Harrowing Of Hell
December 29, 2019

The Gospel of John: Prologue

Kevin Mesher

To listen to the sermon click here.

I’m a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to television comedies. Not too long ago BBC America was airing a sketch comedy called That Mitchell and Webb Feeling, that was pretty funny.

One of my favorites was a sketch about a husband and wife browsing around a flea market, when they hear a vendor say, “Wardrobe, 250 quid.” “250 quid?” says the husband. “How do you figure?” And the vendor says, “Well it’s made from 100 year old Mahogany for one,” looking admiringly at the old armoire. “Comes with a shoe rack, is the portal to Narnia, and she has all the original knobs and handles.”

“Wait, back up, did you stay this is a portal to Narnia?” The vendor nods.  “You mean witches and gnomes and what not?” “Yep. dwarves. Aslan.” And the wife says, “I mean, can we test it out first?” “Most certainly he says. Take your time.”

So the two step into the wardrobe and shut the door and then, almost immediately it opens again. When they step out they are both dressed as Narnian royalty, for, as you know, time works differently there.

“Well, what did you think?” Asks the vendor. “It was great, yeah, great,” one says. Says the other, “yeah, good…” “Just good?” Says the vendor. “Yeah, good…I mean it was all very nice. But…” “But what?” “I mean, well, it was a bit Christian.”                                                  

Now, as most of us here live in the Pacific Northwest, you have probably heard similar comments about religion and believers–I’ve even heard recently complaints that Christmas itself was becoming a little too Christian. And, as we live in the “none of the above zone,” or “the none zone” for short, Heaven help us if we reach a time when Christians are coming off a bit too like themselves!

However, I remind myself, the Word, Christ, just five days old, the infant God, the light that enlightens everyone, is in the world and the darkness has not yet overcome it. But this anti-religion attitude is getting worse and worse, or more personal, at any rate.

Lately I have found myself in an increasing number of those frustrating conversations–if you can call them that–with non or, ex, believers. Perhaps you have been cornered in a similar situation.

Now, in this modern, global era there seems to be an  insinuation that I am, at best, foolish for my Christian beliefs, or more insultingly, that I am an idiot for being a Christian in the first place. These voices are becoming more prevalent. Sadly, in this increasingly secular and divisive age, the impact of religion has noticeably waned, along with–and this is the lamentable outcome–the discipline to apprehend the mysteries of the sacred.

And when it is discovered I am a Christian, I see the attention drop, and a familiar Winchelizing process begins–a sugar-slick glaze washes over the features and before I can say anything else I know I’ve lost them.

To continue would be a fool’s errand. Yet, ever a fool for God, I fumble and stutter, grasping for the words–the just right words–to defend myself–not to answer the question; to try and describe, on the one hand, what is indescribable, while on the other, recounting the entire history of my life’s faith journey, so they can track and see exactly how and why I became an Episcopalian–gotta make sure they hear that–one of the “cool” Christians–which only prevents me from getting to the heart of the matter, which is this; that my faith brings me the greatest joy imaginable, it keeps me right-sized and present, and it is steeped in the absolute Divine Reason–the Logos–of the universe that interpenetrates all things, and that especially in this Christmas season, it is actually and literally the light returned to the world–a cause for joy and celebration!

But I don’t explain this and I can’t explain this, because engaging the sacred is like exercising a muscle, a muscle that atrophies from disuse and it is painfully clear that my inquirer and I have extremely different fitness goals–I wonder why they asked in the first place. So, Inquisitor, 1, Christian apologist, 0.

On the one hand, it seems to me a problem of words. We’ve got about 3 million of them in the English language, and I couldn’t find a tiny handful to bring clarity to my thoughts in that moment. So many of them. Words upon words. Why, I’m using them right now! Some are truly life giving. Others–weapons, more destructive than a sword. We just heard the reading of the Word, and this, being a sermon–well, I can guarantee you’re going to hear a lot more words. Because ours is a religion of the Word.

How many words comprise our theology? Take just one major doctrine–the Trinity, for instance. In our Articles of the Faith, tucked near the back of the Book of Common prayer (the red one), St. Athanasius drily manages to explain it in just 40 near mathematical sentences. Impressive, but it reads more like a a technical manual or a Monty Python sketch about a belief in a geometric deity than it does the poetic and dynamic center of our faith. It’s got all the right intellectual bits in place but it is lacking something just beyond the reach of even our best words–something; we’ll call the Ineffable. Because it is and we have a word for that. Adding more words in hopes of understanding the Ineffable–seems counterintuitive.    

Don’t get me wrong. Theology is an integral part of the Christian Faith, it is edifying in a wholly different way, but it often lacks the mind-bending expansiveness of that glimmering moment in time–two thousand plus years ago–one that still–to this day–splashes its glorious overflow on the modern believer.       

It is also quite true that many people are defended because they have been abused by the Church, or have been traumatized by misused theological words; Words like “sinner” and “repentance,” a lot of damage done there no denying that. So it isn’t so much about my being articulate enough to converse about big topics, although most days I am quite inarticulate, it is sometimes about the sheer power of some words, made so by the very personal and historical associations we make with them. It is a bit of a wonder we understand each other at all–let alone God.

