When I first looked over our readings for this morning, I thought to myself “I’m getting a headache.” Words like “Wicked” and Evil doers” and “sinners” bruise my baby-boomer sensibilities, conjuring up images of fundamentalist preachers threatening hell-fire and perdition. But then I recognized I needed to open my perspective a bit, to see the context in which these scriptures were written, and also to pay attention to the kind of texts these are. When I did that something quite different emerged.
The background for these texts is one of persecution and very real violence against the Jewish and fledgling Christian communities. The Wisdom of Solomon was not written by Solomon, but by a Hellenic Jew living in Alexandria-Egypt quite likely during the reign of the infamous Emperor Caligula somewhere between 40-30BCE. The Psalms were written over many centuries, certainly during the time when the Jews were marched into exile in Persia around 500 BCE. Psalm 1 is among later psalms written as an introduction to the collection. This psalm both identifies the impact of persecution and violence upon the Jewish community, and reminds them of a constructive response drawn from their own sacred teachings. The Letter from James was written in a similar environment. Scholars suggest this letter was written by James,
the Lord’s brother, or one of James’ followers, during decades of resistance to extreme oppression, culminating in the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem around the year 70CE. And we recognize our Gospel story of Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem, to face brutal forces resulting in the crucifixion.
In these scriptures, we have before us people living in circumstances disturbingly familiar to us today: people trapped under violent oppressive regimes and devastated by wars and powers beyond their control. We may well recognize the negative behaviour outlined here. It is all around us today causing severe lasting trauma: the Syrian refugee crisis, world-wide political and military abuse of power, corporate greed, our all too sick popular culture, cyber bullying and shaming, domestic violence in any form and degree.
But there is also, in these writings, the provision of an antidote: the call to higher ground, the clear identification of behaviour and attitudes that lift individuals and whole populations out of the darkness into the light of life giving day: “works done with gentleness born of wisdom ... peaceable... full of mercy... without partiality or hypocrisy...”, “delighting in the law (or “ways”) of the Lord, meditating on that law continuously, yielding good fruit in timely season.” This antidote sounds may sound very fluffy and nice, but actually it requires tenacity,
commitment, faith and courage to arrive there. It takes genuine strength to live the teachings of our great spiritual traditions in difficult times, and these “fruits of the Spirit” do not grow through our efforts alone. Like our spiritual ancestors, like Jesus, we need Divine intervention to help us nourish them.
Wisdom Literature: the Secret Power of the Text.
There is much more to these readings than initially meets our eye. These are texts within the stream of the ancient Wisdom Tradition. We know we are meeting this tradition and its way of teaching when we encounter tension between opposite forces. This tension appears at first through the words on the page, and as we reflect on those words and interact with them, that tension can most certainly transfer to arise within our own hearts and minds. The power in these texts is found, not in the words themselves, but in our response to them; and not just our rational, analytical response, although that can contribute considerably, but rather the response of our heart. In that response resides the Great Treasure, the Pearl of Great Price; and the key to opening this treasure is our ability to be present with awareness to our whole response tugging at us as we read. Wisdom literature invites us to prayerfully enter into those places of tension, to be present within them and to hold the field until it resolves, breaking open, penetrating our lives at many, many different levels.
In these readings this morning we have a clear delineation between evil and good, and the enormous stresses between them. For example, we read: blessed are the good, the righteous and the virtuous; but the wicked and their evil ways will perish. How do you respond to that statement? ... It can be hard to accept when we see such human misery flourishing beneath the oppression of those relentlessly abusing power, even more so when that misery is personal. And here is the secret of this ancient Wisdom: our reaction is where the hidden life has its power to embrace us, to awaken our awareness, to open our hearts and minds and allow the life-giving presence and love of God to break through. As we maintain our own personal presence and focus, holding the field of any arising tension, emotional-mental- physical, as we struggle to trust and to believe God’s goodness despite doubt, pain and shadow, we can indeed experience the love of God breaking through in very real and personal ways. And in the manner of this great Wisdom Mystery, our own engagement with this healing and transforming union in God will expand to affect others. The psalm suggests this with its image of a tree planted and flourishing beside a beautiful river. Jesus spoke of this with his image of a tiny planted seed growing into a mighty tree giving shelter to birds so they may build their nests. We encounter this union and expansion as we develop our own personal relationship with the Risen Christ inviting his presence
into our lives and circumstances. We also have an example of this dynamic at play in our Gospel story this morning.
