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Home / Poetry R. M. Rilke / Poetry / Easter Meditation


 

 

AN EASTER MEDITATION

by Alfred de Zayas

Does our ostensibly Christian society understand the message of Jesus Christ, or do we just pay lip service to it? Let us imagine, just for a moment, that we were to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Would we still consider ourselves Christians?

Quite frankly, we do not practice Christianity, which is based on love, forgiveness and humility. That's what the New Testament is all about. What we practice is a modified form of the Old Testament, flattering ourselves with the illusion that we are, after all, the "good guys", the chosen people of God, that we shall be saved and that all others are doomed (and probably deserve to be doomed) -- the Muslims, the Bahais, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the agnostics, the atheists. We pay lip service to human brotherhood, but in practice we are predators.

Every time we read the Old Testament and accept with self-righteous contentment the idea that our God sent ten plagues to the Egyptians, ordered the Israelites to smite the women and children of Canaan, to kill everything living in Jericho, to slaughter the city of Hai ... every time we read such stories without reflecting on their implications and obvious injustice, we are not behaving as New Testament Christians.

Who could possibly see any legitimacy in the claim that the Old Testament granted divine justification to the patriarchs to take the promised Lebensraum by force? (Exodus, Chapters 8 to15, Deuteronomy Chapter VII, verses 1-6, Chapter XX, verses 16-18, and Joshua Chapter VI, verse 21, Chapter VIII, verses 18-29).  There is not only xenophobia in these verses, but misanthropy.  Who would, in good conscience, repeat the words of Psalm 58 about others with whom we have discord:  « These men are born sinners, lying from their earliest words ! They are poisonous as deadly snakes, cobras that close their ears to the most expert of charmers. O God, break off their fangs. Tear out the teeth of these young lions, Lord. Let them disappear like water into thirsty ground. Let them be as snails that dissolve into slime and as those who die at birth, who never see the sun. God will sweep away both old and young. He will destroy them more quickly than a cooking pot can feel the blazing fire of thorns beneath it. The godly shall rejoice in the triumph of the right. They shall walk the bloodstained fields of slaughtered, wicked men.”?  In the same vein we read Psalm 63:  “But those plotting to destroy me shall go down to the depths of hell. They are doomed to die by the sword, to become the food of jackals.” Is this not paranoid?  Is it not misanthropy, a combination of petulance, solipsism, narcissism and arrogance?  With very good reason the first of the seven capital sins (for Catholics) is the sin of arrogance, the source of so many other dysfunctions and abuses.  Yet, arrogance does not feature prominently among the sins proscribed in the Ten Commandments. It has been said that a person can observe the ten commandments and still be unjust. The new Alliance in love demands much more than peremptory obedience of the ten commandments. 

A conscious Christian knows that the world is not black and white, that we are all imperfect, that there is good in the bad and that there is also bad in the good.  Every single one of us has good and bad traits.  Religion should help us marshal this complexity.

Who can identify with Psalm 83, where an appeal is made to the Almighty, so that He “do to them as once you did to Midian, or as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the River Kishon, and as you did to your enemies at Endork, whose decaying corpses fertilized the soil… Oh my God, blow them away like dust, like chaff before the wind – and as a forest fire that roars around a mountain.  Chase them with your fiery storms, tempests and tornados.  Utterly disgrace them until they recognize your Power and name, O Lord.  Make them failures in everything they do; let them be ashamed and terrified …”  No, this cannot be our prayer, nor our lesson.  Religion is not and cannot be misanthropic.  Religion is philanthropic and optimistic, it recognizes that we are all the children of the same Creator.  As St. Paul tells us in the Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 8, verses14-15: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. Now you have not received a spirit of bondage so as to be again in fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by virtue of which we cry “Father”!”

In the Old Testament  Yaweh is defined as the Lord of Armies, Lord of Sebaoth (from Hebrew s??ba’ôt, pl. of s?aba’, army, from s?aba’, to wage war). This concept of a warrior God is common to many other religions -- but does it satisfy our sense of religion, our sense of goodness, our sense of morality, our sense of justice for all creatures of the Earth? Is our idea of the glory of God that of a heap of corpses?

For some apparently it does. And many evangelical churches project this image of divinity. Somehow it seems that the majority of Christians do not even try to understand the message, much less live according to the Sermon on the Mount, because they think it is an allegory, a metaphor, too tough, because we reject the fundamental premise of the equality of human beings. We want to be the privileged class, the chosen people, even if we would not admit it to ourselves. It is not equality that we want, but privilege!  We want the extra Wurst!

