Chapter 7 – Resurrection

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

All faith is resurrection faith.   – Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Prayer

To rise from history to mystery is to experience the resurrection of the body here now, as an eternal reality; to experience the parousia, the presence in the present, which is the spirit; to experience the reincarnation of the incarnation, the second coming; which is his coming in us.
– Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!
– W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The Burial Scene

The burial of Jesus took place in haste, in keeping with Jewish law, as commanded in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day.”  One can only imagine the eagerness of those who loved Jesus to remove his body from the cross, a position of extreme exposure and embarrassment, and to lay it gently in a crypt, safe from mocking Roman eyes. At last, the torture was over.

Having acquired permission to take charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea wrapped it carefully in fine linens and, with the help of Nicodemus, put it in a crypt hewn from rock not far from the site of the execution on the outskirts of Jerusalem.   Nicodemus had brought a mixture of embalming spices: aloes and myrrh. One recalls the lines from “We Three Kings,” a mid-nineteenth-century Christmas carol:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

A large stone sealed the entrance to the cave: not uncommon in the burial caves of wealthy people in the time of Jesus, as archaeologists have confirmed. The care taken by these men with the body of their beloved teacher underscored the importance of honoring the dead in appropriate ways. In Genesis, for example, Abraham had been instructed by God to bury the dead only in the choicest of tombs, and so he bought a cave “in the field of Machpelah” in Canaan for the body of his wife, Sarah (Genesis 23:4-19). The law required that even the enemies of Israel, when slain in battle, deserved an appropriate and respectful burial (I Kings 11:15). Moses actually warned his companions that if they didn’t follow the laws of God in this regard, they risked being slain and not buried, their corpses left for the birds and wild beasts to pick apart (Deuteronomy 28:25-26). It should not have surprised anyone in the first century that a man whom many considered an important teacher, if not the messianic Son of God, deserved a proper burial.

It was unusual for the bodies of executed men to be buried with respect, however. Soldiers often just tossed the remains into shallow graves or burial ditches, where wild dogs fed on whatever was left. This might have happened to Jesus, as John Dominic Crossan has argued – not, in my view, persuasively. (1)   The public would surely have been outraged by such crassness, as Jesus had attracted a sincere (if rather small) following, especially among Galilean pilgrims; with so many visitors in Jerusalem for the Temple celebrations, Pilate would not have wished to unsettle this group, however small by comparison with the others. (2)  A discreet burial for Jesus was politically astute as well as in keeping with Jewish customs, and the archaeological as well as written evidence suggests that such burials did occasionally take place after an execution. (3)

Jesus lay in the cave through Friday night, Saturday, and early Sunday: a period of three days, ending with Easter and the Resurrection, known as the Triduum or “three days.” Commentators on the life of Jesus often pass over the hours of his entombment, which embrace a painful mental state described in “Waiting” by the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas as “the mind’s tree of thorns.” But Holy Saturday forms a corridor between the death and resurrection of Jesus, in his remarkable (and theologically complex) passage from Jesus to Christ. Alan E. Lewis, a theologian who wrote a book about Holy Saturday during the final year of his own struggle with terminal cancer, said: “If confidence in the resurrection tends to modify the deadliness of Calvary, likewise it is only those who have first looked into the mouth of hell and seen the world abandoned to its godless fate who then can truly see the meaning of the Easter day reversal.” (4)  In other words, the mythos needs to be heard in two ways – “as a story whose ending is known, and as one whose ending is discovered only as it happens … the truth emerges only when both readings are audible, the separate sound in each ear creating, as it were, a stereophonic unity.”

Most of us will for a time occupy this anxious, transitional space between two worlds, as described by Lord Byron in Don Juan (Canto Fifteen): “Between two worlds life hovers like a star, / ‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.” Holy Saturday unfolds in this dark space, in the tomb where Jesus lay in a kind of unrealized state, perhaps plunging into psychic or spiritual depths in what has often been called the Harrowing of Hell- a legend without much scriptural basis suggesting that Jesus made a kind of wild descent, with mythic overtones, into the underworld. In fact, mythologies often describe a turn when the hero descends to a deep pit or a place of psychological, spiritual, or physical confinement, as when Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale or Gilgamesh descended into the underworld in a quest for immortality. Nearly all heroic or mythic tales include a part of the heroic cycle where the hero visits some version of Hell or Hades in his or her quest for immortality (Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, is a female example). In any case, the Sacred Sabbath, as it’s often called with reference to Easter weekend, represents a place where Jesus dives into the darkness before the Resurrection. It lies between two loud claps of thunder, an emptiness wherein we sense a horrifying loss of life, on the one hand, yet remain expectant: in a state of gradually realizing awareness of the life to come. This difficult space is one of the symbolic gifts of the Triduum in its second day: a timeless time that suggests that “God himself has plumbed these depths and has brought creation out of the darkness and into resurrection life,” as Richard McLaughlan has written. (5)  

Easter Morning and Beyond

Easter morning arrived with a holy hush, the day after the Sabbath, with little fanfare. The gospels pass over the Resurrection, and we never actually see Jesus waken, rub his eyes, stand and stretch. We don’t even see the rock that sealed the tomb actually rolled away. The joyous resurrection of Jesus happens off-stage, as it were. The first inkling of change occurred when some of the women close to Jesus came to visit his tomb. The gospel narratives vary on who turned up in the garden first:  Mary Magdalene alone or with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with Salome (Mary’s sister or the mother of James and John). In John, the story plays out in suspenseful detail as Mary Magdalene visited the tomb by herself to mourn. To her amazement, she found the stone removed. In panic, she ran to tell Peter and another (unnamed) disciple, who hurried back to the tomb and discovered it empty, much to their distress and confusion. They assumed that someone had stolen the body. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene sat outside the tomb by herself, crying softly. She could hardly believe the things that had happened in the past few days, and the missing body of Jesus was really too much to bear.

After a while, she returned to the dark, heavily scented crypt, where she “saw two angels in white.” They spoke to her, and then a mysterious male figure appeared at her side. The man said to her in a gentle voice: “Why are you crying?”

She didn’t recognize this person and apparently thought he was a gardener.

Jesus responded with a single word: “Mary.”

At once she realized who stood beside her: “Rabboni!”  Her response was in Aramaic, meaning “teacher.” The intrusion of an Aramaic exclamation in a Greek text serves to underscore and convey a sense of authenticity. That Jesus would first appear to Mary Magdalene was, of course, a disconcerting matter for some, such as Peter, who must have wondered why he didn’t get to meet the risen Christ before her. In three of the Gnostic Gospels – Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, and Dialogue of the Savior- one sees a rivalry developed between Peter and Mary.  Elaine Pagels, in her study of the gospels discovered at Nag Hamrnadi, notes that these writings outside the canon often “use the figure of Mary Magdalene to suggest that women’s activity challenged the leaders of the orthodox community.”(6)  The raw facts remain: Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, she didn’t recognize him.

Nobody recognized Jesus at first – a point of huge significance, as it underscores the difficult and mysterious nature of the Resurrection, which defies all norms and defeats rationalization. The embodied spirit of the Messiah returning from the dead was not exactly the same person who died but some altered version of Jesus, transmogrified more than restored to his former state. In reality, the manifestation of Jesus after his death beggars the imagination: he acquired a spiritual body, as we read in I Corinthians 15:44: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” There is a subtle teaching here: We should not expect to recognize Jesus at first, even as he wakens within us. (One thinks here of the Buddha, who also awakened to new life in his moment of Enlightenment at the Bodhi Tree, which entails an awareness of Nirvana, a condition of bliss that comes from the blowing out of the three flames of greed, hatred, and delusion.) Recognition takes time, becoming in fact a process of uncovering, what I often refer to in this book as the gradually realizing kingdom: an awareness that grows deeper and more complex, more thrilling, as it evolves.

Jesus walked free of the tomb, appearing to various disciples and followers over the next forty days. One vivid appearance is described in Luke 24:13-32, where the narrator elaborates a story only mentioned briefly in Mark 16:12-13. Two followers of Jesus walked along a sandy road from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. They discussed between themselves the astonishing rumor that Jesus, their beloved teacher, had awakened from the dead. (Obviously word of this occurrence had spread quickly, though nobody quite knew what to believe.) As they talked, a third man appeared beside them, emerging from the shadows. “What are you talking about?” he asked. They looked at him incredulously: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened?”

They told the mysterious stranger about this “prophet, powerful in word and deed,” a man called Jesus of Nazareth, someone who enjoyed a special relationship with God. They retold the story of the women who visited his tomb but did not find him there.

Jesus listened patiently, then scolded them: “You are so foolish, and slow to believe everything the prophets have spoken!”

But even this rebuke didn’t alert them to the identity of their companion, whom they nevertheless invited to share their dinner. He agreed to join them that evening. Taking the bread in his hands, he gave thanks for it, “and then their eyes were opened, and they saw who was before them.” Somewhat bizarrely, as soon as they recognized their teacher, he disappeared – poof.  It’s a strange but compelling story, suggesting that it’s difficult to possess the vision, to retain it. The risen Jesus requires sustained focus, strong belief, and devotion.

Even his closest disciples failed to recognize him, as in the first fourteen verses of John 21, where we hear that he appeared to Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and two other disciples, one of them the mysterious Beloved Disciple. In the days following the Crucifixion, this cluster of core disciples had returned to Galilee. One assumes they were forlorn, confused, and deeply anxious about their future. Without Jesus to lead them, how would they operate in the world? How would they feed themselves? In situations like this, people often return to familiar habits, and these men were fishermen, so they fished. But the fishing didn’t go well.

It was early morning on the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples despaired of catching anything. Suddenly Jesus stood on the shore, although none of them recognized him.

He called in a loud voice: “Friends, not having any luck?”

They explained glumly that no fish seemed to be biting. It seemed quite hopeless.

Jesus offered them a tip: “Throw your net over the right side of the boat, and your luck will change.”

They probably wondered: Who is this arrogant man? Haven’t we already tried everything we know? Yet he must have spoken with authority, as they took his advice, and their nets filled up at once. They couldn’t even drag them into the boat, they so bristled with the catch. It was, of course, a miracle.

Peter suddenly realized – alone among them – who stood on shore. “It’s the Lord!” he said with a gasp.

