With his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, Christ became fully aware of what was expected of him. There is a similar moment of illumination in the lives of artists when they first fully realise all that can be done with sounds or colours or words to convey life's innermost glory and anguish. The task Christ knew he must undertake was the most stupendous of allno less than to make known to men the ways of God. In that sense, he was God come down to earth in the guise of a man, or, alternatively, a man reaching up from earth to the very mind and being of God. He was, at one and the same time, God incarnate and man deified; in him time and eternity, mortality and immortality, came together, and God's very breath brushed against mortal flesh.
Christ withdrew alone to the desert to fast and pray in preparation for a dialogue with the Devil. Such a dialogue was inescapable; every virtue has to be cleared with the Devil, as every vice is torn with anguish out of God's heart. Christ found the Devil waiting for him in the desert, but what took place between them was really a soliloquy. When we talk with the Devil we are talking to ourselves.
First, the Devil suggested that Christ should use his heavenly powers to turn stones into bread. What an alluring prospect! man's prime necessity effortlessly and plentifully provided. Christ, however, turned the proposal down on the ground that the body's hunger must be subsidiary to the spirit s.
Then the Devil proposed that Christ should resort to wonders like going to the moon, or travelling faster than sound, or splitting the atom. Why not, he said, cast himself down from a high place, and God would see that the angels took care of him so that he landed safe and sound? No, Christ said, no; we must not tempt God.
Finally, the Devil showed Christ all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said: All this power will l give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. All Christ had to do in return was to worship the donor instead of Godwhich, of course, he could not do. How interesting, though, that power should be at the Devil's disposal, and only attainable through an understanding with him! Many have thought otherwise, and sought power in the belief that by its exercise they could lead men to brotherhood and happiness and peace; invariably with disastrous consequences. Always in the end the bargain with the Devil has to be fulfilledas any Stalin or Napoleon or Cromwell must testify. I am the light of the world, Christ said; power belongs to darkness.
After his decisive dialogue with Satan, Christ very humanly chose to begin his ministry in Nazareth, where he was known and had grown up. There in the synagogue, with I daresay his family present in the congregation, he chose to read the splendid passage in which the prophet Isaiah proclaims:
Because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor;
He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
All would have been well if Christ had just left matters there. Nothing pleases the average congregation morewhether in synagogue, church, mosque or other conventiclethan to be told about preaching deliverance to captives, healing the brokenhearted, etc., always provided nothing is expected of them. But Christ went on recklessly: This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. In other words, he was going to do it; the spirit of the Lord was upon him, Joseph's son, known to them all. It was intolerable. With one accord they rose up and turned him out of the synagogue and out of Nazareth. As far as we know he never returned there.
He made for Capernaum by the Lake of Galilee. I see him, a solitary figure, trudging along, until the sight of the lake opened up before him; with no luggage, no money, no prospects, no plans; only those magnificent words still ringing in his ears, and a sense of exaltation at the knowledge that he had, indeed, been chosen to give them a new tremendous reality. Those who met him along the way must have marvelled to see one who was at once so poor and so uplifted.
In Capernaum he found his first disciples among the fishermen on the lake. They just dropped their nets and followed him. With, perhaps, a touch of dry humour (detectable from time to time in Christ's sayings, and to me very pleasing) he told them that thenceforth they might expect to catch, not fish, but men. What did they see in him?someone of their own kind and class, yet inspired; saying to them things, simple and comprehensible in themselves, but such as they had never heard beforethings which gave a new meaning and a new glory to their daily lives; a new dimension to life itself. Never man spake like this man. Who, then, could he be but the long awaited Messiah? They recognised him when others, cleverer and more important, were blind.
Some of the disciples, chosen then or later, were of a higher social and intellectual level than the fishermenfor instance, Matthew, who sat at the receipt of custom; but the original twelve, the first Christians, must have presented a nondescript appearance. If Pilate, the Roman Governor, or Herod had happened to catch a glimpse of them, how could he possibly have guessed that they were, indeed, going to turn the world upside d own ?
Christ's life revolved round the Lake of Galilee during the succeeding months of his ministry. Each morning it was this scene which met his eyes; each evening he could watch the sun going down behind these self-same hills. Sometimes he preached from a boat on the lake, or escaped from too demanding crowds into the solitude it offered. Often he went by boat from one side to the other, for convenience, or for security reasonsto slip quickly out of the kingdom of King Herod, that fox, as he called him. I daresay he sometimes bathed in the lake. Certainly, he knew its storms and its calms; the hazards of a fisherman's life and the varying amounts of his catches.
