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Essay

A version of this essay was delivered at Boston University on November 1, 2007, at a lecture sponsored by the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts in memory and honor of Amos Niven Wilder.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT has been with me since childhood. The words of Jesus, specifically, are so familiar that I am constantly in danger of becoming insensitive to their power. As an antidote to that I have been trying once again to think about Jesus’s words, the so-called authentic sayings of the historical Jesus, as well as those attributed to him by the earliest believing communities in the decades after his death, the words found in the mysterious fourth Gospel, for example, words which I think might more accurately be attributed to the risen Christ. I have been trying to read them again, and to think about them again from both a literary and a theological perspective, and then simply to experience them, and not for any mystical purposes (I personally have had just about enough mystical experience, and it’s become a life-or-death matter that I contemplate these things and even try to put them into practice in a rather orthodox and practical way). I wanted to experience these words again naïvely, personally, literally, as if I had never heard them before. I wanted to find myself in the company of the other spiritually needy, blind, crippled, and lost individuals to whom they were first addressed by this adorable, radiant, and somewhat scary person who is like no one anyone has ever met.

I’m well aware of how all this appears to many of the people I know or associate with, of its quaint absurdity in the eyes of so many I encounter in the literary world, in everyday life, even among the religiously observant sometimes; and I am afraid their attitude can be contagious, or at least so profoundly discouraging that I have at times found myself giving in and adopting it. This sense of estrangement from normal reality and common sense, or rather this implicit accusation coming at me from outside or even from within myself that (as one prominent American poet once told me) I either believe in a fairy tale or am the victim of delusion and hallucination, calls for a powerful antidote. And this is where I find it: in contemplation of this human being as isolated and powerless as anyone else, who wished to show others how much God loved the world.

After they’d tortured him for a while, and forced him in agony and humiliation, in public and in broad daylight, to carry the monstrously heavy instrument of his own execution to a lonely bone-strewn spot outside the city of Jerusalem (population about twenty-five thousand at the time), a few gawking onlookers jeering him or turning away out of fear of being associated with him, and after they’d hammered big, crude handmade iron nails through the palms of his hands, maybe stabbing him a couple times with their spears or, as was common practice, breaking his legs to hasten death, and after he was lifted up a few feet from the earth, his response was to gaze out across everyone alive and everyone who had ever lived, with all their stupid ugly little failures and meaningless crimes, and love them. After a lifetime of intellectual and aesthetic interest in the scriptures, this is what I suddenly saw and knew, one day at about one thirty in the afternoon in the middle of September back in 1999. Then he looked out over the faces of every person who would ever exist in the future world, right down to the last one, and loved them. And this is what people think they understand when they knowingly roll their eyes at the mention of his name. Or if they happen to read or hear spoken aloud the words, “I am going to the Father”; or “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains nothing but a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it brings forth food enough for all”; or “when I am lifted up, I will draw all men to me.”

I have come to see language as sacrament in the New Testament—or rather, the words of Jesus as sacrament. I suppose that sounds general or vague, so I should say something about the term itself. A sacrament both represents, in a graphic and dramatic way, the state of grace it conveys and also creates an event-situation that predisposes the person receiving the sacrament to experience grace. So it’s unusual, maybe, to think of certain words representing, conveying, and creating the setting for an interior and wordless experience, a condition of interior and inexpressible understanding and peace, but that is what I am saying. The sacrament of baptism, for example, is the visible form or enactment of burial and resurrection, and the shock and fear of being under the water has some emotional resonance with self-loss and dying, followed by the renewal or salvation of drawing breath again. So the sacrament actually effects what it stands for. (Though when I say “stands for” I think we need to take seriously Flannery O’Connor’s famous observation, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”) The sacrament of marriage is said to be related to the union of Christ with his followers, to whom he says, “The Father and I are one.” The sacrament of the anointing of the gravely ill might, as I understand it, bring to mind and allow one entrance into Jesus’s miraculous acts of healing when confronted with the crippled, the insane, the blind, even the dead, and I think that just about accounts for all of us. And I think this is as good a time as any to tackle that troublesome term miracle. I could simply be done with it by quoting Whitman—“Who speaks of miracles? I know of nothing but miracles.” But specifically I’d want to add that I understand the miracles to be Jesus’s exceptional and usually extremely reluctant acts of personal friendship or sheer pity. Underlying, behind, and surrounding them there is always implicit a fierce warning against reliance on the supernatural, and an insistence on the primacy, for his followers, of the hardest and most improbable miracle of all—a consistent and perpetual attitude of compassion and love for all others. I think my favorite miracle is the restoring, with a touch, of the arresting soldier’s ear when Peter cuts it off in the Garden of Olives.

