How Empire Eliminated the Historical Jesus for Good

(This is the twelfth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

According to the biblical scholarship we’ve been reviewing over the last dozen weeks or so, Jesus of Nazareth stood with the poor, and announced a future of justice for them. Jesus also resisted the empire which, as we’ll see presently, eventually dramatically diminished the importance of the Jesus of history. Examination of Jesus’ resistance to empire and empire’s co-opting of the Nazarene’s life and words is the point of this posting on the historical Jesus.

That Jesus stood with the poor and favored them is obvious. He was a simple worker, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and theologized as an immigrant in Egypt. He healed sick people, fed the hungry, and cast out evil spirits. He announced and embodied a new reality for the poor. In the “reign of God” justice would replace exploitation; the positions of rich and poor would be reversed, and a sharing ethic would take the place of competition and oppression. To put it in terms of faith: a poor person was the site God chose to reveal God’s Self to the rest of us. That in itself constitutes a stupendous revelation.

Being a poor person in Palestine, and especially coming from the revolutionary Galilee district, Jesus himself was understandably anti-empire. The best illustration of Jesus’ resistance is in the famous story of his temptations in the desert. We all know the story with its rich blend of historical fact, symbolism, and explicit and implied scriptural references. Jesus has just been baptized by John. A voice has told him that he is somehow the “Son of God.” He goes out to the desert to discover what that might mean. On this vision quest, he prays and fasts for 40 days. The visions come. He is tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s account, the culminating vision is imperial (4:8-9). Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth – an empire much vaster than Rome’s. Satan says, “All of this can be yours, if only you bow down and worship me. Jesus, of course, refuses. He says, “Be gone, Satan! It is written, the Lord God only shall you adore; him only shall you serve.” In other words, Jesus rejected empire in no uncertain terms.

Jesus’ opposition to empire is extremely important to understanding how Christianity lost contact with the historical Jesus over 1500 years ago, when it became pro-rich and pro-empire. That’s what happened to the faith of Jesus under Constantine when Christian “orthodoxy” emerged. Christianity lost its soul. Or to put it more starkly: it actually began worshipping Satan at that point.

Here’s what I mean. Jesus rejected the temptation to empire as we’ve just seen. But in the 4th century, circumstances made it necessary for the emperor Constantine and his successors to repeat unwittingly Satan’s temptation – this time to the leadership of the Christian church. They could allow Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. All they had to do was to accept empire, give it religious legitimacy – become the state religion. Jesus had said “No!” to a similar temptation back there in the desert. Fourth century church leadership said “Yes!” and in doing so, in effect said “yes” to Satan worship – the necessary precondition of accepting empire. They also abandoned the Jesus of history and his this-worldly message. In the process, they reduced Jesus to a mythological figure and Christianity to a Roman mystery cult. Let me explain.

Think about the historical circumstances that led Constantine to be concerned with Christianity at all. Like all oppressors, he realized that religion represented an incomparable tool for controlling people. If an emperor can convince people that in obeying him they are obeying God, the emperor has won the day. In fact it is the job of any state religion to make people believe that God’s interests and the state’s interests are the same.

What Constantine saw in the 4th century was that as Rome expanded and incorporated more and more Peoples with their own religions, Rome’s own state religion was losing power. At the same time, Christianity was spreading like wildfire. And it was politically dangerous.  The message of Jesus was particularly attractive to the lower classes. It affirmed their dignity in the clearest of terms. Often the message incited slaves and others to rebel rather than obey. Rome’s knee-jerk response was repression and persecution. But by Constantine’s day, Rome’s repression had proved ineffective. Despite Rome’s throwing Christians to the lions for decade after decade, the faith of Jesus was more popular than ever.

Constantine decided that if he couldn’t beat the Christians, he had to join them. And he evidently determined to do so by robbing Christianity of its revolutionary potential. That meant converting the faith of Jesus into a typical Roman “mystery cult.”

Now mystery cults had been extremely popular in Rome. They were “salvation religions” that worshipped gods with names like Isis, Osiris, and Mithra. Mithra was particularly popular. He was the Sun God, whose feast day and birth was celebrated on December 25th.  Typically the “story” celebrated in mystery cults was of a god who descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, died, rose from the dead, ascended back to heaven, and from there offered worshippers “eternal life,” if they joined in the cults where the god’s body was eaten under the form of bread, and the god’s blood was drunk under the form of wine.

