Natural Religion in Ficino Thought

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(John 20:1-18 NRSV) 1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Pet
  (John 20:1-18 NRSV) 1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to thetomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to SimonPeter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, They have taken theLord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other discipleoutran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappingslying there, but he did not go in. 6  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into thetomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7  and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, notlying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, whoreached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understandthe scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into thetomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one atthe head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, Woman, why are you weeping? She saidto them, They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. 14 Whenshe had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that itwas Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell mewhere you have laid him, and I will take him away. 16  Jesus said to her, Mary! She turned andsaid to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni! (which means Teacher). 17  Jesus said to her, Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I amascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' 18 Mary Magdalene went andannounced to the disciples, I have seen the Lord ; and she told them that he had said thesethings to her.  1Close to the Heart of TranscendenceA sermon preached at North-Prospect United Church of Christ, Cambridge, MassachusettsDate: March 31, 2002Rev. Dudley C. RoseText: John 20:1-18Marsilio Ficino, the fifteenth century Italian physician and philosopher says, “Thereligious impulse is as natural to humans as neighing is to horses and barking to dogs.” 1 Such isthe foundation for spirituality and faith. Such is what draws us here on Sunday mornings and toour knees, sometimes in joy and sometimes in sorrow. We human beings seek quite naturally toconnect with the divine, with the transcendent, with that which is beyond our ordinarycomprehension and experience. Seeking God is as natural, says Ficino as a dog barking or ahorse neighing.That simple truth explains a lot. It explains why so many people who have amassedmaterial wealth or status or knowledge still feel fundamentally empty. It’s why no matter howmuch science explains the universe, so many of us still sense that mystery is still at work. It’swhat stirred in the monk Thomas Moore, who says, “I remember when I was thirteen and left aloving family to enter a religious order. I, too, was reaching for more than what I saw around me.I didn’t really know what I was after, but I knew I wanted to reach as high as I could.” 2 It’s whythe fears each of us trembles to speak and the hopes each of us dares not to dream, we do speak and we do dream in church, and in our conversations with God.And surely it was this natural inclination for something more and greater and mysticalthat motivated Jesus’ disciples. So strong was that impulse that we read they dropped their netsat Jesus’ simple bid, “Follow me.” So strong was the impulse that even though they often did notunderstand his meaning, they continued faithfully with him day after day in the countryside andin the towns. So strong was that impulse that they thought Jesus could mightily unseat theRoman Empire and be the true Son of David, conqueror, empire builder, and restorer of God’schosen people.And so, that last week was crushing disappointment. It’s hard to know what they thoughtof the previous Sunday, that day they entered Jerusalem. The ambivalence is carried forwardeven to today, when we often refer to the day as Pal/Passion Sunday. Was it a triumphal entry?Was it the beginning of the end?I imagine the disciples’ insides were churning and conflicted. Was this really their besthope come true? Were they walking into Jerusalem to dismantle Rome? Maybe. But eventhough they had tried to ignore it, Jesus’ former words had crept into their minds – “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,and be killed.” (Mark 8:31) And even if he had not troubled them with these words, their owndoubts would have plagued them. What are we against the legions of Rome? What if we arewrong? What if God doesn’t save us? I know I would have been asking those questions. If Iwere Peter, I would have been wearing one of those bumper stickers that says, “I’d rather be  2fishing.”As the week progressed, the evidence grew. The week was looking worse and worse.The authorities were irritated, and Jesus wasn’t helping much. He tipped things over in thetemple. He embarrassed the leaders. But all the while there was no evidence that Jesus wouldactually defend himself, much less overturn the empire. And yet there was also no evidence hewould make a run for it, escape in the night. Instead Jesus told his disciples of sorrow and theworld’s hatred and that they would be scattered. Every day the storm clouds grew thicker andheavier.Then came that night in the garden. The government called it an arrest. They also calledwhat followed a trial. It was all very disturbing to the disciples, and it was hard to tell what wasmore troubling them – the sham that passed for justice, or the utter passivity with which Jesusaccepted defeat. In the end their worst fears were realized. Rome was unmoved. Jesus had beenlittle more than an itch. He was dispatched quickly. Except for a few friends and followers, thecity hardly took notice. Friday night they slept fitfully, if at all. For on Friday night they had to begin facing that all they had hoped Jesus would be for them and do for them was simply amistake.Marsilio Ficino says that religion, the impulse to encounter and believe in thetranscendent is as natural as breathing. But on Good Friday night, Jesus’ disciples had to acceptthat Jesus had stopped breathing, and so too had their confidence in, their hopeful longing for God. We read that they closed themselves behind locked doors and hid out in fear and indespair.Come Sunday morning, there seemed nothing left to do, except maybe the simple thingsone does in the days after death. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb before dawn, in the dark.Mary went to pay her respects, to grieve. The Gospel of John says that Jesus had already beenwrapped with the spices when he was buried. Mary comes, then, as we all have, to the grave-sideof a loved one to remember, to pray, to mourn, to carry on a bit of a conversation, and inevitablyto feel the disappointment that even the longest and best-lived life leaves behind when it passes.Mary arrives at Sunday morning with her hope extinguished. But she is in for a surprise.There is a great irony in that. Just at the moment when the flames of her hope for something beyond the common possibilities have gone out, surprises begin to happen. There’s something tothink about here. Just when Mary comes to the tomb expecting nothing, she finds surprises.Mary came with no agenda left. I wonder if we don’t all sometimes try to provide God theagenda more than we are prepared to listen to God’s. Those who followed Jesus sure did. Butnow, Easter morning, Mary expected nothing at all. She had given up her plans and dreams.And it was then that the glory of that morning began to unfold.But even then the disciples didn’t fully comprehend what was going on. In John theangels in the tomb come later. John’s version is quite different from the other Gospels. Maryfinds the stone gone. She retrieves Simon and the other disciple. They rush to the tomb. Theylook in. They see nothing. And the disciples return home.Mary, too, seems to have resigned herself to the facts. Jesus is gone. His body has beentaken, which only deepens her sorrow. Then the angels come. “They say to her, ‘Woman, whyare you weeping?’ She says to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know wherethey have laid him.’” And now the gardener shows up and asks her the same question. She says,  3“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”And then comes perhaps the most tender single word in all the Bible. It’s not thegardener. It’s Jesus, whom Mary has not recognized. Jesus addresses her by name, “Mary.”One word and a galaxy full of emotion. And now Mary recognizes Jesus and responds with likefondness, “Rabbouni.”I love Easter morning. We have tulips and lilies, great hymns and music, even trumpet.We sing and preach and pray the resurrection, all to declare the power of this day. It is a grandcelebration. It is a gala to express just what a wild and surprising and wonderful thing happenedon Easter morning. It is a good and wonderful thing, the way we celebrate Easter. But it’sfunny, we do all the flowers and music and even getting up at dark hours for an early service, wedo them to convey the emotion and reality of that simple exchange: “Mary.” “Rabbouni!”Ficino says our yearning for God and faith are part of our very being as humans. Veryoften that expresses itself as a desire for more than we experience. Thomas Moore quotes a psychotherapist who says that the reason humans are so interested in things spiritual is because,“We all want more than what is.” 3 That’s probably right, but it puts us on a path which traverses a very tricky ridge. Veryoften the desire for more than what is means that we long for the grass on the other side of thefence. The disciples yearned for something more than what was, and they looked to Jesus tocreate a new world order as the answer to their yearning. To be fair to the disciples, their longingwas not entirely, or even mostly material. But they wanted Jesus to be that transcendent realitywhich would lead them to the kingdom of heaven, a place and an existence, maybe a spiritualexperience far above that which they knew.There are a million ways to want more than what is. And most of them entail our attempts to trade in this reality for a better one. And that is just where so many of us tumble off the ridge. That moment outside the tomb on Easter morning when Jesus and Mary Magdaleneaddress each other is a profound moment of recognition. The transcendent had been in Mary’s presence all along. It had been walking day after day with the disciples. But all that time theywere busy wondering about where Jesus would take them. They failed entirely to appreciate thefact that everything they wanted was standing right there in front of them. Only when Marycried, “Rabbouni,” did she for the first time recognize him fully. Only then did she understandthat she and all of them had been close to the heart of transcendence all along.Thomas Moore says of those he has known who were the most holy that, “They seemextraordinarily present in the mundane situation before them. Their spirituality is not outside thisworld but consists in a seeping of the spirit from the particulars of the ordinary. The moreengrossed they are in this momentary world, the more eternal their vision seems to be.” 4 Surelyas we read the Gospels that characterizes Jesus. Who was ever more present to the particulars of the pain and circumstances and people that he encountered than Jesus was? Over and over againhe tried to tell those who were with him that this was the path to the kingdom of God.We have this longing for transcendence, for something more than what is. That often getsus grasping for something a long way away. But Jesus wants us to know that this finding of transcendence starts a lot closer than we think. It is right to wish for more than what is. Butwhat Jesus means is that there is a lot more in what is before us than we appreciate. There is alot more holy and transcendent in what is than we often see in what is.
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