Thursday, November 30, 2006

What is truth?

BODY

So it's the end of the liturgical year.

Last Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King. The gospel reading, drawn from John, is one of those things that seems so simple as to be trivial then turns in upon itself.

JOHN 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."


It's one of the most postmodern moments of the Bible... whether or not either is hiding something from the other, both Pilate and Jesus are playing with a circular logic. Pilate's is the more simplistic, and might even be reduced to a sarcastic comment: "I am not a Jew, am I?" Obviously he is not, but there is a reason why he is answering the question with a question. Pilate claims that he needs Jesus to explain his status, because Pilate does not have the ability to make the distinction on his own, to identify a king from another culture. But even here there is an added complexity: how is it that a man who cannot identify a king on his own able to adjudicate crime. True, the practical issue for Pilate and the Romans was whether or not Jesus or the priesthood represented the greater insurrectionist threat. This provides a cynical reason why Pilate would play the two off each other. But taking his statement at face value, which the context of John seems to suggest, Pilate's question is genuine. His follow up question (18:38): "What is truth?" is even more vague and cloudy. His dilemma is perpetually more universal.

Jesus, while speaking both more rhythmically and didactically than Pilate, achieves a sort of convergence in his statements. The issue at the end is not whether he has answered anything, but what he has chosen to converge upon.
First he says: "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
This, at least, is somewhat straightforward. If he has not claimed or denied kingship, he has at least made the point that he is not the political and military messiah that the Pharicees predicted.
The second statement is the more difficult and daring of the two: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

His sentences are short and direct, but their referentiality is uncertain. "For this" I was born is itself an ambiguity, because "this" is ungrounded... we might take it to mean either that Jesus was born to be a king or that he was born for Pilate to ask him the question of whether or not he was a king. The catechism argues that both of these statements are true, but the first is somewhat anticipated. The second, as an assertion of the issue of Jesus' royalty and as a foreshadowing of the crucifiction, are more implicatory to sacrifice and resurrection. He finishes with claims to truth and legitimacy. These are the sorts of claims made by rulers, religious and secular, throughout history. But they are immediately called into scrutiny by Christ himself because, in asserting, or perhaps claiming to be royalty, his indirectness and circularity, and most of all, answers that acknowledge only a kingship that radically redefines the terms. In short, by his words, word for word, he does not absolutely claim to be a king, but if he is a king, it is not the kind of king Pilate would recognize (Jew or not). All he will say for sure is that he testifies to the truth. "What is truth?" Exactly.

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I love the turns of the lectionary from October to November. It presents some of the most galvanizing, visceral, and challenging readings in the whole Bible. While I do believe that the New Testament, Revelations included, is essentially a look upwards and forwards, hopefully, nobody can really deny the aura of darkness and calamity that surrounds the most memorable passages at this time. The gospel discussed here, for example, is plucked from the midst of the actual Passion. I cannot help but indulge in the feeling that this is the lectionaries own Big Crunch scenario. Everything is obliterated in the Passion and the Raptures. November becomes December. Next Sunday, Advent begins with anticipation of a birth.

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Today is, incidentally, the last feast of the year in both Catholic and Orthodox Calendars: the Feast of Saint Andrew.



Saint Andrew was Peters older brother and one of the twelve apostles. He had a particularly significant role in the Eastern Churches, having founded what would become the Patriarchate of Constantinople. He preached in Dacia, which later became Romania, and is the Patron saint of that nation as well as Russia.

He was crucified on a giant 'X.'

So you see, I'm not kidding when I say that it's all doom and gloom at this time of year.

END OF POST.

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