To convert Christianity into a mystery cult, Constantine (who wasn’t even a Christian at the time) convoked a church council – the Council of Nicaea in 325. There the question of the day became who was Jesus of Nazareth. Was he just a human being? Was he a God and not human at all? Was he some combination of God and man? Did he have to eat? Did he have to defecate or urinate? Actually those were the questions. For Constantine’s purposes, the more divine and otherworldly Jesus was the better. That would make him less a threat to the emperor’s very this-worldly dominion.

The result of all the deliberations was codified in what became known as the Nicene Creed. Maybe you know it by heart. It runs like this:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.[

The Nicene Creed can be so familiar to us that we don’t notice what it does. In the part italicized above, it jumps from the conception and birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection. It leaves out entirely any reference to what Jesus said and did. For all practical purposes it ignores the historical Jesus and pays attention only to a God who comes down from heaven, dies, rises, ascends back to heaven and offers eternal life to those who believe. It’s a nearly perfect reflection of “mystery cult” belief. In effect Jesus becomes a harmless Mithra. The revolutionary potential of Jesus’ words and actions relative to justice, wealth and poverty are lost. Not only that, but subsequent to Nicaea, anyone connecting Jesus to a struggle for justice, sharing and communal life is classified as heretical. That is, mystery cult becomes “orthodoxy.” Eventually, the example and teaching of Jesus becomes heresy – especially later on when “communism” becomes a threat to Rome’s modern imperial successors.

Please think about that.

Next week: Series Conclusion

John the Baptist’s Desert Revival and Pope John XXIII’s Aggiornamento

Third Sunday of Advent Readings: Zep. 3: 4-18a; Is. 12: 2-6; Phil. 4: 4-7; Lk. 3: 10-18.  http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/121612.cfm

The lead article in the November 11th edition of our diocesan newspaper, Crossroads, published a sermon by the bishop of our Lexington diocese, Ronald W. Gainer. It had been given on Saturday November 3rd at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington – the Saturday before the General Election. Bishop Gainer called attention to a new and “dangerous, corrosive change . . . at work in the soul of our nation.”  “In recent decades,” the bishop said, “forces are working overtime . . . to eliminate religion and God from the nation’s soul.” According to Bishop Gainer, those forces ignore the consistency of the Church’s moral teaching over the centuries – about “the sacredness of every human life.” Those teachings recognize certain acts as “intrinsically evil.” These include “abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and embryonic stem cell research. Being against the intrinsically evil means standing up for the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, the God-given right to freedom of religion, and against the evil of racism. There is nothing wrong with being a single-issue voter, the bishop emphasized; and abortion is the pivotal single issue for Catholics. The bishop concluded that political “candidates who refuse to oppose the evils he listed or who actively support them disqualify themselves from receiving Catholics’ support in the voting booth.”

Curiously, Bishop Gainer’s list of “intrinsic evils” did not include priests raping children. As a result, his remarks came off as out-of-touch, triumphalistic, self-serving, dishonest, and tired. We had heard it all before: “They’re wrong; we have never erred. ‘They’ are persecuting us. Only one issue is important, abortion. Vote Republican, even if that means economic disaster for the poor at home or abroad” (e.g., in the wars and drone strikes which also went unmentioned in the bishop’s remarks).

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A little over a month ago, I attended the concluding Mass at the “Call to Action Conference” (CTA) in the Grand Ballroom of the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. CTA is the annual meeting of progressive Catholics who are trying to follow the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. (Vatican II set an agenda of church renewal and reform when the world’s Catholic bishops met in Rome from 1962-1965.) About 1000 people were present at CTA’s concluding liturgy. It reminded me of what spirited worship is like. Our good friend, John Wright Rios was the music leader with a group he assembled of about 15 instrumentalists and singers. There were drums, guitars, piano, trumpet and dancing. Hymns were in English and in Spanish with words projected on four large flat screens. The liturgy featured women in prominent roles, including three of the five concelebrants. Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the bus” fame and who had spoken at last summer’s Democratic Convention gave the homily. What she said was insightful, inspiring, funny, and challenging. It made me see what the church is missing by insisting on an all-male, highly in-bred clergy. Sister Campbell spoke of the deep-seated divisions in our country and the need for universal love even of our enemies. She addressed the spiritual poverty and hunger experienced by all of us including leaders in the church, in politics, in our schools and universities. Poverty and hunger of body and spirit was the focus of Jesus’ work as described in the gospels. The church needs more Jesus, she said, and less triumphalism and pride.

