Category Archives: Angels

St. Joseph the Worker

In my religious tradition, we didn’t do saints. We did do Christmas pageants—big time. I remember in various pageants being an angel, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles. My most triumphant pageant appearance, though, was the year I got to be Joseph. Wearing a white dish towel on my head secured with a bathrobe belt, I gazed with a holy aspect at the plastic headed Jesus in the make-shift manger while the narrator read the Christmas story. Actually, I was gazing at Mary, played by Bonnie, whom I was planning to marry in 15-20 years. It was my usual pattern when I was in single digits of age. If I thought a girl was cute, I’d think “you’re cute—I wonder what our children will look like.” Of course I always thought these things—I never said them.

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Until I became familiar as an adult with what Catholics do, I didn’t know that Joseph had his own day. I wonder if he minds competing with St. Patrick, who is feted with corned beef, soda bread, parades, and green beer just two days earlier. Joseph didn’t get a lot of play (other than hanging around and looking holy in the Christmas pageant) when I was growing up. He was a necessary part of the story, doing carpenter things, banging on the doors of inns with “No Vacancy” signs, having important dreams (maybe the best dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake in Genesis)—more than a bit player, but no more than supporting cast. I’ve come to admire him more than just about anyone else in the Bible, though. I know he was the earthly father of Jesus and all, but what impresses me was that he was Jesus’ stepfather.

I’m not a step-parent, but I’ve observed one from close range for close to thirty years. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1987, my sons (ages eight and five) and I met Jeanne, a red haired, green eyed ball of energy (she’s been called a “force of nature”) at my parents’ house. My parents had known her for a number of years. I was recently divorced, nature took its course, and Jeanne and I were together just a few short weeks afterwards. But with me Jeanne got a “three-fer.” She did it willingly—I even remember her telling me that she always thought she’d end up marrying someone who already had kids. But there’s no more difficult role for any human being to step into, no more thankless task. That’s why I love Joseph, because he makes me think about the person I love the most.

I wonder how Joseph processed being handed an impossible job, with no blueprint or instruction manual. All he wanted to do was marry the person he loved. God said, “Okay, but here are a few other things you get to do too.” I wonder if Joseph and Mary, overwhelmed with the task before them, threw themselves so wholeheartedly into the process of making this stepfamily work that they neglected for long periods of time to pay attention to their own relationship with each other. Did Joseph ever wonder when it would be “his time,” when he would be valued for who he was rather than for what he could do for Jesus, or Mary, or God? I wonder if Joseph ever saw “you’re not my real dad” in Jesus’ eyes or actions. Did Joseph ever resent Jesus’ biological connection with Mary, something that nothing Joseph ever did or said could possibly balance out? I wonder if Jesus ever told Joseph, at least when he had grown up, that he appreciated Joseph and that he apologized for the times he’d been a jerk.

In Santa Fe, there is a little church called the Loretto Chapel, which contains a “miraculous staircase,” built by a stranger with a donkey and a toolbox who showed up in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. The newly built chapel needed a staircase to the choir loft; those who knew about such things said it would have to be a ladder, since a regular stairway would be too invasive of the chapel space. The stranger built an architectural marvel, a spiral staircase containing two 360 degree turns with no visible means of support and held together with wooden pegs rather than nails. The stranger disappeared without being paid after completing the staircase; not surprisingly, legend has it that the donkey-riding stranger was none other than St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

Carpenters need a patron saint—I suppose everyone in every walk of life does. I’m sure Joseph was a fabulous carpenter, maybe even capable of building a miraculous staircase. But various websites tell me that Thomas More is the patron saint of step-parents, which makes no sense. For step-parenting is a far more impossible task than the construction of any number of miraculous staircases. Joseph took it on and pulled off a real miracle—being a parent to and, along with Mary, raising a child who was not his. And just like the Sisters of Loretto, I needed a miraculous answer to an impossible situation—how was I going to raise these kids by myself? Jeanne in my parents’ living room the night before Thanksgiving was as unexpected as a stranger on a donkey with the tools and ability to build a miraculous staircase. I made out better than the Sisters of Loretto, though, because the miracle stranger didn’t leave. I can no more repay her than the Sisters could have paid Joseph—how do you repay someone who changed three lives?

Jesus and Karl Marx walk into a bar . . .

We should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debate concerning the existence or nature of another world. Richard Rorty, “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes”

One of the many things I enjoy about teaching philosophy is that I regularly get to engage with students in studying the texts of thinkers labelled as “dangerous” or worse by various authority figures in my youth. Darwin . . . Freud . . . Nietzsche . . . Marx . . . these were some of the influential thinkers that good Christians needed to stay away and be protected from, recent Western civilization’s version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. At least three of the four admitted to being atheists, and the fourth (Darwin) was at least an agnostic by the time he died. I doubt anyone in my youth who warned against the diabolical and anti-Christian energies of these authors had much (or any) first-hand familiarity with the texts in question, but one thing was certain—no God-fearing person would read, or allow her or his children to read, such disruptive and destructive filth. It’s almost enough to make one want to home school their kids.

