Let us not mock God with metaphor

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike (from Telephone Poles and Other Poems):

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Thou hast broken open the all-devouring belly of Hell and snatched me out

Here are a few of the many hymns from last night with the start of Lazarus Saturday. Toward the end, several of them break into the voice of Lazarus himself or of Hell itself.

Calling Lazarus from the tomb, immediately Thou hast raised him; but Hell below lamented bitterly, and groaning, trembled at Thy power, O Savior.

Calling Lazarus by name, Thou hast broken in pieces the bars of Hell and shaken the power of the enemy; and before Thy Crucifixion, Thou hast made the enemy tremble because of Thee, O only Savior.

O Master, Thou hast come as God to Lazarus, bound captive by Hell, and Thou hast loosed him from his fetters, for all things submit to Thy command, O Mighty Lord.

The palaces of Hell were shaken, when in its depths Lazarus began once more to breathe, straightway restored to life by the sound of Thy voice.

As man, Thou hast shed tears for Lazarus; as God, Thou hast raised him up. Thou hast asked, O Loving Lord: Where is he buried, dead these four days; thus confirming our faith in Thine Incarnation. [Because, Jesus would have to ask “where” only as a human.]

Wishing in Thy love to reveal the meaning of Thy Passion and Thy Cross, Thou hast broken open the belly of Hell that never can be satisfied, and as God Thou hast raised up a man four days dead.

Joining dust to spirit, O Word, by Thy word in the beginning, Thou hast breathed into the clay a living soul. And now, by Thy word, Thou hast raised up Thy friend from corruption and from the depths of the earth.

“Thou hast called me from the lowest depths of Hell, O Savior,” cried Lazarus to Thee when Thou hast set him free from Hell; “and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“Thou knowest all things, yet hast asked where I was buried. As man by nature, Thou hast wept for me, O Savior, and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“Thou hast clothed me in a body of clay, O Savior, and breathed life into me, and I beheld Thy light; and Tho hast raised me from the dead by thy command.”

“Thou hast broken open the all-devouring belly of Hell and snatched me out, O Savior, by Thy power; and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”

“I implore thee, Lazarus,” said Hell, “Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.”

Let Bethany sing with us in praise of the miracle, for there the Creator wept for Lazarus in accordance with the law of nature and the flesh. Then, making Martha’s tears to cease and changing Mary’s grief to joy, Christ raised him from the dead.

Shaking the gates and iron bars, Thou hast made Hell tremble at Thy voice. Hell and Death were filled with fear, O Savior, seeing Lazarus their prisoner brought to life by Thy word and rising from the tomb.

Jesus’ own mind was the defining locus of humanity’s capacity to hear and obey the historical summons of God

In other words, the Old Testament and the redemptive work of Christ are not related simply by way of objective semantic reference, but also through the living subjective experience of the Redeemer—Jesus’ own understanding of Holy Scripture. The conjunction of the Sacred Text and the redemptive event was originally discerned in the active, self-reflective understanding (phronesis) of Jesus of Nazareth, who heard in the words of the Hebrew Bible the Father’s personal summons to obedience. Jesus’ own mind was the defining locus of humanity’s capacity to hear and obey the historical summons of God.

…Divine revelation—God’s Incarnate Son included—is available to us only through the specific men and women in whose lives the revelation took place. This fact is most obvious in the Sacred Writings. Our access to the events of Sinai, for instance, comes to us through Moses and the myriad authors, editors, and scribes—Jewish and Christian—who transmitted the experience and content of what took place in the Exodus and the Sinai encounter. Likewise, our historical access to Jesus, the Son of God, comes through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and, prior to them, through Peter and Paul and the congregations to which they and their companions ministered. In short, none of this revelation is available to us except through that corporate, historical body: Israel/ the Church.

…For this reason I have always wondered about the adequacy of the expression solus Christus (“Christ alone”). Christ is, in fact, never alone. God’s Son did not simply show up here one day. He came to us through a believing Mother (whose consent in faith was absolutely essential to the event of the Incarnation), and He gathered around Him disciples and apostles, whom He commissioned to evangelize the nations. In the Bible we hardly ever find Jesus alone. He stands always with the saints. We know our Lord—and, in the strict sequence of history, He is certainly our Lord before He is my Lord—through the experiences and writings of the saints.

…Thus, the experience of the saints is essential to the matter and form of the revelation. The Church—the body of the believers, the saints—pertains to the very substance of the Gospel. Those who mediate the Good News are an integral component of the Good News. This is the reason the Creed includes “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” within its articles of belief. It is an extraordinary thing to reflect that God reveals Himself to us through the responsive experience of others who preceded us. Their Spirit-given response to God’s revelation became a component of the revelation. Consequently, it is crucial not to mute the historical quality—the sequential and transmitting process—of the revelation. When we speak of the historical, factual nature of revelation and redemption, we mean something very clear and definite: Certain historical events actually constitute the substance of revelation and redemption. Redemption and revelation are identical to those events.

…With respect to the second meaning of “time” (chronos), the aforesaid events took place sequentially, in the formal process of a Tradition (paradosis). They were transmitted—and in the Spirit-given memory of the Church, the very historical identity of the Church, continue to be transmitted—in a specific historical, accumulative sequence; revelation and redemption are chronometric. All of sacred theology, including the theology of salvation, comes through salvation history. It is essential to the Christian faith to insist that at absolutely no point do revelation and redemption lose their historical quality.

From Patrick Henry Reardon’s book Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption (Volume 1 of 3: The Incarnate Word).

recognizable and transfigured

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still—a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls. The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy.

From Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

all of Christian doctrine is rooted

And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25–27) The meaning of these Scriptures has been a preoccupation of Luke’s gospel from the start. It was the burden of Jesus’ first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. It was the subject of his conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mount of the Transfiguration. In the present scene, Jesus feigns ignorance precisely with a view to teaching these two disciples—and through them, all Christians to the end of time—his own understanding of the biblical text. All of Christian doctrine is rooted, I believe, in Jesus’ Paschal discourse to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. The timing of that discourse is likewise significant, for it took place on the very day of his rising from the dead; on that day “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David,” demonstrated that he “was worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.”

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

his long-established pessimism was about to be shaken

“Rabbi,” they answered, “lately the Jews sought to stone you, and are you going there again?” It was Thomas who accepted the tragedy of the thing: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:8, 16). Thomas may also have been something of a loner, which would explain why, when the risen Lord paid his first visit to the assembled apostles, Thomas “was not with them when Jesus came” (20:24). One speculates that he may have gone off to get a better grip on himself. It had been a very tough week, after all. Just as Thomas had suspected it would, Jesus’ life ended in tragedy. This, the apostle was sure, was the biggest tragedy he had ever seen. Yet he was coping with it, somehow. Years of an inner docility to inevitable fate had schooled him in the discipline of endurance. Yes, he would get through this too. He was a man who could deal with misfortune and sorrow. Just don’t disturb Thomas with hope.

Thomas sensed that his long-established pessimism was about to be shaken. He rose and faced the entering light. He saw the familiar face and recognized the familiar voice: “Peace to you!” We do not know if Thomas felt, at that moment, some urge to hide behind the other apostles. He was not given the chance. Turning to Thomas, the risen Jesus fully appreciated the irony of the hour. Nor would we be wrong, I think, to imagine a smile coming over the glorious face of the one who said to his beloved pessimist: “Reach your finger here, and inspect my hands; and reach your hand here, and place it into my side.”

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

the personally transforming power of this prayer

The scene of Jesus praying in the garden, on the night before his death, is among the most disturbing presentations among the gospel narratives. Specifically, Jesus’ immense sadness and personal distress seem much out of character with what the gospel stories—up to this point—would lead the reader to expect. What has become of the serenity and self-assurance that tells the leper, “I will it; be cleansed” (Matthew 8:3)? Where now is the confidence that announces to the centurion, “I will come and heal him” (8:7), or commands the wind and sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39)? In short, the image of Jesus in the garden stands in stark contrast to the picture we have of him from all prior scenes in his life. From very early times, pagans themselves were quick to notice in the agony what they took to be an inconsistency with Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Late in the second century, when the critic Celsus wrote the first formal treatise against the Christian faith, he cited Jesus’ fear and discomposure in the garden as evidence against the doctrine of his divinity. Celsus inquired, “Why does [Jesus] shriek and lament and pray to escape the fear of destruction, speaking thus: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’?”

