Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Mystery of the Trees in the Garden of Eden

The two trees in the Garden of Eden remain a mystery. They are the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
First we may relate them to the two paths Jesus talked about: the path of life and the path of destruction. Eating from the tree of life is similar to choosing the path of life, and eating from the tree of knowledge is similar to choosing the path of destruction. Adam and Eve chose the path of destruction.

Choosing the path of life involves choosing to follow rules and regulations-- of obedience. Adam and Eve had rules to follow, but they chose to break the rules. Disobeying rules is the path of destruction.

"Life" here means more than biological life or the existence of all living beings. It is the fullness of life; it is life at its best. It is meaningful life. The primary condition for such life is holding right relationships. We need to be at right relationship with God, the source of life, with our fellow beings, and with earth, the ground of our existence. The right relationship is a love-relationship. It is being a friend to all.

The Gospels present before us three different Greek words to mean "life"-- bios, psuche, and zoe. Jesus speaks about “…anxieties and riches and pleasure of this Bios.” (Luke 8:14). Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save his Psuche shall lose it.” (Matt. 16:25). Speaking about Jesus, John says, “In Him was Zoe, and the Zoe was the light of men" (John 1:4). These three Greek words probably represent three levels of human existence-- bios at the bottom, psuche at the middle level, and Zoe at the highest level. Jesus asks to choose the path of zoe as opposed to the path of destruction.
The tree of life at the center of the garden represents life at its best, in its fullness. It seems that Psalm 1 sings about this tree.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,or take the path that sinners tread,or sit in the seat of scoffers;but their delight is in the law of the Lord,and on his law they meditate day and night.They are like trees planted by streams of water,which yield their fruit in its season,and their leaves do not wither.In all that they do, they prosper.

It is a life supported by right relationships. Once the relationships are broken, life at its fullness cannot be sustained, and death happens. To refer to the tree of life, the Greek word used in the Book of Revelation is Zoe, the highest level of existence.

When Adam and Eve broke their relationships, they lost their life in this sense as well. They died in this sense. That is why God said, "You shall die the day you eat of this tree!". They disobeyed, and the relationships were broken, and they died.

The word "death" is used here metaphorically. It is not the real death that all beings die. This is something like death. When relationships break, life at its fullness ceases to exist, and this condition is very much like death. When a love-relationship breaks, it causes a lot of pain. This pain is similar to the pain when someone close to us dies. That might be one of the reasons for relating the break of love to death.

Paul relates Jesus to Adam, and calls him the second Adam. Adam disobeyed and brought death, but the second Adam obeyed and brought life. The first Adam chose the path of destruction but the second Adam chose the path of life. Paul exhorts all people to follow the lead of Jesus and choose the path of life.

John's Gospel speaks about life and eternal life. Here too the word refers to the fullness of life. Jesus invites people for a new birth, which effects a transformation in human life like water becoming wine. Jesus is presented as the way to eternal life.

On Good Friday we sing, "The Blessed One by his death killed death." It makes a distinction between the death that Jesus died and the death that he killed. The death he died is the normal death that all living beings die. God is the only deathless being. But the death that Jesus killed is the same death the Adam and Eve died on the day they ate the forbidden fruit. Jesus killed the death of the broken love-relationship, which means that he reestablished a love-relationship.

Malayalam, my native language, has two different words for life-- jeevan and jeevitham. It is the presence of jeevan, the life-energy, that distinguishes a living being from a nonliving being. All living beings have a jeevitham, that lasts for a duration of time. Although the same jeevan animates all living beings, we can build up jeevitham of different quality, such as Bios, Psuche, or Zoe. It seems to me that the word life in most of the places in the Bible refers to jeevitham. If so, the path of life will be jeeevitha maargam, and the tree of life will be jeevitha vriksham.

One final question: Why is the forbidden fruit called the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Isn't knowledge desirable? In what sense is knowledge related to the path of destruction?
There is a fine distinction between seeking wisdom and claiming to be wise. They are opposite to each other like light and darkness. In ancient Greece, there were sophists (those who claimed to be wise) and philosophers (those who called themselves lovers of wisdom). Once you claim to be wise, you close your mind, and no new information can enter your mind. As long as you seek wisdom or call yourself a lover of wisdom, your mind remains open.

The knowledge of good and evil is ultimate knowledge that belongs to God. No human being can claim to have such knowledge. Today, as always, most of the religions and ideologies claim to have the ultimate knowledge of existence in their custody-- they eat from the tree of knowledge. The greatest threat to peace in our world is from those who claim to have ultimate knowledge. Such people, who claim to have the custody of ultimate knowledge, always clash with one another. They don't admit that God alone has ultimate knowledge. They don't care for maintaining the love-relationship with God, with fellow beings, and with the rest of the creation. Thus they choose death rather than life.

