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Passion, Eros, and Resurrection

Passion, Eros, and Resurrection

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,

– “Mary”

the tender life in his voice provokes her to use an affectionate nickname –

– “Rabbuni”

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.

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Dave Belcher

Donald,

Yes, I would be happy to do that. I look forward to your response and to further conversation. (Could you direct me to where I can contact you privately? I can’t seem to find contact info online and if there’s some sort of PM system on the Cafe I have no idea how to use it. Thanks.)

Peace,

J. David Belcher

Donald Schell

Dave,

Yes, this is a conversation worth continuing. I’m glad to talk about how and where to do that because I do think it’s significant and that the passages you’ve gathered (thank you, again) are worth exploring. I still them pointing toward universalism. If we’re going to have the conversation in this forum, I think we’d do well to have some off-line exchanges to sharpen and condense the questions, issues, differences in interpretation, and what difference we think all this makes in the church’s life. I hope it’s clear that I mean by this to take your certainly legitimate interpretation of the texts seriously. Contact me if you’d like to work on that.

Dave Belcher

Donald,

I am still interested in continuing dialogue with you and in hearing what you think these quotations from Gregory say, given how you have interpreted them in the past. I have seen you make reference to the quotation about the body of Christ numerous times and I think it would be helpful if you were able to spell out how you would interpret it differently since it forms the very ethos of the church you helped to found and informs your vision for the wider church—I have followed your work for some time and have worshiped at St. Gregory’s. In that regard, the fact that the citation in context does not mean what you have taken it to mean for so long (and which you repeat most recently in a publication with ATR) is quite significant. Moreover, I think all the quotations from Nyssa I have given in the previous post have significant bearing on the vision you are proposing in this post, as I tried to suggest in my other comments already. Could you respond with a different interpretation of those texts, if you have one, or speak to how my interpretation here might affect your vision, in the interests of mutuality and dialogue?

In a somewhat recent post on Daily Episcopalian, you respond to another commenter using this same quotation about the body of Christ, and take it to mean the following (the first part is from the other commenter):

“‘Holy Baptism is the rite by which God incorporates people into the Church. God loves, even saves, those outside the Church. But they are not part of the family of God that we call the body of Christ. No organization can exist without boundaries that establish who is and is not a member. Holy Communion is the feast of God’s people who are part of the body of Christ.’

“I offer (as I often do) St. Gregory of Nyssa’s assertion that the Body of Christ is all humanity. I know you don’t agree with that but Gregory’s witness as one of the theologians who crafted Trinitarian theology and helped shape the present version of the Nicene Creed makes a more than respectable counter-statement from the heart of our tradition. I hear echoes of Gregory in ‘the mystical body of Christ which is the blessed company of all faithful people’ (old BCP and Rite 1) and in the promise from the baptismal covenant to ‘seek and serve Christ in persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.’”

Again, however, this is not actually what Nyssa asserted, nor is it what he meant by “Christ’s body is all of human nature.” Moreover, when another commenter (Tobias Haller) challenged you on both the quotation and any purported claim that Gregory would support an “open table,” you responded by calling us to see “just how fully realized is our eucharistic eschatology” and continued to appeal to “strands” within our tradition such as Nyssa that affirm this view. Yet Nyssa doesn’t actually affirm such a view, neither the notion that “the body of Christ is all humanity” in the universalist sense you attribute to him, nor the notion of a “fully realized” eschatology—which should be exceedingly clear from the treatise I cited from in the previous comment. (It is also important to note that “all faithful people” in Cranmer’s postcommunion prayer is specifically a reference to the baptized, and the fourth question in the baptismal covenant of the BCP 1979 is about loving your neighbor as if they are Christ—a significant and long, Augustinian tradition—not knowing when doing so will be to walk with Christ as in the Emmaus road sequence or to entertain “angels” as in Hebrews 13:1-4, but it is not a claim that all humanity is Christ’s body, certainly not in the sense of Rom 12 or 1 Cor 12. The baptismal ecclesiology of the BCP 1979 is the central element of the prayer book.) In the interest of furthering conversation, how would you respond to this, since Nyssa and others are not saying what you are saying they say?

