I woke this morning rather early, for my second pee, with dawn’s light just beginning to seep in from the east, when, glimpsing through my bathroom window to the west, I saw something I don’t remember seeing before: a full moon, already about a third obscured, setting in the west. It seemed uncanny to me. I had never seen a moon-set before, at least not that I remember. I’ve seen a quarter or half-moon in the western sky high up, while the sun rose in the east, but never this—a full moon looking almost like the sun setting, only it was this bright, glowing moon. Later, I saw an item in my Bing news feed: that this was a special moon in another sense; it was a “blue moon,” the second full moon in a single calendar month. And, a bit later, that it was also a “paschal” moon—the moon around which Passover, and therefore the Easter that always follows the Jewish holiday (since Jesus was a Jew and celebrated his Last Supper in honor of Passover), also revolves.
Of course, it’s not Easter yet. It’s Good Friday. And that name also gives me pause. I mean in what sense is the gruesome crucifixion that Good Friday celebrates “good?” Why do Christians celebrate (as many adherents of other religions often ask) the brutal torture and killing of their God? Why have they made it the central symbol of their religion? Why do religious people wear crosses or even crucifixes (metal images of their dead God hung from the cross) around their necks?
I haven’t thought about these things for many years, mainly because I have been practicing Buddhism since my thirties and Christianity has seemed mostly irrelevant. But of course, like many others, I still mark Christian holidays by attending special family dinners, featuring traditional meals that I love. And periodically I write a blog about one of the holidays and the philosophy behind it. As I’m doing here. What is this Good Friday thing? Does it depend on knowing that the dead God, Jesus, will rise again on Easter Sunday (implying that we, too, will survive our death)? Is that why the Friday of his death is “good?” Or is the Friday of the God-slaying “good” even aside from the joy of the resurrection?
If I remember correctly, there is something “good” about the death of Jesus, about his sacrifice, because he is thought to be redeeming all Christians (and perhaps all of humanity) thereby. His death is an atonement, a sacrifice to his Father, the big Macher, for the “sins” of humanity. And because he is believed to be no less than God himself, this sacrifice, this death of God himself, is sufficient to make up for, to atone for the horrible sin(s) of humans. And that, of course, raises the key question: what have we humans done that we require such an awful atonement?
If we follow orthodoxy and the Bible, we would have to say that humans, in the persons of Adam and Eve, sinned against God by eating of the forbidden fruit. As Milton put it in Paradise Lost: “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/ Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe…” So there it is: this flouting of God’s command in Paradise set the stage for the coming of Jesus to perform his sacrifice and redeem us all from what Roman Catholics call “original sin.” But clearly, we’re not just talking about an apple here (or even a pomegranate). The Bible is referring to something more critical, more outrageous. It is referring to some deep transgression, a crime so unforgiveable that only the death of God’s son could atone for it.What could that be?
Given the symbolism, we might reason, it had to do with eating—since eating the fruit is what causes the problem in the first place. And this reminds me of the first novel I ever wrote, still unpublished, called Eat. It concerns a character who decides that human life disgusts him so much that he will stop eating. Stop eating altogether. Not a fast for some political reason, but simply as a sign of his disgust with the human situation. It was based on some fasting done by a student of mine when I was teaching at a small college in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, and I found it so fascinating, especially for an Italian, that I turned it into a novel. The point here is that the act of eating itself, no matter how we try to sanitize it, brings with it all kinds of ethical problems. If we eat meat, we are essentially eating the dead bodies of animals. And that requires that we take life to sustain life, that we kill something living to survive. And even if we limit our consumption to vegetable products, we are still taking vegetal life from plants that would prefer to proliferate on their own. There is simply no getting away from it: Life lives on other life. Living things survive by killing and consuming other living things. And so, if one wanted to live a perfectly blameless life, one would have to find some way to survive on air, or light, like the angels. This is the dream behind religion, not to mention the veganism, so popular in our time: there must be a way to survive without killing other beings.
If we were to expand this further, we could easily see that our current predicament, in this twenty-first century of the Christian era, stems from related problems. Humans have turned out to be the most lethal creatures ever to roam this earth. We have, anthropologists tell us, been directly responsible for the extinction of countless species—for example, several species of large mammals that once roamed the North American continent. Currently, our food production practices (what we do to raise cattle, pigs, fowl, and even fish on farms) are causing endless mayhem to the natural world. To provide grain for these animals, we have increasingly destroyed forests that are the literal lungs of our planet. The excrement from our farm animals is a major source of pollution, including methane, one of the most potent of greenhouse gases. And our industrial fishing of the oceans has depleted fish stocks to nearly the point of no return. The industry and population explosion made possible by this food system has led to global warming and what is turning out to be the greatest mass extinction of other species in history.
So, yes, our eating practices, our virtually infinite appetite for flesh to sustain us, could well be said to constitute our original sin. The flaw in the very biological construct that we are. But isn’t it the case that we are simply following the pattern laid down by evolution itself? Aren’t we simply doing what all living creatures do, and must do—consume each other? We are. And here we come to the real flaw. The root flaw, as I reflect on it, is our inability, our refusal to accept who and what we are. Our determination to make of ourselves, the species homo sapiens, something special. Something out of the ordinary. Something separate and unequal. Something that can somehow, no matter the cost, circumvent the necessity of our being. And so we invent gods, and sons of gods, who come into existence to save us from ourselves. Save us from being human. Jesus on the cross redeems us—and thereby makes it ok to do what is repulsive—consume the flesh of other beings. Then and thereby, we become humans who are above and beyond all other creatures. We are the special creature, the one that god saved by sending us his only son to die for us. And we can comfortably go on despoiling the earth and its creatures because we have been given that dispensation. We have been given Good Friday. We have been given redemption. We have, essentially, been given the earth to do with, to despoil as we will.
I think it is clear what the problem is here. What the “good” in Good Friday means to signify. And what we must all do, somehow, to move beyond our root refusal to accept our aliveness, must involve our human-ness and the responsibility that comes with it. The responsibility, I mean, to find a way to embrace our kinship, our continuation with all of creation that can keep us from consciously or unconsciously destroying it. An ability to somehow consume what we must consume with some sort of reverence. Some sort of restraint. Some sort of appreciation. Some species of willingness to allow all else to do the same in the precious and precarious balance all have been given.
Even when it means, as it inevitably must, that we ourselves are the consumed.