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Today’s readings are about religious revival and about the renewed recognition of God’s presence in our midst. In the first and third reading, the message is delivered by severe critics of temple worship – Zephaniah and John the Baptist. Zephaniah was a religious reformer from the seventh century BCE (just before the Babylonian Exile). He was known as the champion of “the poor of the land” (2:3; 3:12), and a fierce critic of Assyrian imperialism and the adoption of Assyrian religious ideology by Israel’s ruling elite. He accused the priests of his day of abandoning Yahweh in favor of Baal and Astarte. The outspoken Zephaniah threatened to drive out the priests and cleanse the temple by force.

Then in today’s gospel, John the Baptist picks up Zephaniah’s theme more than five hundred years later. Luke pictures John at the Jordan River – far from Jerusalem’s temple and its priesthood. John is leading a religious revival in the desert – the place of Israel’s birth long before there was any temple. Like Zephaniah, John is a layman. And his words to the religious leadership are harsh. In Luke’s verses immediately preceding today’s excerpt, he calls the crowd a “brood of vipers.” Matthew’s version is more specific. He says that curse was hurled at the Sadducees and Pharisees, the religious leadership of the day. According to John, they are snakes in the grass.

John contrasts the failed leadership of these men with God’s leadership present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, of course, turns out not to be a priest or rabbi either, but a workingman from Nazareth. Yet according to John, Jesus is more powerful and more worthy than John himself. As a lay leader, Jesus will bring not only the Holy Spirit, but a cleansing fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff – what is essential from what is not – what is nourishing from what is not – the kernel of truth from its encasements. Those shells are now outdated, John says. We are about to enter a new era. Chaff, John declares, is good for nothing but burning in the hottest fire imaginable. He calls the crowds to the kernel of truth: share their surplus with the poor.

This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.  It was a movement of reform and revival in the spirit of Zephaniah and John the Baptist. Pope John XXIII was the 1960s embodiment of their prophetic tradition. He summoned that meeting of the world’s bishops and used the word aggiornamento to describe the Council’s project. Aggiornamento meant updating.

Pope John’s vision was one of church revival and reform that connected Jesus with the actual lives and problems of people and the world – especially the poor. Those lives are characterized by either unemployment or overwork, by low wages, poverty, over-priced healthcare, misogyny, racism, inaccessible education, scant prospect of retirement, and by the train of evils introduced by climate change, inflated “defense” budgets and wars largely initiated by the United States.

Today’s readings suggest that serving the world (the church’s mission as identified by Vatican II) involves addressing those problems – the kernel instead of the chaff. Doing so leaves no place for triumphalism, infallibility or wallowing in self-pity about how the church is being mistreated and misunderstood by a hostile world. It does however mean trying to address the very good reasons the world might have for being hostile.

Neither is service of the world advanced by focusing on matters (as important as they might be) far removed from daily life. Identifying Christianity with opposition to stem cell research, gay marriage, contraception, and revoking Roe v. Wade is old and tired. It’s a form of denial that distracts from Jesus’ essential concern for the poor and their problems. It is to mistake chaff for wheat. So is silence about the church’s checkered past, its fallibility, errors, crimes against humanity, and scandals as prominent as priests’ rape of children.

“Call to Action”  attempts to recapture the spirit of Vatican II, separate wheat from chaff, and address the “signs of the times.” The “prayers of the faithful” following Sr. Campbell’s homily addressed war, poverty, climate change and the other problems I’ve just mentioned. The response of the people was not the usual “Lord, hear our prayer,” but “Aggiornamento!”

Let that be our response to Zephaniah, John the Baptist, and Jesus today. Aggiornamento!

What might aggiornamento mean for us today?

(Discussion follows)

What Really Happens after Death? (Conclusion of a two-part series)

Last week I raised the question of what really happens after death. My jumping off point was last Easter’s Time Magazine article by Jon Meacham called “Rethinking Heaven.” There the author contrasted what he called a “Blue Sky” approach to heaven (a kind of Disneyland up above) with a “God’s Space” understanding (bringing God’s Kingdom to earth). I remarked that the “God’s Space” approach seemed more believable and adult than the “Disneyland” heaven. However, the alternative to Disneyland didn’t really help us understand what happens after we breathe our last.

Tony Equale’s blog (http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/) does help. For Equale (a Roman Catholic ex-priest) heaven has little to do with the pearly gates. At the same time he explains more starkly what entering God’s space after death might really entail.

