Category Archives: Angels

Fear Itself

Long security lines at O’Hare airport. A plane falls out of the sky flying from Paris to Cairo, possibly the result of a terrorist attack. What do we want–freedom or security? I wrote about this last December . . .

Last Monday a segment of one of the NPR shows I listen to frequently was dedicated to the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, particularly focused on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech to Congress and the nation that followed the attack on December 7th, 1941. FDR first inauguralDuring the segment, the person being interviewed mentioned a well-known passage from another of FDR’s speeches, his First Inaugural Address in 1933.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In this speech, Roosevelt was drawing his listeners’ attention particularly to the economic fear that paralyzed the nation during the Great Depression. But his words have direct application to our country at the end of 2015—the greatest thing we have to fear is not ISIS, Muslims, immigrants, liberals, conservatives, global warming, Donald Trump, or any of the other people or things that we obsess endlessly about. It is fear itself.

fear notThere is a reason why the first thing angels say when showing up in various places in scripture invariably is “Fear Not.” Because when forced to choose between freedom and safety, human beings invariably prefer the latter. What do people want more, freedom or security? There is an exercise I do with my students frequently when this question comes up in class that never fails to be illuminating, an exercise that begins with my telling them a story. Just four short weeks after 9/11, I was scheduled to give a conference paper in Fort Lauderdale; as it turned out, almost half of the thirty or more scheduled speakers cancelled because they did not feel safe getting on a plane. Security was very tight at the airport in Providence, but I particularly remember the airport in Fort Lauderdale for our return flight. We arrived three hours earlier than we would have normally and needed every bit of those three hours to get through beefed-up security. There were soldiers in uniform with automatic weapons everywhere in the terminal, the security line was moving at a snail’s pace—and no one was complaining. security linesIndeed, many people went out of their way to thank the soldiers and security personnel for their service and for “keeping us safe.”

“Suppose,” I ask my students, “you wanted to fly home today and it took you more than three hours to get through security at the Providence Airport. What would your reaction be?” “I’d be pissed!” most of them say. What’s the difference between my experience in October 2001 and now? “People didn’t feel safe then, and they do now.” The takeaway from the exercise, without fail, is that freedom and all of that is great, wonderful, and at the center of our core values—until we don’t feel safe. When we think we are threatened or “under attack,” all bets are off—we are willing to set our core values aside in exchange for guarantees of security. And we will flock to the support of any person or persons who claim to have a strategy for keeping us safe. I am not in the classroom this semester because I am on sabbatical, but if I ran this exercise now, my guess is that students might be more tolerant of beefed-up security before a plane ride home. In the wake of an uninterrupted series of mass killings both abroad and in this country over the past several weeks, we are approaching that tipping point from freedom to security.fear and ignorance Iris Murdoch once said that one of the best questions a person can ask is “What are you afraid of?” These days the answer apparently is “everything.” You can smell the fear.

Albert Camus wrote in The Plague that the greatest source of evil in the world is ignorance; that case can be made, but I’m convinced that an even greater source of the worst that human beings can be is fear. Despite the best efforts of many, our current political cycle is being driven by a candidate for President who is extraordinarily skillful at building support out of any number of fears both hidden and public. This week Donald Trump proposed that until our leadership “knows what’s going on,” all Muslims should be prohibited from entering the United States. This was just another example of the sort of xenophobic and racist statements that he utters every other day. My concern is not so much Trump himself—I still am hopeful that his candidacy will fall by the wayside—but rather with why he has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination unbroken for the past several months with no change in sight. trumpThis says a great deal more about the American electorate than about Donald Trump, who makes no secret about who he is. Why is such a person who regularly says things that eat at the heart of our most cherished values attracting noticeable voter support and endless media play?

Fear. Even FDR was not immune from its tentacles; his internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII for no reason other than their race is almost universally considered to be one of the darkest blemishes on American history in the 20th century. The day after Donald Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the United States, the Anti-Defamation League released the following statement:

In the Jewish community, we know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating. We also know that this country must not give in to fear by turning its back on its fundamental values, even at a time of great crisis. adlAs we have said so many times, to do otherwise signals to the terrorists that they are winning the battle against democracy and freedom.

