15 April 2017
Good evening everyone…and let me just say, ALLELUIA!
Don’t you just love this night?…the beauty and the elemental mystery of it all. I think it calls for another shout-out of the A-word, which we buried on Ash Wednesday and have resurrected tonight: 1-2-3…ALLELUIA!
OK, good. So much for “liturgy as pep rally.” Now we have to get down to the hard stuff…and it really is hard stuff. Tonight, in our Easter celebration, if we choose to take it seriously, by taking it into our own hearts, we are brought face-to-face with what this mystery of death-and-resurrection means for each of us…we who are committed to the story of Jesus of Nazareth as the central truth, as the true living myth, that is the source of the deepest meaning in our lives. One interpretation of our core mystery is the one that most of us learned growing up and that is encapsulated in the Exsultet this evening, with the phrase, “O happy fault of Adam’s sin…which gained for us a Savior….” And so we were taught that the death of Jesus was a sacrificial offering, an atonement for the original sin of Adam and, by extension, for the sins of all humankind. While the events themselves were indeed harrowing and horrific, as we’ve heard this last week in the Passion narratives, still this is, I think, a consoling and, dare I say, a comfortable view of the matter. All we have to do is believe in the truth of this understanding of the Gospel stories and we are off the hook. Someone else, 2000 years ago in a land far, far away, took care of our salvation. He fixed things up with “God the Eternal Judge,” and we have the ticket to heaven and eternal life.
Now, I know I’m setting up something of a straw man here, and over coffee and treats maybe we can hash out all the nuances and complexities of this traditional view. But what I’ve described is, I think, the standard model, the account of popular piety, though maybe not always the view of the theologians. And it provides contrast for the more challenging perspective that Paul offers us tonight. Paul’s understanding is less consoling, less comfortable, but ultimately, I think, it is more real and more liberating. Paul tells us that our baptism, our initiation into the Christian life, is a death: Paul says, “…we have been buried with him by baptism into death….” And he goes on to say that “…if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.” “A death like his…” …now that’s a mysterious statement. Is Paul telling us that we must literally be tortured and crucified, as Jesus was? I don’t think so. The question is: What does “…a death like his…” mean for each of us here, now, 2000 years later in a land far, far away? Paul gives us a hint when he says “…our old self was crucified with him…” so that “…we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” That old self enslaved to sin…that old self that clings to the false belief that we are in control of our lives…that old self that lives in the delusion that we are fundamentally separate from one another and from God…that separation which is the core meaning of sin. In other words, MY will be done, not God’s. To undergo a death like his, like Jesus’s death, then, is to surrender, dare I say, to sacrifice that old self that maintains a separation from our union with God; a union that is our true self; a union that is already a reality, could we only get ourselves out of the way and realize it. A “…death like his…” is indeed a sacrifice, but not as an atonement for our sins, not as a payment for the various evils we have committed or have allowed to be committed. It is, rather, an at-one-ment with God. For us to die Christ’s death is for us to die to all in us that is not God. It is our becoming transparent to the light of Christ.
And for us to know “...a resurrection like his…”? Well, I don’t think I really know what that is, because I don’t think I’ve experienced it. Or, if I have experienced it, I have no conscious knowledge of it. The mystics speak of it in metaphors. My favorite one these days is the metaphor of the sea sponge and its relationship with the ocean that surrounds it. The ocean simply flows through the sponge. There is no real separation, no way really to distinguish between outside and inside. In the resurrected life, from the point of view of each of us as a subject, there is no separation. It is a life, or maybe just a moment, of self-forgetting. It may be like a flash of lightning or like an earthquake, as Matthew tells us tonight. Or it may be a quiet whisper…a simple but unmistakable knowing in our heart. As the anonymous author of the 14th. century mystical classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, puts it, “God is our being, though we are not God’s being.” It is only from the outside, when we look at ourselves as an object, that we see a difference; that we distinguish the sea sponge we are from the ocean of God that surrounds us and moves through us; and without Whom, we are not. From the inside, as the subject of our own experience, in that Risen moment, we know God as our being. There is no separation; no self, no other; no subject, no object. Paraphrasing Paul in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ there are no differences. For us, as for Jesus, there is, ultimately, only our being, which is God.
Now, experiencing this truth, experiencing this reality of God as our very being is, thank God, not up to us…it’s up to God to make it happen. Thinking we can make this happen would be just another delusion of the old self that we must die to. It may, in fact, be our greatest and most resistant delusion. All we can do is humbly cultivate purity of heart…become aware of and let go of all those things in us that are not God. Paraphrasing the retreat master, James Finley: through our own contemplative practice, whatever it might be: centering prayer, the rosary, knitting, gardening, playing the piano…through faithfulness to that practice, we can cultivate an attitude that offers the least resistance to God. It’s very simple and it’s very difficult. That’s why, in addition to needing God, we also need each other.
Over the last two years, a wonderful and unexpected gift has been growing in me. Given my upbringing and nature, I have tended to think of this contemplative path out of myself and into God as fundamentally a solitary quest. Thanks to this worship community, to the community of Benedictine oblates, and to my fellow Zen practitioners in the Stray Dog Sangha, I have finally, after many decades, woken up to the fact that I am not doing this alone and, indeed, can’t do this alone. I can only do it with and through my fellow seekers. I have come to see at last that, in each moment, our hearts are all breathing together, out-and-in, giving-and-receiving. Thanks to this gift (and I thank you), I have been given a little taste of the other deep meaning of these last three days, and of the eucharist which we share whenever we gather: that Jesus did not die to himself for himself. He did it for those he loved; and those whom he loved encompassed the whole world.
Right here, right now, we are called to be like tonight’s waning gibbous moon, which, since its fullness on the Monday of this Holy Week, has been each day, bit by bit, pouring itself out. I can’t say it any better than the chorus of the communion hymn that we sang through Lent:
“May we who eat, be bread for others. May we who drink, pour out our love.”
For that, let us shout out again….ALLELUIAH!