Joy made possible

So, our Easter celebration is over. We are released from the self-discipline of Lent. Now we can reflect on what the resurrection of Jesus means to us as we move back into our normal routines.

Doubts, disappointments and numbness can begin to creep in.

I discovered that the first Sunday after Easter is called Low Sunday or St Thomas Sunday, named after the apostle Thomas who declared he could not believe in the resurrection of Jesus unless he could see the nail marks in his hands for himself. Thomas speaks for many of us who need help to believe and to know what the resurrection means for us.

Choose_Life__Chr_512ca52449d24In my explorations about what Life to the Full might be I discovered  Choose Life, the collection of Rowan Williams’ Easter and Christmas Sermons given in Canterbury Cathedral during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury. The sermons are inspiring. Each from a different perspective, and each sharing Rowan Williams’ incredible learning and knowledge. He leads us into layers of understanding about what life is and what it can be.

The first one to catch my eye is called Happiness or Joy, delivered in Easter 2011.  Rowan Williams suggests that the deepest happiness is something that creeps up on us when we are not looking.

We can look back and say ‘Yes, I was happy then’ – and we cannot reproduce it. It seems that, just as we can’t find fulfilment in just loving ourselves, so we can’t just generate happiness for ourselves.  It comes from outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty – but not from any programme we can manufacture. (page 192)

He goes on to explore what he calls authentic happiness or joy. To do this he takes us to the beginning of the resurrection story in John chapter 20:1-10 where the disciples are in the midst of shock, amazement and utter disorientation. As Jesus appears they are jolted out of everything that was familiar to them into a disturbing new world where even death is not what they thought it was, and so anything is possible. Jesus’ presence would bring alarming uncertainty. Hope mixed with terror.  And yet we are told that the disciples were filled with joy.

There is important information in this. Authentic happiness does not take away the reality of threat or risk of suffering. One of the hardest things to take hold of is knowing that we can we feel happy in a world so full of atrocity and injustice.  (page 194) Authentic happiness is not about feeling cheerful, or putting on a brave face. It is . . .

an overwhelming sense of being where you should be, being in tune with something or someone, being rooted in the moment in a way that doesn’t at all blur your honesty about what’s there in front of your eyes but gives you what you need to sit in the presence of horror and grief, and live. (page 195)

This is what having Life to the Full is about!  It does not come from our own efforts or will power. It comes from being connected to a reality and strength that is outside of our own efforts.

Christian joy, the joy of Easter, is offered to the world not to guarantee a permanently happy society in the sense of a society free of tension, pain or disappointment, but to affirm that whatever happens in the unpredictable world . . . there is a deeper level of reality, a world within a world, where love and reconciliation are ceaselessly at work, a world with which contact can be made so that we are able to live honestly and courageously with the challenges constantly thrown at us.

This is not a theoretical idea for our passive engagement.  Rowan Williams suggests two clear ways that we can actively support our own authentic happiness.

  • Make space to receive the gift of joy. For most of us, like the disciples at the first Easter, it takes a shock to break through the routine of our normal thoughts and experience before we can see things differently. Whereas those who take time in silence and reflection are often the people in whom we can see the greatest capacity for authentic happiness. Jesus often withdrew to a quiet place to pray. He modelled how to be in the midst of horror and grief and live. We ask ourselves ‘How can I make space in my life to receive the gift of joy?’
  • Challenge the things that make us anxious.  Jesus’ resurrection breaks open a new reality for us in which victorious mercy and inexhaustible love make the rules. With this comes the potential for joy that is not at the mercy of our feelings. We can create our own reality where anxious thoughts set our boundaries, or we can challenge our thoughts against the new reality where anything is possible and death is not the end. We  ask ourselves ‘What can happen when I challenge my anxious thoughts?’

When we do these things we can find ourselves after Easter, like the disciples, with our world turned upside down and joy made possible.

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What did Jesus look like?

The answer has to be that we do not know.

And yet we all have an image in our minds of what we THINK he looks like. After all we have seen his picture everywhere since we first began to recognise faces. Jesus is the most recognised person in history despite the fact that we have no description of his appearance beyond a few general comments in the bible.

jesusDoes it matter what we think he looks like? Of course it does. How we represent things in our mind has a powerful effect on how we respond to them.  Perhaps the long hair and blue eyes of so many portraits of Jesus was a way of encouraging white Europeans to accept the christian message. If you can identify with him you are more likely to engage with him.

In a recent radio broadcast Rev Giles Fraser told the story of his experience at theological college, when all the trainee priests had to take a personality test called Myers Briggs. Before they received their categorisation they were asked to try to decide what personality type they thought Jesus was. He commented

the remarkable thing was that there was a high degree of convergence between one’s own type and the type that we assigned to him. Extroverts thought Jesus was an extrovert and introverts thought Jesus was an introvert and so on. It was a fascinating exercise because it revealed how readily we can construct a mental figure of people like Jesus in our own image. And the shocking conclusion of this is how easy it is, when we Christians worship Jesus, for us to worship ourselves or a projection of ourselves.

In 2002 Popular Mechanics published a feature article called  The Real Face of Jesus in which they reported how “advances in science helped reveal the most famous face in history”. Richard Naeve, a medical artist, used his skill and his experience in forensic anthropology to construct a model that represented the typical face of a first century Jew. This, they thought, would shed light on the appearance of Jesus.

We know that Jesus lived in the hot Mediterranean climate of Galilee, working hard with his hands. He would be  muscular and physically fit. He would be around 5’1″ tall and would probably look older than his age because of the effects of the climate and his manual labour. Life expectancy at that time was  50 years for men. His complexion would be dark. His hair short, dark and wiry, and he would have a short beard.

Here he is . . . a physical rendering of the likely appearance of Jesus.

SON OF GOD

This looks like John the Baptist to me! I can see a passionate desert evangelist. But somehow I don’t recognise the personality of Jesus in the eyes.

The apostle John was close to Jesus throughout the three years of his public ministry. He wrote his gospel within the lifetime of many eye witnesses to record what he knew about Jesus. His purpose was “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”. In the first chapter he described Jesus by saying

In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind . . . full of grace and truth

I think if we looked into Jesus’ eyes we would see an intensity that both attracted and challenged us. Life, light, grace and truth would shine in his eyes.

I think we would feel challenged to change.