As a corollary of all this, a word on the after-death appearances of Jesus to his friends, and to me the most moving of them, the one that involves their encounter with him on the road to Emmaus several days after his execution. I think it is enough to suggest that their initial failure to recognize him reflects the period of time that had to pass before the meaning of the cross, that apparent utter catastrophe, began to dawn on the scattered and disappointed disciples; before they could grasp the significance of that Passover meal during which Jesus had weirdly offered them his own body and blood to eat and drink; before they could grasp that their Messiah, instead of being crowned in Jerusalem, had done something far stranger and more astounding than anything they could have imagined, that in a Passover time, Jerusalem reeking with the blood of thousands of slaughtered lambs, Jesus had become the Lamb of God.

As Jesus spoke in images, is it so strange that his followers, or their followers, might have recourse to images when it came time to write about him? The real disaster here is the temptation of fundamentalism, the bizarre and disturbing abuses of absolute literalism, the insistence on remaining at the most primitive level of comprehension.

The Eucharist, the sacrament involving the poignant necessity of sitting down at a table to eat every day, involves the taking into our mortal bodies the transfigured and immortal body of Jesus as Christ, and a being reminded of and comforted by a most physical and literal sense of his companionship.

To these and other sacraments I would like to add the sacrament of words. I would like to talk about my experience of Jesus’s words in the same way I have spoken about the ingestion of his body—those unprecedented words which astonish and silence the hearer, words first and for a long time orally passed down, along with remembrance of their event-settings, at some point written down in stark lists of his individual sayings, before finally being given the familiar narrative structure of the numerous Gospels, many of them modeled on the early Gospel of Mark with its marvelous clarity and simplicity. I believe that when we take these words in with full attention, ingest them with our eyes and ears, we are taking in not the body but the mind of Christ and the creative will of God, as Christ is called the Word through which the universe was uttered into being; we are taking in the very thinking of Christ, its meaning and presence which never goes away though we may choose to turn away from it; and we are taking in the ultimate mystery—that Christ came not to abolish suffering (clearly!) but to take part in it.

I think the taking in of Jesus’s words changes us, and what we are newly enabled then to do is twofold. One, we receive the power to perceive that reality is the opposite of appearances or the evidence of our senses, or our previous experience of what it means to survive and succeed in the world: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted”—“Let the dead bury the dead, and come and follow me”—“Give to Caesar what belongs to him,” the coin with his image stamped on it, “and give to God what is his,” your own lives made in his image. The other thing that happens is we begin to be prepared to experience the end of the world. I’m not especially interested in the argument over whether Jesus intended to found a religion—though I’m inclined to believe his intention involved preparing us to experience the end of religion along with everything else. Even the literary and theological aspects of the New Testament itself, gradually composed in the after-light of Christ’s earthly manifestation, still resonate with this state of perception and this ultimate imperative. Eschatology was not an abstract concept but something being lived out, incidentally, in the decades following the execution of Jesus. I have read that hundreds if not thousands of crucified bodies encircled the besieged Jerusalem before it was finally brought down and its residents largely exterminated some forty years after his crucifixion. Christ’s words enable us to see that the truth is the opposite of appearances and that we have to change our lives, because whether it takes the form of the general and imminent conflagration we may all be facing, or of each person’s solitary mortality, the hour of our death alone in some ghastly hospital room, say, the end of the world is truly at hand.

But quite apart from the teaching itself, what made the words with which Jesus conveyed it so radically memorable, enough to be orally transmitted to others for years and decades by often completely illiterate people before they could be collected for the first time in writing? What made these sayings so unforgettable in their intent that it would hardly matter whether they were reproduced verbatim, or in a range of variations when at last they were finally incorporated into the numerous Gospel narratives? What gives them their unique power?