Amen to that. When faced with evidence of having failed to live up to our hopes and claims, people often say “We’re better than that.” In our current climate, we have to be better than that.

I am not a big fan of the National Anthem. The tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is too difficult for anyone but a trained singer to perform well and many of its lyrics are violent and war-mongering. Give me “America the Beautiful” or “My Country ‘tis of Thee” any day. But the final line of the National Anthem is one that all Americans would do well to pay close attention to these days.land of the free If we are truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave” as the song claims, then we need to act like it. If freedom for all is our primary value, then we need to embrace courage and reject guarantees of security built on a foundation of fear and denial of freedom for some. We must resist the siren call of those who would play on our fears and the worst angels of our nature. The future of the American experiment is at stake.

Sheets from Heaven

VT hunting seasonI grew up in hunting country where at the appropriate times each year the males of the species took their preferred firearms and started shooting things. I remember my father returning from a day of hunting with a partridge or two or even a squirrel in his backpack (much to my mother’s consternation). Every third year or so he would hit the jackpot and get a deer, setting us up with meat for most of the upcoming winter. My older brother became a fellow hunter with Dad when he reached the appropriate age, but when my time came, problems arose. I didn’t want to do it. hunting seasonI did not know that principled objections to killing non-human animals were available to me—it just was very clear to me that this was not something I wanted anything to do with. At the time I didn’t have any trouble eating the meat my father and brother brought home; it wasn’t until many years later that I cut red meat out of my diet.

The first reading a week ago Sunday from Acts told the story of one of the most game-changing events imaginable, a “kill and eat” scenario with implications far beyond mere dietary preferences. The story of Acts, of course, is about the early Christian communities and the spread of the “good news” inexorably from Palestine toward Rome and beyond. Often lost in the midst of the story is just how disorienting and belief-challenging all of this must have been. Major debates raged about exactly what this new system of beliefs is. Is it a new version of Judaism? If so, then new Christians are subject to the same dietary and behavioral rules from the Pentateuch that all Jews are subject to; male converts, for instance, should be circumcised. Or is this new set of beliefs something new altogether, perhaps a challenge and direct threat to Judaism? Complicating the issue, at least according to evidence from the gospels, is that Jesus himself was not always clear or consistent about who his message and teaching was for. Jesus was a Jew, and at times clearly said that kill and eathis message was for the “House of Israel,” while at other times he packaged it for everyone, including non-Jews.

In Acts 10 we find Peter, the man who perhaps knew Jesus best and who, as the lead disciple, is now at the forefront of spreading the good news, hungry and exhausted after an extended prayer session on the rooftop of a friend’s house in Joppa where he is staying. And then the strangest thing happens, as Peter reports to some critics in the next chapter:

In a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet is full of all sorts of animals that, according to Jewish law, must not be eaten under any circumstances, as Peter immediately recognizes.

unclean animalsBut I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Peter knows the rules backwards and forwards; furthermore, he knows that for a Jew, strict obedience to these rules is required in order to be right relationship both with God and with his community.

But as seems to happen so often in the context of what we think we know about God and our relationship with the divine, the rule book is thrown out entirely.

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Imagine Peter’s consternation and confusion. Imagine the consternation and confusion of his fellow Jewish believers when they find out that he has been hanging out with and spreading the good news to Gentiles. For after the voice from heaven in essence tells Peter “You know all of that stuff about what not to eat in order to be in right relationship with God, the stuff that has defined the diet of a faithful Jew for the past couple of millennia? Never mind. You can eat anything you want,” CorneliusPeter is further informed that the human equivalent of unclean animals—the Gentiles—are now to be recipients of the good news that you might have mistakenly thought was just for Jews. There’s this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius who has been asking some really good questions—go to his house and help him out. Subsequent chapters in Acts pick up the theme. Cornelius and his household convert to the message of Christ, start speaking in tongues as Peter and the other disciples did at Pentecost, more conservative Jews are appalled, and eventually there is a big council in Jerusalem to decide what the hell’s going on. But Pandora’s box has been opened never to be closed again. The old rule book is out, and it’s anyone’s guess where this is going to end up.