This is the first semester in recent memory that I am getting to engage with all four of these worrisome guys in class. Nietzsche and Freud have already made appearances in my General Ethics class, we just spent two weeks with Darwin in my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium, and I was reminded the other day that Karl Marx will be showing up in my American Philosophy course a few weeks from now. Why? Because of a fascinating article by Richard Rorty, one of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century’s most influential and controversial American philosophers and public intellectuals (another atheist, btw). Rorty dominates the last few weeks of my course; since I have not taught the course in a few years, I am rereading everything before the date it shows up in the syllabus. I remembered Rorty’s essay “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes” as one of the most controversial readings on the syllabus—as I reread it a few days ago I thought “Wow, that’s really out there—and I agree with just about all of it.”

Rorty’s essay is focused on a comparison of two highly influential texts that don’t usually go together: the New Testament and The Communist Manifesto. But the juxtaposition is not as strange as it might seem. Rorty suggests that

We should read both as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human decency.

So imagine that Jesus and Karl Marx walk into a bar together—what would their conversation be like? Let’s get past the obvious jokes (“Jesus and Karl walk into a bar, which happens to be out of Karl’s favorite red wine. Jesus gets a glass of water and makes him some.”) and listen in.

  • Jesus: Did you really write that religion is the opiate of the masses?
  • Karl: Yeah . . . you got a problem with that?
  • Jesus: No. I wish I had said it first.
  • Karl: What ever happened to your prediction that you were going to come back, the Second Coming and all that?
  • Jesus: What ever happened to your prediction of the breakdown of capitalism and the rise of an enlightened proletariat?

As Rorty points out, the “failed prophecies” parts of both of these texts are pretty embarrassing; the failures of either text to transform humanity are downright tragic.

We have been waiting a long time for Christians to behave better than pagans . . . We have waited a long time for regimes calling themselves “Marxist” to explain to us exactly what these new ideals look like, and how they are to be realized in practice . . . Many millions of people were enslaved, tortured or starved to death by sincere, morally earnest people who recited passages from one or the other text in order to justify their deeds . . . Most of us can no longer take either Christian or Marxist postponements and reassurances seriously.

But Jesus and Karl share a lot more in common than unfulfilled prophecies and misguided followers.

  • Jesus: The problem with followers is that in short order they lose sight of what really matters.
  • Karl: You’ve got that right—I wonder if the people claiming to be my followers ever actually read my book.
  • Jesus: The percentage of your “followers” who have studied your book carefully is probably about the same as the percentage of my “followers” who’ve read mine carefully.
  • Karl: Your core message and mine are actually very similar. I read this the other day: “We should find inspiration and encouragement in the New Testament and the Manifesto. For both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the same respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love.”
  • Jesus: I like that! Who wrote it?
  • Karl: A guy named Richard Rorty. Why didn’t you know that? I thought you knew everything!
  • Jesus: Hey, I’m human! Wasn’t Rorty an atheist?
  • Karl: Yeah—you got a problem with that?
  • Jesus: Not at all—I like atheists. A lot less bullshit to cut through.

Once one gets past the failed predictions and the misguided actions of less-than-perfect followers, Rorty says, both the New Testament and The Communist Manifesto are hopeful texts—embodiments of our greatest aspirations and dreams.

When reading the texts themselves, we should skip lightly past the predictions, and concentrate on the expressions of hope . . . There is a difference between knowledge and hope. Hope often takes the form of false prediction, as it did in both documents. But hope for social justice is nevertheless the only basis for a worthwhile human life.

Marx believed that religion is an opiate because its promise of a better life after one dies dulls a person’s senses to what needs to be done now in order to make our lives better and our societies more just in this world. But the message of the gospels can be read in the same way—the Sermon on the Mount is about this world, not one in a prophesied future.

At the end of his essay, Rorty fuses the two texts into a call that might strike some as . . . well . . . radical.

“Christian Socialism” is a pleonastic [I had to look that word up]: nowadays you cannot hope for the fraternity which the Gospels preach without hoping that democratic governments will redistribute money and opportunity in a way that the market never will. There is no way to take the New Testament seriously as a moral imperative, rather than as a prophecy, without taking the need for such redistribution equally seriously.

Those, of course, are fighting words for many who call themselves followers of Jesus. But they can be summarily dismissed only if the inspiration for one’s Christian faith is cherry picked from parts of the New Testament that leave out vast portions of what Jesus reportedly said as well as descriptions of how the early Christian communities organized themselves economically. Jesus and Karl have a lot in common—I wonder who is picking up the tab.

Parents and teachers should encourage young people to read both books. The young will be morally better for having done so.