In conclusion, in order to have a full life, we need to have an open mind, willing to learn always and from everywhere. We also need to learn to follow rules and regulations. Also we need to build up and maintain all of our relationships intact. In short, learn, obey, and love.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Liturgy of Great Friday: A Meditation

The liturgy of the Great Friday celebration of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity addresses two of the most basic existential issues of all time-- broken relationships and the fear of death. What follows is an appreciation of the Great Friday liturgy in the Syrian tradition of the Eastern Christianity.  In Malayalam, my native language, this day is called Dukha (sad) Friday. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this day is called Great Friday. In the western tradition, this day is Good Friday. According to one explanation I happened to see, "good" originally was "God's", and so Good Friday must have been God's Friday. This argument is supported with the example of Goodbye, which was originally God be with you. Anyway, I feel more comfortable with the name "Great Friday" which I am using here.
The Historical context 
Christian communities existed in Asia, Africa, and Europe in the fourth century. Europe existed as east and west. Rome was the center of the west, and Latin was its common literary language. Constantinople was the center of the east, and Greek was its common literary language. African Christians, who were right across the Mediterranean ocean, seems to have been divided between the eastern and western Europe into Greek part and Latin part. Later African Christian communities developed their own traditions-- Egyptian and Ethiopian. Asian Christianity included Christians of Antioch (within the Roman Empire), of Persian Empire, and of India.  Edessa (though Antioch rose to prominence later) was the center of Asian Christianity, and Syriac was its common literary language.  The liturgy of Great Friday  originated in Asian Christianity, in Syriac. The name Syriac meant the language of Syria. Syria's previous name was Aram,  and Syriac was Aramaic.  Aramaic was the native language of Jesus, and it was used in a large area of land in the western Asia. Aramaic was a sister to Hebrew, the language in which the Hebrew Bible was written. Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language a few centuries before Christ.
At the beginning of the fourth century CE there was a radical shift in the status of the Christian church—it became the official imperial religion of the Roman Empire. Until then it was just one of the several religious movements competing for a bare survival in the empire. It was often frowned upon by the rulers. Many of them were persecuted and even brutally killed. The edict of Milan (313 CE) changed everything; Christianity replaced the existing imperial religion. People and wealth began to flood in. The leaders of the church became imperial dignitaries, and began to be dressed like Roman senators. This changed status radically altered the self-identity of the church. Church had finally gained the freedom it had always sought after. It was no more in slavery, but it began to rule the world. A shallow and easy-going view was gaining ground that the Kingdom of God was already on earth. They didn’t feel like pilgrims any more. There was a general feeling that they had reached the Promised Land. The emperor of Rome was ruling on behalf of Christ, and all that was left for Christians to do was to rule the world along with Christ. 
Only a part of Asian Christian community was under Roman Empire; the rest was under the Persian rule. When the Romans stopped persecution, the Persians started their persecution. As Rome and Persia were not in good terms, Christians received opposite treatments from these empires. When Rome persecuted Christians, they were given refuge in Persia. But when Christians became rulers in Rome, they began to be persecuted. When the Christians in Rome felt like they were ruling the world along with Christ, the Christians in Persia felt like they were suffering along with Christ. 
Even within the Roman Empire there were a few Christians who refused to believe that the Roman Empire was the same as the Kingdom of God. They left the mainstream social life and accepted a monastic life. Eventually some others developed a better vision of the role of the church. Instead of running away from social life, they decided to live in the very midst of the society as the embodiment of Christ. The great leaders of the church who developed this sophisticated view were later known as the church fathers. They lived in the midst of the society as as the embodiment of Christ-- not as the Christ who rules the world, but as the suffering Christ. They encouraged Christians to live like Christ. Some of them were excellent orators. Sunday after Sunday they taught people how to live like Christ. Some of them were excellent writers. They wrote essays, hymns, Bible commentaries, parables, and prayers on living like Christ.
A man convicted as a criminal, and crucified by a Roman governor was adored as the God of the Roman Empire just after three centuries, which is in 4th century A.D. At no other time in the history of the world might have happened such an event. When Constantine, the emperor of the largest empire on earth, knelt before Jesus, people asked why God became a man in Jesus, and why he allowed himself to be crucified. While some church fathers wrestled with those questions to give logically satisfying answers, some other church fathers who were poets, like Mar Aprem, tried to answer them by writing beautiful poems. The allegories they created were strong enough to fire the imagination of the succeeding generations. When Jesus was accepted as God's incarnation, his crucifixion was considered the most important event in the history of the world, and the Great Friday celebration, commemorating the crucifixion, became the most important celebration.
The Great Friday liturgy we use today has incorporated the prayers and prayer songs of the Syrian fathers such as Mar Aprem, Mar Yacob, Mar Balai, Mar Semavon Kookoyo, and Mar Severius. They lived between fourth and sixth centuries.  It is reasonable to assume that the liturgy developed to its present form over a long period of time.  It probably originated in an oral form, and it was written down later to achieve uniformity, and to be preserved for the posterity. The songs they chose to sing during the celebration were the most beautiful poems of the time.  Though composed by different poets, these poems are based on a powerful parable that proclaims victory over death.
The Parable Behind the Great Friday Liturgy
Following the example of Jesus, the Syrian fathers used a parable to teach about Christ and about human life.  Here is the parable:
Once upon a time, there was a great empire ruled by a great and powerful emperor. People lived under the emperor's rule happily and peacefully until one day a fierce and ugly monster began to snatch people away and put them within his dungeon, and made them his slaves. The emperor decided to end the terror of the monster. He made a plan, and entrusted his son with this task. The prince approached the monster disguised as an ordinary, helpless citizen, and the monster caught him right away and put him in his den. Once inside, the prince killed the monster and delivered all the people who were imprisoned there.
The church fathers used this parable to teach the mystery of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A parable is an expanded metaphor. The empire in this parable is the world consisting of heaven and earth, and its emperor is God. Seated on the throne of fire, God is all-powerful and all-knowing. A mighty army of powerful angels, waiting to obey any orders from God, sing his praises. The fierce monster is no one else but Death. The prince of heaven is Jesus Christ. The questions why God became a man, and why he allowed himself to be crucified were answered by the parable as follows: God became a man to put an end to the terror of the monster of Death, and God in human form accepted death by His own will in order to enter the dungeon of Death.
The Poetic Techniques
Apart from the metaphors and parables, personification and irony are the two major poetic techniques used in these songs.
Personification is the technique of giving personality to something that is not a person. Death is personified. We also see the Sun, moon, earth, ocean, and trees being personified.
When what appears to us is the opposite of what we expect, we may call it an ironical situation. We see the poets' imagination taking wings when they describe and explain the ironic situation when God the almighty is treated like a criminal and is crucified. Let us see a few examples:

