David Swartz "RELIGION WITH AN EDGE"
biblicalfictions.com
Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
The Son of Joseph II

or The Will to Christ

iv ((((( The Last Judgment

 

 

It is interesting that Christ’s final proclamation of fire and damnation is again an ethical imperative.  In the Last Judgment, which we quote from Christ’s words in full as indicative of the full dynamic of his evolving faith, admission to paradise is neither conditional upon ethnic heritage, nor faith in the Christ himself, nor poverty, nor allegiance to the Holy Spirit, nor any other prerogative beyond a generosity of spirit which would extend even to the LEAST of God’s children.  Damnation is, again, a vivid prompting to virtue of the highest order—“’When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on the throne of glory.  And all the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats.  He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.  Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”  Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and give you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?”  And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”  Next he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”  Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”  Then he will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”  And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.’”  (Matthew 25:35-46)

     We have in Matthew the wrath of a deity, and yet, hidden in the text, is a transcendence which eclipses both the thesis of humanism (of an ethical imperative) and the antithesis of threat.  Christ has chosen to reveal the very nature of his Christhood—that EACH of his children, even the very LEAST of them, is Christ, that whatever is done to “’one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’”  (25:40)  The imperative in this strange dialectic surmounts its accompanying threat—one must will toward Christ in such fashion that each of us is willed toward, that EACH is Christ, each outcast, each victim; that each is a child of God, a Son of Man.  If this messiah threatens it is only to ensure that we take him at his word.  We must fear most of all to assume that there is one being on earth whose harm or neglect is not the Son’s.  We must fear to exclude any of God’s chosen from our compassion.  The threat is simply the threatened, God’s children, the grace that which transcends it, an inclusivity which is boundless.  With this in mind, there is none among us who can fail to will toward Christ.  By the same token, there is no particular Christhood before him.  One cannot fail to arrive at faith when there is no possibility of contradicting it even should one will toward its very absence.  Looking everywhere we find him.  Looking nowhere we find him as well.  If there is no limit to Christhood, the grace of doubt must lead to the same lonely being as the faith which fashioned him.  Such is the Christ we have chosen to simply ignore.  Small wonder Jesus wept.

 

 

THIRD CHAPTER

 

 

Nowhere further than in the movement from Christ’s Last Passover to the terror and final release of Golgotha is the dynamic of one man’s faith so forcefully evident.  In John’s account of the Last Supper, the final trace of Christ’s exclusivity is vested in his brief metaphor of the vine, and in perhaps his most famous utterance, one that will impel a legion of Christians toward twenty centuries of zealotry, a fervor as virulent here among us in 1985 as in 33-60 AD—“’I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. / No one can come to the Father except through me.’”  (14:6-7)  That same Christ will weep the tears of Gethsemane, plead with his Father to release him from the final imperative of his mission, suffer the scorn and abuse of his accusers, Roman and scribe alike, endure the spiritual and physical agony of Calvary—only to forgive the whole fierce venture, man and GOD alike, forgive in a very real sense himself, his whole life, his messiahship and those who were led to complete it either by faith or the dictates of doubt.

     It is not enough to say Christ died for Pilate, even Judas, that Christ died EVEN for the faithful.  If there is no other Christ, if he IS in fact the way, it is not the utterance of John that would furnish irrefutable evidence.  It is rather the dynamic of Christ’s TOTAL utterance and the life it attains to.  It is the TOTAL Christ on Calvary, his agony, his forgiveness, his release.  If we ourselves are to attain to Christ, it must be toward completed fact, neither LITERAL, as evidenced by solitary passages taken to describe a static figure, nor as METAPHOR, as evidenced by some wistful subjective interpretation of a bewildering complex of beliefs and actions on the part of this Nazarene—but rather as ACHIEVED, a human being ever willing to Christ and, in fact, attaining it in the final dynamic of his faith, a man whose humanity was so total, so fully accomplished, that he attained to God himself.  The God attained to is the very Christhood of all mankind willing itself human, willing itself God.  It is a God who can forgive a universe.  Most assuredly, it is a God who can forgive himself.

