The words with which Jesus informs his disciple more and more pressingly that he will have to suffer have something special about them. This is evident already earlier, when his enemies demand the great Messianic sign as proof of his identity. He retorts that he will give this unbelieving generation no sign other than that of the prophet Jonas. And there follows the mysterious hint: “For even as Jonas was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). And in three of the formal proclamations of his passion made on the final journey to Jerusalem he says that he will suffer and die and rise again
When Luke says that the apostles did not understand, that his meaning was hidden from them, he means that for them the idea of a dying Messiah was simply inconceivable; yet even less conceivable must have been the idea of his Resurrection. Clarity came only with Easter:
“And it carne to pass, while they were wondering what to make of this, that, behold, two men stood by them in raiment. And when the women were struck with fear and bowed their faces to the ground, they said to them, `Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. I remember how he spoke to you while he was yet in Galilee, saying Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men crucified, and on the third day rise.”
From words, as from the whole life of our Lord, one thing is evident: for Jesus there was no such thing as death alone. He accepted his death, spoke of it with increasing incisiveness, but always inseparably bound to to resurrection.
Did Jesus live our human existence? Certainly. Did he die our death? Most assuredly; our very salvation depends upon his being like us in all things, sin excepted (Hebrews 4:15). Yet there is something behind his living and dying that is more than life and death in the nearest meaning of the words. Something for which we really should have another name, unless we limit the word “life” to the special sense it has in John, inventing a new word, a pale reflection of this, for all other purposes. An illimitable abundance and holy invulnerability in Jesus’ person made it possible for him to be entirely one of us yet different from us all; not only to live our existence, but to transmute it, plucking the “sting” from both life and death (1 Corinthians: 15:56).
What a strange phenomenon this thing called life! It is the a priori of everything, foundation of existence which, when threatened, responds with that unqualified reaction known as self-defense, which has its own laws. It is a miracle so precious that at times the bliss of it is overwhelming. Life enjoys, abstains from, suffers, struggles, creates. It enfolds and permeates things, joins with other life resulting not in a mere sum, but in new and manifold vitality.
Foremost and fundamental, it is and remains an inexplicable enigma. For is it not strange that in order to possess one thing we must relinquish another? That in order to do anything of genuine value, we focus our attention on it and away from all else? That when we wish to do justice to one person we do injustice to all others, if only by not likewise accepting them into our range of heart, simply because there is not room enough for everyone? That when we experience any powerful sensation, then only in ignorance of what it is, the instant we try to understand it, the current is cut.
Wakefulness is wonderful but tiring, and we long to lose ourselves in sleep. Sleep is pleasant, but how terrible to sleep away half our lives! Life is unity. It demands containment of things; demands that we preserve our entity in the superabundance around us, and yet that we throw the fullness of that entity into our slightest act.
In all directions runs the cracks. Everywhere we look we are faced with an either-or, this-or-that. And woe to us if we do not choose, for from the clearcut choice of the one or the other, depends the decency of existence. The moment we attempt to grab everything, we have nothing properly. If we try to do justice to everyone, we are just to no one, only contemptible. As soon as we reach out to embrace the whole, our individuality dissolves into nothing.
Thus we are forced to make clear decisions, and by so doing — woe again! — to cut into our existence. Really, life has something impossible about it! It is forced to desire what it can never have. It is as though from the very start some fundamental mistake had been made, as evinced by everything we do. And then the dreadful transitoriness of it all. Is it possible things exist only through self-destruction? Doesn’t to live mean to pass over? The more intensively we live, the swifter the passing. Doesn’t death begin already in life?
With desperate truth a modern biologist has defined life as the movement towards death. Yet what a monstrosity to define life only as part of death! Is death then better ordered? Must we surrender our deepest instinct to Biology? Research has pointed out that early man experienced death differently from us. He by no means considered it something self-understood, as the necessary antipode of life. Instinctively he felt that death was not only unnecessary, but wrong. Where it occurred it came as the result of a particular cause, of a spiritual power of evil — even in cases of accident, old age, or death in battle. Let us wait a moment with our smile and with an open mind try to accept the possibility of the primitive’s being closer to the truth than the professor.
