Down to Us: The Christ Epic as the Making of Humanity

by Dinah Livingstone

Dinah Livingstone looks at some familiar New Testament texts to consider how they inspire a humanist agenda.

As an introduction to this talk, which I gave recently to the Oxford SoF Group, I played the cheerful Entry Song to the Nicaraguan Peasant Mass. It begins:

You are the God of the poor,
the down-to-earth, human God,
God who sweats in the street,
God with a sun-burnt face.

The song is, of course, an echo of Matthew 25: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me... As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’ (25:35). That is, Christ is to be found today in our fellow human beings.

In Luke (4:18) when Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, he goes into the synagogue and quotes the prophet Isaiah, speaking about the messianic age:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.

The time has come, he says, the kairos, the right time. The time is now.. He goes on to say he must proclaim the ‘good news of the kingdom to other cities as well’ (Lk 4:43).

In Luke, the Sermon on the Mount is the Sermon on the Plain and in fact the texts are plainer (6:20):

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God
Blessed are you who are hungry now
for you will be filled.

Matthew’s version adds (5: 6,9):

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be filled.


Blessed are the peace makers.

Jesus preaches a kingdom or ‘reign’ of justice and peace, which is good news for the poor and hungry. It has been inaugurated by him but is not yet complete. It is both now and not yet. It seems he thought this reign was going to come quite soon. But of course people on Earth are still poor and hungry and we are still waiting for the reign of justice and peace. Jesus thought a supernatural God would guarantee the coming of this reign. If we do not believe in a supernatural God, we have no guarantee, but we can still have this vision of a happy humanity, a global just society in which everyone has a decent life, to inspire us and to struggle for. It is a humanist vision.

Now we turn briefly to Paul’s Letters and the curious thing is that Paul isn’t very interested in Jesus’ actual daily life or what he said. He assumes that Jesus preached kindness, that we should be kind to one another and lead a new life. For example, we have the reference in Acts 20 when he ‘remembers the words of the Lord Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive.’ But what really interests Paul is Jesus as the Christ. He concentrates on his incarnation and his passion, death, resurrection and final coming, which will be the making of humanity. Writing some twenty years or so after Jesus’ death, rather than an historian, Paul is a theologian (and perhaps a poet – at least, his Christ is the creation of what Blake called the human ‘poetic genius’).

Like Jesus himself, Paul seems to have expected Jesus to return and the kingdom to come soon – especially in one of the earliest Letters, 1 Thessalonians, written, according to the Jerusalem Bible editors, between AD 50 and 51 – that is, by the general consensus of scholars, a good while before the four Gospels in the form that we have them now were written . In this hope both Paul and Jesus were mistaken.

Paul is interested not so much in Jesus’ daily life as in what he, Jesus, as the Christ, represents in the cosmic scheme of things. The Christ is both Jesus the person and the eponymous hero of his people, the new Adam, representative of humanity in all its potential. Christ’s life becomes an epic story, a poem or drama of humanity’s – and the whole Earth’s – struggle for liberation.

At the beginning of Colossians, (dated by the Jerusalem Bible editors some ten or so years later than Thessalonians in 61-3)[1], the author writes or quotes a marvellous Christ poem (1:15). I’ll just give part of it:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation…
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the first born from the dead,
so that he might come to have the first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Christ is the ‘firstborn’ of the new humanity, its head as a social body, and in this new humanity ‘all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’.

In Philippians, (dated 56-7 by the Jerusalem Bible), Paul gives another poem, which may have been an early Christian hymn (2:5). It focuses on the shape of this drama: incarnation, death – passion or descent to the lowest depths –, and resurrection. [2] Christ Jesus:

who though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

Here we have the movement down and then up of Christ, the movement of one who was ‘in the form of God’ ‘emptying himself’ down to Earth, assuming humanity even in its lowest form, even in its most painful mortality – death on a cross – and then this humanity, represented by Christ, being highly exalted. As Athanasius put it a few centuries later, ‘God became man, so that man might become God’.

In this hymn Paul is thinking of Christ’s close parallel with the first Adam, who did ‘regard equality with God as something to be exploited’. Christ is the new Adam, who ‘recapitulates’ humanity, he is the Word with which humanity’s story is rewritten.

Humanists can read this as the God whom we invented, we set in heaven, coming back down to Earth, emptying himself back down into humanity, and then this humanity aspiring back up to the ideals we set in God. We make the Word and the Word makes us.

Or as it is put in II Corinthians: ‘In Christ there is a new creation (5:19)’… ‘for you know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (8:9).’

