Friday, 31 January 2014

Aquarius (2): O, Brave New World!

Extracts from Mark 13

As he was leaving the temple one of his disciples said to him, 'Look teacher! Such stones and such buildings!' And Jesus said to him, 'You see these great buildings? There won't be one stone left upon another. There's none that won't be demolished!'

But after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not shine. The stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then they will see the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather together his chosen ones from the four corners of the earth, from the farthest bounds of earth to the farthest bounds of heaven. Learn a lesson from the fig tree: when its branch becomes tender and the leaves appear, you know that summer is near. So when you see these things taking place you will know that the end is near, at the door almost. I'm telling you the truth: this generation will not disappear until all these things have occurred; heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But as far as timing is concerned, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the son; only the Father knows. Watch! Be alert! For you don't know when the time is. It's like a man travelling abroad; he leaves his house in the care of his servants, giving each of them a particular task; he tells the doorkeeper to keep watch. So, you keep watch, because you don't know when the lord of the household is coming - whether late in the evening, at midnight, or at cock-crow, or in the morning! You don't want him to come suddenly and find you sleeping!  What I am saying to you I am saying to everyone: "Watch!"' 


Procrustes – whose name means ‘He who stretches’ – was a Greek blacksmith who kept a house by the roadside in which he offered hospitality to passing strangers. ‘Come inside,’ he would shout as people passed by. ‘Enjoy a lovely meal and then sleep soundly in my special bed.’ When people asked him what was so special about his bed, he would tell them that no matter how short they were, or how tall, the bed would fit them exactly. What he didn’t tell them was that as soon as his guest fell asleep, Procrustes would go to work, stretching a short one on the rack or chopping off the legs of a tall one. The great Greek hero, Theseus, stayed with Procrustes but he turned the tables on him: he pushed Procrustes on to the bed and chopped off his head and his legs.

Written in February 2007

One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.
 Walter Bagehot (born 3rd February, 1826)

About ten days ago I received a package through the post. It was postmarked Tel Aviv, and so I opened it with a little more excitement than I can usually muster for brown envelopes. But I was disappointed to find that it contained an anti-Semitic rant from a British citizen resident in Israel who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who was fully expecting him to return to earth in the near future to punish the world for its iniquity. A quotation from the Gospel stood framed in black at the beginning of the diatribe:

And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. (Mark 13: 7-8)

The writer goes on to say that these Gospel prophecies of calamity are being fulfilled right now, and that the destruction of the twin towers, the Columbia spaceship disaster, and the flooding of New Orleans, are signs of God’s anger, and sure indications that Jesus is about to return. What’s more, he says, things are set to get even worse.