  •  Stood in court with head bowed like a convict this day,
    Supreme judge of all judges.
  •  He who is praised "Holy, holy" always by the Seraphim,
    "Hang him on cross" screamed  aloud the herd of priests.
  •  This day when the Lord on cross asked for drinking water,
    Ocean roared like a mighty  monster.
  •  Nails in the Lord's hands did not melt,
    Nor did his killers burn themselves
Dramatic irony is a situation when the reader of the story, or the audience of a drama know something important in the story, whereas the characters within the story remain ignorant of it. Favorite to the poets is the dramatic irony in the funny situation that none of his killers recognize Him, though all the non-human audience of the drama do recognize his true identity. Among the audience are: The army of angels from heaven; the Sun, moon and the stars from the sky; and the ocean, land and trees from the earth.
  • God's army trembled of great fury by Watching the Lord,
    beaten by those rascals. 
  • Stretched they wings to reach there and burn them God,
    the father, forbade them, though, Saying that
    he was tortured then by his own will.
That is how the army of God reacted. The poets come up with innumerable reasons for the solar eclipse that happened while Jesus was on the cross. A few examples:
  • Seeing his Lord naked on the cross with the robbers,
    How can Sun, the loyal servant,  shine upon him?
  • Seeing the Lord naked on the cross, Sun, his servant,
    Closed his eyelids, unwilling to  watch the disgrace.
  • While the Sun of righteousness has risen on cross,
    How can I shine, the Sun enquired with  wonder.
  • Not to see Noah's master's nakedness, like Shem, And Japheth,
    Sun and moon hid their  face in darkness

Along with the solar eclipse, there was an earthquake, too. Seeing his son on the cross, Mary asks the natural forces to drive away the people who crucified him.
  • Are you silent, earth, where holy blood dripped?
  • Roar and let them flee with dread in  their soul
    Roar aloud, oh rocks and boulders,
    And chide those who put him on cross
    Naked is the Lord, oh nature, come on, awake!
Perhaps, hearing the heartbreaking plea of Mary,  
  • Nature roared, and earth's surface was shocked
  • Boulders broke, and volcanoes trembled.
 Even the wooden cross, on which Jesus was nailed, weeps at the tragedy.
  • Weeping, the wood said, oh! what misfortune!
  • The Lord of all creation is nailed on me
    Nurtured me he with rains and dew
    Though this is what I offered him.

The Meaning of Great Friday
After Jesus taught in parables, his disciples would approach him in private and request him to explain the meaning of the parables. Let us imagine that we live in fourth century, and we happened to listen to Mar Aprem when he teaches using this parable. Later we approach him in private, and request him to explain the parable to us in plain language. How would Mar Aprem explain the parable to us?
He might explain to us that the parable reveals two basic existential issues: the problem of death, and the problem of broken relationships (spiritual death). The word death is used in the liturgy of Great Friday  with two meanings: the death which Jesus died, and the death which Jesus killed. As a poet sings,
  • The Blessed one, by His death, killed Death.
The death Jesus died was biological, but the death he killed was spiritual. The former is literal and the latter is metaphorical.

