Saturday, 29 April 2017

Absence of Christ

As Christians, we are sometimes unaware of certain paradoxes that are interwoven within our faith. Some appear insurmountable, such as the discovery that our planet is much, much, much older than the interpretations offered by our illumined and "modern" predecessors could afford, and then that the Genesis text was neither written nor given in any spirit of police report. That's a whole chapter of its own, but one which illustrates well that the path of interpretation of our texts is dynamic, especially when we give ourselves the time and apply ourselves to being humble enough to look for the meaning that necessarily carried the texts over the centuries to us. If I am speaking in such terms, it is in no small part thanks to the influence of my friend, Barney Asprey, who has set me the challenge of taking with greater seriousness the precautions given us by Paul Ricoeur (among others) to not go too quickly in hammering out afresh a "scientific" faith. Fortunately, our biblical texts are loaded with diverse genres, especially that of story, within which there is the obvious purpose of retelling. Once separated from its source - the spirit, the hand and the revisions of the author - the text is unleashed. It lives. In the case of a canonised religious text, it literally becomes Eternal Word of God.

I apologise for this parenthesis, which might have distracted us from the direction I wanted (this is a translation from my original post in French last night) to take, which is the ascension of Christ. Having already published a short reflection on the meaning of the resurrection of Christ here, I now want to move at this appropriate time to his exaltation. However, not just to his exaltation, which represents a subsequent step loaded with meaning, but to the absence of Christ. Warning! I am not saying that Christ is absolutely absent, not at all, since we read clearly in the gospel according to Matthew "I am with you always, until the end of the age". Note, however, that Jesus is saying this in his departure phase (even if, unlike Luke, the author does not include the physical ascension itself). In other words: I am going and I am staying. This seems paradoxical, and before offering "a solution", I need to pay attention that I don't take the "voie courte" of simple comprehension. Interpretation offered by the church is transmitted from the very early years of childhood. The first lessons of Sunday School are not just that "God loves you", but that "Jesus lives in your heart" (of course, God is Jesus and Jesus is God at that point). Jesus is in your heart. This is not a childish reduction - it's a profound, dynamic reality experienced by millions of Christians of all ages. A while later, our children learn that God is also Spirit and Father, comprising further realities that attach onto our experience as we grow as Christians.

So we learn that Jesus and the Father are in us through the agency of the Spirit of God. Are you ready for another paradox? For God, his indirect action is as direct as his direct action, which is why the little Greek word "dia" is of such inestimable value. So, when Jesus physically leaves this planet in his human flesh, transformed according to the purposes of God for all the creation in submission to decay, he remains spiritually among God's people, there where "two or three are gathered" in his name. What can we notice? This departure prepares the way for an extraordinary deluge from the very heart and being of God, his Spirit, sent by the Son, which presences both Father and Son... and Christian, who suddenly exists as she or he has never been able to exist before! Jesus is thus made present despite his absence.

But why speak at all of his absence? Should it not suffice to speak of and rejoice in his presence?

I would say no. It is very important to understand, or perhaps stand under, the humanity of Christ, not just in the ontological sense, but to grasp where the New Testament is coming from. Of course, this latter testament followers the former and, with the Marcion interpretation so utterly and fatally crushed, continued to carry the meaning of a good God proud to ransom his good creation. Indeed, even beyond the scope of the New Testament, these centuries of gnostic and platonic prominence failed to lure the faithful in embracing philosophy of escaping from and denigration of the natural order. Instead, second temple Jewish expectation and conviction continued to be grounded in a God who would soon resolve the problems here.

Do you see the connection? It is for these reasons that the "picture" of Christ sat on the throne at the right hand of God is more than a picture. Yes, friends, it is yet another paradox. It has to be a paradox. The resurrected Christ did not vaporise his bones. Even the molecules, if we follow a certain modern logic yet ground it on the ancient transversal belief among nearly all Jews (except the Sadducees), even those atoms were transformed in a new physicality entirely driven by Spirit, which can only know life. I am starting to tire of all these paradoxes now, the new star being a body driven by spirit. All complaints to be sent to St. Paul...

Many may not realise that orthodox interpretation says that once the Christ incarnated flesh, being born of Mary, his incarnation is eternal. According to this tradition, which for me is deeply meaningful, Jesus bears his scars forever. Visibly. Physically. Let us return now then to the main paradox that prompted me to put pen to paper yesterday evening. This physical Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He need only turn his head to the left and he can gaze directly into his Father's eyes and reciprocate the gaze that transformed the history of the world.

Let us not forget, and we so need to insist on this point, perhaps with reference to the solid of reference of N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, that the first generations of Christians - who were also Jews - understood this resurrection with the same language they reserved exclusively for the great Spring Clean - the apocalypse of God. Except that the resurrection scheduled for that end time had already taken place at Easter. "The resurrection" had been decisively split into two; first for Christ, and later for his people (leaving aside a complex passage at the end of Revelation). This great cleanup (I really like John Dominic Crossan's language here), by definition, cannot be just symbolic. But if the resurrection is understood as above all a miracle, it would be surprising for some to realise how slippery the slope is back to the lure of escaping the physical prison. That for which our souls thirst is doubtless something akin to escape, but escaping the natural order entirely is a severe and even fatal corruption of the earliest interpretations. The supernatural transformed the natural. That is where my question came from last night (there are so many things to say on this topic but it was late and I didn't want to have this paradox still hanging over me today - even if I am sure that I will never have a satisfactory answer): how can Jesus be understood as being located to the right of the incorporeal father, and the father to the left of the corporal son?

The absence of Christ's body in the tomb visited by the women on the Sunday morning should still speak to us today. An absent Christ can doubtless be in our hearts, along with the Father, but an absent Christ enables him to be "located" in the supreme authority position, present next to his father, our father. Let us remember that a resurrected Christ reigning from Earth would have had significant limits. How hard would it be to believe in his resurrection (a never-aging man, king of Israel...): it would seem that our God appreciates steps of faith, which various apologists sense a need to remove for the Christians they "serve". However, if we look at the ontological interpretation options, that is to say the interpretation of the satisfaction of messianic promises in a resurrected, non-ascended Messiah, would no doubt still include being "a son of God", even in a more absolute sense than David, but still much less than approximating an equal to God himself.

Christ's absence, therefore, would seem as important as his presence. According to me, Barney ;)

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