Three quarters of the present area of the U.S.A. will sink under water. The Third World War will begin in 2009 and last until 2014.On March 17th 2008 or 2009, a deluge will hit the U.S.A – starting from Lake Michigan. Until November 2013, 200 million residents of the U.S.A will die from a devastating series of deluges there.  
Whereabouts in the Bible he gets this from, I don’t know, but remember, you heard it here first!
The Rapture, by Jan Luyken
           We usually associate this kind of stuff with fringe Christian groups – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – but we mustn’t forget that mainstream organisations preach a similar message, albeit generally without specific mention of times and places. Indeed, this very day, in Catholic and Anglican churches throughout the world, worshippers will be reciting a creed which clearly states that Jesus Christ will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and of his kingdom there will be no end’; and during Advent, Christians of all persuasions are expected to prepare themselves for the second coming of Christ as they celebrate his first coming in Bethlehem.
It was estimated in 2004 that 59% of Americans believe in ‘the Rapture’, that, immediately before Christ returns, born-again Christians will be taken up into the sky to meet him, leaving the rest of us behind to suffer and die in the great war of Armageddon. I read a few years ago, but I can’t vouch for the truth of it, that some American airline would never have two born-again Christians piloting the same plane, so that no aircraft would be without a pilot in the event of the Rapture occurring.
In 1990 I saw a television programme about an eccentric millionaire, Bernard Coffindaffer, who was buying plots of land up and down America and having three huge crosses erected on them, representing the three crosses that stood on Calvary at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. Before his death in 1994, he had spent $3.000,000 dollars on the project. During our drive across the States in 1991, Morag and I actually saw one of these strange, imposing and unsettling triptychs, and wondered why on earth anyone would go to such trouble and such expense, and, more importantly, why the secular authorities would allow these sectarian icons to dominate the rural landscape. The elderly millionaire didn’t erect these crosses himself; he spent his time sitting in his garden, gazing towards the east, because, he said, that’s the direction from which the returning Jesus would descend. ‘I’m doing it,’ he said, ‘so that the Lord will feel at home when he returns to earth’, but why Jesus would want to see the instrument of his own cruel death the man didn’t bother to say.
Such eccentricities may be harmless enough in the average citizen, but they become more troublesome when they are shared by politicians. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the most powerful man (or woman) in the western world to be someone who believes that we are living in the last days, and that God is going to step in soon and sort out our global mess; or who thinks that war in the middle east is a sign of Christ’s imminent return; or that some nation or other is controlled by Satan and so must be eliminated in the great battle of good against evil. President Reagan entertained such thoughts in the eighties, referring to Russia as the ‘evil empire’ mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and President Bush, a self-confessed, born-again Christian, came perilously close to expressing similar ideas in his early rhetoric about Iraq. I’m all for leaving the Bible out of politics.
            Or, let me put it another way: I’m all for leaving these particular bits of the Bible out of politics, the bits which appear to tell us what is going to happen, because they are the most difficult to understand and to interpret. You can find them in both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures, and they seem to have been the obsession of every religious crank for two
Model of Herod's Temple
millennia. The problem is that although they look like prophecies, for the most part they are nothing of the kind. They belong to a multi-layered, poetic, highly symbolic and highly stylized genre called ‘apocalyptic’, a Greek work meaning ‘unveiling’, ‘revealing’, and in their Jewish context they are not so much predictions of specific incidents in the future, as general expressions of the dire consequences of collective sinfulness in the present. The fact that these dire consequences are presented in the language of cosmic upheaval – the sun refusing to give its light, the stars falling from the sky, unprecedented natural disasters – serves to stress, in metaphorical terms, the writer’s conviction that human sin invites calamity of global proportions. Apocalyptic deals with the breaking down of what appear to be permanent structures, and the apocalyptic passage in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 13, begins with Jesus announcing to his apostles that the Jerusalem Temple, one of the most magnificent buildings in the ancient world, would soon crumble into ruins. The destruction of the Temple actually did occur in 70 C.E., so if Mark’s Gospel was written before that time (as fundamentalist scholars claim), this statement of Jesus could be seen as a prophecy.
Saturn Eating His Children
However, whether or not it’s a genuine prophecy, it’s certainly in the right place. It occurs in the Aquarius section of the Gospel, just before Jesus sends out his apostles to meet the Aquarian figure of the man carrying a jar of water, and Aquarius was associated in the ancient world with the toppling of structures. It was said to be ruled by the planet Saturn, just as was Capricorn, the previous sign, but, while the Saturn of Capricorn was associated with building up, stability, conformity, control, the Saturn of Aquarius was concerned with destruction, anarchy, and death. Saturn is the Roman equivalent of the Greek Cronos, Time, who, as The Grim Reaper, is depicted carrying a scythe, the symbol of death. According to the Greek myth, Cronos – Saturn - ‘eats his own children’, a perfect metaphor for the way Time eventually consumes everything it has itself generated. Goya’s famous picture of Saturn devouring his son is one of the 19th century’s most horrifying works of art.
So, a passage in which Jesus talks about the end of the present system of things, and the beginning of something new, is placed appropriately here in the Gospel’s Aquarius section, but how are we to interpret it? Fundamentalists take it literally and see it as describing real events at some future time – our own time, they say. Liberal groups, like our own, tend to ignore such passages completely, considering them as belonging to a primitive strand in Christian thought, which has been rendered obsolete by a growing belief in a more compassionate God, and a scientific worldview in which cosmic cataclysms have no place. Jesus, they say, was probably wrong about the coming of the kingdom of God.
On this issue, as on so much else in the Gospels, I have ceased to hold the conventional liberal view. Strange as it may seem, I believe in a world and universe shattering cataclysm and, what is more, I believe that it is imminent, almost at the door.
Of course, I don’t believe that these things will be external events, which could be recorded on a video camera. These are not and, I believe, never were originally intended to be, literal descriptions of external, temporal, spatial events. The major events of the Gospels – birth, death, resurrection, ascension, second coming – are psychological events, and the Gospels themselves indicate as much. In the Gospel of Luke we read that the kingdom of God ‘does not come visibly. People will not say, here it is, or there it is, because the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17:17-19)
This is an extremely important passage, and really gives us the key to understanding the whole issue. If the kingdom of God is inside me, then it is pointless for me to expect it to come from outside, and waiting around, counting the earthquakes, looking up at the sky for Jesus to return are all fruitless distractions. If the kingdom of God is inside me then no wonder Jesus says that it is ‘at hand’. This is the good news of the gospel, that all who wish to find the kingdom do not need to go anywhere in order to find it, and they do not have to wait for someone to give it to them. It is as close as you are to yourself, and it is awaiting your discovery. The kingdom of God is not the transformation of the external world brought about by the return of Jesus and the destruction of the wicked – this is just another procrustean solution to add to the countless similar solutions proposed by religious and secular leaders alike throughout history, all of which involve chopping off inconvenient pieces of the human race.
The kingdom of God is the transformation of individual consciousness, which comes unexpectedly, ‘like a thief in the night’, and when it does, it will turn our interior universe upside down, shattering our world view. The sun, moon, and stars of our interior space will tumble from their orbits; our former certainties will be destroyed, our petty aims and expectations will be totally transformed. Our world will never be the same again. This is why the Gospel writers use the language of cosmic catastrophe to describe it.
The transformation of consciousness, which Christians know as the coming of the kingdom of God, is described by all the spiritual traditions in similar terms. The Tibetan Buddhists say that it is