…Even as we reject that critic’s conclusion, we are obliged to recognize its force. That is to say, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity was most manifest in the event described in the epistle to the Hebrews as “the days of his flesh” (5:7). In the Savior’s agony, believers perceive the most profound and disturbing inferences of the doctrine of the Incarnation—the “enfleshing” of God’s Son. More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the garden scene presents us with the phenomenon of frailty and conflict in the mind and heart, as Jesus struggles with the trauma of his impending Passion. Indeed, he speaks of this conflict in terms of spirit and flesh. It is during—and with respect to—his experience in the garden that he declares, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). To be in the flesh is to feel weak. He knew whereof he spoke! Whether the conflict is portrayed in terms of sorrow (Matthew and Mark) or of fear (Luke and Hebrews), the New Testament sources agree that Jesus did not want to suffer and die this painful and most ignominious death, and he prayed to be delivered from it.

…Here, above all, we are presented with the profound mystery of self-emptying that the apostle Paul called “the weakness of God.” Each account of the agony likewise demonstrates, nonetheless, how “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). The inner conflict described in the New Testament was based on an opposition between the powerful psychological disposition of Jesus—his desire to live!—and what he perceived to be the will and call of God. The two options were mutually exclusive. Luke calls the experience a “struggle,” an agonia. In this scene, according to all four sources, Jesus’ intense psychological experience of weakness and turmoil was followed by a determined resolution, which is perhaps the most significant element in the story. Jesus was clearly stronger and more serene when he left the garden, even though his captors had forcefully bound him.

…His final statement to the Sanhedrin was both solemn and self-assured. No less dignified and confident were his few pronouncements to Pilate, and he honored Herod’s curiosity with not a single syllable (Luke 23:9). In all these cases, Jesus acted with a dignity beyond his tormentors’ reach. This renewed strength, moreover, was conveyed to Jesus through his experience of prayer. According to all four accounts of the event, it was in prayer that Jesus resolved the conflict in his soul. In fact, each writer goes into some detail to describe this prayer and the transforming resolution to which it led. We recognize, in short, that Jesus’ prayer in the garden—his prayerful acquiescence in the Father’s will—strengthened him for the dreadful ordeal to come. The Passion story testifies to the personally transforming power of this prayer.

…Only Peter, James, and John were permitted entrance into the chamber where Jesus confronted and conquered the power of death in the person of Jairus’s daughter.6 These three, likewise, were the sole witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. Over the centuries, Christian homiletics and hymnography have copiously testified to a common Christian persuasion on this point: Peter, James, and John received these special revelations of Jesus’ innate glory and his sovereign power over death, in order to be strengthened to endure the sight of his agony in the garden. We do well to consider the element of “planning” in this matter because the preservation of this story was neither a decree of fate nor an accident of circumstances. It was entirely deliberate. Jesus could certainly have suffered this agony in solitary privacy, but he determined that there would be witnesses to it—close enough to behold the scene—because he wanted this scene to be recorded!

…It is important to reflect that we are acquainted with the failure of these apostles because they were the ones who testified to it. Their failure was part of the story, and they recognized it as such. Consequently, when they later narrated to others the events of that night, they made sure not to omit the account of Jesus’ disappointment with them. Indeed, they failed the Savior. Had Jesus seen the three of them steady at prayer, supporting him in his time of fear and sorrow, his spirit—like any human spirit at such a time—would have been strengthened. Thus, an added component of his trauma that night was the loss of human encouragement from those witnesses, who should have supplied it. He knew these men well enough, nonetheless. Earlier in the evening, had he not told them, “All of you will be tripped up tonight” (Matthew 26:31)?

…The epistle to the Hebrews—which may be our earliest written reference to the agony—let us begin with this account. It is the shortest, speaking only of Jesus, who, in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save him from death, and was heard because of his godly fear, though he were a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. (Hebrews 5:7–8) This terrible scene took place, says Hebrews, “in the days of his flesh.” The “flesh” here refers not to the Incarnation as such (because the Word’s assumption of our humanity is permanent, not temporary), but to the condition of human weakness, which God’s Son willingly assumed so “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). This is a major argument in the epistle to the Hebrews. The author of this work speaks of Jesus’ death not just as an objective and clinical fact but as a matter of experience; he employs the metaphor of taste.

…According to Hebrews, then, God’s Son assumed, not simply human nature, but the existential burden of human experience. His was to be a full and felt solidarity, in which “he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to my brothers’” (Hebrews 2:11–12). For this reason, declares Hebrews, “in all things he had to be made like the brothers” (2:17). These “all things” particularly included the tasting of death.

…This obedience of Jesus was not theoretical, detached, or instantaneous. He learned it through the actual process of suffering and dying. Jesus was inwardly changed through this experience, thereby becoming “perfected” (Hebrews 5:9). He was “made perfect through sufferings” (2:10).

