Matthias Grünewald, from the Isenheim alterpiece, 1515
No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord. (John 10:18)
Okay, listen up, cause I’ma tell you what crucifixion means.
Crucifixion means radical undefendedness.
That “soft spot” in the heart that Pema Chödrön is always talking about? Crucifixion means abandoning the barricades around that. In dying on the Cross, Jesus gave us a startlingly concrete, radical example of the undefended heart–the Sacred Heart, in fact–that breathes in sin and alienation and despair and breathes out healing, reconciliation and hope. If Jesus wasn’t doing tonglen on the Cross, who has ever done tonglen?*
And I’ll tell you something that would have gotten me fired from my old teaching job: if Waylon Lewis, our fearless Elepublisher (for example) were, by God’s grace, to become as radically undefended–as “self-abandoned,” as the Church puts it–as Jesus, then you and I, after screwing up again and again and failing to live up to our own standards and acting without love, could ask God to have mercy on us for Waylon’s sake, and God would do it.
–Note: the Greek word ἐλέησον, which we translate as “mercy,” signifies “healing” as much as “forgiveness.” So those who are into self-compassion, take heart: a prayer for mercy is not the groveling exercise in self-abnegation you may have thought.
–Note #2: We need mercy, not because we are bad, but because we screw up. Jesus said, “The world…hates me because I testify of it that its deeds are evil.” Not us; our deeds. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough.
–Note #3: As much as we love Waylon, I’d suggest Jesus, or Krishna if you prefer. Or some other avatara. But I mean it about Waylon.
Crucifixion means radical letting-go.
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”…Clinging to life causes life to decay; the life that is freely given is eternal.
On the Cross, Jesus showed us the way to eternal life–and by “eternal life,” I don’t mean “living forever.” We live forever regardless. “Eternal” does not mean starting now and continuing indefinitely–it means “without beginning and without end.” So the question is, do we want to identify ourselves with the life that is “passing away” (as the old gospel songs say) or with the eternal life? Because we can choose either right now. But to choose the eternal life, you have to die to the life that is passing away. You have to let go.
Crucifixion means knowing where your true identity lies.
Full disclosure: I talk a good game, but I am a thoroughgoing spiritual piker. For example: two years ago, I realized that I had allowed myself to become too identified with my job as a college music instructor–that I was, in fact, using that identity as a badge of self-worth. I may not have set the world on fire, but I was a college professor. (I know–big honkin’ deal, you’re thinking–but that just shows how shockingly deluded I was.) So I quit my job, and have been a part-time musician and full-time Dad for the past two years.
But the fact is that though I have turned my back on that identity, I have never really let it die. I still fantasize about the university seeing the error of its ways and calling to ask me to accept a fulltime job, with time already served counting toward tenure. Even though part of me knows that “clinging to life causes life to decay,” while “the life that is freely given is eternal”–even though I dearly want to lay down that life and be raised to a new one–I have not yet pulled the plug on my do-it-yourself life.
But that life is not resurrection-compatible. God didn’t raise Jesus the Rabbi from the dead, or Jesus the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, or even Jesus the Jew—those are too small, too partial, too incidental. God raised Jesus the Son of God—the Essential Being, the Absolute Core Identity, the unchanging, eternal, inmost Self. The other, contingent stuff, what we usually identify as our “selves,” died and was left behind, like the shroud in the tomb. The Risen Christ has no political affiliation, religious denomination, race, ethnicity, country of origin, native language, titles or degrees—none of the things which we regard as the fixed and solid constituents of our identities. If we would die and rise with Christ, we must hold lightly to those things, too.
The paste-up life I made for myself– father, husband, performer, musician, writer, teacher—is what I need, finally, to let go of, so that the essential kernel of me can bear fruit. We need to be prepared to give up everything that we think makes us who we are—all those passing-away autobiographical things we have so laboriously put on like stage costumes. That’s what needs to die in order for the radiant new creation to be born. Because college professor, musician, yoga teacher, garbage collector, blogger, activist, barista, politician, minister, labor or management–these things are not what we are, but what we are doing, the raw material of nishkama karma. And male, female, black, white, “success” or “failure,” liberal or conservative are not what we are, either. We think those things are solid, but they aren’t, and we need to be ready to lay them down if we want to live the eternal life. Only then will the angels say of us, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? She is not here; she is risen!” [ii]
And that’s what crucifixion means.
*a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice in which one “breathes in” difficult emotions and “breathes out” their opposites, either for oneself or for others.
(Portions of this entry originally appeared in a larger Easter meditation at Little Teaboys Everywhere.)
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