to the creature only through the created.

The resurrected Jesus reveals himself through scars that witness to life's power over death. The sign of peace he offers through extended hands and still-raw wounds is the same peace we offer to one another, known to each other through the traces of suffering—our own and those we have borne, healing and becoming now taut with strength.

 

April 14

Partaking of Jesus
Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

Pain, when survived, begs to be told. Its power diminishes somehow when it is shared. Two-year-olds and torture survivors know this all too well. As Elaine Scarry explores in The Body in Pain, torture functions not simply to kill, but to deconstruct a person. This is why the most common description among rape camp victims in Bosnia was that their experiences could not be described. In order for the survivor to be remade, the torture's power unseated, language must be found—words to describe the unspeakable. Closer to home, children, when they first become conscious of injury, need to point out their boo-boos to every passing adult, even long after the scratch has become invisible.

The travelers to Emmaus are walking off their post-traumatic stress. As they go, they try to talk sense into the events surrounding Jesus' death, but no matter how they try, they can't make it add up. Jesus, under guise of the stranger, joins their walk and lets them show him their scrapes as they sputter on about their dashed hope for a freed Israel, the women's astounding testimony. Afterward, when he tries to explain by tying it together in expert exegesis, his testimony is, at least initially, beside the point. What they want is his presence, his hands and voice presiding over the meal. Only then, in "the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24:35), does everything fall into place. Hearts burning, in "that same hour" they rush back to Jerusalem to try to share their experience with those they love most.

Can you hear the echoes of Eucharist? A story recounted, continuously over the centuries, so that the crucified, risen Christ might be encountered again and again, the Jesus who stoops down to notice our latest bruise met. We do more than meet him here. We partake of him—we become his very body, walking with those trying to walk off their trauma, kissing the smallest boo-boo, mediating Jesus in meals shared, and recognizing Jesus now offered to us at a stranger's table.

 

April 21

Jesus' Prophetic Rage
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

The "good shepherd" is on a tear. Disgusted by the Pharisees' failure to lead, Jesus lays into them, calling them thieves and bandits intent on killing and destroying. This is one of those passages in which context is everything. The Johannine community, still reeling from being expelled from the synagogue, lashes out at the religious authorities who have rejected them. Simply put, John's "Pharisees" and "Jews" are labels for those who opposed and rejected the Jewish Christians, not the actual "Pharisees" and "Jews" of Jesus' own time.

But if we extract this passage from its enmeshed history with Christian anti-Semitism, the fierceness of Jesus' rage over manipulative, self-serving leadership provides a critical guideline for our own religious leadership. Those identified as leaders stand, to use the traditional Catholic language, in persona Christi. While baptism extends this identity to all Christians, leaders' public visibility inevitably means that what we do, say, and how we behave represents far more than ourselves.

This passage poses three questions to religious leadership. First, the "gatekeeper opens the gate for [the shepherd], and the sheep hear his voice" (John 10:3). As recognized voices in our own communities, how is our relationship with the "gatekeeper?" Where are we seeking God? With whom are we praying, crying, and laughing? Second, "the sheep follow him because they know his voice" (John 10:4). Do we know our sheep by name? Not just what to call them, but their stories, their experiences, their growing edges and places of pain?

Third, Jesus, the human one, "came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). By what are we measuring our life and work? Whose standards are we operating under? Is our passion for justice blinding us to the needs of the people in front of us—our families, colleagues, or friends? Are we so concerned about the viability of our institution, organization, or program that we forget how to tend to life and that which threatens it?

 

April 28

God's Radical Proximity
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

John 14-17 houses Jesus' farewell discourse to his followers, equivalent to the sermons in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49. Here, however, Jesus and his disciples are suspended in time and place, rather than geographically placed on a mountain or "level place." The speech occurs in the moment "when he had gone out" from the Passover supper (John 13:31), but before they go "out...across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden" (John 18:1). This suits Jesus' eschatological tone; he speaks as one both in the world, yet no longer in it.

This here/not-here dialectic also describes the "place" he is going on to prepare (John 14:2). Jesus goes ahead, and yet the place to which they are being drawn is also now. They need not wait to see the Father, because Jesus has brought God into radical proximity to them. By living in and through him, they will draw all people into this life. The disciples receive both the hope to look forward and the capacity to realize that hope through continuing Jesus' kingdom-building work.

Yet the promised presence is only realized when entered into. This does not mean that God withholds God's presence from us, but that for us to experience it we need to cooperate with God's presence. But even here the capacity to do so comes from God. Jesus' promise is effective—it supplies us with hope and also the means to "do the works" that Jesus does (John 14:12). God's insistence upon himself as way, truth, and life is chiefly a reminder that we have been given everything we need to continue his work.

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