Let me quote, from one of Paul Valery’s essays, a few lines that have helped me understand the meaning and power of poetry since I first came across them as a student:

The poet consecrates himself to and consumes himself in the task of defining and constructing a language within the language; and this operation, which is long, difficult, and delicate, which demands a diversity of mental qualities and is never finished, tends to constitute the speech of a being purer, more powerful and profound in his thoughts, more intense in his life, more elegant and felicitous in his speech, than any real person….

I doubt if this can be improved on as a way of describing the heightened states of consciousness recorded in great poetry. I frankly also think it contains an excellent description of Jesus as a person, the man of heaven, as Paul wrote, among the men of dust. Jesus did speak this way, in poetry—and here is something truly weird: according to the great German Protestant theologian Joachim Jeremias, when Jesus’s sayings are translated back into Aramaic, it’s clear that he favored a certain four-beat rhythm, and that he was especially fond of alliteration and assonance as well as rhyme!

Now I’m going to remind you that poetic forms (rhyme is the most obvious example) are mnemonics. And they served, in this case, the necessity of transmitting intact information of a subversive and disturbing nature in a culture almost entirely made up of illiterate and impoverished workers as well as slaves. Jesus employed Homerically extended parables, unprecedented in Judaic teaching, and he made vivid use of symbols from common experience (bread, water, light, life, shepherd, door) as well as contrasting images from the thought-world of the time or of any time (light/darkness, truth/lies, love/hatred) to make his meaning gripping and clear. What has been referred to as antithetic parallelism is one of the most noticeable habits of Jesus’s manner of talking, and one has only to call to mind the incantatory phrases of the Sermon on the Mount as example. This is one of the moments in which Jesus’s words most clearly reveal truth to be the opposite of appearances and our usual sense of what makes for a successful life.

Our poor friend Friedrich Nietzsche got so many things wrong when it came to religious experience, but in spite of himself he made somewhere the very funny but oddly prescient statement, “It was subtle of God to learn Greek when he wished to become an author—and not to learn it better!” I think I know what he meant, whether he completely did or not. If one thing distinguishes the Gospels from any other comparable works, or any works conveyed by language, it is their eerily childlike diction, their utter clarity and translucence. And this extreme simplicity, apart from facilitating multiple superimposed levels of interpretation, must also surely have served as a mnemonic aid as well as allowing Jesus’s particular audience to identify with what he had to say. This style must have helped people to recall his meaning and message, which is so deep and clear and unforgettable that its rephrasings in the hands of different authors could not alter it.

I want to go off on a kind of tangent, an entertaining and relevant one I hope, involving a poet sometimes influenced by this style, one of such human power and significance that his most successful works also transcend everything associated with literary artifice. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in a letter somewhere that when he was traveling, as I suppose he almost always was, the only indispensable book he carried and read from each morning before beginning his own work was a little New Testament, and I think this must have had something to do with the lucidity and devastating simplicity that came into his own writing. In 1913, in a hotel in Spain, he composed his own version of the great Lazarus narrative found in the eleventh chapter of the fourth Gospel—it never appeared in any of his collections and remained unpublished in his lifetime, and I came across it in an obscure collection his daughter Ruth helped edit from his scattered notebook fragments; and as a junior at Oberlin in 1976 I spent one of the happiest long winter days of my life trying to translate it.

The Raising of Lazarus

Evidently, this was needed. Because people need
to be screamed at with proof.
Still, he imagined Martha and Mary
standing beside him. They would
believe he could do it. But no one believed,
every one of them said: Lord,
you come too late.
And he went with them to do what is not done
to nature, in its sleep.
In anger. His eyes half closed,
he asked them the way to the grave. He wept.
A few thought they noticed his tears,
and out of sheer curiosity hurried behind.
Even to walk the road there seemed monstrous
to him, an enactment, a test!
A high fever erupted inside him, contempt
for their insistence on what they called
their Death, their Being Alive.
And loathing flooded his body
when he hoarsely cried: Move the stone.
By now he must stink, someone suggested
(he’d already lain there four days)—but he
stood it, erect, filled with that gesture
which rose through him, ponderously
raising his hand (a hand never lifted
itself so slowly, or more)
to its full height, shining
an instant in air…then clenching
in on itself, abruptly, like a claw, aghast
at the thought all the dead might return
from that tomb, where the enormous cocoon of
the corpse was beginning to stir.
But finally, only the one decrepit figure appeared
at the entrance—and they saw
how their vague and inaccurate
life made room for him once more.