Holding the Field with Jesus’ Help.
This Gospel story follows in sequence after two other significant stories. One from our reading last week in which Jesus has begun to tell his disciples he is heading towards his death. The crucifixion now looms very large in his consciousness. He is already preparing himself to face the full oppressive might of the ruling regimes, and he is attempting to prepare his disciples for the consequences, to give them hope and the way to engage. But it is clear they don’t want to hear about it, and so we have what was likely a sharp and edgy exchange between Peter and Jesus. Jesus needed what his closest disciples could not give. They were tempting him towards abuse of power, yet he was on another path; he needed their support as he strove to hold the field of tension within himself, to maintain the life-giving good. Any of us who share that kind of struggle, know how hard it is to turn away from the shadow rising through our pain and fear, and instead turn towards and maintain the light. It can be very difficult, and we need support.
Then we have the transfiguration – Jesus receiving the encouragement and support he needed, not from his friends but from the spiritual realm – and now he recognizes this is all way too much for his bewildered, beleaguered followers. To receive such Divine intervention, Jesus was certainly entering an extreme situation under enormous stress, and was holding that field of presence and awareness in the midst of immensely powerful and chaotic forces. And he was changing as a result. We see his transition from impatience and anger with his disciples, into acceptance of his followers’ pain and confusion. Jesus was expanding into someone more able to carry and hold it all. His disciples, still not able to understand, this time were having a power struggle amongst themselves; who would be the greatest, standing beside the Master when he magically crushed the enemy powers. However, we know that those who defeat destructive powers through violence turn into those same destructive powers themselves. Bullies have been bullied...
The only way to break through the cycle of violence is to enter this same transformational field that Jesus did – holding that field, standing with presence and awareness in the heart of the tension, allowing the pain and fear and devastation to rage on through, and despite it all, turn and return again and again to the life-giving light: towards goodness, mercy, truth, wholesome life-generating responses. Now we see Jesus not only set on that course, but seeking a way to help his flailing, failing, distracted, disturbed disciples. Who is this man? ... Take some time with this question. Move past any assumption or notion that he is God. Look at his humanity. WHO IS this man?...
And so, as he has done all along, Jesus looks for the most powerful teaching metaphor he can find to address the shadow and the need. He chooses the most vulnerable image he can present – a small child who feels safe in his arms. In the face of any violence and oppression, children are certainly the most susceptible, and Jesus says: “be like this”. Can we be present to the sense of this? Pause a moment and stay with this image: a small vulnerable child held in Jesus arms. What happens for you when you remain present to this archetypal image? Look beyond any initial superficial response. What do you sense beneath that? ... Can we be present to our own responses that are called upon here? Can we be this vulnerable? Can we open to this child? Can we welcome this child? WHO IS this child? ...
We can, at any moment in our day, invite the Lord’s help as we strive to live the antidote to the shadow forces influencing our own lives. We can follow Jesus’ way, and turn again and again towards the light, seeking the good, calling for the support and presence of the Risen Christ to bring forth in us and our life situation the healing presence of the Holy Spirit – goodness, mercy, gentleness, steadfast faithfulness, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, love, compassion, insight, wisdom, discernment, courage, strength, presence, awareness, living faith.
Let’s close with this blessing by the poet Jan Richardson:
Blessing in the Chaos
To all that is chaotic in you, let there come silence.
Let there be a calming of the clamouring,
a stilling of the voices that have laid their claim on you, that have made their home in you,
that go with you even to the holy places
but will not let you rest,
will not let you hear your life with wholeness
or feel the grace that fashioned you.
Let what distracts you cease.
Let what divides you cease.
Let there come an end to what diminishes and demeans, and let depart all that keeps you in its cage.
Let there be an opening into the quiet
that lies beneath the chaos,
where you find the peace you did not think possible and see what shimmers within the storm.
By Deborah Foster