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.
There were other implications too. At harvest time, the fruit of the vine became the symbol of the rejoicing of the last days. It was the cup of blessing, the fruit that rejoiced the spirit. By the time of Jesus, to say, “I am the vine,” is a stark claim indeed. It amounts to this: that the speaker is the protagonist of a myth. He has placed himself at center stage in the tribal story.
Jesus does not “imagine” himself in the world as one who is out to win adherents or to get people in line. His imagination doesn’t function like a policeman’s superego. Nor be it added, does ours, when ours is exorcised of illusions and fantasies of domination. The image, “I am the door,” implies this non-necessity, this welcome and inclusion. The implication is: “I am the open door, not the closed door.” Or, “I open a door long closed, locked. You are not trapped in the kingdom of necessity, the Fall. The door is now open.”
We would say today, Jesus knows something about first things first. Let us start here with the improbable, if not the impossible. If he started by being “useful” to a project, founding something, proving something, squaring off against other orthodoxies, we would know rather shortly that something else of crucial import was being neglected, ignored, even despised. Something so simple as the truth. But he says simply, “I am the truth.” That image, it might be thought, of “the” truth has its own native power; it sounds all the more powerfully on the polluted air of the kingdom of untruth, the Fall.
No need to enlarge on this; a nation rather continually at war will suffer a huge loss of capacity. The Greeks knew it; in war, the first casualty is the truth. Implied here is, “I speak the truth.” And more, for he claims more: “I embody the truth.” And then, “I live the truth, I follow through on the truth.” And from this good beginning all sorts of good things might follow, including a community dedicated to “the truth.”
“I am the way.” We are not to miss, as they say, the context. He is imagining himself in a fallen world. Chaos is implied, distemper and confusion. In such a world he offers a “way,” that actually goes somewhere. Among the many ways, one deserves special attention. His way. Therefore he is justified in saying – “the way.” And this in a world of great confusion as to ways false and true, conflicting signs, false road maps, of dead ends and land’s ends, of detours and pitfalls, chasms and cunning twists.
On those ways, that tangle and web on purpose, appetite, misery, stretching across time and this world (the time after the Fall, the fallen world) travel the wanderers and the lost ones, thieves and robbers, priests and Samaritans, the wounded, the afflicted, the homeless, the mentally bereft, the shoppers and campers and so on. In this world, he makes his way, and makes way for us.
Make straight the way! was the cry of Isaiah. Even for the wayward? Yes. His cry might have been an ancestral command issued to John Baptist and Christ. So the image was passed on and arrives on other lips.
That is the first point of the image; to draw attention, to make us mindful. There is a way to go in the stalemated, bewildering world. It is “the” way, in proportion as it makes sense, offers companionship, leads us home. The way is the way of the heart; the world and time (even a fallen world and the time of the Fall)
is the terrain of the heart of Christ.
To announce “the way” in a fallen world is hardly to propose a “way back” to some garden of innocence. The announcement is not nostalgic, in other words. To the contrary, it deals with memory, and remembering. (Nostalgia is a way of forgetting, of amnesia; but memory “brings to mind,” recalls,” calls us back” – mainly to our true selves.) Context is everything. The word on the page, even the image on the page, can be received as abstract, weightless. But the context of “I am the Way” is a real world; as real as our own; which is to say, risking the otiose, the realm of the Fall.
This “Way” leads somewhere; the arrival is one with the way. The image grew from the action. To comprehend the image, it is necessary to take in account the action. Which is to say, Christ walks the way before he commends it to us. The Gospel tells us so, he set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. Which is to say, toward death.
Now if that were all, Jerusalem and death, we were then allowed to grow nostalgic. But since that is not all, we are instructed to “remember Me,” something entirely of another order. The way passed through a fallen world, toward a fallen city. In point of fact, that meant “the Way,” whatever adherents or enthusiasm it had gathered in the countryside, was to come to an abrupt halt in that city.
Jerusalem, for the likes of Jesus, was land’s end, time’s end, life’s end. It was the city of death; which is to say, of capital punishment, of foreign intervention, of religious collusion and temple religion. Such people as ran affairs there, we are told, bickered a great deal among themselves. But they were quite in agreement on one matter; any “way” that challenged their affairs – or worse, derided them and their authority – should reach a literal dead end. The Way was to halt there. But it did not. Something quite different transpired. The Way resumed from there, “to the ends of the Earth,” we are told.
Once the Way is proclaimed, we too may take our sounds. Our way, as we walk it today, is manifestly one way among many. There is the Buddhist way, the Hindu way, the Muslim way, the Jewish way. From a cultural point of view, there is the American way, much commended in song and story, by media and mammon. A way which leads straight in our time to the disasters named Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And then among us Christians, there is the way of Mr. Bush and of Dorothy Day, of Jägerstätter and of, God help us, Hitler. Divisions, conflicts, warmakers, peacemakers, the many ways, including the abhorrent, the perilous, the heroic, the modest, the demented.
But for ourselves, here and now, a question or two may help clarify matters. Is our way also THE WAY? Does it make sense, offer companionship, lead us home? If so, is it parallel to, does it converge on THE WAY?
“I am the Vine.” “You are the branches.” In the other “I Am” images, our part was only implied. One might say, it was left to us to imagine where we fitted in, or responded or took part. He left it, in all courtesy, to our own imagining. Here, something else. We are part of the image, the tendrils and branches, also the harvest, the grapes. But this inclusion is a matter of emphasis rather than of “here we are, there he is, all nicely distinguished”; no matter of “we are something, he is something else.” As though it could be said, the vine stops here, the branch starts there. Nature does not work that way. There is an equation, a continuity, a “we” that includes Him. There is root and vine and branch and fruit, one living being. There is a kind of ecology of the spirit here. He and we, deep in the earth, dependent on one another, one with one another.
Context is everything. It is hardly by happenstance that “I am the vine, you the branches,” is the last of the “I am” statements of Jesus. This one is placed by John at the supper of Holy Thursday. Which is to say, the image is to be verified, tried, and convicted (and to that point proven truthful) in a fallen world. In such a setting, the image is manifestly political as well as pastoral, tragic as well as comforting. It is as though the vine and branches were bare survivors in a vineyard torn to pieces, a battlefield littered with uprooted vines, the dismembered dead. Creation would have the vineyard brought to harvest; but in the world of the Fall, wine turns to blood.
The fruit of the vine is indeed the cup. But it is also, in a surreal and tragic transformation, something else. “This is the cup of my blood, poured out for you.” Somehow, the fruit of the vine has been harvested, trodden, aged. It has reached this cup, this evening meal. And there, it has been transformed – “The cup of My blood.” As if that were not enough, pressed down and flowing over.
It is not enough. As the Vine included us, the branches, so the cup of “My blood” includes us, by fervent implications. The cup contains blood, the blood is “given for you.” The giving of one’s blood supersedes the letting of blood. Violence yields to nonviolence. The illustration is clear, and passes into instruction. Say it again and again, in a world dissolved in a welter of bloodletting: “The cup of my blood, given for you.” In the words spoken, the cup passed, the covenant is made new.