 

 

i ((((( The Last Supper

 

 

A consideration scarcely touched on by our inquiry is Christ’s role as sacrifice.  It is patent that he considered his own agony and death as a very real atonement for the sins of the world, and that through his very willing himself toward death, mankind would be forgiven.  Exclusivity is often present in that message, at times almost an afterthought.  This Christ died for OUR sins as we die for each other.  The final thrust is sacrifice.  Each of us is called toward the same arduous task—“’A man can have no greater love / than to  lay down his life for his friends.’”  (John 15:13)  If Christ is lamb, if he is grace, then our very willing should be toward his Christhood, and not to a belief that would eclipse the force of his faith, a dynamic we mirror in our own spiritual progress; not to a belief in those touches of egoism which the Gospels attest to that would will a cosmos into hell.  If Christhood is to be achieved both for the messiah and those who would will in his name, we must will toward completion.  Given this, there can be no willing that does not inevitably lead to Christ—“’I have told you all this / so that you may find peace in me / In the world you will have trouble, / but be brave: / I have conquered the world’”  (16:33)  Christ foresaw that “’ . . . the hour is coming / when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God.’”  (16:2)  One would hope that his agonies on Calvary were not compounded by a subtle increment of that foreknowledge—not simply those millions who would perish for the sake of Christianity, but those millions upon millions who would slaughter in his name.

     “Then he took some bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which will be given for you; do this as a memorial of me.’  He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you.’”  (Luke 22:19-20)  The role is defined, the lamb revealed.  One must will that THE SACRIFICED is no fitter object for compassion than THE SACRIFICER.  Each of us, simply human, participates in the crucifixion.  The drama of the Passion is a universal enactment, from which no one is spared.  By the same token, there is no one guiltless, no one unworthy of the very grace that drama represents, even to the man who drove the nails into our God’s feet, the man who took them lovingly as, in the furthest reach of his own development, a gift of compassion, his own compassion were we to reach to the furthest paradox, large as a universe, great as a Savior’s heart.  Shortly, Christ is BEYOND good and evil.  In the truest sense, he has “’conquered the world.’”  (John 16:33)  Resting our gaze on such ambition, we must reach toward a solitary ethical imperative which might hold for all time, for every creed or persuasion.  The thrust of Christ's Passion, the signification he burns in our hearts, not by threat or precept but by his own example, is found in Luke 23.  It is a willing toward Christ, a willing we cannot fail to share, a willing toward boundless compassion, such supreme ethical humanism as would include simply everything in God’s universe, even those who would stubbornly will it away.

 

 

ii ((((( Gethsemane

 

 

It could rightly be argued that Christ is at his most human in the garden of Gethsemane, shortly before the crucifixion.  Certainly, this Christ, so movingly portrayed in Matthew, may be the furthest limit we ourselves can hope to attain in our ongoing will to Christ.  Such Christ as pleads to the Father that he might relinquish the final dictates of his earthly sojourn, that final increment of his Christhood, certainly mirrors the human frailty, our reluctance to will the inevitable conclusion of faith, a faith which must underline the tragic significance of human completion, a tragedy whose release is always promised but never certain.  That the Christ himself would falter, would plead this late in his inscrutable progress toward sacrificial lamb, toward THE pivotal event in all recorded history, seems somehow comforting, Christ-like, a vulnerability which is utterly ours, utterly human, even so much as to remove the last residue of egoism that might remain from those difficult passages through toward a loving God.  There is nothing of Jehovah either in the Christ which pleads or the God which listens, for the two poles of Father-Son this late in the dialectic are fused.  It is very much as if the Christ is praying toward himself—“Then he said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful to the point of death.  Wait here and keep awake with me.’  And going on a little further he fell on his face and prayed.  ‘My Father,’ he said ‘if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.  Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.’”  (26:38-39)

     The loneliness is nearly total.  Even his most trusted disciples cannot remain awake.  The prayer is repeated and again repeated.  Each time, returning, he finds them asleep.  The prayer is answered, in fact, by Judas’s kiss and the summons to certain death.  God (Christ) exacts no less than total Christhood for his Son, since only on Calvary will he make the final passage toward the very particular faith which ensures our salvation.  It is the agony of Golgotha which wills itself toward God, the very particular God which can recognize that every concept, every creed, every force and power, every relationship, every nuance of living tissue, the dead, the yet unborn, are child of a loving Son, are child of a Son of MAN.  If we are made in God’s image, then inevitably, attaining to himself, this man who walked among us is the very image God himself attains TO.  After Gethsemane, there is only so much God as there is Christ.  After Golgotha, there is only so much Christ as we attain to.  For better or worse, twenty centuries have proven that death is only a beginning.  It is time we begin that beginning which is only endless, that start that willed its completion in our hearts.