They came ashore warily, however. Who was going to trust Peter? The stranger stood by himself, cooking breakfast over coals. He looked up, offering them bread and fish. His radiance was undeniable. Now they “knew it was the Lord,” and yet they scarcely believed their eyes. Was this some kind of trick? Did a ghost hover before them? Had they fallen into a dream-state of some kind?

A larger truth informs these stories. Jesus did not, like Lazarus, simply get up and walk out from the burial crypt and resume life in ordinary time. The Resurrection was not the Resuscitation. As noted above, his closest friends didn’t recognize him, not even Mary Magdalene. He was otherworldly now, fully transfigured. What this part of the mythos invites is meditation as well as a blunt refusal to accept easy answers, a willingness to submit to the incomprehensible, to what the great German theologian Rudolf Otto called the idea of the holy. Here we discover a sense of the numinous – the so-called mysterium tremendum – a “tremendous mystery” difficult to embody in speech or thought, an “all-pervading, penetrating glow” that in its otherness resists the intellect and cannot be discerned easily. (7)

As one moves through the four gospels and the letters of Paul, the accounts of post-Resurrection appearances by Jesus vary markedly in their nature and sequence.  There is a summary of these appearances in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:5-8): “He appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom remain alive now, though some have fallen asleep. Then he showed himself to James, then to all the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me.”

Written twenty years or so after the events described, this letter suggests two things: a lot of stories circulated about Jesus and the Resurrection, not all of them consistent. These storytellers had their own agendas, and their narratives shifted according to the perceived audience. The author of Mark nearly avoids any mention of post-Resurrection appearances, except for one brief passage (16:9-20), which is not included in the earliest manuscripts of his gospel. In Matthew, there is almost nothing about his reappearance except for a few verses in the twenty-eighth chapter, where Jesus meets the remaining eleven disciples and gives them the Great Commission: “Go and create disciples everywhere, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them as I have commanded you. And know that I am always with you, even to the end of time.” Luke includes not only the story of the Road to Emmaus but glimpses of the post-Easter Jesus by Peter, plus a further visit with the eleven remaining disciples in Jerusalem. In Acts, which is an extension of Luke, Jesus makes numerous appearances to his disciples during the forty days before he ascends to heaven. In John, he meets Mary Magdalene in the tomb itself, visits with the disciples in Jerusalem, and – as the story related above – meets others by the shores of Galilee, with the miraculous catch of fish: no doubt a symbolic as well as literal catch, perhaps meant to remind these fishermen of their role as “fishers of men” or missionaries who will “catch” men and women with the good news of the gospel. The work of reading here, as suggested earlier, is one of remythologizing the story, finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale. (8)

The characteristics of the resurrected body of Jesus shift, depending on the text at hand. In one case, Jesus asks Thomas, the doubter, to touch his wound, just to prove to him that he’s really there and not some phantasm. This proves that he has a physical presence, and it satisfies Thomas. In John, Jesus passes through locked doors like a ghost – an unsettling image that suggests an incorporeal aspect, stressing his spiritual nature. In Luke 24:41-43, he astonishes his disciples by eating “a piece of broiled fish” as well as swallowing honey. It’s as if, by looking at him, they didn’t expect as much. He has to prove his real presence. For the most part, the appearances of Jesus retain a dreamlike quality, as in Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he hears a voice from the Lord, which says: “I am Jesus, the one whom you persecute” (Acts 9:5). When Paul opens his eyes, however, he sees nothing. The spirit has vanished.

Huge questions confront anyone thinking about Jesus. Did he really rise from the dead? Was there an actual Resurrection?  If so, what would that look like? A large number of Christians throughout history have imagined a resuscitation, refusing to countenance the slightest hint that the Resurrection should be regarded as something beyond human understanding. I myself  would argue this: life and death are mysterious, at best, and the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one, perilously thin. Jesus rose from the dead, the scriptures say. I see no reason to doubt this. And yet a literalistic belief in the Resurrection cannot be, as many fundamentalist churches insist, the only important part of the “good news” of Christianity. The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment.  Nowhere more so than here does it matter that we find a proper balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.

Jesus put before human beings an example, a way to reconcile with God, the source of creation, the ground of all being.  Overall, the Resurrection represents, for me, a joy that is probably diminished by a reading of this event that fails to embrace the mystical aspect, the idea that the transfigured body of Jesus defies human comprehension. Perhaps Doubting Thomas needed a physical manifestation, and some people still do. But the gospel writers repeatedly suggest that the risen Jesus confounded everyone, and that different people regarded this part of the story in different ways – even at the time, among his closest associates. Jesus himself seemed to revel in the mystery, as on the road to Emmaus. He didn’t expect, even wish for, instant recognition.

Literalism is reductionist and limits access to God in the fullest sense. I’d go further here to argue that it’s downright dangerous to dwell exclusively on the literal aspects of the story. Norman O. Brown wrote in Love’s Body that the Resurrection should be regarded as an awakening, a coming back to life: “The resurrection is to recur, to be fulfilled in us: it is to happen to his mystical body, which is our bodies; in this flesh.” This seems, to me, more useful as a way of thinking about the Resurrection than the kind of dour Christianity that argues one is not “saved” unless one “believes” in resuscitation in the most physical way.

The fundamentalist view of the cross, with its emphasis on the sacrificial or “substitutionary” aspect of the Crucifixion, evolved in the Middle Ages and solidified with Martin Luther’s insistence on the single, simple, and stable meaning of scripture; the text of the Bible itself became a mighty fortress that resists symbolic interpretations. (I would note that early in his career Luther was much more amenable to symbolic readings of scriptural passages.) To many, the idea of Christ as sacrificial lamb becomes the whole of the Christian message, to the disparagement of every other reading, leading to an exclusionary view of  salvation. (9)  Yet the apostle Paul himself warned early Christians in his second letter to Corinth that to become an able minister of the new covenant one should not read the scriptures in ways that undercut their fullest meanings, “for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6).

Paul followed his own advice, taking an obviously multilayered view, as when he suggested that those who follow the way of Christ shall “all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). He wasn’t talking about “the dead” here, who required bodily resuscitation. He meant that a spiritual awakening must occur, and this would confer new life on those who understood what they had experienced.  It’s a feeling not unlike what Thomas Merton, the poet and Trappist monk, experienced in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the late sixties, when he encountered the great Buddha statues in Polunnaruwa: “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious.”(10)   This very much echoes the kind of awakening described by Paul.

 The Ascension

So forty days after the Resurrection, having made his presence felt, Jesus led his disciples to a hill outside of Jerusalem, at Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them: “And it came to pass that, while he blessed them, he parted from them. He was lifted into heaven” (Luke 24:51). The event occurs only in Mark and Luke, but it’s a stunning image, a necessary conclusion to the life of Jesus. Needless to say, the disciples felt utterly at a loss, even bereft. Once again, they had lost their teacher.   At this point, an angel spoke to the mystified disciples, saying, “Men of Galilee, why are you gazing up into heaven like this?  This same Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will in the same way return” (Acts 1:11). They felt a pervasive joy when they heard these angelic words and returned to the Temple in Jerusalem, where they praised God for this vision of Christ rising to heaven. (11)

The message from the angel refers to the Second Coming, as it’s called, which signals the return of the Messiah, embodied in the Greek word parousia (which occurs two dozen times in the New Testament, seventeen times referring to an appearance of Jesus). In translation, the word means “arrival” or “real presence.” But it also means “manifestation,” and can be understood in a variety of ways. Some Christians believe Christ will actually reappear and lift up the dead with him, snatching those still alive from their workaday routines in a dramatic moment called the Rapture. This idea emanates from the Book of Revelation, which has its origins in dream-visions as seen in the Book of Daniel. Daniel, in fact, might easily be considered the first book of the New Testament, with its many influential ideas about the Son of Man. (12)

In truth, the notion of an afterlife that involves bodily resurrection had little currency in the Hebrew Bible. In the Torah, life after death seemed unknown or uninteresting, scarcely worthy of mention. The dead went to Sheol, a shadowy place like Hades in Greek mythology, a kind of garbage dump for souls. Jews, then as now, wished to keep their focus on the present life, leaving what comes after to fate. During the period of the Babylonian exile, however, notions of deliverance for the whole of Israel morphed into a belief in individual resurrection, so that by the second century BCE, when Daniel was written – one of the last books of the Hebrew scriptures – it was thought that the dead might rise in the sky and shine among the righteous “as the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

By the time of Jesus, the Temple elite, the Sadducees, remained firm in their understanding of the afterlife as nothing much; it largely escaped their consciousness, or they preferred not to discuss it. As we read in Acts 23:8: “The Sadducees say there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit.” It’s a view confirmed among Jewish historians, such as Josephus, who wrote, “The doctrine of the Sadducees destroys the souls along with the bodies.”(13)  The Pharisees, by contrast, developed the concept of bodily resurrection, and this influenced the early Christians, who developed a thoroughgoing notion of survival in some form, with the idea of a “spiritual” or “glorified” body elaborated through the centuries by theologians, especially those influenced by Paul. As for Jesus himself, he explained to his followers somewhat vaguely that when the dead woke up “they would be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). His teaching focused on the present life, as he argued repeatedly that his true followers must behave in ways that set them apart from everyone else: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). This is amplified and complicated beautifully in James 2:20: “Faith without works is dead.” In the Beatitudes, he emphasized that the kingdom of heaven opened immediately to those who practiced the virtues he put forward, such as meekness, humility, mercy, peacefulness, and so forth.

Pentecostal Fire

The disciples gathered in Jerusalem ten days after Jesus ascended to heaven, for the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: Shavuot), which was traditionally held fifty days after Passover. Among Greek-speaking Jews, this celebration was called Pentecost, meaning “fifty days,” as this marked the passage of time between the liberation of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Christian feast of Pentecost recapitulates the Judaic tradition here, although it takes on a specific aura of its own.

The disciples crowded in a room in Jerusalem with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many other followers. In Acts 2:1-6 one reads what happened, and it’s a nugget of narrative enchantment:

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly came a sound from heaven like that of a rushing wind, and it filled the house where they sat. And there appeared to them forked tongues like fire, and it hovered upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit allowed. Now Jews and other devout men lived in Jerusalem, out of every nation under heaven, And when this was relayed abroad, the group met together, astounded because every man heard them speak in his own language.

