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March 27, 2023

Jesus on the quality of life

When Buddha was a young prince, familiar with just the protected pleasures of his court, a sick man, an old man and a dead man upset his youthful princely ease. He was never to be the same man again and his conscience wasn’t going to leave him alone until he could get to the bottom of such ‘abnormalities’ of existence. It was the spiritual principle that guided him in his search for the causes of grief and to the identification of ways of relief. This is how Buddhism was born. Paradoxically, to us, the occasions for such a ‘revelation’ are more rare, not because we have no direct contact with everything that hackle and crush life, but because a shield of cautiousness, indifference and conformism makes the universe of our soul aseptic. We have members of our families and friends who get sick, sometimes we end up in hospitals ourselves, close to the suffering of our peers. But, most often, we see that as a natural phenomenon, as something inherent to life, something that is not to be questioned. Even the experience of our past illness, seen as inevitable trials, seemingly makes us immune to any conscience crises. Sometimes, serious or extended illness seen in other people draw forth a sigh, but it goes way, like a beggar left behind. Parents age, sometimes infirmity becomes incapacitating and poison years of difficult filial care. But some sort of resigned wisdom reassures us and makes us look at the bitterness of old age with a superior benevolence. Death is even more familiar, having been successfully integrated into the media culture of the present time. Wars, attacks, road accidents, epidemics, occupational illness, medical malpractice, political repression. We now keep abreast of the tiniest whiff of the death angels’ wing anywhere around the globe. Sometimes it hits near us, taking close people away. But we appear to be ‘hardened’ like soldiers after a long campaign, bravely marching down a clough paved with cadavers. If Buddha tried to exterminate the grief-generating desire, what did Jesus? It has to be noted that he grew up in less princely circumstances. Death kept breathing down his neck ever since he was born. His life started with a massacre, went through a few attempted assassinates and ended in lynching. Born in insalubrious conditions and chased down since earliest childhood, illness was always lurking down on him. And, perhaps not accidentally, his ‘adoptive’ father (Joseph actually was his adoptive father, given the miraculous pregnancy of his young wife) was an old man, one for whom the tempestuous exile was a particularly difficult experience. But how did he relate to all of that when he became Israel’s prophet? He was often healing people, therefore most of his prestige during his earthy life came from his thaumaturgist’s skills of a ‘medicine man’. Reports even note the very large number of people he healed, who were presenting the most varied pathologies including incurable ones such as leprosy, congenital blindness or severe mental disorders. Jesus publicly introduces himself as a healer, quoting to John the Baptiser’s disciples a messianic prophecy speaking exactly of such a charisma: ‘Blind men receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are purified, deaf persons hear…`. The old Nicodemus told him about a different youth following a second birth, which intrigued the man who could only see the decrepitude of the recent years. This is why what singled him out from so many other thaumaturgists were a few resurrections. They were all ‘circumstantial’, as the healings were. He was passing some funeral procession, was begged by some desperate parent with tears in his eyes or it was a good friend who had suddenly died. Why have we, Christians, stopped looking at the sick man, old man or dead man next to us in the same spirit as our Inspirer did? In a film of an austere Northern beauty, ‘Ordet’/’The Word’ (1955), Danish film director Carl Dreyer was bluntly addressing the matter: when someone close passes away, why don’t we consider resurrecting them through faith? This is, of course, not about finding some resuscitating magic recipe. It is about understanding death as a scandal you don’t treat with resignation or cynicism. It is unnatural that man should be ill, crippled, old or poor and, more than anything else, that man should have to die. This is why Christianity brings the message or promised resurrection together with a message of healing, enrichment and accomplishment. Of the whole man, body and soul. Christianity, of course, guides us towards a live of a different quality, one that will be accomplished in an eschatological manner, ‘hereafter’. But that is a quality (compared to which the spiritual specificity of Christianity becomes an empty word) that already starts being exercised under the conditions of the present life, conditions which, let’s not forget this, are often rather tragic. If we are