Saturday, April 11, 2009

I follow he who has conquered death

Lately most of my weekends have been full, and this rare free one gives me a good chance to write about, well, just about anything. Heck, I can even write in highly cliched sentences like these two.

Ah, but this is not any weekend, this is Easter weekend, the holiest weekend of the year.

(Let me point out one thing right away. A few years ago, I heard on the radio a man mock Christianity by saying, "Jesus was supposed to rise 3 days after he died, but Easter's only two days after Good Friday, duh, I'm an idiot." Now he didn't say that last part, but it was implied. This is a good lesson in the folly of making seemingly obvious criticism without any investigation in a matter well analyzed by others who have differing opinions (ie, this is a good rebuke to many shallow criticisms of religion, I admit there are deeper criticisms, and I have yet to discover a counter-point to all of them (indeed, ultimately I believe there isn't a fool-proof counter-point to all the criticisms, because then I feel we would be forced by iron logic to believe and that would deprive us of the choice that Christ died for (of course I could be wrong on this analysis). Moreover, I feel that a fool-proof explanation of the religious nature of the universe is well past what the human mind can understand in a fool-proof was, because it gives a definitive view of the full nature of the universe, which is far too much for us to truly grasp, least that's how I figure).

But back to the man who declared himself an idiot because he hastily opened his mouth about the distance of time between Good Friday and Easter (look I have atheist friends, and I admit that atheists have full right and often good reason to criticize religion, and often they ought to do it so that it'll prompt the religious to dig deeper into their faith to contradict them, HOWEVER, I am opposed to superficial criticism like this one which could be disproved by a simple internet check).

After all this ranting, let me cut myself off by just explaining why the Bible says Jesus rose 3 days after his death, and why this one weekend between Good Friday and Easter counts as 3 days. Essentially it all comes down to the Roman counting method (explained here in regards to another calendar-related matter (though not in regards to Kalends itself). The Romans counted inclusively, and Jerusalem was firmly in the Roman Empire at this time (well, firmly would be an exaggeration as the Romans found out themselves in 67AD (the Bible is actually a great source at looking at the Roman world around the time of the First Jewish-Roman War, one good example of this is the disciple of Jesus called Simon the Zealot, who may or may not have been actually a follower of the political party of that era called the Zealots (who would be a major factor in the First Jewish-Roman War), but at least had some of their connotations associated with him). Anywho, by the Roman counting method, 3 days after Jesus' death makes perfect sense, Good Friday, when Jesus died, is day 1, Easter Vigil is day 2, and Easter is day 3. Anyways, just wanted to get that all settled out.)

This being Easter weekend (if you are looking at the Calendar and wondering where exactly within Easter weekend this is, it is Easter Vigil, or the Saturday of the Easter weekend. I had actually planned to write most of this on Good Friday, but A. I was in church for 5 hours, most of which was Malayalam (luckily my youth group had arranged the Stations of the Cross to be in English, which prevented pure Malayalam, and fortunately, our guest priest who co-celebrated the occasion was the wise and kind Father Bonaventure (though since he is a Catholic priest of the Malankara rite, maybe I should more rightfully call him, Bonaventure Achen (Malayali pride!), who spent some time between the different segments of the ceremony (it was not exactly a Mass, technically (I think), since there was not Communion)). Now I like to think I am able to draw in and participate in the sacred atmosphere of the Catholic ceremonies even when they're not in English, especially since I've had great experience with ceremonies that are in essence the same, though in the Latin rite and in English (I've also had some experience with Masses in the Latin rite in Latin, which was pretty cool because I got to bust out my 6 years of Latin study), still 5 hours kind of passes the time when I generally reverent and sort of goes into the period when I start to get distracted and think about super-robots, but it is a family thing, so, s'okay.

Actually, I still had quite a bit of time after the Good Friday service when I could have written a post, but it's a little bit difficult on Good Friday. It's a day that always strikes me as something incredibly important but well, as I coined the word before, half-blooded. Or really, just it's a matter of I'm not sure how exactly to feel (which may have been a sign from God that it's okay to be confused as to how to feel, which is a message I sort of needed to hear right now. If that seems rather something flimsy to interpret as a sign from God, well, when you hear something more directly from God, then lecture me about it (heck, even if you don't want to lecture me, I'd be interested in hearing about anyone's experience with God). I truly believe it is often (though not always) the subtle coincidences and the delicate shapes of moments in which God speaks to us, so as to reach out to help, heal, and guide us, while preserving our freedom to choose to follow or reject him (a worldview elaborated on here).

