Monday, October 25, 2010

Poet Franz Wright on the Gospel of John

Excerpt from Language as Sacrament in the New Testament

THE language of the New Testament has been with me since childhood. The words of Jesus, specifically, are so familiar that I am constantly in danger of becoming insensitive to their power. As an antidote to that I have been trying once again to think about Jesus’s words, the so-called authentic sayings of the historical Jesus, as well as those attributed to him by the earliest believing communities in the decades after his death, the words found in the mysterious fourth Gospel, for example, words which I think might more accurately be attributed to the risen Christ [See John 14:26].

I have been trying to read them again, and to think about them again from both a literary and a theological perspective, and then simply to experience them, and not for any mystical purposes (I personally have had just about enough mystical experience, and it’s become a life-or-death matter that I contemplate these things and even try to put them into practice in a rather orthodox and practical way). I wanted to experience these words again na├»vely, personally, literally, as if I had never heard them before. I wanted to find myself in the company of the other spiritually needy, blind, crippled, and lost individuals to whom they were first addressed by this adorable, radiant, and somewhat scary person who is like no one anyone has ever met.

...When I was young, I was excited by the scholarship concerned with highlighting those words of Jesus which can be shown to be historically authentic, most of them occurring in the first three so-called synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke... Such issues are of much less consequence to me now. In some ways I have come to love best the Gospel of John...

...what I cannot get over, and it haunts me more and more in this Gospel, is the mood, incomparably expressed, of valedictory tenderness and concern for his followers as Jesus prepares for his death. He seems already to be speaking from beyond and looking back on both his preexistence with the Father and then on his Incarnation in the human world. What is felt so vividly is his infinitely sad concern for those who will have to remain here without him. When he says, “Now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world,” I feel I am being personally referred to. I ask myself in discouragement and real terror sometimes, why will I always remain this side of the kingdom of heaven? Why can’t I do it, follow the one very simple commandment to love, every moment, without qualification? What is wrong with me, that I always, relentlessly, fail? I feel that if I could do it, I could do anything, go through anything. And Christ’s response in the fourth Gospel is always the same: But I have done it, and I have done it for you.

Here in this world I know for a fact that I am not going to become like Christ. I know that the best I can do is to become the lowlife crucified next to him ---not the reviler, but the one who suddenly understands and says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

I have said these things to you in images; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in images but tell you plainly of the Father. For the Father himself loves you, because you have me and believe that I came from the Father. Now I am leaving the world and going to the Father. The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have affliction; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.


I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. Every branch in me that bears fruit, he cares for, that it may bring forth even more. Abide in me, and I in you. I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
"You are my friends." To me this is even more staggering than the words “God is love” in John’s epistle. All reality is the manifestation of God, and as Christ has returned to God, unbound by space or time, what we are now presented with is a universe in which we are not alone, but one which says, “You are my friends.” Think of it.

Christ’s followers learned to use his very way of speaking—and this is what we have in the fourth Gospel—but they could not make themselves into Christ any more than we can. Yet this message remains: For you I have overcome the world. I am love, and you are my friends.

Christ turned water to wine, blindness to sight, death to life and---the most improbable of all his acts---hatred to love, and the desire for revenge to forgiveness. The older I get the more staggering this becomes to me.

---Image: A journal of art, faith and mystery, issue #66

More on Franz Wright...

Franz Wright’s collections of poetry include The Before life (2001), God’s Silence (2006), and Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

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