Don’t you hate it when someone changes the rules of the game just when you’ve gotten really good at working within the framework of the old rules? Just when you think you have everything relevant and necessary figured out, it all changes. In truth, we are currently in the midst of a radical, contemporary parallel of Peter’s vision.dt and owg In politics, one major party’s presumptive candidate for President has risen to the top of the polls by ignoring or deliberately breaking just about every traditional rule for success, while at the same time resisting the best efforts of traditionalists and moderates within his own party to derail his candidacy. Pundits and talking heads are reduced to “I don’t know” and “beats me” when asked to predict what is likely to happen in the next several months. transgenderPublic attitudes concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved and shifted more quickly than anyone could have foreseen. People are talking about the rights of transgendered people. More millennials are checking “none” when asked about their religious affiliation than check the box for an identifiable religion; these “nones” exhibit little interest and find no home in traditional religious structures. Sheets from heaven filled with female priests, less-than-conservative Popes, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, and seventy-five-year-old Socialists are being lowered before the eyes of those who thought they knew what they were supposed to think about such things. What’s a person to do?hemingway

Jeanne and I saw “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” last evening, enjoying the sights of Havana that we experienced when we visited in 2003. Hemingway tells his young reporter friend on a couple of occasions during the movie that the value of a person depends entirely on how much that person is willing to risk. Sheets from heaven such as Peter experienced provide an opportunity for extreme risk—how willing am I to leave all of my preconceptions and frameworks of understanding behind in exchange for growth and change? Peter could have dismissed his experience as merely a result of overwork and hunger. But instead he helped to change the world. We are presented with similar opportunities every day.

Doubt and Dedication

Last Sunday was “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” As I wrote some while ago, despite the bad rap he has received for two thousand years, Thomas is one of my spiritual heroes. Here’s why.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty Anne Lamott

            massacre[1]Michel de Montaigne’s world was filled with religious fervor and piety. It was also filled with hatred and violence. Sixteenth-century France was not a pretty place—in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were killing each other with regularity and abandon, all in the name of Christ. Catholics and Protestants each were certain that they were right; energized by such certainty, each was willing to kill the other in the name of truth and right belief.

michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Michel was an upper class landowner and occasional politician—he was mayor of Bordeaux for two terms as well as a trusted diplomat and liaison. Sensitive and melancholy by nature, Montaigne was appalled by the violence that was tearing his country, his town, his neighborhood, even his own family apart. Accordingly, in his middle years he did what any introverted, sensitive, melancholy guy would have done. He withdrew to his turret libraryimages[11] in the small castle on his family estate and wrote—for the rest of his life. His finely honed powers of perception fueled his creative energies, with thousands of words spilling out onto the page often more quickly than he could think.MONTAIGNE[2] The result, Montaigne’s Essais, consists of fascinating and brilliant bite-sized essays on every topic imaginable, from cannibals and sexual preferences to Michel’s favorite food, his kidney stones, and his cat. And in the midst of this loosely organized jumble of creativity and insight, Michel frequently sounds like Rodney King in the midst of the Los Angeles riots—“Can’t we all get along?”

Montaigne writes that “there is no hostility so extreme as that of the Christian. Our zeal works marvels when it seconds our inclination toward hatred, cruelty, ambition, greed, slander, and rebellion.” This was the world in which he lived. Michel’s antidote?  Let’s stop claiming to be certain about what we believe and try some healthy doubt and skepticism on for size. Certainty is vastly overrated and is frequently dangeroustumblr_m8k1239tDW1rnvzfwo1_500[1], especially when claimed in matters that are far beyond the reach of human capacities. Montaigne is convinced that for the most part, human beings are not designed for the rarified air of certainty. He directly challenges those who “claim to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God,” observing that “there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities.” Is there anything more ludicrous, he asks, than our propensity to believe most firmly that which we know least about and to be most sure of ourselves when we are farthest from what we can verify? Human beings claiming certainty about the will and nature of God would be humorous, and Michel often presents it that way, were it not that such claims are often the basis for the worse of what human beings are capable of, including prejudice, violence, and killing.hops-pickers-on-stilts[1] Even as we seek preposterously to elevate ourselves to the level of the divine, Montaigne reminds us that we remain rooted in our humanity. “There is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts wedepositphotos_4980424-Fantasy-throne-room[1] must still walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own ass.”