We know the Beatitudes only in name -- not in practice -- for in essence we still live according to Old Testament rules, considering ourselves the rightfully chosen people and judging all others as heathen and worthy of destruction. We adhere to the myth of the "clash of civilizations" instead of looking for an alliance of civilizations, for a rehabilitation and reconciliation of cultures.

When I go to Catholic Mass on Holy Thursday to celebrate the founding of the New Alliance and the con-celebration of the Eucharist feast, when I go with my wife to the reformed Protestant Good Friday service to meditate on the overwhelming symbolism of the crucifixion, when we go to the ecumenical Easter Sunday service, I like to focus on the mystery of our existence.

How ineffable the very fact that we exist, that one day we all shall die, and that above all we believe in Life and have faith in the Resurrection.

As Rilke said: "Das Leben ist eine Herrlichkeit" (life is splendour).

And, again, Hiersein ist herrlich (7. Duino Elegy) -- it is good to be here and now.

I like to reflect on the overwhelming mystery that a GOD CREATOR would so love his Creation that he would send his SON to die on the Cross to redeem us.

If you emotionally and physically experience faith, if you instinctively feel it, if you believe, you would agree that we can be saved only by GRACE, i.e. by the same trnascendental force,

by the sme incomprehensible generoristy -- that gratuitous act of creation. We ought to endeavour to to the right thing, to be good to our families, to our neighbours, to our colleagues,

to be just, but our good works can hardly be enough to deseve eternal salvation. We are only the vessels into which Divinie Grace is poured, like wine is poured into a chalice, and yet,

it is the wine that matters, the wine that still states of its grapes (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, 6).

If we practiced Christianity, we would at least make an effort not to hate other people, not to lie to and double-cross our acquaintances and even our friends. Maybe we could even persuade

ourselves to love some more of them, in principle, not just our spouses and buddies, but also the people who work with us, our colleagues in the office, our secretaries, even our bosses!

We should endeavour to hate only evil, but not the persons who deliberately or by error do evil. Maybe they are thoroughly confused and subjectively think that they are doing the "right" thing. Maybe they, too, think they are Christians and acting honourably.  Why not give the golden rule a try?   "Therefore all that you wish men to do to you, even so do you also to them" (Matthew VII, 12).

Instead of creating at atmosphere of confidence around us, we project a sense of being threatened, the suspicion that we consider our neighbour to be a competitor, a potential enemy instead of a potential friend. Thus we provoke the dislike of our neighbours, committing that first and gravest of the seven capital sins – the sin of arrogance.

Christ tried to teach us humility, not arrogance.

And yet, listen to John Cotton of the first Church of Boston in the 17th Century; listen to Increase and Cotton Mather (1663-1728) of the Second Church of Boston in puritan Massachusetts. They considered themselves the New Canaan, the New Chosen People of God, entitled to smite the indigenous population of the New World, who had first welcomed them, given them food and taught them how to survive in the wilderness.

Seventy years ago the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials were in progress. The Prosecutors condemned the vanquished and prostrate Germans, both the Nazi leaders and the common folk. It was an exercise in arrogance, because the crimes of the British, American and Soviet leaders were not less in the eyes of God. Who were we to cast the first stone against the adulteress? For we were guilty of the nuclear annihilation of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the carpet bombing of Tokyo, the fire-bombing of population centres Dresden, Hamburg, Kassel, the massacres of Katyn, Nemmersdorf, Methgethen, Marienburg, Postelberg, Lamsdorf, Swientochlowice, Aussig and Brno, the expulsion of 15 million human beings from their 700-year old homelands, the deportation of nearly two million ethnic Germans to slave labour for many years after the war pursuant to an agreement signed by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin on 11 February 1945 at Yalta.

Not without reason Christ asks us, “But why dost thy see the speck in your brother’s eye and yet does not consider the beam in your own eye”? Matthew Chapter VII, verse 3. Nuremberg was not a Christian court. It was an Old Testament tribunal, in the spirit of revenge, not reconciliation. When I think of Nuremberg I cannot help but be reminded of Luke, Chapter XI, Verse 52

"Woe to you lawyers! Because you have taken away the key of knowledge" .