This is the miracle of the tongues, when God sent the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity – for comfort and assistance. A crown of Pentecostal fire hovered above their heads, a flame of hope.

The arrival of the Spirit must have terrified everyone in the room. In “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot imagines this moment when a “dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror.” Now, with the spirit of God present in the world, the disciples had a kind of invisible wind at their backs. Needless to say, there is something peculiar about the notion of a ghost who floats into the room as “tongues of fire” and makes its presence felt, allowing a kind of transcendental understanding that cancels out the distinctions of separate languages – the curse of Babel. As ever, one looks for precedents and parallels, which yield a rich literature of speculation about what the idea of the Holy Spirit means.

Raymond E. Brown notes, for example, that the Jewish writer Philo described angels as taking what God had said to Moses out to the people on the plain below, with the sound of a mighty wind: a mirroring Pentecostal moment in Judaic history. (14)  One thinks back to a lovely passage in Numbers, where God assists Moses by giving him and a group of seventy “men of the elders of the people” the assistance of the spirit: “And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease” (Numbers 11:25). Just as the presence of the Holy Spirit marked a covenant between God and Israel, so the Christian Pentecost signaled a new covenant between God and humanity.

At the feast in the upper room at Pentecost, Peter was moved to deliver a major sermon (Acts 2:14-36), wherein he laid out the essentials of Christian belief: seeing the Pentecost as the fulfillment of signs often given in the Hebrew scriptures, as in Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” It’s remarkable how the gospel writers, and Paul as well, managed to locate passages in earlier scriptures that reinforced whatever happened in the present. Everything they said or did, much as nearly everything that Jesus said or did in his life, fulfilled a prophecy. Now the Holy Spirit would pour out from heaven, and the men and women in the Jesus movement would dream wild dreams, would entertain lively visions.

The Resurrection engendered a sharp turn for the followers of Jesus. There had, indeed, been other prophets and teachers in earlier years: John the Baptist, for example. But the triumph of Jesus over death shifted the focus from the kingdom of God – often a theme that Jesus put forward in his teaching – to a renewal of life in the moment of “belief” This does not mean – as some Christians will continue to argue – that Jesus wanted people to give intellectual assent to a set of dogmas, thus making it possible for them to be “saved.” In its Greek and Latin roots, the word “believe” simply means “giving one’s deepest self to” something. The Latin is credo: I believe. This derives from cor do: “I give my heart.” The English word “believe” connects, via root meanings, to the Middle English bileven: “to hold dear.” And so to believe in Jesus means to hold him dearly, to value his presence and example. As Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential American theologian, once said, belief does not mean that we should claim to know anything about “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell, or to be too certain about any details of the kingdom of God in which history is consummated.”(15) That would be to reduce the unknowable to something thin and paltry, far too literal to contain the larger truth of eternal life – the good news in its fullest sense.

The early followers of Jesus and, soon, a growing number of apostles and faithful servants, dedicated their lives to bringing the good news to the world, and they succeeded beyond their fondest imaginings in the work of fulfilling the Great Commission. The early church began to organize in different parts of the Roman Empire, with some Christians focused on James, the brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem, while others went as far abroad as Rome and beyond. In the middle of the first century CE, Paul would encounter a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and his brilliant letters to disparate churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, Galatia, Thessalonica, and elsewhere formed the bedrock of Christian theological reflection, while theologians from Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas to the present time would elaborate and refine, dispute and codify, the ideas that Jesus put forward in the course of his tumultuous public ministry and through his Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Yet in its various forms, the essential message of Jesus, who became Christ – the Messiah – remains that of Mark 8:34, where he said with astounding simplicity: “If people wish to be my disciple, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me.” The nature of this cross may vary – in its weight and texture, its concrete horrors and degrees of agony – but its burden is beyond dispute. But so is the joy of reconciliation with God, with the exhilaration and comfort of Easter morning, which doesn’t fade but continues to fill disciples of Jesus with zeal to repair a broken world, finding in his countenance the human glimmer of God’s love. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote so memorably, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am.” (16)



I came that they might have life…. and have it abundantly.  John 10:10 

  Greek words for life

In the English language, three different Greek words (bios, psuche, and zoe) are all translated with the same word: life – but in Greek each word has a different meaning. Here are some examples:

Bios,  Luke 8:14: “they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasure of life…” Bios refers to the life of the physical body – and is the root of English biology.

Psuche,  Matthew 16:25: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Psuche refers to the life of the human soul – the mind,  emotion, and will – and is the root of English psychology.

Zoe,  John 1:4: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Zoe refers to the uncreated and eternal life of God, the divine life uniquely possessed by God.

  ζωή  Abundant life  

Let’s revisit the Gospel of John, replacing English life with the original Greek zoe:

What has come into being in him was Zoe, and the Zoe was the light of all people… John 1:4

Jesus said, “I have come that they may have Zoe, and may have it abundantly.”   John 10:10

Understanding the Greek distinction between bios, psuche, and  zoe  makes it clear: John (and Jesus) are speaking of the eternal Zoe life of God.

   עֵץ הַחַיִּים עֵץ הַחַיִּים‎  The Tree of Life

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. (Matthew 13:31-32)

In Genesis (2:9) the Tree of Life stands for the divine, uncreated, eternal, incorruptible, and indestructible ( chai ) of God:  “Out of the ground יהוה   made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, and the  עֵץ הַחַיִּים עֵץ הַחַיִּים‎ ( Etz haChayim ) is in the midst of the garden….”  

In Revelation (22:14) the Tree of Life appears again:  “Blessed are those who wash their robes and do his commandments, so that they will have the right to the tree of Zoe…”

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life…. and have it abundantly.”


Notes to Chapter 7- Resurrection

1.  See John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). Crossan argues that most people – political rebels, many of them- were not buried after having been crucified by Romans in the first century. They were left to hang to terrify the population, who might harbor among them other revolutionaries. But this does not constitute an argument that Jesus was not properly buried. The burial is mentioned in every gospel as well as in I Corinthians 15:3-4. And Pilate might well, as suggested above, have had political reasons for allowing the body to be buried. There was the added influence of two members of the Sanhedrin.

2. For a full discussion of this hypothesis, see Dale C. Allen, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters (New York: T & T Clade, 2005), 352-62.

3. In 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of one Yehohanan, who had been buried after a crucifixion. A four-and-a-half inch nail was still lodged in one ankle. One hears about burying convicts during religious festivals in both Philo and Josephus. See Helen K. Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2012), 164.

4.  Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 42. For a full discussion of Lewis in relation to the poetry of R. S. Thomas, see Richard McClaughlan, “R. S. Thomas: Poet of Holy Saturday” in The Heythrop Journal, v. 52, Issue 6 (November 2011), 976.

5. McClaughlan, 985.

6. Pagels, 64.

7. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 2nd ed., trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), 34. See also Melissa Raphael, Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

8. I’m not so much contradicting Bultmann’s idea of demythologization as putting the emphasis more firmly on the balance between literal and figurative readings, while stressing the fictive aspect: the shaping spirit of the gospel narratives.

9. See, for example, Jason B. Hood, “The Cross in the New Testament: Two Theses in Conversation with Recent Literature (2000-2007),” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009), 281-95. A survey of the foot-notes here alone reveals a vast literature on the subject.

10. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, eds. Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973), 233.

11. See Acts 1!9-Il, Mark 16:19, and Luke 24:50-53 for accounts of the Ascension, which are very brief.

12. One grows tired of hearing fundamentalist preachers digging into dream-like passages in Revelation and connecting dots that cannot connect. I often wish they would heed the good advice offered in the Book of Job, where God says: “If you have anything to say, say it.” He adds: “If not, hold your peace” (Job 33:32-22).

13. Josephus, Antiquities 18.16

14. Brown, 283-84.

15. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, v. II (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1996), 294. This major, two-volume work originally appeared in 1943.

16.  From “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the comfort of the Resurrection.”


Chapter 8: The Afterlife of Jesus

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse does shine,
But all the constellations of the story.
– George Herbert, “The Holy Scriptures”

The highest revelation is that God is in every man.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals  

Eyewitness Testimonies

For over two millennia,  Jesus has attracted followers, has annoyed skeptics, and has baffled many who wonder what his existence meant, in all its wild paradox, as Bultmann recognizes when he writes, “The Christ occurrence means the eschatological occurrence through which God has put an end to the world and its history. There, this paradox is the claim that a historical event is at the same time the eschatological event.” (1 – see footnotes below)  That is, Jesus erases history, but he depends on it as well. As it were, the evolution of thinking about Jesus and what his existence signified began within moments of his departure from earth. Soon his disciples began to spread the gospel from Palestine outward, first colonizing adjacent territories, such as Macedonia and Thrace and Cappadocia, then taking the “good news” to Crete, Malta, Sicily, Egypt, and Rome, eventually reaching the farthest corners of the world. The church that arose in the name of Jesus splintered, however, into many churches, and some of these quarreled viciously, with competing theologies, all of them supposedly based on his life and teachings.

The most important early follower of Jesus was surely the apostle Paul. His letters, written twenty years or so after the Crucifixion, constitute the earliest Christian documents, composed two decades before the gospels themselves – a hugely important point that is rarely noted by Christians, who somehow imagine that because the Pauline epistles follow the gospels in the New Testament, they must have been written after them. (Thirteen of Paul’s letters are found in the New Testament, although only seven are considered authentic; the others were written “in the tradition of Paul” by his associates.) Paul’s supple and speculative mind shimmers through his correspondence, and it could easily be argued that he invented Christian theology by shaping its most elementary ideas. His formulations permeate all branches of the field to this day, and it seems impossible to imagine a Christian tradition of thought without him, even though others – James, the brother of Jesus, and Simon Peter, for instance – played huge roles in shaping the early church.

Stories about Jesus spread among his followers, and one assumes that those close to him – the eyewitnesses – could repeat versions of the Sermon on the Mount verbatim. The parables, too, would have traveled well. Stories of his encounters with people that he healed or comforted as he walked in Galilee would have been told and retold, and his final week in Jerusalem – his entry into the city on a donkey, the Last Supper, his arrest and trial, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, with its astounding aftermath – would have riveted all who listened. That interested parties would write down these narratives was inevitable, and it’s likely that we don’t possess the earliest versions – the raw materials that the evangelists (canonical and otherwise) used for the gospels that, decades after Jesus, found their way into written form, in due course becoming the central documents of the New Testament.

