Malcolm Muggeridge  

19th century plate, Magnolia, artist unknown

JESUS by Malcolm Muggeridge

part five Jesus could not refrain;
the blind crying for their sight, the cripples for their legs, the mad for their sanity, were more than he could endure. So, with a sigh, and sometimes a groan, he used his healing hands and voice, and his blessed gift of forgiveness. In this sense, it may be said that Jesus was most human when, in performing his miracles, he seemed to be resorting to the supernatural, and that his divinity showed most clearly in what will have appeared to his contemporaries as most ordinary - his day-by-day evangelism and giving out of love.

It might even be said that the supernatural altogether is only an indefinite extension of the natural, whereas it is in Jesus' words, as transmitted to us, perhaps imperfectly, perhaps with an eye to other purposes than he had in mind, and in his Passion which embodied these words in the great drama of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, that we may detect in him qualities of more than earthly dimensions. That Jesus performed miracles is the least of reasons for believing him to be God. There have been many miracles, up to and including the so-called 'miracles of science' of our own time - like sending our words coursing through space faster than we can speak them, and coursing through space ourselves even faster - and doubtless in the future there will be others still more remarkable; but only of one man - Jesus - has it been said that he had the words of eternal life. These words would still stand, and ever must, if he had never healed a single sick person, or alternatively, healed as many as penicillin has.

He cried with a loud voice,
Lazarus, come forth. And he
that was dead came forth,
bound hand and foot with
grave clothes.

Of all Jesus' reported miracles the most dramatic was undoubtedly the raising of Lazarus from the dead - only recounted in the Fourth Gospel. Lazarus lived with his two sisters, Mary and Martha, at Bethany, a village within walking distance of Jerusalem on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. It was a household where Jesus was particularly welcome, and where he stayed when he was in Jerusalem, partly because he loved the three of them and was happy in their company, and doubtless also because there was always some danger for him in Jerusalem, so that it was more congenial for him to sleep away from the city. The account in the Gospels of Jesus' relations with Mary and Martha is told with exceptional artistry, like a perfect little novel. In character the two sisters are very different, as is brought out in an episode when Jesus was visiting them. Martha is the one who received him into her house, but Mary sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word, which somehow irritated Martha, busy preparing a meal - cumbered about much serving. One sees the scene exactly; one sister lost to the world entirely in her enthrallment with Jesus' words; the other bustling about, getting red in the face, sleeves turned up, and I dare say in her irritation banging the dishes about noisily, until she can stand it no longer and blurts out: Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. Jesus' response was somewhat enigmatic, and I doubt whether it served to restore Martha's equanimity: Martha, Martha, thou are careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. It is reasonable to assume, I think, that though Jesus loved both sisters, he had a special affection for Mary, who possessed the gift, dear to all men, of creative listening; of absorbing ardently not just words and ideas, but the ultimate sense of what someone they care for says, as a tree absorbs the sunlight into its leaves.

Jesus had withdrawn to the district beyond Jordan where he had been baptized by John the Baptist, when the news was brought to him that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was sick. Their message was: Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick. Instead of, as might be expected, hurrying at once to Bethany, Jesus stayed on where he was for a couple of days. Then he announced to the disciples that they were going into Judaea again even though, as they all knew, it was dangerous, his enemies being now out to stone him. The disciples, indeed, protested that it was folly to take such a risk, but Jesus brushed their fears aside; his time had not yet come, and until it did no serious ill could befall him. He went on to tell them that our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. As so often happened, the disciples did not get what he meant, and took it that Lazarus was literally sleeping, and so might be assumed to be better. Jesus thereupon told them bluntly that Lazarus was dead, and that he was glad for their sakes that he had not been with him at the time, since now the miracle of raising him up would strengthen their faith the more. The matter thus seemed settled, and Thomas, the disciple who was later to disbelieve in the risen Jesus until he had actually touched his wounds, fatalistically said to the others: Let us also go, that we may die with him. In the event, far from dying with him, they would scatter in panic, and poor Peter go through the misery of denying him thrice.