Because of his willingness to embrace messiness and uncertainty as part of the human experience, because of his willingness to call chaos what it is and not something else, Montaigne is one of my heroes. So, as a matter of fact, is the star of Sunday’s gospel—Thomas.Doubting Thomas[1] “Doubting Thomas,” as he almost always is described, occupies a unique place in the line-up of disciples. He’s the one who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, wouldn’t believe second-hand reports from eye witnesses, until he saw Jesus himself, until he saw the wounds in his hands, feet and side. Thomas was always brought to our attention in Sunday School as someone not to be like; indeed, Jesus’ put down of Thomas after Thomas finally believes—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”—provides us two thousand years later with something to be proud of. We, not having seen, are the blessed ones while Thomas (the loser) gets in by the skin of his teeth.

But there is another way to read this, a way in which Thomas turns out not to be a spiritual weakling, but rather to be a model of how to approach the spiritual life. We don’t know much about Thomas apart from this story; he is included in the list of disciples in the first three gospels, but John is the only gospel in which Thomas makes an appearance. He’s not one of the inner circle, but occasionally makes appropriate comments Peter and John hurry to the empty tomband asks good questions. In John 20, John’s account of the resurrection and its aftermath, we find the disciples, minus Thomas, hiding in a room with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” Peter and John have already seen the empty tomb, but there is an atmosphere of confusion, uncertainty and fear in the room. Jesus appears to them, and all uncertainty vanishes. But Thomas was not there.

Where was he? Perhaps he wasn’t as afraid as the other disciples and was out and about on that first day of the week, as were the women who first saw the empty tomb. Perhaps he was on a food run for the rest of the disciples who were too frightened to emerge from their safe house. But he misses the big event. When the other disciples report that “we have seen the Lord,” Thomas’ response places him forever in the disciples’ hall of shame: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

saint-thomas-the-apostle-00[1]Fair enough, I say. Remember that the other disciples apparently did not believe until Jesus appeared to them. The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize that Jesus was with them until he emerged from the pages of the Old Testament prophecies that he was pontificating about and broke bread with them. Why should Thomas not be cut the same slack? Embedded in the middle of this misunderstood story is a fundamental truth: A true encounter with the divine is never second-hand. Hearing about someone else’s experiences, trying to find God through the haze of various religious and doctrinal filters, is not a replacement for the real thing. Doubt and uncertainty are central threads in the human fabric and play a fundamental role in belief. Unfounded claims of certainty undermine this. Don’t believe on the cheap. imagesCA7OWR7MBetter to remain uncertain and in doubt one’s whole life, doggedly tracking what glimmers of light one sees, than to settle for a cheap knock-off or a counterfeit. As Annie Dillard writes, “Doubt and dedication often go hand in hand.” Thomas’s—and Michel’s—insight is captured well by the remainder of the passage from Anne Lamott with which I began this post:Anne Lamott

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.

Thomas was right. We should save “My Lord and my God” for the real thing.

The Easter Mouse

palinA couple of years ago, just in time for the Christmas holiday season, a new book by Sarah Palin was published. Entitled Good Tidings and Great Joy, with the subtitle A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas, the book was promoted, among other things, as “a fun, festive, thought-provoking book, which will encourage all to see what is possible when we unite in defense of our faith and ignore the politically correct Scrooges who would rather take Christ out of Christmas.” Every fall in recent years various conservative voices have called for like-minded persons to “take Christmas back” from various elements and constituencies seeking to secularize and remove Christ from it. This strikes me as a relatively recent phenomenon. My upbringing was as conservative Christian as it comes, yet my family had no problem mixing the baby Jesus in a manger with other not-so-Jesus-like features of the holidays, such as the year I got both a BB gun and a G.I. Joe doll (but don’t call it a doll) under the tree. The violent presents must not have had much of an effect. I do not own a gun nor have I shot one in at least thirty years. I’m glad the Christmas police never came to my house—we would have been in trouble.