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I am currently teaching for the third time with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. Two years ago, in the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

The Time of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

In her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made testament of youthinto a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch grapples directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

Holy Family Values

Each week for the past many years, Garrison Keillor has told “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake WobeLake-Wobegon[1]gon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an attraction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneOn the west side of the stone entryway to the beautiful humanities center on my campus, in only its fourth year of operation, is carved a memorable saying from the Gospel of John: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. On the top of the opposite east side of the entryway is the equally memorable closing line from Paridiso, the final book of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Ruane DanteThe Love which moves the sun and the other stars. In my estimation the choice of this passage for such an exalted position on the building is controversial; when the building was still in the planning stage, I made the tongue-in-cheek argument that nothing more appropriate could be inscribed on the front of a classroom building than what is written over the gates of Hell in Canto III of Inferno, the first book in Dante’s masterwork: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. But I lost the argument and had to settle for printing that line off and taping it on my office door. It must have worked, because very few students come to visit me in my office.

Dante’s vision at the end of Paridiso is the climax of an agonizing journey through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven. This capstone experience, strangely enough for a guy who is never at a loss for words, is one that he struggles mightily to convey. Beatific visionOne gets the impression that words fail him and his linear thought process is dissolved as he is subsumed into his long-awaited encounter with the Divine. But I’ve never found Dante’s vision compelling, simply because it’s just that. A vision. And it’s so Catholic, with multitudes of saints, angels, and Mary swirling around in a choreographed dance. I actually resonate more fully with Dante and his guide Virgil as they pick their way through the horrors of Hell and the trials of Purgatory—these portions of the journey I can resonate with because they remind me of the world I actually live in with all of its contradictory beauty and ugliness. That’s the world in which I will be embedded this coming semester that begins in two weeks with a bunch of sophomore students as we explore grace, truth and freedom in the Nazi era, finding glimmers of hope and nuggets of wisdom in the middle of the worst that humanity can devise.bonhoeffer

We will spend some of the semester with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who, imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison for more than a year because of his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, found himself in his isolation fending off despair and realizing that whatever God is, God is none of the things he had always thought and taught. In letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer put his fears, his concerns, his hopes, and his life itself on display in language that is shocking and disturbing in its directness. We will consider two passage in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge both in class and in on-line discussion forums letters from prison.

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general.

Later in the letter, he repeats that “the time of Christianity is over.” Students in past versions of this course have been shocked that a Protestant pastor could write such a thing. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that none of the old formulas or descriptions work anymore, not in a world in which millions of human beings are disappearing as smoke and ashes from death camp chimneys. In a second letter a few weeks later to Bethge, Bonhoeffer continues the theme.

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

God wants us to live in the world as if God does not exist, Bonhoeffer writes. What can this possibly mean? Once a student commented in our discussion forum how sad it was that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I replied, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different from what you are accustomed to.”

A few short months after he wrote this letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg Prison, just a handful of weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Far from losing his faith, Bonhoeffer exemplifies a willingness to let faith evolve rather than crumble in the face of the greatest and most intense challenges. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem entitled “Who Am I?” in his notebook which ends in a place that provides hope for all persons of faith.

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all. . . .

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!

Not long ago as I was driving to the 8:00 early show at church I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” on NPR. Her guest was Margaret Wertheim, a physicist described in the promo as “a passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions.”

http://onbeing.org/program/margaretwertheim-the-grandeur-and-limits-of-science/7472

Toward the end of the conversation Tippett notes that Wertheim, who was raised Catholic, has been described in the media as an atheist. “Are you an atheist?” Tippett asked. WertheimWertheim’s response brings us full circle back to Dante.

I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

I love Wertheim’s answer because it is infused with Bonhoeffer’s energy. Dogmas and religious formulas will always fail because God is bigger than that. Seeking the love that moves the sun and the other stars will always take us to places we do not expect, places of beauty and darkness, a search energized by a faith that cannot be lost.

We Are Not Alone

Jesuit priest and author James Martin recently said in an interview that we as a culture have sanitized the Christmas story. This is worth paying close attention to during this current Christmas season which seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe,, dealing with a controversial Presidential election, and the usual jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point. Its text is focused on yesterday’s gospel from Matthew, a story that you will definitely not see represented in anyone’s creche or on anyone’s front lawn.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

Who Comes This Night?

Aleppo, Russians tampering with our election, a sharply polarized country, general mistrust in all sort of institutions, a truck driving into holiday celebrators in Berlin—the clashing of our world with the Christmas season has never been more dissonant. In his lovely holiday song “Who Comes This Night?’, James Taylor asks some very pressing questions:

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking?

If there was ever a time when accumulated layers of consumerism and tradition needed to be peeled back from the Christmas narrative to reveal what lies beneath, it is now.

Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday,” “Love, Actually,” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.” “The Nativity Story” presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.

These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? A friend, who recently passed away, tended to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.” Our lives are built from stories that we embrace and own as ours—this story is one of the best. As I reported in this blog recently, a student of mine once said that even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, she would “still be a Christian, because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the Incarnation is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight. At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” The message of Christmas cuts across every one of the boundaries that we spend so much time drawing and protecting, for it tells us that the human and the divine belong together and that the only way that God gets into the world is in human form. That’s you. That’s me. That’s us.

The heart and soul of Christianity is remarkable both in its simplicity and its iconoclasm. God made into flesh. Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas

How Can This Be?

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” But I love Advent, Mary is a major Advent player, testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown favor toward me and has bestowed blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024