Is death self-understood? If it were, we should accept it with a sense, however heavy, of fulfillment. Where is there such a death? True, here or there we find someone who sacrifices his life for some great cause; or another who has grown weary of the burden of and accepts death with a sense of relief. But does the man exist who from the very essence of his vitality, consents to death? I have never ,met him, and what I have heard of him was poppycock. Man’s natural stand to death is one of defense and protest, both rooted deep in the core of his being. Death is not self-understood, and every attempt to make it so ends in immeasurable melancholy.
Nevertheless, this life and death of ours belong together. When the romanticists attempted to make them the opposite poles of existence, comparing them with light and dark, height and depth, ascent and decline, this was aesthetic thoughtlessness under which lay a demonic illusion. But on one point they were right: our present forms of living and dying do belong together. They are two sides of the same fact — a fact which did not exist in Jesus.
In him there was something that towered above our little life and death. He lived more deeply and purely than it is ever possible for us to live. It has been pointed out that Jesus’ life was poor and uneventful in comparison with that of Buddha through which streamed all the good things of earth, both material and spiritual: power, art, wisdom, family life, solitude, wealth and its renunciation, and above all, length of days, which enabled him to experience existence in all its breadth and depth. Strangely brief, almost fragmentary by contrast, Jesus’ life and work. Yet how could it have been otherwise in a life whose essence was not richness, but sacrifice?
Nevertheless, what Jesus did experience, every gesture, every act, every encounter, he experienced with an intensity that out-weighted mere number and multifariousness. There was more to his meeting a fisherman, a beggar, a captain than in Buddha’s acquaintance with all the strata of human existence. Jesus really lived our life and died our death, real death (its terrors were only the more terrible for the divine strength and sensitivity of his life) yet everything was different both in his living and in his dying.
What decides the essence of a human life? In St. Augustine we find a thought which at first strikes us as strange, but which, carefully weighed, leads deep into existence. Asked whether the souls of men and the spiritual beings of angels are immortal, he answers: No. Naturally, man’s soul, being spirit, and hence indestructible, cannot die as his body dies; it cannot disintegrate. Still this is not yet immortality as the Gospels know it, immortality that comes not from the soul, but directly from God. (Unlike that of ox or ass, man’s body receives its life from the soul; his essential vitality is carried over from his soul in an arc of flame.) The life of those souls who appear in Revelation, however, comes directly from God in the arc of flame known as grace. In that life, not only the soul, but also till body participates in grace, and the whole fervent being, body .and soul, draws its life from God. That final stage then is true, sacred immortality.
God has shaped human life mysteriously indeed. Man’s essence is meant to leap up to its God and return with the life it has taken from him. Man should live in a downward-sweeping movement that begins in heaven, not from earth upward, as animals do. His body should draw its sustenance from his spirit, his spirit from God; thus man’s whole being would be infused with ever-circulating vitality.
But sin has broken this entity; sin that was the will to autonomous existence, that desired “to be as Gods” (Genesis 3:5). And the arc of fire burned out; the ardent circle collapsed. True, man’s rational soul, being indestructible, remains, but its indestructibility has become a shadowy Ersatz. The body also remains, since it is the soul’s necessary covering, but it now covers a `dead’ soul, one no longer capable of transmitting to the body that life which God intended it to have. Thus life has become simultaneously real and unreal, ordered and chaotic, permanent and fleeting.
It is this that was different in Jesus. In him the flaming arc still burned divinely pure and strong, and not only as grace, but as Holy Spirit. His humanity lived from God in the fullness of the Holy Ghost, through whom he was made man, and in whom he lived to the end — and not only as a God-loving man lives, but as God and man.
There is still more to this: only he can possess humanity like Christ’s who not only clings to God, but who “is” God. Such humanity is alive in quite a different way from ours. The curve of fire ‘between’ the inseparable Son of God and Son of Man is that mystery behind Jesus’ life and death that enabled him to live our human life and die our human death more profoundly than we ourselves. With him life and death assume new dimensions.
