01 April 2016

Living in the Name of Emmanuel: Embracing Lives Empowered and Made Fruitful by the Resurrection

I noted in preparation for the Triduum that during these days our God would reveal Godself as Emmanuel in an exhaustive way; he was the One who took the entire scope of human existence into himself in Christ, including its greatest darknesses and senselessness, and made these the places and ways of God. Then, as the days of the Triduum came in their turn I asked on Good Friday and Holy Saturday whether Jesus was  madman or a Messiah. I said we waited in the darkness to learn the answer to that question. Was our God really one who would be with us even in sin and death and abject lostness or could these separate us from God eternally --- thus revealing God (or his "Christ") as a powerless fraud or fiction?

The liturgy of the vigil of Easter answers this question with the lighting of the new fire, the paschal candle, Exultet, and the proclamation that Jesus is Risen from the dead. In all the symbols we have, light, warmth, community, song, prayer, and even darkness, it proclaims Jesus as the one who was completely vindicated by God, the One whose revelation of God as Emmanuel is entirely, even exhaustively true. This God is the One from whom nothing at all can separate us, not sin, not death, not even the depths of lostness or hell. He has made these his own and in Christ they therefore become sacraments of his power and presence which, rather than plaints of grief and loss, can occasion the cry Alleluia, He is risen, alleluia! Paul says the same when he translates this affirmation into a triumphant and rhetorical question, "Death where is thy sting?"

The readings during this first week of Easter focus on the change that took place in light of the fact that Jesus did not simply stay good and dead, that God's love did not allow our sin or even godless death itself have the final word or become a final silence. They focus on the changes that took place when the disciples encountered the risen Lord who had taken these things into himself and remained open to the Love of God at the same time. There is some indication of the struggle involved in understanding the fact of resurrection as contrasted with ghosts and other common explanations of their experience of this risen Christ. The timing is truncated, abbreviated, and we have no idea how long it actually takes for the disciples to process all of this --- though the Scriptures give us the impression that the change that occurred in the disciples was fairly immediate and even miraculous. The focus is not on the disciples' internal struggle so much as it is on the transformation occasioned by their meeting with the risen Lord.

Today's readings center attention on a particularly powerful way of speaking of this transformation. The first is through reflection on the name or powerful presence of Jesus, In the first reading the disciples who engage in a healing ministry  do so in the name of Jesus and affirm they are doing so when the source of their authority is demanded of them by the high priests and member of the high priestly class. The shift from being frightened, helpless, and powerless disciples of a fraudulent messiah crucified for blasphemy and treason by the religious and political powers of his world to being disciples of that same one now "risen from the dead" and showing his presence through their powerful works is compelling; thousands of people are baptized and added to the rolls of Jesus' disciples. What is critical to this story is that the disciples are very clear they do not act in their own names, nor in the name of Judaism, but instead in the name of the rejected and crucified Jesus and the God he revealed through his sinful and godforsaken death. They act in the name of the God who is Emmanuel and stands in solidarity with us in our most abject lostness and incapacity.

The responsorial psalm and antiphon help interpret this first reading: the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Now, cornerstones or foundation stones established the pattern and foundation of the entire edifice. As the cornerstone went, so did the entire building. If the placement was off, the strength of the stone deceptive or the stone flawed, etc, then the building itself would be flawed and potentially at least dangerous. In Middle Eastern (and later European practice as well), sacrifices were buried under cornerstones or the blood of offerings were poured upon the stones to imbue it with power and stability. (Later practices could involve taking the measure of a person's shadow, an effigy of the person, and burying that in place of the person or the person's shadow or soul.) Frazer (2006: p. 106-107) in The Golden Bough charts the various propitiatory sacrifices and effigy substitution such as the shadow, describes the practice as follows:

[[In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram, or a lamb, and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried. The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building. But sometimes, instead of killing an animal, the builder entices a man to the foundation-stone, secretly measures his body, or a part of it, or his shadow, and buries the measure under the foundation-stone; or he lays the foundation-stone upon the man's shadow. It is believed that the man will die within the year.]]

(Remember that in speaking of the notion of the shadow as an effigy of the person and actually possessing the power of the person the Acts of the Apostles (5:12-16) tells the story that when Peter and the other Apostles were coming by in the Portico of Solomon folks lined up all the sick on palettes and cots so the even "just the shadow of Peter might fall upon" at least some of them and they would be healed by its touch.)

[[The Romanians of Transylvania think that he whose shadow is thus immured will die within forty days; so persons passing by a building which is in course of erection may hear a warning cry, Beware lest they take thy shadow! Not long ago there were still shadow-traders whose business it was to provide architects with the shadows necessary for securing their walls. In these cases the measure of the shadow is looked on as equivalent to the shadow itself, and to bury it is to bury the life or soul of the man, who, deprived of it, must die. Thus the custom is a substitute for the old practice of immuring a living person in the walls, or crushing him under the foundation-stone of a new building, in order to give strength and durability to the structure, or more definitely in order that the angry ghost may haunt the place and guard it against the intrusion of enemies.]]

Something new has come to be, a new edifice, a new Temple  and Kingdom is being established upon the life, death, and resurrection of the Crucified One. A stone marked by abject weakness, and godlessness, a stone rejected as entirely unworthy of such an edifice is now the foundation stone. Everything Jesus' disciples do which is dependent on this cornerstone will succeed with the power of that stone and the resurrection life with which it is imbued. Yesterday's and today's Gospel readings both affirm that this has nothing to do with ghosts or crude superstitions but instead with an entirely new and puzzling form of life or presence, namely, the resurrected Lord who lives and mediates the  powerful presence of God to our world just as he takes the whole of human experience into the very life of the Eternal and Living God (him)self. The temple that will be built on this foundation will be built with living stones, stones which are themselves empowered by a life and love proven stronger than sin and godless death.

Today's Gospel also refers to the nameless disciple whom Jesus loved, the nameless one who believed when he saw the empty tomb or who stood at the foot of the cross with the women. Some commentators believe the point of this namelessness in the Gospel of John is to invite each of us who are called by name by the risen Lord to take our places in the continuing story we know as the Christ Event. I find that suggestion compelling but today I think we also have to hear the fact that we are called to live our lives in the name of Christ, not in our own names; we are called to live our lives in the power of the living God who makes living stones of us and gives us fleshly hearts to replace the stony, hardened hearts of the past --- not in our own power. 

This God has made even our alienation and godforsakenness his own and now empowers us to make his ways our own. As a result, we will say by our lives, then, that Jesus was Messiah rather than madman. We will say by lives founded on the Cornerstone we know as the Risen Christ and lived in the name of Emmanuel that our God does indeed draw all things to (him)self. He is indeed the one Paul proclaimed in Romans 8:37-38  as the One from whose love neither life nor death, neither heavenly or earthly realities, nor powers or principalities, nor things present or future, nor anything at all can ultimately separate us. Established in the strength and authority of the risen Christ we will become fishers of men and the living stones of the new Temple of God's Kingdom; established in the strength and authority of the God who in Christ reveals Godself exhaustively as Emmanuel, lives which are empty, absurd, and fruitless apart from Christ's resurrection are entirely transfigured to become mediators of this very same God. That is, after all, what it means to live our lives in the name of this God rather than in our own names.