The Way of Descent (3)

The narrow tunnel. The cave behind the waterfall narrows until it becomes a tunnel only just large enough for us to walk through. The space is cold, damp and sufficiently cramped for the pilgrim to be very aware of the rough walls on either hand, the uneven floor underfoot, and the ceiling which is so low that hairs brush against it. Cold air on the face keeps claustrophobia at bay. The sound of singing up ahead.

Walk easier if we close our eyes, relax our muscles rather than tense. Relaxation opens a window in the mind. Breathing gently, slowly, enables us to feel outward with our senses even when it does not seem that they should be able to work at all.

Tunnel is breathing with us. Moving with us. Avoid bumping us. No bruises. Tunnel responding to our needs. No longer our enemy. Closes us round, but we are no longer fighting it. Tunnel becomes our protection.

By allowing God's love to embrace us whole, we offer our gifts to God's use, our faults to God's cleansing, our lives to God's formation. It is our utter surrender to the all-embracing grace of God which makes it possible for that grace to bring about change.[1]   We accept ourselves as we are - as God accepts us - and in doing so, open our whole selves to God's transformation. This is the gift of Christ, the power to become children of God.[2]

We begin by accepting our bodies as the physical expression of our presence in the material world. The essence of the Christian Gospel - indeed the part which makes it distinctively Christian - is that the Word became flesh. God did not only speak of love, nor even demonstrate love in dealing with people. God got physical in the name of love. Jesus was the physical expression of the love of God. The divine became human, yet remained divine. Spirit became material, yet remained spirit. That which was distant, abstract, unseen and unseeable, became close, particular, visible and capable of being tested. The humanity, and the divinity, of Jesus Christ were tested in every way by the disciples, the crowds, the demands of the work, and his many enemies. Reading the Gospels, we see the sharp point of love being driven into the core of the human condition, and we see how a human being, beginning with unlimited gratitude and compassion, became progressively walled in by contrary forces on every level until there was no longer any room for manoeuvre.

The dynamic of the Gospel narrative does not make sense unless we assume that Jesus accepted, from the very beginning, that to be the physical expression of God's love meant walking steadily towards his own death. Being human, this acceptance did not come easily to him, and it is interesting that the gospels retain the story of his struggle for this acceptance[3] when the story of any other struggles he may have had, for example with education or sex or the use of money, have gone unrecorded. Jesus shows no sign of a death-wish, and indeed appears to have enjoyed life far too much to have been suicidal, and yet he accepted that to pursue the course of love meant embracing a physical cost so great as to amount to personal extinction. This was both the burden inevitably laid upon him by the call of God, and the yoke which he lifted as his free response to that call[4].

In facing his own mortality, Jesus also accepted his physical self and the limitations that it placed upon him as he worked out, day by day, what it meant to love with the Divine grace. He accepted the fact that he was sent to one small nation rather than the whole world; that most of his work would be done with a small group of very undistinguished people; that he needed times of retreat and refreshment, and the occasional party. He knew that he could not be everywhere at once; that some people would not be convinced by what was in front of their eyes; and that, consequently, there were severe limits on what he would be able to achieve in the time available to him. He understood that he would not be able to win them all, regardless of what he might want, for their sake and his own. He was saddened and angered by hypocrisy, unbelief and ingratitude, but he was not surprised to encounter them. And he let the rich young ruler walk away.

The ability to accept our physical limitations is related to our willingness to accept our own mortality. The drive which causes us to over-reach ourselves comes from the same source as our unwillingness to face our own mortality. We fear death, and so we drive ourselves to overcome all obstacles, all limitations, in order that, by so doing, we may have immortality. Jesus did not do this. On the contrary, he accepted his physical self and the boundaries which went with it, and was prepared to work within them.