Matthew reports on the wonderful incident which took place on the last trip to Jerusalem.
“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves, and was transfigured before them. And his face shone as the sun, and his garments became white as snow. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking together with him. Then Peter addressed Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If thou wilt, let us set up three tents here, one for thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias.’ As he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, `This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him.’ And on hearing it the disciples fell on their faces and were exceedingly afraid. And Jesus came near and touched them, and said to them, `Arise, and do not be Afraid.’ But lifting up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
“And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus cautioned them, saying, `Tell the vision to no one, till the Son of Man has risen from the dead’ “
By “vision” here is meant the particular kind of vision outside the realm of hitherto known experience, with all the mysterious and disquieting traits of an act of heaven: light which comes from no natural source but belongs to the spheres of inner reality; likewise the “cloud,” which has nothing to do with the meteorologic forms we know, but is something for which there is no satisfactory word — brightness that conceals rather than reveals, heavenliness unveiled yet unapproachable.
Further visionary characteristic is the suddenness with which the figures appear and disappear, leaving behind them the emptiness of an earth abandoned by heaven. This vision then is nothing subjective, no suddenly projected inner picture, but response to a spiritual reality, as the senses daily respond to physical realities. The event does not merely descend upon Jesus, or take place within him; it also breaks from him, revelation of inmost being, arc of the live flame within him become apparent.
In the gloom of fallen creation the Logos blazes celestial light but the dark asserts itself; “… grasped it not …” as John says in the opening of his Gospel. Thus Christ’s truth and love, which long for nothing but the freedom to spend themselves, are forced back into his heart — sorrow God alone can measure and comprehend. Here, on the mountain though, for one moment, they break through in all their radiant clarity. This was the Light which had come into the world and was powerful enough to illuminate it completely. On the way to death the glory of what may be revealed only after death breaks out like a jet of flame, burning illustration of Christ’s own words on death and resurrection.
What is revealed here is not only the glory of pure, angelic spirit, but of the spirit through the body, glory of the spiritualized body of man. Not the glory of God alone, not a piece of disclosed heaven, not only the sheen of the Lord as it hovered over the ark of the covenant, but the glory of the God-Logos in the Son of Man. Life above life and death; life of the body, but issue of the spirit the spirit, but issue of the Logos; life of the man Jesus, but issue of the Son of God.
The Transfiguration is the summer lightning of the coming Resurrection. Also of our own resurrection, for we too are to partake of that transfigured life. To be saved means to share in the life of Christ. We too shall rise again, and our bodies will be transformed by the spirit, which itself is transformed by God. In us mortals blissful immortality will once awaken; read the magnificent fifteenth chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians.
Such is the eternal life in which we believe. “Eternal” does mean merely endless; we are that as spiritual creatures of God anyway, “by nature.” But the general indestructibility of the soul is not yet the blissful, eternal life that Revelation describes. That comes to us from God. Actually, “eternal” life has nothing to do with the length that life; it is not the opposite of transitory life. Perhaps we come closest to the truth when we define it as life which participates in the life of God.
Such life has received from him its conclusiveness, its all-inclusivenes, its unity in diversity, its infiniteness and immanent oneness (things that our present life lacks, protest as we may and must for the sake of that dignity with which God himself endowed us).
In the new life such eternity exists for all, whether one is a great saint or the least “in the kingdom of heaven.” The differences exist within eternity itself, where, admittedly, they are as great as the differences in love. This eternal life does not wait till after death to begin. It already exists.
The essence of Christian consciousness is founded on its presence — through faith. The degrees of that consciousness are limitless and dependent on many factors: its clarity strength, and “tangibility” (the depth to which it is actually experienced and lived).
Whatever our measure, something of it is always behind our living and our dying, whether given by grace or seized by faith: something of that flaming arc which broke through for the first time on Tabor, to reveal itself victoriously in the Resurrection.