Or in another poem, Ephesians this time(4:7):

When he ascended on high,
he led captivity captive
and gave gifts to humanity.
When it says ‘He ascended’,
what does it mean but that he had also descended
to the lowest parts of the earth?
He who went down
is the same one who went up
far above the heavens
so that he might fill all things.

So the movement is down and then up as ‘a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:9).

For ‘he has put all things under his feet and made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph 1:23). ‘So that he might create in himself one new humanity… in one body’ (Eph 2:15).

Paul is constantly urging Christians in the new young churches to behave well, and especially, to behave well to one another. But his main theological interest is not private spirituality. In the whole emphasis on ‘spirituality’ today, the private individual is in the foreground – possibly because people worry that corporate religions tend to become gangs and then they start killing each other. Perhaps they just don’t like being bossed about by reactionary or sanctimonious clergy, or suffer from not being able to find a group with which they can agree. However, when it comes to belonging to the human race, rather than a particular congregation, we are members willy nilly. ‘Privatisation’ can be a false innocence, and immoderate individualism is at best self-defeating, since much human potential cannot be fulfilled in isolation, and at worst dangerous if it means just looking after number 1 and not caring about anyone else, or as Blake puts it: ‘planting thy family alone, destroying all the world beside’.

For Paul the new humanity is collective. Or to put it another way, the new humanity is Christ’s social body: ‘We who are many are one body because we all share the same loaf’ (I Cor 10:16). ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ’ (I Cor 12:12).

The project to create a humane humanity is ‘the building up of the body of Christ, until all of us come… to maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:12). The project is not yet complete. Paul can say : ‘I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body, the church’ (Col 1:24). Here too we have the tension between the now and the not yet. But in Christ, the new humanity, ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him’ (Col 2:9).

We human beings wrote the Christ epic as an imaginary project of human possibility. And in creating the epic we can create ourselves, when we try to become what we imagine. In it humanity does not achieve sameness but equality of status: ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all in all’ (Col 3:11). There is equality of status but not sameness: collective humanity is an articulated body with different members – hands and feet, ear and eye. For ‘If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing where would the sense of smell be?. If all were a single member, where would the body be?’ (I Cor 12: 17)

So the Christ epic is a story of Christ the individual hero descending to the lowest depths, reassuming them and then ascending, having gained a victory. The epic has a collective dimension: it is the myth of a people – in this case humanity – the body of Christ, coming to embody the divine wisdom (I Cor 1: 24). It also has a cosmic dimension – he is the cosmic Christ. Humanity and nature are not in opposition. Humanity is part of nature, the speaking part of it. Earth herself, ‘the whole creation’, will give birth to the new humanity: ‘for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly…’(Rom. 8:19).

As another way of representing its wholeness, the new humanity is described as a couple – male and female. The Church is Christ’s bride (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:23). As well as in Paul’s letters, we find this image in the later Book of Revelation (which the Jerusalem Bible dates around AD 95)

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband. (21:2):

Now is the time of the marriage of the Christ the Lamb.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: See the dwelling of God is among humans. He will dwell with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

God comes down to Earth. He will dwell with us. We set God in heaven. He is a creation of the human poetic genius, and in this story he comes back down into humanity, and human society – the city, the polis – finally comes to embody the abstract qualities of justice, goodness, love and so on, that we set as ideals in God. The f is towards humanism. ‘They got married and lived happily ever after’ is a fairy-tale ending, but of course, while life continues on Earth, a wedding is not an ending but the beginning of a new story and possible new lives…

There are many other myths of descent and re-ascent. To give just one example, Orpheus (whose father was said to be the Sun god Apollo) loses his wife, his female companion. He goes down into the underworld to bring her back, but fails. This failure then adds a new dimension to his singing. He has visited the underworld and come back with knowledge but without his wife. Though he remains unhappy, his art is perfected by his sense of loss [3]. But that’s another story…

In the Christ epic the collective dimension is in the foreground. But we can also read the descent and re-ascent myth as the image of an individual psychic process. In order to be whole, the human individual has to go down, perhaps into the unconscious, and confront our own demons, release what was repressed and has become harmful and then reassume it. Or we can read it as an image of the poetic process, ‘a raid on the inarticulate’. For a poem to have power it has to come not just from the head but also from deep feelings and psychic forces that may even previously have been partly unconscious or preverbal – for example, rhythm is pre-verbal before you are born – but which are articulated in the poem, just as in the Christ epic humanity, even in its lowest depths is recapitulated, rearticulated in Christ the Word. The Christ epic is the poem, the poiesis (= making) of humanity.