Nuremberg was an exercise in hypocrisy. A continuation of hate and war by the instrumentalization of the administration of justice, a corruption of legal norms and procedures, a pollution of philosophy, a truly Pharisee tribunal.

George W. Bush and Tony Blair too are Pharisees. Certainly no Christians (new-born or newly-made Catholic), even if they masquerade as Christians and misuse the name of Christ. When they do, I have a sense of blasphemy. I think of so many politicians before (and no doubt) after them. Alas, they are but two in a long list of politicians who have abused religion as a justification for crime, who instrumentalize the transcendental, the sense of awe, to lead the gullible masses to their doom. Just as the fanatical Islamists misuse the Koran. Thus can good books like the New Testament be transformed into evil deeds. For indeed our God is a God of Peace, not a god of war like Mars or Wotan.

The New Testament is a "plan of action" for peace and reconciliation, but in AD 312 Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity his personal religion and in AD 380 Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the only State religion. This transformed the New/Old Testament into a programme of war and conquest, instrumentalizing it into a weapon of mass destruction, an instrument of asserting power -- and keeping it.

It is appropriate in Holy Week to be reminded of the core of Christian faith, of the mode d'emploi -- the Beatitudes

:"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
"Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"

(Matthew, Chapter V, verses 1-10)

And I would turn to that passage of the Sermon of the Mount

“If thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother has anything against thee, leave thy gift before the altar and go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Matthew V, 23-24. This is a cardinal principle of the Beatitudes -- charity, forgiveness, reconciliation ahead of ritual. For what is the use of the ritual, if we persist in doing injustice to others?

We should reconcile ourselves with our families, with our colleagues and neighbours, with the indigenous people of the Americas, of Australia and Tasmania against whom our European ancestors committed genocide, with the Africans, whom our ancestors enslaved for hundreds of years, with the Palestinians, whom we have ravaged and murdered since 1947, with the Vietnamese and Cambodians, whom we napalmed for no reason, with the Iraqis whom we aggressed and despoiled of their riches, with the Iranians, whom we subjected to regime change in 1953, with the Afghans, Libyans, Panamanians, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians, etc.

The Sermon on the Mount is the New Law, replacing the Old Law of the Old Testament.

Moses proclaimed the Old Law from Mount Sinai.

Christ proclaimed the New Law from the Mount near Capharnaum.

Let us hail the golden rule: “Therefore all that you wish men to do to you, even so do you also to them” Matthew VII, 12.

The New Law has set aside the old, as a new Alliance with all of humanity (Matthew Chapter 26, verse 28, Luke Chapter 22, verse 20) has replaced the Old Covenant with its exclusivist principle of a chosen people. Christ's Language at the Last Suppler upon the Consecration of the Wine says it all: hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni testamenti qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.

And this new Alliance rests on two principles, that of love, and that of forgiveness, which Christ so clearly stated in the Lord's Prayer, et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

Let us thus intone the Benedictus of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini and the Agnus Dei: Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi dona nobis pacem!  And how we need it!

And now let us meditate for a moment. What would we do with the Lamb of God if He were to visit us today? We probably would not recognize Him. Bearing in mind that the establishment in the Roman province of Palestine in the time of Emperor Tiberius considered Him to be a seditious person, a kind of intellectual terrorist, who knows, maybe He would find Himself today subjected to extraordinary rendition, a "disappeared person" in some incommunicado cell somewhere, awaiting interrogation. But maybe he would turn the tables on the interrogator and tell him a parable of an Animal Farm with sheep and goats and postulate a different World where human beings could unabashedly show compassion to other human beings, where needs would be addressed "for I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; naked and you covered me; sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me..." (Matthew XXV, 35-36).

Yes, he would be in prison for us and his message would reach the world as the message of Nelson Mandela escaped the walls of Robben Island and touched the world. What would Wikileaks reveal to us about prison conditions and about the justifications of the Pharisees?

Easter is the name of the pagan goddess of spring. It commemorates the rebirth of nature, thus the resurrection of Christ. True enough, the foundation of the Eucharist coincides with the celebration of the Jewish Pass-over. It is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on what is being celebrated there: "For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. I am the LORD. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt." Wow! Is this an allegory? It seems a pretty ghastly one, and hardly a good example to follow! Talk of love of neighbour! What kind of a good God would send his agents to murder the first born of Egypt. This is certainly not my idea of Divinity, not my idea of Perfection, but the caricature of a very misanthropic God. Just as misanthropic and hateful as the unhistorical and aggressive "ten plagues" of Egypt. Indeed, there is not a speck of historical evidence to back them up, and the period when the plagues are supposed to have occurred coincides with the years of great prosperity and cultural brilliance under Pharaon Ramses II. Why so much hate in the Old Testament? I would have to say with the Taino Chief Hatuey, burned at the stake by his Spanish victimizers 1512 in Yara, Cuba: "if that's your God, I don't want to be there."