When they arrived at Bethany they found that Lazarus had been in his tomb for four days. It was Martha who came to meet Jesus; Mary stayed where she was in the house - another manifestation of the contrasting characters of the two sisters, one active and the other passive, one purposeful and the other contemplative; Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died, Martha said; but I know that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus responded by assuring her that her brother would rise again. Mary would have understood perfectly what he meant; Martha took his words to be conventional consolation, and answered almost testily that of course she knew he would rise again in the Resurrection at the last day along with everyone else. It was then that Jesus delivered himself of the words which are the core of the whole episode, whose importance far transcends the actual events, whatever they may precisely have been. I am the resurrection, and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Words which at every Christian interment for twenty centuries have brought comfort and hope to the bereaved as they are spoken across open graves.

This answer of Jesus to death was an essential part of his ministry. Death had haunted the pagan world; as something to be dreaded, stoically faced, put out of mind, despairingly embraced; at best, in the manner of Socrates, greeted with noble resignation: 'The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways - I to die, and you to live. Which is the better, God only knows.' Jesus audaciously abolished death, transforming it from a door that slammed to, into one that opened to whoever knocked. He made death, as Bonhoeffer joyously said on his way to be executed, for a Christian a beginning, not an end. It was the key to life; to die was to live. This was what so impressed Tolstoy in the Christian concept of dying. Furthermore, Tolstoy observed that, whereas he and the tiny intellectual elite to which he belonged were horrified by the prospect of dying because they had seen no point in living, his peasants confronted death with equanimity, well content that their days should end, and serenely confident that their further existence, whatever shape it might have, would be part of God's loving purpose for them. His own despair at the prospect of the obliteration of his clamant ego was so overwhelming that he had to hide away a rope hanging in his study for fear of hanging himself with it. It was then that he turned back to the Gospels, and as Jesus spoke to him through their pages, the dark menacing figure of death was transformed into the shining promise of life, now in this world, and thereafter.

In our post-Christian era death has recovered its old terrors, becoming unmentionable, as sex has become ever more mentionable. Private parts are public, but death is the twentieth century's dirty little secret. What is more, the fantasy is sustained that as science has facilitated fornication without procreation, in due course it will facilitate life without death, and enable the process of extending our life span to go on and on for ever, so that it never does come to an end. Thus Dr. Christiaan Barnard's heart-transplant operations, which caused so much excitement at the time, seemed to hold out the hope of replacing our parts as they wore out, and thus of keeping us on the road indefinitely, like old vintage cars. New hearts, kidneys, genitals, brain-boxes even, installed as and when required, the requisite spare-parts being taken from the newly dead, or maybe from mental defectives and other afflicted persons who might be said for one reason or another to be making no good use of them. The resultant immortal beings would have no occasion to be raised from the dead as Lazarus was. Nor would Jesus' wonderful words about being the resurrection and the life have any significance. For them, there was no dying, and therefore no rising from the dead. Nor will those who dream of living without dying be attracted by, or even comprehend, the notion of dying in order to live.

For myself, as I approach my own end, which cannot now be long delayed, I find Jesus' outrageous claim to be, himself, the resurrection and the life, ever more captivating and meaningful. Quite often, waking up in the night as the old do, and feeling myself to be half out of my body, so that it is a mere chance whether I go back into it to live through another day, or fully disengage and make off; hovering thus between life and death, seeing our dear earth with its scents and sounds and colors, as I have known and loved them, more, perhaps, as Bernanos said, than I have dared to admit; recalling the golden hours of human love and human work, at the same time vouchsafed a glimpse of what lies ahead, Eternity rising in the distance, a great expanse of ineffable light - so placed, Jesus' words ring triumphantly through the universe, spanning my two existences, the one in Time drawing to a close and the one in Eternity at its glorious beginning. So at last I may understand, and understanding, believe; see my ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter, muddy and marred with being trodden underfoot, and, hovering over it, myself, like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away. Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely painted wings? If told, do they believe it? Is it conceivable to them that so constricted an existence as theirs should burgeon into so gay and lightsome a one as a butterfly's? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads - no, it can't be; it's a fantasy, self-deception, a dream. Similarly, our wise ones. Yet in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clocks tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of grey, I hear those words: I am the resurrection, and the life, and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace.

They took away the stone
from the place where the
dead was laid.

