“But one day I shall know how to use
the poor passions
that flinch from the surface
of evident life - to surpass what I cannot
survive, search out, to partake
of the sleeper’s metallic condition
and his burning beginnings.”
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda penned these words as he lay dying of cancer, and you can hear him grasping for what the Village Voice called, “the clarity of spiritual flight.” To join the sleeper, to bring those poor passions that try to escape the lifelessness of this surface world of metallic conquest, and partake in the burning beginning of waking up to the unknown. To begin to surpass that which we cannot survive. The work was named Skystones - the bringing of disparate things together - on earth we do not find stones in our sky - but that moon out beyond, those shining planets in the universe, that cosmos we have barely yet to reach… those stones mark a continual frontier edge that we could never fully grasp in our lifetime. I like to think that on the day he released his last breath, Neruda sighed into the place beyond imagining, switched out his soul and found that spiritual flight. I have faith that he found the greatest of all freedom. Our cosmic Christ invites us into this freedom ultimately, and I believe each of us shall learn it. Even so, we are called in this world to pursue freedom, to taste freedom - to grasp what is unimaginable and switch the reality of what is, to find freedom in the triumph of love that can and shall be so pervasive as to be accepted by all.
When Jacob grasps the heel of his firstborn brother Esau, he is marking that switch that is to come, the unboundedness that will occur when he is no longer considered a second, and therefore lesser, son. What is the manner of this significant grasping? This specific word for grasp in this Genesis passage is derived from the Hebrew achaz. We find it few other places in scripture. Job uses this word to describe God grasping him by the neck as a lament of unjust suffering. Yet, the psalmist speaks of God grasping their hand to guide them through unjust suffering, another lament wondering why it is that those who oppress seem to do very well. (Psalm 72) And in Exodus (Chapter 15), Moses’ song of praise for freedom and escape from Pharoah’s army across the sea sings into future trouble, noting that “anguish will grasp the people” who would try to overpower Israel. The use seems to be marked, in each instance, by an imbalance between one who overpowers, and one who struggles against it.
So which manner of grasping is it? Does Jacob’s grasp mark an overpowering of Esau, as Job believes God has overpowered him? Esau is the stronger of the two brothers, one who will grow up to be a hunter. In all things, Jacob tricks, Jacob struggles, but Jacob does not overpower. Does the grasp of Jacob try to guide, as the God of the psalmist? Well again this assumes a certain amount of power over Esau, which in Jacob’s position, is not possible. The second born guiding the first? No. We can see, the position and intent of the grasping matter. Given his position, Jacob grasps as one reaching for what is out of bounds - the position of his firstborn brother. Jacob grasps to upend the rules of what is for what can be. Thecla, I imagine, grasped Paul’s chains as she kissed them, similarly marking the switch that would soon occur.
Hers is the switch of making space for that which was once deemed impossible. This woman who was set to marry, takes the place of Paul on the executioner’s block. She is saved by, and so recognized by, God - she switched to this imprisoned position. Jacob upon wheedling the birthright from his brother, also switches position to become one who has a right to inherit. Switching as Christ switched, the first shall be last and the last first… In this instance, the first shall be second and the second shall be first.
In this switching, both Jacob and Thecla move to a new position. They are free from their old way of being. Rabbi Gerri from Temple Beth Shalom around the corner has shared his study on morning, afternoon, and evening prayer, each linked up with a different patriarch. Jacob, he says, is the patriarch of the night. Night is the true beginning of the next day in the Jewish faith. Jacob the trickster patriarch, unlike his grandfather Abraham who first set out at the dawn of discovering home, unlike his father Isaac rested and built upon what was, Jacob finds new ways forward in the midst of what already is, he is unbound from particular aspects of what came before.
Thecla is unbound far more literally from those burning ropes with a storm. She, too, escapes what was then considered a necessary convention for a young woman - she escapes her mother and fiance who seek to own her at all costs, and we shall see the extent to which she experiences freedom in the coming weeks. But what if Thecla had not been saved? Is freedom always based on freedom from death? What is it that truly oppresses? When our bodies are oppressed, can we be free in the midst of that? Looking back, Thecla goes to her death with joy. Nowadays we may be inclined to mark that joy as crazy fanatacism. Perhaps she was free before the storm rained out the fire.
Someone called the office this week who is not a member of our church - he’s not even in Park Ridge. For the sake of his confidentiality, let’s call him “Fred”. Fred was feeling - many things - but especially trapped by his loss of independence. His eyesight was failing him, and he could no longer drive. He described the way his house feels like a prison cell and he didn’t understand, and none of us can, why he had to suffer this way. Why couldn’t God just take him home to be with his beloved wife Cheri. It is painful to grasp for healing from bodily pain, daring to believe it is possible, and not experiencing that bodily healing. But we all die, so healing will not always be - sometimes it will be - but healing will not always be the miracle of escaping bodily death. Sometimes the miracle of healing is the miracle of freedom from the fear of death. Sometimes the miracle of wholeness and freedom is the embrace of the resurrection, the confidence in feeling that, even if we can’t fully know how, death is not the end. And it can be the difference between moving forward with your head held high, or staying down beneath the proverbial boot. Christ in the resurrection offers us the ultimate switch. The most impossible of impossibilities has been up-ended and made true. All switches are now possible, and ought to be grasped.
I recently joined a book study group with Colleen Wessle-McCoy. Some of you may remember her from when she led a Bible study on Rev. Dr. King. She is working out her thesis now for publication, and we on the study get to pour over her work on the Poor People’s Campaign movement. This is the work across race lines to unite the poor for social change. This movement has been more formally resurrected, but as Colleen points out, it never really ended even when the tent city called Resurrection City was dismantled, and it never simply started during the civil rights movement. There have been grasps throughout our history that have all pointed to this moment in time when the Poor People’s movement is erupting with new force, more provocatively seeking to switch out a world where poverty still exists and replace it with one where all can enjoy the abundance that is enjoyed by so few.
This is not just a power grab, a switch that places one ultimately below. This campaign does not advocate for the rich to know the squalor of poverty. Rather, the switch for which they grasp is far more akin to what Christ’s last shall be first entails. It is more akin to what happens later in the Jacob saga. The switch between Jacob and Esau does ultimately lead to a falling out, but there was also a coming back together again, where they met as equals. The South African author J.M. Coetzee (Coot-zey) wrote in his essay Doubling the Point, “in a world of masters and slaves no one is free.” As one speaking from the experience of South African apartheid, Coetzee marked a grasp for something other than the convention of necessitating people who are relegated to the bottom for the benefit of those at the top. He grasps for coming together as equals, that all may be unbound.
Grasping to switch is always a challenge - for the euphemistically inclined, an adventure - certainly always a struggle over time. It was many years between the time Jacob grasped the heel of Esau and when Esau sold Jacob his birthright as firstborn. Though Thecla we see today has made her first step into freedom, she is yet bound by other aspects from which she will seek to free herself. We can go out remembering the Christ switch, one who switched out divinity for humanity, one who switched out the first for the last, one who switched out death for life. When all else fails, it is Christ we grasp. For we are an unbound people, a freedom people. Past any edifice or institution, we grasp for the Christ-way, and wait for Christ’s switching-servant-freedom to grasp the world.
Photo by Sara Santandrea on Unsplash