NO SUPERSTAR

From Reflections by Hugh Lavery 

Our contemporaries worry us about the relevance of religion. But religion was a word Christ never used. Over the years it has acquired overtones, suggestions of strange rites and eccentric observances, of practices unconcerned with making the lives of people good and purposeful.
Christ's word is not religion. It is life; no other would do. His interest was simply the whole range of common experience, his way relevant, with no whiff of the esoteric or arcane. The Lord was always a commoner. Yet life is a wide word and Jesus does not use it without qualification. He uses prefix — the life that I will give. He uses addition — life and a more abundant life.

A good teacher, he knows the obstinacy of words and must strain language to breaking point to disclose his secret. But life is the refrain, the condition of man, its grief and glory, his one concern.

For him there is no pious precinct, no religious enclosure; the world is his parish. No one has managed to define this new life. And this is just as well. There is a kind of deadness about definitions; they can dissect a corpse but life is too versatile to be put in their stiff categories.
Life cannot be defined but only experienced, suffered, enjoyed, lived. Yet the good life does not come spontaneously like breathing. It is more real than thought, deeper than happiness, beyond the assessments of success and failure. It is, simply, unique and no language can supply a synonym or equivalent.

This life has its own alphabet and we learn it from Jesus. We do not know it antecedently and then predicate it of him, adding a superlative. This is to make Jesus a super-star and so reduce him. One can sympathise with those who see Jesus as the super-man yet I believe this is to overlook his originality, to disregard his uniqueness.

The young especially go in search of someone to admire and are appalled by human mediocrity. Yet the deepest need is not satisfied by admiration. Nor is Jesus of star quality in the order of the ratings. The stage must glamorise both the crib and the cross to make him a figure for the flood-lights and answer the needs of popular imagination. No presentation of Jesus is ever complete, always a piece is missing. One can praise the attempt only by knowing that it aims at the impossible.

For Christ cannot be spoken and cannot be played. He can be experienced but the experience lies deeper than drama; words cannot capture the Word. He is the Life and life can only be lived. Here a wise theology will not affect to explain but be content to evoke. This is the territory of the poet and the mystic; and even they speak to us in stammerings. For the life Jesus lives and imparts does not lead to stardom. It has an element of surprise and does not match the stereotype of the hero. There is nothing Homeric about Jesus, nothing of Holly-wood, and most presentations merely embarrass. The stark truth is that his life is not in tune even with the expectations of the pious. In consequence, the gospel is often a dialogue of misunderstanding. Peter is the spokesman of the religious, but he cannot quite gather the message.

Happily for us his extrovert temperament makes him outspoken, incapable of silence or evasion. And for him Jesus is the super-star. A man born to be king, more imperial than Caesar, more blest than Moses or Elijah. Here is the super-man. True, he has enemies, men of power and ruthlessness, but they will be overcome by this man who can command the wind and the waves. Yet Jesus predicts death at the hands of mere men and does not see it as disaster. For Peter this defeatism destroys the image of the hero and the gospels record that he "reprimands" his master. Supermen are not destroyed. This is human and reasonable. This is an accepted definition of great lives and is deep in us all. The best piety such as Peter's cannot erase it. We think in the categories of the market where success and failure are easily indexed and to which we are inevitably inclined. Stardom is the contemporary symbol of success, but with Jesus success and failure lose identity. In Kipling's phrase they are "impostors." Yet close association with Jesus, years of preaching and practice did not rid Peter of a native triumphalism. He never understood his master's acquiescence in destruction by men he could annihilate with a word. Peter is the exponent of common piety but piety is not enough. It may be a precinct, a room set apart from secular concerns so that two lives co-exist and there is no intersection. Jesus is not happy with the mere practices of piety. He asks for more. He asks for faith and here we journey through territory never mapped by gods or men. It is a dangerous path and Jesus is its pioneer. To believe in Jesus is to believe in one who failed the tests of stardom and who always will. He failed the test of received religion and was regarded as impious. Yet, with death imminent, he asked for faith. For Peter this was asking the impossible, the impractical. Faith always has a suggestion of the absurd. Perhaps the key question always remains — do I believe? Peter was certain of his faith and his declaration on behalf of the apostles is a classic confession. Yet he had far to go. He had to learn that faith is more than assertion, more than bravado. So often we do not believe what we think we believe and a grey day dawns when the cock crows for us all.

Peter cast Jesus in the role of super-star and wrote failure out of the script. But it is God who writes the script and Jesus fulfils it in a manner that was a scandal to the devout Jew and a nonsense to the world. Part of the originality of Jesus is his blindness to values we hold self-evident. Our own blindness is not easily perceived, and our piety may mislead us. Yet some periods of history help us assay the quality of our faith. Such a period is the present. When the Church is strong and its star in the ascendant it is not easy to know the mettle of our faith. It is luxury to belong to a winning team and to see as faith in Christ what is a human attachment to success. But the Spirit blows from God knows where; the sea rises and the boat rocks. There is doubt and defection, there is anger and recrimination. All the aids to allegiance are removed, the sweet smell of success, the endless increase, the applause. Then the stars die and under a night sky we know whether we believe in Christ and him crucified. There is no other test. For it was Jesus who had spoken so freely of life, he who had made the last equation — I am the Life.

Yet he was dead. The radical revision we must make is the meeting of life. And it takes a life-time. For we must unlearn before we learn, the new is always in conflict with the old. There is such comfort in the old, settled piety, a warmth and security. Faith leads us out into the cold, into the open and there is much change and chanciness. Piety cannot survive on the mountain; it must seek a refuge and live within walls. But the good man lives through faith, Paul assures us, and the new life does not grow under glass but in the wild, under the sky. It is without the emblems of success and can survive without applause. The cost is high, enormous, and Jesus does not say otherwise. But he declares that this alone is the Life which will answer the ache of the heart. So hard to believe. When Jesus died and the curtain fell to no applause it was the end of the super-star. Peter was not there; his idol had failed him. "In Christ" is a sweet phrase but the reality is not without bitterness. It is harsh on the palate and an acquired taste. The old piety is a smooth wine without intoxication. Often we return to it. Indeed the heart is a place of contest with two lives competing for possession; the temptation is to opt for both, to serve two masters.

There is always a prudence in compromise; if faith seeks dilution then piety is the perfect additive. The liquid looks the same and we ourselves are hardly aware that this is substitute, not the elixir. Jesus worked hard to convince the pious of illusion. They protested and produced their credentials, the Sabbath, the synagogue, an austere morality. Not enough, says Jesus, not the Life. I want mercy not sacrifice, the man not the manners. Piety has all the right mannerisms. But faith is deeper, in the heart.

The pass-over from the old to the new is pain and the metaphor is that of re-birth, a radical renovation. And the twice-born assure us it is no quick conversion but a protracted experience with the dying at first almost too much for human endurance. But then comes the joy. It is not euphoria, but something deep, a profound peace, calm water below a ruffled sea. It is not inconsistent with sorrow, and never a dispensation from suffering. There is a thin divide between joy and suffering. Perhaps the life is best described as a strength so firm that one is aware it is not acquired; it is a kind of possession by a Spirit not our own.

And perhaps there we must leave it. As we grow deep in the life it becomes less easy to describe and we suddenly know the meaning of the phrase "those who know do not speak". The star shines and the super-star. But both remain everlastingly silent.

 

Quoted from the last two editions (Nov 18/May 19) of PASTORAL RENEWAL EXCHANGE published from St Joseph's, Dinnington, South Yorkshire