‘We have religion,’ the old saying goes, ‘you have magic.’ Or superstition, if you prefer. We are pure in our religious devotion, high-minded, spiritual, adjusting the self into the proper worshipful posture towards the Divine whatchamacallit. You are just trying to manipulate whatever means you can to get something to make you feel better.
No one says this anymore. It wouldn’t be very nice. No one looks at another culture and judges their religious or whatever kind of expression as base superstition, at least not overtly, and especially not in another country. But as I’ve gone about my reading, trying to make sense of another kind of religious system, to be fair on the one hand, and clear on the other, and to get to the root of it—what exactly do those people think they are doing and why—I’ve found myself compelled, probably against my will, to put certain American/Western behaviors into the categories both of religion, and maybe even of magic, that I wouldn’t have before.
The problem with most of us is that we do really just want to ‘get things done.’ We want stuff ‘to work.’ If you go trotting off to Target—which is frankly a magical kind of place, all that stuff arranged according to some algorithmic foreknowledge, some unseeable Mind—and then go to get in line to pay for all those little objects that are guaranteed to make life better, and now with the added moral sensibility that if you buy certain items with the right kinds of tags your money will go, almost as a tithe, to the enlightened pure religious cause du jour (Pride Month for children), but find that you have to wait, you can go over to the bright red kiosk labeled Self-Checkout. There, worshipful, attentive, moving your hands in the prescribed manner, you can offer up your money and receive back those benefits guaranteed to lift up and purify your soul—or at least make it feel better for a while.
Or better yet there’s Amazon, that hidden, private communion between you and the stuff that makes life work. Not blood spilled out on the ground, that would be grotesque. No, rather, the scrolling and searching for the things that make the next few hours bearable, that keep material and spiritual discomfort at arm’s length. The price is negligible. What are a few dollars here and there? The invisible, to you anyway, monolith of a company that quietly takes over the cosmos may be existentially expensive later, but right now you—or rather I—need a new cord to charge my device, upon which I so much depend.
“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus rather too pointedly in this morning’s gospel reading.
‘Oh, you’re the Christ, absolutely,’ says Peter, with only a vague hint, if that, of the ramifications of such a confession.
‘Yes’ says Jesus, ‘and you must deny yourself and take up your cross,’ and Luke makes sure to add ‘daily’ where the other evangelists leave it implied, ‘and follow me.’
The cross, which is an instrument of death, is not a very useful object. It is essentially anti-religious, if you think about it, and is ruinous to every kind of magical superstitious inclination you might have. The cross is the anti-totem, the anti-amazon, the anti-self-checkout. It doesn’t work, to begin—nor to end with. You might grab onto it for power, hoping it will ‘make everything better,’ and certainly it does have a force of its own, or rather, not it, but the one who dies nailed to it, but not so that you would be able to do anything with it to make life more comfortable. It’s the kind of power that never becomes localized or controllable in your own fluttering hands. It’s the kind of power that takes over and rearranges life in opposition to the way you would do for yourself. It’s the kind of power that kills off the essential grasping comfort-loving person that you are.
You can’t ‘do’ anything with the cross, except pick it up, which is a metaphorical way of describing being overtaken and known by a personal God. He will take up his cross, literally, and then you will look at him there, pierced, and wonder what’s in it for you. Then, because you persist in confusion, he will go on superseding the distance, daily, so that you eventually find yourself praying,
O God, you are my God;
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
Peter and the other disciples went on following Jesus, even after giving the right, though incomprehensible answer, jostling for power and comfort every step of the way. Their defeat, at the end of that journey, was more than they could have ever imagined. And, in many ways, it continues to be the defeat of every person who ‘takes up’ his, or indeed her own cross and follows along, dying day by day by day. The psalmist goes on to say more.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
What kind of help, I often wonder to myself, rushing past aisles of stuff I want but don’t really need, trying to pacify my tidal wave feelings of anxiety and discontent. I don’t really need help, I need stuff, I think. I need to be helped towards another set of unstained kitchen towels, or a fridge full of less irritating dinner options. I’d rather do it myself, whatever it is, my angular, idolatrous soul content to keep God in the far distance.
The problem is the ending of the psalm, because I know that
…those who seek to destroy my life
Are me. I am the one bent on destruction, bent on making so many things work ‘for myself’ that I, and all humanity with me, whether religious or superstitious or whatever, will end up losing the very life of ease I am so desperate to hold on to. Because, as Jesus goes on explaining to Peter and the assembled throng, ‘if you cling on to your life, you will lose it’… forever. And why would you want to do that? Why would you, like your enemies,
…go down into the depths of the earth;
Where there is no power, at least not for you. Instead,
they shall be given over to the power of the sword;
they shall be a portion for jackals.
Which is the opposite of what I want, what I am scrolling for. And yet, and this is always the trouble, God is so personal, so close, so ready to speak and say things I am most desirous of never hearing.
Can death work? Can it be the thing that gives me the thing I want most—Life? Peter didn’t really think so, even though he said it with his own mouth. It took seeing Jesus again off the cross—walking around in a body that had helped, and always would help the dying, the spiritually dead—eating breakfast and breaking bread.
The psalmist concludes.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
Your mouth, my mouth, every mouth in every face that looks at Jesus finally stops. So it does work. It is a most useful object, or rather, He is a most glorious person. Go to church and be with him for a while.