I think your response is very important because, even as I write this, I hesitate to think what you might mean with the claim that “our eucharistic eschatology” is “fully realized”—regardless of whether Nyssa or Cranmer or our prayer book would affirm such a thing (which I obviously think they do not). I certainly doubt you would equate all “future” or, shall we say, “deferred” eschatologies with Hal Lindsey or Left Behind, and yet your comment here and the above referenced in response to Tobias Haller seems to suggest that for you a realized eschatology is necessary to respond to fundamentalist distortions of Christianity’s eschatological traditions. On what basis would you show that our eucharistic eschatology is fully realized, though? As I showed in the previous comment, Nyssa doesn’t give you that. The Apocalypse to John certainly doesn’t give you that—which is a text about who is Lord of the cosmos, as I said in a previous comment. And yet in both, there is a future eschatological vision of the redemption of all creation—a kind of “universalism” in the fullest sense of catholicity at the end of all things. After all, in John’s Apocalypse the gates of the eschatological city, New Jerusalem, are “open” and the leaves of the tree at the center of the city are for the “healing of the nations,” the chaotic sea is as still as glass before the throne of the one who is and who was and who is to come, before whom every tear is wiped from every eye—a profound vision of God’s embrace of all creation in love, grace, and triumph through the slaughtered lamb who stands at the center of the throne. The final vision of this city is, however, of the city which descends from heaven to earth, when there is a new heaven and a new earth (when there will “be no temple” because God will be in the center of all things on earth). What a powerful vision this is, especially right now, when John’s Apocalypse is central to the lectionary readings of this entire Easter season! Our resurrection hope points us to the victory of the lamb even as it directs us forward to the last things (the eucharistic mystery of faith comes to mind: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”—something we repeat at every eucharist in the words of the Nicene creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”). How would it be possible to talk about resurrection and excise this future hope that is even now present with us, yet still to come? And how could such a hope be fully realized in a world where the “principalities and powers” still cling with their last gasps of breath to the territory already won by the slaughtered, risen lamb? Wouldn’t hope itself be removed if that hope were “fully realized”? What is hope without the future end toward which it points and is fulfilled? What sense would it mean to talk about a “realized eschatology” in a world of such violence, where the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the laborer—so precious to the Living God and whose care is so central to the Law—are exploited, murdered, cast out, and forgotten? Where, not just economic inequality, but economic injustice threatens so many with death, that power Paul says is “the final enemy”? Where, despite the Lord’s command that we tend to creation as the husband for the garden, we go about destroying habitats and ecosystems, extinguishing entire species of life on this planet, polluting water and food supplies, both ours and other animals’—the very symbols of God’s abundant life? Where so many suffer sexual abuse and violence for reasons of race, gender, and identity? These are all of the things Nyssa says will be subjected to Christ when he comes again, and it is all of these things that Ignatius tells us we must confront fearlessly through our baptisms.

I’m afraid that any such “realized” eschatology is simply not present in Scripture or in our rich, variegated Christian traditions. What is everywhere present is promise and hope, both of which emerge from the divine Shekinah present with us through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit beckoning us to “Come to the Father” (as Ignatius tells us and as later theologians in our own time have said: Moltmann, JB Metz, Gutierrez, Pannenberg, and many others).

As for Hal Lindsey, Lahaye and Jenkins, and others, I don’t think a realized eschatology is the necessary response; the only retort needed is Eugene Peterson’s: “You have no business reading the last book of the Bible until you have read the other sixty-five that come before it.”

Donald Schell

David,

Thank you for gathering these wonderful quotations. And yes, it makes sense that how you read early Christian and patristic intimations of universalism (of which there’s a great deal) depends on how you read the future and eschatology in the same writings. Given Gospel scholars’ questions about how that theme appeared in Jesus’ teaching and some of the scary stuff the last couple of centuries have produced in interpretation of the Book of Revelation (which continues to present itself as old time religion and Bible-believing Christian consensus) questions about future, eschatology and apocalyptic expectations are certainly worth further discussion. Again, thanks.

Dave Belcher

Donald,

(I hope you will indulge one more response from me.)

