MONDAY OF LENT WEEK 2
Gospel: Lk 6:36-38. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate
In Martin Luther King’s last speech before he was assassinated, he said ‘I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go the mountain. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I’m so happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.’ MLK was steeped in the great founding myth of the Bible, the Exodus. Like all the great teachers of the Christian tradition, the language and imagery of the Bible was soaked into his thinking and way of expressing himself, indeed of understanding himself. What was the Promised Land that he saw and that we, living out the inner meaning of the Exodus in our Lent? Can we recognise it as the purpose that keeps us going?
Moses saw this Land from afar but never entered it. The biblical story says this was due to his having doubted God at one point in his journey, which seems a bit hard given all that he had put up with. I prefer to think of it as an indicator of what the Promised Land means: not a place, a destination or fulfilment of a plan but rather the journey itself.
In the Axial Age, (8th to 3rd centuries BCE), the age of the great awakening from the Upanishads, the Buddha, Plato, the Hebrew Prophets) humanity began to think of itself as having a destiny, a fulfilment beyond the cycles of nature and its own survival. It was the great dive inwards. Moksha, Nirvana, Pure Land, Paradise, Janna, Nirvana are different expression of this discovery and the new hope it awakened in the purpose of life. Although, it must be said, it was also a great disruptor and like all great lights cast a long shadow. What if I fail to get to heaven? What if I fall into the eternal suffering of the other place? In a way it was the second loss of innocence, another fall that had to precede a great leap forward.
The Kingdom of Heaven in the teaching of Jesus is explicitly not reducible to a place or terrestrial utopia. ‘You cannot say look here it is or there it is…’ Religion without a contemplative consciousness insists on thinking in terms of reward and punishment. But Gregory of Nyssa, typical of the mystical vision generally, sees it as an endless becoming, a continually fuller participation in the nature of God who is infinitely simple. This is his great contribution to Christian understanding. There are endless degrees of heaven, no end to the rooms in Hotel Paradise. Perfection, like beauty, truth and goodness, has no terminus.
John Main said of meditation that the important thing to know is just that we are ‘on the way’. To ask ‘where am I, how long it will take, am I there yet…’ is to miss the great truth that the Kingdom is within us and among us (‘close at hand’ as Jesus said). What are the indicators of this? We’ll look at some tomorrow. But today’s gospel points to the essential one – that we are becoming Godlike in our compassion and love for others in the human journey and that this is reflected in our becoming less judgmental and divisive. The Promised Land is close at hand.