by Donald Schell
“My Eros is crucified.”
Still now, forty-five years later, I remember how startled I was when I first read that use of “Eros” in Ignatius of Antioch’s early Second Century letters. I was just beginning seminary and was searching hard for something to replace the Atonement-by-Vicarious-Suffering-Evangelicalism that I’d grown up with. Would Ignatius’s use of THAT word “Eros” for a loving God point to another way of understanding Jesus’ cross and resurrection?
Ignatius wrote as a bishop under Roman guard; he was on his way to martyrdom, writing when the ink was barely dry on the four Gospels. As St. Paul had done before him, he wrote letters to churches in Asia Minor, offering a personal mix of news, theology, encouragement, direction, and reports on his own spirit as he walked toward certain death.
What startled me in his use of “Eros” after was his total disregard for the kinds of careful distinction C.S. Lewis made among four different Greek words for love. I’d read Lewis’s book and had heard those distinctions of different kinds of love in countless sermons and scripture commentaries. The Four Loves made a clear hierarchy and Eros came across so hungering, so desiring, so reaching toward as to be barely love. But Ignatius used “Eros” and not “Agape.” Did he mean Jesus’ death on the cross shows us the holy power of desire in Christ’s and the Father’s love? Could this be part of the way I was looking for, a way beyond moralizing, legalistic speculations about paying a price to satisfy divine justice?
Ignatius’ unexpected use of “Eros” sharpened my ear to hear new notes in the Bible itself.
With this fresh hearing, I began to hear Eros and God’s desire for us ringing through the Gospel resurrection stories (and St. Paul’s untimely encounter with Jesus as well). How had I not heard it before? When the Gospels show a resurrected Jesus comforting frightened who had abandoned and betrayed him,
- “Do not be afraid…”
- “Peace be with you…”
he speaks tender, embracing words of love.
When he breathes on them,
- “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
he stirs their hair like a mother or a lover.
When they’re hungry for hope and understanding,
- “Children, you have no fish, have you?”
he feeds them and eats with them,
- “Come and have breakfast.”
When he calls Mary Magdalene by name,
the tender life in his voice provokes her to use an affectionate nickname –
And (though the word never appears in the New Testament) Eros, desiring love, flashes like lightning when he says to Mary Magdalene,
“Do not touch me.” Not now, not yet.
As Eros dances through Jesus’ repeated questioning of Peter - -
“Peter, do you love me?”
In the resurrected Jesus we meet our Love again - that’s what I heard in Ignatius’s flash of vision; all of our erotic, tender, longing, desiring ways of loving do suffer and die with Jesus our Eros on the cross. And in the next moment, the same moment, our resurrected Eros invites us to live our passionate, desiring love as he did and does - with no fear of death.
If we’ve felt and seen the power in his life and presence and are moved by its power and beauty to follow him, our path, our race course, as followers of Jesus, is shaped by desiring love
“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” ~Hebrews 12:1b-2
“…for the sake of the joy that was set before him…”
Jesus’ desire transforms the story of his capture, torture, and brutally shaming execution into a startling story of freedom. For the Gospel writers and the earliest Christians, Jesus’ freedom drives the story that gives them life. Jesus’ freedom through the Passion guides us to recognize the Jesus we knew through all the Gospel stories in the healing, blessing, and forgiveness in his resurrection embrace.
Writing now in the great Fifty Days of Easter, I’m savoring this year’s Easter joy of preaching Christ Church, Los Altos’s Prayer Book Palm Sunday liturgy, their 100th anniversary and then at the other end of a formal/informal liturgical spectrum presiding at a handmade, partly unscripted Maundy Thursday Eucharistic supper and foot washing with Society of St. Polycarp, that extended New Orleans group of young friends – attorneys and teachers, social service workers, musicians, and actors meeting for the Great Three Days in Krewe de Vieux’s Mardi Gras warehouse. After my first evening presiding with them, I joined other musician song-leaders making passionate, unaccompanied music for their Good Friday and the Easter Vigil and Feast. From Palm Sunday through Easter, all the events formed a single whole, a celebration of fearless living and love that God would not abandon to death. Both ends of the week and both ends of the liturgical spectrum steadily dropped the fake solemnity of pretending we’d somehow not heard the whole story. Throughout this Holy Week, our practice and proclamation came together to discover Jesus’ freedom embracing us, facing our darkest fears and our most fragile hopes, and through it all blessing our desire with love.
