Here is a lovely guest post by Mark Townsend…
Now that Easter’s over for another year it’s given me an opportunity to reflect a little and note how far (or not) my views have adapted over the last decade or so. The following is an extract from a short Easter talk I gave about ten years ago as a Church of England Vicar:
Holy Week is perhaps the most poignant eight days of the entire church year. In Lent we faced our own inner shadows and compulsions, just as Jesus faced his in that hot and barren wilderness. But now in Holy Week we face our human tendency to get things so badly wrong.
Two thousand years ago a man rode into the HolyCityand, only days later, was made a scapegoat by the masses. In fact he was scapegoated by both the religious and secular authorities – church and state. They were the very ones that ordinary folk ought to have been able to look up to, yet they got it so badly wrong.
It was a dark day – a dark, dark day that saw the death of the Son of God. And, contrary to what so many folk still teach, he was not a sacrifice to an angry God who needed appeasing, but a gut wrenching symbol of God’s sacrificial love poured out for an angry humankind. It was not God’s mind about humanity that needed changing, but our mind about God. The Cross is God saying, ‘Go ahead, kill me if you like; I still won’t stop loving you’.
Then, oh yes then we can fully understand the power of Easter, for Easter cries out with bells and chimes and a thousand tons of spiritual gelignite, that God’s love cannot be locked away in a tomb, or a box, or a book, or an angry heart, or anything else. Those first century religio-secular authorities got it so badly wrong, but even their terrifying mistake was turned into life for the whole world.
While I wouldn’t use all of the above language now I still get moved by the image of a God who loves us enough to die. And in a sense part of God did die with Jesus on the cross, just as part of God dies with every death, and is born again with every birth. God (Source) is constantly dying and being re-born. Taking the idea from the previous section on Incarnation – that Jesus somehow embodied God metaphorically – the cross can be seen as a symbol of a God who mysteriously suffers with us.
I’ve always argued that the cross should be seen as the death of a toxic view of God. God does not punish Jesus for our sins. The cross is a symbol of a God who allows himself to experience the very darkest, most broken and most abandoned reality of what being human can involve. It is an image of a God who would literally love us to death. Though this may not be something that Pagans find helpful, I used to enjoy talking about the cross of Jesus as something that changes humanity’s view of the Divine rather than (as the older substitutionary theories go) changing the Divine’s view about humanity. In other words it replaces a God of judgement and wrath with a God of compassion and love. In The Path of The Blue Raven I put it this way:
“Christ comes to show humans who they are, not what they are not. The sacrificial love displayed on the cross does not change God’s mind about us (as the so called objective views of the Atonement states). The spectacle of the cross changes us not God! How? By displaying costly love rather than brutal judgement. If we see Jesus as a literal, perfect offering, a human blood sacrifice, then we have no choice but to view God as wrathful, and who needs his mind changing by having Jesus pay the price for our sins. He dies, we get let off the hook! But if we see the symbol of the god-man Jesus hanging on a tree as a selfless act of love, joining humankind at its ugliest, lowest, shittiest place, and not retaliating with any sense of hatred or revenge, then there is more chance of our own view of God being changed. We might even fall in love with such a loving God rather than being terrified of Him. Thus the Jesus-Tree can either perpetuate a Toxic view of God or it can heal it.”
To me the cross is a powerful symbol of the sheer brokenness and woundedness that we humans often embrace as we live out our lives here on earth. There’s no getting away from it – life involves death, many deaths. The death of relationships, careers, youth, beauty, physical abilities, people close to us and many other deaths.
Ancient native cultures used to prepare their young people for these ‘deaths’ by initiation rites that often involved ritual wounding. They were seen as a deep preparation for life – almost a spiritual vaccine. To die ahead of time and thus not fight these deaths when they come. Many Druids, progressive Christians and others have rediscovered these practises and now offer them to their young people, and adults who recognise an inner need for such rituals. I’ve been through one myself – five gruelling, yet liberating, days in the New Mexican desert a decade ago.
Here’s what the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) say about these rites and the notion of ‘spiritual wounding.’
“We naturally want to avoid suffering, so it can seem crazy to suggest that the path to enlightenment involves becoming more aware of our woundedness. But the fact that most traditional initiation ceremonies involve some sort of wounding, symbolic or actual, and the fact that mythology is full of stories about sacred wounding, suggests an acknowledgment of wounding as essential for our maturity and spiritual development.”