But that’s nothing compared to the trouble we would have been in had the Easter police ever showed up at the wrong time. Easter is a confusing holiday for a kid, much more confusing than Christmas. Christmas is dependable—it comes on the same day in December every year. But Easter is confusedly flexible—it can show up on any given Sunday between the middle of March and late April.6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e55034926a8833-800wi I learned as an adult that there is actually a method to when Easter occurs. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring either on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Although this formula sounds very new-agey and smacks of Druids and such, it apparently was established at the Council of Nicea in 325. No telling what a bunch of theologians and bishops will do with too much time on their hands. All I knew as a kid was that Easter didn’t seem to know when to show up, except that it was always on a Sunday—with either snow banks or flowers outside, depending on the year.

I also knew what Easter was supposed to be about. Jesus was dead and now he isn’t any more. But my real interest was in various not-so-Jesus-like accoutrements that went with Easter—bunnies, Easter baskets, chocolate eggs (crème-filled or hollow) and, my ultimate obsession and downfall, jelly beans. My mother, very much like a Cadbury egg, was hard (or at least Swedish and stoic) on the outside and soft on the inside. 400px_JesusBunny_xlargeShe talked a good game about Easter being about Jesus and not about bunnies, eggs, and candy—but my brother and I knew that every Easter morning before we headed off to church would be an early spring version of Christmas morning. Each of us would find an Easter basket filled with our favorite sweets, as well as a toy or two. Mine was usually a small stuffed animal, facilitating my inexplicable and very strong stuffed animal obsession. One Easter, my mother said that in addition to the Easter basket, she had hidden two solid chocolate rabbits, one for each of us, somewhere in the house—it was up to each of us to find ours.

My brother found his within five minutes or so slid out of sight but within reach behind the piano. But I could not find mine. I’m usually pretty good at this—Jeanne will attest that I am almost always the “finder of lost or misplaced things” in our house. chocolate bunnyBut I could not find my freaking chocolate rabbit. It came time to head off for church and my mother would have caved and revealed where she had hidden it, except that—typically—she could not remember. I knew better than to suggest that I stay home and find my chocolate rabbit while the rest of the family went to church, but I was not thinking “He is Risen!” thoughts while at the service. I was wondering “where the fuck is my chocolate bunny??” (or something like that—the “f” word had not made it into even my inner vocabulary yet).

The chocolate rabbit was never found. To his great consternation, my mother made my brother share his rabbit with me. Several weeks later, though, we found out what had happened to my bunny. As I helped my mother move the massive console record player in the corner of the living room so she could clean underneath, we discovered the box that had contained my chocolate rabbit, empty with a large hole chewed in the bottom left corner. imagesCALFEA3OMy bunny had been confiscated and eaten by one of the several mice who lived in our old barn of a house. We could hear them running behind the walls on occasion. My father set mousetraps in various closets and the furnace room on a regular basis; one of my older brother’s jobs was to check the traps occasionally and discard any unlucky mouse with a broken back that he discovered. I hoped at the time that the freaking mouse who stole my bunny was one of the ones caught by a trap, or at least that the mouse died of a sugar and chocolate overdose. But the Easter Mouse has become iconic in my personal mythology over the years, representing the continuing pull of sacred and secular that has evolved from a confusing tension as a child into an endless source of fascination, ideas, and challenges for growth (as well as blog posts!) as an adult. news_closeup_santamangr_lgSanta Claus or the baby Jesus? Santa’s elves or the angel Gabriel? Rabbits or an empty tomb? Jelly beans or unleavened bread?

As I sat toward the back of a full Trinity Episcopal Church for Easter Sunday service last year, I was reminded of something provocative that a good friend of mine once said: “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?” In a slightly more formal way, New Testament scholar NTWright 250wN. T. Wright has the following to say about the stories:

The practical, theological, spiritual, ethical, pastoral, political, missionary, and hermeneutical implications of the mission and message of Jesus differ radically depending upon what one believes happened at Easter.N. T. Wright

Indeed they do—but beyond confirming that I believe the Easter story is true in the sense that “these stories are true—and some of them actually happened,” I not very interested in debates concerning the historical veracity of the foundational stories of Christianity. Personally, I’ll take the Incarnation over the Resurrection as the seminal truth of my Christian faith. But here’s what I do know to be true about Easter:

  • I know that resurrection is real because I’ve experienced it.
  • Easter is a reminder that death does not have the last word, that life always springs from what has been left for dead.
  • New life is often unexpected, inexplicable and unpredictable. I don’t know what the dozens of little green things that have sprouted up throughout my back yard and flower beds are (I’ve never seen them in previous springs), but they are alive. downy woodpeckerI don’t know what the little downy woodpecker hammering away on the vinyl siding of our neighbor’s house this morning was thinking, but it was life in action.