Meanwhile historians have come to understand that Moses was not a Jewish slave found as a baby in a basket floating in the Nile (Exodus, Chapter 2). Moses was an Egyptian follower of the monotheistic Pharaon Akhenaton (1380-1362 BC), husband of Nefertiti, who anticipated monotheism by several centuries. As part of my Easter meditation I recommend reading Akhenaton's Hymn to the Aton. I cannot help thinking that Akhenaton was a soul brother and that Ramses II too was a child of God's manificent creation. We are all one family and there simply cannot be any "chosen people" of God. It would be a contradictio in adjecto. We are all his children. Indeed, it would be outrageous if we Christians were to celebrate the blood of the Egyptian first-born, the "Pass-over" when the angel of Death passed and "slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh on the throne to the first-born of the prisoner in the dungeon, as well as all the first-born of the animals" (Exodus, Chapter 12, verse 29) sparing only the Israelites. Every time I reread that -- I can hardly believe my eyes!  I am outraged and saddened.

I think we do well to celebrate the Spring of the Resurrection.

I think we do well to reflect on Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas est", for indeed this is the new Covenant, God is Charity and enjoins us to love one another. "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another" (John Chapter 13, verse 34), "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you" (John, Chapter 14, verse 27), and to reflect on his other encyclicals Spe Salvi and Caritas in Veritate.  And now I have started reading the first two encyclical letters of Pope Franciscus: Lumen Fidei, and Evangelii Gaudium. This new Pope is propagating the vision of his namesake Francis of Assisi. "I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness" (Jn 12:46). There’s much to meditate on and it is relevant to our day to day lives. Pope Franciscus does not hesitate to apply the Gospels to today’s concrete problems. Thus he warns us in his 2015 Encyclical Laudate si “The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes a seedbed for collective selfishness…Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”

Let us imagine ourselves back in that high room of the cenaculum in Jerusalem where Christ invited his 12 disciples for the Last Supper. He invited them all -- even Judas Iscariot, even Peter who would deny him three times that very evening! We are all invited -- we sinners, and all the world is invited to the table of our Lord the Creator. It is not only the "elect" or the "pure" who are invited. In fact, we sinners are those who most need God's grace and Christ's blessing to acquire the strength necessary to carry us through the vicissitudes of every day. We are all invited to share the bread and the wine.

Let us be thankful for this invitation and sing Psalm 136, Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus. Confitemini Domino Alleluia.

When we celebrate Easter -- let us celebrate life, not death. It is the resurrection that gives us hope and meaning. If Christ had died on the cross and that had been it, the perspectives would be different. The Cross becomes an even more powerful symbol when it is just the plain cross, without the lifeless, martyred body of Christ. The Cross is the symbol of the resurrection, the symbol of reconciliation, the promise of boundless Caritas. The immense Logos of the Cross means redemption, it spends its riches on us, gives us strength. That is what we have chosen to believe in! (St. Paul, I Corinthians verses 18-31). That is what Paul tells us in the fourth Epistle to the Ephesians: “I beg you to live and act in a way worthy of those who have been chosen for such wonderful blessings as these. Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love… For us there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and we all have the same God and Father who is over us all and in us all.” (verses 1-4)

When we celebrate Easter -- let us celebrate the brotherhood of all men and women. Indeed, we are all children of God, for, as Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans: "For there is no distinction between Jew an Greek, for there is the same Lord of all, rich towards all who call upon him. 'For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'" (St. Paul, Romans, Chapter X, 12-13).

Ours is a religion of hope, a religion of optimism.  Here I would like to say with Cicero:  Dum spiro, spero.  As long as I breathe, I hope. And I will close with St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Chapter VIII, verses 24-25:  “Hope that is seen is not hope. For how can a man hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” And, I would add that for as long as the homo sapiens species exists, it is our moral duty to hope, to be pro-actively be optimistic, to strive, “Denn, wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen”! (Goethe, Faust II).


 Urbi et orbi:  Pax vobiscum          Alfred de Zayas

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