ADVENT IV – 2016 THE CRUSHING INERTIA OF EXISTENCE
“The worst thing in life is the fact that it repeats itself, and the mission of art is to avoid this, eliminating monotony and giving respite for the crushing inertia of existence.” Ramon Gomez de La Serna: DALI
“He will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21
The gospel of Matthew is anonymous, the name Matthew being added long after it was written. The identity of the evangelist is unknown. However, something can be said about him. The fact that he gives a translation of the name of Jesus and the name Emmanuel may indicate that he is writing from within a community that is not Semitic and does not know Aramaic. The fact that he is presenting something like a virgin birth shows that his community is not Jewish Christians, for Judaism does not entertain that idea. On the other hand, divine births are common in the literature of Hellenism. The evangelist might have been writing for an Hellenistic Christian community. I have suggested, though I cannot discuss here, that the gospel must have been written somewhere in southern Syria, most likely Antioch. Only Matthew and Luke show an interest in the birth narratives of Jesus. Mark, Paul, John and the Q Document have no interest in it. The evangelist had at his disposal different sources. He used the gospel of Mark and the Q Document. He must also have had numerous oral traditions available that he wove into different parts of the gospel. Finally, he constructed his gospel with theological and apologetic intent to respond to the needs of his audience.
Matthew 2:18-25 is an account of how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. Just prior to this narrative, Matthew presents a genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Abraham. Luke, however, traces the genealogy of Jesus back to son of Adam, son of God. I believe Matthew’s choice for his genealogy is important for understanding the gospel. According to the narrative, Mary was engaged to Joseph, but was found to be with child. Nothing is known of Joseph’s age, but it is certain that he was older than Mary. Whether like Abraham he was past his reproductive years is unknown. What is known is that both Sarah and Mary bore sons as a result of divine intervention. Matthew must certainly have known the history of Abraham. Both Abraham and Joseph are described as righteous men with a sense of integrity. Both men are known to respond to the voice of the divine and to comply with its directives.
At the beginning of his life Jesus is protected by Joseph. At the end of his life he is placed in a new tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. This may be no more than a coincidence of names. They are joined by Joseph the dreamer in Genesis who saved his family from death during a time of famine. This may be of no consequence, but if I think along with Matthew about the importance of names (Jesus, Emmanuel) this may yield some insight into his apologetic.
As the spirit of God was present at the creation of the world in Genesis, so it is present in the conceiving of Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes its appearance twice in this brief narrative, as the source and instrument of Mary’s conception. Matthew is making an important point, that the birth of Jesus is a miracle brought about by the divine itself. It is an announcement that the divine has entered into the human and that the first steps toward the overcoming of its existential alienation and estrangement from the divine have been taken. In the pre-dawn of human history, a rupture occurred in an original paradise during humanity’s incubation so to speak. The rupture, a tragedy of mythological proportions, marked an initial direct challenge to the sovereignty and authority of the divine, and resulted in the exile of Adam and Eve from paradise. That exile is the concretization of estrangement. The exile can dwell only as one estranged from the divine. Exile, homelessness, is henceforth the existential condition of humankind. The pre-dawn of history has given way, beyond the seventh day, to the dawn of history. History as what is always here in its invisibility is the amnesia of alienation and estrangement. History, sustained by its essential inertia bears the exiles further away from their source and origin. This is not distance or dimension in time. The amnesia of the exiles has its source in being borne away by a spirit now alien to them, whose name is Will. Will is that which has the power to say “yes,” but also to say “no.” The progenitor exiles of Eden and their descendents, as a result of their amnesia, live in the total and complete absence of the divine. What is tragic in this tragedy is that those who stood at the origin have been thrown into a void, its content pure nothingness into which the progenitors have been absorbed. This is referred to as “The Fall.” I think this is the point that Matthew is making. Eden’s rupture, Eden’s tragedy cannot be healed. It must be transcended and transfigured, and for this to come to be, a New Creation must come into being, and that through the divine Will alone.
When Matthew begins the revelation of Jesus Christ with Abraham he intends us to understand Abraham as Progenitor. He is not just one incident in a vast number of incidents comprising something known as history. He is inserted into history on a particular day that Matthew wants us to see as the origin. Abraham as origin is the originator of the revelation of Jesus Christ. And from this perspective the gospel of Matthew is as much a revelation as the Apocalypse of John. When I speak of the progenitor as originator I mean to say that the new day of the Lord has its origin in a source from which it emerges. Emerge means coming to light. Matthew presents Abraham as the Source from which the revelation of Jesus Christ emerges. As such, Abraham himself belongs to the revelation. He is neither a by-stander nor an observer. As the Source of the revelation, Abraham is carried along with it.
In Abraham the mythic paradise recedes in order that cosmos, pure futurity, may come to birth. (In time to come this cosmos will be seen in its essence as ekklesia, the church. But that must wait. It too incubates). In him myth becomes history as the evolution of a drama that transcends time. With Abraham myth becomes history, and history itself is now remythified into eschatology. The divine drama being acted out is the revelation of Jesus Christ, with Abraham as Progenitor and Jesus Christ as the eschaton, the end that is always present. Where the human exists, there is the end; hence also the beginning. Consequently, eschatology is the only vehicle that can bear Jesus Christ rightly into the opening up of the Omega. The Omega which is none other than the Alpha coming into itself has already happened. It is in this light, the light shed by eschatology that we can begin to grasp what is said in the words “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” and further, “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” These statements cannot be grasped by historical analysis. They are not statements of history. They are eschatological statements. As with Abraham so also with Mary, who is the Source from which emerges the drama of revelation.
