The Cosmic Paradox of The ‘Virgin’ Mary

via The Buddha Christ – Pagola Erects a Lighthouse | Play With Strangers.

One of the many understandings I drew from reading Pagola: the story of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Birth of Christ which we celebrate each Christmas was all quite clearly made up, something apparently accepted by all serious biblical scholars. How little I knew. Two gospels, Mark and John, don’t mention it. Luke and Matthew have contradictory versions. Pagola goes further though, putting it in the context of the midrash haggadah, a Jewish tradition of fictionally expanding on the lives of the great and holy with the intention of deepening our understanding of who they were, what they were like. A devotional tale, if you like.

The early church really went the doctor on it, revering Mary as ‘ever (i.e. always) virgin’ in spite of the fact that Jesus is specifically stated to have brothers in the New Testament. Probably sisters too, but women counted for so little it would be quite natural for them not to be mentioned. From the Annunciation story we are supposed to understand that she always knew he was the son of God incarnate in spite, again, of the gospel account of her accompanying her other sons on a mission to bring Him home after he supposedly lost the plot after his sojourn in the desert.

Fine. Nice story. But here’s the weird, weird thing. Of all the possible Biblical presences who might be supposed to be watching out for us, it’s Mary who keeps turning up. I made quite a study of Fatima. In spite of the Church commissioning more than one ‘devil’s advocate’ to debunk the story, no-one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain what happened in Fatima in 1917. Three illiterate children talked about trouble in Russia, reporting information which they completely failed to comprehend. Three weeks later the Bolshevik revolution erupted. When they asked the apparition who she was, she answered ‘I am the immaculate conception,’ words they again failed to understand but repeated to others. When separated and terrorised by the local police, all three steadfastly refused to recant. These are little peasant kids. Finally, of a huge crowd who had been told to expect ‘a sign’ (and that’s all) at three o’clock on the final afternoon, the great majority described exactly the same vision, the so-called Dancing Sun. Mass hypnotic suggestion can be ruled out.

I find it most logical to conclude that the apparition was real and genuinely treated the crowd to the promised spectacle. It didn’t physically happen, of course, but that’s irrelevant. There were cameras and reporters present; it didn’t show up on film. The point is that there is no known way to cause a crowd to experience the same vision with neither prior suggestion nor technology. Just in case you think the word spread through the crowd in some form of ripple effect, there were simultaneous identical or highly similar reports from as much as 15km away. The question which I keep revisiting after reading Pagola is: who is this? Lourdes. Guadalupe. Walsingham, not too far from here. All instances of the same miraculous presence. I’m now starting to look back and elsewhere and starting to find parallels which I will update but my thesis is already formed: there exists in the universe a benign entity, female in our understanding, long predating Christ, which has real agency in the world. Which is, in short, looking out for us.

Usually I post completed propositions. This time I’m looking for suggestions. Any takers?

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The Buddha Christ – Pagola Erects a Lighthouse

A postscript to : That Wondrous Camino. My faith was, as reported, robustly restored by that long walk, but since reading Jesus: An Historical Approximation by Fr José A Pagola, the astounding product of thirty years’ study of everything – historical, archaeological, cultural, philological and linguistic – that can currently be known about Christ, I have acquired a much more nuanced acceptance of the modern church. Among many other of Pagola’s revelations is the clear understanding that the real Christ had no wish to start an hierarchical religion. What emerges is, in fact, astonishingly similar to the compassion-centred teachings of the Buddha. Why am I not surprised?

Pagola’s is probably the most deeply-researched book I have ever read, enriched with footnotes on, I think, every page. Some sections had such impact that I turned back and reread them at once. I began to count his bibliographical references and gave up at 43, covering A to E. Hundreds. His methods exemplify what is being called the ‘third wave’ of Christology, an explosion on multiple research fronts dating from around 1980. The denial of the historical Christ is a dead duck – he is mentioned, among others,  by Jewish contemporary historian Flavius Josephus, by Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and several times in the rabbinical sources which began to accumulate after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.

From deep linguistic study, scholars are now in broad agreement as to which words in the New Testament can be attributed with confidence to the mouth of Christ. The ‘New Testament’ can be understood to include the lost Q source which shows up in numerous identical fragments in Mark and Luke and the apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas, the latter now considered authentic although ‘tainted’ with Gnosticism.

