about words and understanding

A million years ago now when I was getting my undergrad, an English professor asked our class to choose a poem and memorize it. I picked the poem on pg. 33 of the Robert Hass book we'd just finished reading. It had short lines. This is the reason I picked it.

At the time, I had no idea how to read poetry. The poem made zero sense to me. I just figured I could memorize it quick. Maybe I also liked the first line: Horse is Lorca's word, fierce as wind, . . . but I could have been reading words picked out of a hat—the lines made no sense to me.

My main method of memorizing was saying the poem out loud 7-10 times, then try to say it without looking at the words one line at a time. Who knows how many times I said that poem out loud, but somewhere in there, it all became crystal clear. And, by "crystal clear", I mean it was a poem! the meaning made me see everything new again. That poem may be the reason I kept going to school after I graduated. It's about the horse-parsnip, and how the name sounds nothing like the plant is. 

I thought about this poem a couple of Sundays ago when our gospel doctrine class discussed John 6:22-69 . This section occurs the day after Christ fed more than 5000 people with five loaves of bread and a few fish. He's walked on water to meet the apostles on the boat in the early morning hours, and now a large crowd of disciples have met them on the shore.

Christ tells them they are following him because he fed them before, and that the most important thing they can do is seek "meat which endureth unto everlasting life". This is where Christ tells the people that he is the bread of life. That he will give his flesh for the life of the world. He says, I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Immediately, the people are confused and disgusted. They don't understand why they would want to eat someone. They say, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Instead of explaining his metaphor, Christ gets more visceral:
Except ye eat of the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.
As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.
This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live forever.  
It's grotesque! We sometimes get really judge-y about what happens next which is that many of the disciples that day left. They were offended. But can we really blame them? Christ was telling them that they would need to eat his body and drink his blood to live forever. Even though they had seen him work the miracle the day before, a miracle that fed their bodies to more than satisfaction—being filled! They were offended because what he said was gross and unethical. That's before we get to the eternal life idea. And, so they left.

Why didn't Christ explain himself better here? This was his chance! To us this metaphor is a beautiful thing. Christ as the bread of life is art! But to those at the time, it was new, and it was not culturally correct to suggest eating someone. Why didn't he use different words? He knew some would be offended. He knew so many would go away. Why didn't he explain it differently?

Shouldn't we be troubled still by the loss of eternal salvation there in the synagogue in Capernaum? So many left that Christ asked the apostles if they were offended and would leave too.

I was thinking as we talked about the scripture section that there are so many things I don't understand in the gospel. Things that could be offensive. Things that are really offensive to many people.

I've been shocked re-reading the New Testament. So many of the stories have new and curious meaning now that I am 33 instead of 17. And this is one example: What do you do when your current culture gives a certain negative meaning to words or actions, and then you find them in a holy context? It can be so difficult not to default to my own cultural or educational understandings.

Instead of assuming we know what God means, I think it's so important to default to the prayer: I clearly do not understand this—help me understand what you mean. 

Isn't this faith? Isn't this hope in Christ? To believe, without giving up, that God is good? To say what Peter said: Lord, to who shall we go? Thou has the words of eternal life.


Have you ever had an experience like this? What happened? Did you learn anything you hadn't expected?


Reading List:
Elder Rafael E. Pino  
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord."—Isaiah 55:8

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I love this. I have never thought about the bread of life sermon in that way. It's so true that we mortals like to apply our culture to God. It's so good to be reminded every once and a while that we know so little about God's ways. Love you!


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