 

 

iii ((((( The Trial

 

 

It is obvious from the various accounts in Scripture that Christ’s main problem for the Sanhedrin was a SPIRITUAL messiahship but one they could only deliver to Roman retribution if it assumed a POLITICAL nature.  We are not told of the specific accusations offered in the presence of the Jewish elite beyond that of Christ’s assuming the “’” . . . power to destroy the Temple of God and in three days build it up.”’”  (Matthew 26:61)  If Christ had been in fact referring to his own death and eventual Resurrection, he makes no effort to clarify.  In fact he is silent toward his accusers until the high priest asks him, “’ . . . to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’  ‘These words are your own’ answered Jesus.  ‘Moreover, I tell you that from this time you will see the SON OF MAN SEATED AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE POWER and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.’”  (26:63-64)  It is much as if Jesus chooses at this moment to complete his own downfall.  For these men of the Temple, such words are patent blasphemy.

     On the other hand, to exact vengeance under the umbrella of Roman Law, his accusers are powerless without Pilate.  Though we cannot know the full complex of accusation they relate to that magistrate, the greatest perjury concerns his earthly role—“Pilate then summoned the chief priests and the leading men and the people.  ‘You brought this man before me’ he said ‘as a political agitator.  Now I have gone into the matter myself in your presence and found no case against the man in respect of all the charges you bring against him.  Nor has Herod either, since he has sent him back to us.  As you can see, the man has done nothing that deserves death . . . ’”  (Luke 23:13-14)

     The passage in John is just as instructive—“So Pilate went back into the Praetorium and called Jesus to him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ he asked.  Jesus replied, ‘Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others spoken to you about me?’  Pilate answered, ‘Am I a Jew?  It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me: what have you done?’  Jesus replied, ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews.  But my kingdom is not of this kind.’  ‘So you are a king then?’ said Pilate.  ‘It is you who say it’ answered Jesus.  ‘Yes, I am a king.  I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’  ‘Truth?’ said Pilate ‘What is that?;’ and with that he went out again to the Jews and said, ‘I find no case against him . . . ’”  (18:33-38)

     That so many who have even loved him now call for his crucifixion the Christ himself must have foreseen.  The natural order of existence has always been toward the status quo.  All peaks are leveled.  It is no mystery that this MOST exceptional man would be brought to account, even for an excess of compassion.  The threat to the Jewish tradition and its caretakers was that MESSIAHSHIP, which, had it been purely POLITICAL, they could conceivably have embraced.  Curiously, they construe it as such to effect their retribution.  A revolution of the human spirit is infinitely more troublesome for the human species, so slow to achieve itself, than all the armies that have ever clashed by night.  Twenty centuries of organized slaughter will henceforth conspire to cover a single fact.

 

 

iv ((((( The Crucifixion

 

 

Whether Christ’s final utterance is simply the loud cry of Matthew 27, or rather, “’Father, INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMIT MY SPIRIT,’” as in Luke 23, or, in fact, the consummate resignation, the sad triumph of John 19—“’It is accomplished.;’” the account of that ending is powerful testimony to a KIND of Christhood that becomes the given fact.  Perhaps the most touching moments are those in John of Christ’s compassion for a mother bereft of a son, a disciple bereft of a father—“Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’  Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’  And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.”  (19:27)  By the same token, which of us cannot be moved at this messiah’s behavior toward the two robbers who share his earthly fate but taunt him in the same fashion as the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders?—“’He saved others;’ they [all] said ‘he cannot save himself.  He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.  He puts his trust in God; now let God rescue him if he wants him.  For he did say, “I am the son of God.”’”  (Matthew 27:42-43)  In Luke’s account, “One of the criminals hanging there abused . . . [Christ]  But the other rebuked him [the criminal] . . . ” (23:39) for doing so.  Most significantly, Christ’s words are characteristic of his final compassion—“’Indeed, I promise you’ he replied ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’”  (23:42-43)