To begin with, Equale says, we must admit our ignorance. We have little idea about heaven or what happens after death. It’s all speculation. Even Jesus himself said precious little about the afterlife, much less about the specifics of a heaven. In any case, anything the Bible might have to say about the afterlife is expressed in religious language which is of necessity highly metaphorical.  It gestures towards something else.

What we do know about Jesus is that his own understanding of death was shaped by his belief in God’s universal love. He had absolute trust in God as a loving Father. Jesus believed that God’s unfailing trustworthiness took away the “sting” of death, so that dying became irrelevant; whatever was to happen could be trusted as the best outcome possible. As a result, death had no dominion over him.

Moreover the heroism of Jesus’ witness was to actually “prove” his claims about God by staking everything on them. Here we’re not talking about a rationalistic proof, but about something existential. In effect Jesus said, “Do you want me to prove I’m right? O.K. then, I will.” So he courted death by doing the things God’s love demands (siding with the poor and oppressed) – a choice that usually brings assassination to any prophet. That was his proof. “You see,” he insisted, “God can be trusted; death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love.” A way of putting that metaphorically is to say that Jesus rose from the dead.

According to Equale, belief in resurrection in those terms — in terms of real flesh and blood people choosing to risk their lives because they trust God’s love – mostly unraveled within a few generations of Jesus’ execution.  Its place was taken by a mixture of Roman and Egyptian ideas about disembodied souls in a “Blue Sky” heaven familiar to three year olds, to Dante, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

According to Equale, where does that leave us? With one choice only, he says – either to trust or not to trust the source of our existence, which Jesus claimed is absolutely loving.  However, even if we make the choice to trust, the reality of God’s love might not be as we want it to be. Tony writes:

“But what if the reality is …that at death we are dissolved back into the elements from which we were formed, to be reused over and over until the whole meets … another implosion to singularity and another big bang — a new universe. What if our little heads and our little hearts are not equal to the unfathomable magnanimity of a “Father” who, more like a “Mother,” wishes to share, and share, and share Herself (and us as part of Herself) endlessly, … we might even add, purposelessly … for the sheer joy of it … to share being-here with ever new things and new “people” with a generosity and self-donation beyond our capacity to imagine … or endure? . . . Do we want to go to that heaven? Are we really as convinced that “God is Love” if it would mean that much love? . . . Do we love our existential source and the universe it has made, as it is — or only as we want it to be?”

These words are reminiscent of the insights of Eckhart Tolle. Tolle says there is no doubt that life continues after death. One has only to enter an untended forest to see that live trees are surrounded by dead leaves, branches, and fallen and decaying trees.  However, closer examination of the dead matter reveals that in every case, the distinction between “dead” and “alive” is misleading. The fallen leaves, branches, and trees are teeming with life. In biblical terms, their lives have been changed not taken away. Of course, it will be the same with our bodies as they decay and molder in their graves. Life will continue in our bodies too. And who knows where that life will end up – in what communities or “people?” Death is always followed by rebirth – and perhaps by rebirth in the cosmic sense of passing again through an entire evolutionary process.

As for our consciousness . . .  That too will persist – insofar as it achieved unity with the source of the profound intelligence that pervades the universe. (The reference here is, for example, to the intelligence manifest in a single human cell. The information contained in that unit is enough to fill one hundred books of six hundred pages each.) That such Source Consciousness is present is evident from the fact of our own awareness. Ours comes from somewhere. As scholastic philosophers put it “nihil ex nilhilo fit” (nothing comes from nothing).  In as much as we have achieved unity with the Consciousness that pervades the universe, “our” consciousness will surely continue. All other consciousness passes away – most of it, experience shows, even before we die.

So the ultimate question about heaven is not whether it is up in the blue sky or in “God’s space” here on earth. It’s not even a question of our attitudes towards climate change, HIV/AIDS or world hunger.  Rather, it’s a question of death and surrender.

In confronting death, in explaining it to our children, are we willing to admit our absolute ignorance?  And if we claim Christian commitment, are we prepared to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a call to complete trust in God come what may? Are we disposed to surrender our very lives, as Jesus did despite threats from those who routinely kill prophets, because of our conviction that death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love and promise? And are we ready to do that even if God’s love is so great that we find it incomprehensible, purposeless, confusing, and even disappointing to the ideas of a three year old like Eva?