Good Friday is only second to Easter in holiness, so it is a bit hard to take anything else to seriously that day. I mean I thought of other things, I admire those who can spend an entire day just meditating on the Passion of Jesus Christ, but I lack that degree of concentration. I'm a little ambivalent in fact about a lot of the heavier prayer rituals (although as mentioned above, I am willing to do the 5-hour Mass when called for), partly because I lack confidence that I could do them correctly (which is the least sensible of the reasons presented here, and if this alone where the case, I imagine I probably would have to push myself toward the heavier prayer rituals), partly because I often have a number of projects on my mind at any given time and it's hard to calm it down to concentrate, but the most legitimate reason I have, and perhaps the only one I really believe, is that the heavier prayer rituals, with the effort that needs to be made to concentrate and avoid distraction, often feed into my self-doubt by convincing myself I'm not doing enough. Maybe I should do more, but I think prayer-wise, I'm doing okay overall, although as a Christian, I think it is always my duty to strive to be more faithful, to strive to overcome sin and grow always closer to God.

But as I was getting toward, I generally don't do too much on Good Friday, treating it as mostly (though admittedly not entirely) as a day of rest and reflection, which is probably the proper way to spend it. And so this post comes today, though my thoughts still rest much on Good Friday.

Now I imagine some people reading this blog (if there are any, ya bums!), may not be Catholic or even Christian and so let me explain a little on Good Friday. Firstly, it is called Good despite commemorating the death on the cross of Jesus Christ, not because we like celebrating suffering for suffering's sake, but because Christ's sacrifice saved the world. Now let me get to two major points (as I think that's all I can add to this post before making it a novella). Well, before that let me note that I am not a theologian, rather I dabble in it, but I know fully that I do not know all the ways of God, nor can I know them, and I am just speculating. So be it then, after all, life's a speculation.

But one thing I do want to make clear, is that I truly and honestly believe Jesus Christ's death saved the world from sin (or I think I believe it, one of the trickiest things about faith for me, is not doubts about God, generally those doubts for me have largely seem artificial rather than real crises of faith, maybe some day there might come a true crisis... but my greater doubts have always been in myself, do I really believe, or do I just believe I believe?). Now for some explanation. While the core of the understanding of Christ's salvation is to understand that much of it is a mystery (in the profound sense of the word), there are parts that we do know via revelation and the tradition of analysis of that revelation, continued, I like to think, in my own ponderings. And here is something that I think is an important aspect of Christ's role in the universe.

God is perfectly good, God is utterly powerful, God is all-knowing, God is all-loving, God is time-less and beyond shape and form in His most abstract aspect. Essentially God is unknowable by man. If you look at the Old Testament, you find many meditations on this fact, especially within the Book of Job, the Book of Jonah, and Ecclesiastes. While God does factor into these Books, He is an essentially mysterious force, and these writers mourn this fact. Other Books of the Gospel note God's interventions in the world, and a sort of mystical way of understanding His presence, but even in the books of the Prophets, there is an indirect nature of God's communication with man. This is not the case, mind you, in Genesis, and even in Exodus and the other books of the Israelites in the desert (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) you see God as a much more direct, but still essentially alien, force. Deuteronomy gives a good explanation why, in chapter 18 :

This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, 'Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.'

God's direct presence was too much for most to handle, and indeed directly face God, in our current selves... I'm not really sure what to say about that, but this is something, to directly face God as God in His fullness, it would deprive us of our free will to choose whether or not to follow Him, our choice would be necessarily yes, out of sheer fear and awe if nothing else. I'm not sure if this theological analysis is air-tight, but it gets to the point, that God is by His nature and our nature very distant for us.

And indeed, we make ourselves even more distant by shutting ourselves off from him both through action and thought and feeling, and this is called sin. And we all sin, we all make bad choices and mistakes that alienate us from God. Our choices of arrogance, hate, greed, and make others, even unknowingly, these things drive us away from God. While we can and must resist them, it is our nature, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (While I take writing on religion especially very seriously, I would not want to put on airs by writing too seriously, so let me recite an old programmer's joke: In the early days of translation machines, one variant was invented that was programmed to translate both Russian and English. To test it, a phrase was put in "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak", and then the result was re-translated back to English, with the idea that translate in and translate out, the same words or at least the same message should be there. The result: "The vodka's good, but the meat is rotten." Ah, but isn't the spirit to man, as vodka is to the potato? No, no it isn't)

What I'm getting at, is in a world with an essentially unknowable God, we are condemned to sin, that is our destiny, and thus we are sin's slaves. However, Jesus resolves this dilemma. Jesus through his nature both as God and man, provides a bridge between us and God. Moreover, he takes upon himself the fullness of sin, he takes into himself all of human nature that drives us from God, and he died with it, suffering the fullness of the human being cut off from God, driven even from the world of God's people, into the utterly loneliness of sin. (I write all of that, but I admit I can't say what all of it means. But then again, I don't think humans necessarily can understand fully everything that they can understand partly, and sometimes you need to just grasp what you can and accept the rest as mystery.)

As my thoughts are still bouncing back and forth from Good Friday, I want to also make the point of how immense Jesus' sacrifice was. In Richard Wright's excellent autobiography Black Boy (a prime example of a book that is amazing, though I don't agree with its worldview), he often talks of his atheistic beliefs, mentioning that he felt that Jesus choosing to die to save everyone was a rather easy choice to make. Well, the easiest counter-point to that would be that the reason why that seems like such a simple choice is partially because we live in a society that is in-part build out of reverence for that sacrifice. But that is only a mild counter-argument.