The way Jesus is portrayed as speaking and behaving in the synoptic gospels, the epic figure of Christ in the Pauline epistles and the visionary new Jerusalem in Revelation, are very different in style and treatment, are different ‘takes’ on the same story. But all three can be read as inspiring the same humanist agenda. All three speak of human fulfilment, which is not just individual but social. In the gospels Jesus proclaims the ‘reign of God’, which is a reign of justice and peace on Earth. It is good news for the poor, and the oppressed will go free. The Pauline epistles speak of a plan for the fullness of time, in which humanity will reach maturity, ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’. In both, something is happening now and not yet. In Revelation Christ’s bride, the holy city – the just society – arrives on Earth and the marriage of the Lamb takes place. God comes to dwell with us on Earth and it will be a time of happiness.

Another thing to stress is that in all three cases this liberation is not from the body but of the body, both individual and social. It takes place on Earth and has an effect on all material things. Good news for the poor is about not being hungry or thirsty or homeless any more. Justice for the oppressed is physical freedom and the chance of a decent life. Justice is concerned with habeas corpus.

That is why the symbolic drama of the Eucharist involves bodily eating and drinking: ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? ...We who are many are one body, because we all share the same loaf’ (I Cor 10:16). Here too humanity’s maturity, a global just society, means habeas corpus.

When Revelation speaks of the marriage of the Lamb Christ, and the holy city, New Jerusalem, his bride, they are united bodily, and the wedding takes place on Earth. At the marriage of the Lamb a voice comes from the throne saying: ‘I am Alpha and Omega’. I was looking again at the picture I put on the back cover of Sofia 80 (reprinted smaller in black and white here), one of Blake’s illustrations to Paradise Lost: ‘Satan Envying the Endearments of Adam and Eve in Eden.’ For in Paradise Lost Adam and Eve make love in Eden – the Fall is not about sex. I noticed that the couple in the picture formed an A and their surrounding bower an O: Alpha and Omega. Christ of course is the New Adam and his wedding is the ultimate Alpha and Omega. There is a lovely story of a friend going to call on Blake in his Lambeth home and finding him sitting in his summer house with his wife Catherine, both naked, playing Adam and Eve.

Of course, as humanists we have no divine guarantee that this happy time will come, but it is a vision of human wholeness and the story can inspire us to go on struggling for it, even though it has taken so long, and even if we succeed in making things better, there will always be more left to do – we will never come to a full stop when everything is perfect.

The Christ epic has resonated through many struggles for social change. I can only give a few examples here. Together with Wat Tyler, the hedge priest John Ball was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. He argued that ‘things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till everything be made common’ and that peasants were ‘men formed in the likeness of their lords and should not be kept under like beasts’. In his Letter to the Men of Essex he quotes the contemporary poem Piers Plowman. The peasants were revolting against the Poll Tax. They stormed through the Gates of London and attacked the Lord Chancellor who had imposed it. The poem Piers Plowman has a dramatic account of Christ’s harrowing of hell, where he descends on Good Friday and challenges Lucifer at the Gates of Hell:

Thou art Doctor of Death, drink that thou madest.
I that am Lord of Life, love is my drink
and for that drink today I died upon earth.

Incidentally, just over six centuries later, in the 1990 Poll Tax riots, which brought Thatcher down that same year, T-shirts and placards could be seen saying: AVENGE WAT TYLER!

During the English Revolution, on April 1st 1649 at about Easter time, Gerrard Winstanley led the Diggers, a group of poor and hungry people, to dig up and plant some land on St George’s Hill in Surrey. He writes:

The work we are going about is this, to dig up George’s Hill and the waste ground thereabouts, and to sow corn; and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows. And the First Reason is this, that we may work together in righteousness and lay the foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for all both rich and poor.

He describes this work as ‘Christ rising again in the sons and daughters.’ As well as a political it was a theological action, and Winstanley’s theology is not about salvation or liberation of one particular group; it is universalist:

For the Earth with all her fruits of Corn, Cattle and such like, was made to be a Common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankind, friend and foe, without exception.

The seventeenth century English Revolution and the twentieth century Nicaraguan Revolution were the two most theological revolutions in the last four hundred years.