The gospels purport to be eyewitness testimony. Think of the opening of Luke: “Given that many have undertaken to compile a story of the things which have been accomplished among us, and just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed wise to me, having followed all of these things closely for some time, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (2)

This sounds very much like someone writing with personal knowledge of what happened, a writer with an urgent need to put down these “things that are most confidently believed among us.” Richard Bauckham has argued convincingly that one can depend on the gospels as participating in the genre of historical memoir. These narratives, he says, “embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions.” (3)  Furthermore, Bauckham disputes the conventional (if unchallenged) view that “a long process of anonymous transmission in the communities intervened between their testimony and the writing of the Gospels.” In other words, eyewitnesses wrote down what they knew rather quickly. They offered portraits of Jesus, not carefully detailed biographies, drawing on impressions, even word of mouth passed along by those present at the time of the events relayed.

Needless to say, for the gospels to be considered accurate memoirs one would have to take into account the complicated process of memory itself.  Bauckham does so to a degree, citing recent psychological studies of memory. These widely accept that it’s difficult to remember what happened last week, let alone a few decades ago. Memory plays tricks for all kinds of reasons, some innocent, others not so much. That is, sometimes a memory serves a purpose, semi-consciously, even unconsciously. One assumes that the evangelists each had a subjective view, an intended audience, with ideological assumptions that would have shaded their reflections.

Dale C. Allison, Jr. neatly summarizes the textual tradition of the New Testament: “Approximately 3,000 mss. of the Greek New Testament (part or whole) have been preserved, copied between the 2nd and 17th centuries, plus over 2,200 lectionary [manuscripts] containing sections (pericopes) of the New Testament arranged for reading in church liturgy from the 7th century on.”  (4)  That is, no original manuscripts exist for the gospels, the letters of Paul, or any other material that appears in the New Testament. The first complete versions of the gospels, in fact, date to the fourth century – a very long time after the events they describe. One can only guess what the earlier versions might have looked like, or how scrupulous those who copied these texts might have been. (As there are numerous discrepancies in later copies of the gospels, one assumes that discrepancies happened along the way as well. Why wouldn’t they?)

So many people rightly ask: Are these stories true? It’s a complicated question without a simple answer. Pontius Pilate put the essential question before Jesus himself during his trial in Jerusalem: “So what is truth?” To a degree, literal truth isn’t terribly hard to recognize. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, it hurts. That is true. If my father dies, I feel sad. That is true.  Then again, even these simple examples have complications. I’ve hit my thumb many times with a hammer, as I like to play around with tools at home; yet I’ve hit my thumb fewer times in recent years. The pain of the first few strikes and black thumbs were necessary in the advancement of my carpentry skills. So context and personal history play a part in my understanding  of this truth. When my own father died, I felt devastated. That was true. But he died over a decade ago, and though I continue to feel his presence in my life every day, and love him now as much as I did then, I – really and truly – don’t miss him, not in the same way that I did at first. However odd, this is true as well.

Context is everything, and this makes it difficult to talk about the gospels, which are usually read out of context.  Churchgoers like myself get used to hearing biblical texts recited in bits and pieces throughout the year. We hear passages from the Old Testament and the New. These fragments scatter in our heads and hearts, making it difficult to form a coherent picture, a sense of the overall pattern. And certain denominations – Christianity is a lush amalgam of churches and movements with very different theological opinions – tend to focus on one verse or another, highlighting a particular strain in the gospel narrative and repressing others. With the lectionary – the passages read in church each Sunday as stipulated by church authorities – an effort is made to link the readings, creating themes that reflect seasons in the church year, but the context is often lost on listeners.

In churches that run to the literal side, and where, in extreme cases, the Bible is taken as the Word of God in the most simplistic and literal fashion, certain verses stand out, summoned by pastors with flashing eyes, usually in the King James Version: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).  Or “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). These appear to narrow the path to heaven considerably, although a fuller exploration of such verses in their original Greek form often reveals a more complicated, and life-enhancing, message. In Matthew 7:13, for instance, Jesus famously says that the path to God is narrow but the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction. This verse, and others like it, seem to fundamentalists to point to eternal damnation. Yet the word in Greek is apoleia, which often means “a sense of loss” or a “waste,” thus mitigating the terror of endless torment so beloved of hellfire and brimstone preachers. The truth is, Jesus had little interest in damning anyone, and he certainly had no concept of hell as a place of perpetual torment.

A kind of literalist reading of the Bible came into play mainly in the wake of post-Enlightenment skepticism about scriptural texts, when a fierce reaction formed among a number of American and British preachers and scholars, who began to argue for biblical inerrancy, centering their faith on rather apocalyptic ideas teased mainly out of the Book of Revelation. One thinks of Dwight L. Moody, Charles Hodge, Arthur Pierson, Benjamin Warfield, or Cyrus I. Scofield in the US. or John Nelson Darby in England. Each of these men developed a large following, and to a degree their ideas still hold sway in Christian fundamentalist circles, with their emphasis on the end times, including the Second Coming and the Rapture, with the threat of hellfire and eternal damnation held up like a sword above the heads of fearful congregations. Belief in the inerrancy of the Bible gives them a sense of certainty that the modern age cannot offer.

Yet the Bible itself declared its openness to interpretation. In Hebrews 4:12 we read: “For the word of God is living and active.” It’s sharper than any “two-edged sword,” piercing to the heart of a reader, “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” One has to accommodate all sorts of contradictory sayings and remarks by Jesus, Paul, and others. These often run against common sense, as in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” Really? Didn’t God in the Ten Commandments urge us to honor our father and our mother, and didn’t Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount say that the commandments handed down to Moses remain firmly in place? A living and active reading of such passages draws us more fully into the text, into the living Word, which is unstable, always challenging, never set in stone.

The problem of translation complicates all readings of Holy Scripture, for a start. Jesus (and most of his disciples) spoke Aramaic, although one guesses he could read Hebrew as well, having been trained in a local synagogue in Nazareth – at least, one imagines this was the case. Yet the gospels unfold in a late form of Greek, aimed quite specifically at various groups within the early church, some of them Jewish and others gentile. The Gospel of Thomas comes to us in Coptic, like other early writings discovered in Egypt at Nag Hamrnadi in 1945. (It’s impossible to know exactly what sources these Coptic translators drew on.) Many Jews at the time of Jesus knew the Hebrew Bible only in Aramaic translations called Targumim (a Targum is simply a translation) or in the widely influential rendition of  the Old Testament into Greek known as the Septuagint, which dates from the third or second century BCE. So the story of Jesus takes on the colorations and idiomatic tones of many different languages. English versions, in fact, often derived from the popular Latin translation by Jerome, a very late (fourth century) version of the Bible commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382., a translation that has many problems (and many glories as well).

Quests for the Historical Jesus

As for the historical details of the life of Christ, one feels the despair of scholars as they grapple with a long tradition known as the quest for the historical Jesus. Before the Enlightenment dawned in the late seventeenth century, there was not much concern about the historicity of the life of Christ: he was simply the man described in the four gospels. This was a world of superstition, where scientific inquiry had not quite impinged on theological matters. In the deist view of the world, popular in the eighteenth century, God was said to have created the clock of the universe, wound it tightly, and stepped aside to let it tick away. In the nineteenth century, a distinction arose between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and this distinction has guided scholarship ever since, creating complications that remain difficult to address or “solve.”

The first phase of the quest for the historical Jesus, called the Old Quest, began with Hermann Reimarus, a revered professor of theology at Hamburg in Germany. After his death, his most adventurous theological speculations found publication, including On the Resurrection Narratives (1777) – a nuclear bomb exploded in the midst of biblical scholarship. He considered Jesus a revolutionary with political designs on the Jewish community of Palestine and decided that his frantic disciples must have concocted the story of the Resurrection, after having first stolen his corpse from the tomb. He pointed to numerous contradictions in the gospel accounts, and he coolly exploited these differences. Various (mostly German) theologians followed in his rebellious wake, although some tried to reconcile the contradictions that Reimarus had raised. In 1835, David Friedrich Strauss published his Life of Jesus Critically Examined, bringing the historical problems in Jesus scholarship before a broad public and playing into Enlightenment skepticism that had grown over the past decades. He attempted to remove the supernatural parts of the narrative, as Thomas Jefferson had done before him, turning Jesus into an ethical philosopher, nothing more. He didn’t see the gospels as history but legend, calling them myths – perhaps the introduction of that word into Christian discourse.

Strauss and successive theologians in Germany pioneered what became Source Criticism later in the century, centered on the idea that both Matthew and Luke drew on Mark as well as a lost document, always referred to as Q.  What these scholars hammered home was that the first three gospels shared much the same vision, with many identical or nearly identical passages: hence, “Synoptic” came to describe them, as they saw the same things, even the same text. There could be no coincidence here. This was a case of rewriting and shaping existing material. These three gospels roughly tell the same story, with a few competing details, a few telling absences.