Theologian Thomas Aquinas had kind of a similar problem when it came to articulating the ineffable, but obviously on a much larger scale, and with a different outcome. On December 6th, 1273, after years and years of dedicated scholarship, and about 100 written works to his credit, Aquinas underwent a mystical transformation. So intense was it, that he quietly set down his goose feather pen, closed the cover on his, by then, formidable compendium of the main teachings of the Catholic Faith–the summa theologica–and never again wrote another word about theology. Tradition records him as saying to his secretary, “After what I have seen today, I can write no more. For all that I have written is but straw.” Aquinas caught sight of the Ineffable, and it deftly evaded capture by his quill. Josef Piepers in his essay about the silence of Aquinas, writes, “His tongue [was] stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God”. Let me repeat that: “His tongue was stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. Silence was really the only response possible. He was silent because he had been allowed a rare glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery, unreadable by any human thought or speech.” Aquinas fails to articulate about the Ineffable with words, however, by the absence of words he does, and he does this by leaving a space for it. The Taoist sage Lao Tsu would concur: “Those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak.” Aquinas’ refusal to finish the summa tells volumes not only about the magnitude of God, but also about the limits of theology. Yet, seen in a different way, the summa is finished: Aquinas’ silence, then, becomes the final chapter, which teaches us something about doing theology that he could not have taught by any other means. Silence becomes the “sound” of the rest of the story.

It reminds me of a tale about the Buddha teaching his disciples about the nature of reality and, because he knew he couldn’t do it with words, all he could think to do was to pluck a lotus out of the muddy water and hold it aloft. One of his disciples started smiling and then broke into laughter, fully grokking the Buddha’s teaching in an instant. It is known as the flower sutra.

And then it hit me, given that the yearning to know the Ineffable will always be frustrated by the inability to secure a definitive image of it with words, it seems to me, again, mathematics, right? Reduce the amount of words! But I soon discovered, the less words, the greater the Ineffability quotient in like measure. But this yearning to know, to articulate these Christian mysteries of faith, have always led to symbolic shortcuts–like parables, archetypes, and music. There are icons, paintings, stories, and pictures. Pictures–worth at least a thousand words, right?

So, for a challenge, I decided to write a Haiku. Briefly, Haiku’s are simply observations designed to convey and celebrate the essence of a moment with just 17 syllables. Like a Zen Koan they should frustrate the reason in an effort to pierce beyond it to apprehend the All. to paraphrase the poet Ezra Pound, the image is the word beyond formulated language,                

The exercise failed–you can probably see why–and you can read the Haiku in your order of service.

Cool breeze, stroll at dusk,
Terra cotta brick still warm,
Rumor of day’s sun.

Once again, we run into the problem of interpretation. The Haiku isn’t meant to hold the cool mentation of western theology, but is instead designed to catapult one into a full-tilt gestalt of direct experience, and this is where the Haiku falls short for our purposes.

So what’s all this to say? Are we never meant to use words again? Hardly! Words are the tools we have–words are how we extend our reach so as to know God ever more intimately. We’re Episcopalians! When we pray, we reach for a book! We’re not done with words…!

But words are fallible. You’ve probably heard the adage, “the menu is not the meal.” Words can separate us from an authentic experience of the divine like the thin gauze of mosquito netting; wherein we can see, but not clearly enough.

Martin Buber observed that the relationship between the human and the divine is “without speech, yet begets it.” That’s the deal. Words are the gifts we are given to seek God, even if, like Aquinas we cannot find them, we keep at it, because the chase is so exquisitely frustrating. Every so often, through the curtain of words, we are AMbushed by God’s fiery Ineffability and by this fire we are slaked–if but for a joyous moment. But not with words—and also with words. Again, rich paradox.

So where does that leave us? One thing became abundantly clear as I meditated upon the gospel for today–as well as the Gospel of John itself–something I hadn’t seen before as it was eclipsed by John’s beautiful, but heady, high-Christological portrait of Jesus: but less is more.

For instance, moving away from the Prologue for a moment, in the first account of the feeding of the 5,000, we are met by a Jesus simply attending to the needs of hungry people. Feed people what they truly hunger for (which may be words, incidentally)! In a couple of verses later Jesus will begin to employ ever deepening metaphors so that his disciples—and we—can understand who he is.

But right now, he is pure action. Jesus doesn’t explain himself, Jesus just does Jesus. You wish to learn from a holy man? Don’t listen to his words–watch him tie his shoes, an old Hassidic tale tells us. Watch him feed 5,000 people. You wish to glimpse the Ineffable? Feed people what they hunger for. Our actions call down the Holy. Khalil Gibran wrote, “Our work is our love made visible.” Jesus’ work is God’s love–and light–made visible. Jesus’ activity of feeding the 5,000 is the haiku—this image of him is the word beyond language. Jesus is at the nexus of silence and sound. Of light and darkness, above and below, flesh, spirit. The fiery center of all spiritual paradoxes. He is the raised lotus of Ineffability. Jesus is the Word and feeding us is his wordless sutra.

“O Holy child of Bethlehem
Descend on us we pray; cast out
Our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.