Finally, are we willing to make our own the prayer of the medieval mystic, Rabia al-Basri [a woman and Muslim (717-801)]?

“Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven,

Close its gates to me.

And if I love you, because I fear the pains of hell,

Bury me in its depths.

But if I love you for the sake of loving you,

Hide not your face from me.”

Step Five: Writing the Tradition Down (Monday Mini-Class on Historical Jesus)

(This is the eleventh in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Only in the fifth step of its development was the Christian tradition written down. The other four steps were (1) the actual life of Jesus, (2) the resurrection experience of Jesus’ first followers, (3) their kerygma or basic proclamation of belief in Jesus as God’s self-revelation, and (4) a nearly half-century oral tradition about what Jesus said and did.

The earliest written records we have of Christian faith come from Paul of Tarsus, who claimed to be an apostle even though he never met the historical Jesus. The basis of his claim was the fact that he, like the apostles who had lived with Jesus, had met the risen Lord. As we saw earlier, the form of Paul’s meeting was completely visionary; he saw a bright light and heard a voice. According to contradictory accounts attributed to him, the voice and light may or may not have been heard or seen by Paul’s companions. (Compare Acts 9:3-9 and 22: 6-21.)

Paul’s entries into the Christian testament all take the form of letters to home churches he had founded. The earliest of the letters dates from about the year 50 CE – approximately 15 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. None of Paul’s letters attempt to report what Jesus actually said or did before his death. Instead Paul presents a Jesus who was crucified, rose from the dead, and sent his Spirit. In other words, Paul completely ignores the historical Jesus. Consequently his letters are of no help to those interested in the topic at hand.

It was only about the year 70, as eyewitnesses of Jesus life were dying off that the Jesus tradition began to take written form. The Gospel of Mark came first. Mark’s work is usually dated between 65 and 70 – either shortly before or immediately after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in the culmination of the Jewish War (64-70).

As the inventor of the literary genre “gospel,” Mark was not attempting to write a life of Jesus. Neither were any of those who subsequently adopted Mark’s literary form. They all leave too much out for that to be their purpose. For instance, none of them tell us what Jesus looked like. In fact, Mark says nothing about Jesus till the Nazarene appears for baptism on the banks of the River Jordan. In that appearance, Jesus is a fully grown adult apparently about the age of 30. This means that Mark has no birth story about Jesus. Surprisingly, neither does he include any appearances of the risen Jesus. (Scholars agree that the appearance accounts in Chapter 16 of Mark are later additions.) This signifies that Mark either didn’t know of these events, or he didn’t think them important enough to include in his account!

Rather than lives of Jesus, “gospels” are faith documents. They are “propaganda” in the strict sense of the word – accounts to be propagated or spread abroad to convince readers of the transcendent significance of Jesus. In other words, the gospels are not objective accounts of what Jesus said and did. Instead they are faith testimonials. Their chapters might describe events perceived as miraculous and wonderful to the authors. However, those same events would not necessarily have been perceived as such by observers not sharing the faith of the gospel writers.

Mark’s gospel provided a basis for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. [These 3 gospels are often called “synoptic” (from the Greek meaning to share a viewpoint) since they are so similar.] Matthew wrote about 10 or 15 years after Mark. Luke’s gospel was published five or ten years after Matthew. Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience; Luke for one that was largely non-Jewish, i.e. gentile.

Since both Matthew and Luke include Greek translations of Jesus’ Aramaic words identical with Mark’s, scholars conclude Matthew and Luke directly copied much of Mark’s gospel. (Otherwise, as any translator knows, the Greek translations would not be identical.) Here and there both Matthew and Luke made changes in Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ words to adjust to their audiences and contexts. They also supplemented Mark’s account with their own material. For instance, both added birth and infancy stories along with genealogies (both of which greatly differ from one another). In addition, scholars posit that Matthew and Luke must have had access to a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings [called Quelle (the German word for source)]. Thus Matthew and Luke were working from Mark, from the Quelle, and from other material peculiar to each of them.

Besides the variations just noted, understandings of Jesus himself also differ greatly between Mark, Matthew and Luke. The differences between the three reveal a deepening understanding of Jesus’ identity as years went on. This is evident for instance if we compare the synoptics’ account of Jesus curing Peter’s mother-in-law. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus helps the woman from her bed and she is cured (1:29-31). In Matthew’s account, he merely touches her to effect the cure (8:14-15). In Luke’s version, a mere word from Jesus suffices; there is no physical contact (4:38-41).