Once he was seen, we are told, apparently walking on the lake's surface; on another occasion, he spoke into a furiously blowing wind, and it died down. It is not surprising that, after the Crucifixion, his spirit should have manifested itself to his disciples here by the lake where they had lived together. If there was one earthly scene which stayed with Christ, it was surely this oneGalilee.
Christ had a special concern for the sick and the infirm Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. They gathered round himthe lame, the halt, the blind, the crazysometimes in embarrassing numbers, in the hope that his healing hands, or even glance, might fall on them and they would be cured. All the miseries of human life were his concern, and should, he said, be ours. If we turned aside from the unfortunate and the afflicted, we should be turning away from himInasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
What are we to make today of these miracles he performed which made so powerful an impact on his contemporaries relieving the mad of the evil spirits which tormented them, restoring their sight to the blind, telling the bed-ridden that their sins were forgiven them so that there was nothing to stop them getting up and walking?
The world at all times is full of shattered or distorted bodies and minds (not least now, despite all that modern medicine can do). To them Christ offered, not medicine, but forgiveness; when he relieved them of their burden of guilt, he also automatically relieved them of their infirmities. We who believe in the magic of drugs, in the psychiatrists' mumbo-jumbo, find this hard to credit. Even the most violent of lunatics could be calmed by Christ's presencelike a poor fellow the Gospels tell us of who was so crazed and violent that he had to be bound with chains and fetters, and even then broke away and rushed naked into the desert. Christ ordered the evil spirits out of him, and they entered into a herd of Gadarene swine, who then ran violently down a steep place and were chokedproviding an image for all time of the self-destruction of the human will.
I have always had the feeling that Christ did his miracles with a certain diffidence, sometimes even reluctance. That is to say, he was most human when, as in his miracles, he resorted to the supernatural, whereas it was in his life and his words that his divinity showed most clearly. Christ saw sickness as an aspect of the imperfection which belongs to the human situation. He came to show us perfectiona perfection to be realised, not by perfecting our bodily existence (supposing that to be possible), but by taking us out of our bodies and their exigencies altogether. As we slough them off, as a snake does an old skin, it matters little whether they are strong or weak, sick or well. Christ opened blind men's eyes, but he tells us that we are all blind, and shows us how to see. Even Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead, is but an image of the new life he offers to everyone who will die in the flesh and be reborn in the spirit. If cures were found for every disease ever known or to be known (a miracle far exceeding any achieved by Christ in his random essays as a healer), everything would be the same. We should still be blind and sick and crazy as long as we allowed ourselves to be preoccupied with the hopes and desires of this world.
Much of what Christ had to say in the course of his teaching and preaching was not new or original, but put with an exquisite grace which comes through the Gospel narratives, especially in our Authorised Versionon any showing, one of the greatest works of genius in the English language. People especially the poorflocked to hear him, recognising the authority with which he spoke, and uplifted by the prospect of living in a new way that he held out to them. No doubt, too, the apocalyptic aspect of his teaching appealed. We love to think the world is shortly going to end; it enhances our sense of importance to see ourselves as positively the last generation of men.
It was on a hill by the Lake of Galilee that the most famous of Christ's discourses was deliveredwhat has come to be called the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine the scenein the evening hours, when the heat of the day is over, but the sun is still in the sky. Here they are gathered, eagerly climbing the hill; all buoyed up by the prospect of meeting him at the topa bedraggled enough audience by comparison with the turn-out for the games in Tiberias below.
On one such occasion, we are told, Christ felt bound to provide food for them, miraculously turning some loaves and fishes a boy had with him into enough for the multitude. Or maybeas I have sometimes imaginedit was just that, in the light of his words, those who had brought food with them felt constrained to share it with the others who hadn't. If so, it was an even more remarkable miracle. Thus to transform what we call human nature, releasing it from its ego-cage, is the greatest miracle of all.
So Christ began, and they listened with an enchantment the words still evoke after two thousand years:
Blessed arc the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven....
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth....
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall foe called the children of God. And so on.
No words ever uttered, it is safe to say, have had anything like the impact of these, first spoken to some scores, maybe hundreds, of poor, and mostly illiterate people, by a teacher who, in the eyes of the world, was of small account; at best another John the Baptist, who, instead of taking to the desert and a diet of locusts and wild honey, lived humbly, but more or less normally, in Capernaum.
Christ turned the world's accepted standards upside down. It was the poor, not the rich, who were blessed; the weak, not the strong, who were to be esteemed; the pure in heart, not the sophisticated and the worldly, who understood what life was about. Righteousness, not power or money or sensual pleasure, should be man's pursuit. We should love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them that despitefully use us, in order that we may be worthy members of a human family whose father is in heaven.
