Thoughts from Fr. Marshall - All Saints Episcopal Church
So, let's freely acknowledge that many of the details of Jesus’ life are remarkably similar to those of Joseph’s life in the Hebrew Scriptures and that many of Jesus’ prime utterances are clearly from the school of Hillel, a rabbi who lived before Jesus. Let’s also rejoice in the fact that many, many of the elements of his life are recapitulations of themes in the Hebrew Scriptures and that they present amazing parallels with the stories of Horus, Krishna, Zoroaster, Mithras, Attis, Dionysus-Bacchus, the Buddha and others.

Further, let's be clear that we understand that the Synoptic Gospels do not actually see with one clear eye. They present themes and timelines that do not always agree, and of course, John is even less in alignment. The gospels share this with many books of the Hebrew Scriptures, starting with Genesis 1:1, which presents a creation myth that cannot be synced with the myth that begins at 2:4b and forward.

Having freely acknowledged all of that, let us also remember that the ancient world did not deal in fact as we know it nor did the modern concept of history or science exist. Superstition and ignorance, still very present today, were certainly there when these stories were formed, but, poetry, deep meaning and mystical experiences were also very much part of ancient experience and communication.

The ancient world abounds in texts and stories that are powerfully produced from deep and intuitive places within the human psyche--places so deep that the texts still speak to us today because they are from, and point us towards, our own deepest humanity; a humanity we share with the ancients.

So, as an example, we decide to apply modern or even postmodern analysis to the story of Jesus. We, brilliantly, recognize all the inconsistencies in the story. So do we dismiss it as mythic garbage at best and Roman-originated political propaganda at worst. A tool used to brainwash and control the masses, which has been passed down through the ages from power generation to power generation and employed to keep the mass of us fearful and disempowered.

It is a neat theory and a clean cut with the confusion that surrounds religion in our time. It appeals to our sense of order, directness and simplicity. After all, we must be free from the ignorance and superstition that has made for such horror in the past. Remember the Crusades, the burning of witches, the sexism, racism and homophobia brought to us by the institutions that were using these ancient superstitions in order to keep power.

There can be no doubt that a portion of the truth is to be found in this evaluation of our religious and political history, and it continues to be expressed in this way today.

The problem is with this story and similar stories in all their forms and versions in every culture. They present a real obstacle to this easy dismissal.

For a moment let us lay aside questions of historical evidence and proof of actual existence for all of the heroes of these tales. Just for a moment please. Each of us can choose how to deal with the demands of evidence at anytime. For now let us simply consider the stories on their own merits, as stories.

If we can approach them with an open mind and simply consider them without imposing upon them struggles with belief and critical methodology, we may well realize , at least, that they are damn good stories.

We may even have a sense of how powerful and deep they are. The power and the depth of the stories might even hint to us that they are true in a sense that is far, far deeper than our concern with scientific methodology or historical fact.

Consider the story of the birth of Jesus. If we focus on whether to read it as metaphor or as history, or upon how to respond to the science and gynecology of the idea of virgin birth we may become so frustrated that we will walk away in disgust before we catch the poetic, nay, mystical power transmitted by the story--a power that offers us pointers toward a radical shift of consciousness and values that may transform our very sense of reality. I believe this story and many others in many traditions have done so to generations of mystics and continue to work as leaven in the loaf today.

The story is radical. It is from a deep well of human longing and expanded consciousness. It pits a “powerless” woman, out of sync with the values of the culture in which she lives, with no recourse to the power structures of her society, against that very power structure and tells us that she is instead connected, through her voluntary submission, to the very source of life, the very ground of being, and is indeed pregnant from and with that Source and Force.

She utters, in her vulnerable state, perhaps the most revolutionary utterance of the Christian scriptures, the Magnificat. She utters it in the full power of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. She utters it as an announcement of the fulfillment of all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of her society at its best and most profound. She utters it as the very voice of the manifest world. She, the flesh-giver, is Matter. She heralds the breaking into human history of a Word that will shift, turn upside down, the established order of human society. She speaks of a value system that will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away, that will indeed pull down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the lowly. I believe she speaks as the voice of evolution, not of revolution, and her voice still calls us toward those ideals.

We might almost miss these insights if we remain fixed in our critical approach or if we are constantly defending against the fear of criticism. Fundamentalism and literalism are the enemies of new insight and correction. Wisdom is to live always open to new insight and correction. Both  literalist religious believers and fundamentalist critics from the world of scientific method and historical-critical analysis seem to be too involved with being right to even hear a good story, let alone be shifted or transformed by it.

It is not that I don’t care about the critical concerns, both, or all of the camps; it is just that I cannot share their perspectives because the story of the baby born in a stable in a world that had absolutely no room for him has so touched me and changed my sense of reality, of the good, the true and the beautiful, of the meaning and purpose of life, that I don’t have the energy to fight their fights with or for them.

Perhaps the issues they raise can’t be resolved or reconciled. Even so, If I knew for a surety that the stories were one hundred percent lacking in fact and produced fully from the minds and imaginations of human beings, I would marvel still at their power and at the depth of our common humanity that in every culture and in many times has produced such stories which have presented us with our deepest aspirations and the most profound longings of our souls and have born fruit in the lives of individuals and communities that, no matter how ignorant and imperfect, continue to strain to live into the ideals presented. We are marvelously made, however that came to pass.

Yes the stories have often been perverted and misappropriated for sometimes horrific ends, but their truth always seems to emerge again.

Think of the power of the stories of Moses and the Passover as well as the Resurrection of Jesus in the slave community of the United States in the nineteenth century that bore fruit in the civil rights movement of the twentieth. The language of these ancient stories was again powerful and transformative.

If Jesus existed in history then he stands as a model for our full humanity and its graceful potential. He stands to beckon and guide us toward that shift of consciousness, that transformation that will change us and promote our evolution.

If Jesus has only ever existed in the imaginations of humans then he stands there in that imagined world as a call and a guide toward that same fullness of humanity that the story represents to us.

In either case, we are the one’s charged with his coming, first or second. We are the ones called to be transformed into the Imago Dei, to become Alter Christus.

The story of Jesus is the story rooted most deeply in my heart and it’s grounding in the images and ideas of cultures long before it was first told makes me glad. My concern is with trying to live into the story, not deconstruct or prove or disprove it. My direct experience of the power of the story is my motivation and reason.

Simply put, I want to be like Jesus and to submit to the will of the Whole, the Source and Ground, as his mother did. 

The fact that the story of Jesus is tied to many of the great mythic cycles, to the movements of the stars and to the grand cycles of nature, and that it can at the same time present us with an image of the relationship between God, the All, the Source and our humanity that is as intimate as the breath shared in a kiss exchanged between a mother and her baby, causes the story to resonate even more fully and passionately in my consciousness. Amen.

Love and Light,
Lewis Marshall

Kathleen Fitzgerald
8/5/2012 10:03:50 am

This article alone makes me want to come to your church and hear more. Finally, a priest who questions some of the same issues I always have but was not allowed to express within the bounds of the Catholic religion, causing me to turn away entirely. Perhaps I will find a new home at All Saints. That would be a good thing.

8/5/2012 03:35:08 pm

Thanks for the kind remarks. I would love to meet you. We are a small group but growing and my desire is for people not to come so much to believe anything as it is to experience true welcome and perhaps in that the transcendent.

Plus we have cake and lots of fun. Please feel invited and welcomed.


Kathleen Fitzgerald
8/5/2012 04:04:39 pm

Oh - well as long as there's cake........!

Kathleen Fitzgerald
8/5/2012 04:05:20 pm

Oh - well as long as there's cake!

Leave a Reply.