I Believe in Jesus…Who Suffered

I mentioned in a post the other day that I’m currently reading Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief, an exploration of the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed. I just finished reading the chapter titled “Suffered…”

I’ve always been uncomfortable with explanations of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering that make God sound like a vengeful feudal lord who demands a sacrifice to be appeased. That view has not rung true to my experience or vision of God. As Chittister observes, that model of God is “[n]ot the God of Sarah and Hagar, of Joseph and Daniel…[not] the God who welcomes back prodigal sons with fatted lambs and banquets, the God who counts the hairs on our heads and feeds the sparrows in the sky. The loving God who, when asked for bread does not give a stone, is surely not the God who sends a son to be killed in some kind of blood sacrifice designed to appease a divine ego.”

In contrast, Chittister’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering is one that resonates with me. She writes

Jesus does not come to appease God. Jesus comes to teach us how to live a life that makes us worthy of the God who made us. Jesus comes to show us what we ourselves can be, must be. Jesus comes so that we can come to be everything we were created to be, whenever our lives, wherever our efforts, whatever our circumstances: shining glory or abject degradation.

What is the role of Jesus’ suffering in all that? “It is the suffering of Christ that instructs, that gives us insight into our own lives, that lends us strength for our own journeys.” While none of us is likely to face an actual crucifixion, we do face sufferings in our lives – and some of us face enormous suffering…levels of suffering others of us can’t even imagine. But, Chittister suggests, our memory of Jesus’ suffering gives us a choice:

We can walk through the Golgothas of our own lives as he did, with the same understanding, the same steady faith, the same awareness of God’s providence for us as we go, or we can stumble our way through, bitter and alienated from the very moments that, like his, can bring us to our glory.

It is our choice. And it is a choice we exercise when we express our belief in Jesus Christ. To say I believe in a Jesus who suffered says, in Chittister’s words, “I believe that suffering can be transcended.” It says, I live my life with hope.

I Believe in Jesus Christ

One of the books I’m currently reading, in anticipation of a Mid-Day Reflection I and my friend and colleague Mark Osler will be offering at the University of St. Thomas next month on the subject of creeds, is Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief. I have benefitted from several books written by Chittister and so was interested in her effort to explain what the various clauses in the Apostles’ Creed mean to her.

In the chapter titled, “I Believe in Jesus Christ…”, Chittister observes that Jesus asked his disciples two questions on this subject: “Whom do others say that I am?” and “And whom do you say I am?” Distinguishing the two, Chittister writes: “The first question is the substance of theological seminars, and someone should go on asking it, of course. But the second question is the one meant for me that no one but I can answer.”

The distinction is an important one. As Chittister recognizes, the theological question needs to be asked and it is helpful for us to have some understanding of the answer to that question. But ultimately, each of us has to answer for ourselves: Who do I say Jesus is? Who is Jesus for me? If we don’t reflect seriously on that question, saying “I Believe in Jesus Christ” becomes little more than intellectual assent to a theological proposition.

As I’ve observed before, the literal translation of “credo” is “I give my heart.” We don’t give our heart to an intellectual proposition. Chittister writes that for her, “It is the Jesus of my own life and the life of the world around me that I have come to confess in the Creed. It is that Jesus that I follow…It is that Jesus who captivates me completely.”

What is it that you affirm when you recite in the creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” Who is Jesus for you?

Transformation

Last night was the monthly meeting of a women’s spirituality group I facilitate in my parish. We are using for our reflection and discussion Joan Chittister’s book, The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, which uses the Old Testament Book of Ruth as a metaphor for the universal experience of women.

The focus of our session this month was the chapter on Transformation. In Chittister’s words, a “moment of transformation comes when something inside us shifts and, despite ourselves, we find that we are no longer the person we used to be.” Let me share the lines of the chapter that several of the women said struck them most deeply. Chittister writes:

Transformation is that moment in the life of a woman – no matter how young, how old, how long in coming – when she begins to engineer her own life circumstances, to declare her own intentions, to state her own needs, to require the doing of her own decisions and to feel confident in the making of them. It is the moment when she moves beyond a mediated God to a God who talks directly to her herat. Transformation is the process of comign to wholeness, of growing into the skin of creation in such a way that we beocme more than we ever thought we could be before we realized that God was our God, too.

We had rich discussion during which women of various ages, educational background, marital status and life experience reflected on questions we might all ask ourselves:

Can you recall a time when what you did before no longer fit who you were? A time when you knew something in you was dying and something else was trying to come to life?

What was the catalyst in your life that invited you to choose a different path?

Where did you find support at a point where you struck out on a different course?

Where was God for you in all of this?

How Ruth and Naomi Speak to Women of Today

I gave a women’s retreat day at my parish yesterday, a very powerful experience for me and the 60 women who participated in the retreat.  I used Joan Chittister’s book, The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Women’s Life, as the basis for our time together.  Chittister sees the biblical women Ruth and Naomi as metaphors, as models of all of the women of the world, and she uses their story as a way to identify the defining moments “that mark every women’s passage through time in a way separate from the men around her and that shape her as she goes.”

For me, there is tremendous power in that statement.  If life is a series of defining moments that each of us as women passes through, then nothing I face is faced by me alone.  My own transforming moments – my moments of loss, of change, of insight, of invisibility, of transformation – may be different from those of other women, but these moments of loss, change, insight, etc., are moments that we all face.  And by “we all” I mean to include not just the 60 women I sat in a room with yesterday, or even all of the women living today, but rather every women through time. 

That realization creates a kind of strength.  Women of today stand in a long line of women who have all experienced the same kinds of transforming moments that each of us faces.  The blood of all the Ruths and Naomies that have come before us, the blood of all of our soul sisters who have come before us, flows through our veins.  When I say that, among the women I immediately think of are the ones I included in litany that was part of our opening prayer – Mary of Nazareth, Claire of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Liseaux, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke.  But add whoever you want to your own list.  And draw strength from their stories, from how they dealt with their defining moments, as you give attention to the moments that determine who and what you really are, who and what you are intended to be, who and what you can become.

I should also add that we don’t just draw strength from the women who have come before us.  One of the things that was so palpable yesterday was how women draw strength from each other.  We need to find more opportunities for women to tell each other their stories, for women to take time from the care they give to those around them to nurture their own souls, their own growth.