The results of source criticism became the norm, and nowadays few scholars dispute that Mark is the earliest of the gospels, or that Matthew and Luke follow him closely, drawing on additional material not available to Mark. John – the Fourth Gospel, as it’s often called – continues to puzzle many, as it stands apart from its three cousins in style and substance. It presents new material (such as the story of Lazarus) and portrays a very different Jesus: one who does not, for instance, teach in parables but speaks broadly in “I am” statements, as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The majority of New Testament scholars date all four gospels to the second half of the first century, with Mark having been written about the time when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. John was probably the latest, composed in the last decade of the first century; although a handful of scholars (including J. A. T. Robinson, a former Anglican bishop) place it much earlier, possibly before Mark. Robinson says, provocatively: “One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact. It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event.”  (5)

A huge amount of historical and textual study occurred in the nineteenth century among Christian thinkers, culminating in Albert Schweitzer’s justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus  (1906), which assembled all the known facts and relevant theories up to the date of its publication. At about the same time, other scholars, especially Johannes Weiss, began to dwell on the eschatological tone of the gospels, with their emphasis on a coming “end times” or eschaton. Schweitzer had picked up on this, observing the insistence on the end of the world in the gospels. Schweitzer argued that Jesus originally thought that a figure called the Son of Man would come and put an end to things.  When this miraculous appearance or parousia failed to materialize, he simply became this figure himself, taking on a sacrificial role, imagining that his violent death would force the hand of God, who would bring all of history to a conclusion, with the righteous lifted up and the evil ones cast down. This didn’t happen, so the Jesus of Schweitzer became a failure, a man who only managed to get himself crucified. In the famous last paragraph of his book, Schweitzer managed to lift the level of rhetoric to quite a feverish pitch:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who did not know who He was. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, and the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (6)

In the wake of Schweitzer and several other major German theologians, Bultmann wrote in a moment of despair: “I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.” (7)  This provocative and now legendary statement was mainly a reaction to the late-nineteenth-century so-called Liberal Lives of Jesus, which sought to examine his psychology, as in the popular treatment of Jesus by Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus swept through Europe in the 1860s and continued to attract a wide audience for decades. But these biographies also reflected a growing awareness that much of the historical record was inaccessible, out of reach; it was impossible to know the details of Jesus’s life in the way one knows the details of other historical phenomena. Instead of searching for some phantasm of history, Bultmann sought to discover the inherent message or kerygma of Christianity. With other colleagues, such as Hermann Gunkel, he developed what is called Form Criticism, a kind of “demythologizing” that seeks to discover a kernel of meaning within a particular form, such as a saying or a parable. Bultmann sought to take into account the setting for each narrative link in the gospels (German: sitz im Leben) in order to historicize it, to place it within a sound contextual framework.” (8)  He hoped to separate the mythic strands, grounding the story in scientific realities that “proceed from the world picture of natural science.” (9)  In doing so, he lost something of the mythic resonance of the narrative of Jesus, this mythos that I have hoped to reimagine.

The middle years of the twentieth century are often called the era of No Quest: scholars gave up on trying to locate Jesus in time and place, agreeing with Bultmann that the quest was whimsical. But massive discoveries of fresh material in mid-century brought a crisp wind from the Near East, especially with the uncovering of new texts, including the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late forties and fifties. As Cynthia Bourgeault says, “We’re living in an era right now which some would call a major paradigm shift, where there’s an opportunity as perhaps there hasn’t  been before to really open up the core questions again.” (10)

Already this was happening in the early fifties, when – fueled by these discoveries – interest in the life of Jesus picked up quite dramatically.   One of Bultmann’s students, Ernst Kasemann, raised the issue of the quest once again in 1953, arguing that his teacher
had been too skeptical concerning the historical evidence and that in the light of new evidence one must try to wed the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith. He raised the old specter of Docetism, an early heresy in which Jesus was regarded as wholly spiritual, never a human being who lived in historical time. One product of this reopening of the quest – often called the New Quest – was Jesus of Nazareth by Gunter Bornkamm. Bornkamm wrote that each biographer of Jesus suffered from bringing “the spirit of his own age into his presentation of the figure of Jesus,” usually with disastrous results. He concluded:  “No one is any longer in the position to write a life of Jesus.” (11)  Nonetheless, he sought to lay down the undisputed facts, such as the birthplace of Jesus, his language (Aramaic), his baptism by John the Baptist, his trial and execution by the Romans. He emphasized the sayings of Jesus, the wise aphorisms that have traveled so well throughout the centuries. It turned out that one could count on quite a few hard facts, and that the sayings of Jesus could, after a fashion, often be judged as true statements. The quest was, once again, up and running.

A major effort to authenticate the sayings of Jesus began, with a lively group of scholars using various criteria of verification, such as “dissimilarity,” wherein a saying was deemed true if it contradicted things that might have been said in Judaism or the early Christian church. In other words, if it sounded like something often said by rabbis, it probably wasn’t something Jesus actually said.  But this criterion has obvious problems. Why wouldn’t Jesus simply repeat things that he’d heard in the local synagogues and considered worthwhile? There is the added difficulty that we know little enough about Judaic aphorisms during this period that it might be difficult even to know what was likely or unlikely as a saying.

Another criterion is multiple attestation. That is, a saying is more likely to belong to Jesus if it crops up in more than one place and it’s not obvious that one source (Matthew or Luke) simply copied another (Mark). So scholars looked for multiple independent sources. Of course it makes sense that if different sources quote the same material, it might be especially noteworthy, even authentic. The problem is that it’s difficult to know who copied what, or if oral tradition might have floated any number of sayings, which got picked up here and there, in canonical writings as well as texts that lay outside the canon.

There is also the criterion of embarrassment. Would Jesus really have said or done things that embarrassed him or his followers? If embarrassing things got reported in a gospel, they must be true, as the early church would not like to see them conveyed to potential converts – although they probably felt they must report something if it happened to be the truth. A famous example is that of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Why would the Lord himself require baptism? He was Jesus! And why would he submit to baptism by a lesser person? I myself see little value in this criterion. Good theological explanations exist for Jesus doing things like being baptized by John the Baptist or fraternizing with tax collectors and prostitutes. In addition, Jesus liked to shock people, as it proved a good way to get their attention. In addition to this, ethical behavior is often shocking, cutting against the grain of popular morality at any given time. And the writers of the gospels understood this.

The list of criteria used to authenticate the sayings of Jesus multiplied. Historical plausibility, for example, was another one that seemed to gather a lot of attention. A saying must actually seem in accord with things Jesus taught elsewhere if one were to consider it authentic. There were stylistic criteria as well; the saying must somehow “sound like” something Jesus might have said. That subjective or ideological distortions could play into such criteria seems obvious enough, and these distortions make it very hard to say with any certainty that a saying by Jesus was “true” or “false.”

The next phase of Jesus studies, sometimes called the Third Quest, began in the 1980s, holding up the Jewish background of Jesus to close examination. This movement was aided by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as productive new archaeological digs in the region and the development of more sophisticated analyses of texts from the era. Scholars now reread Josephus as well as various rabbinical writings and newly discovered apocryphal texts in the light of freshly discovered facts. An explosion of research in the period of Second Temple Judaism helped to position the life of Jesus in a context that had explanatory value. Among those who pioneered this phase in Jesus studies were Geza Vermes, mentioned earlier, and E. P. Saunders, who published Jesus and Judaism in 1985 – an important point of reference for scholars interested in the Jewish origins of Christianity.

At about the same time as Vermes and Sanders began to explore the Jewish context of the gospels, the Jesus Seminar arrived on the scene, a group of 150 scholars founded in 1985 by Robert W. Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute in Salem, Oregon. Among the leading members of the group were John Dominic Crossan, Marcus J. Borg, and Burton Mack. The group would meet twice a year to discuss the authenticity of sayings by Jesus, using criteria already in place and expanding on these with their own considerable skills in ancient languages and history. They used colored beads to vote on the degree of authenticity attached to each saying, for example, and voted by dropping them into a box. The Seminar rejected roughly eighty percent of the sayings by Jesus as either inauthentic or doubtful.

The danger of this approach is almost too plain and was nailed by Garry Wills, who wrote: “This is the new fundamentalism. It believes in the literal sense of the Bible – it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some people have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size.” (12)  I would have to agree with Wills (whose various studies of Christian ideas have shaped my own thinking).

One interesting byproduct of the Jesus Seminar was The Five Gospels (1993), a re-translation of the canonical gospels, plus the Gospel of Thomas (1993) by Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and other members of the Seminar. (13)  This fresh translation of the Greek and Coptic texts is worth reading, even if one dismisses the idea of voting on the sayings of Jesus to determine their authenticity. In this edition, the sayings with a high degree of being the actual words of Jesus appear in red, those with less certainty appear in pink; those that seem like Jesus but are probably not his own words are gray. All sayings in black are considered as creations of his followers. While I find the project of trying to verify these sayings foolhardy, this edition provides thoughtful commentary and useful notes that explore the historical and literary aspects of given passages.

Despite the misguided efforts of the Jesus Seminar, there is much to admire in the Third Quest overall, a broad movement where Jesus emerges in a variety of forms, coming off as a millennial prophet (E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier, Dale C. Allison Jr.),  as a revolutionary teacher (Marcus J. Borg), or as a political rebel wishing to overthrow both Herod Antipas and Rome (Richard A. Horsley, Reza Aslan). In other accounts, he becomes an itinerant rabbi who promulgated Kabbalah, a mystical form of Judaism (Bruce Chilton), or a radical Jew (Geza Vermes, Daniel Boyarin), or a master of ancient spiritual wisdom (Thich Nhat Hanh, Cynthia Bourgeault). In the many books by John Dominic Crossan, Jesus becomes a peripatetic Mediterranean peasant influenced by the Cynics – an early Greek school of philosophy that traced its origins back to Socrates; Crossan, in fact tends to discount the historical nature of the gospel narratives, preferring to focus on their deeper meanings. In a recent study of the parables, for example, he concludes: “The power of Jesus’s parables challenged and enabled his followers to co-create with God a world of justice and love, peace and nonviolence. The power of Jesus’s historical life challenged his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God.” (14) 

Finally, there is. N. T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop who has written voluminously on the life and teachings of Jesus, notably in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996) and, more recently, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008). In a dialogue with Marcus J. Borg, Wright has gone to the center of his project as a scholar and Christian where he argues that historians are “not disembodied. He or she lives in the created world, the sacramental world, the human world, the political world, the world of a reality simultaneously mundane and shot through with glory.”  Once we have widened our horizons to include all this, he argues, “we will find, I believe, that the tension supposed to exist between history and faith is much more oblique, much less of a problem and more of a stimulus. (15)  In effect, the problems dissolve as Jesus comes into view as an exemplary life, the human face of God, a mythic figure who lived in real time, transcending time.

The Meaning of Christ

That scholarship about Jesus should prove complicated, even contradictory, should surprise no one. Jesus was, and remains, a challenging figure, a voice that sounds through the centuries, calling us to attention, confronting us with hard truths as well as comforting words. He asks us to follow him. But the cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has shown us, is often high. In Bonhoeffer’s case, the cost was his life itself: he died a martyr to the ideas he lived by. But he understood Christianity as not simply a set of doctrines, a list of “beliefs” that one must check off in order to be “saved.” That wasn’t Christianity at all. As Bonhoeffer writes, Jesus made it clear from the start “that his word is not an abstract doctrine … but the re-creation of the whole life of man.” (16)

That we can’t quite grasp the full meaning of this message – the core message of Jesus – should come as no surprise.  What does it mean, in fact, to call him the Incarnate Word, the logos, except to suggest that “God was in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19), which is to say that the spirit of God moved in Jesus’s life in order to accomplish God’s purpose. The Incarnation, in other words, suggests that there was a spiritual presence in Jesus that was unique, bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. That such matters should prove difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence should not surprise us.

