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Thursday, March 19, 2015

God and Death and James Alison (A5L)

Raising of Lazarus, 3c painting, catacombs
This Lent a few of us in the parish have begun delving into James Alison's latest effort, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, and while Lent didn't give us time to do more than scratch the surface of his thesis, grappling with just the first quarter of his book has provided me at least with fresh insights and a renewed desire to interiorize and integrate his compassionate theological view into my spiritual life.

This third scrutiny and the Lazarus gospel have always been, and continue to be, the most challenging for me, because it's difficult for me to see death as sin, as something for which we need to be forgiven. In other words, the previous stories describe, in using personal metaphors, social patterns of sin that need our attention and God's intervention. In the case of the Samaritan woman, the issue is rivalry between ethnic, national, or religious groups that alienate us from each other and cause animosity and violence. In the case of the man born blind, it seems to be rivalry between the mediators of religious affiliation (and therefore of divine favor) and the creative and liberating desire of the non-rivalrous God whose love, forgiveness, and kindness transcend the mediation of religion and its boundaries. But with Lazarus, all we know is that he is dead. Neither he, nor anyone else for that matter, really deserves to die. There's no human agent here, apparently. Lazarus isn't conspired against or killed. He just gets mortally ill and dies. Where's the sin in that? It's a story that has repeated itself, or will repeat itself, for every person who was ever born. Why does he need to be fixed?

My approach to this gospel has been about the defeat of death, the mastery of death, that Jesus manifests in this story just a week or so before his own arrest and death by capital punishment. In John's sign-soaked gospel, richly metaphoric and bestowing on the "historical" Jesus in his narrative the identity and history-controlling nature of the logos of God "by whom all things were made (Jn. 1:1-3)," Jesus in the previous chapter claims that "the Father and I are one," mobilizing his enemies against his blasphemy, and then says that, being the "good shepherd," "my sheep hear my voice...and they follow me." Here, one of his own, his friend Lazarus, follows him right out of the tomb and back into life.

I wonder whether the many "I AM" statements in John, which clearly are pointers toward a metaphorical understanding of who Jesus is (bread, shepherd, living water, light of the world, resurrection and life, etc.), might also be a way of connecting him to the I AM of Moses's encounter with God in the burning bush. This is where Alison comes in for me, because he leads us to see that encounter as a Hebrew reimagining of the identity of God as someone not beyond-and-above but transcendent and near, intensely interested in the plight of the enslaved and broken-hearted. Alison sees that moment, which he goes to great lengths to put into perspective as having emerged relatively late in Israel's development, in post-exilic times, possibly as late as the 3rd century BCE. He makes an analogy of its "meaning," if that word can be used of the sacred name YHWH, to the reimagining of the messianic story implied in Jesus's recasting of the "law and prophets" in the crux of the Emmaus narrative. In other words, as Jesus gives Clopas and his companion their own narrative of meaning and history back to them by a new interpretation "on the road," so this name-that-is-not-a-name reframes the Deuteronomic ritual, moral, and prescriptive religion of Judaism into one of divine agency on behalf of those who need liberation. Rather than a God who demands human adherence to laws and rituals to "make holy," YHWH is the protagonist of the human narrative, calling "Moses the meek" to lay aside his worries and just jump into the world-making protagonism of this utterly-beyond God who is right here burning in this un-burning bush.

Of course, that is a profound oversimplification (necessarily, and probably fraught with my own misunderstanding) of an idea about the biblical narrative that is complicated by two and a half millennia of oral and written redaction, but that I AM does pop up an awful lot in John's gospel, including that one by the man born blind last week which I referenced in the post called "John 9:9 and the co-creation of light." And again in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, it will appear in Jesus's mouth and its very pronunciation will stun and level the (unlikely literal and literally hyperbolic) 600 men in a Roman cohort and the rest of the band Judas had brought along (Jn 18:5-6).

I AM the resurrection and the life. Alison wants us to grasp that God is not in rivalry with death at all, that God is utter and complete creativity and life. God does not use death or fear to induce us to follow him or provoke our worship. Instead, God's story to us has been to say, "Don't be afraid. There's a lot of terrible stuff going on, you know it, I know it, and a lot of it is getting ascribed to me. But that's not at all who I AM. And to show you, here's my plan: I'm going to into that place, that place that you fear and hide from, the place of death, and 'occupy' that place for you, so that you can see I am with you, on your side, and not trying to scare you or blackmail you into some kind of extortionist worship. I want to show you, by going into death ahead of you, that I AM life, so that you can 'relax into being' the people you were meant to be, generous, giving your lives away so that everyone can have enough." We're given Jesus so that we can become divine, so that we can let go of our fear of death and our rivalrous stampede to assuage our pain and fear by paying death its tribute on the backs of the poor and the earth itself. We're given Jesus, "I AM the way, the truth, and the life," to be assured that giving ourselves away, like wheat planted in the earth or bread broken and shared, multiplies life rather than ends it.

So the Lazarus narrative, I think, gets us ready for Jesus's own empty tomb story, with its various scriptural witnesses but whose ultimately un-beheld nature requires us to make our own decision about who God is, about whom we follow, and whether we'll be satisfied with laws, morals, and rituals to mediate God, or whether we will swim in the infinite ocean of life that is YHWH, like fish swimming in the pre-endangered oceans of earth. That latter path will be liberation-for, however, liberation-for the gentle reign of God whose fire doesn't burn the bush, and whose chosen will neither snuff the smoldering candle nor break a bent reed while going about the work of the "victory of justice."

Well, these thoughts, like this life of mine, are a work in progress. I'm not sure if any of that is coherent, but I wanted to at least try to articulate where I am this year on the way. We're getting close to the end of Lent, and we have baptismal promises to renew. For me, this comes under the rubric of, "Do you believe in God?" I want the God who is the ocean of love, and who wants me, with my fear of water, my buoyancy issues, and marginal swimming ability, to jump into the deep end.

Here are some things I've written previously on the Fifth Sunday of Lent and the third scrutiny:

The Last Taboo
I Will Open Your Graves, and Have You Rise from Them
Do You Believe This?

This is the music we're using at St. Anne's this Sunday, when folks will be away in droves enjoying vacations in the sun, perhaps seeing the Cubs and White Sox in their spring glory in the southwest.

Entrance: I the Lord by Tom Kendzia (OCP)
Psalm 130 With the Lord by J. Michael Joncas (OCP)
Mass of St. Aidan Gospel Acclamation (WLP)
Gospel response: Awake, O Sleeper by Marty Haugen (GIA)
Litany for the Scrutinies (Rory Cooney, GIA)
Preparation Rite: Mary, Don't You Weep (spiritual, text and arrgt. Cooney from Seeger & Springsteen) or I Know that My Redeemer Lives (David Haas, GIA)
My original take on the "Mary, Don't You Weep" song is that the "Mary" in it is Mary of Magdala, on Easter morning. There's no definitive text I can find, and so Mary might just be any human being who is in mourning, held in hope by the memory of the Exodus and other scriptural dreams. Some versions of the song have the refrain continue "...tell Martha your sister don't mourn," and others are about a woman named Mary with a baby whose husband has gone to war, unrelated to any biblical story. So when I was thinking about the Lazarus gospel and that weeping Mary, I thought it was fair to work up some verses for the song that reframed it for use on Lent 5. I also wrote verses for Easter and for the last Sundays of the year.
Communion: I Am the Bread of Life (S. Suzanne Toolan, SM, GIA)
Recessional: I Know that My Redeemer Lives (David Haas, GIA) or Jerusalem, My Destiny (verse 5) (Rory Cooney, GIA)