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Monday, May 12, 2014

"He handed himself over" - Traditio


When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly. (1 Pt 2: 22)

I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. (Jn. 10:10)


Just one little thing struck me yesterday as I listened to the readings over and over. Even with some background, the whole “shepherd” thing sort of misses me emotionally. The main issue I have with it as a 21st-century Christian is that, in America at least, we get too much of the “called by name” stuff (individualism) and we miss the fact that the whole metaphor of the shepherd is based on the presence of the flock, and that for the first century it was a flock of disparate ownership: shepherds were in the service of extended families and villages, not simply of individuals. The gospel is about Jesus; in a way, it sets the stage for “way, truth, and life” talk, as it makes of Jesus both the good shepherd and the sheep gate. I wish our preachers spoke more about the flock, and less about how Jesus cares about each and every sheep, but you can only preach what you believe, I guess.

I certainly don't object to the personal element. But in the gospel, the shepherd’s concern for the one isn’t for anything other than returning to the flock. Sheep are sheep, they’re stupid, they wander off and that’s just what they do. That’s comforting, in a way. But the issue for the gospel is nothing other than the flock belongs to the commonwealth, and the flock belongs together. It’s also important that the shepherd be the right one: the one who lays down his life for the sheep. That’s the other thing that didn’t come up in the homilies I heard: how often “shepherds” in scripture is a pejorative term for religious leaders. Generally, it’s bad shepherds who are leading the flock of Israel astray. Most memorably, perhaps, aside from the beloved 23rd Psalm, remember that passage in Psalm 80 which finally calls out to God: Shepherd of Israel, listen! Look down and see! Ezekiel 34 is a good example of an extended metaphor about bad shepherds, but the metaphor also appears in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and elsewhere.

Anyway, rather than keep going on all that (which I didn’t intend to do), I just wanted to say that the sentence quoted above, in the second reading from First Peter, blew across my consciousness like a spring wind: “When (Jesus) was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.” It was no huge moment of insight; it was just those words, “he handed himself over.” This kind of language is behind the language of the Eucharist, “handed over,” and the language of the betrayal of Jesus. For me, it describes agape, which, as I’ve said before, is a way of talking about the paschal mystery of God. It is the very nature of God to give the divine Self away. “God is love,” as John says, and John isn’t talking about any kind of human love, he’s talking about self-immolating agape, which, ironically, is not destructive at all, but is creation, the source of life and destiny. As Jesus the Gate puts it at the end of the gospel Sunday, “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full.” This is the very definition of agape, that is, on the one hand, to hand oneself over, completely, for the good of others, and on the other hand, to know that that handing over is imitating and is empowered by the very life of God, and therefore is a source of abundant life and not death at all!

In the gospels, at his meals, whether on the road or at the last supper or in the post-resurrection appearances, Jesus is always breaking bread, “handing it over,” and giving life to those who share his table. At the Last Supper he explicitly identifies his life with the bread broken, and later with the shared cup, to say that his life, and therefore the life of all who follow him, is like that, broken as food for others, and handed over not to be lost but to be multiplied and to burst into abundant life for the cosmos. Sometimes we use the highly connotative word sacrifice to talk about this phenomenon, giving ourselves away for the good of others; it has overtones of pain and redemption, as well as anthropological meanings soaked in blood and appeasement of monstrous deities. But the word “sacrifice” itself comes from two Latin words, sacrum and facere, which mean “to do a holy thing,” or “to make holy.” If we can start thinking of Jesus’s “handing over” of himself, either serving other people, or symbolically in bread and wine, or par excellence in his handing himself over on the cross, we can maybe get a better idea of a more rounded idea of sacrifice: that acting like God, acting in agape, is doing a holy thing, is sacrifice.

Finally, what the first letter of Peter is getting at is that Jesus, in his death on the cross, “handed himself over” to life, to the one who could, and did, save him from death, because this God is life itself. And this is put in contrast to revenge and retribution, saying that the one to whom Jesus hands himself over is will judge justly, that is, will know all the forces of sin over which we have little power which drive us toward sinful and destructive behaviors. To think of God and retribution and revenge at once is impossible: God’s nature is to hand self over, which is the opposite of revenge. God’s justice is not retributive, but distributive. God gives away, God does not get even.

The Latin verb for “to hand over” is “tradere,” which is a compound from the root preposition trans and the verb dare, which, taken together mean “to give across”, or to hand over. One of the words we get from this verb and its cognates is "tradition," which describes what is “handed over” from one generation of people, let’s say, of Christians, to another. And it seemed to me, yesterday, an Easter Sunday annually complicated by Mother's Day and all the cringeworthy romantic "adaptations" that Hallmark culture imposes on liturgy, that it would be a great tradition if we, mothers and all, could hand over to our children the idea of handing ourselves over, the act and practice and discipline of agape, knowing that, every time we can selflessly do for others, we are doing exactly what God does, and when we do that, we act as Christ acts, and the reign of God comes closer, and the light shines a little more boldly in the darkness.