Word in Language (19): The First and the Last

There is paradox in Christianity, and I begin to think that paradox is a sign of truth. Truth is paradoxical. The main tenet of the Christian faith is that Christ died and rose again. That is fairly paradoxical, and I believe it to be true. But I have always found his injunction to lose our life for his sake in order to find it rather paradoxical as well. How on earth can you lose your life and find it? It doesn’t make sense. And yet everything that Christ says or does makes sense in the long run, even if we don’t understand it at once. We saw that the way you lose your life is to deny the ego – that is, to draw a line through the I – which gives the sign of the cross: †. The cross, as I like to say, is a deleted I, an I with a line drawn through it. But it is also a plus-sign: +. So while we may seem to lose our life by denying our selfish impulses, we actually end up receiving a hundredfold in this world – our eyes are opened, our spiritual senses are honed – and eternal life. We lose our life for Christ’s sake and find it. What he offers us is true self-discovery, we become not a creature who is driven by his passions, who is in effect controlled by what he thought was the world’s pleasures, and through repentance we rediscover our true selves, we are freed of our addiction, our bodies and lives are infused with light, we are prepared to become gods – gods by grace, by adoption. This is what is meant by losing our life in order to find it.

We have seen how the ego in English, I, resembles the number 1 and how we teach our children to count up from the number 1, thereby putting the ego first. This is a mistake, we should teach them to count from 0, the eternal figure that represents God, because this will give them a base they can rely on, a rock on which they can build their lives rather than being swept along by whatever whim may take them. This is one of the ways of moving away from the ego – we make reference to a third point and create a triangle, which resembles the letter A; we draw a line through the ego, which makes a cross, but also a plus-sign; and we turn the ego into a number, 1, and count down to 0, the letter O. The three actions together give us A+O, or the name of God in the Book of Revelation, Alpha and Omega, and that name is present in the middle conjunction, ‘and’ or AND (A ’N’ O). That path is mapped out for us in the name of God. This is why Christ tells us that he is the way. He is literally the way, as the name Alpha and Omega indicates.

We make the progression from the A of Creation to the I of the Fall to the O of redemption: AIO.

We have seen how the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is three in ONE. The Father is no one (O1) – except that in chemistry the subscript 1 is not written down – the Son is oxygen (O2) and the Holy Spirit is ozone (O3): three in ONE. The only number ONE does not contain is itself: 1. It contains 0, 2 (the N on its side) and 3 (the E back to front). And just as we count down from 1 to 0 – from I to O – so we can take a step back in the alphabet and ‘count down’ from the EGO to GOD (alphabetical pair d-e). The two processes are parallel. We turn away from the selfish demands of the ego, we repent of our selfish (actually self-destructive) impulses and embrace the source of life.

What we haven’t seen so far is the ordinal: ‘first’. What can FIRST tell us? I wonder if you can see anything. I am struck by the correlation between FIRST and FIGHT. You might say they have nothing in common, but that is not quite true. The words share three letters – f, i and t – while the other two letters – r and s, g and h – are alphabetical pairs.

But that is not the clearest connection. If we remove the r, we see that FIRST contains FIST. In reverse, it spells STRIFE with the addition of final e (very common in word connections). So when we put ourselves first, we encounter strife, we get involved in fisticuffs, on an individual level and on the world stage.

This is why Christ teaches us not to put ourselves first. He tells us he came ‘not to be served but to serve’ (Mt 20:28). And in reference to the kingdom of heaven – and the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which immediately precedes this passage – he explains that ‘many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’ (Mt 19:30).

Another paradox. How is it possible for the first to be last, and the last first? Again, surely that doesn’t make sense. Either you’re first or you’re not. I would like to explain how I believe these two words to be connected, and also how the cycle of conflict and suffering has to be broken in order for us to enter eternal life.

FIRST is clearly connected to THIRST (physical pair f-t, addition of h). That which is first in this life – the young, the newborn – always has a strong thirst. A strong thirst for its mother’s milk, a strong thirst for discovery, a strong thirst to leave its mark. Youth and thirst are closely related, and if you don’t believe me, just go to a pub on a Friday night.

But there is something else that makes us thirst, and that is salt. If you eat salt, you become very thirsty. This should remind us of Christ telling his disciples that they are ‘the salt of the earth’ (Mt 5:13). They are what gives life its taste. But salt can be painful – in a wound, for example. It can also be curative – remember washing your mouth out with salt water in order to heal a sore? This is what we, Christ’s disciples, have to be in this world. We have to give taste, to resist falsehood, to heal wounds.

But salt is also used to preserve meat. It is used to make things last, to make them endure, and this is why SALT and LAST contain the same letters.

So we have gone from FIRST to THIRST to SALT to LAST. But having done this, having endured persecution in this world, having become the salt of the earth with all of life’s blessings, but also its problems, how do we avoid a return back to the beginning? This is very important. It is the same with the Garden of Eden. Our aim in life is not to return to the GARDEN OF EDEN, where we will simply be in DANGER OF NEED once again. We become like children in our innocence, purity and trust in order to prepare ourselves for the kingdom of heaven, but we do not become like children in our ignorance and adopt some kind of infantile stance, so that we are like helpless babies. Having acquired knowledge, having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the whole point, I think, is to use that knowledge to grow, to become better people, not to fall into the same traps again. We are in this world – this spiritual nursery – to learn.

So how do we prevent this return to the ferocious thirst of youth? How do we avoid getting sucked up into the fight involved in competition, a concept that is exalted in the West, but always struck me as fundamentally absurd. I never saw Christ compete. I saw him heal, help, resurrect, teach, give hope. I never saw him compete, put himself first. And yet competition is the ethos of the way we school our children and, as a result, it forms the ethos of our Western society, that is how civilized we have become, despite the fact the race to be first causes us to damage the environment we live in and sometimes to harm other people. Wealth implies poverty only if you put a price on things. Wealth can be made available to everybody if you do not put a price on things – as God does (he gives us the air we breathe), as the earth does (it gives us the food we eat).

I will tell you how you break this cycle of conflict and suffering. Having become the salt of the earth, having endured persecution, you take the word ‘last’ and you make a simple adjustment. Can you see it? You take out the a, the beginning of all things, the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the going back to the beginning, you leave that all behind, you give your whole life up for God. This reminds me of a time I was in London, at the end of my tether, and I knelt down in front of my desk and offered God my life. I didn’t want it for myself anymore. I never actually thought he would hear me, but he did.

You take out the a. And what happens when you remove the a from ‘last’? You get ‘lst’. But ‘lst’ is not ‘first’, and this means that the connection to ‘thirst’ is broken. This is the difference that Christ wished to teach the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:4-26). If you drink of the water of the well (this world), you will be thirsty again. It doesn’t last. But if you drink of the living water that Christ offers, you will never be thirsty because you are no longer ‘first’, but ‘lst’.

Everything the world gives you will tire you in the end, and you will have to go back for more. This is what the capitalist model is built on – the need to go back for more. You will never be replenished, or only for a couple of hours. That kind of life, with pit stops at every turn, is not going to be a very good fit for eternity. You need something that is going to last a little longer, that is going to sustain you, and Christ offers precisely that: ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (Jn 4:14).

The first – those who have put themselves first – will be last in the age to come, and the last – the poor in spirit, those who have been persecuted – will be lst. This is why the description of his disciples as ‘the salt of the earth’ directly follows on from the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel, because it is only through salt/last that the chain is broken and the kingdom of heaven becomes ours.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com