He measured off another thousand; it was now a river which I could not cross; the stream had swollen and was now deep water, a river impossible to cross. He then said, “Do you see, son of man?”
Ezekiel 47: 5-6
The man went away and and told them that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this is why they persecuted and prosecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath.
John 5: 15-16
As we deepen into the Lenten Season, the gospels draw us more deeply into the hatred and violence that Jesus’ presence evokes in his enemies. What is it in Jesus that evokes such a violent reaction, and what is it in us that so resists the presence of love and goodness in our midst?
Perhaps the first reading from Ezekiel affords some insight. The water that flows from God’s Temple at first is but a trickle, but then it becomes ankle, knee, and waist deep until it becomes impossible to cross except by swimming. Perhaps this symbolism is applicable to our relationship to the life and love of God that is true life and into which our lives are always attempting to draw us. The lives we create out of those habits and dispositions born of fear and anxiety are actually designed in such a way that the gift, the marvel, and the mystery of life and of God’s love is reduced to a trickle that we can readily manage. In all the ways we become petty of mind and heart, we lose our participation in the wonder and life of creation, a wonder we long for but that seems to be all too much for us. As we live out our lives, however, we are beckoned, sometimes subtly and at other times shockingly into a world and a life that is much more than we could ever understand or imagine. We are invited, at times in joy and success but even more in sadness and failure to enter a life that is so much greater than our own. In our timidity, however, we usually try to merely dip our toe in the water of God’s love rather than abandoning our lives and jumping in and swimming, as St Teresa of Avila puts it: “Breasting the rough waves joyfully.”
In today’s gospel Jesus evokes the wrath of some religious leaders because he cures a man on the sabbath. There is no doubt that Jesus in not repudiating the call to keep the Sabbath holy. Without question he would recognize and appreciate the importance of putting God first. The sabbath rest is a very important reminder of whose world it is we inhabit and that it is not our projects and tasks that are primary. Once, however, we leave our feet and begin to swim in God’s world and will, then our whole life becomes a “resting in God” and so the call to heal and to serve need not be circumscribed by the danger of forgetfulness. When, as St. Paul says, the life we live we live for God,” then even in activity we are at rest and the God who never ceases the activity of creation and loving works through us. Jesus creates conflict because his very being, his light, challenges the pettiness and darkness that can even disguise itself as religious practice. Every discipline, rule, ritual is for the sake of serving God and doing God’s will. Even the commandments and the Church are means and not ends.
It is often pointed out that the greatest task in the course of a depressed person’s healing is finally the difficult struggle of letting go of the depression. It may be suffering, but the prospect of life without it is frightening. This is also true of all of us in the spiritual life. We like to hedge our bets with God, being good enough so that, hopefully, God will be satisfied with us, but not “jumping in” and swimming in the river of God’s love and grace, living in such a way that, as St. John of the Cross says, we do “nothing except in obedience.” We all want to save our lives, but we’d prefer to do so while keeping the lives of habit that we know. We prefer the darkness of what we know to a light that seems to be darkness to all that is familiar. It is not easy for us, in the words of Lao Tzu, to become ourselves by becoming free of ourselves.
Heaven goes on forever.
Earth endures forever.
There’s a reason heaven and earth go on enduring forever:
their life isn’t their own
so their life goes on forever.
Hence, in putting himself last
the sage puts himself first,
and in giving himself up
he preserves himself.
If your aren’t free of yourself
how will you ever become yourself?
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #7
trans. David Hinton