At the beginning I quoted the Entry Song of the Nicaraguan Peasant Mass and here is part of its Creed, which echoes Winstanley’s idea of the Diggers’ action as ‘Christ rising again in the sons and daughters’:

I trust in you, comrade,
human Christ, Christ the worker,
death you’ve overcome.
Your fearful suffering
formed the new humanity
born for freedom.
You are rising now
each time we raise an arm
to defend the people
from profiteering dominion,
because you’re living on the farm,
in the factory and in school,
your struggle goes on
and you’re rising again.

When the Mass was sung in St Aloysius Somers Town in London on April 6th 1986 (Low Sunday) , by the composer, Carlos Mejía Godoy and his group, Los de Palacagüina with parts repeated in English, the right-wing Catholic paper, The Universe, had a shock-horror headline: COMRADE CHRIST!!

In writing this Mass, Carlos Mejía was inspired by liberation theology, which was also one of the inspirations of the Sandinista Revolution, that overthrew the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza in 1979. One such liberation theologian is the Jesuit Jon Sobrino. He happened to be abroad and so survived in November 1989 when the whole of his community at the University of San Salvador was murdered by the Atlacatl Battalion, trained in the US in the notorious School of the Americas.

Sobrino has written monumental works on Christology and a great deal about the ‘kingdom’ or ‘reign’ of God. He says: ‘It is the reality of Latin America today and of the Third World in general that calls for a reign of God… The major fact in Latin America is the massive, unjust poverty that threatens whole populations with death. At the same time the most novel fact is the hope of a just life, of liberation.’ He calls the poor and suffering ‘the crucified people’. It is among them that Christ is to be found on Earth today. He says: ‘It is the crucified people who make Christ’s passion present today, those who fill up in their bodies what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings. The crucified people are Christ’s crucified body in history.’

Like Jesus, they are crucified by the ‘sin of the world’, the ‘structural sin’ of the poverty and death inflicted on them by the powers that rule the world. In their hope and their struggle for life they are ‘rising again.’ Sobrino says: ‘We have to announce God’s kingdom in the presence of the anti-kingdom ruled by idols and in opposition to them.’ Idols are ‘false gods that demand and feed on death’ and the idol mentioned by name in the Sermon on the Mount is Mammon, worshipped today by an aggressive global capitalism.

For Sobrino and his fellow liberation theologians this is the gospel. His whole concern is with bringing the kingdom and its justice down to Earth. God the Father acts as a sort of principle, an ideal, ‘the God of life’ that must be realised on Earth: gloria dei vivens homo: the glory of God is the human being alive. Sobrino seems much more interested in Jesus than in the Father and Jesus is to be found today in the crucified people.

Sobrino denounces the ‘idols of death’, which operate even ‘within the western Christian church … and those who claim to be defenders of this culture and Christian principles.’ In fact, the Catholic Church in Latin America and elsewhere sometimes looks like two opposing churches with two opposing Gods. There is the God of the conquistadors who persecuted and exterminated many of the indigenous people, the God of the rich and powerful who rule today; and then the God of the poor. The first line of the Peasant Mass, with which we began, was: ‘You are the God of the poor’. And of course now there is the growing power of the Evangelical New Christian Right in the USA and the God that told Bush to invade Iraq.

As a Jesuit, Sobrino remains a Catholic theologian, who does not think God is a purely human creation. However, he does speak of ‘God who has become history.’ And his agenda and that of his fellow liberation theologians is a completely humanist one: a decent life for everybody on Earth. The Doctors of Death still need to be challenged at the Gates of Hell.

For those of us who have discarded the supernatural elements in the Christ Epic, it still remains a powerful story with cosmic mythic dimensions. If we believe in life before death, we can still be inspired by Christ:

I that am Lord of Life, love is my drink
and for that drink today I died upon Earth.

The Epic can inspire us to seek, together with those both in and out of the churches, a humanist outcome, habeas corpus in the full sense for all, justice and peace at last on Earth.


[1] There is of course some scholarly dispute about the date and authorship of Colossians (and of Ephesians), which does not concern us here. I think it is generally agreed that both these Letters were written by 95 at the latest. The Jerusalem Bible scholars discuss the debate but finally plump for Paul.

[2] Incidentally, when Paul says he wants to ‘know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ (Phil.3:10), it is interesting that in his account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 he regards Christ’s appearance to him on the road to Damascus (some time after the Ascension) as the same kind of appearance as the resurrection appearances in the gospels to Mary Magdalene and the apostles.

[3] This makes him very attractive to women and in one version of his death he is torn to pieces by them like a pop star.

This article appeared in Sofia 81 (January 2007).