So Christ spoke. No one has fully carried out his sublime behests, but it is due to his words on a hill overlooking the Lake of Galilee all that long time ago, that some, at least, have tried. In the countryside where he lived and taught one is constantly reminded of the imagery he usedthe sower going forth to sow, the lilies more glorious than Solomon in all his glory, the Good Shepherd leading his sheep and sometimes carrying one of them too weak or sick to walk, goats and sheep separated. Not even the exigencies of tourism, the multitudinous shrines, now under the aegis of the new twentieth-century State of Israel, have quite obliterated the scenes of daily life on which Christ drew by way of illustration to make his meaning clear.
What did they make of him, I wonderhis listeners by the Lake of Galilee. They were certainly curious, and certainly impressed. But did they understand ? Did even the disciples understand? I doubt it. After all, we don't understand even now; if we did the world would be a quite different place, and the terrible things that have happened, and are happening, in our time would be inconceivable. What Christ had to say was too simple to be grasped, too truthful to be believed. Our faculties are like those smelting works which can only take ore of a high degree of impurity; when the light is too bright we cannot see.
So the great majority of Christians have never been able to believe that when Christ said the whole duty of man resolved itself into loving God and our neighbour, he meant just that. It seems too simple, too obvious. And, furthermore, there is the question of who is our neighbour. This was put to him slyly by a lawyer who hoped to trick him into differentiating between Jews and Gentiles. Instead, Christ told the parable of the Good Samaritan, using for its setting the road from Jerusalem to Jericho which, to this day, in its wildness, its remoteness and weird desolation, gives rise to thoughts of banditry such as befell the traveller who fell among thieves. This man's neighbour, Christ forces the lawyer to admit, was surely the Samaritan who helped him rather than the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side. In Christ's estimation, our neighbour is everyone. Feed my sheep, he saidall, black, white and piebald. There are never any exceptions; if, as Christ taught, mankind is a family with one father in heaven, then it is inconceivable that anyone should be intrinsically of greater worth than another. As a Jew, Christ belonged to God's chosen people; as the son of God, he came to proclaim the universality of God's love.
During the years he spent on earth Christ was certainly recognised as a unique personsomeone who spoke as no one else had ever spoken. Even in quite casual encountersas with the woman of Samaria at the wellhe made this impression, while his disciples who were constantly with him became convinced that he was the expected Messiah, the Son of God. Three of themPeter, James and Johnwhen they went to the top of a high mountain with him saw him visibly shining with the truth and inspiration that was in him, and seemed to hear him conversing with great figures from the past, with Moses and Elijah. Peter, ever impulsive, made the absurd suggestion that they should build three tabernacles on the spot, one for Christ, one for Moses and one for Elijah. On the contrary, Christ said, the incident should not even be mentioned, lest people should suppose that the enlightenment he brought might be magically attained, instead of seen with mortal eyes and grasped with mortal minds.
The time had now come for Christ and his disciples to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, when, as he had known from the beginning, the last tragic phase of his human destiny would be fulfilled. There never was any question in Christ's mind but that he had to die; in his many silent sessions of prayer and communing with himself the mystery of the Atonement and his part in it had become clear to him. The world would have to destroy him in order that henceforth the nature of the world should be made manifest; he had to die, a victim to the blindness and cruelty and destructiveness of the human will, in order that succeeding generations of men should be shown a way of escape from such torment. His death was to be a birth; his end a beginning.
The road to Jerusalem was long and dusty; they took it together, this little band of obscure men, scarcely aware of the momentousness of their journey; how, out of it, would come a great new civilisation, refertilising the parched earth of paganism, reviving its withered hopes and spent dreams, until once more, centuries later, the same blight fell and the same rebirth was required. On through Jericho they went, past the Dead Sea, and up that benighted road Christ had used for his parable of the Good Samaritan, until at last, turning a corner Jerusalem came into view, built on a hill, a welcome sight, a glorious destination:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and
stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I
have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth
Two of the disciples were sent ahead to get a donkey, and on it Christ rode into the city, thronging with Passover celebrants. Some of them recognised him, knowing of his fame in Galilee, and began to shout Hosanna! and to spread their garments and to tear down palm branches and strew them in his way It was the nearest thing to a political demonstration that Christ ever encountered, and if there had been the tiniest grain of demagogue in him he would have responded accordingly. Had he so
responded, it would have been the end of his mission. The world woul I have had to await another Saviour. I imagine him half smiling, knowing, as he did, that the same throats shouting Hosanna! would shortly be shouting Crucify him! with the same zest and the same fatuity.
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