First he says, “Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delight in.” These are offered according to the law. Then he says, “Behold, I come to to do your will.” He takes away the first to establish the second. By this “will,” we have been consecrated through the offering of the Body of Jesus Christ once for all.
From time immemorial human beings have attempted to appease those forces which they experienced as more powerful than they. The most powerful of these forces, or causes of those aspects of life that are uncontrollable, humans constituted as gods. The only possible response to an overwhelming power differential is appeasement or sacrifice. And so, quite naturally human relationship to the gods was and is most often the attempt to influence and appease the mercurial temperament of a powerful and even almighty deity for the sake of one’s own survival.
Such a relationship between humans and the gods is most evident in what we now somewhat arrogantly call “primitive” religions. Yet it continues even with us. We don’t tend to speak of “God’s will” when a pleasant and beneficial event occurs, but rather in the face of those things that cause us suffering and that leave us otherwise speechless. As is evident in the Roman Catholic tradition in some of the new liturgical translation, a theology of victimhood and appeasement, even our view of the relationship between God and Jesus, is alive and well.
As human beings have attained, or at least as we believe we have attained, more power over our natural environment, we find ourselves less prone to relate to the mysterious and the divine by means of physical sacrifice. Yet, when under stress or overcome with fear, we find our own ways to sacrifice the life of the other as a means of either appeasing our own insecurity or the idols of our own cultures.
That power dynamics are at the heart of humanity’s relationship with its gods should not be surprising to us, for it is most often also at the heart of our relationships with each other and/or relationship to the world. At the level of our personalities that Adrian van Kaam calls the “pre-transcendent,” that is “pre-spiritual,” we tend to relate on the basis of our need for bodily and emotional security and functional significance. Thus, it is quite uncommon that we relate to the world or to others without at least a measure of power and manipulation. At times the exercise of power predominates, as in social and political life and in the workplace. At others its force is somewhat mitigated and subtle (while being nonetheless significantly present) as in family life and intimate relationships. We feel that we need and want a certain place in the world and in the lives of others, and so we are always, to some degree or other, working toward that end.
The place of law, including “the law” of the scriptures, is to keep excesses of those power dynamics in check. In the religious sense, it is to “subject” us to the law of God so that we know our place in relationship to God. Thus, it is also designed to teach us our place in relationship to each other. For, without it, we shall forget our true place because, at the level of our unconscious life, we are unaware of that true place. Many years ago, at a very personally painful moment of self awareness, a friend pointed out to me that it was difficult to work with me because I always needed to be the center of attention. This was, for me, a moment of being “put in my place” because I had been totally unaware of how I would unconsciously exercise power, even over those whom I cared about, to appease my own insatiable need for recognition.
Today, we celebrate over two weeks later than usual the Feast of the Annunciation. At the heart of the story that we are told in the gospel today is Mary’s declaration to the angel: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” To be certain, there is a kind of sacrifice in this stance of Mary. Yet, the sacrifice is that of the demands of power inherent in her own managing or executive will. In her abandonment to God’s will she is engaged in what van Kaam calls “transcendent willing.” This is a will whose driving force is not power, but rather love. In its exercise, we use our managing or executive will to discipline our own unconscious demands to be in control of a reality we fear, which then allows us to act in such a way as to give ourselves over in faith, hope, and love to the will of a Mystery which we do not fear but rather love. To be sure, there must be for Mary the same “fear and trembling” we experience when we dare to release the firm hold of our need and desire for power. Yet, there is even more a real consonance, a sounding with her deepest call and identity, that longs to be at the disposal of a Mystery that she has come to know as beneficent in her regard.
When Hebrews, and, of course, the letters of Paul as well, speak of how we are no longer subject to the law but are rather to live by faith, they are reminding us that Mary and then Jesus exemplify for us the human possibility of relationship to God, the world, each other, and ourselves that is sourced by love rather than power. Martin Buber, among so many others, reminds us that “we cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world.” This is why the gods we create in our own image are always looking for sacrifice from us — for that is what we would be doing in their place. We want, as I so consistently did, the world to “bend its knee” to us.
So, to attain that sense of being powerful, we relate to God and to all others by means of contract. Isn’t this largely how we were taught as young people to relate to God? We were told, and carry this teaching in the very fiber of our being, to be good and God will be good to us, that is give us an eternity in heaven rather than hell. That was our fundamental religious contract. And so we live this out in all the relationships of life. We constantly negotiate our affect towards and commitment to one another. In our basic insecurity we cannot, as Buber says, “avoid using power.” This is why we see how the failure of love in the scriptures is usually due to fear. It is why we expect the gods to punish us when we fail them. When someone hurts or fails us, our wounded eros wants to strike out in return.
We come to alter our stance toward God, others, and the world from that of power to that of love by befriending life, beginning with our own. It is, at least in part, our distance and so fear from aspects of ourselves and our lives that foster power and aggression in our dispositional life. There is, no doubt, a direct correlation between the force with which we enter into our outer relationships and the power of repression we exercise in our own lives. Hebrews tells us that even Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. It is by accepting and then fully receiving our lives as they are, from moment to moment, that we learn love. It is through the conversion of our resentment into gratitude that we come to know, experientially, that God is not angry with us but rather loves us. This is the simple but profound insight of Julian of Norwich as she contemplates the hazelnut. “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” In its’ simplicity, this insight of Julian is revolutionary. Rather than the God of all that we fear because we cannot control it, God is the one who made us, loves us, and keeps us. To know this, however, we must cease distancing from ourselves and fighting ourselves and reality, but rather dare to love, that is come close without needing to control.
Recently we remembered the assassination and so the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He, as Gandhi before him, understood that the dynamic of love can ultimately prevail over that of power. But to do so, requires the practice of non-violence in the very presence of and proximity to the exercise of power and aggression. It was not in theory but in lived encounter that love could overcome. So with us. To dispose ourselves in love, as Mary did, we must first come close to all in us that is attempting to distance, control, and manipulate the world. To be “put in our place” is to discover ourselves as one that God made, loves, and keeps. To know this, in the fiber of our being, is to offer it, instead of power, to all others that we know and meet. It is to discover how to tend the whole earth in love, as we and it are being tended to by God.
Every morning I shall concern myself anew about the boundary between the love deed — Yes — and the power deed — No — and pressing forward honor reality. We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world. So let us, cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.
Martin Buber, Power and Love