1. Death as a Toy-Monster
Fear of death has always been a basic existential problem. Death is certain, and it can arrive at any moment in any form without any warning. Thus it can cancel out our efforts to live at any moment. In fact the very existence is made meaningless by death.
Anything that exists within time limit must have a beginning and an end-- birth and death. Only God exists beyond time limit; so God has no birth or death. Therefore, death is natural for anything that is not God. Death appears to be a dreadful monster for those who know only this much. But this is only one half of the truth. The other half of the truth is about the relationship between God, the deathless being, and all that die. The universe exists within God, the deathless being. Our life is one with God's life. As nothing in the universe exists apart from God, birth and death seem to be mere appearances. If so, we have no birth or death, for we are one with God. As Jesus knew this truth, death, which is a dreadful serpent for others, was only a toy snake for him. Death cannot be avoided, but the fear of
death can easily be overcome with the awareness of the truth.

Death appears like a fearful monster in darkness or in dim light; its reality becomes clear in bright daylight. Darkness is caused due to the blindness of the inner eye. When the inner eye gets opened, the truth will be known. You shall know the truth, which will make you free, Jesus said. Thus it is the opening of our inner eye that saves us from the fear of death and many other fears and misconceptions.

2. Death (Broken Relationships) as a Real Monster
Broken relationships is the primary existential problem for us and for any other beings. Our relationship with God, with each other, and with nature is broken. Right relationship with God and our fellow beings is the basis of healthy existence, and so broken relationship leads to unhealthy existence or even nonexistence. Therefore, broken relationship is called death in a metaphorical sense, and it is represented by a dreadful monster in the Great Friday liturgy.  Though death is natural, broken relationship (spiritual death) is unnatural and undesirable. It is not a toy monster, but a real one. Jesus killed this monster by consciously maintaining oneness with God. When Adam disobeyed God, his relationships were broken, and he died in this sense. Jesus, the second Adam, obeyed God to his death, in order to maintain his relationship with God. Thus Jesus killed Death by his death. Jesus invites us to follow his example by doing the will of God, and be in his family. Whoever does my father's will is my mother, sister, and brother, Jesus said.
Thus there are two kinds of death-- one is like a real monster, but the other is like a toy-monster. The first step in facing the monster is to identify the real one.  If the toy-monster appears to be the real one, we never face or conquer the real one. Jesus correctly identified the real monster, so he was never afraid of the toy-monster. Jesus invites us to use our inner eye so that we can identify the real monster, and conquer him.
Mar Aprem might modify the story a little bit to include a toy-monster as well.
Once upon a time, there was a great empire ruled by a great and powerful emperor. People lived under the emperor's rule happily and peacefully until one day a monster began to snatch people away and put them within his dungeon, and made them his slaves. In addition to this monster, people were easily deceived by a huge toy-monster, which they mistook to be the real one, and they ran in fear. The real monster could easily hide behind the toy one, and catch the people who ran in fear. The emperor decided to end the terror of the monster. He made a plan, and entrusted his son with this task. The prince passed the toy-monster, and approached the real monster disguised as an ordinary, helpless citizen, and the monster caught him right away and put him in his den. Once inside, he killed the monster and delivered all the people who were imprisoned there.
Mar Aprem might warn us against a literal interpretation of such parables. We should never make the silly mistake of assuming that this story, which is a product of human imagination, is a historical event. We should not be so foolish as Jesus' disciples when they took literally the advice of Jesus "Beware of the sour dough of Pharisees". It is like a fairy tale for children which expresses certain aspects of the reality. According to this story, the monster was killed by the prince, and our commonsense tells us that someone dead is no more alive. But the truth is that our separation from God, the real monster, needs to be killed by each of us following the example of Jesus. 
Thus the Great Friday celebration teaches us how to face our most basic existential problems. First, we need to identify between our real issue by differentiating it from what appears to be the issue. We often mistake death to be an issue, but really it is not. Our real issue is broken relationships. Our relationship with God, fellow beings, and with nature -- all are broken. Once we correctly identify our real issues, we need to explore how we can effectively find  a solution to these issues. Mending our broken relationship with God is primary. We need to accept Jesus as our role model and follow the will of God even if we have to give up our life. Once we mend our relationship with God, we can easily mend our relationship with our fellow beings and with nature. In short, our issues are spiritual darkness and spiritual death, and the solutions are light (with inner eye open) and life (with our relationships mended).
Read this in Malayalam here
Read the story of Good Friday in English and Malayalam