Sunday, August 15, 2004

Assumption Day meditation

[NB: The following post doesn't talk about the Assumption or Mariology or anything specifically Catholic. Sorry.]

Even the drop of water is enlightened.
--Master Shin Go Seong, Hanguk-sa; Germantown, Maryland

The architecture of my home church in northern Virginia contains a potentially misleading feature: a gigantic Celtic cross hovers over the entire sanctuary, mounted high on the large brick wall behind the pulpit. The eye has to travel upward to view it properly, and this produces the intended effect of reverence in those who're sensitive to such things.

A huge cross, up high, is a reminder by the architect that the Easter event is special, a kind of mountaintop experience. It stands apart from other moments in time, and because it recalls Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, it signals that Jesus' death didn't occur "just anywhere." The event was spatiotemporal, historical, real.

What gets lost in such grandiose imagery, however, is the fact that the Jesus narrative begins and ends with Jesus in lowly circumstances: the humble, simple, ignoble birth followed by the humble, simple, ignoble death before very few witnesses. This leads to the question: Where is the Christ people seek?

We tend to look upward or outward to find him, but this isn't really where we should be looking. If we're all called to be Christs (or as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, "perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect"), why should we look anywhere other than our present circumstances for this Christ-nature?

In fact, why look at all?

The Jesus of the gospels is never once portrayed as a seeker. Even during his time in the wilderness, Jesus knows exactly what to say when the Tempter visits him. Jesus knows where he stands in the scheme of things, and for him God is Abba, or Dad. If Jesus wanted to proclaim anything during his brief career as preacher and prophet, it was his dad's kingdom, a kingdom characterized by love. Love is something available to us all; we all have the capacity to give and receive and be it. Love is ordinary and extraordinary. Jesus knew this.

The pastor at my home church has, for the past couple years, been fond of repeating the phrase "blessed, to be a blessing." It's a sentiment reminiscent of "Pay It Forward": you receive, and therefore you give gladly, passing along the goodness to others, ramifying the gesture as far as possible, embracing the whole of creation.

This is, to my mind, what "salvation" really means. It's not like the famous "footprints in the sand" story, in which Jesus is seen as the one who picks us up and carries us in times of trouble. No; if anything, a Jesus who picks us up is going to grouse in a dead-on impression of Bill Crystal, "Oy! When did you put on so much weight? Look, I'm puttin' you down and you're on your own from here on, OK?" Salvation isn't a mountaintop experience, nor is it a kindly Jesus-gesture: it's what happens in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives, and only makes sense as compassionate, loving action: salvation is no more and no less than living.

We can therefore look at that huge cross on the wall and see perhaps something other than a cosmic drama: instead, we can see that the humble circumstances of a holy man's death point us to the truth that the holy is inseparable from the ordinary. This shouldn't bring us to a world-shaking ecstatic epiphany: instead, it should orient us toward that which neither you nor I can ever name. It's possible for us to share Jesus' surety and know that we stand in right relation with the Absolute. Jesus spoke from the depths of his own being and called this Absolute "Dad." More important than the label "Dad" is the confidence with which he used the term and its cognates.

Dads are everywhere; we've all got one. Dads are a pretty ordinary reality. But we all know our dads to be special people, too: although we all have dads, we each of us have only one Dad to ourselves. Dads, like love, are both ordinary and extraordinary.

Look around you and see this pattern repeated in what one poem calls the "dappled things" of this universe. There are many moms, many sons, many daughters, many blades of grass, many churches, many pet dogs, many clouds, many trees, many cars, many Coke cans, many sand grains-- everywhere we're confronted by multiplicity. But each of these is unique, each of these is passing, and it's because every single phenomenon embodies these qualities of unicity, multiplicity, and impermanence that all phenomena are thoroughly holy and ordinary. To see things rightly, even those adjectives have to fall away.

When we view the empty cross as a symbol of the nonduality of holy and ordinary, its high position makes a certain sense, and maybe it's not so misleading after all. Why? Because a large and obvious cross, high on a wall, is hard at work showing all of us-- and not just some of us-- a large and obvious truth about where we need to be looking for Christ: that is, not simply upward and outward, but here and now, in the "nothing special" of this, just this, the humblest of circumstances, the holiest of moments.


No comments: