We gathered last night and read many, many stories, about our God, about our ancestors, about what we believe, about who we are. Stories are the very stuff of Christian life. Jesus did not teach logic; He told parables — not the field of philosophy or history or mathematics, but literature. Before that, the Holy Spirit filled our Bible with parables and stories. — the story of Job and of Jonah and of Judith and of Jeremiah .... and I'm just making my way through the "Js"! The word bible means "many books" .... think bibliography. Before that, we have another kind of story, a microscopic one, as Adam, for some mysterious reason, must name each thing in the Creation. It is a creative act. It is not enough that they simply be created; the Creator orders each thing to be finished with a beautiful and storied layer of language laid upon it. Indeed, Father God does not create all things visible and invisible with one great bolt, as we might expect, proceeding from His mighty hand; He creates everything with .... a Word, Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word. An ancient tradition of our faith teaches that God hovered over the increate waters and breathed His Name onto them, which set up ripples, which in turn set up more ripples, which in turn set into motion the Creation. That is, everything that is made is made from His good self .... and His Name, which for centuries the Jews found too holy even to utter or reference. His Name, which is Jesus Christ, the visible image of the invisible God. The visible God is a Word.
Pope Benedict XVI rightly has written that Christianity is not a religion of the book, but rather an encounter, an encounter with Jesus Christ. He means that unlike Islam, to name one example, our life in Christ is much more than living up to precepts. It is a living, breathing, weeping and rejoicing relationship with Jesus. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote, "And He did it all with relationship."
Yet, inescapably, there is something about "book-ness" (as I know Pope Benedict would agree) that goes very deep — into the heart and sinews and soul — of our faith. Indeed, there is a deep and hidden connection between the person of Jesus, the Word, even His body and blood, and the artform of literature and, therefore, of God's Creation. This deep connection underlies the Last Supper and Words of Institution, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and to all of our Easter life today, and continues to inform and nourish them all.
Because Jesus and St. Paul and the other Evangelists quote Scripture from the Greek Septuagint and not the Hebrew Bible, we assume that Jesus spoke and taught not in Hebrew but in Greek, which was the dominant language spoken in Judah during this period, and, indeed, through much of the known world. Studies of recently unearthed public monuments and plaques now suggest that Greek was commonly used in Rome itself. Students of first-century Greek will tell you that the cross-pollination between the living Greek and Latin languages was heavy at this time.
The five-day retreat offered from Na Pua Li'i Hermitage — from Spy Wednesday and the Last Supper to the Resurrection — has a golden thread running through it. And this golden thread is spun and plied in Greek. The Greek word for bread, αρτο'ς (arto's), and the Greek word for artery and, therefore, blood, αρτηρι'α (artyri'a,), come out of the same root. Even more striking is that the Latin word for art, artem, also uses this same root. Bread, blood, art.
Our God is an artist. He creates. The first verb in the Holy Scripture is create. We know that His highest artform — that fire, that spark, that mysterious stirring — we call life, we see all around us, (though remarkably have come to take it for granted). And all of our art proceeds from His. The Anglican philosopher and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote that human art is of the same stuff as our Maker's, being "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of Creation in the infinite I AM." And it follows that our standard for art, following His — whether painting or sculpture or literature — is that it somehow has life. (And we recall Pygmalion falling in love with and kissing his lifelike statue.) Art that fails, on the other hand, we say is "dead." No one looks at it; no one reads it; it's artificial, we say. "It lacks life."
It is remarkable that God alone can truly create living art. He also creates literature, our Sacred Scriptures, for example, in which He depicts Himself, His living Creation, and His human creatures, whom he mysteriously loves so completely. But it is even more complicated than that. What we have is living art giving rise to living art and conferring meaning through more depths and layers than we can comprehend. Consider this, as one instance: we believe that the Holy Scriptures are literally and historically true, and we understand that they also are allegorically true. The people Israel, historically, were led away from the fleshpots of Egypt where they "did eat to the full," were brought through the Red Sea, and then went into the wilderness to be alone with God. The allegorical, or spiritual, truth of this narrative affects our lives today. Like the people Israel we have eaten from flesh pots to the full; we have been cleansed in holy water, whether of baptism or absolution; and now we have been purified in abstinence from sin seeking close relationship with God. The Holy Scriptures are historically true, and they are allegorically true. This means that historical or literal events, all of them, have an allegorical meaning. That what is happening around us, even the stories of our own lives, have a hidden and spiritual meaning.
Do you see the two levels? We have literary art all around us, the Holy Bible being the most important example, and then we have all those biblical events, as well as the events of our own lives, which are contained in another, greater artwork, artwork within artwork within artwork, where we live and move and have our being. He is the author of both and, yet, both are filled with His gift of freedom and choice. (In that sense, we are co-authors with Him.)
