“So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them before the LORD at Hebron; then they anointed David king over Israel.” 1 Samuel 5:3
One of the central ideas in Judaism is the notion that a savior will come to liberate the Jews, deliver his people, save his people, to bring peace and harmony on earth.
The word messiah in Hebrew is from the verb ‘to anoint.’ To be ‘anointed’ is to be ‘chosen by God.’ Thus, the Hebrew people call themselves ‘the chosen people.’ My rabbi friend says he prefers ‘the choosing people;’ those who make choices in favor of life, who engage in the world in ways to heal the brokenness: tikkun olam – to repair the world.
The word messiah gets translated to Latin as Kristos; thus we have the word Christ; some say Jesus was the long-awaited, hoped for Messiah, the Christ; sent by God to redeem the world.
My Old Testament professor in seminary, Harrell Beck, said, “When you understand the concept of the Messiah you’ll know that it’s the person next to you.”
M. Scott Peck wrote a book called The Different Drum, in which he explores the concept of the messiah within the context of community-building. Genuine or true community, he says, is characterized by inclusivity, commitment and consensus – a sense of realism ‘and the ability to be contemplative and self-aware, an at-home feeling – a place you feel safe. It also involves the possibility that members can experiment with new ideas, new thoughts, new ways of being in the world; and an atmosphere where disagreement doesn’t lead to disintegration…a place where leadership can emerge from any member of the group. He writes about stages in the growth and maintenance of such a community.
Peck tells a story called THE RABBI’S GIFT:
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy five in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage.
“The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again ” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.”
So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, “the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place.
There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.”
What is your notion of the concept…the Messiah? Does it have any meaning, beyond the annual sing-a-long provided by Handel?
There’s a fine line between a critical analysis of an idea, including religious ideas, and being disrespectful. It works both ways, of course: those of us who do not subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible are dismissed as heretics, infidels, and assigned to the hot seat for eternity, so it’s natural for us to ‘hit back’ and dismiss the true believers as silly fanatics, or what-not.
My own notion of the messiah focuses on the need for hope; not necessarily hope that a savior will come in the form of some sort of supernatural hero, but hope that we humans can find better ways to live our lives without fear; that we can create economic systems characterized by a genuine ‘compassionate conservatism,’ which is to say, balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain – that we can create economic systems that are hard-headed and tender-hearted at the same time.
The messiah comes not in the form of a human savior or king, but in the form of justice, equity and compassion; not as a single person but as manifestations of the best in all persons.
The Jewish-Christian-Muslim idea of the messiah focuses on the supernatural – that there has been, and will be divine intervention — God created the world, God is in charge of the world, and God will send a savior to fix the world. That’s not a theology I can embrace.
Our secular culture focuses on human heroes who are a cut above the rest of us. Often those heroes come in the form of celebrities who are worshiped, secular-style.
This is not to deny the heroic qualities that emerge in day-to-day, down to earth people. A retired minister friend of mine wrote to me the other day about a CNN television special on heroes, all of whom were nominated by television viewers; he said almost skipped it, but watched and was moved to tears.
The heroes included Wesley Autrey, referred to as ‘the Good Samaritan’ who jumped onto subway tracks in Manhattan to save a man who fell onto the tracks while having a seizure from an oncoming train. They included several women who saved thousands of young girls by taking them back from prostitution and training them for jobs so they could have their dignity back.
He wrote, “After about fifteen or so of these the hero of heroes was announced — Christopher Reeve (and Dana) — and I thought of you – it included a short talk by two of his children.”
He said, “Over the years there were such people in my churches – I will write to them and say ‘thank you for the inspiration and example.’”
We often struggle with mixed feelings about the holidays, during December. We wonder if we’re missing out on ‘the true spirit’ or the ‘deeper meanings’ of it all.
Channukah and Christmas were inserted into the calendar at the time of the winter solstice for very good reason – we need a little lift to get through another winter; these holidays are about a ‘light in the darkness,’ during the time when the days are not only colder in the northern hemisphere, their place of origin, but are darker.
The cold and darkness of the winter solstice that occur naturally on this earth of ours, this evolving place we call home, also occur naturally within each of us. We go through seasons and cycles; we experience days of darkness; we experience the lack of human warmth – times of feeling unworthy, abandoned, rejected or ignored.
There’s a kind of heroism in simply living day to day, of moving through the various stages of life. Fortunately we don’t know our fate, but after a certain age, we do know that it’s going to be a struggle. We know that we need one another.
That’s what I got from my teacher’s comment, “When you understand the concept of the Messiah you’ll know that it’s the person next to you.” That’s what I got from Peck’s story about the Rabbis gift: “The Messiah is one of you.”
We know that we humans have potential to be the anti-messiah. For example, last week Richard Hawkins, the 19-year old shooter who killed eight people and himself on Thursday at an Omaha mall said, “Now I’m going to be famous.” Apparently he didn’t know the difference between being famous and being infamous. He confused doing a dastardly deed with courage.
It takes courage to live a good, decent life. That’s a truth we need to teach; that there’s an aspect of ‘the hero’ in every single person who succeeds in doing so, one day at a time..
We see the two sides of our human potential when we contrast the heroic act of a Wesley Autrey with the terrible act of a Richard Hawkins; the one inspires us and the other disheartens us.
The Chanukkah story focuses on the eternal flame – the light of hope that has to be kept burning in every human breast.
The Channukah story is about heroes and hope; it’s about liberation; it’s about religious freedom, and the freedom from persecution; it’s about freedom from fear, which is the most ferocious tyrant of all, locking us up, locking us in.
The Christmas story is about hope, as symbolized by the babe in the manger who reminds us of the potential within each person born into this world – the courage of a Wesley Autrey, the determination of a Christopher Reeve, the dedication of a Dana Reeve.
At their best, the ancient religious stories touch something deep within us and give us faith, hope and courage. The mythological stories about heroes and the saviors of the human race came from the human experience of living a human life, knowing that it is temporary; they are meant to remind us that we’re in the midst of that very process – of living a human life, knowing that our days are numbered, and having the courage to face the challenges that come our way, the wisdom to live the days as fully as humanly possible, and the humility to accept the limits of our knowing.
When we assert that ‘all the religions were invented by people just like ourselves; all the gods have been created in our own image,’ it is not to dismiss ‘all the religions and all the gods.’ It is not to deny the seed of truth in all the religions, and the seed of human hope projected onto the gods, or God; quite the opposite.
All the religions have emerged because of psychological and sociological reasons, and, at their best, they help us to get through the difficult days and the dark nights of the spirit. We know, only too well, the flaws in all the religions, the ways they divide one group of people from another, and the more subtle ways that they divide us or separate us from the Self.
I make those assertions to tell the truth as I see it, to help you to be liberated from any left-over, fear-based ideas or beliefs that diminish you and prevent you from living your own life as a whole, integrated, healthy person.
For me, the concept of the messiah is about hope, and the notion of ‘the hero,’ or the heroic quality of living a life from day to day in this down-to-earth world…in the skin we’re in.
Where is your hope? Where or who are your heroes?
For many folks Jesus is the hoped for messiah, the hero, the god who speaks to a deep, human and humanizing Truth, beyond, behind and beneath the mythology and theology about him. Emerson summarized it:
“Jesus … belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …in the next age, (they said) `This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that … life (is) a miracle…he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends…Thus was he a true man.” (Divinity School Address, 1838)
Mary Oliver says it nicely in one of the poems in her collection she titled Thirst, a title that deserves pondering in and by itself. The poem is titled, The Place I Want to Get Back To.
The Place I want to get back to
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
and first light
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they come
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named