Archive for the ‘Jesus and Druidry’ Tag
As with so many geometrical figures, both solid and planar, the Grail and Cross, cup and intersection, are figures that belong to no single group or culture.
Of course cross and star, cup and sword, wand and flame, etc., may be adopted by one or more groups as symbols with meanings specific to the group, but that doesn’t mean the cross is exclusively “Christian”, any more than trees “belong” to Druids alone. The most powerful symbols expand beyond the confines of association with any one group. If they didn’t, we might question their worth.
To choose just one example, the five-pointed star is Pagan, Christian, and more besides. Most of all, it’s an anciently human-devised shape, made to represent a host of ideas and perceptions. Many of the most enduring symbols are mandalas, sacred forms, that often show a high degree of symmetry, or other visual and pleasing harmony. Contrary to what you may have heard, sacred geometry is alive and well, and lives still in our eyes and hearts.
Among the Sumerians, millennia before Christ, the star or pentagram was a logogram meaning “corner, angle, nook, small room”. In Medieval Europe, the star could represent a series of Christian fives: the five wounds of Christ, the five chivalric virtues of a knight, and so on. (The medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight develops this theme at some length.) And as one form of endless knot, the unicursal star or pentagram stood as a symbolic defense against evil. How many nations feature stars on their flags and among their other national symbols? That’s quite a range of meanings and interpretations — and possible uses!
All this said, both Grail and Cross are now firmly entrenched in the Western world as specific symbols, straddling Pagan and Christian understandings of emotion and physicality, manifestation and transformation, magic and divinity. Still, modern instances can reinforce (and subtly reinterpret) older usages. Note this comment about the fictional “Grail Cross” at symboldictionary.net:
This emblem, best known as the “grail cross,” is not a genuine religious or historical symbol, but I receive so many questions relating to the symbol that it is included here. This emblem appears in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” as the emblem of “Brotherhood of the Cruciform* Sword,” the fictional secret society who serve as Guardians of the Holy Grail in the movie.
With its myth- and symbol-making power, modern media is rife with magical purposes — the subject of a separate post, if not a book or entire library. Want a “new” symbol to become charged with meaning and significance? Get it into a film that generates pop-culture buzz and fandom!
And because in much of the West we don’t know any more what to do with either sacred or profane, the two go together like a horse and carriage, or jam and toast, hooking up like the hormonally crazed. So here, for your reflection and pondering on the doubled hallowing and polarizing powers of human consciousness, is the “Grail Cross Halter Top“. So many symbols bare their midriffs at some point, turn commercial, and even have a go at sexual reinterpretation. (Here’s the Katy Perry version. Note the addendum on the right-hand image: “steal her style”.) Hence the need for “new” symbols, which are often the oldest ones returning once again to present consciousness at need.
For what the original symbols point to is precisely what their commercial cousins claim to but cannot offer: transformation, youth, beauty, power, energy, fertility. Who doesn’t seek the Grail?
Grail and Cross are one more way for Druids and Christians to find points of communion and exchange, without sacrificing their distinct identities. And such communion can be literal: bread of the earth, wine or grape juice as the blood of sacrifice, the ritual words either Druid or Christian, depending on the purpose, those attending, the group and the rite. What does your imagined shared Druid and Christian ritual look like?
I’ve written here before about the Forest Church movement, and there are creative imaginings, poems and songs that explore this common territory. You can read one instance here, about Jesus and Merlin:
Jesus and Merlin were to meet
In the garden, in the grove,
One looking forward to the Skull of Golgotha,
One looking back on the Sacred Head of Bran? …
What could they give to one another
These prophets circling in their Time-long orbits?
You might try out the poem’s answers to these questions on your sense of possibilities. And if they don’t work for you, write yours.
After all, there are as many meeting-points as people. If the holy terrain between Druid and Christian calls to you, better your way than one belonging to another that doesn’t fit you on your arm of the spiral journey. A week’s worth of your own meditations surpasses anything I can write here. These themes are suggestions, prompts, points of departure. They’re mine, and they may not be yours. Their use is as sparks, kindling, tinder, fuel, provocation.