As the newly sighted man said when interrogated about the person who healed his blindness, “I don’t know about Jesus but one thing I do know—I was blind and now I see.” My life narrative will always include the language of incarnation and resurrection—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But this I know for certain: New life is for real.

Blessed Is He Who Comes

1696182087[1]Rodney Delasanta was one of best teachers and colleagues I ever had the privilege of knowing. Rodney was a true Renaissance man—a Chaucer scholar, family man, sports fan (especially the Red Sox), award-winning accordion player (really), and classical music aficionado. The accordion business made him a regular recipient of the latest accordion joke from me. “What is the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play the accordion—and doesn’t.” Once Rodney responded with an even better one: An accordion player is trying to find the location of his latest gig in downtown Manhattan. He parks his station wagon on the street with his accordion in the back, locks it, and sets out on foot to find the address. Upon returning to his vehicle he is crestfallen to find that the back window has been broken—Brandoni%20Mod%20149W[1]and even more crestfallen to find five more accordions in the back of the station wagon!

Rodney lived fifteen miles from campus, and told me shortly after we met that he had spent the past several months of commuting (fifteen miles is a very long commute in Rhode Island) listening to Bach’s Mass in B minor, about which we was as exuberantly effusive as he was about life in general. He was particularly taken by Bach’s setting of the Sanctus in this composition. According to Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, the angels continually sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are fully of His glory.” This inspired Bach’s setting, music that Rodney, in his usual measured fashion, declared to be the “most glorious six minutes of music ever written.”

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus                    Holy, Holy, Holy Lord

Dominus Deus Sabaoth,                       God of power and might

Pleni sunt coeli et terra                         Heaven and earth are full of Your glory

Gloria eius.                                                Hosanna in the highest

I miss Rodney. He died of cancer a few years ago; the nine years I spent teaching honors students on an interdisciplinary team with him during my early years at Providence College strongly influenced  me both as a teacher and a human being. I cannot listen to any setting of the Sanctus, particularly Bach’s, without thinking of Rodney fondly.

200px-TheSparrow(1stEd)[1]With fewer than six degrees of separation, this makes me think of Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction novel The Sparrow. It is a wonderful story with a fascinating premise: Life is discovered on another planet through transmissions of hauntingly beautiful music, to which scientists respond with transmissions of their own, including selections from Bach’s Mass in B minor (Rodney would have approved). Eventually an expedition, including Jesuit explorers and scientists, make first contact — just as Jesuit priests were often in the vanguard of Europe’s Age of Discovery. “Catholics in Space”—it’s a great premise.

The mission goes disastrously and terribly wrong, leaving one of the Jesuits, Emilio Sandoz, as the sole survivor. hughjackman[1]Sandoz believed that God had led him to be part of this mission, that God had micromanaged the details to bring it about, and thought he was in the center of God’s will. In the tragic aftermath, after all of his companions are horribly killed, he is devastated, ruined physically, emotionally, and spiritually. From the depths of his pain he lashes out at God: “I loved God and I trusted in his love . . . I laid down all my defenses. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped.” Only such blunt and brutal words could match his devastation. In conversation with fellow priests and his religious superiors back on Earth, Emilio says “It wasn’t my fault. It was either blind, dumb, stupid luck from start to finish, in which case we are all in the wrong business, gentlemen, or it was a God I cannot worship.”

