Every now and then a song rises to the top of my personal charts. The latest is "Jesus Was an Only Son," by Bruce Springsteen:
Jesus was an only son
As he walked on Calvary's hill
At his side his mother Mary
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
Reading the psalms of David
At his mother's feet
A mother prayed, 'Sleep tight my child sleep well
For I'll be at your side.
No shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell
Shall pierce your dreams tonight.'
In the garden of Gethsemane
He prayed for the life he'd never live.
He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
The cup of death from his lips.
Now there's a loss that can never be replaced,
A destination that can never be reached,
A light you'll never find in another's face,
A sea whose distance cannot be breached.
Jesus kissed his mother's hands
And said, 'Mother, still your tears
Remember, the soul of the universe
Willed a world and it appeared.'
I think that's the best portrayal of Jesus's humanity I've ever read. That's partly because Jesus's divinity is not mentioned. It reminds me of Bulgakov's potrayal of "Yeshua" in his novel The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov's "Yeshua" is heart-breaking good, but his goodness is a naivete which is helpless against Pilate. There is no resurrection. Christians believe in Jesus's humanity, as well as his divinity-- that's the whole point-- but I wonder whether they are permanently unable to express it as poignantly as the "good agnostic" (agnostic about Christianity, not necessary about God) for whom Jesus's humanity is all that there is. The apostles, after all, were like the "good agnostics" in the time of Jesus's Ministry: like Springsteen or Bulgakov, they recognized his goodness, but not his divinity.
Bulgakov's "Yeshua" is a fictional character, and Christians would have some reason to take offense at the liberties Bulgakov takes with the historical record. But there is nothing in Springsteen's song, as far as I can tell, that a Christian should object to. The second and third verses, about Jesus's childhood in the hills of Nazareth-- it is the portrayal of Jesus's childhood that makes him so human-- are not in the Gospels, which all either begin with Jesus's Ministry (Mark and John) or jump from the Christmas story to Jesus's Ministry (Matthew and Luke). In the Gospel of Luke, there is a single episode in between, about Jesus teaching in the Temple when he was twelve. That's all the Bible says about Jesus's childhood. Yet Jesus must have had a childhood, and the two scenes Springsteen represents-- Jesus reading the psalms of David at his mother's feet, and Mary singing him a lullaby-- are as orthodox as you could ask for. We know that Jesus must have read the psalms of David a lot because he quoted from them so much in his teachings. This is more obvious from the "good agnostic" point of view than from the Christian point of view: I think Christians can have a vague notion that since Jesus was God, he was omniscient and wouldn't have needed to study. Or maybe Jesus read the psalms for devotional reasons; we know that he prayed often during his Ministry. And the other verse. Did Jesus need to be comforted by his mother, like any common child, to go to sleep? Well, yes. That's the incarnation for you. Yet it's amazing to imagine it. Anyway, given how little the Bible says about Jesus's childhood, it's remarkable that Springsteen was able to write two verses about it without making anything up.
Reversing the Gospel pattern, Springsteen details Jesus's childhood and then jumps over Jesus's Ministry, straight to Gethsemane, where he mentions another astounding fact which Christian believers in Jesus's divinity would find hard to accept if it weren't there in the Gospels (though it occurs to me now: Jesus was alone, so how did the evangelists know about it?): that Jesus didn't want to go through with it! He must have known, surely-- conceived it somehow, at least, even in his human state-- that his death was the only hope of salvation for the world. How could he ask the Father to "take this cup from me" (even if he added "not my will, but yours be done")? What could be more heart-breaking? The threads of tragedy that bind this world together broke the heart even of God.
The fifth verse is pure Bruce Springsteen, with his ethos of infinite sadness. And if the song ended there it would quite definitely not be a Christian song (as The Master and Margarita is not a Christian novel). But then there is the sixth verse, where Jesus, who resembles for the first time in the song the Jesus of authority-- he is calmly comforting his mother, not begging for reprieve, even though he is about to die-- reminds Mary: 'Remember the soul of the universe / Willed a world and it appeared.' What can I add? Rarely have twelve words evoked such a sense of wonder in me as these. Creation! Yet how is it relevant? Somehow, it is intimated, the power of God ("the soul of the universe") can heal even this unspeakable grief, the mother watching her son go to die-- but nothing is said of how, no promise is explicitly made.
There is a sense, I think, in which this song is wiser than the ancient Church Councils: wiser, because it says less, because it uses the details of the Bible to evoke the humanity of Jesus, because it juxtaposes heart-breaking sadness on impossible hope, because it opens the mind to the great mystery without trying to formulate it. The ancient Churchmen knew they could never put into words "the mystery of faith," that the best they could hope to do was to put a hedge against error. Praise God for their work, and I am in their debt for guidance. I do believe they got it right. They were trying to express, as this song does in its way, the mystery of the incarnation, and they came up with dogmas like:
- the Son of God is true God, born of God the Father before all ages, and is eternal, as is God the Father; He was begotten, and not made, and is of one essence with God the Father. (First Ecumenical Council, Nice, 325 AD)
- the equality and the single essence of God the Holy Spirit with God the Father and God the Son. (Second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople, 381 AD)
- united in Jesus Christ at the time of the incarnation were two natures, divine and human, and that one should confess Jesus Christ as true God and true Man, and the Holy Virgin as the God-bearer (Theotokos). (Third Ecumenical Council, 431 AD)
- as God Jesus Christ is eternally born from God. As man, He was born of the Holy Virgin and in every way is like us, except in sin. (Fourth Ecumenical Council, 451 AD)
- in Jesus there are two wills, Divine and human, and in these two natures there are two wills, but... the human will in Christ is not against, but rather is submissive to His Divine will. (Sixth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople, 680 AD)
(All quotes from The Law of God, Archpriests Seraphim Slobodskoy, 1996.) But even if the Councils were right, was it worth it? Each council was a source of schism, with some who had been at peace with the Church becoming heretics. Had they stayed in the fold of the Church they would have been a source of confusion, but sometimes, perhaps, sometimes, of insight too-- as Bruce Springsteen and other good agnostics sometimes have been. Would it be better if the Church had more room for them?
I owe this song a person debt: it opened my eyes to the cult of the Virgin Mary, which I had never quite understood. There aren't many stories about Mary in the Bible. She mostly does only one thing, though of course that one thing-- bringing Jesus into the world-- is very important. She deserves our respect, to be sure, but why is she honored above the Apostles, who spread the Gospel and died as martyrs, or above any of the prophets and saints? What was the sense of making intercessory prayers to the Virgin Mary? Imagine her trying to cope with all those millions of prayers! It's one thing for God, an omnipotent Being, to hear so many prayers, but poor Mary-- just a simple Jewish girl, with so much responsibility!
But think of Mary singing a lullaby to Jesus-- to God-- in the night, to comfort his childish fears and help him sleep. Mother of God. Moses saw God in fire and cloud on Mount Sinai, and in the Burning Bush, and only a few times. Mary-- she spent thirty years of her life with him, with him every day, not fully understanding who he was, to be sure-- we learn that from Luke-- yet she was able to bear the divine presence.
If I could write one song like this my life would not be wasted.