One such locus for both traditions is healing, as OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm has written,
One of the most important tasks that face us today is one of reconciliation, whether that be between differing political or religious positions … the Christian community, far from taking fright at a perceived regression to a pagan past, can ally itself with [Druidry] which is complementary, and not antagonistic to Christian ideals and ethics …
St. Columba said “Christ is my Druid” and I believe that if we take Druidry to represent that ancient wisdom which lies deep within us, and that can connect us once again to the Earth and her wonders, we can understand how we can be Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids or Druids of whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development.
As you will know, Christianity in these islands built upon the foundations laid already by the Druids –- their seasonal observances were developed as festival days, their sites were built upon with churches, and the Druids welcomed Christianity for they with their powers of seership and connection to the Source knew of Christ’s coming, and allowed their practices to develop into what became known, at least in Scotland, as the Culdee church.
This segues into the next theme in this series: festivals and holidays.
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Images: symbols; Grail Cross Halter Top; grand-mother and -daughter at labyrinth.
I’m off to MAGUS, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering, in a few weeks. For those who can manage to attend, Gatherings can give a taste of true community. For Christians, ideally the power of baptism clothes everyone in unity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:29). A deeper spiritual union does connect people who outwardly appear different, talk differently, live differently. It’s a measure of our struggle how often we lose sight of this profound truth.
Some two millennia on from Paul’s confident assertion of unity in Christ, issues rooted in social status, privilege, gender, class, ethnicity — all the things that keep rocking today’s headlines — haven’t gone away. Early Christians “held all things in common.” Druidry likewise points us towards our common wealth in each other, in all the millions of species we live with, and the planet we live on. We dimly remember this old understanding, if at all, in the names of things like the Commons, the Commonwealth in the names of states and nations, common ground, Holy Communion, community, even discredited Communism and other old words and ideas misunderstood, abused and abraded by ignorance and human weakness.
Druidry likewise celebrates the essential kinship of all things. “What we do to the land we quite literally do to ourselves”, as we keep discovering to our dismay and bitter relearning. Linked to places and ancestors, we inherit both specific and planetary pasts, and shape the future of our own bloodlines and also the biosphere we live in. “Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil … and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in the West, unless you know what you are about,” says the Master Summoner in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
So often we plainly don’t know what we’re about. But the Web of Things does yield to power regardless, in hands wise and foolish. What have we summoned? Whether knowledge or ignorance launches an action, what goes around still comes around. Simple and difficult: until we value and claim our unity as more important than our differences, it’s the differences that will dog us and define who we are and what matters. Depending on your understanding of the purpose of life at this rung of the spiral, that’s cause for weeping, rage, incomprehension, humble acknowledgment, redoubling of efforts …
When we consider the nationalist fervour sweeping the West, surely we might benefit from wider practice of such awareness of unity. While the broad tolerance of difference that Biblical verse expresses can also appeal broadly to many Druids, side by side with it is a celebration of particularity. Sometimes Christians call this the “scandal of particularity”: the difficulty of accepting a single individual man — Jesus — as the savior for everyone. You know — what traditional Christianity teaches about his exclusivity: “no one comes to the Father except through me”. As in, “my way or the highway”.
There are many ways to work with assertions like these. We know all too well, on the evidence of centuries, what literalism offers and where it leads. Political religion — the system of creeds and salutes, conformities and genuflections to whoever holds the stick — exists in every culture. To pick just one blatant and current example, North Korea has made a religion and cult of the Kim family. Metaphorical understandings, because they grant freedom to each person, have always been suspect in some quarters. “Power-over” dies hard, keeps dying, never quite dies out.
Nonetheless, there are Druids who sit in pews and recite the creeds with no sense of hypocrisy or incongruity. That doesn’t mean that church attendance is anything like the only way to find even a fragile unity. It’s merely one option. Nor does that mean Druids who do sit in Church surreptitiously fingering their pentagrams and awens beneath street clothes have necessarily somehow immersed themselves in any of the myriad alternative understandings of Jesus as great moral teacher, example, political gadfly, Jewish mystic, cleverly-disguised New Age guru, just one of a series of divine avatars* and so on.
[*avatar: (Sanskrit) 1) an incarnation in human form of a god. 2) That icon of your net presence? A second meaning of the word, fast eclipsing the original.]
Options, options. How about Jesus as the inner consciousness in each of us that leads us on the next spiral beyond the apparent world? Or Jesus as a man working within the confines of a monotheism that his ongoing experience of the divine kept bursting at the seams? How many of us are, like him, the sort of people who, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40)? Do we even want to be? Why (or why not)? What would such close identification and intensity mean in this coolly detached age?