The Gospel of John written between the years 90 and 100 CE, contains the most highly developed “Christology” (understanding of Jesus’ identity) of the four gospels in the Christian Testament. In John, time after time, Jesus is referred to as “I Am” – the very name of the Jewish God revealed to Moses. For instance, John has Jesus say, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn.8:58).  This means that unlike the synoptics John’s gospel describes a 3 stage Christology. He pictures a Jesus pre-existent in heaven, descending to earth, and then returning to heaven. Mark, Matthew and Luke understand Jesus as a 2 stage savior who lives as a human being and then ascends to heaven where he is established as Lord.

The problem is that over the centuries, John’s 3 stage [Logos (or Word of God) Christology] has swallowed up the other understandings. In the popular mind, this has created huge barriers for those wishing to contact the historical Jesus. That is, John’s writing provides the basis for understanding Jesus as a pre-existent God who merely pretended to be a human being. Of course, this approach makes pointless any quest of a human, historical Jesus.

Next Week: the Council of Nicaea erases the historical Jesus for good.

Give Up Church for Lent!

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Advent: Bar. 5: 1-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Phil. 1: 4-6, 8-12; Lk. 3: 1-6 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

In my town of Berea, Kentucky, a kind of religious revival is taking place. A spirited group of people across denominational lines meets once a month to experiment with and “Ecumenical Table Fellowship.” It’s a community of Christians without benefit of clerical leadership meeting to reflect on our common biblical tradition in the light of what Vatican II called “the signs of the times.” The group breaks bread liturgically in the spirit of Jesus’ Last Supper and of the early church. Roman Catholics are prominent in the group. They are discouraged by today’s conservative pre-Vatican II “restorationism” that emphasizes the power of the church hierarchy and ordained priesthood at the expense of Vatican II’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful.

Some in the group agree with spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox that their church leadership is in schism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the conservative bishops they have appointed are the culprits in schism. These clerics are defensive of hierarchy and the power of an exclusively male priesthood. They devalue lay leadership and the prominent biblical stories of Exodus and Return from Exile that are highlighted in today’s liturgy of the word where they are contrasted with “the priestly story” that currently plagues the Catholic Church.

The great Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, reminds us that amid the literally hundreds of stories in the Bible, there are three “macro-stories” that give coherence to the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart. The first and most important is the story of Exodus. Its’ a tale of liberation from slavery and journey to a “Promised Land.” For the ancient Hebrews, the Exodus was grounded in an actual historical event, the release of slaves from their oppression under the pharaohs of Egypt perhaps 1200 years before the birth of Jesus.  It was the Exodus that provided the ancient Hebrews with their first experience of their God, Yahweh.  For them, Yahweh’s fundamental identity was the One Who Liberates from Oppression. In our day, the macro-story of Exodus has become central for third world people living under the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism.

The second Old Testament macro-story is Exile and Return. It too was grounded in history. In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by Babylon (modern Iraq). The Babylonians transported the Hebrew elite to Iraq till the Persian King Cyrus released them after conquering Babylon in 539.The story of exile and return shaped the ancient Israelites almost as much as the Exodus story. Like oppression and slavery, that narrative represents a human archetype that all of us can relate to it in one way or another.  The archetype evokes the feelings of grief, sadness and displacement reflected in one of the psalms of exile, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Advent Hymn “O Come Emanuel” expresses the same feelings in its own reference to the Babylonian Exile: “O Come O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”  For one reason or another, all of us feel somehow exiled, sad, and displaced.

The third macro-story of the Jewish Testament comes from priestly sources. It is not grounded in a particular historical event, but in temple ritual and worship. It is the story of sin, guilt and of forgiveness mediated by the priestly class, their sacrifices, rules, rituals and prayers. Judging from the attitudes of Israel’s prophets and especially of Jesus, the priestly narrative is far less important than either Exodus or Exile. In fact, along with many other prophets, Jesus expressed harsh criticism and even hostility towards priestly pretensions and business-as-usual within the temple precincts. And yet, the priestly narrative has carried the day in terms of dominant Judeo-Christian spirituality. “Jewish guilt” and “Catholic guilt” are legendary. Jesus is primarily understood as the one who “died for our sins.” God’s wrath and the threat of hell are staples of Sunday sermons and of Christian neuroses.