The God of Power and Might responds, “Oh, really??” We already have a classic text on what this God has to say in response to demands for accountability—the book of Job.BookJob[1] There are a number of parallels between Emilio and Job: both are dedicated believers, both are all but destroyed by events surrounding them, and neither carries any blame for these disastrous events. Job, from the midst of the ash heap in which he sits, demands an accounting from God just as Emilio does from the midst of his devastation. God’s answer to Job, once he bothers to provide one, is along the lines of “Who are you, puny creature, to question anything about me or what I do? I’m God, you’re not, so let me offer you a large helping of ‘shut the hell up’.”tumblr_me3hnr8r2k1qdjda6o1_500[1] And a God of Power is entirely within its authority to give such an answer. Some afflicted believers, in the face of such a response, might say with Job “though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.” Others might rather say, with Emilio, “Fine, but this is a God I cannot worship.” In Emilio’s position, I would say the same thing. Thanks for sharing (finally), but you can’t do any worse to me than you’ve already done. I’m outta here.

The God of Glory and Mystery responds “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”img_6246[1] This, I suppose, is an improvement on “I’m God and you’re not,” but not much of one. The God of Mystery’s answer is a reminder that none of our human faculties, either individually or as a total package, can ever crack God’s code, can ever fully encompass divine reality. I’m sure this is true, but it can easily turn into a license for laziness and apathy. The greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” If my heart, soul, and mind are incapable of touching the transcendent, then God can be whatever I want God to be, since all visions of God are equally immune from scrutiny. Let’s just make it up as we go along.

But there is another divine response. The God of Love created the world because, as Iris MurdochimagesCA6KS6YV writes, “He delights in the existence of something other than Himself.” But love limits power. In order for the loved to exist and respond to love freely, the lover must not manipulate or control. The language of love is the language of intimacy and vulnerability. The only possible response of the God of Love to suffering, pain, and anguish is to embrace and endure it with us, rather than to eliminate it. And the ultimate response of the God of Love to human pain is to become human. This is not a God who intercedes. This is a God who indwells. God comes as one of us, not as a distant source of arbitrary power or wrapped in a cloud of mystery.

The ancients had it easy, because the various and indefinite aspects of the transcendent were each given shape in a different deity. Power for Zeus, wisdom for Athena, erotic love for Aphrodite, mischievous creativity for Hermes, murderous tendencies for Ares, plain old hard work for Hephaestusnbvcn[1]—a different deity for every divine mood. Maybe monotheism isn’t such a good idea. But the God of Love is a good way to get a monotheistic handle on our polytheistic dealings with the divine. The God of Love chooses to ratchet down divine power in exchange for relationship. The God of Love is revealed in the most intimate mystery of all, God made flesh. God responds to our demands for answers strangely—nothing gets answered, but everything is changed. Christianity does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use for it. Christ in us, the hope of glory. In the liturgy the Sanctus is followed by the Benedictus—“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” exactly what the crowds are singing to Jesus on a donkey as the drama of Holy Week begins today. “Hosanna in the highest” indeed.palm_sunday[1]

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 have team-taught twice with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era”—we will be teaching it for a third time in Spring 2017. 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. 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.

Holy Family Values

Each week, Garrison Keillor tells “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.

Even though I am on sabbatical, 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.

Goliath was a Wimp: Random Observations for the New Year

The first measurable winter precipitation of the season rolled through town last Monday night, on the heels of sixty-five degree temperatures on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.goliath I found out on Weather.com that this mediocre, unimpressive two-inches-of-icy-crap-producing storm was given the name Winter Storm Goliath. I really hate that every winter system that produces a snowflake gets its own special name, but if we’re going Biblical with storm names this winter, I have some suggestions. Nebuchadnezzar. Zerubbabel. Mephibosheth. Habakkuk. Melchizedek. Ahasuerus. Or we could go short with something like Eli or Ham. If we have a winter like last year and run out of names, I’ve got some good New Testament ones as well.

If at this time in 2017 Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Ben Carson is President of the United States, Jeanne and I will be wishing everyone Happy New Year from Canada.carsontrumpcruz

 

 

 

 

At an after-Christmas, multiple birthday party at Jeanne’s brother’s house on Long Island this week, there were three generations of her family present (hard to believe that we are part of the oldest generation). This included six kids representing the newest generation—I don’t recall my cousins, brother, and me being that cute and precocious when we were in single digits of age. Or at least our parents didn’t act as if we were.

DeadInflatables1-560x234What’s with the inflatable snowmen, reindeer, and Santa Clauses that seem to populate more and more yards every holiday season? I don’t like them. At least eighty percent of the time they are not inflated and look like a bunch of large and colorful used condoms. Really—think about it.

