It keeps happening: people keep trying to substitute physical objects or interpretations for spiritual realities. Three events stick out in my mind: watching Van Helsing with my cousins, discussing the Da Vinci code with a labmate, and listening to a Christian singer on the radio discuss her song.
Van Helsing is a movie chock full of werewolves and vampires. Van Helsing is the member of a secretive group of ecumenicals who have fought the forces of darkness for generations. Of course, their strategy isn't to bring tortured souls to repentance, but to kill them before they can kill someone else. But what can I say? Living by Scripture is too narrow: the Buddhists in this group of commandoes would mutiny if they tried that!
After rapidly dispatching Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde and other homicidal maniacs, Van Helsing is called upon to face a new monster. He takes with him a promiscuous Friar with a promising bag of untried inventions. As Van Helsing fights flying vampwomen, I was amazed by the tunnel vision of the movie. Van Helsing never even prays. He never needs outside spiritual help: all of his solutions are purely physical. Sure, the vampires and the werewolves might seem unearthly. But never fear. Their demise can be brought about by purely physical means. If dousing them with holy water doesn't do the trick and crossing yourself doesn't restore your frame of mind, try using a specially-dipped arrow, a silver bullet, or a good solid flash of light.
It really was disappointing. But I should've known better. Hadn't I realized since the days of computer games on the Apple II that you could chase off vampires with nothing more than garlic?
There is a spiritual dimension to life, and it cannot be dispelled by the mere waft of garlic.
About two weeks ago a labmate asked what I thought about the Da Vinci code. I didn't go into a lot of detail, but I told her that I see it as a complete distraction from who Jesus is and why He was on earth. After all, Jesus' mission was to come and die and rise again so that we could have life. The Da Vinci code misses this completely. After our conversation was over, I thought over what I knew about the book. I thought about my initial disbelief over the stupidity of the book's premise: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a daughter, and that daughter had started a line of initiated people who preserved the "truth" about Jesus. Comparing the actual story of Jesus' life to this kind of slop exposes the Da Vinci code for the soap opera/romance novel that it is. I'm dumbfounded by people's refusal to believe that Jesus remained a virgin throughout His life. And I'm amazed by people's attempt to reduce Christ's legacy to cloak-and-dagger protection of stupid secrets. Christ's movement on earth is occuring through the power of the Holy Spirit, not just by the will of man.
The second instance of trying to reduce the spiritual realm into the physical realm came tonight. A gospel singer who'd had a hit was describing her song. She said that she hoped it summed up what a lot of people felt, but might never have heard put into words. She wanted to express what Jesus left us on earth. So far, so good. I'm thinking about Jesus leaving us the Holy Spirit. But that's not where she's going. She started listing the things Jesus left on earth. And they were all physical. She said that he left food for the 5,000 ("and could they ever be the same after eating that food?") Uh, yeah. They were. They digested that food. It was gone. That's why they came back the next day for Jesus-style Buffet. Jesus tried directing them to spiritual truth, but by-and-large they rejected that tripe and asked for the stuff they'd had the day before. So by the time that Jesus was taken up to heaven, the bread and fish he'd passed out had long been returned to the only circle of life I believe in: the cycling of atoms between different molecules in different locations.
She singer went on with her list as I processed her claims. Jesus left His clothes for a Roman soldier ("and could He ever be the same after touching those clothes?"). Well, this is the first time in recorded history that "leaving someone clothes" meant that the clothes stripped off your back and won by the jail warden that turned up the ace and the king were bequeathed by you to the jail warden. I'd just call that malicious theft, heartless haggling, and merciless opportunism. I really doubt that the warden felt some magical tingle when he touched Jesus' clothes. The only magical tingle he felt was when he turned up the ace and the king. Sure, the woman with pernicious anemia got healed when touched Jesus' clothes, but that's because He was wearing them. Sorry to dissapoint y'all, but it was Jesus that did the healing: not his dirt-covered tunic! Of the two Romans as being at the foot of the cross, it's the one that didn't get anything from Jesus that "got" it all. He's the one that said "Surely this was the Son of God."
I'm sure there's other examples that she went into, but I didn't wait to listen. I was concerned about the conclusions she had drawn, and disturbed by her disregard for Jesus' spiritual gifts. Jesus' enduring legacy is not in the bread and fish that people gobbled down, or in the clothes that some greasy Roman got. Jesus' legacy is His church: us, His followers.
This disturbing emphasis on the physical aspects of a spiritual event or person is what leads Catholics to collect relics (who gets Peter's right hand? We've got dibs on his left hand! Anybody know how we ended up with three feet?), and can distract both non-believers and believers from a true understanding of reality. Sure, the physical may be what we consider to be more familiar, more comfortable. We might feel empowered by the idea that freaky spiritual beings can be held at bay by a bottle of water from the Jordan River, the vertical and horizontal movements of our hand over our breast, or a specially treated bullet applied to their breast. We might like to speculate about whether or not Jesus got married and had a kid. We might get sentimental about the physical leftovers a great spiritual leader leaves behind. But are we trying to substitute our druthers for reality? Are we afraid to consider spiritual truth?
What's beautiful is that Christ unites the physical and the spiritual aspects of reality. He himself was instanteously human and God: the first and last time that will ever happen! And He created us as physical and spiritual beings. (That's what cracks me up when someone says "Oh, he's spiritual. I want to laugh and say "So are you!") And He leaves us a physical and a spiritual commission.
"Therefore go (physical) and make disciples (spiritual) of all nations (nations made up of men who are instantaneously physical & spiritual), baptizing them (physical & spiritual) in the name of the Father (spiritual) and of the Son (physical and spiritual) and of the Holy Spirit (spiritual), and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always (spiritual), to the very end of the age (physical)." (Matthew 28:19-20).
In short, Jesus knows what He's doing. He knew how much his belongings would have been fought over if He'd left them in a time capsule in His mom's backyard. So He didn't leave them in a time capsule in His mom's backyard. He knew how many pieces the Catholics would chop His body up into if He left that behind. So He didn't leave it behind. (Besides, there was the whole "conquering death" and "fulfilling prophecy" thing!). There's so many people that would love to have a physical bit of Jesus' belongings that there just wouldn't be enough to go around. And anyway, if we did have a bit of the toy sheep that he played with when He was two, it'd probably do nothing more than distract us from the fact that He was the Lamb of God.
So don't feel bad if your family didn't bequeath a Shroud of Turin to you. But praise God if they told you about the spiritual inheritance you can claim in Christ!
You see, Jesus gave us everything that was His. For starters, He gave us this world that He created. After we bungled that setup, He gave Himself in our place, to redeem us and restore our relationship with His father. He freely offers us His body: "And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.' (Luke 22:19)
We can't reduce the spooky spritual dimension to a physical dimension we think we can manage. It isn't, and we can't. Jesus didn't need physical descendants to carry on His work. He has spiritual descendants (us!). Jesus didn't bequeath merely physical, moth-eaten souveniors to satisfy childish desires. He gave us salvation, hope, an inheritance, and His Holy Spirit. His supply will never run dry, and He offers these gifts freely to everyone.
"I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?' Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.' He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, 'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?' Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, 'Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.'" (John 6:47-63).