     The furthest increment of Christ’s physical and spiritual agony is recorded in Matthew—“From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.  And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU DESERTED ME?’”  (27:50)  The text has many translations, but each leads to the same terrible implication—that this messiah not only had to endure the scorn and rebuke of the elders, the scribes, the Roman soldiers, those others who had only known, indeed, his mercy and compassion, who had clung to his example and teachings, even to his warm embrace; to endure the beatings, the humiliation, the crucifixion itself, but in one agonized moment his very own doubt, that even the Father had withdrawn his love, his sanction, that the agony Christ lived on Calvary as man attaining God was suddenly his alone.

     Most significant for the closing outcry that began this section, whether simply release from pain or a final affirmation of faith, are these earlier words from Luke, a Christ at completion, needing only to negotiate his own death before he himself would inherit the compassion they will to—“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’”  (23:34)  From consummate Christhood to its literal execution and transcendence, there is only one messiah, no matter how we will his Resurrection.  In the truest sense, the completed fact on Calvary is the only Christhood man ever needed.  There is a willing that is true for all time, an attainment that we ourselves in our small way reach for every instant of our lives, even willing the very death of it.  If Christ is Christ achieved, we cannot will him away.

 

 

A TENTATIVE CONCLUSION

 

 

In terms of this short inquiry, what can it mean to be Christian?  The question might be rephrased—how can we not be Christ?  Centuries of dispute over which passages, which conflicting accounts, which improbabilities, which imperatives, are to be taken as literal, which as metaphorical, which as the mystical zealotry of some number of Christ’s contemporaries or near contemporaries attempting to ensure a faith, have fairly well exhausted the figure they explicate or blindly adhere to, if not his presence in our lives, certainly his patience somewhere after.  It is what we have made of our Savior that would will him toward despair.  A tentative examination of the dynamic of one man’s faith has been enough to suggest that there was far more messiah than we were ever large enough to will towards.  And yet we crucify him every day of our benighted lives in the name of those partial Christs we have severed him into.  The only mission we can ever truly know is an attainment for ALL mankind, for all those partials he willed along the way.  One must, in essence, attain to Christhood itself should we hope to attain to Christ.  It is not simply enough to imitate.  One must will his very completion both as the achieved fact on Calvary and its potential in our hearts.  By living we ATTAIN him.  The static pattern one might search for in the Gospels is in fact a PROCESS in our living.  Redemption is Christ as GIVEN.  It is Christ as ACHIEVED in one man’s sojourn toward a faith that was adequate not simply for his own mission, but for our own faith and practice, the completion we provide for him, each of us Christ, each of us, in the final exhalation of this universe, achieved.  In time we will all say—“’It is accomplished.’”  Our very Christhood hangs in the balance.

 

                                             1985

 

 

A POSTSCRIPT

 

 

This essay was written some years before I had either the chance or inclination toward genuine Biblical scholarship.  From the vantage point of the latter, however cursory it might seem to the professional theologian, I can still embrace much of what is said in these few pages.  I might well argue, however, that, since there is no reliable, documented sequence of events in any of the four Gospels, the dialectic proceeds out of the text itself and depends not so much on when Christ might have uttered one or another of the statements quoted as on his having likely at one point said something which struck the oral or written tradition vividly enough to be reconstructed as best it could.  That the Passion contains a number of obvious parallels in Old Testament wording can be seen to be the work of the authors of the Gospels rather than of the Christ himself, but then, one of more conservative spirit could take those same parallels to be prime evidence of the verity of Christ’s messiahship.  Of ultimate importance is the HISTORICAL verity of the recorded statement, “’Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’”  Since it echoes nothing in prior Scripture, an argument could be made for its paramount historicity in a setting so riddled with zealous paraphrase or direct quotation.  My thesis seems intact, namely, that Christ was a man in search of Christhood.  If the foregoing outcry by a tormented God is in fact history, as it would seem to be by my argument, then he achieved it.  It remains for us to realize just as much.

 

                                             1990

  

                             EDITED JUNE 1998

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