Christians and not Buddhists is because we do not search for just a rationalisation of grief that should help us avoid it. Because we do not settle for the ‘solidarity of the oppressed’, mutual empathy of the condemned – literally and figuratively- to jail, forced labour, infirmary and death. Marx and Freud were so successful because they wanted to find a remedy for some universal suffering. They didn’t have the mindset of resignation. The target assumed by Christianity was quite similar – recuperation of a plenary rather than distorted humanity, with the only difference that the pot of the game was a lot bigger. Let us pass the floor to the God of Christians, as related by the apocalyptic author in the Book of Revelation: (3, 17-18): `For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked! I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see`. In other words, Christians (obviously, the authentic ones) are very demanding and cannot be satisfied with petty things: They also want gold, not just platinum, copper and iron. They want ‘elegance’ (see Steinhardt’s poise), they want `beauty` (the splendour on Mount Tabor), they want refinement (The Heavenly Jerusalem is not going to be made of adobe, but of precious stones  Book of Revelation – 21,19-20). They want brilliance and intelligence (which, etymologically, means ‘insight’), they want the rare discernment. Unfortunately, a perverted counterfeit of the evangelic spirit has emasculated current Christianity, which too often becomes a form of pseudo-ascetic nihilism. We should not forget a few very meaningful evangelic details. Jesus was wearing a precious tunic that was coveted by the crucifixion soldiers for a reason. He did not punish the woman who ‘wasted’ the very refined, therefore very expensive scent for him. He was ‘gormandizer and a drinker’ (sweet self-irony) who did not hesitate to produce (by wonder) a better wine than the previous one. He loved music and dancing (‘I played for you so that you could dance’). He instructed Zacchaeus to prepare the feast which had to be but copious and refined to suit the rank of the tax farmer. Jesus was not the apostle of poverty, frustration, ugliness (esthetical and existential) or of the kitsch. Why are we forgetting all that?  Should we remember Nietzsche’s so drastic and ‘prophetic’ reproach: Christianity has come to killing joy? Not the affected and tormented joy preached from the pulpit, but the vital and fully human joy. How did it manage to do that? Among other ways, by rationalising Evil, applying itself with a reportable easiness to a syllogistic of association of deed and reward, of sin and punishment. If one has a disabled child, it must be the sin of some drunkard grandfather up the family tree. If one is abandoned in an elderly home, then it must be because they had slept with the woman who was to become their wife before they were married. If a nation is defeated in a war, it must be because the soldiers swear and smoke cigarettes. If a nation is ‘blessed’ with a tyrannical regime, it must be because it has lost its faith. Is this really the spirit of the assertion of God (also after the apocalyptic author – 3,19): ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline’? The next verse denies such a reading: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.’ He doesn’t knock the door down, tie up the host, give him a good hammering and make a rattle. Yes, it is true that Evil (and its diabolical inspirers) terrorise the world. The Christian is called upon to withstand it the best he can. Steinhardt was giving the beautiful example of young men who start opposing on their own some hooligan gangs that were keeping New York subway system under terror (killings, rapes and torture). Those were young people who chose not to remain passive in the face of police impotence. They acted and the phenomenon was temporarily put down. Let us combat Evil with all the strengths of our soul, but refusing the utopian temptation of prematurely surmounting it, with eschatological hope, yet declining the conformism of resignation (‘Get behind me, you, Satan!’). Jesus went to Jerusalem where death was waiting for him exactly to face the Evil. A Chrisman can only be a winner, even if appearances suggest a humiliating defeat. Spat at, threaded underfoot, disfigured, crushed, crucified, dead, Christ is risen from the dead. He won. Those who follow him are walking down the same road and are headed for the same war. A war that is by no means a religious one (we really ought to think of Christianity more as a surmounting of the limits of the religious), that does not perpetuate Evil in the name of God. One that is more a cultivation of the taste for living differently than satisfied with our petty egocentrism. One where one sacrifice themselves (often anguished and tormented) to saw the seed of Good. Far from the individualist and repressive religiosity that lays waste at present.

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