Friday, February 23, 2007

There May Be More to Apples Than You Think

As I ponder vipers and fruit trees, the wild John the Baptist and the waters of life, as I look ahead to tomorrow, the first Sunday in Lent and the temptation of Jesus, I also find myself looking back. Another time, another temptation. You know which one I mean. To your left is Lucas Cranach the Elder’s beautiful sixteenth century painting of Adam and Eve in Paradise. The snake and the apple are both here. So are the animals of the woodland. And temptation. Adam scratches his head like a slightly clueless guy who typically drinks a few beers with his buddies and watches football on TV. Eve is more self contained. Although the Bible suggests that she herself tasted the fruit before sharing it with her husband, in this painting, she is a good wife and offers it untouched. Vines are already reaching upward, shielding the body parts in question, hinting at embarrassments to come, as if leaving Paradise were less a matter of original sin than the inevitability that living things, be they vines or people, must grow.

Original sin has been a hot topic for a long time. The Jews never believed in it, but St. Augustine, the fifth century Bishop of Hippo sure did. He decided that babies were born into sin, tainted at the very moment of conception. This, of course, made the sex act suspect and women even more so. For centuries Augustine’s hypothesis has been used to vilify women, to say nothing of serpents. Even Jesus, who loved women, even Jesus who said that he would be lifted up like a serpent, even Jesus could not convince his own church that the forgiveness of sins he offered extended even to women and sparrows and snakes, down to the very stones of earth. Jesus could not have made it more clear. When he upturned the moneychangers' tables, he also freed the animals from their bondage. The first person to whom he appeared following his resurrection was Mary Magdalene. He appeared to her in a garden. But men have not been able to get this. For some reason, men must see women and nature as temptation.

I often wonder why it is so hard to grasp the radical inclusivity of Jesus’ message of salvation. “I came not to judge the world,” Jesus said. “I came to save the world.” You can’t save the world if you leave people out. You can’t even talk about a world if you leave things out. But for millennia, men have made a church by leaving things out.

When I am honest with myself, I know that no matter how hard I try, I leave things out, too. It is impossible for us humans not to leave things out. Our vision is, by its very nature, partial. We cannot see what we cannot see and until I am ready to face it, the light of truth will simply blind. I’m not ready for lots of things yet. I want to go back to John the Baptist one more time. I want to return to the waters, for baptism is where my, and Jesus’, journey into Lent really begins.

Even before modern psychology linked water with the oceanic unconscious that lies beneath our veneer of civilization, water was seen as a force of chaos. In creating the world, God closed off the waters. In Egypt, Greece, Babylonia, water was an elemental force to contend with, the home of Mother Tiamat, rushing wave and fiery dragon. The sun’s night sea journey represented the soul’s descent to the depths in sleep. Although we cannot live without water – indeed our earthly bodies are largely composed of water – we cannot live in it.

But by calling the watery world unconscious, psychology suggests that the unconscious is something we grow out of, something terrible and primitive that our rational intellects finally master. John’s baptism, on the other hand, suggests that the unconscious is something we grow into.

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