Breaking Free: The God of Israel’s story was not one of endless repetition. Each human life was to be understood not as the fleeting rehearsal of a drama whose essential plot was unchanging; but as a step, however small, towards an end that humankind itself was fashioning. Jehovah’s representation of the world was historical, not cyclical. We, his human creations, were headed towards something that had not happened before.
DEATH AND RESURRECTION lie at the heart of the Easter story. But Christianity’s preeminent religious festival also echoes a much more ancient celebration; that of Spring’s triumphant overthrow of Winter’s deathly reign. Viewed from this perspective, Jesus of Nazareth is but the latest in a long line of divine revolutionaries whose sacred lives are bound, irretrievably, to the slow-turning wheel of the seasons; the relentless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.
Where Christianity departs so decisively from the nature religions that preceded it is in its claim to have broken free of their circles. Jesus’s startling message held that the ferociously jealous sky father, Jehovah, was a linear god. The God of Israel’s story was not one of endless repetition. Each human life was to be understood not as the fleeting rehearsal of a drama whose essential plot was unchanging; but as a step, however small, towards an end that humankind itself was fashioning. Jehovah’s representation of the world was historical, not cyclical. We, his human creations, were headed towards something that had not happened before.
In the pre-industrial world that Jesus and his followers inhabited, it is difficult to overstate how radical this idea must have seemed. To people whose very existence depended on the orderly sequences of sowing and reaping; engendering and slaughtering; the notion of individuals stepping away from the relentless cycles of the world must have seemed, at best, fanciful, and, at worst, blasphemous.
Once grasped, however, it is easy to see how this idea might encourage notions of being among God’s chosen people. To embrace Jehovah’s linearity was to become a being in history – a shaper of events, rather than their inevitable victim. It’s what makes Jesus’s trade such a potent metaphor. For what else is a carpenter but a person who shapes things to a purpose? Someone who builds things to a plan?
The overwhelming image that emerges from all the Jesus stories is that of a man on a journey. The great events of his ministry are but stations: points which he is at once moving towards and departing from; points on a line.
Reading the Gospels it is impossible not to see Jerusalem as the city of endings: the inescapable terminus of Jesus journey; the place towards which every step he takes is leading him. It’s as if he knows that in this great crucible of faith and politics – of faith as politics – all the twisted threads of his life will be pulled, finally, into a single bloody knot.
Only in Jerusalem will he have an answer to the question that has been dogging him ever since he set out from Galilee. Is Death the end of the line?
Crucifixion is Death at his most cruel. We read that in the last, agonising moments of his earthly life, Jesus cried: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And then: “It is finished.” As if, in the brutal reality of his own demise he finally understood the futility of his faith in straight lines.
From the perspective of Calvary did Jesus realise, at last, that space is curved? That what we perceive to be a straight line is, in fact, just a tiny section of a circle so vast that the brief span of human existence is simply too short to comprehend its immensity.
Or did he, hanging up there against the sky, understand that life is both linear and circular? That the quest for understanding, for meaning, leads us always straight on. But, also, that the quest itself is repeated endlessly. That every generation is driven forward by the power of all the lives lived before it. Like those voyaging spacecraft, flung ever further into space by the gravitational heft of the planets they pass by.
And isn’t this the true meaning of Jesus resurrection? That the all-too-human truths he wrenched from his own life lie waiting to be rediscovered in every generation. That the carpenter’s invitation, to step outside the dull circles of our lives and shape the world to some purpose, is one we all hear, but by no means all of us heed.
Perhaps only a God born in the desert could place such faith in the act of journeying. Where water is abundant, it is easy to forget how far people are willing to travel to quench their thirst.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 2 April 2015.