Matthew has made it impossible to speak of the “story” of Jesus Christ or the “history” of Jesus. Only as eschatology can the revelation of Jesus Christ be appropriated, and this too not in the general sense of “knowing” something. Paul rightly refers to this as a revelation “through faith for faith.” Rom. 1:17. For Matthew, Abraham as Progenitor means that eschatology has already become the means whereby the salvation of humanity will be revealed. Even “salvation” itself still exists in the world of myth and must be demythologized, that is, reinterpreted from the meaning contained in revelation. “He will save his people from their sins.” This is not a rescue mission in which all’s well that ends well. This announcement cannot be evaluated historically. History cannot comprehend someone “saving” another from “sins.” Matthew is not writing a story about Jesus. He is proclaiming what “eye has not seen, nor ears heard.” I Cor. 9:2. What he announces arrives from beyond what eyes can see and ears can comprehend, but which for faith stands ready.
What Matthew announces is Absolution. The gospel of Matthew is the announcement of absolution. “He will save his people from their sins.” The exiles from paradise of old, for whom Abraham is the new progenitor has come to rest in Mary who is with child by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, “do not be afraid,” for “he will save his people from their sins.” That is the announcement of Absolution that overcomes the existential alienation and estrangement of the exiles. It is only now after the pronouncement of absolution that Matthew can say Emmanuel, “God with us.” Later Jesus will speak for himself. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mt. 28:20. He is the only one who can say, “remember,” to transfigure the amnesia of the exiles. Re-member does not simply mean to recollect. It means also to make whole again that which has been dis-membered. A relationship has been dismembered. Now God has reconciled the exiles. The Exiled One who resides in Mary is the only one who can say “absolution,” for only the Absolute can absolve.
But what is the sin for which this absolution is necessary?
I began my reflection upon tragedy with my reflection upon the reading for Advent III. I said there that tragedy cannot be defeated, it can only be transfigured. I am still pursuing the elusive definition. What is it? What is this “crushing inertia of existence” under which the human struggles? Tragedy interrupts the normal evolution of divine and human relationships, even mythological relationships in the predawn of history. Something profane is introduced into sacred myth. Tragedy uproots normal human relationship over the entire span of history. Something takes place, often quite unexpectedly for which one is obviously not prepared. Something cuts into a day, breaks the continuity of time, which stops temporarily for one who has been grasped by tragedy. Time will begin to flow again, but for now, tragedy is in control. It inserts itself into time, creating a “before” and an “after.” Tragedy pauses time. Between the before and the after tragedy dominates. The tragic within tragedy is a yawning abyss, that ancient edenic void, into which falls all that is human, the entire range of humanness plunges downward into nothingness. Human life is upturned, its rootedness gone. Meandering across the expanse of its soul, now shrunk and diminished, are new phenomena: confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, loss, pain, grief, anxiety, guilt, shame, in a single word, suffering. The abyss that is tragedy does not yield, does not release its hold. It demands recompense for its “gift,” from those so immediately transformed by this “gift.” All that has fallen into the void has now been absorbed by it, disappearing into its substance and structure until all that remains is an empty loneliness whose content is abandonment, isolation, alienation and estrangement. In other words, this is none other than the existential dismemberment of a soul once human. This is the void where nothingness lies in wait. This is the gift of tragedy.
Tragedy abides, roaming through the landscape of debris of the human spirit. It scans the geography of the diminished human soul, seeking a place of rest, a home, so that its abiding in finding a home becomes a remaining. Tragedy remains, its permanence now resides in memory. Tragedy let no one forget. Eventually time will heal itself and move on. But it does not move on alone. It is not yet aware that tragedy has embedded itself as memory into its once and original pure essence. Memory, ever since the ancient days the midwife of time, preserves for all time what is tragic within tragedy – the shards of an originally whole and complete creature called human. What is tragic within tragedy is the existential alienation of the human, its uprooting and consequent exile from its ground that gave it form and substance and meaning. What is tragic within tragedy is the recurring in memory of a rupture, at once ancient and modern, now abidingly present, a homesickness, a longing for some ancient paradise and even a yearning for yesterday’s peace. What is tragic in tragedy is that its presence holds sway over human existence so firmly that existence itself, which is none other than the human being itself, is now permanently alienated and estranged from its “life.” What is tragic in tragedy is the complete existential helplessness of the human to extricate itself from the alienation, and the thorough hopelessness to overcome its estrangement. This is “the crushing inertia of existence.” Tragedy can only be transcended and transfigured. This tragedy is the sin to which Matthew says, “He will save his people from their sins.”
To the Exiles living in the complete and total absence of the divine Matthew lets the Exiled One who now resides in Mary proclaim absolution!