Alison on Opening Up Creation

Excerpt from James Alison’s Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, New York: Crossroads, 1996, pp. 72-75.


Opening Up Creation

There is another dimension to what John understood of Jesus’ imagination: something less apparent but no less important. It is not so much something different from what we have described, as a different way of describing the same thing. Throughout his Gospel John scatters hints of what he said in the Prologue: that God created the world with and by means of Christ. This is especially emphasized in the way John presents Jesus as working on the Sabbath. There is a particular justification for Jesus’ work on the Sabbath which is only found in John. Jesus answers those who question this practice: “My Father carries on working until the present, and I work also” (John 5:17). Now, please note: this is not the sort of obvious answer which “sensible people” would give, because they have a general notion of God, who, of course, works the whole time, so, why shouldn’t we carry on working as well? We have something rather more dense. Jesus is formally denying that God is resting on the Sabbath, a solemn contradiction of Genesis. God is creative effervescence, constantly and lovingly creating, so that the institution of the Sabbath, while it may be important for us humans to rest, is a symbol of creation yet to be completed, and still needing its fullness. So Jesus also works, that is to say, brings creation to its proper fulfillment, making people whole on the Sabbath. These works he does not only for the benefit of those who get cured, but as signs. Such signs are real acts which point to something more than themselves. They point to the real work which Jesus is carrying out through his creative self-giving to death as a model for us to do the same, that is to say, bringing about the possibility of the fulfillment of all history.

Let us look at a further insinuation of this in the story of the man blind from birth in John 9. He was born blind, which is to say that in him creation was quite definitely not completed. On a Sabbath Jesus brings to fulfillment the work of creation, thus giving glory to God. The former blind man even goes so far as to say (and John’s literary style and subtlety are, at least for me, a source of immense pleasure): “Never since the world began (ek tou aionos) has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of one born blind” (John 9:32). That is, Jesus is fulfilling what was missing from the beginning of creation. That this is, obviously, a sign for everyone rather than just a gift for the blind man is shown by the discussion which follows between Jesus and some Pharisees who were present at his meeting with the (now) former blind man. Jesus points out that those who know themselves to be blind receive their sight, while those who think that they see participate in the mechanism of expulsion (they have just thrown the former blind man out of the synagogue) and see absolutely nothing.

Jesus insists that the works which he carries out ought to bear witness that he comes from the Father. He tells this to those who pick up stones, preparing to kill him, in John 10:31-39. For us to be able to understand that Jesus’ works give witness to the Father, I think that it is vital for us to understand what Jesus is saying to them. He is not saying: “Look here, I’ve done plenty of good works, and that means I’m a holy sort of fellow,” but rather “Look, what I am doing could not be done except by the Creator of all things himself. Even if you don’t particularly like me, at least look at the creative works and the signs. By whom else could these things be done if not by the Creator? So, He is working through me, and that does indeed authenticate the fact that I am a dependable representative of God.”

The fact that people hate him and seek to do away with him, even though they have seen the works which he carries out, suggests that these people are not just made uncomfortable by him, but that they are in fact locked into a profound aversion to creation itself. They are clinging on to a form, futile, useless and shot through with death, of incomplete creation, and resisting being completely created — which means coming to be completely dependently and joyfully creative, following what we saw in our discussion of Jesus’ “flexible paradigm.”

So that when, in John 16:20-21, Jesus uses the language of a woman in labor to describe his going to his death, John places in his mouth the same metaphor which Paul uses to describe the whole of creation in travail, through the persecutions which bring to light the children of God (Rom. 8:18-23). Jesus’ self-giving up to death is the fulfillment of creation, the putting of creation into a state of labor, so that we also, by our creative imitation of him in the midst of the order of death can come to be the fully-created creatures which God always wanted us to be, and with us, the whole of creation. It is because of this that Jesus’ last word before his death in John’s Gospel is tetelestai: it is accomplished, it has been brought to fulfillment. This means that creation itself has been brought to fulfillment by his self-giving up to death so as to open up for us a creative way by which we may come to participate fully in creation. It can be understood then, why the resurrection happens on the first day of the week, in the garden. Creation has started again, a creation in which the tomb is empty.

I emphasize this point, subtly hinted at by John, because if we are going to come close to recovering the eschatological imagination, I don’t think that we can do it while we imagine Jesus dragged boredly to an unnecessary death. John understood Jesus to be possessed by a completely extraordinary imagination, utterly fixed on God, in such a way that as a human being he could produce the final touch of divine creation, which consists in creatively imagining a way in which we — the rest of the human race — might be set free from what seems to be our very nature: mortality, and the way in which death runs our lives. John also gives a very important indication of how Jesus himself conceived of what he was doing: he speaks of the joy of Jesus. Jesus draws nigh to his death with joy. His creative work is perhaps — how could it be more — solemn, and in our eyes, terrifying; perhaps it did produce a trembling and a sweat of blood, but it was conceived in joy, by someone whose creative mind was fixed on an inexhaustible creative joy. This joy is something which he wanted his disciples to have: “And now I come to thee, and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13).

He had told them before, that, after they have seen him at the resurrection, they will rejoice, and no one will take away their joy (John 16:22). This joy, like the peace which Jesus gives but the world cannot give, is the joy which flows from the fixing of the mind on the utter vivaciousness of the living, effervescent God who knows not death; a fixing of the mind which will be possible for them after Jesus has opened the possibility for mortal humans (shot through with death) to participate in that creative love and life by going to his death. John is not the only witness to this. We have already read in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

…(our) eyes fixed on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

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