Holy Saturday and the Shamanic Descent of Jesus

How do we find meaning in suffering? How do we respond to it without projecting more suffering onto others? How do we, in Leonard Cohen’s words, deal with both “the Holy and the Broken” and still manage to sing “Hallelujah” or Praise to Life?

Leonard Cohen sings “Hallelujah,” live in London, October 3, 2009. Video uploaded to YouTube by LeonardCohen

All these questions, archetypal and universal that they are, are raised by the image of the crucified Christ. The Christ who suffered and died in Jesus is the same Christ who suffers and dies in us.

This is why the Crucifixion is so universal a story. People—including just and good people—suffer. All beings suffer. Suffering is a cosmic habit; it is built into everything the cosmos does. Even planets and galaxies and supernovas, we now know, live, die, and resurrect by seeding new birthings in the universe.  

Evil seems to have a cosmological dimension to it—it is bigger than we are, it keeps recurring, it is never completely stamped out; evil is often attributed to the dark angelic hosts, what St. Paul calls the “powers and principalities” with whom we struggle. (Eph. 6:12)

“The Crucifixion of Christ,” Tintoretto (1568) Public Domain. On WikiArt

At Jesus’ crucifixion these powers seemed to triumph. The Roman Empire had its way with this troublemaker and pseudo-king who preached an alternative Kingdom to that of the Empire, and therefore had to die the ignominious death of crucifixion that the Empire doled out to the lowest of the low.

In that sense, Jesus’ death is an archetypal event for all those who are powerless and vulnerable to Evil and the powerful who can easily destroy and utilize their power uncaringly and without compassion, in their lust for control. At the crucifixion, these powers appeared to triumph over Jesus and all those “least” whom he called people to serve in Matthew 25—the poor and hungry, the sick and imprisoned.  A good shepherd lays down his life, if necessary, for his or her flock. “No greater love does a person have than to lay down their life for their friends.” (Jn 15.13)

But the Crucifixion is not the last word by any means in the Jesus or Christ story.

New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton speaks of Jesus as a shaman:

“Transfiguration of Christ” by Carl Bloch. On Wikimedia Commons

Jesus clearly exercises shamanic powers in the gospels—when he stills the storm, appears to his disciples walking on water, and joins Moses and Elijah in the glory that surrounds God’s chariot-throne, for example.  Hebrew shamans like Elijah, Elisha, the Galilean mystics who joined the heavenly ascent of Enoch, and Jesus himself…not only have visions; they themselves became visions for their disciples. 

Following his baptism, Jesus is driven into the desert for forty days of a kind of shamanic vision quest.

Poet Bill Everson says: “Christ was perhaps the greatest of all shamans….Forty days in the desert, the carrying of the cross as a Sun Dance.”  Christ was the “wounded buck” who descended to Earth.  The shaman traditionally embraces a wound—like Christ did.  The descent into Hades on Holy Saturday can be grasped as a shamanic story as well.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, pp. 211-214. 

And Matthew Fox and Bishop Marc Andrus, Stations of the Cosmic Christ (Unity Books, 2016), pp. 125-127.

Banner Image: “Christ in limbo” (artist unknown, 20th century). Protestant Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of BischheimAlsace, Bas-Rhin. Photo by Ralph Hammann on Wikimedia Commons

Have you considered the shamanism manifest in the stories of Jesus and the Cosmic Christ?  How do they speak to you?

Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time

While Matthew Fox recognizes that Meister Eckhart has influenced thinkers throughout history, he also wants to introduce Eckhart to today’s activists addressing contemporary crises. Toward that end, Fox creates dialogues between Eckhart and Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Heschel, Black Elk, Karl Marx, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Anita Roddick, Lily Yeh, M.C. Richards, and many others.
“Matthew Fox is perhaps the greatest writer on Meister Eckhart that has ever existed. (He) has successfully bridged a gap between Eckhart as a shamanistic personality and Eckhart as a post-modern mentor to the Inter-faith movement, to reveal just how cosmic Eckhart really is, and how remarkably relevant to today’s religious crisis! ” — Steven Herrmann, Author of Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward

Resurrection Logic: How Jesus’ First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead

Bruce Chilton investigates the Easter event of Jesus in Resurrection Logic. He undertakes his close reading of the New Testament texts without privileging the exact nature of the resurrection, but rather begins by situating his study of the resurrection in the context of Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, and Syrian conceptions of the afterlife. He then identifies Jewish monotheistic affirmations of bodily resurrection in the Second Temple period as the most immediate context for early Christian claims. Chilton surveys first-generation accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and finds a pluriform–and even at times seemingly contradictory–range of testimony from Jesus’ first followers. This diversity, as Chilton demonstrates, prompted early Christianity to interpret the resurrection traditions by means of prophecy and coordinated narrative.

Upcoming Events

Join Matthew Fox & Bruce Chilton as they explore the meaning of Easter in a 2-session Virtual Program: “Resurrection” hosted by Cameron Trimble. These sessions are recorded to watch at your convenience. Register HERE.
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7 thoughts on “Holy Saturday and the Shamanic Descent of Jesus”

  1. Avatar
    Maureen Garvey

    Thank you Matthew. I no longer feel at home in my local church. You have offered me community. Namaste, Maureen
    May I continue that invitation to inclusion and welcome to others

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Maureen, neither do I feel at home any longer in my church. But Matthew does offer us another community, and we will be grateful to you for welcoming others…

  2. Avatar

    The purer are our hearts the more we see God. It is wise to study the visionary in person. All visionaries are not equal. If it is impossible to study them in person then Lectio Divina is the next best way to understand their message. The original apostles and disciples were willing to die for the messages of Jesus because Jesus vibrated truth to their hearts. The truth from Jesus set them free. The honesty vibrating from Jesus illuminated and enlightened them. The Beatitudes are a condensed road map for us to ponder before time runs out for us. Truth does not always come to us spot on. Truth can formulate in us, later, after it is assembled in us by us making connections and we may say, “Oh my God that’s it. I was such a fool before this.” The apostles and closer disciples were the inner circle of Jesus. Jesus knew the states of the “know it all’s” and haters who would attack Him. Jesus had to have an inner circle so to nurture purity in their hearts without interruption. Statements from people contain varying levels of purity. Of course Jesus forgave everyone as we should. But the state of forgiveness does not contain the mandate of immediate association. All true mystics live in a controlled environment.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Gary, you are right… “all visionaries are not equal.” But from the way Jesus illuminated and enlightened his disciples you would have to agree he was truly a mystic-prophet. I however, don’t agree that “all true mystics live in a controlled environment.”

  3. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    I personally see many similarities within Shamanic spirituality and the Jesus story. I discovered this connection myself, through a 10 year apprenticeship within the Metis Twisted Hairs tradition. Many of the ceremonies I participated in clearly intertwined with Jesus’s journey. One in particular comes to mind during this Christian season of Good Griday and Easter Monday which is the Three Day Hole in the ground ceremony, in which one digs one owns grave and stays there for three days, confronting what needs to die within oneself, resurrecting one’s true self.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      I have both studied and taught Shamanism for over 30 years, and I feel the parallel between the descent in the Jesus story, and in the Shamanic Journey to the Underworld, is striking. Thank you for sharing your stories and especially for sharing the ceremony where you “confront what needs to die within yourself, resurrecting your true self.”

  4. Avatar
    Harry Thompson


    Looking down at the cross
    The crossroads of this time
    This year
    Hanging there
    With all of you
    Dead and alive
    Parts of us reborn
    Repurposed, reused
    Confiscated into this Infinite
    Waiting to see clearly
    In last breath
    In lasting joy
    Almost home
    Without shied or sword
    Crucified, sliced open
    My blood mixed, blended, lost
    In all of you, in all of it

    Happy Easter 2021

    Harry Francis Thompson
    San Diego

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