Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"I Thirst," or, A Picture of Dorian Humanity: Holy Week Meditations on Christ's Last Words

"Refill? Yeah, sure, why not."

Anyone who’s shared a meal with me knows that I am a sucker for fountain soda.  Like a horse let loose in the feed room, I’ll keep downing the stuff until I explode - though, luckily, unlike a horse, my bladder generally warns off my stomach before it’s too late.  
Soda is basically legalized euthanasia.  There will never be a prohibition against it, even though perhaps there should be.  Because aside from gradually rotting out teeth and our bodies from within while bestowing the wonderful gift of type 2 diabetes in return for our dollar, the logos of the soda companies splashed across bar windows, billboards, and painted on the sides of shanties across the developing world, testifies to the sheer commercial and political power of a company capable of assassinating labor leaders in Columbia with impunity, while poisoning the rest of us.  
But the veracity of such accusations is not a sidestepping of the sinister fact that, repeatedly, I both choose to indulge my addictive craving, and also, frequently, feel that this addictive craving, this thirst is choosing me.  Even having vowed to shake my soda habit this side of age 30, the thirst has not left me - whether I am being faithful to this commitment or failing at it.  

I thirst.  

There is no AA for soda drinkers.  And I’m honestly not sure if there is an AA for gluttons, or for the desire for instant gratification of our thirsts in general.  Because for most of us, lacking the strength of the focused few, the craving, the sheer thirst of our deranged desires, is not a source of joy.  It is, rather, the interface, the demonically topsy-turvy table at which we receive the eucharistic elements of a consumeristic world - freely, frequently, yet never, without cost.  This craving thirst is not an addiction, after all.  It’s simply faithfully supporting the economy.  While being told we are partaking of "the real thing."   
Earlier in St. John’s Gospel, a thirsty Jesus reveals to a thirsty woman by a well that he is living water come down from heaven.  By the end of the Gospel, this living water is thirsty once more.  I’ve always read this ostensibly, as a moment of dire weakness, a pathetic plea scratched from the parched leather of the Savior’s tortured throat.  This is most certainly true, and it fits the bill of Johannine irony.
But I wonder if another way to view these last words of Jesus from the cross - completely within the trajectory of John’s irony - is to hear Jesus speaking our craving.  Jesus, on the cross, bearing the weight of humanity’s disdain for God, drinking to the dregs the cup he so desperately desires for the Father to take from him, a drink he is unable to refuse, powerless to stop imbibing.  Perhaps Jesus’ cry of thirst can and should be heard by us not only erupting from the void of a lack.  Perhaps it can also be heard as the greedy, gluttonous, unbridled announcement of the overflowing craving borne of our overflowing abundance.  
And I don’t mean this as if Jesus simply died because I can’t stop drinking soda.  The depth and power of the grace of Atonement in its multifarious glory is far too mysterious to be contained in any theory, or bounded by any pathetic sin of my own.  And yet, on the cross, the Crucified One is not merely a reflection of, but the very embodiment of the Truth and Reality of humanity’s sinfulness.  When we look upon the cross, we see what happens when we serve golden calves rather than divine splendor, what results when we willingly sit at the tables of poisoners - tables we help to set - and feast on the bread and wine that we take for ourselves, rather than receiving the bread from heaven that we are freely given.  The mere fact that the early writers so often refer to the cross as an  “atonement” is less to limit God’s activity, and more, to unveil the unlimited capacity of twisted human activity, both to require the mercy and grace of God, and also, to destroy it when it comes.
The cross is like Dorian Gray’s portrait.  Oscar Wilde’s famous anti-hero makes a Faustian deal with the devil.  He remains eternally young and beautiful, while his portrait ages.  So too, as we imagine ourselves drinking draughts of immortality and experience the thrill of exercising the power of our prosperity and our privilege - even as these powers exercise us - the portrait of the reality of human nature ages, withers, bleeds, screams, and dies upon the cross.  And this portrait, the Incarnate glory of all that divinized humanity could hope and is promised to become, scratches out the words of our cravings.
“I thirst.”
If Dorian Gray ever looked at his portrait, the horror would overwhelm him, and he would die.  At the novel’s end, having murdered the portrait’s painter, Dorian experiences a brief moment of clarity, and plunges a knife into his image’s heart.  He is discovered later, stabbed through his own.  
The Crucified One crying out his thirst is the portrait of humanity’s perfection in the divine image gone wrong because of our diabolical dealings.  Even as we realize we are the drivers of the nails, all we can do in such moments of clarity is to keep driving.  We drive the Living Water to the point of dryness by drowning Him in our thirsts.  And when our portrait dies, so do we.  
The hope for me is that it is in fact we who are the perverse portrait, and that, in declaring his thirst, it is Christ who plunges the dagger of grace into the very heart of broken humanity.  It is God who, passively and non-violently, destroys the world we have wrapped around ourselves.  It is God who, in thirst, drowns our cravings, and promises a different beverage, a better feast. 
“I thirst.”
These words are plea, reflection, judgment, and consequence.  Jesus is subjected to the full force of our addictions and our cravings.  He becomes them.  He joins us in drowning in their deluge.  And they are also confession, and so, grace, mercy, reality and truth.  And one way or another, Jesus promises, we shall know the truth, and the truth shall set us free.  

"Refill?"  Of the "Real Thing?" Yes. Please.  

I thirst.      

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