Holy Week 2011


Is this a big thing, or a small thing? Does it make any difference, or no difference on earth and in heaven? Is what is happening now the end of the old, or the triumph of the old? These are the questions I have always wanted my dad to answer but these are precisely the questions on which he's kept silence, up until now. I know he wants me to be where I am now. He knows I would never let him down; but I just wish I knew what it was all for!

It has always been difficult to sort out precisely what I know and what I don't know. My earthly father, saintly Joseph, managed to keep himself on an even keel by being self contained and just getting on with things; but my mother told me the stories of my conception, birth and Presentation in the Temple. As a child she constantly reminded me that I was special. She said that ordinary synagogue attendance was not good enough; and she begged a local Pharisee to give me Scripture lessons and she reminded me to pray until I needed no reminding, until it was part of life's fabric. And when I grew up my mother went on telling me I was special, particularly when I felt depressed by my inability to convince people that what I was saying and doing were critical to their lives.

All through my 20s I kept asking myself: "What is all this preparation for? I'll die before I do anything." I wanted to believe that I was a child of the Spirit but I would have to wait. So I waited.

Then my mother told me that cousin John, who had been living as a hermit since his Bar Mitzvah, had suddenly burst out of the wilderness and was storming around with the power of Elijah, in the clothes of Elisha. It was just too good to miss, so I went down to the Jordan to watch him perform; and it was at that moment that the Spirit came into me. John was telling people to repent but the Spirit in me knew that there had to be more to it than that, that people were created in such a way that it was in their nature to do good and it was denying their nature when they did wrong. I think John thought that doing wrong was natural. We didn't really argue about it because we had so much in common but it sometimes caused friction. I knew then, at the Jordan, that my mission had begun and that I would spend the rest of my life spreading the idea that God's children were made to love.

It wasn't easy. No sooner had I decided that I was a child of the Spirit than doubts set in. Was I really cut out to be a wandering preacher or did I want to be a great leader? Improbable questions, you might think; but it is so easy when you become involved in spiritual issues to suffer from delusions of grandeur.

When I got through the crisis I was ready for action but from the start I came up against the suffocation of rules and regulations; people, particularly my fellow Pharisees, thought that we were created by God simply to obey a complex set of often redundant rules. The rules had got in the way and, without wanting to be, I was cast in the role of a prophet in conflict with the establishment. This was sad because I was not hostile to the establishment; I just wanted to encourage it to put more emphasis on people being and doing good, going the extra mile. There is a role for regulation which helps people to develop self restraint; but the trouble arises when people think that they do good simply by obeying the regulations, that they don't have to do anything else!

So what started out as a lovely, gentle mission by the lake, began to assume a darker tone as it became clear that I couldn't talk about love without other people thinking that this was not a gift from God but a threat. I tried to keep it light, I pulled out all the stops, I exercised all the charm that I had learned from my mother and all the self restraint I had learned from Joseph; but nothing was good enough. My plan was simply to preach, building on what John had started, by calling people to turn back to themselves, to their good nature, to their status as creatures, and to see each other as God's children. But it didn't take long to learn that preaching was never going to be enough; I had to tell stories and then I had to be in my own stories. It was never part of the plan to annoy people by eating with notorious sinners; it just turned out that way. I needed to show the respectable people that there was no such thing as a right to enter my dad's kingdom; and also that there was no such thing as a lost cause, that nobody could condemn anybody because only God knows what gifts people have been given and what hardships they face in using them. To show how God loved everyone I spent time with everyone but it wasn't political or provocative; they had simply left me with no alternative. And they weren't bad people, just narrow and frightened; and, when you look at it, all the human evils of the world come down to fear, the inability to trust God enough to let God be and to let each other be. I never could get people to see, not even my closest followers, that it was vulnerability to god that counted, not handing out bread, unless that was, in itself, an expression of vulnerability, of emptying oneself out.

But this was such a revolutionary message, even though it was not supposed to trigger any political revolution, that it was hard for my poor followers to bear. All they could think of was showing and doing. It  isn't surprising because the whole of the scriptures is about showing and doing; there's no sense of simply being there for other people. My mother understood because she saw that love was as much a matter of acceptance as assertion. But Simon and  the rest thought that our success could only be measured in miracles and followers.

