Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Passion: "A Sacred Path of Liberation"

Last year for Holy Week I shared excerpts from Albert Nolan’s groundbreaking book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of various cinematic depictions of Jesus.

In 2010 I shared a series of excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ, while in 2009 I posted a special Holy Week series featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen.

This year I mark Holy Week at The Wild Reed by sharing a number of excerpts from Cynthia Bourgeault's book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message.

Let me say from the off-set that in her book Bourgeault examines Jesus, first and foremost, as a teacher of the transformation of consciousness. She observes that in his time and culture Jesus was recognized as a teacher of wisdom, as "one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being." She writes that:

The hallmark of these wisdom teachers was their use of pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables rather than prophetic pronouncements or divine decree. They spoke to people in the language that people spoke, the language of story rather than law. . . . [Jesus'] message was not one of repentance and return to the covenant. Rather, he stayed close to the perennial ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked those timeless and deeply personal questions" What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself? These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus' concern. If you look for a comparable category today, the closest analogy would probably be the Sufi sheik, who wields the threefold function of wisdom teacher, spiritual elder, and channel for the direct transmission of blessing (baraka), in a fashion closely parallel to Jesus' himself.

The Wisdom Jesus doesn't just dwell on the Jesus of 2,000 years ago. For as Jim Marion, author of Putting on the Mind of Christ, notes, Bourgeault's book also "invites us to follow Jesus' path of self-emptying love [by] describ[ing] wisdom practices that we as Christians can use every day to transform our own minds so that we too can see with the eyes of Christ."

Today is Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. It seems appropriate then to commence this year's Holy Week series with an excerpt from Bourgeault's The Wisdom Jesus that explores the meaning of Jesus' passion.


The passion is really the mystery of all mysteries, the heart of the Christian faith experience. By the word "passion" here we mean the events which end Jesus' earthly life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and death. Of course, for Christian believers the passion is immediately followed by the resurrection, Jesus' mysterious return to fleshy life, and later by his ascension into heaven and his disappearance from the earthly realm. These six events together comprise the full gamut of the Christian Paschal Mystery.

. . .[T]he word "paschal" [. . .] comes from the Hebrew pasch, which means "pass over." It's the same word the Jewish tradition uses to speak of its own most sacred religious festival commemorating the miraculous night when Yahweh "passed over" the houses of the Israelites but struck down the Egyptians' firstborn. Pasch connotes the passage from death to life, and that is exactly what the earliest Christians celebrated in a single continuous ceremony.

. . . The passion has always had strong emotional charge, for obvious reasons. The spectacle of an innocent and good man destroyed by the powers of this world is an archetypal human experience. It elicits our deepest feelings of remorse and empathy (and if we're honest, our deepest shadows as well). It has long been commemorated in all the artistic genres: in the great oil canvases of Renaissance masters, in the sculpture and stained glass of the medieval cathedrals, in the English mystery plays and the German passion plays, and in music, particularly that of Bach, who gave the world his sublime St. John and St. Matthew passion oratorios. The passion is also quite manipulable. It's been used to stir anger and scapegoating. It's been used to fuel anti-Semitism, to induce personal guilt – "Christ died for your sins" – and to arouse devotion in a sentimental and even fanatical way.

From a wisdom point of view, what can we say about the passion? So much bad, manipulative, guilt-inducing theology has been based on it that it's fair to wonder whether there is any hope of starting afresh. I believe wisdom does open up that possibility. The idea lies in that idea [. . .] of reading Jesus' life as a sacrament: a sacred mystery whose real purpose is not to arouse empathy but to create empowerment. In other words, Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either your guilt or your devotion, but rather, in deepening your personal capacity to make the passage into unitive life. If you're willing to work with that wager, the passion begins to make sense in a whole new way.

I've long been struck by the question of why it should be that in Jesus' relatively short human life certain events and experiences seemed to come to him while others did not. He certainly lived in a very intense way the ordeals of betrayal, abandonment, homelessness, and death. Did it have to be like that? If he were indeed here on a divine mission, it would seem that he could have been given an easier path : chief priest,political leader, the Messiah that people expected him to be. From any of these launching pads he would have been well positioned to "put his teachings out there" and impact the consciousness of his times in really a significant way. But none of these materialized. Why not? Because the path he did walk is precisely the one that would most fully unleash the transformative power of his teaching. It both modeled and consecrated the eye of the needle that each one of us must personally pass through in order to accomplish the "one thing necessary" here, according to his teaching: to die to self. I am not talking about literal crucifixion, of course, but I am talking about the literal laying down of our "life," at least as we usually recognize it. Our only truly essential human task here, Jesus teaches, is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and egoic operating system into the kenotic joy and generosity of full human personhood. His mission was to show us how to do this. It was a mission he freely accepted. And the energy of his freedom is what ultimately raises the passion above all the emotional trappings and reveals it as a sacred path of liberation.

– Cynthia Bourgeault
The Wisdom Jesus
pp. 105-106

NEXT: Beyond Anger and Guilt

For more of Cynthia Bourgeault's writings at The Wild Reed, see:
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 2)
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 4)

For The Wild Reed's 2011 Holy week series (featuring excerpts from Albert Nolan’s book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of various cinematic depictions of Jesus), see:
"Who Is This Man?"
A Uniquely Liberated Man
An Expression of Human Solidarity
No Other Way
Two Betrayals
And What of Resurrection?
Jesus: The Breakthrough in the History of Humanity
To Believe in Jesus

For The Wild Reed’s 2010 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ), see:
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
The Essential Christ
One Symbolic Iconoclastic Act
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel
Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas and All Possible Theological Formulations
The Cosmic Christ: Brother, Lover, Friend, Divine and Tender Guide

For The Wild Reed’s 2009 Holy Week series (featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen), see:
The Passion of Christ (Part 1) – Jesus Enters the City
The Passion of Christ (Part 2) – Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers
The Passion of Christ (Part 3) – Last Supper
The Passion of Christ (Part 4) – Jesus Prays Alone
The Passion of Christ (Part 5) – Jesus Before the People
The Passion of Christ (Part 6) – Jesus Before the Soldiers
The Passion of Christ (Part 7) – Jesus Goes to His Execution
The Passion of Christ (Part 8) – Jesus is Nailed the Cross
The Passion of Christ (Part 9) – Jesus Dies
The Passion of Christ (Part 10) – Jesus Among the Dead
The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Why Jesus is My Man
Jesus Was a Sissy
The "Wild Gaiety" of Jesus' Moral Teaching
Jesus, Sex and Power
Jesus and Homosexuality
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 2)
Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)
When Expulsion is the Cost of Discipleship
Christ and Krishna
The Wounded and Risen Christ

Opening Image: "The Passion of Jesus Christ" by Makan Emadi.

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