Quaker Universalist Conversations

The empty day

Reflections on the day before Easter

These two posts were originally published on The Empty Path: nonaligned faith and practice in the present .

The empty day – 4/12/2009

Nothing convicts me in my heart more than the contemplation of Jesus as a historical person.

All my decades of wrestling with spiritual paths and theologies are self-indulgence, compared with the blessèdness and horror of that man’s life. Every day’s news is full of the brutality and painful neediness of humankind. That Jesus walked compassionately into the midst of it all is reason enough to follow him—and to be dismayed whenever I fall short of doing so.

On Palm Sunday of 2009, I wrote about the painful discrepancy we experience between our outwardly celebrative expectations, as we wave our branches on the road into Jerusalem, and our inwardly destructive disappointments, resentments, fears and betrayals.

We imagine that divine intervention, or at least some authoritative spiritual teacher or political leader, will “fix everything” in our day-to-day lives. Yet those lives continue into one “unfixed” moment after another.

More distressing, occasionally we manage to hear what Jesus actually says: “Here’s what to do. Here’s how to do it. Let me show you.”

I say distressing, because we normally are so far from feeling able to do as he did in any moment of the life our stories tell us about. Not only so far from feeling able to walk knowingly into brutal torture and crucifixion. So far from risking or surrendering material security to live with society’s outcasts. So far from reaching out to sooth the secret wounds which cause others to hurt us.

Palm branches (drawing)
In my 2009 “Palm Sunday” post, I owned these failings, these ways in which I fall short of what Jesus shows me a human being can do. Yet I also owned something else: my rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of The Fall, caused by original sin and perpetuated through every generation of the human race.

“None of our failure is ‘fallenness’,” I wrote. “It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.”

All those human traits which are bound up in the metaphor of fallenness are natural survival traits of social animals. As self-serving, hurtful and sometimes deadly as they may be, they all arise from innate biological responses to perceived threat to oneself or one’s kin. It seems pointless to me to claim that these traits represent fallenness from some primordially better state of being.

Even so, the metaphor does speak to something deep in human experience. Last Monday, a friend sent this in response to my post:
bq. To me, our fallen-ness is separation from God and being less than what we can be when we are in close communion with God, as was Jesus. The importance of the gospel stories, to me, is in what they can teach us about our true nature and our relationship to God.

These words sing welcome counterpoint to mine.

Palm branches (drawing)
The New Testament Greek word hamartia is usually translated as “sin.” However, it “is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein),” falling short of the target, the ideal, the moral (or divine) expectation.

So, instead of fallenness in the Augustinian sense, perhaps our challenge is fallen short-ness. Our natural survival responses usually block or distract us from the grace-filled life we sometimes glimpse. It is a life we sometimes even manage to live for a moment or so at a time. We long for it, strive for it…yet most of the time we fall short.

When we are momentarily successful at such living, we experience the unexpected grace of “our true nature and our relationship to God.” When we notice that we have fallen short once again, we feel as if we are separated from “our relationship with God.”

I do not believe that fallenness is separation from God. It is, rather, the illusory feeling of separation, the loss of conscious awareness, the denial, even, of our unending kinship with God.

Palm branches (drawing)
Some years ago I discovered that, for me, the most important day in the Christian calendar is one not even traditionally noted, that strange, empty day between Good Friday and Easter.

I go out into the wilderness by myself and sit, watching and waiting. I have never physically seen or heard Jesus. In the material realm, all I have of him is the stories I have been told. Yet when I sit alone on the empty day, he is no less with me than on any other day.

It isn’t my reaching toward him, privately in meditation or longing, or publicly in Lutheran liturgical worship or Quaker waiting worship, that brings him into realness for me. And my fallenness, my fallen short-ness, doesn’t keep him from me.

He is just there. A historical person, demonstrating in the flesh, through the stories about him, all that a human being is capable of doing when in full relationship with God.

"Blossom," Carol Bailey White
What, then, was so powerful for Jesus’ disciples—after their flight and betrayal and denial of him—that they could know him to be alive for them again?

It was the simple, bone-deep realization that they still experienced the kinship with God which Jesus had enabled them to know before his death.

That kinship was not broken, cannot be broken.

As I wrote on that Palm Sunday:

Jesus knows, God knows. Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be


The empty day, again – 4/5/2015

For many Christians, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the key days of that week.

For me, as one who is constantly on the boundary between faith and doubt, it is that in-between Saturday which confronts me most vibrantly with the gut reality of Jesus in my life.

"Crist of the Desert," an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Yesterday, April 4th, I was already by choice shut down mentally and emotionally, merely as a way to recover from the intense week of library staff training I had just completed. However, that shutdown-ness resonated with the spiritual aloneness of the day.

Following the recent deaths of my mother and father, I can much more readily settle back into visceral emptiness of loss, that paradoxical awareness that, though biological death is empirically understandable, the vanishing of a person one knows is inexplicable.

Yesterday I felt that emptiness in relation to Jesus. Though never having met him physically, since my childhood Jesus has been as real to me as any other family member. To remind myself—to regain that visceral awareness of him in my inner life—I let myself feel the loss I felt following the deaths of my parents.

There was nothing particularly spiritual or metaphysical about the exercise. It was simply a form of attentiveness, of silent listening.

When eventually I remembered the sort of “resurrection” I perceive when my mother or father surface in memory, I also recognized that same potential for Jesus in my inner life.

And so it is,
Blessèd be.


Image Sources

“Blossom” by Carol Bailey White, from her flickr photostream (circa 2009, no longer on this photostream).

Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. Brother Robert writes:

Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semitic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.

This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression — one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.

Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person — center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.

A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.

Read more about The Syriac Orthodox Church at TrinityStores.com.

Comments

I find these reflections fascinating since I have encountered self-styled atheists who ridicule me for believing in the existence of an “imaginary friend,” meaning, in their terms, Jesus. For their sake, as well as yours and mine, I could not imagine a friend who made such an impact with his physical and spiritual existence over 2,000 years ago, that for over centuries, councils of religious men and women, leaders and saints were called together to try and figure out “Who was Jesus?”

This historical movement arose from a handful of men and women who knew him personally, as he emerged from an obscure place called Nazareth. Back in the day when Jesus walked the earth, people regarded only Emperors and Kings worth of historical records. Impoverished people meant nothing to them, and they were not even recorded except possibly in groups, like herds in the desert.

And yet, Jesus, who lived and worked in what was relative obscurity is honored and loved to this day. Even though he suffered a most ignominious death, along with others who suffered similar deaths by crucifixion, Jesus is loved and embraced as the Son of God thousands of years later. I, for one, could not have imagined Him.

As for your “empty day”, the Saturday before Easter, I have often thought of it as a sort of breather after the long, arduous forty days of Lent and the exercises of Holy Week, when Jesus breathed his last and said, “It is finished,” which I take to mean that He had done his part, now the rest was up to us. So that Holy Saturday, as it is called, I take a break, so to speak, and consider the need for a chocolate bunny or at least a bunny basket for the kids.

Add a comment
Preview, then submit.