Sunday, April 24, 2011

"My mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like."

This Easter morning, I'm reflecting on the Gospel of Thomas.  (another translation here. . . and if you like your Jesus with old-timey pronouns, there's this one.)

Among the early Christian writings known as the gnostic gospels (or in mainstream Christianity, the "apocrypha"), the Gospel of Thomas is a remarkable collection of sayings and teachings by Jesus by way of dialogue and parable. There's almost no narrative, and there is most certainly no dogma (which explains in part why these texts had to be eliminated at the Council of Nicea, when the orthodoxy of the religion was being settled). There are many stories and parables that have parallels in the canonical Gospels, but there is a lot of evidence that these gnostic gospels, a library of which was found at a place called Nag Hammadi, were written before even Mark or "Q" --the earliest known writings in the canon, circa 74CE. (A quick shout-out to my Catholic High School experience in Mr. Bruce Hoff's Biblical Archaeology class)

Here are some of my favorites.

6    His disciples asked him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?"
Jesus said, "Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."

"I won't tell you what to do or not do. Just live with integrity." Heresy! I mean, come now: you can't build a religion on such calls for individualistic instruction. Sounds almost humanist.

14  Jesus said to them, "If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.
When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them.
 Again: disregard dietary and other dogmatic restrictions and proscriptions. Just adapt and do your work in the world.

Then there are a few sayings which talk of the call to 'house-jack', subdue, or even kill a 'strong' or 'powerful' man.

35    Jesus said, "One can't enter a strong person's house and take it by force without tying his hands. Then one can loot his house."

98    Jesus said, The Father's kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.
 Taken literally (as there are would be few with 'ears to hear') this could be seen as a prescription for class warfare, and blood in the streets, even as a way to bring about the "Kingdom".  Problematic for the Church leaders, to say the least.  But, when the powerful man is the ego, which must be annihilated in order for identification with deity (which is the real message, even throughout the Big Four of the canon), the messages become more like Buddhist teachings than anything else. 

For what it's worth, the wonderful contemporary Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote a book entitled Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (a small excerpt here).  I think a primary link between the two traditions is to be found in these early Christian writings, which didn't make the cut back in the 13th century.

Further, I want to add that--yes, the Thomas of the title is the "Doubting Thomas" of legend. Maybe because Thomas was granted special, secret knowledge from Jesus, he recognized that the physical resurrection was, in a way, superfluous. Hence, the "doubt."  Maybe in this perspective, the resurrection happened in order that those who need a literal experience can have something to hold onto, and perhaps can't handle the mythic implications of the teachings.  Like Mel Gibson, for instance.
At any rate, I like this Jesus better. Happy Easter and God Bless us, every one.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday, Great Hero

An ash tree, upon which Odin (king of the Norse gods) sacrificed himself. .
Today, I found myself reflecting on an Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood(UPDATE: I just flashed on the 'why' of this reflection.  Good Friday+Earth Day!)  The "rood" of the title is the cross on which Jesus was executed.  The Bard announces his story, then the voice shifts to the Rood as the speaker. True to Old English bardic tradition, it depicts Christ as a Warrior-Hero, rather than as a sacrificial Lamb. Here there is no doubt, no questioning in Gethsemene, no Pontius Pilate, no thronging crowds calling for the release of Barabas; you can almost picture a lean, defiant hero, stripped bare and stoically ascending to his Fate, absent of 'historical' narrative or consequence. There is no cause, but that this sacrifice is what is fated.  It's beautiful, and is a great example of the adaptability of myth.

The link is above, but I'm including the text from that link as well. There are sites and analysis all over the Internets, so I won't attempt to dissect it here. For the scholarly-inclined, I believe the footnote hyperlinks are live, and will take you to the explanations.  But, I'll be honest--the poem is hard to give a cold-read.  The repetitive and (to our ears) redundant descriptive phrases could fill the reader with impatience; but that was the hallmark of the form, as it was spoken/sung/incanted in the Great Hall, as the court caroused and drank mead. So, by all means: fill your tankard, and have at it.

Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,                   5
brightest of beams. All was that beacon
sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
fair at earth's corners; there likewise five
shone on the shoulder-span [ 1 ]. All there beheld the Angel of God [ 2 ],
fair through predestiny [ 3 ]. Indeed, that was no wicked one's gallows,    10
but holy souls beheld it there,
men over earth, and all this great creation.
Wondrous that victory-beam--and I stained with sins,
with wounds of disgrace. I saw glory's tree
honored with trappings, shining with joys,              15
decked with gold; gems had
wrapped that forest tree worthily round.
Yet through that gold I clearly perceived
old strife of wretches [ 4 ], when first it began
to bleed on its right side. With sorrows most troubled,                   20
I feared that fair sight. I saw that doom-beacon [ 5 ]
turn trappings and hews: sometimes with water wet,
drenched with blood's going; sometimes with jewels decked.
But lying there long while, I,
troubled, beheld the Healer's tree,                            25
until I heard its fair voice.
Then best wood spoke these words:
"It was long since--I yet remember it--
that I was hewn at holt's end,
moved from my stem. Strong fiends seized me there,             30
worked me for spectacle; curs├Ęd ones lifted me [ 6 ].
On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill;
fiends enough fastened me. Then saw I mankind's Lord
come with great courage when he would mount on me.
Then dared I not against the Lord's word                  35
bend or break, when I saw earth's
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped himself--he, God Almighty--
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,                40
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth's fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.                45
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together [ 7 ]. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man's side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill                        50
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,                55
King's fall lamented. Christ was on rood.
But there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one. I beheld all that.
Sore was I with sorrows distressed, yet I bent to men's hands,
with great zeal willing. They took there Almighty God,                60
lifted him from that grim torment. Those warriors abandoned me
standing all blood-drenched, all wounded with arrows.
They laid there the limb-weary one, stood at his body's head;
beheld they there heaven's Lord, and he himself rested there,
worn from that great strife. Then they worked him an earth-house,               65
men in the slayer's sight carved it from bright stone,
set in it the Wielder of Victories. Then they sang him a sorrow-song,
sad in the eventide, when they would go again
with grief from that great Lord. He rested there, with small company.
But we there lamenting a good while                          70
stood in our places after the warrior's cry
went up. Corpse grew cold,
fair life-dwelling. Then someone felled us
all to the earth. That was a dreadful fate!
Deep in a pit one delved us. Yet there Lord's thanes,           75
friends, learned of me,. . . . . . . . . . .
adorned me with silver and gold.
Now you may know, loved man of mine,
what I, work of baleful ones, have endured
of sore sorrows. Now has the time come                80
when they will honor me far and wide,
men over earth, and all this great creation,
will pray for themselves to this beacon. On me God's son
suffered awhile. Therefore I, glorious now,
rise under heaven, and I may heal                            85
any of those who will reverence me.
Once I became hardest of torments,
most loathly to men, before I for them,
voice-bearers, life's right way opened.
Indeed, Glory's Prince, Heaven's Protector,                      90
honored me, then, over holm-wood [ 8 ].
Thus he his mother, Mary herself,
Almighty God, for all men,
also has honored over all woman-kind.
Now I command you, loved man of mine,                        95
that you this seeing [ 9 ] tell unto men;
discover with words that it is glory's beam
which Almighty God suffered upon
for all mankind's manifold sins
and for the ancient ill-deeds of Adam.                      100
Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,                          105
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem--he holds power of doom--
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.
Nor may there be any unafraid                  110
for the words that the Wielder speaks.
He asks before multitudes where that one is
who for God's name would gladly taste
bitter death, as before he on beam did.
And they then are afraid, and few think                    115
what they can to Christ's question answer [ 10 ].
Nor need there then any be most afraid [ 11 ]
who ere in his breast bears finest of beacons;
but through that rood shall each soul
from the earth-way enter the kingdom,                  120
who with the Wielder thinks yet to dwell."
I prayed then to that beam with blithe mind,
great zeal, where I alone was
with small company [ 12 ]. My heart was
impelled on the forth-way, waited for in each                125
longing-while. For me now life's hope:
that I may seek that victory-beam
alone more often than all men,
honor it well. My desire for that
is much in mind, and my hope of protection                     130
reverts to the rood. I have not now many
strong friends on this earth; they forth hence
have departed from world's joys, have sought themselves glory's King;
they live now in heaven with the High-Father,
dwell still in glory, and I for myself expect                      135
each of my days the time when the Lord's rood,
which I here on earth formerly saw,
from this loaned life will fetch me away
and bring me then where is much bliss,
joy in the heavens, where the Lord's folk                       140
is seated at feast, where is bliss everlasting;
and set me then where I after may
dwell in glory, well with those saints
delights to enjoy. May he be friend to me
who here on earth earlier died                             145
on that gallows-tree for mankind's sins.
He loosed us and life gave,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with glory and gladness to those who there burning endured.
That Son was victory-fast [ 13 ] in that great venture,                    150
with might and good-speed [ 14 ], when he with many,
vast host of souls, came to God's kingdom,
One-Wielder Almighty: bliss to the angels
and all the saints--those who in heaven
dwelt long in glory--when their Wielder came,                155
Almighty God, where his homeland was.