We have to live with a worthy end in mind. Too many contemporary novels are written with a story that goes nowhere, that has a small ending, that is without hope or redemption, or growth, or movement—with a story of people locked in the dispassionate ungraciousness of their lives, and are “waiting passively, and hopelessly, for Godot,” with “no exit”—a story of people without a worthy end in mind.
Too many movies and plays carry this theme forward, with events that overwhelm and destroy, with characters living from one disappointment to the next, bouncing like Ping-Pong balls without direction among the circumstances of their lives, hoping that the steady press of desperate times will ease up, and that good will come to life somehow—but the characters remain the docile victims of how things are. Even when they try to take charge, or escape, they only manage to contribute to the next awful, all-powerful, catastrophe, which sweeps them away into hopelessness and despair in an “It doesn’t pay to try to better your plight” kind of way.
I much prefer to believe in redemptive presence, in wise and compassionate guides, in the contemporary incarnation of the Blessed Mother, or the Presence of Christ, which may well be experienced as a voice within rather than an actual person without. I much prefer to believe that we are not alone. Which is, when you get right down to it the heart of my faith: We are swimming in benevolent presence as fish swim in the sea.
We are not alone against the forces of stupidity and abuse, at the eternal mercy of the powers and principalities, without hope in the world. The death of Jesus was not a hopeless surrender to the darkness of the Void. His death was not one more good man disappearing into the jaws of emptiness, futility, impotence, and insignificance. His life was redemptive. His death was redemptive. We don’t need the resurrection to make it so.
All the emphasis upon the resurrection, and atonement, and the Sinless Wonder rescuing us from the power of sin by appeasing the justice of God, and clearing the way for us to be received into the eternal habitations, if we but repent and believe, and live lives of moral purity and perfection until the end, when the angels will come and gather us to the bosom of God—this entire, convoluted scenario sadly misses the real power of Jesus’ life and death. I am sorry Paul took the tack he took in selling the story of Jesus as the atonement for our sins. It is a much bigger and better story than that. The fact that Paul could see Jesus only in terms of an atoning sacrifice for sin says much more about Paul than about Jesus.
We have been burdened all these centuries by the view of a man who was obsessively consumed by the guilt of his failure as a human being (“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”). We cannot know the nature of his guilt, or the source of his sense of failure. Maybe he came from an intensely dysfunctional family. Maybe his training as a “Pharisee of Pharisees” was the origin of his view of humanity. Maybe, as some have suggested, he was overwhelmed by sexual desires that he could not control, accept, resolve, sublimate or exorcise. We do not know. What we do know is that sexual purity carried far more weight with Paul, who talks about it frequently in his letters, than it did with Jesus, who never mentions it. What we do know is that throughout the history of the Christian church the emphasis upon the atoning sacrifice of Jesus effectively disappears the redemptive power of his life and death.
That power is the manner in which he engaged the way things were thought and done—and lived out of his own core, his own integrity, his own sense of what was right, in defiance of the systems that were in place to maintain the common practices and perspectives of his day. He lived in light of a higher good than that of the social and religious codes that prevailed during his lifetime. And he did that without bitterness, resentment, cynicism, or despair. He saw himself as a change agent, as the harbinger of a new world. He was new wine, announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. He lived in this present world in light of that new and already present truth. In Jesus, the kingdom of heaven broke into the structures of this world of ordinary, apparent reality—and did not leave one stone of the old order in place.
Jesus did not live helplessly before the forces of chaos masquerading as Order, Tradition, Expediency, and Efficiency. Those forces killed Jesus, but he was not their victim. He lived out of his heart toward the best he could imagine, and took his cue for living from the Power beyond the powers. “My food,” he said, “is to do the will of the one who sent me.” Jesus lived out of his vision of how things ought to be, and let the outcome be the outcome. The outcome is still unfolding. We are still realizing the impact of the life he lived. The focus and direction of his life are still engaging the powers and principalities through those who are inspired by his example, and follow his lead in redeeming what is to be redeemed about the time and place of their living.
The redemptive power of Jesus is his unique blend of Identity, Integrity, Vision, Focus, Purpose, Clarity, Awareness, Compassion and Peace. He did not capitulate to the structures and systems depicting the way life was to be lived. To those who said, “You just don’t get it, do you, Sonny? This is just the way it is,” he said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” (Matthew 10:28) and “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus lived in the service of his view of the Good, secure in his vision of how things are, and ought to be.
Jesus had an end in sight. He was not a character in a novel of nihilism and gloom, lost in a mindless, hopeless series of events and circumstances, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” waiting for the inevitable destruction of all his dreams and desires, living as a warning to others to not bother having dreams and desires. Jesus lived within events and circumstances that were as mindless and hopeless as India’s caste system, or the generation-to-generation destructiveness of dysfunctional, abusive, families, but he did not surrender to those events and circumstances. He lived straight through them on a path that connected him with the heart of what matters most, with the center of what is truly important. He did not deviate from that path, but remained true to it in saying how things that needed to be said, and doing things that needed to be done, in light of how things truly ought to be—by living in ways that expressed the essence of highest values in the midst of every moment. He calls us to follow him.
We follow him, not by being proponents of Orthodox Christology, not by memorizing the doctrines and reciting them verbatim, and believing in them with all our might. We follow him by envisioning the Good and doing it, by living in light of what truly ought to be, by knowing what is important—what matters, what is worthy of us—and living in ways which reflect those things, make them known, and bring them to life in the world around us. We follow him by having a worthy end in mind.
Imagine for a moment that we are characters in a novel. How do we want the story to end? How do we want things to turn out? In what ways is our life contributing to a worthy ending? Are we passing along the mindless momentum of the past (under the guise of tradition, or even orthodoxy)? Are we doing what we are doing because that is the way it was done before us, because that is the way we have seen it being done by those about us? Are we doing what we are doing because what good would it do to do it differently? Are we going through the motions of life? Or are we fully, vibrantly, joyfully, defiantly alive in the truest, best, deepest sense of the word?
If we aren’t alive, why aren’t we alive? What would it take to bring us to life? What would it take to live a life we believed in? To live a life we loved with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? To live as we do—not because somebody might be watching, and taking names—not because somebody might be grading us, not because somebody might reward us if we do, or punish us if we don’t—but because we must live as we do in order to be true to ourselves, aligned with that which is deepest, best, and truest about us, because we love living as we do, because we cannot imagine living other than we do? How different would our lives be if we lived like that?
In light of what end are we living? What is worth our life? The spiritual task is that of envisioning, and living toward the best we can imagine, no matter what. We have to take our lives back. This is the meaning of resurrection and new life—taking our lives back!
The value of the Resurrection is the call to be resurrected in our own life, in the here and now of our living, as those who know death is no threat to those who are vibrantly, wholly alive. We have to claim our own lives with purpose, determination, and faith in the value of living so as to express the deepest, the highest, values in the face of the emptiness and darkness of the Void. We have to live defiantly joyful lives in the service of the best end we can imagine. The book is still being written. We have to live the rest of the way with a fitting end in mind.