Indeed, it may well have been because he knew, only too well, the stresses and dangers of loving in a physical, material world, that he was able to give so much of himself to each encounter, without any of his relationships becoming distorted or without abusing any of his powers. He enjoyed good food and good company, and defended himself against those who criticised him for it, precisely because he had learned well the lesson that he could not live by bread alone. He could handle a crowd precisely because he did not seek publicity or kingship. He remained open to female companionship because he had accepted celibacy for the sake of God's purposes.

But within those physical limits, he offered everything. It was not how much he did, but the way he did it, that made the difference. Not what he did, but who lay behind it.......

[1] Psalm 51.3-5. The inner truth described by the Psalmist is far more than guilt over particular mistakes or sins. It is the humble awareness that at any time we can go astray, that apart from God, we can do nothing (John 15.5). Knowing this, we know that however much we may hurt others, the primary estrangement is from God, and that this rebellion has been there from the beginning. We cannot fight this stubborn streak within us, only accept that it is there, and, without complacency, trust in God's willingness to love us despite it.

[2] John 1.12-13.

[3] Matthew 26.36-46; Mark 14.32-42; Luke 22.40-46.

[4] Matthew 16.24-25 for the former, and Matthew 11.28-30 for the latter.

The stream from the peak of the mountain hides the entrance to a cave. The stream from under the mountain flows out of this cave. Now, from this side of the pool, we can see what we could not see before, because it was hidden by water, rock and shadow: the path leads into the cave; our way continues into the mountain.

Entering the cave, the only light is behind us, diminished by the narrowness of the opening and the curtain of the waterfall. As we take a few tentative steps forward, the light diminishes, moment by moment. We are leaving it behind us. Ahead, we can see nothing. We are walking into darkness. The stream is running boisterously out of the dark, and the cave is loud with the sound of it.

It is cold. We are wet to the skin and chilled to the marrow of the bone, and a draught is flowing out of the tunnel with the stream. Here, where we are standing, the path is a rough, narrow ledge a metre or so above the level of the water. As far as we can see - a few feet ahead - the path is straight, but the roof drops a foot or so below the height of our heads. We walk on, slowly and with caution, bending down. Very soon we are cramped, our muscles tightening with the awkward posture. We stumble on the uneven path, feeling clumsy. The bruises and cuts we gained, falling into the pool, are now beginning to ache.

The light is almost gone. Our eyes are adjusting, so that we can still see the edge of the path, a black line against the darkness of the water, which is shot through with silver and grey. And we are getting used to feeling our way forward with hands and feet, so that we can anticipate the slight changes in gradient and avoid the buttresses which, here and there, jut out from the rock wall on our right hand, narrowing the path so much that we must walk side-ways, our toes sticking out over the water.

We had thought the path was straight, but in fact it is changing direction, gradually, curving around to our left. We did not notice this at first, but there comes a moment when we realise that we have turned a corner, so that the last of the light from the entrance, several hundred yards behind us now, is blotted out.


A Narrowing Way

Show how Jesus’ way of imagining the abundant life and love of God renews our vision, builds our confidence, develops our creativity and gives us the courage to take the “narrow way” through death to life.

Our ability to believe does not “come naturally”. We learn it as children, from the adults who care for us. Many of us have not had the opportunity to learn it well. Our level of confidence is low. We long to live life to the full. We yearn to understand how our faith, hope and love can be life-giving. We want to live generously, lovingly and justly.

This is not necessarily an easy journey, but Jesus remains with us at all times, showing us how to remain creative, how to respond to each situation with courage and compassion. And this companionship becomes especially important as we face situations of diminishment, difficulty, deterioration, death.

For the sad reality is that the Good News of God’s abundant life is not always met with rejoicing. Even as it feeds our faith, it can also arouse our fear. And when we are afraid we resist and rebel the very life which would save us.

Greater inclusiveness. “live lightly” work with friends and allies towards the creation of abundant life for all. People feel profoundly threatened by abundance and for all. Adversity and unwelcome. Not a route to prosperity or success. A way of deepening generosity and trust.

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