J. M. Greer in his The Gnostic Celtic Church which I’ve cited here previously offers one valid way among many to experience such kinship between Druid and Christian, noting that
a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily co-exist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess … and the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion (Greer, The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy, AODA, 2013).
To create forms that will answer to widely perceived inner need and aspiration will take devotion and dedication, but the seeds are many, and some have already germinated and flowered and borne fruit, in both likely and unlikely places.
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This series of themes points to possible directions, and offers a few leads here and there, but in most cases doesn’t offer anything like a full-grown practice — the thing waiting, a project ready for many hands. (I have my own version of such a project, half-complete, still very much a work in progress. I’ve taken it on as a study of awen and experiment, rather than an urgent spiritual quest. Right now I drink from other wells, myself.)
By way, then, of appendix or commentary or prophecy or something else to this theme, I quote below at some length from Kipling’s Jungle Book, now in public domain. Here Baloo, the wise old brown bear — not the manipulative Bill Murray-voiced version in the recent 2016 film — talks to Bagheera about teaching Mowgli the Master Word of the Jungle:
“A man’s cub is a man’s cub, and he must learn all the Law of the Jungle” [said Baloo].
“But think how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all thy long talk?”
“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”
“Softly! What dost thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is all bruised today by thy — softness. Ugh.”
“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance,” Baloo answered very earnestly. “I am now teaching him the Master Words of the Jungle that shall protect him with the birds and the Snake People, and all that hunt on four feet, except his own pack. He can now claim protection, if he will only remember the words, from all in the jungle. Is not that worth a little beating?”
“Well, look to it then that thou dost not kill the man-cub. He is no tree trunk to sharpen thy blunt claws upon. But what are those Master Words? I am more likely to give help than to ask it” — Bagheera stretched out one paw and admired the steel-blue, ripping-chisel talons at the end of it — “still I should like to know.”
“I will call Mowgli and he shall say them — if he will. Come, Little Brother!”
“My head is ringing like a bee tree,” said a sullen little voice over their heads, and Mowgli slid down a tree trunk very angry and indignant, adding as he reached the ground: “I come for Bagheera and not for thee, fat old Baloo!”
“That is all one to me,” said Baloo, though he was hurt and grieved. “Tell Bagheera, then, the Master Words of the Jungle that I have taught thee this day.”
“Master Words for which people?” said Mowgli, delighted to show off. “The jungle has many tongues. I know them all.”
“A little thou knowest, but not much. See, O Bagheera, they never thank their teacher. Not one small wolfling has ever come back to thank old Baloo for his teachings. Say the word for the Hunting-People, then — great scholar.”
“We be of one blood, ye and I,” said Mowgli …
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Images: face; Kim; Baloo.
Spirit animates all things, earth and water, air and fire. To live is to experience, in Christian terms, a continuous sacrament. The sacraments of Druidry are the elements. Spirit makes life sacred, and we know this to the degree we recognize and participate and commit to living fully and wholly.
The energies of the elements feature widely in both Druidry and Christianity. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, and water energies characterize the Bardic grade in many Druid traditions — inspiration and intuition, dream and emotion and astral awareness. The place of the Bard is the west, long associated with elemental water. Standing in the west, the bard also faces east — sunrise, beginnings, elemental air, perception and knowledge.
We’re always crossing and re-crossing elemental lines and boundaries. Neither earthy gnome nor watery undine, airy sylph nor fiery salamander, we’re all of these, linked to each.
We might see and call each person’s life a spiral of elemental baptisms. So we ritualize it as a sacrament and reminder. Each of us cradled in our mothers’ wombs, our earth bodies forming, the amniotic waters bathing us as we take on physical shape and substance. No breathing except what our mothers do for us. Then birth, and that first cry, a gasp of air in new lungs, the loss of that other body and its warmth, our first journeying into a world that offers us choices and ventures among all four elements.
What more earthy place to be born for a child of god — all of us children of the divine — than a stable? How fitting that in the traditional story, animals surround the holy newborn, with their hay and straw, along with the reek of dung and the puffs of animal breath. The Golden Tarot features the holy magician surrounded by beasts, implements and symbols of the elemental altar at his feet.