like taking a hood off your head……everything opens, expands, becomes crisp, clear, brimming with life, vivid with wonder and freshness. It is as if the roof of your mind were flying off…..All limitations dissolve and fall away…as if a seal were broken open.

The Hindu sage Patanjali describes it in this way:

                                    All your thoughts break their bonds;
                                    Your mind transcends limitations,
                                    Your consciousness expands in every direction,
                                    And you find yourself in a new, great
                                    And wonderful world.
                                    Dormant forces, faculties and talents
                                    Become alive, and you discover yourself
                                    To be a greater person by far
                                    Than you ever dreamed
                                    Yourself to be.

Walt Whitman express a similar idea in Leave of Grass:

Hast never come to thee an hour,
A sudden gleam divine, precipitating, bursting all these bubbles, fashions, wealth?
These eager business aims - books, politics, art, amours,
To utter nothingness?

Walt Whitman
This 'sudden gleam divine', this ‘new, great and wonderful world’ will not be handed to us by some political messiah, nor will it be inaugurated by some god or demigod, who drops down from the sky. The world is already great and wonderful; we have just lost the ability to perceive it. Human beings have amazing capacities which lie neglected and atrophied under the dead weight of our limited self understanding and our frantic and fruitless search to find happiness in material accumulation and competition. When we, inheritors of the Christian tradition say, ‘thy kingdom come’ we should not be praying, forlornly, for a political and economic Utopia, but, hopefully, for a new mind to be born within us, a new consciousness, which will see all things differently.
As William Blake says in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

William Blake
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
The task of all spiritual systems is to cleanse the doors of our perception, to open up the chinks in the cavern of the mind. This is the meaning of the ‘upper room’ which Jesus’ apostles are led to by the man carrying the jar of water. ‘He will show you a large upper room, equipped and ready; prepare for us there,’ says Jesus. The large upper room is the mind, which each of us must equip and prepare to receive the Christ, symbol of a transformed consciousness, who will not appear in the eastern skies, robed in glory and ready to destroy the wicked, but who will come ‘like a thief in the night’ to cleanse the doors of our perception and to turn our interior world upside down.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Odysseus, Jesus, Eurycleia, and the Woman with the Alabaster Jar

We are all familiar with the fact that the Gospels regularly refer to the Jewish scriptures (what we disparagingly call the Old Testament) but it is not so well known that they contain references to the literature of Greece. Some time ago I posted a piece on the way that the story of the death of John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel reflects a passage from the Greek historian Herodotus (see blog on 12th October 2012), and today I want to point out how the story of the woman who anoints Jesus before his death echoes a passage from Homer’s Odyssey.

Eurycleia washes Odysseus's feet
            When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he comes disguised as a beggar and spends some time at the house of Eumaeus, the swineherd. Still disguised, he goes to his palace where he meets Penelope, his wife, whom he hasn’t seen for 20 years. She instructs Odysseus’s old nurse, Eurycleia, to bathe and anoint him. While bathing him, Eurycleia recognises the scar on Odysseus’s thigh and realises she is washing her master. When she had washed him ‘she anointed him richly with oil’. Eurycleia is the only one who knows the beggar’s true identity.

An Unnamed Woman Anoints Jesus
            Jesus is in the home of Simon the leper when a woman enters, breaks open an alabaster jar of pure nard and anoints Jesus’s head with it. The apostles are indignant at the waste of money, but Jesus rebukes them, telling them that she is anointing him ahead of his burial; the woman is the only one who realises that Jesus is destined to die. The woman is not named, but Jesus tells his apostles that ‘wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ Her fame is assured. And what is a Greek name meaning ‘far-flung fame’? Eurycleia, the name of the woman who anoints Odysseus.

            Surely this is no accident. I’ll ask the question again: Where’s the history?

For more on the parallels between Mark and Homer, see The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, by Dennis R. MacDonald. (Yale University Press, 2000)