Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Dionysus versus the Crucified

Sermon at the Solemn Liturgy, Good Friday 2011

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
The Passion according to John

First, some words which are not from the Bible:
“This [Christian] universal love of men is in practice the preference for the suffering, underprivileged, degenerate: it has in fact lowered and weakened the strength, the responsibility, the lofty duty to sacrifice men.
“The species requires that the ill-constituted, weak, degenerate, perish: but it was precisely to them that Christianity turned as a conserving force; … this pseudo humaneness called Christianity wants it established that no one should be sacrificed.
“When lesser men begin to doubt whether higher men exist, then the danger is great! And one ends by discovering that there is virtue also among the lowly and subjugated, the poor in spirit, and that before God men are equal – which has so far been the [greatest] nonsense on earth!
“When Nero and Caracalla sat up there, the paradox arose: ‘the lowest man is worth more than the man up there!’ And the way was prepared for an image of God that was as remote as possible from the image of the most powerful – the god on the cross!”
Those are the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, from his final book The Will to Power. Nietzsche was unquestionably a great genius, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the 19th Century. He was the first thinker to set out systematically the idea that human beings construct themselves, that there is no higher law or morality to which we must make reference than our own wills. This does mean, as Nietzsche clearly saw, that the strong must triumph over the weak, and that care for the vulnerable and downtrodden is an obstacle to our own self-construction, to the exaltation of the ego.
Nietzsche saw, very clearly, that the Christian gospel was opposed to all that, and he despised it. Our modern militant atheists want us to accept a kind of bland general human niceness, a humanist morality which makes no reference to God. Nietzsche saw that this was impossible. Human beings, left to their own devices, freed (as he would have said) from the restraints of morality and the Christian Gospel, do not behave like that. No, the strong triumph, the weak must be eliminated, and we must embrace this. It is our human destiny!
Nietzsche’s perception was indeed profound. He observed very accurately how human beings behave, and affirmed that as the standard and norm to which we must aspire – or perish.
Of course, this is as old as time, and the Bible described it very well before Nietzsche did. It all began in the Garden of Eden, in that mythological time-before-time whose symbols speak to us of the deep origin and tragedy of our human identity.
Adam and Eve were at peace, in harmony and love, until the serpent came slithering between them. A tree became the object in a gambit of imitation and desire, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent whispered, suggesting that the tree was desirable, and that God was a rival wanting to keep it for himself.
That desire became Eve’s, and Adam’s. They took and ate. But the knowledge of good and evil that the tree conferred was a slippery, deceitful thing. It was a knowledge that differentiated, which apportioned blame. It was a knowledge in which what I know is that I am good and the other person is evil. And the other person knows the same about me, in reverse.
So Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. But their desire was identical, copied from one another. The imitation of desire sparked off rivalry, conflict, suspicion, and the illusion of difference between rivals whose desire is, in fact, the same.
The whirlwind of desire that was touched off in Eden rapidly escalated. In one generation, it gave rise to the murderous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Four generations later, it was out of control, devastating the whole human race. In Genesis 4 we meet Lamech, the first man who thought he needed to have two wives. Lamech vows, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold!”. Now we have very well established Nietzsche’s theory that there are great men, who command their own destiny, and lesser men, who can be eliminated.
In the vivid language of myth this tells us the whole human tragedy. The imitation of desire is a necessary fact if we are to enter into human consciousness and attain true maturity. But it is also our undoing. It leads to rivalry and conflict. A group or society which becomes locked in imitating its own desires can be consumed with mutual rivalry to the point of self destruction. Then a scapegoat, an outsider, can be blamed and expelled by the group in order to restore their own unity and peace. It leads to human sacrifice, literal and metaphorical. And always that deceitful knowledge of good and evil tells us that the outsider is different from us, evil, cursed, deserving death. A “lesser” human being.
Does not the High Priest Caiaphas say this exactly? “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” And the crowd with one voice, with one desire, shouted, “Crucify him!”
But the Garden of Eden was only the start of the story. Before it all went wrong, deeper than our tragic human flaw, everything that God created was very good. The murderous storm of rivalry sparked off in Eden does not alter the fact that God created the universe, and created it with a purpose, created in love, created that it might all find its fulfilment in him.
God could not permit that the purpose of his love should be unfulfilled. And love contrived a redemption greater than the fall.
God entered into the midst of our human condition, into that long history littered with human sacrifices, into a whole world conditioned by the false knowledge that the murderers, that is we, are good and our victims are evil. Love brought God to us, love brought God to empty himself and take the form of a slave. In the upper room he knelt before his disciples, teaching them the law of love. On the cross, we see what Divine love looks like when it meets the violence and sin it has come to defeat. On the cross, God shows his love for the human race by becoming our victim.
And this turns our whole way of being human upside-down. Because if we see that the man on the cross is actually God, then it is no longer possible to think of the victim as an evil outsider who deserved what he got. It is no longer possible to think that the strong and powerful who put him there are good and in the right. Our self-constructed goodness is overturned. And God, the God on the cross, is suddenly revealed in all the victims there have ever been. Christianity really does wish to establish that no-one should be sacrificed. It does indeed seek to overcome the illusion that the scapegoat, the outsider, is different from us, is a “lesser man”.
So the cross is both our judgement and our salvation. It is judgement, because it reveals to us what we have been. It reveals the violence and falsehood of the whole way of being human by which we have been running the world. The way that Nietzsche called “the will to power” and that the Church has always called sin.
And the cross is salvation, because ultimately it is a revelation of love. The love of God for the poor, the weak and the despised. The love in which God seeks us out, undoes our violence, and invites us to find ourselves at last.
The office hymn for Matins in Passiontide expresses this in rich theological poetry:
God in pity saw man fallen,
Shamed and sunk in misery,
When he fell on death, by tasting
Fruit of the forbidden tree :
Then another Tree was chosen
Which the world from death should free.
Thus the scheme of our salvation
Was of old in order laid ;
That the manifold deceiver's
Art, by art might be outweighed ;
And the lure the foe put forward
Into means of healing made.
The tree of the cross brings us full circle. It is planted beside a garden. It stands just outside that gate of Eden which closed on us long ago in our deep origin as human beings.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil, that slippery knowledge that deceives, is no more. It has been replaced by the tree of the cross, the tree that finally tells us the truth about ourselves, and that tells us, even more, that we are loved.
Love is the way back into paradise. Love is creation restored and completed by the creator who has come to us for this. We know this, because the scapegoat, the outsider, the “lesser man”, has been raised from the dead. He reigns in triumph, from the tree of the cross, from his throne in heaven. In him, all the victims there have ever been are vindicated by God.
His name is Jesus. He is the Lamb once slain, the Divine Victim who dies no more, the true High Priest and King. And he lives, and loves, and saves, for ever and ever. Amen.

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