Monday, April 27, 2009

Easter III - Fr Edward Dowler

At this stage of Eastertide, we perhaps find our attention being drawn away from a historical mode, contemplating the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection, towards a more existential one in which we ask questions like, ‘this has happened... so what?’; ‘what does it all mean for me?’ And with that in mind, I’d like to offer some comments on the life both now and in the future that we are promised in the light of Jesus’s resurrection.

Near to the start of the many problems that he encounters towards the end of his life, Shakespeare’s tragic hero King Lear despairingly asks his fool a question: ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ It’s a question that gets more and more important for Lear as the play goes on, even as the answer becomes less clear, and a question that has clear echoes for each of us: who am I? Where can I find my true identity? Do I even know that there is a real me at all? It’s a question that all of us ask, though it’s perhaps particularly pressing for certain groups of people and not just philosophers who make a living out of asking such questions, but also adolescents, the mentally ill and people undergoing mid-life crises. Such people have a strong and immediate sense of a truth that many of us like to hold at bay, that in some ways we don’t know ourselves terribly well. ‘I am become a question to myself’, writes Augustine in his Confessions, ‘and therein lies my downfall’.

For the seventeenth century philosopher, René Descartes, the key to finding an answer to Lear’s question, ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ can be found in the fact that, whatever else we do or don’t know about ourselves, we know one thing for sure: that we are thinking beings. In his well known declaration cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’, Descartes argues that our capacity to think is what makes us absolutely sure that we do in fact exist. When I know that I think, I know a key fact about who I am and, secure in this knowledge about myself as a thinking being, I can go on from that basis to experience God, the world and everything else, because I already have that primary knowledge of who and what I am. (See Hemming, L.P., Worship as a Revelation, Continuum, 2008, 33-6.)

Today’s New Testament reading from the first letter of John, however, sees things in a very different way: ‘Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is’. These words represent a very different vision of where it is that we find our true identity, a very different place in which I can find the answer to the question, ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ The knowledge that we have of ourselves is knowledge that is not yet complete. It is only in the future that we will know who we are, since as the reading puts it, ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’. The resurrection of Jesus points us forwards. True knowledge of ourselves comes to us from the future. It is not something that we have in advance, but rather it will be revealed in the light of the resurrection.

Because we don’t yet know everything about ourselves that is to be known, Christian life shaped by the resurrection becomes, then, one of adventure and of discovery. We don’t know ourselves fully yet, and so we are constantly finding out new things about ourselves, new dimensions to our character. As we travel towards the future resurrection life that God has in store for us, we experience the way in which he constantly moulds and shaping our identity, conforming it more and more into the image of Christ. This means that even when we go through rather painful and difficult experiences, we can often in some sense welcome them because they open up new dimensions of who we are, help to shape us into the new and surprising Christ-like shape that comes to us from the future and draws us forward towards what we shall be in the future, which has not yet been revealed to us in its totality.

Towards the end of King Lear and right at the end of his life, the old king announces rather pitifully to his daughter Cordelia that ‘I am a very foolish fond old man’. The reason for this is that he has experienced memory loss. He tells her that ‘I am mainly ignorant/ What place is this; and all the skill I have remembers not these garments; nor I know not/ Where I did lodge last night’. Lear’s words seem to suggest another question... If, as I’ve been trying to say, Christian life in the light of the resurrection is essentially future-oriented and we look to the future to tell us who we truly are, does that mean that, like Lear, we have a sort of amnesia in which our past experiences, all that we’ve done and been up to now are just lost and forgotten about.

Well, no. In today’s gospel, the risen Jesus shows his disciples the marks of the nails in his hands and feet from his crucifixion some days earlier. He eats fish with them as he has done before and he reminds them of the words that he spoke to them while he was still with them. In other words, we’re constantly aware in Luke’s account of the resurrection that there is a strong continuity between Jesus as he was before he was crucified and Jesus as he is in his resurrection life. Luke’s narrative emphasises that, although this is a new Jesus who lives in a new dimension of resurrection life, his past has not just been lost and forgotten about, but rather is caught up and incorporated into what he has now become.

And that is what we also can hope for. Yes, in the light of the resurrection, we receive a new identity which comes primarily from the future but this does not obliterate our past history but gathers it up into a new reality. All the things that have made us the people we are now: our experiences, our character and most especially our pain and our wounds will not just be forgotten. The individual histories that each of us carry with us will become part of the new reality of our resurrection life. The risen but wounded body of Jesus indicates to us that even, or perhaps especially, those things about our past that are most painful and difficult, and seem to be least healed, will be transformed by the resurrection, turned into something glorious by the God who is able to bring all things to work together for good in those who love him. Our resurrection life comes to us from the future but gathers the past into itself whilst redeeming and transforming it: a wonderful thing to live for and to hope for.