It is utterly fascinating. Stripped of the redactions of the gospellers, parables appear with new and often different meaning. Luke 8:9-14, for instance, portrays the Pharisee praying in the Temple, thanking God for his virtuous life, as a hypocrite. Jesus intended no such thing; it was perfectly in order for someone to be grateful for the opportunity for righteousness, so important to observant Jews. Luke adds that the humble tax collector beating his chest at the back of the Temple ‘… rather than the other, went home justified before God.’ Not what Jesus was saying at all, apparently.

Another snippet: Matthew, writing around Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, constantly vilifies the Pharisees. At the time, with the Temple gone and the ruling Sadducees broken, the Pharisee movement was hard at work saving the Jewish faith and culture, bringing them up against the flourishing Christian community. In fact, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were a disparate, devout ginger group who probably respected Jesus, although they certainly debated with him.

So what emerges from the distortions of the gospels and the outright wreckage wrought by the guilt-ravaged, misogynistic and probably self-hating homosexual Paul? The message can be summed up as what Jesus himself consistently called ‘the good news’ that the poor and the rejected need not be down-hearted because, seen through enlightened eyes, the whole of creation is already the ‘reign of heaven’. (As anyone who has taken mescaline or psilocybin in the right circumstances may have glimpsed.)

This, I  am sure from reading his account in The Seven-Storied Mountain/Elected Silence, is what Thomas Merton experienced during his famous moment of satori on the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville Kentucky. Finding no satisfactory explanation  in Christian sources, he found his way to meetings with Tibetan Lamas in Calcutta, became an advocate for a close ecumenical relationship between Christians and Buddhists, and, at an ecumenical conference in Buddhist Bangkok, was apparently murdered. At the behest of what dark hand, we wonder?

Why am I not surprised that Christ’s message turns out to be so like that of the Buddha? At the centre, universal compassion and acceptance. Not so much the destruction as the disregarding of hierarchy, the rejection of rejection. Condemnation of the objectification of women and children.  And a teaching that, to those with open hearts and freshly opened eyes, heaven is already all around us, in ‘the birds of the air and the lilies of the field’. Sin is something to be cast aside, not agonised over, because the state of grace, what he called the father’s mercy, is neither rationed nor earned. The quality of mercy is indeed not strained.

His enemies called him a drunkard and a consorter with prostitutes and tax collectors. In fact, apart from his healing and preaching, these deeply significant meals were his principal activity. To eat with someone, and especially to recline while doing so, was to honour them. Note that he was never reported to dine with thieves and bandits, just the outcasts – the ‘sinners’ of the day. To understand why, we need to understand who these people were.  A wife was merely a man’s property and could be cast aside like any other thing, for any or no reason and without further obligation. Their only choices -beggary, prostitution, or both.

The tax collectors referred to were not swaggering thugs going about expropriating the fruits of people’s labour. They too were social rejects, frequently men who, for one reason or another, had been booted out of the protective family circle and left with neither status nor property.

Their choices – beggary, or a miserable life sitting in a booth on a wharf, or at the gates of a town, taking a cut for Herod, or the tetrarch Antipas in Jesus’ home territory of Galilee. Hounded from above to increase their takings, constantly reminded there were plenty of others who would take the job (sound familiar?), despised by all who passed by, riven by guilt at their unrighteous life.

Pagola’s revelation of Christ’s passionate defence of women is one of a number of areas where he directs us to conclusions impolitic for him, a priest and a seminary professor, to articulate. The Church’s stand on divorce for instance. The sole New Testament teaching against divorce is in Matthew 19: 3-12. Consider what Pagola writes about Matthew and the Pharisees. Now see that Christ specifically repudiates the Mosaic law authorising divorce in answer to a challenge from ‘some Pharisees’. The context is all-important. My conclusion? If Christ said it at all it would certainly have been in condemnation of the brutality of divorce as practised at the time. Imagine – the woman would never have been allowed to take her children, certainly not sons, anyway, who would remain within the extended family. She literally had the status of human rubbish.  Would the real Jesus have condemned a divorce within the framework of fair, judicial property and custody settlement? Of course not. This is one of several inescapable conclusions that Pagola avoids putting into words, but his signposts are large and clear.