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is Exile and Return in sharp contrast to the Priestly Story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Baruch was probably written about 150 BCE when Israel was under the sway of the Seleucid Greeks. However the book is presented as though it were written 400 years earlier during the Babylonian Exile – as if it were addressed to the exiles then. Baruch’s real audience however was the Jews at war with the Greeks. His real intention was to encourage his contemporaries in their resistance to Greece – promising them that the rough road they were then traveling would soon be made smooth by Yahweh –   the one who frees the oppressed and brings exiles back from captivity.

In today’s gospel, Luke presents John the Baptist in terms of both Exile and Return and Exodus. Luke sees John as fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah nearly 600 years earlier. By anchoring John’s appearance in Isaiah, Luke is implying that John represents a continuation of Isaiah’s work of announcing the end of exile. This was a bold claim for Luke, since many Jews of his day believed that prophetic voices – nearly always lay people – had forever fallen silent. But here is John presented as fulfilling Isaiah’s words. He is making the rough way smooth. He’s leveling mountains and filling in valleys.  At the same time, John’s proclamation as presented by Luke has overtones of the priestly story. Luke shows John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin.

But here it is important to note the Exodus dimensions of John’s work. He is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of the Exodus macro-story, it would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Luke could not have picked a narrative “coordinate” further removed from the temple. For Luke the regeneration of prophecy was happening not in Baruch’s Zion but at the margins of Jewish society – in the desert where it all began with the Exodus. In other words, Luke presents John’s ministry as a complete break with the priestly establishment which controlled the mechanisms of social redemption from their power base in Jerusalem.

All of this raises questions for thoughtful Christians in the context of our own exilic sadness as we face the contemporary irrelevance of what happens in our own “temples.”  Is it time to move out of that realm now dominated by schismatic popes, bishops and priests and to relocate where our worship tradition began – in homes with Eucharists led by lay people?

Perhaps we’re not yet ready to substitute an Ecumenical Table experience for weekly Mass. But we could supplement Sunday Mass with such fellowship once a month. Alternatively, what if an Ecumenical Table were offered each Sunday at the very time of our parish Mass (9:00 am at St. Clare’s in Berea)?  That would give parishioners a choice. At least on occasion they could attend the Ecumenical Table and compare it with “business as usual.”

Another idea: Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13th). Might Lent not be a good time to “give up” church, and for six weeks and experiment with this alternative form of worship?

In today’s excerpt from his letter to Philemon, Paul prays that the church meeting at Philemon’s house might be given discernment to distinguish what is really important. Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that Exodus from business as usual and return from the Exile of pre-Vatican II Restorationism might be more important than honoring the priestly order that has dominated Catholic consciousness for too long.

Let’s consider trying to recapture Philemon’s home church experience and see what happens – if only for Lent’s six weeks. At the very least, the absence of people at Sunday Mass might get the attention of our bishop and pastor. It might help them realize that something’s amiss!

(Discussion follows)

What Happens after We Die? Rethinking Heaven

(Recently a friend asked me to post something on death and the afterlife. That’s a topic I think about very often. Here’s the first in a two-part blog on life-after-death.)

“We’re all going to die some day, Eva. Mommy will die. Daddy will die. Gaga and Baba will die too.”

“Baba’s going to die?”

“Yes, Baba will die too one day.”

“No, not Baba. Baba will never die. No!”

That touching conversation took place recently between my daughter, Maggie, and her daughter (our granddaughter) Eva. Eva was three then. She calls me “Baba.” She calls her grandma “Gaga.” And Eva was trying to come to grips with death – its inevitability, and the way it touches the ones we love. In that she’s like the rest of us. Death and what happens afterwards is and has always been a great mystery, something of a threat, and an object of denial. We don’t even want to think about it.

Earlier this year, Time Magazine’s Easter edition confronted all of that head-on. So did a friend of mine, Tony Equale, a former priest who blogs at http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/. Tony’s Easter blog was called “We Say That ‘God’ Is Love . . .” The Time article opened the question of heaven in a nicely popular way. However, it successfully avoided shedding light on the question of what really happens after we die. Tony Equale’s piece involved no such evasion. Its answer was clear, extremely thoughtful and challenging.  But it also left me undeniably uncomfortable. I’m not sure I liked the heaven Tony suggested awaits us.