Anything of real value requires an effort of understanding as well as dedication. But it’s worth recalling that Jesus never meant to found a formal church with rituals and organized practices, to ordain priests, or to issue doctrinaire statements that formed a rigid program for salvation. Other than “follow me;’ his only commandment was “to love one another as I have loved you.” He also asked us to break bread in his memory as a way of creating community, of extending the mystical body of Christ into the world at large. Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart – metanoia – a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an  invitation to everyone – to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. This kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.

I don’t pretend to know more about Jesus than any well-disposed Christian who has spent a good deal of time reading about him, studying the Bible, trying to learn from his example and absorb the desert wisdom of his teaching. The place for anyone to begin their journey of faith is certainly with the gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, with their rich layers of teaching and counsel, and with the letters of Paul, as well as other writings that have acquired sacramental value – as you will have gleaned, considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas come from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.

Revelation is active and ongoing, a lively stream that bubbles up from the ground of being. And the good news that Jesus hoped to spread continues to generate an endlessly active and emerging creation. As R. S. Thomas wrote in “Emerging” –

We are beginning to see
now it is matter is the scaffolding
of spirit; that the poem emerges
from morphemes and phonemes; that
as form in sculpture is the prisoner
of the hard rock, so in everyday life
it is the plain facts and natural happenings
that conceal God and reveal him to us
little by little under the mind’s tooling.


Notes to Chapter 8 – The Afterlife of Jesus

1. Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 163.

2. The addressee, one Theophilus, remains unknown; but his name in Greek means “lover of God:’ so it’s possible that this was a generic address, composed with a wry smile, a wink of acknowledgment to those who consider themselves lovers of God. Here as throughout this book, I use my own versions of the New Testament, except where the King
James Version (KJV) is so well known that it seems pointless to erase it. With quotations from the Old Testament, I generally use the King James Version, except where clarity is at stake.

3. Bauckham, 6.

4. Allison, 48.

5. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1976), 13.

6. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (London: A & C Black, 1954),401.

7. Rudolf Bultrnann, Jesus and the Word (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1935), 14.

8. See Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology. See also History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).

9.  Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, 5. For a full description of Bultmann’s idea of demythologization, see Robert C. Roberts, Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology: A Critical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, I976).

10. Bourgeault, 3-4.

11. Gunter Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York Harper, 1960), 1. Originally published in German in 1956.

12. Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York: Viking, 2.006), xxv.

13.  The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, trans. with commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993).

14. John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (New York: HarperCoIIins, 2012).

15.   Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 227-28.

16.  Bonhoeffer, 62..


© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

The literature on Jesus is daunting, and I refer to more books and articles in this book than I cite below. But the following are the books that I kept close at hand while working on this project. Many of them have been old friends over many decades. Some are recent additions to my library. I referred to them often as I wrote this study. 

 Jay Parini


Allison, Dale C. Jr. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Knopf, 1993.

The Bible: A Biography. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.

Barnstone, Willis and Marvin Meyer, eds. The Essential Gnostic Scriptures. Boston: Shambhala, 2010.

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.

Beilby, James K. and Paul Rhodes Eddy, eds. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Bond, Helen K. The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T & T Clark, 2012.

Borg, Marcus J. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. New York: Harper-Collins, 1994.

— with N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York: Harper-One, 1998.

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York: The New Press, 2012.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. New York, Scribner, 19S5.

New Testament & Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Trans. Schubert M. Ogden. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Charlesworth, James D. Jesus and Archaeology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.

Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Jesus: The Jewish Lift and Teaching that Inspired Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Crossan, James Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Jewish Mediterranean Peasant. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Drury, John, The Parables in the Gospels. New York: Crossroad, 1985.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969.

Levine, Amy-Jill, Dale C. Allison, Jr., and John Dominic Crossan, eds. The Historical Jesus in Context. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Meier, John P.  A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol 1. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Mentor, Message and Miracles, Vol 2.  New York: Doubleday, 1994.

— A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Companions and Competitor, Vol 3. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

— A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Law and Love, Vol 4. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2.007.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1923.

Pagels, Elaine: The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

— Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. New York: Viking, 2012.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Ratzlnger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI). Jesus of Nazareth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. London: SCM, 1985.

Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952..

The Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. London: Collins, 1973.

— Jesus in the Jewish World. London: SCM, 2010.

Wills, Garry. What Jesus Meant. New York: Penguin, 2006.

What the Gospel; Meant. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Wilson, A. N. Jesus: A Life. New York: Norton, 1972.

Wright, N. T.  How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne, 2012..

— Jesus and the Victory of God. London: SPCK, 1996.

The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.

— Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Victory of Christ. New York: HarperOne, 2008.

Who Was Jesus? London: SPCK, 1992.

© Jay Parini, 2013.  Reproduced by permission.

Wrestling with God

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel – Rembrandt
Genesis, chapters 25-50

Jacob wrestles with God

  • Jacob’s story: Jacob’s story takes up 25 chapters in Genesis.  (It’s a family saga, and it’s also a Biblical soap opera.)
  • Today’s reading: Jacob is still traveling, and preparing to meet his brother Esau again; even after many years, he’s still afraid of what Esau may do to him and his family. (Whatever Esau chooses to do, Jacob knows he deserves it.)
  • Wrestling with fear: Jacob doesn’t sleep, but wrestles all night with the unknown future that waits in the morning.  (But there’s Someone else there along with the dangers – Someone who won’t let him go.)
  • Wrestling with God: It turns out Jacob is meeting God again; first it was the dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth (Genesis 28); now, it’s a God who won’t let him go (Genesis 32).

We all wrestle with God

  • I believe every human being wrestles with God, whether they believe in God or not.  There is Something – or Someone – who calls us, accompanies us on our way through life, Someone or Something who won’t let us go.
  • Andy’s story: For many years, as he struggled with mental illness, our son Andy was haunted by the kind of Christianity that pictures God as judgmental and even eternally condemning.  After he died, his last journal was sent to us, and we found notes he’d written while listening to a radio sermon about Jacob.
  • God never lets us go: There were pages of notes from this sermon that captivated Andy, but the bottom line was this:  Jacob was a ‘schemer’– and so was Andy – but God loves them anyway, and will never let them go.
  • Face to face with God:  In listening to this sermon, Andy had come face to face with the loving God of Jesus.

Finding the Face of God in the Bible 

  • Each of our lessons today reminds us of a time when someone came face to face with God.
  • Jacob wrestled with God in the desert, and learned that God was with him every step of the way. (God left his mark on Jacob, a wound he would carry for the rest of his life.)   Genesis 32
  • Moses wrestled not just with God, but with the people of Israel – Jacob’s descendants. (God gave Moses the Commandments, and afterwards his face shone with the intensity of the encounter.)  Exodus 34
  • Jesus wrestled with God’s call (not just with the devil!) in the desert;and for the rest of his life he followed the direction God had given him.  (On the mountain, the disciples came face to face with God’s presence.)   Luke 9
  • Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but he met him on the road to Damascus: in a blinding light, Paul came to understood he was moving in the wrong direction.    Years later, Paul would write, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 13
  • This is the God of redeeming love that Andy finally met again at the end of his life – seen through Jacob’s story, read in the light of Jesus.

Our culture wrestles with Jesus – or at least wrestles with ideas about Jesus 

  • Some ask, “Did Jesus really exist?”
  • Others ask, “Was Jesus really the Son of God?
  • Some say, “You must believe in Jesus (my version of Jesus) to gain eternal life.”
  • Others say, “Jesus a great teacher, but his lessons were meant for a simpler world.”
  • Many Christians believe Jesus is still a window into the nature of God.
  • I believe that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of unending love and compassion.

What do you see when you wrestle with Jesus?

 Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos
August 6, 2017



Surely the Lord is in this place

by Rob and Donna Ross – July 23, 2017

O Lord, hear our  prayer….


This Sunday and next, Jesus tells parables about seeds (see Matthew 13:1-32).   In these parables, some seeds land on barren pathways; some seeds are thrown among rocks and brambles; other seeds crowded out by weeds. And some seeds fall into good soil, becoming great trees strong enough to support the growing kingdom of God.

This Sunday and next, the lessons begin with Jacob’s story (see Genesis 25:19-33:17).  We can hear Jacob’s saga as one of Jesus’ “good seeds”.  His story has it all – the barren land, the rocks and brambles,  and plenty of wicked weeds.  But Jacob  – in spite of himself – also turned out to be “good soil”  where the promises of God can start growing into the kingdom.

The saga begins by telling us that Jacob and his brother Esau were twins, and were in conflict even in their mother’s womb.  (Esau was born first, but Jacob came out holding onto his brother’s heel.)  Things got no better as they grew up.  As grown men, they continued to compete, and when their father was dying Jacob even connived to steal the blessing that was meant for his brother Esau.

Then, wisely, Jacob ran away from home and fled into the desert.

Don’t glorify that desert in your imagination.  Jacob’s desert was as desolate as the Mojave, as barren as the vast wastes of Nevada – the last places you would expect to find God’s comfort and promise for the future.  (And don’t glorify Jacob, either.  He was a rascal.  But this rascal’s story shows us that whatever our faults, God loves us and stays with us, and God’s promises to us will bear fruit, if only we – like Jacob – learn to listen and love.)

Genesis 28:10-17, in St. John’s illuminated Bible

Jacob came to a certain place and stayed there for the night,
and he dreamed there was a ladder set up on the earth,
the top of it reaching to heaven.
The angels of God were ascending and descending on it…

Jacob’s Dream, by Marc Chagall

And in the dream the Lord stood beside Jacob and said,
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…” 

For at least 3,000 years, Jacob’s story has been a favorite.  As adults we’ve seen his story in great art, and as little children many of us learned all the verses of “Jacob’s Ladder”.

Jacob’s story is a favorite because it reminds us that God meets us in many places… and some of those places are very ordinary.  Like so many people, whether wandering in strange lands or close to home, Jacob found the presence of the Living God in an unexpected place, in a place where he wasn’t even looking.  And so Jacob said,

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…

In the crowd at the Paris airport


Last month I went on a pilgrimage to holy places in France.  One was Taize, a modern pilgrimage site, where thousands of young people come each week to spend seven days.

Paris traffic

My pilgrimage really began with a taxi ride from the Paris airport.  I was badly jet-lagged, but struck up a conversation with the driver, who had emigrated from Mauritius 20 years ago. My French is pretty minimal, and his English was only slightly better,  but we managed.    As we approached downtown Paris, the traffic slowed to a crawl… I noticed a sad man holding a piece of cardboard  saying that he was a Syrian refugee.

Refugee beggar

Promptly, my driver rolled down the window and gave him some coins.  At the end of our ride together, I told him that I was moved by his generosity and gave him much more than the usual tip — suggesting that perhaps he could give some of it to other refugees. He responded with a broad smile and a hearty handshake.

Clearly, my pilgrimage was not just to churches.

Three days later, our group of 16 pilgrims, led by three Presbyterian pastors and a Roman Catholic priest, climbed into two vans and headed south for Vezelay, which has been a pilgrimage site since the 11th century.

The next morning, we were led into the chapter room of the basilica for a deeply moving service in which we were formally commissioned and given medallions which we would wear for the next two weeks.

After three days based in Vezelay, our next stop was Taize…where each week thousands of pilgrims, mostly young, come through the gate to spend a few days.

Pilgrims arriving at Taize

Several times each day, people gather with the brothers in their large worship space….
to sing Taize chants, to listen to Scripture, and to pray.  But Taize’s method  is much more than music and prayer.

Pilgrims at worship

When young people come to Taize, they gather for prayer three times each day, singing chants and praying with the brothers, yes…

…but they also gather every day for Bible Study/Reconciliation.  The young pilgrims are assigned to groups where not everyone speaks the same language.  Perhaps you speak French, and also some English and German.  Others speak German, and just a little Polish.  (Some are American, and speak only English.)  To talk with each other, they have to listen hard, they learn to translate for each other, and they have to struggle to share their own thoughts and beliefs.  Through these daily conversations they are not only speaking their own truths, but learning to listen to each other…. that is, learning the languages the others speak.

Sharing groups


Years ago, when we were in Oberlin, we began an evening Taize prayer service.  Many college students came to the service, where they learned and loved the Taize chants.  Eventually, two of those students decided to go to Taize to experience it for themselves.

Several weeks later, in the complete darkness of midnight, we heard people singing on the sidewalk below our bedroom window.  The student pilgrims were back, singing “Jubilate Deo!” in a joyful round.

The next day, the pilgrims told us more of what Taize is really all about.  Both were the children of divorce, and neither had been in contact with their fathers for years.  But while at Taize, in the midst of the sharing circles, struggling to communicate with others who didn’t speak their language, singing and praying in worship, both decided to try to contact their fathers, and try again.  Over the next year, that contact happened for both of them, and the family began to talk to each other again.

And so we learned that Taize is not just singing, but a Way:

A way of singing, a way of praying, and a way of reconciliation.     

Saturday vigil


Most who come to Taize spend a week there, from Sunday afternoon through noon the following Sunday.

Worship for each week follows the pattern of Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  Our pilgrimage was planned so that we could worship at Taize  each of these three days.

On Friday, our first day, most of our group huddled together next to the wall, yearning to be fully a part of this worship experience, but reluctant to sit on the floor in the midst of hundreds of youngsters.

On Saturday we split up and moved towards the center. Part of the Holy Saturday worship is having a candle you are holding lit by a neighbor, and then passing the light on.  I noticed that several people behind me did not have candles. Beginning to feel confident about this place, I went to get them some. Having found that the candle bin was empty, I gave them mine. A tiny gesture, but meaningful to me.

Brother Roger, the founder of Taize, wrote:

The heart of worship at Taize, as at Taize-style worship around the world, is meditative singing.  Songs so simple that they are easily memorized.  Short songs, repeated many times, so that the singer can enter a meditative state.  Songs in many languages, so that all will be included.  And in the middle of the songs, silence.

Brothers and Muslim refugees

After worship on Sunday, our group met with Brother John, one of three American members of the Taize community.  He told two stories that showed how Taize continues to develop new modes of reconciliation.

Brother John’s first story was about the Muslims coming to France from the Middle East. Like religious communities in many countries, Taize began by housing several refugee families on their grounds. Slowly, the numbers grew.

Then, in November of last year, the French government called:  They were closing a refugee camp at Calais, on the English Channel, and would Taize be a reception center for unaccompanied minors?  Taize did and, as with their earlier refugee residents, helped them integrate into French society.

Then the brothers began to study Islam to better understand their new neighbors, and created a three-day program to enable Christians and Muslims to pray together and work on reconciliation. This has been warmly received by the French Muslim community, and will continue.

Ferguson, Missouri

Brother John’s second story was about St. Louis, Missouri, from which he had just returned after spending several months there. Following the violence in Ferguson in the summer of 2014,  the local archbishop had asked the brothers to come to St. Louis, to help with reconciliation between the black and white communities.

St. Louis Pilgrimage of Trust

Modeled on Taize’s usual process, in St. Louis there was much singing, talking and praying in small groups. But the reconciliation process involved much more; as in Taize itself, the citizens of the St. Louis area had to learn each other’s languages.  (Not only did blacks and whites have to work with each other,  but Catholics had to learn how to listen to Protestants, and vice versa.)  And to more fully express the hopes and dreams of the black community, Gospel music was added to the usual Taize chants.

(Did you know that “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”  is an African-American spiritual, and that the very last verse says, “Do you want your freedom”?  Growing up white, we thought we knew every verse of “Jacob’s Ladder”, but we never heard that last verse.)

In Jacob’s dream, the Lord told him,     

You shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north
and to the south; and all the families of the earth
will be blessed in you
and in your offspring… 

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…

And he said,

How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God,
and this is the gate of heaven.

And so Taize has become one of God’s many gates to heaven,
and a potential blessing for all the families of the earth.

We truly believe that all around the world, we can learn to do the same, because…
wherever there is charity, and love…God is there….


The Dance of Trinity

Today’s Scriptures all point to the Trinity, even though the word itself isn’t in the Bible.

Genesis 1:1-2:4    Six centuries before Jesus was born, an unknown poet-priest imagined God at the beginning of time: hovering over the void, creating life out of chaos.  Sun, moon, and stars are born; the earth is formed, with its mountains and seas; plants spring up, animals begin to roam the earth, and human beings are created.   When we read this particular verse (Genesis 1:26), we hear God saying that we are made in the divine image – but we often fail to notice that God is speaking in the plural voice: Let us make humankind in our image.  Here, in the first chapter of the Bible, is the God of Trinity.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13:13  In the first century, St. Paul used a powerful metaphor to describe the church – he called it the body of Christ, where each member of the body contributes to the life of the whole.  But there’s another metaphor in this passage, a metaphor which may be even more helpful to us as we try to understand the Trinity: Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries, but the same Lord; and there are different energies, but the same God, operating in everything.  The Greek word Paul used was energeia  (which is the root for our own word “energy”).  Paul can use the metaphor of the body, and speak of the divine energy that flows through it, because the Corinthians are already experiencing the energy of God’s Spirit moving through them.  This passage ends with its most famous sentence and its major point:  Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)   The word for this energeia, in every language, is Love; and the Christian word for the energeia of Love is Trinity. 

The early church:  By the fourth century, Eastern theologians had found another metaphor to describe how God’s energy works: perichoresis  (a word we can loosely translate as “circling around”, and the root for our own word, “choreography”).   If you ever saw the movie, “Zorba the Greek”, you’ve seen a perichoresis because modern Greeks still use the same word for their ancient folk dance.  In perichoresis the dancers join hands and move in a circle, stepping faster and faster as the music speeds up –  until, watching from the sidelines, by-standers can no longer see individual dancers, only the moving energy of the whole circle.  Searching for a metaphor to describe God’s nature and activity, the Eastern theologians looked at perichoresis and said, “That’s what the Trinity is like.”

The Trinity is a harmonious set of relationships bound together by the energy of love.  But the Trinity is not consumed by its own life and relationships; Trinity moves in the world, and acts on the world, sharing its energy with the world.  So look again – within this relationship of love within the embrace of Creator, Spirit and Jesus –  there is more room.  There is space for everyone, even for a whole cosmos. No one needs to be on the sidelines of the Trinity – all are invited to join the dance.

There’s room for all of us here….

Everyone who has ever loved someone knows this dance of love.  Whenever we love, whoever we love – whether a baby, a parent; a beloved friend, a spouse; a neighbor or co-worker – we are connecting deeply with that person.  We share our life’s energy with them; we dance alongside them.   And often, when we love, our love becomes so deep and so full that it spills over into the lives of our families and friends, and they dance along with us.   Whenever we truly love, we invite new people into the dance.  That’s perichoresis, and that’s how the Trinity works.

Come join the dance!

There’s an Episcopal Church in San Francisco that feels in many ways like a Greek church, and it has a Greek name – Sr. Gregory of Nyssa.

St. Gregory’s is never empty.  Around its upper walls of St. Gregory’s there is a parade of saints, each participating in the never-ending dance.  These saints come from every century of the church.

On Sundays at St. Gregory’s we find the congregation, today’s dancing saints, circling the altar as they worship. These saints come from every part of San Francisco, and beyond.

On Fridays at St. Gregory’s we find members of the congregation again, now circling the altar to distribute food to the neighborhood.

What a powerful demonstration of God’s love for all – and what a powerful metaphor for the God of Trinity!

But you don’t have to go to San Francisco to join this dance. The dancing God of Trinity is found wherever there are communities of people joined together in the dance of love, moving together, using the energy of love for peace, harmony, and justice.

The dancing God of Trinity leads us to pour out our love for each other, just as the Creator, Son and Spirit share their mutual love.   When the God of Trinity leads us in the dance, every member of the community has equal worth and equal place. No one is left out, and others are always invited in.