To truly understand why Jesus' choice was indeed so hard, and his sacrifice was indeed so great, one must take into consideration two aspects of that sacrifice. Firstly, that Jesus is God, with all God's power and might, who became a human being, with all its limitations and curses, to save us, but he didn't have to were it not for his love for us. That in itself is an immense sacrifice, for he who never had to experience pain, or temptation, or any suffering, did so for us. And he could have done otherwise, but the outcome would not have been as blessed as it was, he could have dialed things back to make the sacrifice less, but he didn't he took on the fullness of the human nature, including sin.

This too must also be understood about Jesus' sacrifice, how immense was Jesus' death. It's not just that his death was particularly gruesome (few can match the Romans when they decide to break out the full torture, yet then again, in the vastness of history, some can). Rather, the immensity of the Jesus' death can perhaps be best seen in the fact that he who is one with God, in a mysterious union more profound than we can imagine, was alienated from God, filled as he was with all the sins of the world. Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet he was God. This is not contradiction, if so would some of the greatest analytical minds, including founders in the fields of logic and science, believe in the Gospels? (I'm not saying you can't argue contradiction here, I'm saying that argument is pretty superficial) Rather it is a paradox, a mystery, a matter of divine knowledge admittedly beyond me. But what I can understand, is that it is beyond my reckoning the horror of that... We all have limits beyond which our courage fails, some may have limits which exceed anything they are likely to face, but if we go beyond human reckoning and into the possibilities only understandable by the divine, there are enough horrors to match the limits of everyone, except God.

Jesus did not want this. He accepted it nonetheless for God wanted to save us. He bore his cross, and bore the sins of the world, he died with them, knowing that with a word he could stop of all of it. With just a thought. He was still God. And maybe he could have lessened the load just a little, taking the sins of only some of the people, leaving some of his sheep without a shepherd. But he loved all of humanity, he could leave no one behind. He had to free all of us from sin, so our choice in life would not be how sinful we would be when we died, but rather, our choice would be to trust in God and receive the grace that could overcome our sin, overcome our distance with God and bring us ultimately to him in an experience that no eye has seen, no ear has heard... but for that to happen, God had to bear all the sins of the world...

And overcome all of them... and transcend all of them... and conquer death. While on the surface the miracle of the Resurrection is simple, a man rising from the dead, it is in fact a glorious mystery that goes beyond human understanding (again, just my reckoning, I'm willing to bow to someone who's thought through things better). Jesus was not only God alienated from God, but he is also man united with God. For the sin was conquered, it was overcome, all the sins of the world, in a grace most profound, most glorious...

I can't understand it. I really can't fully, it's just so immense, so wonderful, so utterly perfect, the Resurrection is God's love conquering the limitations of humanity, bringing us back to Him, inviting us to paradise, to His perfect, redeeming love.

My words are inadequate. Perhaps in no other matter, can my words not capture a moment as much as here. I am at a loss, I wish I could better explain even my limited understanding, but it is just too much.

Beyond the greatest greatness of this world, there is the Resurrection, for it conquered this world, and saved its people, all of its people, saints as well as sinners (though saints, like all humans are also sinners). It is just too wonderful... it is God's love, the love that animates the universe, that saves us all.

That is what I believe. Now I admit the exact metaphysical details may not be correct, but I am certain of the general shape of things:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his unique Son so that everyone who believes in him might not be lost but have eternal life.

(And by the way, if I might for a moment dip into more murky waters for a moment, I believe that when it comes to believing in Jesus...

Jesus is more than just a figure, conceptually, he is God, he is Love most profound, and I think that even those most schooled in Catholicism can only understand the most basic truths of God, but if anyone, I admit to a degree of uncertainty about this, but perhaps no more than my uncertainty about my own beliefs, truly believes in the most basic truth of God, that is Love, in its most perfect sense, an admittedly unprovable and unknowable concept (except through that lovely little thing called grace), even without knowledge of the technicalities, which are incredibly useful spiritually and practically (lest you imagine I'm saying that the Church (whose tradition and revelations are our best source for that knowledge and whose practices deepen us in our knowledge) is unimportant or that I don't wish that everyone was a Christian and even more particularly a Catholic (though I admit that the Church isn't perfect, although there is a greater sense... (this session is getting looooong))...

If you truly believe in Love, well, then someday, even after death, the Hope and Faith will follow, and you can be saved.)

What more can I say? Infinitely more without scratching the surface of the greatness and glory of God. For it is so immense and so diverse and so present in us all... I like to believe everything I write, even when not mentioning religion is ultimately about God. For I like to think that my life, including my writing, is an effort to know God and to do His will, and hopefully that imbues my self with a sense of God's glory and then through the personal-ness of my writing, it too is imbued with a sense of God's glory, or perhaps a sense of the search for God's glory, though perhaps not directly, perhaps only in the most quiet of ways, but in a way I hope does help show God's glory at least in some aspect to others, so they too might dream the inconceivable dream... of God's ever-lasting and perfect love.

God Bless!

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