Jesus asked Martha whether she believed what he said about being the resurrection and the life. Yes, she believed that he was the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world. Then she went and told her sister that the Master had arrived and was calling for her. So Mary arose quickly, and came unto him. Some of the mourners followed her, supposing that she was going to Lazarus' tomb to weep there. When she saw Jesus she at once fell down at his feet, and said, as Martha had, that, had he been there, then her brother would never have died. It was the sight of Mary weeping, along with those who had accompanied her, that made Jesus finally acquiesce in what was required of him. Troubled in spirit and groaning, he asked where Lazarus was laid, and they told him to come and see. Now he began to weep himself, which made the others marvel at how much he must have loved Lazarus, while some of them asked with a touch of acrimony: Couldn't someone like himself who had opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died? When they arrived at the tomb, which was a cave with a stone in front of it, Jesus asked that the stone should be removed, but the ever-practical Martha protested that by now, four days after Lazarus' death, the corpse would be stinking. Her protest was brushed aside, and Jesus addressed himself to God, offering thanks that he had been heard; adding - for the record, one feels - that of course he knew he would be heard, as he always was, but that in present circumstances, with a large number of people present, he had deliberately stressed the point in order that the glory of God might be made manifest. The stone by this time had been taken away, and Jesus cried with a loud voice: Lazarus, come forth! Whereupon Lazarus duly came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus gave instructions that he should be loosed and allowed to depart - presumably, to go home with his sisters.

What exactly happened? As with the Virgin Birth, a twentieth-century mind recoils from believing that a man can be thus raised from the dead, though ready enough to accept the notion that a life can be more or less indefinitely protracted, or even - a project, as I have read, seriously entertained in California - that a live body can be frozen for some centuries and then defrosted and resume living. There is, it seems, a whole menagerie of frozen millionaires, male and female, who have established trust funds to finance the maintenance of their stalactitic existence, with instructions that at a propitious moment they shall be thawed out for another spell of active life. Various elucidations of the raising of Lazarus have been proffered, calculated to bring the episode more into line with contemporary attitudes. For instance, that Lazarus' death was moral rather than physical, resulting from some appalling sin he had been led into committing, and that the miracle Jesus performed was to bring him back to moral sanity.

In any case, the account in the Fourth Gospel is quite specific; Jesus brought a man who had been dead four days back to life, and the mere report of such a happening, as may readily be believed, made Jesus so notorious, and so scared the Jewish authorities because of the excitement liable to be caused among the populace, that they finally made up their minds by one means or another to bring about Jesus' death. If we let him alone, they reasoned, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. It was Caiaphas, that year's High Priest, who put the matter bluntly. Better, he argued, that one man should die than the whole nation perish. It is the argument commonly used to justify the execution of martyrs, but in this case Caiaphas spoke truer than he knew, for Jesus' death was to save, not just a nation, but all mankind. Thenceforth, we are told, the High Priest and his associates took counsel together as to how they might best arrange for Jesus to be killed.

Jesus' ministry was now drawing to a close. In worldly terms it could scarcely be regarded as successful. For some two years he had been going about through every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the Kingdom of God. His miracles had made a stir, certainly, and we are told that people flocked to hear him. He had his twelve disciples, who had been sent out to preach and heal on their own account. As healers they were not always successful; in a particular case, though specifically given authority over evil spirits or demons, they had notably failed to dislodge one, to Jesus' great displeasure. If they had prayed more, he told them, and their faith had been stronger, they would have succeeded. How widely Jesus had become known is difficult to judge. The Gospels, very naturally, imply that his words and miracles were on everyone's lips, but it is significant that Pilate had never heard of Jesus when he was brought before him, even though it was his business to keep track of agitators and wandering evangelists liable to stir up the excitable populace in his turbulent province.

Jesus had no organization, no headed notepaper, no funds, no registered premises, no distinguished patrons or officers, except only a treasurer - the ill-famed Judas Iscariot. When the disciples were sent out they were instructed to take with them no money or food, neither staff nor spare clothes; to make no arrangements or plans of any kind, but just to look for hospitality where they could find it, and if none were forthcoming, depart, shaking the dust off their feet by way of a testimony. In consequence, Jesus assured them, that particular place would fare worse on the day of judgment than Sodom or Gomorrah. It may be assumed that Jesus followed the same practice, and that when he said the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head, it was literally the case. He, too, just went from place to place, speaking, healing, finding food and shelter where he might.

One thing I know, that,
whereas I was blind, and now
I see.