In Postponing Heaven, Jad Hatem argues that a new relation to time is one key feature of human messianicity. A second feature is anonymity.
The Three Nephites once walked among the Nephites, known and recognizable. But “in the centuries that followed Christ’s appearance to the Lehite remnant, wars multiplied, the revolt against God grew, and faith diminished such that ‘the Lord did take away his beloved disciples,’ the three Nephite disciples whose lives he had prolonged (Mormon 1:13; cf. Mormon 1:16)” (31).
Their work, however, didn’t simply come to an end. Rather, their ministry continues. But now they work in anonymity. As Hatem puts its:
the clandestineness of these Nephite pilgrims on the earth does not keep them from their ministry, nor does it prevent some of the faithful from meeting them. Both Mormon and Moroni report seeing them and receiving instructions from them (see 3 Nephi 28:26; Mormon 8:11). Nevertheless, they remain hidden because they remain anonymous. (31-32)
This anonymity is a critical dimension of life in Christ. Giving up our own names and, instead, taking upon us the name of Christ, Christian discipleship unfolds as the practice of anonymity. All Christians, as Christians, are anonymous.
Similarly, Hatem argues, “the name of the Mahdi is also to remain unspoken, such that anyone who utters it is considered miscreant; his name is divulged only later.” (32) And, as with the Three Nephites and the Mahdi, so with the Bodhisattva. Being a Bodhisattva involves a kenotic gesture, a movement of self-emptying, that pierces the illusion of the ego and recognizes that lives are never owned but always distributed and shared. In this sense, Christ’s body reveals the nature of every body. All bodies are sacramental; all bodies are broken, divided, and shared.
Human messianicity—concomitant with its transformation of time—puts this existential anonymity in play. Living life in Christ, I don’t stop being who I am, but I do stop trying to identify with who I am.
When Jesus asks us to lay down our burdens and take up his yoke, this is the substance of his invitation: lay down that terrible burden of trying to successfully identify with yourself, give up your own name, and instead take up the yoke of anonymity, a yoke that by definition is shared between us. This movement is sabbatical. We find rest unto our souls. The strain of identification, of endlessly trying to produce a stable and viable identity, is alleviated. And then, no longer trying to coincide with ourselves, we become in Christ—for once—just what we already are.
In this vein, Hatem suggests, consider what the Hasidic masters had to say about the tzaddiq nistar (“the hidden righteous one”). Here, the logic of messianic anonymity is radicalized:
The condition of the tzaddiq nistar . . . would seem superior to these [i.e., the Three Nephites and the Mahdi] since, lost within the masses, he escapes the temptation to vanity. . . . Some think it possible that the nistar is hidden even from himself so that, since he would not be the object of special distinction, he could fulfill his mission without giving it the least attention and without evincing exceptional heroism—especially if that mission consisted solely of existing in truth, in the simplest things, and not in a series of dazzling acts that would assure him wealth or consideration. His essential nature is thus hidden, even from him, in a place so inscrutable as to be invisible, entirely covered over by an accessory nature: not of the thaumaturge or nonconformist, nor of the dregs of the earth, but of a perfect normality over which the gaze of the other would skitter and slide. His is a righteousness careless of renown, a virtue mingled with common humanity. (32-33)
A righteousness careless of renown. A perfect normality. A virtue mingled with common humanity, hidden even from itself.
Can you imagine such a condition? Can you imagine practicing anonymity as a way of life?
Can you imagine doing everything that you do, just as you do it now, but without that accompanying gesture of ownership and identification?
Can you imagine being you without trying to claim yourself? Can you imagine being Christian without trying to identify with being Christian? Can you imagine being Mormon without trying to identify as Mormon?
Or, perhaps the better question is: can we imagine that it’s possible to be Christian (or Mormon) in any other way?