Those words come from the OBOD’s Bardic Gwers (teaching material) and I have found this emphasis on the sacred wound to be the single most exiting link between the mythologies of the Pagan and the Christian worlds. The crucifix and its image of hope within excruciating pain, trauma and brokenness, is the central reason why the literal/mythic story of Jesus Christ still makes sense to me. His story, like the many Pagan insights into sacred woundedness does not remain in brokenness. He does not remain on the cross, or in the tomb. There is a resurrection. There is a rising back to life, but not life like it was before, a new life that is different, a glorified life. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is thus another metaphor for all of our lives. It says “life is hard, death will always be part of life, and we will not escape the wounds – but the wounds are where the gold lies.”
My first ever book was completely based on this truth that brokenness is often a more direct way to discover gold than any attempts at so called perfection. In one chapter I use an object lesson which, in the book, is simply a series of photographs of a clay pot. In my retreats and quiet days when I use this chapter as a visual meditation I use an actual pot. The pot I use contains a lit candle, but no one can see it. There is a big crack in the back of the pot but that is concealed from the audience’s viewpoint. Then I hold the pot up and use these words:
“So, let me now show you the great mystery and miracle of the Gospel of Falling Down. We are beautifully and intricately designed clay jars, fashioned lovingly by a wonderful Creator. Yet, we are also fragile and poor. And from time to time life causes us to splinter and crack.
Life may dish out something totally beyond our control, something we would have never asked for, something ‘out of the blue’. Or it may be that we have walked for a while the road of the Pharisee and tried to make ourselves into little icons of religious perfection. Maybe we have fallen flat on our faces after the painful discovery that such a goal is impossible. Maybe our failure to achieve a goal has triggered a humiliating fall leading to the recognition of our limitations and weaknesses. This falling of the clay jar has wounded us and we have started to crack and splinter.
These cracks and splinters (whichever way they came) are painful, horribly painful; even like death. Yet if only we knew how close we were in this state to the discovery of our lifetime.
For when we fall, and splinter and crack, we see our ego, our false self, our little-me, for what it is, and sometimes (just sometimes) we are able to let go of it for a while. Then the most profound experience is waiting to hit us. You see, the crack, the fault, the brokenness exposes THE INNER TREASURE AT LAST!!!
[At this point I slowly turn round the clay jar to reveal a huge crack in the other side. And due to the fact that there is a hidden large burning candle inside the jar the light pours out through the crack for all to see]
And then we can truly say that we have met God, and have met Him not out there at the end of some great quest but within our very selves. The treasure that we were searching for out there is finally re-discovered.
And know this; the treasure is not something that has been suddenly added to our selves, for it was always there. Rather it is our perception that has changed, our ‘inner eyesight’. That’s why people often say spirituality is about ‘seeing’.
Of course this doesn’t happen automatically. It may be months or even years after our fall that we see ourselves in our own God-given-glory. We may be so hurt by our fall that we grow bitter, and again close ourselves to our inner beauty and treasure.
But make no mistake, such falls, and the cracks they produce, can indeed give us the sacred opportunity to catch a golden glimpse of the God-self.”
When it comes to the actual events of Jesus death upon the cross, and his burial in a tomb I happen to think that something remarkable did happen, and it happened to the early followers of Jesus. For some reason they were transformed from terrified hunted outlaws to fearless heralds of a new message. It’s interesting that most of the (even extremely liberal) modern biblical scholars hold that the resurrection experience is likely to be authentic history. This does not mean they believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, but certainly that something of the spirit and energy of Jesus lived on and motivated others. So I cannot say whether the disciples’ experience involved them literally seeing Jesus again, but I do believe it involved them sensing something powerful and new around and within them.
For Christians, maybe this is what we mean by the metamorphosis of the historical Jesus into the Cosmic Christ, which of course includes you and me and everything.
I believe that the breaking of their own hearts, through the shock and horror of losing Jesus, followed by their sudden powerful awareness that he was somehow still among them, triggered an experience that has never yet stopped changing lives of broken people. They caught of glimpse of the reality that nothing can separate them from the burning energy and love filled presence of God. What they had experienced when their amazing teacher was physically with them was real again, but this time within them. His spirit was bubbling up within them and about to be unleashed in an even bigger way than it had been for the last two or three years. What was true for Jesus was now true for his wounded and beaten up followers. It’s true for us too if we want it. It is, in fact, true for the whole of creation. Why else you think the birds sing like they do? Why else do you think the sun rises daily and the spring buds are opening once again after their wintery sleep? Life death and re-birth is nature’s way. And it is our way too – it’s just we need a little reminding now and again.
We’ll never really know what happened to cause this shift in awareness 2000 years ago – this transfiguration from death to life. But that does not matter. What matters is that we catch the wonder, experience the resurrection, and join the rest of Mother Nature’s creatures as they sing and dance and live out their spirit filled lives.