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11 April 2004

Death of Christendom - part VII - Easter Sunday

Love has come again like wheat that springeth green . . .

A summation, from a very liberal and yet theologically unchallenging point of view, of the points made in the last three posts, can be found in the article Easter's Hawks and Doves by Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser. As Dr. Fraser says: "The Easter of the hawks insists that sin always has to be balanced, or paid for, with pain. It's the theological equivalent of the refusal to be "soft on crime". From this perspective, Easter is the story of Jesus paying off the debt of human sin with his own suffering and death. . . What is remarkable about this theology of debt is that it is precisely what Jesus rejects when he invokes the spirit of the Jubilee at the outset of his ministry. The Jubilee tradition argues for the regular unilateral remission of debt so that people are not imprisoned by a liability they cannot ever meet. . . Jesus, however, takes up an alternative tradition found in the psalms and the writings of the prophets: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," Jesus repeats from the book of Hosea. He thus attacks the religious authorities and is murdered for so doing. Jesus does not oppose the brutality of his treatment by an equal and opposite show of force. And in not returning violence with violence he initiates a fragile and vulnerable community of non-retaliation known as the kingdom of God."

But that's all Good Friday material. I just wanted to re-state it, or perhaps to let someone else who states it rather better have a chance. Today is Easter Sunday, and I turn my attention to the Resurrection. And as I turn my attention to the story of the Resurrection, my attention is caught by Mary Magdalene. It would be a digression to get into all the stuff that has been written about "the Magdalene", what she was or wasn't, did or didn't do. This and this are only a very small sample of the material on that subject available just on the web. Today I am only concerned with the Resurrection, and I have three questions about that: first, did it really happen? is Christ truly risen? Second, assuming the belief that he is risen, and that Mary of Magdala was there and saw him, what did it mean to her, and what did it mean that it was her, and why are all the stories about her so conflicting? And finally (and I hope that the Magdalene will provide a key to answering this question) what does it mean to me? For this last post in the series, I am pulling out all the stops. I am putting words and images of some of the most powerful scenes in my own inner spiritual life up here and sharing them. You can get a clue from the painting and the line from a traditional Easter song that head this post.

So, to get right to it, what about the Resurrection - did it really happen? The kind of people who want to have "the historical Jesus" (who are not bad people in my book, but a bit misguided) have a lot of explanations: that Christ was in a coma, that another person died on the cross in his place, that his body was stolen for political reasons and in the mass hysteria of the times, people hallucinated seeing him. All perfectly plausible. And you could say similar things about Lazarus, who had been also raised from the dead a few weeks earlier, according to the Gospels. It all sort of misses the point, though. To a stubborn rationalist, you can never explain the difference between fact and Truth, between falsehoods and powerful myths, in any way that will mean a thing; such people simply cannot see such things, any more than a colour-blind person can see gradations of reds, for instance. But for the person who is open to faith, yet feels loyal to science, this wonderful article at Correction on the subject of Negative Capability provides an answer. Now, this is a 3000 word essay on historical biblical criticism, as the author apologetically notes at the beginning, so I will summarise it in his own words, because I know not one of my readers is going to read the whole thing, and my great spew of purple prose:
"And this is really the crux of the matter. We modern Christians want to have the world both ways: we want a life that is dominated by our faith, but we also want to live in a modern, scientific universe where the dictates of faith don't really apply. This is just too much to ask of ourselves. Once you deconstruct a Bach melody and express it in mathematical terms, you have strayed far, far from the experiential beauty that is its entire reason for existing in the first place. There's nothing wrong with your mathematical expressions per se, they just aren't the point. So it is with miracles and biblical minutiae; we can hold them up to the light and compare them and cross-reference them all day long, but in doing so we have already stepped out of the circle of light that they describe. There's nothing wrong with doing this, but it's not the intended experience. It was never meant to respond to such probing and so the results thereof are unsatisfying."
So, yes, my answer to the first question is yes. I will not say, necessarily, "I believe Jesus died and was raised up" but rather "I have faith in Jesus's resurrection and eternal life". To me there is a subtle and yet very important difference between those two. There is a difference between belief and faith for one thing. And the other thing is that focusing on whether Jesus died is very scientific and misses the point - the point being eternal life.