I was trying to be rather than to do which I suppose is why we found ourselves on the journey to Jerusalem. I didn't plan to end up crucified but events took on their own shape, their own inevitability, and all the time I could feel the Spirit within me; and I knew in a way that I couldn't articulate that when I died the Spirit would leave me and somehow inhabit all my followers. So I wasn't quite swept along but I was pulled along; and it didn't matter what Simon and the others said, there was no stopping it.

That is why there was no way of setting aside the big question of what this was all for? Was it my dad's call to me simply to lead a good, generous and holy life or was there more to it? I frequently found myself saying things which sounded more important than I meant them to be. I would be talking quite normally and then my speech would turn grave and I would find myself quoting the Scriptures as if they were about me; it was confusing for my listeners and I tried my best to explain; but people had such a narrow, old fashioned view of God that it was difficult to build a new, a more generous and gentle picture.

And then there was the healing. There is a strong tradition of travelling preachers and healers in Galilee but what happened through me was spectacular compared with them. At first I was embarrassed by it and had to get away to calm down and put things into perspective - delusions of grandeur again! - But the spirit within me kept saying that I just had to trust the moment and be obedient to God's will; healing was part of my emptying out of God's goodness into the world, as was the case with the other, more spectacular events such as the mass feedings. They took on a life of their own and I just had to let things happen, as another kind of emptying out.

It was when I was praying alone at night, alone with my dad, that the questions were most acute and also when I got closest to answers. What was I here for? How special is special? We are all children of God but am I a child of God in  a different way? Every time I went home there were reminders of my conception; every time I went to Bethlehem there were memories of my birth in the inn; and every time I went to Jerusalem my mother would remind me of Simeon and Anna; and all I wanted to do was to lead a good life and be useful; but the pressures, from inside me and outside me, were for me to be more than that.

Matters came to a head yesterday. There was something very special about our final meal. I was filled with the absolute conviction that I was a special Son of God and that what I stood for, the emptying out of myself in love, would live on through my followers. I wanted to leave them something of myself, not just until the mist cleared and they saw what my life was all about, but forever.

I was still feeling this immense power for now and for the future when I was arrested. That is why the trials, when they came, were so futile. I didn't know myself whether I was a kind of spiritual king? I knew I was a leader of a modest band of followers; and I felt the Spirit's presence very strongly within me, which is why I found myself, well, speaking on his behalf. I caught myself saying that my kingdom was not of this world; and then wondered what I meant by "kingdom". If the idea was to change the way people live, I have made a very small dent, a few small victories for love.

As I stood in front of these important people, it was difficult to understand what it was all about. Granted, I did go a bit far when they tried to catch me out over the woman accused of adultery - men always get defensive about adultery - and the nice little trap about obligations to Caesar; and I probably should have preached to the traders in the temple rather than getting angry; but they were relatively small things. I know the Romans kill for minor offences but there's a terrible irony in the adherents to the Jewish law breaking their own law to kill me, who called that law into question.

There is no place for irony now. It won't be long before the pain overwhelms me.

and I still don't know; and I might never know. Is obedience to my dad enough? Is that what it's all about? Is emptying yourself into a state of as utter humility as you can manage, enough?

I am being killed for love. It's too much for these poor people to bear, all that love. They say they want it but it's too embarrassing because they are frightened that they can't return it and they become overwhelmed. And I am also being killed for love because my death will show that there is nothing that humanity can do, even killing me, which will impair my love.

Yes. I forgive you. And you can stand for all the other people, seen and unseen, whom my father will forgive because they don't know what they are doing. Yes. I will never leave you. From today you will always be with me. Oh. And I forgive you too, even if you don't want to be forgiven.

Mother! I wish I could spare you. John will look after you until we are re-united. It won't be long, I promise. 

Dad! Why have you gone away? Why aren't you here now when I need you most? I know it's almost over; but I'm so lonely.

Oh, yes. I should have seen it, shouldn't I? It's only in complete vulnerability, in complete emptiness that we truly give.

I've done it!

Yes. I can see now that my life really was important and that I will make a difference.

I am empty.