As the Scriptures open, we find the great Author at His work. In countless passages, we read the term "blotted out" — which means literally "to stain with ink," a term that refers to the creation and un-creation of literary art. As we know, all authors and poets do this: they attempt to bring characters and events to life, but then they must revise. The work of human authors is not quite alive until characters are fully granted that life-giving spark of free will — the ability to make their own choices. When I was a college freshman, my writing teacher, the yet-to-be-famous John Irving, told the class that he didn't really craft every aspect of a novel. He said that he brought characters into being and then simply recorded what they did, how they interacted with each other, and what would come of it. I have heard John Updyke say the same thing. To do otherwise, to wrest control from the characters, Updyke said, is to lose the novel's spark of life.
From these modest examples, it is not hard to understand our Creator's situation. We have free will. For us to be completely alive, and not mere dummies or robots, we must have control. We must be granted that utmost gift of sovereignty, which is freedom and choice in all things.
The cost of this gift is a commonplace among human writers: it is that the novel spins out of control after perhaps a thousand pages and must be consigned, as an intractable mess, to the fire. Every serious writer has encountered this: the novel that took perhaps years to write "just got away from me," says the writer. We ask, "Then why doesn't the author just take control of the novel?" Because to take away the free will of his characters, imposing his own will, would render the work lifeless.
It is uncanny that the first section of our Scriptures depicts that very thing. After granting life and choice, things get off track. The first time it happens — the Garden of Eden story — the characters are not blotted out. Rather, they are placed in a new setting to see if that might work. But the new scene, East of Eden, produces challenges anew. And before too long, and yet again, the characters make choices that threaten the success of artwork, its very purpose. This next troubled section in the Book we might term, "The Antediluvian World: Creation Before the Flood."
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth,
and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only
on evil continually.
And the Lord was sorry that he made humankind on the earth,
and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said,
"I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created
...for I am sorry that I made them."
...the Lord was sorry...he made humankind
...I will blot out...[whom] I have created
But tell me. What can a novelist do when the living, breathing world of his characters goes hay-wire? ... when hundreds of pages are written, and there is no convergence or resolution in sight? You can't unwrite what has been written. You can't wrest control from the characters; what has been written implies its own internal laws and rules and themes and principles. The characters developed but in unexpected, even subversive, ways. The book has gone out of control, and the only remedy is to abandon the project. And He tosses His beloved work into a deep, deep sea of seemingly endless rain.
The rain does end though, and our God begins again with the generation of Noah's family. Things mostly stay on track. (Well, there's Ham ....) Two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, are blotted out. And, then, roughly two thousand years ago, our God's beloved Creation threatens to spin out of control yet again.
I do not have the time this morning to attempt an answer to the question, "Why was Jesus born when He was?" That is matter for another sermon. Suffice it to say that God's narrative had reached an unprecedented crisis. And we know that He will not step in to rearrange large-scale, historic events. If the great world wars, the various holocausts of millions of people, and the emergence of nuclear weapons have taught us anything, they have taught us that. God's narrative has reached a point of grave crisis, and we know that He will not seize control on a grand scale.
Thus does the Artist God survey the scene: the largest military force the world has ever known holds the principal characters in thrall. The "Jewish" kings are actually Arabs who continually commit heinous crimes, near genocide, upon God's people. Right leadership is so conspicuous in its absence that a universal prayer goes up for a messiah. The people themselves sink into spiritual deadness and sectarian strife. And He looks and sees, just ahead, that the Land of Promise will become a field of rubble, as the Jewish lifeworld is completely annihilated by the Roman army in 70 A.D. What is the Artist-God to do now? Start again? Discard Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? Throw away Egyptian and Arabic mathematics? Blot out Abraham, Moses, Esther, Ruth, David, Solomon and all of Salvation History? For ten righteous people He would have spared Sodom. Shall He not now spare the whole world for all of history's righteous and holy men and women?
But there just seems no way out. Every angle is blocked. His people are about to be exterminated, and no hope remains on this lifescene in the face of the invincible Roman Empire. So, our God, unable to blot out His creatures again, does something completely unexpected: He sets down His pen, and he enters history as a character — Jesus of Nazareth. And instead of destroying the world, He destroys Himself, and submits to a cosmic sacrifice so great and a release of energy so potent that it alters everything in the Creation. And, against all odds, it begins a change in the human heart, freely conceived and freely chosen, a movement begun by Himself, disguised as a nameless beggar, in a dusty corner of the Empire that will become the greatest religious phenomenon the earth has ever known and will ever know. In fact, a new way of living.
And as He executes His divine art, the appearance of Himself in the Book, He frames it with two miracles that have forever been remembered: In His first miracle, He turns water into wine, gracing marriage, which is the gate of life. And in His last miracle, He turns wine into His blood, which is the gate to eternal life.
In His great entrance into history, He rectifies and sanctifies every life and every relation that is rooted in Him. And in the night He was betrayed, He took bread. And when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying take, eat, This is My Body, which is given for you. Do this.
And He takes leave of us. And He invites us to become Him, mysteriously, His friends ensuring that He will never leave our earthly story. And we refresh ourselves daily in that great transformation by placing deep within us this divine seed, this αρτο'ς, this αρτηρι'α, this artem, this spark of life, that we might begin to give off light, His light, for He is the Light of the World.
And every day, we repeat and obey His divine command: "Do this .... in remembrance of Me."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.