All of the passages you cite are simply asserting that the totality of humanity, not individual human beings, bears the divine image. The second one from “On Not Three Gods” points toward a participatory understanding of human nature. And all of that is, I think, rather uncontroversial. The quote I think you are looking for, though, comes from Nyssa’s treatise on subjection—commenting on Paul’s text in 1 Cor. 15:28 (typically referred to by its Latin title, “In Illud: Tunc et Ipse Filius”):

“[Christ’s] body, as it is often said, has been united to all human nature” (Sōma de autou, kathōs eirētai pollaxis, pasa hē anthrōpinē phusis, ē xatemixthē).

This particular phrase, in context, is a reference not to the church, but to Christ’s having taken up all of human nature, save for sin, so that he might destroy evil and root out sin and death which divide and corrupt humanity. To put it negatively, he took up everything of our human nature so that there would be nothing in us that is not healed and reconciled to God (the idea tracks closely with Nazianzus’ anti-Apollonarian claim that “what has not been assumed has not been healed,” Ep. 101). In this way he is the “first fruits” of the common lump.

He does later in the treatise develop the idea of the church as “Christ’s body united to all human nature,” but in every instance this is pointing to the eschatological renewal of all things (apokatastasis). The point is that, when the gospel has been proclaimed and received in all the world and all have been united to Christ’s body *through faith,* then, “in the last days,” Christ will subject “his body” (all of creation) to the Father. And this is the purpose of the whole treatise, that Christ does not actually “subject” himself because he is in fact Lord over all; rather, what seems from our human perspective to be “subjection” is the salvation of all creation. Any kind of “universalism” in Nyssa, then, is an eschatological vision—and certainly not a realized eschatology…the use of the future throughout is pervasive, as are phrases such as “the time of his coming” (tēs parousias kairō).

Consider the following text:

“The goal of our hope is that nothing contrary to the good is left, but the divine life permeates everything. It completely destroys death, having earlier removed sin which, as it is said, held dominion over all mankind. Therefore, every wicked authority and domination has been destroyed in us. No longer do any of our passions rule our [human] nature, since it is necessary that none of them dominate—all are subjected to the one who rules over all. Subjection to God is complete alienation from evil. When we are removed from evil in imitation of the first fruits [Christ], our entire nature is mixed with this selfsame fruits. One body has been formed with the good as predominant; our body’s entire nature is united to the divine, pure nature. This is what we mean by the Son’s subjection—when, in his body, Christ rightly has the subjection brought to him, and he effects in us the grace of subjection.”

And again later: “*Then* when every creature has become one body and is joined in Christ through obedience to one another, he *will* bring into subjection his own body to the Father.”

But, all of this is a vision of the end, which is preceded by our subjection to Christ as Lord through the sign of faith—which is equally a rejection and confrontation of evil, sin, and death. Elsewhere for Nyssa this affirmation of faith and denial of the authority of the powers at work in this world is the reality into which we are initiated in baptism (sermon on Epiphany and Great Catechetical Oration especially).

Again from “Tunc Ipse”: “All who have rejected the old man with its deeds and desires (palaion anthropon+ sun tais praxesi kai tais epithumiais autou) have received the Lord who, of course, effects the good done by them. The highest of all good things is salvation effected in us through estrangement from evil. However, we are separated from evil for no other reason than for being united to God through subjection. Subjection to God then refers to Christ dwelling in us.” [All translations are from Brother Casimir, O.C.S.O., “When (the Father) Will Subject All Things to (the Son), Then (the Son) Himself Will Be Subjected to Him (the Father) Who Subjects All Things to Him (the Son)—A Treatise on First Corinthians 15:28 by Saint Gregory of Nyssa,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28/1 (1983): 1-25.]

I think this entire treatise, even though it does not discuss baptism explicitly—although the immediately preceding quote about “salvation” being “effected in us through estrangement from evil” is surely about baptism (see note below)—it does repeat much of what I said in my previous post regarding baptism. Baptism is absolutely essential to the apocalyptic, eschatological vision Nyssa lays out here.

+“palaion anthropon” is the same Greek phrase Paul uses in Rom 6 in reference to baptism’s crucifixion of the “old humanity” (palaios…anthropos).

Peace,

J. David Belcher

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