Eight years ago this month is when my conversion started. Sort of. “Conversion” begins at each person’s beginning, and ends somewhere between here and eternity. But eight years ago, I was 19, and not terribly interested in someone dressed as I am right now sagely dismissing my crisis.
I had reached a breaking point. I was out in the middle of the night, wandering the college campus, anxious and confused. I’d had a basically hostile attitude toward religion for several years, but my own sense of being, of purpose, the great “why?” echoing along the canyon walls of human hearts…my old answers just weren’t working anymore. I could no longer justify my existence through my own happiness, because why should I care about my own happiness? Everything was empty, and death was not far from my thoughts.
Out of desperation, I prayed. To no one, or anyone, I prayed. I tearfully offered my uncertainty, my instability, my weakness, hoping for something to alleviate it. Some assurance from heaven, whoever’s version of it existed. And what I got was…nothing. No warmth, no light, no angelsong. Cold, dark, silent nothing. But this Nothing was greater, more powerful, than anything I’d experienced up until that point. I felt broken. I felt destroyed. I felt like a demolished city, burnt to the ground. And it was horrifying. And it was good. Because the abject admission of weakness and vulnerability I encountered in this experience was the great clearing of the brush, the great pouring out of old and perishing things. I was shattered, and I was made new.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus issues a half-warning, half-lament, to the city of Jerusalem. “Had you only listened!” But they didn’t, and so Jesus tells of impending destruction, enemies at the gates, leaving no stone untoppled. This idea of violence and destruction as a result of sin often doesn’t sit well in modern ears. It can be especially galling to see such religious violence play out across the pages of Scripture and championed as a good and righteous thing. We like a creative God, but a God who destroys, or commands destruction, is perhaps less attractive.
Following in the example of Jesus, however, we can take the old stories and give them new life. We can learn to appreciate them not just as the unfolding drama of a particular people of the Levant, but more: we can see them as our own, giving common language to the universal human experiences of inner tumult, inner upheaval, even inner violence in relation to God. Many stories of the ancient Jewish people have a theme of righteous destruction and violence to purge the land of idols and the altars of false gods. Perhaps surprisingly, this has become a great comfort for me. Not out of bloodlust or an inflated sense of my own righteousness, but actually, the opposite. If I cast my gaze inward with this destruction in mind, I find I have new language to approach my experiences of pain, of sadness, of anger, of disgust. I can begin to process these experiences, wondering where the pain is coming from, with a question: which idol is being overthrown here?
I am full of them. And so many of them seem to be not obviously evil or hideous things at all, but rather, good and beautiful things that, for all their goodness and beauty, are still not God, and so cannot give life. Good thoughts and feelings, good relationships, good work, good social and political and religious causes, good values and principles…all of them good! And in their goodness, we’re perhaps even more susceptible to make idols of them. But idols cannot save, and when we build up our inner altars and temples to them, we place our hopes of eternity in things that cannot match that hope, and we experience great pain, and there is strife in the city.
“Had you only listened!” There is remarkable resonance with today’s Gospel reading and the earlier episode, where Jesus stands outside the walls of Jerusalem and laments at how long he has desired to lovingly gather up that city in his arms, upon his breast, near to his heart, but now they were forsaken. These laments of Jesus are poignant, because we might expect that he has thus abandoned the city, abandoned all of us in our inner Jerusalems, washed his hands of us so that we might be destroyed. But no. Destruction comes, but we are not abandoned. Though he wished to gather us into the love of his heart in happiness and good cheer, that has passed. Destruction comes. So Jesus, in the great crescendo of everything the Incarnation was, is, and ever could be, enters into that destruction with us. He goes first! Like the high priest, who dons the breastplate with each of the 12 tribes’ names written on it to enter the Holy of Holies and make atonement, Jesus does indeed gather us up into his bosom. And in the destruction of our idols, our falsehoods, of all that would consume us utterly, he is there, making atonement, ever-interceding for us. He has known destruction. He has known desolation. He has known the thousand deaths we are called to die. He still knows. And on the cross, Jesus shows forth this knowledge, offering his whole being, even to the gates of death, as the Way of life.
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