From Testimony: The Word Made Fresh
There is more than one way of identifying ourselves. When speech is used, the most powerful (and highest) clue to “who I am” is imagery, metaphor, a poem. This is one way of understanding certain passages of John’s Gospel. In a series of declarations, many of them metaphors, Jesus describes himself: “I am the bread of life,” I am the light of the world,” “I am the door,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the resurrection,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” “I am the vine.”
The images imply a profound communion between spirit and visible creation. In one image the communion is celebrated between aspects of Earth’s creation and spirit (“I am the way, I am the vine”). In another, between an artifact of one’s hands and spirit (“I am the door”), or between a human occupation and spirit (“I am the good shepherd”). We all but conclude – spirit can only be imagined – and we are right! Or we might conclude: every humble or human thing is apt to lead beyond itself, or within itself – to spirit.
Note the incendiary implication of Jesus borrowing a phrase like “I am,” unadorned, naked. Thus he takes to himself four times in the Gospel of John, (8:24, 28, 58; 13:19), the divine Name announced to Moses, (Exodus 3:14). He claims for himself the faith of the people of covenant. The daring words have struck fire; and not by any means a friendly one.
We have what seem to be two steps in Jesus’s self-revelation. First, the naked phrase of the Jewish testament is taken to himself, quoted as true of himself. Second, the unimaginable Yahweh becomes subject of an imaginative addition: God is not simply “I am who Am.” We are offered a series of images, a series of imaginative approaches to the mystery.
And this is sublimely fitting, if one pays heed to the claim, “I am,” as pressing upon us. For according to the claim, Yahweh, the God who is One, is now incarnate in this world. In Christ, God knows God, a knowledge infinitely beyond the human – and yet now announced by a human. In other words, in Christ, God imagines God.
We are right also in venturing that poetry is not necessary; prose is necessary. Which is to say, prose is an instrument of efficiency. It belongs to the “things which are seen.” Prose is useful, moves things, gives orders, is logical, serves for argument, settles conflicts or makes war, is privy to special interest, makes money, passes information, and the rest.
Poetry, on the other hand, is unnecessary in the sense that God is unnecessary. Poetry is useless in the sense that God is useless. Which is to say, God and poetry are not part of the kingdom of necessity, of a world of law and order (of lawlessness and disorder) and sin and war and greed we name “the Fall.”
Merely naming that world is not enough. It leaves us in the same world, the same plight, fallen amid the ruins. For we cannot name a prelapsarian world and still be true to our world. Events have caught up with our history. The first parents dwelt in a garden, but we are in another world.
The poetry of John does something more than naming that world. It imagines a fallen world, and thus is liberated from its malice. Thus the “Word,” the “logos,” “came among us” who are the fallen. He entered, not an Eden, but a world of sin and death. Of which matters he was destined to learn much, most of it awful, wrought in his own flesh. It was a sorry drama that ensued, a tragedy of whose end we know. “His own did not receive Him.”
To say, “I am the way,” is to say, “I am the way out. Come, imagine a way out. Then put foot on it.”
To say, “I am the truth,” is to say, “I am not the untruth. Come speak the truth.”
To say, “I am the life,” is to say, “I have risen from death. Come, don’t get used to death, don’t inflict death, get up, resist death, rise from death.”
To say, “I am the light of the world,” is a way of saying, “People lose it, lose their bearings, their direction, lose their humanity. I have struck a light. Come, light your mind and heart from mine.”
In a sense, the primal command to “name all things” was badly understood, partially taken. Naming things, in the sense of a mere catalogue, devoid of affection or connection, ends in this: we consume instead of eating. That was the first sin, we are told. The first parents did not imagine creation; they only named it. They could not imagine boundaries as well as freedom, taboos as well as trees.
In the statements beginning, “I am. . . ,” Jesus does not so much name himself as imagine himself. In doing so, he gathers us in, takes us along; sometimes implicitly, sometimes by name. He takes us far, farther perhaps than we would be willing to on our own, far into nature, into the unknown.
Let us call it a Zen voyage, perilous, exhilarating, ironic. What would it be like, he implies, to live in a shepherd’s skin, (or more properly) in the skin of “the Good Shepherd”? What would be the actions of such a good pastor? What would be the outcome of tenderness and solicitude when our charges are not sheep but children, the innocent, the victimized, the noncombatants, women, the aged, the refugees – from El Salvador and Bosnia to Nicaragua and Guatemala to Afghanistan and Iraq – all the endangered? What would it be like to be “the branches of a vine” – when the weathers of the world are as they are, sharp, unpromising, assaulting? What would it be like to be a light, when darkness covers the Earth?
Christ speaks so confidently, “I am. . . ,” rather than, “I look like. . . ,” or “I resemble.” Can he speak this way because in fact, he has plunged to this depth of imagery, so that the images proceed from a life lived, rather than from a Godly superiority, over our benighted selves? Because perhaps he has taken to himself the torment and wounds of this world, and in so doing, imagined a better world, and in so imagining, has created a better world?
And more. In not one of his statements or images does Jesus name himself as one member of a species. There is a crucial, though subtle matter here. Which is to say, “I am not just any vine in a vineyard, ‘a’ vine, one among many. No, I am the vine.” Which is to say, “I am all vines. I am the vine of all times and places, the Alpha and Omega vine. Is this impossible? Only to prose, to logic, to necessity, to the Fall, the non-imagination. To these, it may be impossible, but it is not beyond imagining, at least my imagining. For I am the – mythic vine.”
“The mythic vine.” There is a vine about which stories are told. The soil of this vine is the imagination of people. There gathers about the image all sorts of implications, as generations come and go, telling once more to children, the story of “a” vine which in the telling and retelling, has become “the” vine. In time, the vine became the people themselves. According to Isaiah and Jeremiah, they were one vine, they were an entire vineyard, kept by Yahweh. They produced well at one time, at another they fell to ruin and decay. But no matter weal and woe, (and these were all part of the story), the image was like a deep root. It went to the heart of the world, it could not be uprooted.