The Time Magazine cover story was a piece by Jon Meacham called “Rethinking Heaven.” Basically, it compared two approaches to the afterlife. The one Meacham termed the “Blue Sky” approach would be familiar enough even to three-year-old Eva and to most Christians for that matter. After death, good people go up in the sky to “heaven,” where they live with God, Jesus, and all the people they love happily ever after.

The other approach favored by Meacham himself and attractive to what he sees as the “younger generation, teens, college aged who are motivated . . . to make a positive difference in the world” is a metaphor for “how you live your life.” “What if,” Meacham asks, “Christianity is not about enduring this sinful, fallen world in search of a reward of eternal rest? What if the authors of the New Testament were actually talking about a bodily resurrection in which God brings together the heavens and the earth in a wholly new, wholly redeemed creation?”  In the words of N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar, and the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, “’heaven isn’t a place where people go when they die.’ In the Bible, heaven is God’s space, while earth (or if you like, ‘the cosmos’ or ‘creation’) is our space. And the Bible makes it clear that the two overlap and interlock.”

A person of faith, the Time Magazine author adds, must decide which “heaven” to believe in. The decision makes a difference. The “Blue Sky” approach makes life on earth and issues such as climate change and HIV/AIDS less important. The alternative makes stewardship imperative. The alternative makes it important to follow “Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and clothe the naked as though they had found Jesus himself hungry, homeless or bereft.”

Like Meacham, I find the “God’s space” approach to heaven on earth more believable and adult than the “Disneyland in the Sky” understanding. Just as I’m convinced that some people endure hell here on earth (the victims of Abu Ghraib come to mind), so also there are people in “heaven” (like Mother Theresa or the Dali Lama). But still, what about death? What happens afterwards? If it’s not Disneyland, what can we expect or hope for? That’s where my friend Tony Equale comes in.

(Next Wednesday: Our Fate after Death)

A Long Oral Tradition: Step four in the development of early Christian faith

(This is the tenth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

The first three stages in the early development of the Christian tradition – Jesus’ life, the primitive Christian community’s resurrection experience, and the initial proclamation (kerygma) – were followed by a period of about 40 years of oral tradition. During that time, stories about what Jesus said and did were spoken and not written down. This nearly half-century of oral tradition represents the fourth of the five stages in the development of early Christian faith that this series of weekly “mini-classes” is attempting to address. (Find the previous nine postings under the “Historical Jesus” category below the masthead of my blog.)

It is inevitable, of course, that oral tradition varies considerably. Even a group of ten or so people consecutively whispering a single message to their neighbors, can end up changing that message beyond recognition by the time it reaches the last message-recipient. Despite the fact that surviving eyewitnesses surely provided a degree of reality-check, imagine what happened to Jesus’ words and deeds over a half-century as his Aramaic words were translated into Greek, Latin and other languages by people working purely by memory. Imagine what happened to memories of his deeds when they were narrated outside of Palestine by storytellers who were not eyewitnesses, had no knowledge of Jesus’ language, and who possessed little acquaintance with Palestinian geography, Jewish customs, or of Hebrew Scriptures. Imagine what happened to Jesus’ message as Christian storytellers tried to make it relevant to “pagans” who had no knowledge of Judaism. The storytellers would have exploited perceived similarities between Jesus preaching and what the storytellers’ audiences already believed in their own religious traditions. [The Acts of the Apostles provides an example of Paul attempting such cross-cultural explanation (17: 16-34).] Soon Jesus would be explained to Romans in terms of their “mystery cults” with their “dying and rising gods.” As a result, Jesus would be perceived like the sun god, Mithra, whose birthday was December 25th. All such dynamics would have (and did) introduce variations from what the historical Jesus actually said and did.

In the case of Christianity, the obvious confusions of oral tradition were further complicated by the “resurrection factor.” By this I mean that Christians’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection and in the living presence of his Spirit was powerful enough to convince them that the risen Lord continued speaking through community members endowed with the gift of “prophecy.”  They thought that Jesus was still addressing their problems even years after his death. Problems in question had to do with worship, community leadership, resolution of disputes, and everyday matters such as paying taxes, marriage and divorce. So the words of Jesus dealing with such issues and spoken through prophets found their way into the oral tradition about Jesus’ words. Understandably, it soon became impossible to remember which were the words of the historical Jesus and which the words of the risen Christ. Evidently, that distinction wasn’t of much importance to the early Christians. They placed both types of utterance in the same category. All of that further complicates the work of those trying to discern the actual words and deeds of the historical Jesus.

Next week: Step Five: writing down the tradition