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Nothing convicts me in my heart more than the contemplation of Jesus as a historical person.
All my decades of wrestling with spiritual paths and theologies are self-indulgence, compared with the blessèdness and horror of that man’s life. Every day’s news is full of the brutality and painful neediness of humankind. That Jesus walked compassionately into the midst of it all is reason enough to follow him—and to be dismayed whenever I fall short of doing so.
Last Sunday I wrote about the painful discrepancy we experience between our outwardly celebrative expectations, as we wave our branches on the road into Jerusalem, and our inwardly destructive disappointments, resentments, fears and betrayals.
We imagine that divine intervention, or at least some authoritative spiritual teacher or political leader, will “fix everything” in our day-to-day lives. Yet those lives continue into one “unfixed” moment after another.
More distressing, occasionally we manage to hear what Jesus actually says: “Here’s what to do. Here’s how to do it. Let me show you.”
I say distressing, because we normally are so far from feeling able to do as he did in any moment of the life our stories tell us about. Not only so far from feeling able to walk knowingly into brutal torture and crucifixion. So far from risking or surrendering material security to live with society’s outcasts. So far from reaching out to sooth the secret wounds which cause others to hurt us.
In my “Palm Sunday” post, I owned these failings, these ways in which I fall short of what Jesus shows me a human being can do. Yet I also owned something else: my rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of The Fall, caused by original sin and perpetuated through every generation of the human race.
“None of our failure is ‘fallenness’,” I wrote. “It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.”
All those human traits which are bound up in the metaphor of fallenness are natural survival traits of social animals. As self-serving, hurtful and sometimes deadly as they may be, they all arise from innate biological responses to perceived threat to oneself or one’s kin. It seems pointless to me to claim that these traits represent fallenness from some primordially better state of being.
Even so, the metaphor does speak to something deep in human experience. Last Monday, a friend sent this in response to my post:
To me, our fallen-ness is separation from God and being less than what we can be when we are in close communion with God, as was Jesus. The importance of the gospel stories, to me, is in what they can teach us about our true nature and our relationship to God.
These words sing welcome counterpoint to mine.
The New Testament Greek word hamartia is usually translated as “sin.” However, it “is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein),” falling short of the target, the ideal, the moral (or divine) expectation.
So, instead of fallenness in the Augustinian sense, perhaps our challenge is fallen short-ness. Our natural survival responses usually block or distract us from the grace-filled life we sometimes glimpse. It is a life we sometimes even manage to live for a moment or so at a time. We long for it, strive for it…yet most of the time we fall short.
When we are momentarily successful at such living, we experience the unexpected grace of “our true nature and our relationship to God.” When we notice that we have fallen short once again, we feel as if we are separated from “our relationship with God.”
I do not believe that fallenness is separation from God. It is, rather, the illusory feeling of separation, the loss of conscious awareness, the denial, even, of our unending kinship with God.
Some years ago I discovered that, for me, the most important day in the Christian calendar is one not even traditionally noted, that strange, empty day between Good Friday and Easter.
Although I did not do so yesterday, some years I go out into the wilderness by myself and sit, watching and waiting. I have never physically seen or heard Jesus. In the material realm, all I have of him is the stories I have been told. Yet when I sit alone on the empty day, he is no less with me than on any other day.
It isn’t my reaching toward him, privately in meditation or longing, or publicly in Lutheran liturgical worship or Quaker waiting worship, that brings him into realness for me. And my fallenness, my fallen short-ness, doesn’t keep him from me.
He is just there. A historical person, demonstrating in the flesh, through the stories about him, all that a human being is capable of doing when in full relationship with God.
What, then, was so powerful for Jesus’ disciples—after their flight and betrayal and denial of him—that they could know him to be alive for them again?
That kinship was not broken, cannot be broken.
As I wrote last Sunday:
“Jesus knows, God knows. Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.”
And so it is.
I’ve been pondering the significance of the “Palm Sunday” story, and it was in my thoughts during Quaker meeting for worship this morning.
The earliest surviving version of the story is in the Gospel of Mark, written around 66-70 C.E., possibly in Syria, and excerpted here from The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994, pp. 39-40):
When they get close to Jerusalem, near Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sends off two of his disciples with these instructions:
“Go into the village across the way, and right after you enter it, you’ll find a colt tied up, one that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone questions you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell them, ‘Its master has need of it and he will send it back here right away’.”…
So they bring the colt to Jesus, and they throw their cloaks over it; then he got on it. And many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut leafy branches from the fields.
Those leading the way and those following kept shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one
who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
“Hosanna” in the highest!
(Mark 11: 1-3, 7-10)
[Note from the translators: The disciples shout words from Psalm 118:25-26. Hosanna is a Greek transliteration of Hebrew words meaning “Save, we pray!”]
Those of us from Christian backgrounds, and others who are familiar with Christianity, tend to hear this story in the context of how we know the gospel “comes out” and of what we’ve learned the story is “supposed to mean” theologically.
This morning, though, I was simply considering the story in terms of the people around Jesus that day, and I wondered what that might say to us now.
They were people living under the joint rulership of a foreign invader and a local priesthood. They could be punished either for disobedience or for heresy…or merely for stepping out of their prescribed social classes and roles.
Some of them knew this man Jesus because he had brought them into his intimate circle. Others felt they knew him because they followed him around or heard gossip about him.
He both inspired and disturbed them all.
They wanted him to fill the role of their mythic heroes, to rescue them from the human beings in power over them…or at least to rescue them from their own failures.
“Hosanna. Save, we pray!”
Jesus, meanwhile, knew that he would likely be caught, tortured and killed by some combination of civil and religious intervention, once he entered Jerusalem. He wasn’t there to rescue anybody but simply to speak truth to power.
Those who spread their cloaks and waved branches, on the chance that Jesus might be their rescuer, later fled his captors in the garden, or jeered him on the road to Golgatha (“You failed to save us, imposter!”), or denied him fearfully in the high priest’s courtyard.
Today, those of us who long to stay true to the courageous, compassionate path Jesus shows us often stall in despair at our repeated failures to do so. It’s as if we flee or blame him or deny him, we are so disappointed in ourselves.
Yet I have gradually come to an unorthodox understanding of dynamics here. None of our failure is “fallenness.” It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.
Or, rather, it is only “fallenness” in that we fall short of our better expectations of ourselves.
That means, then, that the forgiveness we need is not forgiveness from God. It is forgiveness from ourselves, forgiveness from those whom we hurt and betray and, perhaps, abandon when we fail.
Being human, Jesus knew the people around him—even those who loved him most dearly—were likely to fail in human ways. He asked them to watch and stay awake with him as he prayed in the garden before his capture (Mark 14: 31-42). He scolded them for sleeping. Yet he still loved them.
Today I thought of the Palm Sunday story in terms of my own failures. My anger at rude drivers on the road. My fear and avoidance of transients on the street. My struggle to center down—or even just to stay awake—in meeting for worship.
But I also thought:
Jesus knows, God knows.
Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.
And so it is.