Everybody who believes in the Son of God has this testimony inside him. . . . This is the testimony: God has given us eternal life and this life is in his Son; anyone who has the Son has life, anyone who does not have the Son does not have life.
1 John 5: 10-12
In today’s gospel from Mark, we hear John the Baptist proclaim: “The one who is stronger than I is coming after me. . . .” (Mark 1:7) There’s little doubt that John could never be considered weak. He sets out into the wilderness; he preaches fearlessly the need for repentance; he faces down those to whom his preaching is a threat; he follows his path as precursor to the Lord even to his death. Yet, he speaks of Jesus as possessing a greater strength than he. Scripture scholars suggest that Mark’s use of the adjective stronger “echoes the beginning of Deutero-Isaiah where God will come ‘in strength’ (Isaiah 40:10).” What is strength in Jesus and in the scriptures and from where does it come?
We tend to think of strength as a personal quality, as something we build up in ourselves, in the physical realm in the gym and in the spiritual or moral realm through asceticism. This is obviously true, Yet, John is clearly not speaking of physical strength in Jesus and probably not even moral probity. It is, no doubt, a certain strength of character, but even more it is a true firmness of life and purpose, an unshakable faith, hope, and love based on a pervasive and unwavering personal knowledge of God’s presence and action in the world that comes not from a cognitive or even emotional assent but rather from Jesus’ awareness, attunement, and presence to the truth of things. “If you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8: 31-2).
To believe “in the Son of God” is to have within us the testimony that in him is eternal life. As we cannot reduce strength to the physical or even moral domains, so too with eternal life. We can read the gospel and letters of John in such a way that we hear eternal life as a “thing” that God gives to us as a reward for good behavior. Yet, today’s reading from 1 John tells us that belief and so union with the Son of God awakens us to a testimony inside of us — God has given us eternal life in the Son and as his children. What we take most commonly to be life is not its totality. We experience moment by moment life which is temporary, conflicted, fragile. It reveals itself to us in fragmentation and partiality. We come to know an aspect of life in light of its opposite: darkness and light, goodness and evil, life and death, love and hate, friend and enemy, labor and rest, sickness and health, work and prayer, war and peace, hope and despair, etc. At the level of our functional mind and will, we experience “life” as an ongoing series of contending opposites, as a conflict between life and death, eros and thanatos. As such life is, to varying degrees, a battle, a battle we can wage nobly but one that we shall ultimately lose. Our sense of goodness, of life, of how things should be will never win out in the end. Our strength is never enough to force reality into submission to our wishes and designs, to our desire to have life and world come to be on our terms, to live the life we know forever. The life that we attempt to create, no matter how powerful or strong we are for a time, will always cease to be. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley speaks of this truth in his sonnet Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The strength of Jesus and the truth that we bear testimony to within is rather a strength grounded not on our illusions of power and strength but rather on the reality of eternal life. It is what the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the instress of inscape”, that is the spiritual capacity within us to recognize in everything the eternal. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things . . .” (God’s Grandeur). The strength of Jesus lies in his presence to a reality that is eternal. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus’ strength before the forces of darkness and death that confront him is clear and recognizable to us. It is a strength, however, that is a willingness, a power to abandon to and flow with the truth of things, the will of the Father. Jesus does not cease to know fear, or sadness, or loss. Yet, he knows all of these as a part of the path he is called to walk, as revelations, with all else, along the Way of “eternal life.”
The truth of the matter is that we live a very conflicted existence. We have our own ideas born of our own formation about who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do. Those ideas are about a life that is life as we tend to know it. It is the life of an ego whose “essence is frustration.” Eternal life is the gift that comes from belief in the Son of God. It is not an object given from the outside but rather a gift of purification of vision and transformation of understanding. When we begin to see with the eye of our spiritual or transcendent mind and will, we recognize “the dearest freshness deep down things” that inhere in everything and every moment, including those things we would fruitlessly fight to avoid. To deeply listen and be available to each welcome and unwelcome moment of our lives, to those aspects of who we are that we appreciate and that we abhor, is to begin to hear the testimony of “eternal life” within us. Eternal life is not a distant promise; it is a present reality. May we appreciate today and every day the ways, welcome and unwelcome, that God is forming, reforming, and transforming us to recognize and to realize this eternal life that is God’s gift to us.
“Listen well, dear friend, listen well! The sinner that I am and that you are is a sinner, but someday he will be a Brahmin again, some day he will achieve Nirvana, he will be a Buddha. And now listen: This ‘someday’ is an illusion, is merely a metaphor! The sinner is not on the way to becoming a Buddha, he is not involved in a development, although our thinking cannot imagine things in any other way. No, the sinner now and today, already contains the future Buddha, his future is fully here; you must worship in the sinner, in you, everyone, the developing, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend, Govinda, is not imperfect or developing slowly toward perfection. No, the world is perfect at every moment, all sin already contains grace, all youngsters already contain oldsters, all babies contain death, all the dying contain eternal life. It is not possible for any one to see how far along another one is on the way; Buddha is waiting in robbers and dices, the robber is waiting in the Brahmin. In deep meditation it is possible to eliminate time, to see all past, all present, all developing life as coexisting, and everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahma. This is why that which is seems good to me, death seems like life, sin seems like saintliness, cleverness like foolishness, everything must be like that, everything needs only my assent, only my willingness, my loving agreement; it is good for me like that, it can never harm me. In my body and in my soul I realized that I greatly needed sin, I needed lust, vanity, the striving for goods, and I needed the most shameful despair to learn how to give up resistance, to learn how to love the world, to stop comparing the world with any world that I wish for, that I imagine, with any perfection that I think up; I learned how to let the world be as it is, and to love it and to belong to it gladly. Those, O Govinda, are some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind.”
Herman Hesse, Siddartha, pp. 124-5