the ground we share
When I read the line from Saint Paul in his farewell speech to the presbyters of the church of Ephesus––‘… keep in mind the words of the Lord … “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ [i]––I thought, “Hmmm… that’s beautiful.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute. Jesus never said that.” I’d like to think we are getting a peek into ancient history here, from the dawn of Christianity, the time before the gospels were even thought about being written down. We have no evidence that Paul had actually ever heard Jesus preach, even though they were contemporaries. So how did Paul know that Jesus said that? Had Paul been told that this was something that Jesus had said?
It’s actually a citation from the Book of Sirach, one of the Deuterocanonical books: Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive and closed when it is time to give.[ii] Most of the Deuterocanonical books are assumed to have been written in Greek, but a fragment of this particular book of Sirach was found in the late 19th century in a synagogue storeroom in Cairo, in Hebrew. As far as folks can figure out, the grandson of Ben Sirach translated it from Hebrew into Greek for the Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora living there around 200 years before Jesus’ birth, and it is that version that made it into the Christian canon as Ecclesiasticus. And Paul has learned that this was a favorite maxim of Jesus who might have heard it from his father or in the synagogue. Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive and closed when it is time to give. Or It is more blessed to give than to receive.
I wrote a song some years ago based on the title of a book by David Stiendl-Rast called “The Ground We Share.” I wrote it about my trip to Jerusalem, reflecting on how Jerusalem is a city that’s precious and holy to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. That’s the literal ground, the city of Jerusalem. But that word ‘ground’ has all kinds of other resonances for me. First of all there is the ground of our being human, the ground of our common humanity. Part of the reason I’m aching over this situation in Israel right now is from having been there. I can feel it in my body. What a powerful spiritual experience it was to lean my head against the Western Wall! So I can sympathize with the Jewish people’s love for Jerusalem. On the other hand, we were also in the occupied territories, and the kids who are hurling rocks at the Israeli Defense Force right now look like the kids who sang and danced for us in Hebron.
I’ve noticed how many times the Church stresses the unity of humankind in the documents of Vatican II and beyond. Nostra Aetate starts out declaring that “The community of all peoples is one, their origin is one, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal––God. God’s providence … God’s saving design extends to all people.” And how many times the opening words of Gaudium et Spes come to my mind, echoed in the Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs and Occasions:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. …That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.[iii]
I like to think that there’s a primal unity and there’s a final unity. The primal unity is this common humanity, the ground that we share, and even the dynamic ground of Absolute Reality, God the Source of all Being from whom we come forth: “The community of all peoples is one, their origin is one…” Unfortunately, in the normal trajectory of human growth toward individuality and in the normal evolution of consciousness and the growth of civilizations, we somehow lose that unity, we lose that sense of our unity with others and with all creation, our awareness, our consciousness of it; and we break into a narrow nepotism, tribalism and nationalism. But the most enlightened and holy ones in our midst stumble upon unity again. And that can bring us as much grieving as it does joy, because “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted … are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” I think that the oneness that Jesus speaks about in Jn 15 is the final unity––that they may be one just as we are one.’ [iv] As Nostra Aetate says, “One also is [our] final goal––God. … God’s saving design extends to all people.” But maybe, as Thomas Merton so famously wrote in his Asian Journal, it’s not “that we discover a new unity,” but we discover, or re-discover, that old unity, the ancient, the primal unity. “My dear brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
I want to repurpose the old saying of Dorotheus of Gaza: “The closer we come to the center, the closer we come to one another and all of creation,” or maybe better, the closer we come to the center, the more we realize that we never actually were far from one another and all creation.
I think it is significant that Saint Paul in his final words to the presbyters of the church of Ephesus, like the words that Ben Sirach leaves to his grandson, like Jesus leaves to his closest disciples in his priestly prayer, all accent this unity. Paul admonishes them: ‘I have shown you that we must help the weak, and keep in mind the words of the Lord, that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”’ And Jesus prays, that they may be one just as we are one. With Jesus, let’s pray that our hands stretched out to receive would not be closed to give; let’s pray that we may come closer to the center and that as we do we would recover our original unity, and be what we are.
cyprian, 17 may 18
[i] Acts 20:28-38.
[ii] Sir 4:31.
[iii] GS #1.
[iv] Jn 17:11b-19.