I want to conclude by saying some more about the fourth Gospel.

When I was young, I was excited by the scholarship concerned with highlighting those words of Jesus which can be shown to be historically authentic, most of them occurring in the first three so-called synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke (though some can be found in sources outside the canon, and if you are interested in pursuing this, the greatest work I know on the matter is Joachim Jeremias’s Unknown Sayings of Jesus). Such issues are of much less consequence to me now. In some ways I have come to love best the Gospel of John.

The fourth Gospel is furthest removed in time from the historical person of Jesus, appearing maybe around 90 or 100 AD, in other words, sixty or seventy years after the crucifixion. It’s possible the author was a follower of the disciple named John and was recording and giving order to John’s memories and preaching, the way the author of the book of Mark is thought to have recorded Peter’s. In a way the author of the fourth Gospel is not only the most theologically minded but the most literary, opening with the parallel or echo of Genesis’s “In the beginning” and at the same time displaying an obvious familiarity with the transcendently poetic pre-Socratic Greek philosophers by borrowing one of Heraclitus’s central terms, the mysterious multidimensional word logos, which means, of course, “word” but so much more as well. “The logos is common to all,” says Heraclitus—in other words, there is just one—“yet men behave as if they each had one of their own!” It’s clear from this fragment that logos more hugely signifies sentience itself. Which makes sense, since thought can hardly be said to exist in the absence of language, the absence of words. And this realization presents a departure point for all sorts of interesting digressions. For example, a few years ago I was introduced to the fact that the first known deliberate human burial sites, caves much like the one in which Jesus’s corpse was placed, were discovered (where else?) in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, and are thought to be around sixty thousand years old; these sites provide concrete evidence of a capacity for symbolic thought, and from that can be inferred the existence of spoken language. When you have symbolic thought, you have indirect evidence of language; when you have language, you have poesis, making, creation. In the beginning was the Sentience, as well as, in the beginning was the Word by which God uttered the world into being.

But what I cannot get over, and it haunts me more and more in this Gospel, is the mood, incomparably expressed, of valedictory tenderness and concern for his followers as Jesus prepares for his death. He seems already to be speaking from beyond and looking back on both his preexistence with the Father and then on his Incarnation in the human world. What is felt so vividly is his infinitely sad concern for those who will have to remain here without him. When he says, “Now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world,” I feel I am being personally referred to. I ask myself in discouragement and real terror sometimes, why will I always remain this side of the kingdom of heaven? Why can’t I do it, follow the one very simple commandment to love, every moment, without qualification? What is wrong with me, that I always, relentlessly, fail? I feel that if I could do it, I could do anything, go through anything. And Christ’s response in the fourth Gospel is always the same: But I have done it, and I have done it for you. Here in this world I know for a fact that I am not going to become like Christ. I know that the best I can do is to become the lowlife crucified next to him—not the reviler, but the one who suddenly understands and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I have said these things to you in images; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in images but tell you plainly of the Father. For the Father himself loves you, because you have me and believe that I came from the Father. Now I am leaving the world and going to the Father. The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have affliction; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. Every branch in me that bears fruit, he cares for, that it may bring forth even more. Abide in me, and I in you. I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

You are my friends.

To me this is even more staggering than the words “God is love” in John’s epistle. All reality is the manifestation of God, and as Christ has returned to God, unbound by space or time, what we are now presented with is a universe in which we are not alone, but one which says, “You are my friends.” Think of it.

Christ’s followers learned to use his very way of speaking—and this is what we have in the fourth Gospel—but they could not make themselves into Christ any more than we can. Yet this message remains: For you I have overcome the world. I am love, and you are my friends.

Christ turned water to wine, blindness to sight, death to life and—the most improbable of all his acts—hatred to love, and the desire for revenge to forgiveness. The older I get the more staggering this becomes to me. I’ve been around the block a few times, and have an idea of what men are capable of. I’ve been capable myself. And I would echo and amplify Dostoyevsky’s declaration: If it could be proved that Christ is not the truth, the resurrection, and life, then I would rather have Christ.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

  • Ben Caldwell

    I find most “religious” writing unreadable, but I like this piece very much.

  • Darren Cepulis

    Thank you for sharing this reminder, a blessing.

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