What I’m grateful that didn’t hear in those services in California and Louisiana was our old habit of ignoring (or even denying) Jesus’ freedom and desire in the early parts of the one story. We didn’t reduce our telling of the Passion to a catastrophic tragedy. We didn’t try to make Jesus’ resurrection a surprise happy ending. I felt people responding with steady hope, a real stirring of faith, and most deeply with love. The alternate version of the story, the one I inherited and was looking to replace, the story of the inevitable destruction of Jesus’ faithful obedience (watching over our shoulders for the divine wrath that lurks in the background) makes God the enemy of our heart’s desire and Jesus our mentor in victimhood.
Another ancient Christian writer sensitized my ear to Jesus’ freedom through the arc of the Passion-Resurrection story. Only a few days after I first read Ignatius words, “My Eros is crucified,” I read Hippolytus of Rome’s second century Eucharistic Prayer. Hippolytus’s prayer with its insistence on Jesus’ freedom felt wonderfully and eerily consistent with Ignatius’s use of Eros. And like Ignatius, it pointed to the wholeness of God’s desiring love as Jesus walked the way to the cross -
To fulfill your will and win for himself a holy people, he [Jesus] stretched out his arms when he came to suffer, that by his death he might set free all who trusted you. [And the night when] he was handed over to death, a death he freely accepted he might bring to naught death, and break the bond of the devil, and tread hell under foot, and give light to the righteous and set up a covenant, and manifest his resurrection, he took bread…
Hippolytus insists that Jesus freely stretched out his arms to suffer death to destroy death’s power. He would do no less, because he loved to make us free.
After reading Ignatius and Hippolytus, I began to discover these themes of theirs in the Bible, as I wondered how, with all the scripture passages we’d memorized for Sunday School, in our Sword Drill practice of digging into scripture, in so many exegetical sermons, we’d never heard, "The Father loves me for this: that I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down freely. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again" (John 10:17-18).
The writer of the Gospel of John isn’t trying to make the crucifixion pretty. The writer is telling the story to get us to the dark transforming power of truth and beauty. The Evangelist knows we’ll miss the whole story unless we keep hearing that the Father’s unwavering love and desire for us simply IS the whole and consistent context of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. Jesus doesn’t bow to the Father’s will (like a devout serf acknowledging the holy power of the duke or prince who owns him), Jesus’ will and the Father’s are one as he chooses to enact the Father’s self-giving in his own free, self-giving love.
Yes, the civil and religious authorities did their determined best to reduce Jesus to a victim (as civil and religious authorities did and continue to do to those who step outside their system and order). And yes, Jesus was stripped of community and friends, stripped naked of his clothing, mocked, shamed, tortured and yes, they killed him. But he came to Jerusalem freely and he never consented to the legitimacy of the power he was facing down. The religious sacrificial system of appeasing a righteous God and the civil sacrificial system of sacrificing inconvenient people and vision for the sake the “peace” of the Empire both claimed their right and need to destroy him. And because Jesus sustained his loving freedom to the end, God’s resurrecting power is fully present even in Jesus’ death.
Taken together the four Gospels four different “final words” make four notes of a powerful chord. “It is finished,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel. And it’s the same word as the piercing cry in Mark’s Gospel and “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus freely sustains his desiring love into the darkness of death, and in that freedom, the God and father who seemed to have abandoned him reveals that Love is truly stronger than death. The resurrection is revelatory fulfillment of Jesus’ courageous, creative love.
With Jesus’ freedom in his Passion-Death-and-Resurrection before us, lives of generous witness (and sometimes death), shine with the presence of his Spirit – Gandhi, Maria Skobtsova, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Su Kyi. Yes, add your own names to that list. No, on my list they’re not all Christians, but how can we not see the Spirit in lives that shine with such freedom to love. St. Paul tells us, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Eros. My Eros is crucified. Come my way, my truth, my life.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.