“i am truth!”
There was a renowned 9th century Sufi master from Bhagdad named Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj. One of the things he was famous for was his teaching of the need to make what he called the inner hajj. The hajj of course is the pilgrimage to Mecca that a devout Muslim is to make once in a lifetime, to the Ka‘bah, the building at the center of the great mosque, which is considered to be the house of Allah. And so, we must find the inner house of Allah, the inner house of God. He was also, you might say, a devotee of Jesus: he called Jesus the “inner Sufi.”
Two things about him reminded me of today’s gospel story.[i] The first was Jesus’ saying to Philip, ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father.’ As many Sufi masters did, so al-Hallaj wrote a lot of ecstatic love poems to God. Here’s one: “I am the One whom I love, / and the One whom I love is me. / We are two souls in one body. / When you see me, you see Him, / And when you see Him, you see us both.”
And the other thing that reminded me of today’s gospel was, as the story goes, one day this raggedy old man ran into the market place yelling ana l’haq–– “I am Truth.” Al-haqq is one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God as found in the Qur‘an, so this was as much as saying “I am God.” For such a heinous offense, al-Hallaj was brought before the ulama (the religious scholars), but refused to recant. And so was tortured in the most horrendous way, including being crucified (in imitation of Jesus?) and his body burned with the remains scattered in the Tigris.
Orthodox religion––at least among Jews, Christians and Muslims––has always been suspicious about this boundary line being crossed, claiming any kind of identity with God. (We don’t have time here to go into the different mystics and their poetry in this regard who get so awfully close.) But make no mistake about it: this is at least one of the main reasons that Jesus gets in trouble with his fellow Jews. And if we had heard Jesus saying some of the things we read about, we might have been just as suspicious. (The verbs Jesus uses in the Bread of Life discourse in John chapter 6, for instance––which mean something really visceral and literal like “I am the bread of life: gnaw on me” or “chew on me”––I think I might have been one of the people to just walk away.) Especially in the Gospel of John, as the Jews say to Pilate as they bring Jesus before him, ‘We have our law and according to that law he ought to die because he made himself God’s son!’
Yet that really is what he did and what he claimed. So many times his identity with the Father has come up as we have heard in the readings after Easter from the Book of Glory, Jesus’ farewell discourse and priestly prayer in the 14th through 17th chapters of John. Or when he makes that bold declaration, ‘I tell you this now … so that you may believe that I AM’ or ‘…before Abraham was I AM’[ii] hence taking the divine name as his own.
And so these sayings of Jesus today are all of a piece with that. I am the way: Jesus is declaring that in his own body––and the physicality of this is not to be left out!––he is bursting the veil that separates humanity from divinity, in his Eucharistic offering of self in service and on the cross. His very flesh becomes the way. I am the truth: How often have we heard Jesus say in these past days that the words he speaks are not his words but the word of the one who sent him? His will is perfectly in line with the divine will so much so that he is become Truth itself. I am the life: and in our understanding of the economy of these things, it is by virtue of the life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of this man Jesus––body, blood, soul and divinity––that a new portion of the Spirit of life is poured out on humankind, the same spirit that flowed through Jesus’ veins, the Spirit that raised him from the dead, is now poured into our hearts as life for the world.
And so for us… ‘Where I am’––mind you, he is saying this while he is still on this side of the cross and grave––‘Where I am you also will be.’ And “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. That’s the place I am preparing for you, to be in God and God in you.” I think we should be careful about running into the marketplace, let alone in the middle of Sunday Mass proclaiming as Mansur al-Hallaj did declaring that we ourselves are God incarnate, for the sake of modesty if nothing else. But Cyril of Alexandria says, “Our being is linked with his.” (Our very being is linked with his!!) Or as Paul says (and St. Bernard of Clairvaux picks up on this when he writes about the mystical marriage) anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.[iii] The mystical union, Bernard says, is when the soul is married to God and, though of different substances, it becomes one spirit with God. If there is a way to sum up Christian mystical experience, this is undoubtedly the most sublime: that we become one spirit with God in a mystical marriage. Or, realize that we are and always have been one spirit with God, because God is the source of our being, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.[iv] We may not want to say “I am the way,” but if, as Paul advises us,[v] we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to the Lord; if we unite our bodies to the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus, we certainly realize ourselves as part of, a member of the Body of Christ who is the way and we participate in this way who is the Body of Christ. We may not want to declare, “I am the truth!” But if (again as Paul suggests in Romans 12) we be transformed by the renewing of our minds; if we empty ourselves of all that is not godly; if we undergo a kenosis like Jesus, then we can have the mind of Christ, Paul says, and we can be partakers of––and proclaimers of––the Truth, of the mind of God. We may not say “I am the life,” but (again from St. Paul) if we carry in our bodies the dying, the kenosis, the self-emptying of the Lord, then our gift to the world is his life,[vi] the stream of life giving water that flows from out of the believer’s heart.
And this doesn’t just apply to us as individuals. Saint Peter uses the evocative image[vii] that Jesus is a “living stone.” And then he follows up with his exhortation to us to be participants in Jesus’ divine nature when he says let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood––like living stones. Now we move from the individual to the community. Not only Jesus: each of us is a living stone, and together we make up a holy nation and royal priesthood, the real church. We are the whole living, breathing Body of Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.
[i] Jn 14:1-12.
[ii] Jn 13:19; 8:58.
[iii]1 Cor 6:17.
[iv] Acts 17:28.
[v] Rom 12:1.
[vi] 2 Cor 4:10.
[vii] 1 Pt 2:4-9.