What is the difference between belief and faith? Like most English words, both "belief" and "faith" have a primary and a secondary meaning. The primary meaning of both words is the same, but the secondary meanings are vastly different. If you were a witness to a crime and you were testifying in court, and an attorney asked you "Did you see the accused carrying this gun?" you might answer "Well, I believe I did". It is thus a way of saying that your senses and your memory tell you so, but that you are aware that both senses and memory can be tricked or can fail. On the other hand, if you are involved in a political movement, you might give a speech and say "I have faith in the Labour party". (People do in fact say things like "I believe in the Labour party, but I think that's just lazy diction, because it could be construed that you believe in the existence of the Labour party.) Another way to approach this semantic dissection - "belief" can be conflated with "credulity", but "faith" is never treated that way. Because in "faith" there is a suggestion of will and choice and responsibility that is just not there in "belief". So I always refer to my religion as a "faith" and not a "belief". In fact, I have been known to say, in a multi-layered play on words that I am sad to say not one person has ever "got", that "I don't believe in belief".

There is a song on Roberta Flack's album "First Take" that I have never heard anywhere else, and I don't know much about it or where it comes from. I cannot even say what genre it is, jazz, I suppose, because it is not like any other song I know. It completely sums up the nature, the feeling, of my faith. The song is called "I told Jesus". I see from my search that it's listed as a Nina Simone song, but these lyrics, although clearly the same song, are not the ones Roberta Flack sang. Well, never mind. This is the kind of faith I have, although you wouldn't really know it to look at me. I rarely go to church. I never pray in public. I do not evangelise. But the inner relationship I have with Jesus is very powerful and personal, and at times I get a call from him, to do something difficult, like forgive someone, or let something go that I thought I could not live without. I can't say honestly that I always respond to these calls. I am, after all, a sinner, and sin means error. Sin, however, does not mean evil or bad, any more than faith means perfect. I may fail Christ's calls, but I don't hang up on them.

I think that Mary Magdalene must have had a relationship like that with Jesus, with the added factor that she saw him in the flesh. And indeed, the Gospels say that she, along with a few other women, "ministered to him" during his days of travelling and teaching. (That was just one of the very unconventional things about Jesus's life.) I recently found a really rich resource on all the relevant Mary Magdalene material - at the BBC website of all places. It has information about the Gnostic gospel accounts of Mary, including the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. In Philip, there is the very controversial story about the other disciples jealousy of Mary, because "Jesus often kissed her on . . . " (Most scholars have accepted the learned guess that the key missing word here was "the mouth", but we will never know for sure, because there is a gaping hole in the manuscript.) "Like the books found at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene is also considered an apocryphal text. The story it contains begins some time after the resurrection. The disciples have just had a vision of Jesus. Jesus has encouraged his disciples to go out and preach his teachings to the world, but they are afraid to do so because he was killed for it, and they say if they killed him, they are going to kill us too. It's Mary who steps forward and says, don't be worried, he promised he would be with us to protect us. It says she turns their hearts toward the good and they begin to discuss the words of the Saviour. In texts like the Gospel of Philip, Mary was presented as a symbol of wisdom. However in the Gospel of Mary, she is the one in charge, telling the disciples about Jesus' teachings. "

I think the key and important thing about Mary Magdalene, the thing that distinguished her from the other disciples (aside from being female of course) was that she understood Jesus's message of love far better than any other contemporary person. I think she was meant to be the leader of the church, and that Jesus's acts in showing his special favour of her and also of appearing to her in the first moments of his resurrection, showed that he meant to do this. Unfortunately, it was all too easy for the men who surrounded Jesus in life to freeze her out and gradually over the years for the church, which strayed ever farther from its original message, to edit her out. In ways that we will probably never even know of, she was willing to suffer for love, and she remained faithful to the end and even beyond it.

So what does this mean to me? A lot of women say that a major stumbling block to being a Christian is its lack of female role models. I would find it very hard to live a life "in imitation of Christ". It would be beyond me. But to live a life in imitation of Mary Magdalene, this is something I can do. Mary was an outcast at times, but she was also a scholar and a leader of men. She was left alone to carry on, but when Jesus was with her, she loved him totally and understood him deeply. She may or may not have been a great sinner, or possessed by demons, and she may or may not have spent her last days as an ascetic penitent. She obviously troubles the Catholic church a lot, because two things they have done in regard to her are very strange. One is the recanting of the church's identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who washed Jesus's feet. And the other was to make her a saint, despite the fact that there is no story of either martyrdom or miracles associated with her. (Does someone have a guilty conscience perhaps?)

So, this is my faith; this is my story (and I'm sticking to it.) Christ is risen. You are loved and you are forgiven. All that God requires of you are the three gifts of a simpleton: to love, to practice forgiveness and to know that you, and all of Creation, are free. Proclaim the Jubilee.

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