Yet even at birth, at such a private affair, surely a matter of just father, mother and child only, a star shines distantly to herald each birth. We saw his star in the east, say the Magi, the Mages, the Magicians, and we have come to honor him.
Follow your own star, counsel the wise ones of many traditions. You are my guiding star, say our love stories and tragedies. A star shines on the hour of our meeting, say Tolkien’s Elves. Nothing is random.
And disaster? That’s a dis-aster, an ill star that may shine and color our lives. But other stars also — always — are shining. We are never just one thing only. And the Ovate is the grade of the north, the mysteries of life and death, healing and divination, time and fate and return. We are earth at birth, but all of the elements in turn and together, too. Stand in the north, the place of earth, of incarnation and death, and take stock. Learn the herbs that heal and harm, chant the words and sing the charm.
The call of rivers and oceans, streams and pools and wells. Water baptisms, summer swimming holes, the daredevil dive from a height into water that some of us risk. Do we long to “make a big splash” as we enter our adolescence? Surely a time of water and emotion, of dream and imagination, as the world unfolds itself into our first inklings of adulthood, as hormones surge and wash through us, working their watery changes. And those stories of the Biblical flood, of Atlantis drowned, of Mu and Lemuria. We live our lives on a planet dominated by water, we carry in our veins a blood that mirrors the primeval ocean in its salts and minerals, our bodies made of water and earth, subject to the tug of a tidal moon.
Air that fills our lungs, that in-spires us, that makes up one of the rhythms of our whole lives, until we ex-pire, that last breath going out, just as with our first cry we took it in. Air that caresses sweetly or gusts violently, every element meeting us in all its guises, fierce and gentle. Jesus on the mountain, transfigured. Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by power, by simply existing, alive, a blend like each of us of the elements and spirit.
And there in his sight the diabolic or oppositional aspects of incarnate life pull at him. Cast yourself down, the voice taunts him: you won’t really die. Who among us hasn’t stood on a high place and imagines jumping, imagined not plummeting to death, but somehow floating, flying, a power beyond what human life gives? What will we do with this enormous power each of us has to heal or hurt, make or mar the people and places we live? Renounce it, ignore it, forsake it, abuse it, explore it, fulfill it?
Conception and taking on form, an earth baptism of the North.
Birth and first breath, an air baptism of the East.
Adolescence and its hormonal tides, a water baptism of the West.
Adult passion and dedication to a worthy cause, a fire baptism of the South.
Trace the traditional order and position of each element in that sequence — North to East to West to South — and you describe a zigzag, a Harry Potter lightning flash.
And to push further at the symbolism, to go all nerdy and allegorical for a moment, because we can, we’re all marked by a vol de mort, the will of death, a will shaping the particulars of this life that ends at death, whatever may or may not follow.
But until then!!
Other baptisms, of suffering and love, growth and pain and knowledge, each time the elements forming and reforming in our experience. Bones breaking, healing. Bodies ill and recovering, hearts broken and full to bursting, minds challenged and sharpened by training and testing, blunted on battlefields and in factories, regenerated in gardens and gatherings, shaped in schools and lives.
In each life humans spiral through these baptisms, each renewing the experience and memory of the previous one, but also extending it, transforming it. Never twice the same, and yet familiar, too.
Jesus changing water to wine, a water-fire baptism of surprise at a wedding, a symbol of wholeness along the spiral, elements blending and merging. Jesus transfigured, on the airy mountain. Jesus crucified, the pain of incarnation and death, all the elements again, body and blood, breath and fire of pain, of ending. It’s finished, he says. in one gospel. I’ve done what I came to do.
Don’t each of us? To live at all, whether short or long, is to experience the whole gamut, every baptism multiple times. Death, yes. The tomb where they lay Jesus, and roll the stone door shut. Elemental baptism of earth again. Spiral, spiral.
For that’s not all. Because resurrection. Spring. Rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, look out your window. No need to believe any of these things. Walk out the door and experience them for yourself. Make a ritual out of it. Figure out after what it “means” to you. Live it.
To go pop-culture on you: I’ll be back, says the Terminator, mirror of the Creator. The great Ender, who promises a death before life even gets fairly launched. Prevent the future. But No fate — he doesn’t “win.” Instead, life changes him — our perception changes him. He becomes, death becomes, potentially at least, an ally, if a difficult one.