If God is a dancing community, so is St. Benedict’s, Los Osos!  The dancing God of Trinity –  joyful, dynamic, interactive, sharing, loving, serving –   provides the model for our own dance.   Every Sunday we come together to practice perichoresis.  When Sunday’s music comes to an end, we are sent forth to dance in the world –  to bring healing and hope to others, and to invite others to join the dance.

So once again, as we do every Sunday, let’s join the dance of Trinity:

Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun –
the interweaving of the Three: Creator, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.

Come, see the face of Trinity, new-born in Bethlehem;
then bloodied by a crown of thorns outside Jerusalem.
The dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone;
when fear confines the dance in death, God rolls away the stone.

Come, speak aloud of Trinity, as wind and tongues of flame
set people free at Pentecost to tell the Savior’s name.
We know the yoke of sin and death, our necks have worn it smooth;
go tell the world of weight and woe that we are free to move!

Within the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun,
we sing the praises of the Three: Creator, Spirit, Son.
Let voices rise and interweave, by love and hope set free,
to shape in song this joy, this life: the dance of Trinity.

Text: Richard Leach, 2001  Music: Kingsfold

To hear the music:










Walking the Way of the Spirit

The road through Death Valley

The First Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2017

Last Sunday, we stood on the mountain of the Transfiguration, looking ahead to the light of Easter.  This Sunday, we are standing with Jesus in the desert, looking ahead to Pentecost…

But why Pentecost?  It’s still three months away!  

On Pentecost we’ll remember how the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ disciples. There they were, gathered in the upper room, waiting as Jesus had told them to do.  But they felt abandoned and they were afraid.  They were afraid that Jesus was never coming back.  But suddenly the Spirit came upon each of them –  reassuring them that Jesus was still with them, and giving them courage for the future. (see Acts 2:1-4)

Did you think that they remembered Pentecost because it was such an exciting spiritual experience?  I don’t think so –  they remembered it because they knew that Jesus, the man they had known so well, was now present through the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has Jesus’ personality, which points constantly to a compassionate and loving God.  (In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is even called “the Spirit of Jesus”. See Acts 16:7)  

That Spirit would now work through the disciples, by pointing the way forward.  Even today, the same Spirit who pulled Jesus into the desert, who filled the disciples with courage,  is pulling us into the future.

The God of Relationship

The God of Relationship, the God of compassion is also the God of Becoming, the God of dynamic change, who is calling us to become  co-creators of the future.

Can we  – you and I – really help create the future?   On Maundy Thursday we’ll remember the Last Supper, when Jesus began to tell his disciples about the coming Spirit. And he said to the disciples (who didn’t believe it any more than we can believe it about ourselves), “Because of the Spirit, you will do greater things than I…”  (see John 14:12)

How the magnet works:

In his book, The God of Becoming and Relationship, Rabbi Bradley Artson tries to explain how prayer works.  He remembers when he was a very little boy, playing in the field behind his house.  He’d take his magnet out in his pocket, sit down on the ground and begin to run his magnet through the dirt.  All the bits of iron, that were resting in the soil, unseen by human eyes, began to cling to the magnet.  The magnet took on a “tail” of filings, each of which was being oriented internally to the pull of the magnet.

For Rabbi Artson, this is what happens whenever we pray: God is pulling us forward, the Spirit is shaping us internally, and we are being pointed towards God.  Process Theology calls this pull the “lure” –  God calling us forward, into acts of love, compassion, and justice.

Lures in the desert:

Fish swimming in a river look up and see food floating above them.  But not all the “lures” above them are actually healthy food.  Some of the “lures” have been cast there by fishermen, hoping to catch their own dinner.

The Spirit “lured” Jesus into the desert.  We might even say, as Mark’s Gospel tells us, that the Spirit “drove” – or even propelled – Jesus.  That’s the same Spirit that came to the disciples on Pentecost!  (See Mark 1:12). 

But there were other “lures”.  the Tempter also “lured” Jesus in the desert, with offers of bread to satisfy his hunger, political power over the world, and spiritual power that would draw all eyes to him.

How did Jesus resist the Tempter?  His life had already been shaped by the faith passed on to him by his parents, by his village synagogue, and by his reading of Scripture.  Notice how Jesus responds to each of the Tempter’s offerings: he quotes Scripture:

We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God. (Deuteronomy 6:13)

Now, in addition to his faith and his Scriptures, Jesus is also being guided by the Spirit, who takes him to the desert to show him the direction God has for him.

With faith, Scripture, Spirit, Jesus knew the direction towards God – and he knew when he was being “lured” in the wrong direction.

There are lures all around us:  We are called forward by God, and we are also tempted –  how will we know which “lure” to choose?   We need the ”magnet” – to be lured, pulled, and shaped by the Spirit

So many choices, so many “lures”

Do you know about the “lures”on your smart phone?  First, make sure that your screen – with all its attractive “apps” –  is on; and make sure that your sound is off!

Then look at all those choices before you:

  • You could play Solitaire…
  • You could look at Facebook…
  • You could text a friend…
  • You could surf the net…
  • You could turn on your timer to see how long this sermon is going to last….
  • Or, tomorrow morning around 5 a.m., you could use your cell phone to send out your latest “tweet” – so all the world will be talking about you, and glory and honor will abound for you all day long.

Did you know you have a compass on your phone?

  • Find your compass…
  • Now find “North”….
  • Now imagine that “North” points you to Jesus…
  • Now imagine that this “app” will lead you through Lent and all the way to Pentecost.

There are “lures” all around us

Last night I was explaining this wonderful sermon illustration to my husband Rob, who was looking at me with that look I’ve known for more than 60 years – which says, “You’re off base, but I’m too polite to say so.”

But humoring me, Rob looked at his compass – and suddenly he found that his “North” wasn’t pointing in exactly the same direction as my “North.”  Now he was interested –  depending on where he was standing in the room, “North” was swinging back and forth.

What was going on?

Whenever Rob came near something metal the compass wavered.  And when he came near the iron étagère, his compass really started swinging…. And he finally told me, “Well, cell phone compasses are notoriously unreliable!”

Rob’s right – a cell phone compass is not the most reliable way to find “North”, and we couldn’t use a cell phone compass in a desert where there’s no service.

Fortunately, we don’t need modern technology to walk the Way of Jesus – we only need what Jesus had:

  • the scriptures,
  • a faith community,
  • and the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus.













Walking the Road of Lent

A Pathway into the Presence of God
The Sunday of the Transfiguration: February 26, 2017

Today we find ourselves on the Mount of the Transfiguration, looking at Jesus standing in the blazing light of God.

From this mountain, from this light, Jesus will walk all the way to Jerusalem, where the cross awaits him.  Beyond that cross another blazing light, the light of Easter, waits for Jesus – and for us.

But to get to that light, to get to Easter, we’ll have to walk the same road Jesus walks.

On Sundays, the road of Lent will bring us stories of disciples – not the familiar disciples like Peter, James and John,  but others who met Jesus along his way: a man born blind, a Samaritan woman, Nicodemus the teacher, Martha and Mary of Bethany.  The Gospels tell us that each of them, when they met Jesus, asked the same question we ask when we meet Jesus for the first time:

“Who is this man Jesus, and do I want to follow him?”

On weekdays, the road of Lent can lead us into a world shaped by different values – the values lived and taught by Jesus.  These steps were originally outlined by St. Benedict in the 6th century, and adapted by Sr. Joan Chittister in the 20th century.  Following these steps brings the answer to another question Christians always ask:

“How can I learn to live like Jesus?”

Over the centuries, St. Benedict’s steps have been a pathway into the Presence of God for millions of Christians.  Even today, as we practice each new step, we will feel the Spirit of God gradually re-shaping our lives, and eventually leading us to our own Easters.

On to Step 1:
Contemplation through Prayer

Walking the Road of Lent – Step 1

Contemplation through Prayer

St. Benedict teaches: prayer is a state of mind.

Sister Joan Chittister teaches *

Prayer is putting on of the mind of Christ, so that we can learn to see the world as God sees the world.

Prayer is more than reciting private prayers, more than participating in community prayer, more than asking God for things – even the good things we hope for ourselves and others.

Benedictine prayer is not designed to change God’s mind.  Prayer is meant to change us – to open us to the in-breaking of the Spirit in our lives, to stretch us beyond our own agendas to take on the compassionate heart of Christ.

Prayer is not only for consolation and courage, it is for challenge as well, helping us recognize that since life is infused with the Divine, we are capable being stretched –  with God’s help.

What simple practice has helped you “put on the mind of Christ” ?

What new practice may help you go further ?

On to step 2:
Contemplation through Lectio…


 *   For more, see Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, by Joan Chittister OSB
(Harper San Francisco, 1990).



Walking the Road of Lent – Step 2

   Contemplation through Lectio

St. Benedict teaches: Scripture forms us in the mind of Christ.

Sister Joan Chittister teaches: *

Lectio  (the reflective reading of a sacred text) gives us a pathway into Scripture, and regular lectio teaches us how to see the world through God’s eyes.

In lectio, we can meet…

  • the boy Samuel (see 1 Samuel 3) and realize that God has been calling us, too…
  • the girl Mary (see Luke 1) and realize that we, too, can find the courage to say ‘yes’ to God..
  • the first disciples (see John 1), and find that we, too, want to know ‘where Jesus lives’.

Read a passage slowly, silently or aloud (Benedict himself would have read it aloud).  Take a few minutes for silent reflection, and identify the words or phrases that draw your attention.

Read the passage slowly a second time, and listen to the text again.  Ask yourself, “How does this story speak to my life today?”

Read the passage a third time, and once again listen to the story.  Then ask yourself, “What do I believe God wants me to be…or do? Is God inviting me to change in any way?”

Conclude with prayer (not a prayer of words, but a time of remaining open to the Spirit who has spoken to you through the Scripture).   Make a record of the thoughts, images, and insights that came in your time of prayer.

Our society is anxious and restless, fearful and angry – but we can learn to be contemplative.  In the midst of chaos, if we build the Jesus-life in our own souls, if the Scripture is in our hearts, if we are faithful to lectio, we can see where God is: everywhere.


If you keep a lectio journal – and review your notes from time to time –
you will being to see where the Spirit of God is leading you.

On to Step 3:



 *   For more, see Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, by Joan Chittister OSB
(Harper San Francisco, 1990).