Again, when Jesus says, “I come to bring not peace but a sword … to set father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law,” he was not speaking of anything like the families we know, so transformed by two millennia of Christianity. He was referring to roles within a merciless, virtually life-or-death authority structure.

No wonder, in spite of the fact that Pagola’s book has sold more than 150,000 copies, many to Christian clergy who rave about it and convene study groups around it, that Spain’s arch-conservative bishops have succeeded in having it banned in Pagola’s own country. A futile rear-guard action of course – the original Spanish edition had sold 60,000 copies before they got their way. These are the same people who are so entrenched in their defiance of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council that they send out spies to report on priests who share the wine of communion, even those who give the host dipped in wine.

A mad world, my masters. But a glorious one.

POSTSCRIPT

Reading Pagola launched me on a difficult journey. Since my return to Christianity I had been nourished by it, relying on the steady, gentle cycle of the ritual year to give balance and continuity to my always chaotic life. In my darkest hours, the final years of my marriage, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland had become a second home, a place where I would always be greeted as a friend. I knew that nothing, nothing I could say or do, would ever cause its doors to close against me.
Now all this was thrown into question and it would be painful months before I came to this understanding: whatever the Christian churches may have been at times, or may be now, they embody the authentic continuity of Christ’s primary intention to create communities where compassion, gentleness and worship flourished. Does the modern Catholic/Anglo-Catholic church meet this description? Absolutely, if not uniformly. Settling back into the community required a degree of surrender, a conscious act of intellectual humility. But I’m back. And grateful to be so.

My thanks to the remarkable Fr Michael Elligate, SJ, Order of Australia, of Melbourne University, for the generous gift of his time and the recommendation of Jesus:An Historical Approximation, by José A Pagola, Fourth (Revised) Edition, Convivium Press 2013, translated by Margaret Wilde.

Nietszche’s Error

Nietzsche was right, if only partly: most people live their lives cocooned in a host of glib little self-deceptions.  They will do anything to avoid the great crisis which would force them to stare straight at the truth about themselves, at what they have become, the crisis which would ultimately set them free.
Nietzsche realized that avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness was a vainglorious pursuit. What is necessary is to accept that suffering is inevitable and the real goal is to accept and learn from our suffering, to discover the most important and ennobling ability we possess – how much we can bear and stay straight and true.
No-one to my knowledge has ever expressed this better than Viktor Frankl, in ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ where he writes of his experiences in Auschwitz and observed that those who survived longest were those who found meaning in their suffering and a reason to endure it. Great book.
Neitzsche’s greatest error was his conviction that belief in God and the life of the spirit was an anodyne for the weak, a comforter to cuddle in the cold winter of truth. Because accepting God imposes heavy burdens. Never mind all the obligations to pray and attend Mass instead of lounging in bed on Sunday morning – they are actually pleasures. Prayer can be like talking with a friend, and Mass is beautiful, uplifting, social, musical, a real worldly pleasure.
No, the hard part is in following Jesus’ instructions, about which he was unambiguous and forthright. “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was imprisoned, and you cared for me.”
How about “If someone steals your coat, give him your shirt.”? Or “If your enemy strikes you on the cheek,  offer him the other cheek.”
Anyone who thinks these are metaphors is sadly mistaken.  Unfortunately, Jesus never added a rider to his injunctions. I wish he had said “Turn the other cheek (unless the bastard desperately needs a good hiding)” or “I was hungry and you surely would have fed me if you’d had a little more to spare and the time to get it organised, so you’re all good on that one.”
But he didn’t, and if we are to glory in the works of the Lord and truly fear no evil as we walk in the shadow of the valley of death, we have to deliver.
Worth taking particular note of, I think, is that reference to visiting prisoners.  Of all the many good works, Christ singles out visiting prisoners as one of the ‘must-do’s’. Why? He doesn’t single out the unjustly imprisoned, so it’s not about that.  I think it is because helping those in prison requires not only generosity but the all-important ability to suspend judgment. Succouring prisoners is like giving the thief your shirt; they don’t deserve it. Those who do so play an important social role, of course, because they counteract the natural tendency of the imprisoned to hate society and everyone in it. Rednecks who want to see prisoners given the stick, those who rant on about prison being a holiday camp do us all a grave disservice because they justify recidivism. I wonder I Jesus had that thought at the back of his mind?

Sorry Friedrich. You got that bit wrong.