Death is the mother of beauty, says crazy old bard Wallace Stevens. (All bards, to make a verse or song or story, must be a little crazy from time to time. It’s good for them, good for us.) What?! I shout, outraged. Death is the mother of beauty, he repeats, quietly. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.
The gift of incarnation is to draw out from each element the fullness of what it offers. A ritual of elemental baptisms can help us recognize the opportunity of each as it spirals by, and ride the energies of the elements. Give me a rich, full life. I long to drink it all, the bitter, yes, inevitable. But also the sweet, the fair, the lovely, the shining, the joy.
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Images: elementals; Golden Tarot Jesus as Magician; scar.
In this post you’ll find me wearing my hat of the linking, connecting and informing Druid, so salt to taste.
“My Druid is Christ,” wrote Saint Columba (521-597), among other things the founder of the abbey on Iona. Ask yourself what to make of such a remark from this early Irish missionary, working in what is now Scotland. You can even be Bardic about it, and shape your meditation into a triad of insights. Out of one of my meditations emerged a triad that begins: “Three things we serve, who love both flaming Star and branching Tree …”
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And out of such echoes from a distant past comes the Romantic conception that Druidry and Christianity initially co-existed in amity. Evidence exists both to support and refute such a view. But whatever the reality of that period, which we may never know, we can certainly identify its spiritual gold and and continue to create with it in the present.
OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:
Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity. It did this in at least four ways: it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints. That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (pg. 31).
As I poke around “ironic survival” further in this third (Part 1 | Part 2) reflection on Jesus and Druidry, I note one quite obvious thing many others have of course commented on. The Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:
Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).
An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture. Already many such resources exist. The OBOD website provides “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry“, which include music, ritual calendars, books, and links to organizations like Forest Church.
Life and death are ironic, paradoxical. As integral gestures and movements of the cosmos, they’re also a “human thing”: we long for and fear the change that comes in death as in all such transformations. Initiation prefigures it, and life delivers it without fail. We all live and change, die and change. Druidry offers itself as a prime example of what it teaches, living, dying, changing and living again.
And Druidry, or at least Orders like OBOD, aren’t above borrowing and adapting rich language, Christian or not, attentive to the powers of Three. Nuinn (the Druid name of Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder) writes:
Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion, dating from the days of early man when the three were one (pg. 19).
This careful attention to triads and unities means that their presence in other traditions makes them attractive to Druid ceremony and ritual. Some OBOD rites include versions of the following Trinitarian as well as Druidic language:
May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light.
Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:
A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.
And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:
In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.
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A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry
Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,
might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But Druidry is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow his own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).
It’s important to note that OBOD Druidry differs here from Druid Orders like ADF which are more explicitly religious. There are of course also members of OBOD who practice it as their religion. Carr-Gomm writes from the same universalist Druid strain that shows up repeatedly in OBOD and in its stance toward other traditions and religions. Visit the current ADF homepage and you read:
Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.
Explore further and you find specifics of ADF belief and activity that would exclude dual membership in ADF and a Christian church for all but the most liberal Christian. Among these are
the ADF Initiate Program, a course of training into the ways of magic, seership and trance for ADF, and with it a current of spiritual initiation
together with a cultivation of ancestral seership and contact, and an explicitly duotheistic ritual structure:
As a part of the work of growing our spiritual current the clergy of ADF have been exploring an otherworldly locale and inner Nemeton where we have been forming relationships with beings we call the ‘Ancient Wise’, those of the Sacred Dead who were poets, magicians and priests, and who would be willing to join with us to help us all walk the elder ways. This has been done through the good offices of the two deities who we honor in every sacrifice, the Warders of the Ways, the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates.
Compare this to the frequent shifting of language in the opening of OBOD’s “prayer which unites all Druids” but which ADF labels (accurately) a creation of the Druid Revival of the last 300 years, and thus from their perspective inauthentic. Listen closely at any OBOD gathering and you’ll hear these variations and others:
Grant, O Spirit(s)/God/Goddess/Holy Ones, thy protection …
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Image: Iona Abbey.
[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.
Reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem
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.
Sea of Galilee
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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Images: Temple; Sadducees; Augustus penny; Galilee; Van Gogh: Wheatfields; W Stevens quote; waterdrop.
Updated/edited 2 February 2014