I find it very easy to believe that a man wandered around the region of Nazareth 2000 years ago telling people that all they needed to do to achieve bliss on the earth and in heaven was to love one another. However, I find it extremely difficult to believe that such a man was born of a woman who was literally a virgin.
To my understanding, the story of Jesus is somewhat similar to the story of St George. Records indicate there was a man called George who did some marvellous deeds for others, he did not, however, literally slay a dragon. St George was a Christian who lived in the third century, in Lydia (modern day Turkey). He refused to worship pagan Gods, so he was killed. By the tenth century, St George’s story had morphed into him being a knight that slayed a fire breathing dragon. Both of these symbols (knight and dragon) are storytelling devices that people could easily relate to. The use of symbolism to portray themes and evoke emotional responses are classic storytelling devices.
Tintoretto, Saint George Killing the Dragon c.1557
Note: In the above painting of St George killing a dragon by Tintoretto, he was included a depiction of the crucified Jesus lying between himself and the woman who is running away; all elements of the picture are symbolic of theological concepts.
Somewhere, somehow, the simple message of loving one another got mixed up in human traits of confusion, desire for power, jumping to the wrong conclusions, and/or over complicating matters. In other words, some people did not heal their internal wounds, some continued to act out of trauma responses. When I say some, I really mean many. And when many people are acting out of a place of hurt, abusive behaviours can become normalised. We still are not at a point in history in which the majority of people have recalibrated their nervous systems so as a new normal can be set.
As a child growing up under the influence of Catholicism, I never understood how to connect the symbology of the bible with Christian teachings about love. To my mind, phrases like “He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God” (Revelations 19:13) have a grotesque imagery. Why would the Word of God need to be dipped in blood? It has been a journey of intellectual inquiry for me to understand that a person to be wearing a robe dipped in blood is not a symbol of violence and death. I’ve needed to put aside my subject reactions in order to come to the realisation that is not how the ancients viewed blood. Rather, they saw it as a symbol of life (see What most Christians don’t know: Christian Faith is Based on Jewish Blood Magic (Extended version)). Therefore, to be wearing a garment covered in blood, in this instance, is to be cloaked in the life-force of God. To drink Jesus’ blood (John 6:54) is to be filled with that life. The heart pumps blood throughout the body, and the heart is a symbol of love, therefore, the association of God’s life force, love, flowing around the body, like blood, makes perfect sense.
If Newton’s analysis of the bible is correct, then the Holy Spirit is another symbol for blood. Therefore, understanding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, in which God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are One, takes on a new perspective: God, the Son, and Love. (Newton took the Arian perspective God, the Son and Holy Spirit were separate. To me, the whole argument is arbitrary and non consequential to the message of love; it’s like arguing over if the chicken or egg came first.)
When I was a child at a Catholic primary school, long before I could read the Bible for myself, we were taught that we were all sons and daughters of God. We were also taught that we were to strive to be like Jesus, and embody love, just like He did. So it is, I am still left wondering: Is the mystical version of Jesus Christ, as expressed in numerous artworks, a real man who walked upon the earth? If so, was he a young man who carried a wand? Or was he older man with a beard? Or was there a more human version, a man who embodied the Holy Trinity and taught other men (and women) about God’s Holy Spirit? At this point in time, I cannot give a defiant opinion.
My mind wanders upon many paths of inquiry. If the Holy Spirit is love, then that would explain the story of pentecost and how when the apostles received the gift of the Holy Spirit they were able to communicate with all others: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4). Love crosses all boundaries, love is a universal language.
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.1 Corinthians 14:1-2
At the simplest level, prophecy simply means the will of the Gods, not predictions of the future. Hence, God’s will, as given by the gift of the Holy Spirit, is for all people to speak the language of love. It’s a simple principle. Why then do so many people struggle with it? There are many variables, namely: There is often the look of an angel on the Devil himself (Old Irish proverb).
When people have been abused or traumatised, it often very difficult to hear, feel, and give love. Love heals, but sometimes it takes time.
When I was doing my art therapy training, we were taught the importance of hearing our client's stories, of being witnesses to their pain. To be heard, to be validated, and to be respected, are key principles of any psychotherapy. However, such healing experiences do not need to be clinical. Every person on this planet has the capacity to be that safe space that others may need. Love is simple, yet being loving can be complex. There are guidelines, but there are no definite rules. Sometimes, when a person is sharing their grievance, they need to have their views challenged, other times, they just simply need to be heard and they will work out the rest on their own. As a therapists in training, we were introduced to numerous theories and approaches so as we could build up resource kits that were large enough for us to have an array of options to choice from in the face of unknown circumstances that may arise with our clients. We also needed to learn that not everything that looked like nail needed a hammer to fix it, sometimes, the role of therapist just means holding a safe space.
Ultimately, we are all therapists, to each other.
Personally, I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so many people who may not understand the symbology of the Bible or the principles of trauma-informed care, but they show me the love that I need, when I need it. Like the friend I mentioned in the epilogue, we have known each other for nearly ten years. He has seen me at my best of times and at my worst of times, and vice versa. We've known each other long enough to detect whether the other needs tenderness or loving toughness in which boundaries are acknowledged.
I am tempted to list all the wonderful people in my life and use this opportunity to thank them, but to do so risks accidentally missing some people. I like to think the people who are currently close to me or have been close in the past know who they are. There are also those whose interactions have been brief but nonetheless, they have impacted me and shown me what love is by being their genuine loving selves; I suspect many of these people do not know who they are.
As I look through the Bible with my increased understanding of ancient symbolism, all my past surface level interpretations fade. The book of Revelation that once looked like a horror story, now appears to a book of hope, and the obscure references to virgins make a lot more sense if they are understood to be a colloquial way of saying “daughters”, which in turn means groups of people. Therefore, verses like below is a reference to groups of people who follow love.
All of these are pure virgins, and they follow the Lamb wherever he leads.Book of Revelations 14:4
My search for understanding ancient symbols is ongoing, but my search for understanding the significance of Jesus, as I imagine the Early Christians saw him, is complete. I do not believe the apostles literally left their families, wives, or children to follow Christ. Rather, they left the metaphorical households of religions that did not put love in the centre of their doctrines. Hence, they preached to not call any man on earth their father (Matthew 23:9).
To me, a lot of Christian symbols have become as tarnished as the Swastika, but love is a doctrine I can commit to.