…The early believers easily perceived that whereas the first man attempted, in rebellion, to become God’s equal, the second, being in the form of God, did not regard being equal to God a usurpation [harpagmos], but he emptied himself, taking the form of a bondservant, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in shape as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death. (Philippians 2:6–8) It is important to bear in mind the traditional contrast between the obedient Jesus and the disobedient Adam when we come to the Gospel accounts of the Savior’s struggle at “Gethsemani.”12 The very name of this place means “olive garden,” abbreviated to simply “a garden” by John (18:1).

…This petition—“Thy will be done”—does not represent a hypothesis or a limitation laid on the prayer. “What You will” is not a restriction of Jesus’ confidence but an elevation of it. It expresses a constitutive feature of his prayer and an essential component of his faith. The real purpose of the Son’s prayer, after all, is not to inform the Father what he wants but to hand himself over more completely, in faith, to what the Father wants. The purpose of all prayer, even the prayer of petition, is living communion with God. The man who tells the Father, then, “Thy will be done,” does not thereby show himself a weaker believer but a stronger one. Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” models this prayer. He gives his disciples, in this form, the very essence of true prayer. The “will of God,” in which Jesus places the trust of his petition, is not a blind, arbitrary, or predetermined will. It is, rather, the abiding love of the Father. This theology of prayer is conveyed in Jesus’ prayer in the garden, by which his own human will is obediently united with the will of God.

…First, the sweat of blood is a condition called hematidrosis. This pathology, which results from an extreme dilation of the subcutaneous capillaries, causes them to burst through the sweat glands. This symptom, mentioned as early as Aristotle,19 is well-known to the history of medicine, which sometimes associates it with intense fear. It is not without interest, surely, that Luke, the only Evangelist to mention this phenomenon, was a physician.

…The theological significance of this feature in Luke is that Jesus’ internal conflict causes the first bloodshed in the Passion. His complete obedience to the Father in his prayer immediately produces this initial libation of his redemptive blood, the blood of which he had proclaimed just shortly before, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). Prior to the appearance of his betrayer, then, Jesus already begins the shedding of his blood. He pours it out in the struggle of obedience, before a single hand has been laid upon him. In Luke’s account the agony in the garden is not a prelude to the Passion but its very commencement, because Jesus’ stern determination to accomplish the Father’s will causes his blood to flow—already—as the price for man’s redemption.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon. Also see this poem and this quote.

completely preoccupied with the Father

It is obvious that Jesus, during the supper, was completely preoccupied with the Father. When, at an early age, he had dedicated his life to “the things of my Father,” that dedication became the foundation of everything he did. This zeal for God was now about to consume him, and the flame of it became more intense as the hour drew near: Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come that he should depart from this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the extreme. (John 13:1) Jesus, knowing “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3), could not stop speaking of the Father. This word is heard from his lips twenty-one times in John 14, ten times in John 15, twelve times in John 16, and, always in direct address, six times in John 17.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

homicidal craziness abounding in Jerusalem

Jesus’ enemies so thoroughly “lost it” at this time that they “plotted to put Lazarus to death also” (John 12:10). With such homicidal craziness abounding in Jerusalem, Jesus determined to stay away until the week before Passover. He lodged with friends in the suburbs (John 11:54–57). When he finally did enter Jerusalem, Jesus was careful to do so in the safety of numbers. His entrance, which took on the character of a triumphant march, was virtually a challenge.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

surely his special channel of information

Joanna, whom Luke is the only Evangelist to mention by name, was surely his special channel of information that only he, among the Evangelists, seems to have had [about Jesus’ trial before Herod Antipas]. Married to a well-placed political figure in the Galilean court, Joanna was apparently a lady of some means, who used her resources to provide for the traveling ministry of Jesus and the apostles. Acting in this capacity, she must have been very well-known among the earliest Christians. Only Luke, however, speaks of her by name, a fact that seems to indicate that he had interviewed her in the composition of his gospel. We can guess that Joanna’s adherence to Jesus was not without its difficulties for her domestic life. Here she was, the wife of a high political official, providing support for someone who would die as a political criminal. Her loyalty was supremely rewarded, however, because the risen Lord saw fit to number Joanna among the holy myrrh-bearers, those surprised women who “came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared,” found the stone rolled away from the tomb, then prostrated before the two herald angels of the Pascha, and subsequently “told these things to the apostles” (Luke 24:1, 5–7, 10). One suspects that Joanna also had a thing or two to tell her husband, Chuza, later that day.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.