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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I AM (I am not)

A few random thoughts from Good Friday. What struck me, listening to the Passion of St. John, were the three times in the garden when, asked if he was Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus replied, “I AM.” As the footnotes of any Bible will tell you, this is a Johannine device used throughout his gospel to indicate faith that Jesus is divine. Behind the Greek ego eimi sparkles the Hebrew tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable, elusive four-letter name (YHWH) by which God in the burning bush identified himself to Moses.
Marc Chagall, "Moses"
"But," said Moses to God, "when I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?" God replied, "I am who am." (YHWH) Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM (YHWH) sent me to you." (Ex. 3: 13-14)
So sacred is this name to the Jewish people that in all the manuscripts of Scripture in which the Name is used they substitute a different word, “adonai”, and even when the name “God” is written in English you will sometimes see devout souls write it as “G-d” rather that with the vowel. It is never spoken aloud, the word “Adonai” or “Lord” is substituted in the scriptures.

The Jerusalem Bible was the first Catholic Bible to break with this tradition, much to the chagrin of other Scripture scholars and ecumenists. But the author the fourth gospel puts the name on Jesus's lips in the garden, Jesus thus identifying himself with the Ineffable. Elsewhere in John he has done the same, notably in the several “I am” sayings - “I am the light of the world,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” and so on. Twice Jesus says the words, ego eimi, I am, in recounting the reaction of the arresting guards, John repeats it. So far, this was nothing new.

But what caught my ear Friday was Peter’s response to the question, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?” Twice, Peter replies, “I am not.” The deft literary balancing of these seemingly simple phrases implies a whole theology of truth and lies, of light and darkness, death and life. Pilate, too, in his repartee with Jesus in the fortress Antonia says to him, “I am not a Jew, am I?” This might be a little bit of a stretch, but John’s gospel is so literary that nothing really would surprise me about its construction. I suspect that Jesus, who says “I am,” is the person of light, of life, nourishment, and freedom; Peter, keeping his distance from Jesus and danger in the dark, and Pilate, the ruthless but powerless governor who is unknowingly passing judgment on the Son of God, are the ones who say “I am not,” that is, I do not belong to the light; I am darkness, I am death, I am poison and captivity.

Another scriptural reference in the gospel rang in my ear because I had heard it recently - John says of the soldiers piercing his side with a lance, “...this happened so that the Scripture passage might be fulfilled: Not a bone of it will be broken.” This text is in reference to the way that the passover lambs are to be slain, and we just heard part of that chapter, Exodus 12, at the mass of the Lord's supper, Thursday evening at mass. (I'm not a scripture scholar, but the line also appears in Psalm 34 (v. 21), in which it refers to the righteous broken-hearted one.) In John, Jesus is led out to crucifixion on the preparation day for Passover, when the paschal lambs were slain.

Of course, hearing the gospel at liturgy, when these nuances pop out in a proclamation, doesn't mean that they are actually there. Who knows what John meant, writing for a different culture, in a different language, in a different time, a work that we read in translations of translations of handwritten copies of handwritten copies of handwritten copies. It doesn't mean I've heard or grasped anything objectively true. Meaning is hardly objective anyway. But patterns of language, like the careful use and juxtaposition of words like "I am" and "I am not," which have such a cultural gravitas, are certainly an indication of meaning, and an invitation to align oneself with life. And it seems to me that what the author of the fourth gospel means by life is something about leaving "home" to serve, whether it is the Logos leaving the right hand of God to pitch a tent on our turf, or Peter, James, John, and the rest of the disciples leaving home and work to follow, or Jesus washing feet. Life is about letting go of religious habits that prevent us from really seeing and honoring and healing others. It's something about announcing the forgiveness of sins, and the awareness that the goodness of God outshines the darkness within us.

And now Triduum has come to an end, as Barrington and northeast Illinois spin away from the sun at a barely noticeable 1000 km/hr. May we hasten toward the light as quickly, even when we’re not aware we are so moving. For traveling music, maybe a flashback to Neil Diamond's 70s anthem, but with a new theological understanding: "I AM, I said." And brother Jesus, when I am not, I trust you'll love me even more.

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