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March 29, 2010

life as isAll I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and

to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death.

 ~ Phil 3:10

In his text Opening the Hand of Thought, the Zen master and Abbot Kosho Uchiyama writes that the term gosho or afterlife refers to “the life that arises when one clarifies this matter of death. It means knowing clearly just what death is, and then really living out one’s life. . . . As long as this matter of death remains unclear, everything in the world suffers.” (p. 8) As we enter this year’s celebration of Holy Week, we are once again drawn into the remembrance of and participation in the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This week we turn our attention, in a focal way, to the reality of death and the mystery of the embracing of the human condition unto death by God in Jesus. We face death as an undeniable reality of human existence and openly await that clarification of its meaning in resurrected life that comes after that going through and “reproducing [in our lives] the pattern of his death.”

     How does this ultimate gift of God in Jesus to us mortal beings serve our process of clarifying death and living the “eternal life” that comes from this clarification? A key to this question lies in the words of St. Paul that call us to “reproduce the pattern” of Jesus’ death or, as in another translation, “being conformed to his death.” We clarify death by reproducing in our lives “the pattern of his death.” It is by dying the death of Jesus that we come to eternal life. In Adam and Eve we choose Illusion and therefore death as our destiny. In the life and death of Jesus we die to that destiny and then begin to “really live out” the life that is our destiny from the beginning.

     What does it mean to reproduce in ourselves the pattern of Jesus death? Familiar words from the Book of Job help us to begin to understand. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21) To conform to the death of Jesus is to realize that what we take to be our self-identity, all with which we clothe ourselves, is not our deepest life. The person each of us takes our self to be is far different from the naked self that we came into the world as and will leave as. Our ordinary consciousness is based on who we are in relationship to and in comparison with others. From the beginning of our lives our formation is in large part conformation. We come to experience ourselves in terms of our “place” in the world of others. But this is not our deepest identity. The life and the death of Jesus is a life of self-emptying, a relinquishing of all that he even rightly could lay claim to, that he become formed into a vessel for the love of God, an instrument of God’s will. At the end of his life, almost all have abandoned him, and even those who haven’t, Jesus relinquishes as a gift to each other. “Woman, this is your son. . . . This is your mother.” (John 19: 26-7) For us to conform ourselves to the death of Jesus is to become in him obedient to the truth of things and the reality of death, and thus to realize with him the life after death that we live as our “naked selves.”

     In his commentary on Galatians 2:20, (“I am crucified with Christ.”), Oswald Chambers writes:

There will have to be a relinquishing of my claim to my right to myself in every phase. Am I willing to relinquish my hold on all I possess, my hold on my affections, and on everything, and to be identified with the death of Jesus Christ?

So much of the life we create is designed to distinguish and separate us out from all the others. It is, in the understanding of Adrian van Kaam, the attempt of our “pride form” to experience a sense of self-rule, or autarchy. The relinquishing, that is the identification, that Oswald Chambers describes is a letting go of all the aspects of our lives that are self-creations. It is the letting go of the demands of the pride form, that the Christ form may become ascendant in us.

     Perhaps many of us have memories of those Good Fridays when we were young. It was not unusual to be told to spend the three hours from noon to three in the afternoon in quiet. It seemed so incredibly difficult, on a day off from school, not to be able to be occupied, to run around and to play in the usual ways. Those three hours of stillness and silence were among the longest hours of the entire year. This experience would presage a tension and anxiety that continues to haunt us no matter our age. We may experience no greater anxiety than that which arises when we are not occupied, active, productive, distracted, amused, or entertained in the usual ways. What am I, who am I when I am not living a life in response to my and others’ notions and ideas about myself. Uchiyama writes: “The reality of the life of the self is simply to live life just as it is.” (p. 34) There is at once nothing so simple yet so difficult as to simply live life just as it is. Doing so always entails for us a wrenching of ourselves from our ordinary ways of living and the demands that our cultures make on us. In the earliest centuries of the Church those we call the Desert Fathers and Mothers fled into the wilderness of the desert to find a place a silence and solitude where they could have some chance of living life as it is. In fact, the pulls of shared life are so powerful, that some kind of break or distance from our ordinary way of living seems to be a prerequisite for all of us if we are to touch the real life that is within.

     One such experience of this we all know is when we gather at the death bed of a beloved family member or friend. At such a moment, most of what we take to be so important in life drops away into insignificance. And not unusually, through the depth of sorrow and grief, we touch something of that which is most real and eternal in human life. The hours or days that we stand together at the bedside of the person we love becomes a dwelling place within which we clarify the meaning of death and the core of human life. Holy Week is such a time in our life of faith. The words of the passion narratives create for those of us to gather to hear them, a dwelling place within which we are called to clarify not only the meaning of Jesus’ death but of the death of all of us whose death he is dying. The words to which we attend are not a historical narrative but a sacred abode within which we may clarify not merely the reality of death but the way through to “life at it truly is,” a life which is infused, as St. Paul says, with the power of the resurrection. To become identified with the death of Jesus Christ is to begin to lead a new life, the life that comes after the death of the autarchic life we have created and to which we have, for so long, clung so tenaciously. As we live “life as it is”, we, at least at moments, experience the joy and awe that can only come in the reception of our unique life as an eternal gift of God to us, the “power of the resurrection”.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.