“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’ John
Have you heard of the pen paradox?
“It doesn’t matter how fast it’s moving it’ll still be stationery.”
Or try the Swiss Cheese Paradox:
“Swiss cheese has lots of holes. The more holes you have, the less cheese you have. The more cheese you have, the more holes you have. Thus, the more cheese you have, the less cheese you have.”
Lent puts before us a ‘deep-down in our humanity’ paradox. It invites us to set our eyes on the cross and walk in the shadow of that cross as we allow the light of the love of God to shine on us more searchingly as we approach Holy Week. Lent tells us that the way of the cross is the way to new beginnings; crucifixion leads to being born again in resurrection. This is the deepest paradox known to humankind, and it is put before us as life-giving.
In an interview, shortly before his death, the playwright Dennis Potter spoke about how he had never managed to quite throw off the idea of believing in God, and that it featured in a lot of his work. He said:
“Religion has always been the wound, not the bandage. I don’t see the point of not acknowledging the pain and the misery and the grief of the world, and if you say, ‘Ah, but God understands’, or ‘Through that you come to a greater appreciation’, then I think: well, if that’s God – that’s not how I see God. I see God in us or with us, if I see God at all, as shreds and particles and rumours, some knowledge that we have, some feeling why we sing and dance and act, why we paint, why we love, why we make art.”
He went on to say: “I have no means of knowing whether that ‘thereness’ doesn’t cling to what I call ‘me’.”.
I find it a powerful metaphor for our ‘meaning’ as human beings, that God clings intimately to each of us. And this is part of the working out of our personal paradox, how we are autonomous, independent and yet totally held in the arms of God. This paradoxical relationship, gifted to us at birth, leaves us exploring the rumour of God in us and others, drawn into sharpest focus always at birth and death.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.“
R.S. Thomas wrote about the enigma of what it is to be God, and for us to be human in the image of God, in his poem Migrants:
He is that great void
we must enter, calling
to one another on our way
in the direction from which he blows. What matter
if we should never arrive to breed or to winter
in the climate of our conception?
Enough we have been given wings and a needle in the mind
to respond to his bleak north.
There are times even at the Pole
when he, too, pauses in his withdrawal, so that it is light there all night long.
Maybe – just maybe – the migrant, whether bird or human, is a sojourner in the air, a transitory being who has an inbuilt need to recognise within themselves the drawing-power, the enigmatically compelling attraction (and occasional revulsion) of the God by whom our very personhood was conceived, and who holds us in being, sharing his soul within us and his restless-for-justice energies with us.
Perhaps this is touching on what Paul was about when he wrote to the Romans about living by faith rather than ‘by the book’ (the law book)? Recognising the paradox of God – who is found when we take the risk of letting go of our self-possession, our ‘safe’ sense of ‘me’, and know that we’re actually not the well-settled ones, who have got it all sussed and sorted – No, rather, we are the sojourners, of no fixed abode this side of the grave – we are resident aliens, always on the move – no time to check the rule-book, got to pack-up and keep moving, like the Israelites in the wilderness, each night – uncertainty, except that we are ‘a day’s march nearer home’. That’s Paul ‘living by faith’. That’s also Abraham, setting out in faith to do as God said, ‘Go to the land I will show you.’ And that means setting off into the unknown, usually in the discomfort of darkness.
Nicodemus, John tells us, was in darkness (and phrases about ‘sight’ in John are always about ‘insight’ or ‘wisdom’}. In his darkness, Nicodemus perceived that Jesus ‘had God with him’, but that didn’t immediately help him because Jesus came out with one of his classic paradoxical responses:
“No-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” What was Nicodemus to make of that?!
It is, surely, I believe, the paradox of a self-giving death bringing fullness of life by shifting the tectonic plates of causality of the cosmos.
That’s the difference that has been made, for us, so that, mightily unexpectedly, on the third day (so, not instantly, by any means) new life, new birth, the astonished joy of resurrection – is what emerges.
It emerges through a very painful awareness of our human limitations. It does not diminish this public truth to acknowledge the massive difficulty that is our common human experience in appropriating it to ourselves. Peace and harmony, with everything being made ‘okay really’, are not lightly achieved. There is no cheap grace. The limits with which we continue to live, notwithstanding this cosmic tectonic shift, are real and galling.
Think of a person sitting in an airport waiting-room, and the flights are delayed, so to pass the time she places a plastic cup a certain distance away, and tries to throw coins into it. Three hours later, when she is finally called to the gate for the plane’s departure, she has thrown the coin over 100 times, and landed it in the cup exactly once. If the cup had been so close that she could easily get the coin in every time, there would have been no point in the game. The game depends upon limitation – with the suggestion, as I encountered it with this story, that ‘you tolerate a higher, even a total, failure-rate more readily than you will tolerate a total or even high success rate’. For we are made by God to find meaning through our limitations – not despite them.
Try it this way: A fisherman died. On regaining consciousness, he found himself beside an ideal mountain stream in Scotland, thinking what a wonderful place it was, and if only he had his rod and line available. Well, it happened – and there he was with the best fishing tackle and in the best place at the stream side. This is heaven, you see! So he cast, and immediately landed a fish – wonderful! After the sixth time – when his bag was bulging – he said, ‘I’ll go a bit further upstream.’ But no. He blurted out, ‘But can’t you do what you like in heaven?’ In other words, he wanted a handicap – perfection was too much for him.
That’s not an option for us; but we nonetheless wrestle painfully with the sharp-edged imperfections of our human nature, and everyone else’s as well.
Frances Young writes, ‘People like my brain-damaged son, Arthur, bring us face to face with the limits of the human condition and require us to reflect on the realities of limitation’ and what God is about in all this apparent mess.
R.S. Thomas helps me, and I hope you, down this path of Lenten reflection in his poem entitled The Kingdom:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on: Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
back; and industry is for mending
the bent bones and the minds fractured by life. It’s a long way off, but to get There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with Your need only and the simple offering Of your faith, green as a leaf.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” +