[Part 1 here.]
But what of the Galilean Rabbi himself? Enough about trends, which I said last time I wasn’t really interested in. We may forget that Jesus is a common enough religious name of the time — a version of Joshua — “God saves.” (It’s a name still popular today among Hispanics.) Thirty, and he’s still not married. A disappointment to his culture, his family. After all, both count immortality at least in part through heirs and bloodlines. His mother tries to understand, received a sign when she conceived him, has her suspicions and hopes.
An itinerant teacher and preacher, one of many, traveling the countryside. On festival days, when he can, like many of his countrymen, he visits the great Temple in Jerusalem. A short career: just a few years. A group of followers who scatter at his death, denying him repeatedly. A promising life, cut short by an ill-timed visit to the capital. The one who betrays him comes from among his own followers. Roman overlords, touchy at the major festival of Passover, the city bulging with visitors and pilgrims, a powder-keg, awaiting a spark to flame into chaos. A summary arrest and trial for the young Rabbi, followed by an ignominious and agonizing death.
Except unlike so many other such preachers, after his death Jesus is not forgotten, is eventually deified, gets elevated to membership in the theologically-problematic Trinity that Christians insist isn’t polytheistic. (If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck …) What was it about him that came across as godlike?
As with other spiritual teachers, we can see his divine intoxication ebbing and flowing, peaking and falling away again, a common enough human phenomenon. Most of us have known a peak experience at least once; we’ve also sadly watched it slip away.
At times Jesus is a poor Rabbi working for justice and compassion, firmly ensconced in the tangle that is 1st century Judea, with its liberal agnostic Sadducees, conservative legalistic Pharisees and radical Zealots. Israel, a stand-out nation, with its peculiar and demanding monotheism, an island of faith and practice in a sea of surrounding nations with their many gods. A politically contentious region, one the Romans occupy, “pacifying” it in typically straightforward Roman style, with local career politicians like Pilate. The Romans crucify troublemakers, tax the province for whatever they can squeeze out of it, and garrison it as a staging point for patrolling other legs of an Empire increasingly wobbly and quarrelsome and groping towards revolt.
More and more, this Rabbi draws a crowd when he stops to preach. He’s a vivid speaker, his rural Galilean-accented Aramaic familiar to his audience. He’s one of us, Joseph’s son. Did you hear what he said earlier today, last night, a week ago? Almost always something memorable.
Show me a coin, he asks those gathered around him one day. A natural teacher, using whatever’s on hand to make a point.
Whose image appears on it? he asks them now.
It’s Caesar’s, they answer.
Exactly so, he says. Distinguish rightly what goes where. The coin, the tax, that goes to Caesar. The divine , however, requires something different.
Like what? his listeners wonder.
Good master, somebody else asks him, intent on his own issues. What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?
Don’t call me “good,” the Rabbi replies, after a pause. I’m not. Call nobody good, except God. And that’s not me, not me, not me the silence echoes, in case anyone was wondering.
The fig tree, when he reaches it, has no figs. Of course not — it’s not the season for them. Jesus, hungry, tired and discouraged, curses it anyway, goes to bed with an empty belly. Real son of God material. Not likely. Word of it gets written down, too.
I’ve been with you this long and you still don’t get it? he scolds his closest followers one day. How long must I endure you? Almost losing it. In public. Another low point. Another note that rings humanly true.
That’s “this-world” Jesus. He sweats in the Mediterranean summers, shivers in the damp, rainy winters. Cries when his friend Lazarus dies. Bellows at the merchants and money-changers in the Temple.
Sheep and goats wander the roads as he walks from town to town. It’s hot and dusty, it’s raining, it’s stormy. The Sea of Galilee can turn to whitecaps in a minute, threatening the small fishing boats that work its coves and depths. Workmen hail him, stop and question him, ponder his words. His own people. Fishermen, slaves, tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, widows, children. The sick, the street people, the lepers and beggars, the homeless. His message first of all must reach them, before anybody else. They need it so badly.
But at times we hear a different voice, sense a very different presence. The Otherworld vivid, all around. (“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes …” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nineteen centuries later.) The Kingdom, here, now. This Jesus, so drenched with the divine that the rocks sing to him with it. He can be wrapped in a shining cloud and commune with the ex-carnate Moses. Perceive the spiritual temptations of worldly power, available to anyone who begins to walk into the heart of the Great Mystery. He can say, Satan! but he’s really talking to his own human capacity to choose for good or bad. The power that goes with deep awareness and choice.
This Jesus says The divine and I are one. I came to testify to the truth. If you see me, you see the face of the divine. I came so that people can have more abundant lives. I came for you all. And you are all my sisters and brothers. All children of God, all walking the fields and forests of the Kingdom.
This Jesus knows the divine is all-present, that the flow of Spirit sustains everything, that there’s always enough.
How to capture this inner truth in stories? A huge crowd, fed, with left-overs. A leper healed. A poor woman looking for love or a livelihood, taken in adultery or prostitution, forgiven — and no one to say “But wait!” or argue the letter of the law with the Rabbi with the shining eyes. The accusing crowd, unsettled, disperses.
The hick Rabbi, dying a criminal’s death on the cross, thieves and murderers on both sides pf him, gasping as he asks God to forgive those who nailed him up to die a slow death. The palpable sense of his presence after his death.
His consciousness rising and falling in its breadth of awareness of its own divine potential, its union with all things, its kinship with mustard seeds, with the birds of heaven and the foxes of earth and trees that clap their hands. What could be more human? What could be more Druidic?
The world has three levels: heaven, earth and hell. The leaven is divided into three portions and hidden for a time. All things will be revealed. The divine is both different and the same, yesterday, today and forever. Ask, seek, knock. Druidic triads everywhere, once we start looking. No, the carpenter’s son wasn’t necessarily a Druid. No, Jesus maybe didn’t “in ancient time walk upon on England’s mountains green,” as Blake imagines it in his poem “Jerusalem.” Another story to convey the sense of the divine, here. No reason to claim kinship where it doesn’t exist. But every reason to celebrate links and commonalities and similar wisdom, wherever, whenever they appear.
A man who touches the divine and tries to express it in a culture steeped in a monotheistic tradition of necessity will draw on monotheist images and tropes. How else to express his sense of profound communion, except by an image of a family, father and children? How else to communicate the sense of despair and agony of being cut off from every hope and healing, except by images of lasting hell? How else to convey the divine promise rich inside every breathing moment, except by saying something like It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom?
The gift, already given, given every day, dawn, noon and sunset. The divine never offers less than all. We strain to catch and carry the ocean in a coffee mug. We gaze at dawn and can never hold all that light. We go for water, and it changes to wine, intoxicatingly alive. Each spring, the world practices resurrection. And yes, even the rocks are singing.
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Updated/edited 2 February 2014