While writing one of the days before Christmas I put Handel’s Messiah on Spotify for my listening pleasure. I had a classic WTF? moment shortly afterwards until I realized that I had forgotten to turn “shuffle” off. “The Trumpet Shall Sound” followed by “There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” was as disorienting as scrambling the verses of the Twenty-Third Psalm would be. Didn’t quite work.

trumpet

Good news on the broken ankle front–it has healed well and I don’t need to see the orthopedist again. I asked him if there was anything I should still avoid doing; his advice sounded like a Henny Youngman joke. “If you do something and your ankle hurts, stop doing it.”

From the Un-Fucking-Believable file: I read on Facebook this week that certain conservative elements are interpreting House Speaker Paul Ryan’s new beard as a sign that he is soft on Islam and perhaps moving toward conversion himself. I’m not making this up.

Did Paul Ryan GROW A BEARD to show SYMPATHY with the MUSLIMS?!?!

Beards are important, though—just ask fans of the 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox. I noticed the other day that one sharp dividing line between my side of the philosophy department wars and the other, dfear the beardark side is that the males on my side all have beards and the guys on the other side are, with one exception, beardless. By the way, there’s only one woman out of twenty-one philosophers in the department—certainly a huge part of our problems. I never thought I would have a moment of solidarity with Paul Ryan, but as my sister-in-law from Brooklyn likes to say, “what are you gonna do?”

A friend of ours who is going through major life changes is trying to get Jeanne and me to give his dachshund a home. We have two dachshunds and a Boston Terrier already who all compete vigorously for Jeanne’s attention—adding a fourth Jeanne-loving canine into the mix does not make sense. But something tells me we’re going to do it (Lily likes me too, so maybe I can co-opt her). Stay tuned.100_0720

Here’s hoping that 2016 delivers a President that rational people from all sides can live with, a country that acts more like Canada, another Super Bowl for the Patriots, a deep NCAA tournament run for Friars basketball, a repeat national championship for the Friars hockey team, a publisher for my new book, my book rocketing to the top of the NY Times non-fiction list, the miracle of sanity and collegiality for my philosophy department, no snow storms stronger than Goliath, a Red Sox return to the top, and the keys to a new car under everyone’s seat. Is that too much? I don’t care—Happy New Year to all!latest-happy-new-year-2016-photos

The Strong, Silent Type

imagesCAXNTWCGIn 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.

My affinity for Joseph has stayed with me, so I have an affinity for the birth of Jesus narrative in Matthew’s gospel. Scholars tell us that Matthew’s primary focus is to look back to events more than a half century past and sell to a matthew117[1]Jewish audience that this Jewish man, crucified as a common criminal, was actually the promised Messiah. The author’s intentions are clear from the start when the gospel begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back from his father, Joseph, through King David to Abraham. The author even points out some interesting details in this genealogy that the well-versed Jewish reader or listener would not miss.

There are some questionable females in Joseph’s family tree. Salmon, David’s great-grandfather, for instance, marries Rahab whose story is told in the book of Joshua.Rahab-saves-spies-1[1] The invading children of Israel send spies into the Promised Land to scout out the area; they end up in Jericho, a walled fortress that is the most important and powerful city in Canaan. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab (what were they doing there?), who hides them from the King of Jericho and helps them escape from the city by dropping a rope from her window so they can climb down the wall to safety in the middle of the night. For her efforts, this non-Israelite prostitute and her family are the only inhabitants of Jericho spared when Joshua and his army, using information from the spies Rahab saved, conquers and destroys Jericho a few chapters later.

Salmon and Rahab’s son is Boaz. Perhaps it is because he is a half-breed that he is willing to marry the foreign widow Ruth. The story of Ruth and Boaz is beautifully told in the Book of Ruth, a hidden and seldom-read gem in the Hebrew Scriptures. I wrote about this beautiful story a few weeks ago–here’s a brief summary. During a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Judah with their two sons in search of sustenance, which they find in the neighboring land of Moab. The sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, something which the Mosaic Law prohibited (just as it prohibited Salmon from marrying a foreigner, let alone a prostitute). But all of the men in the story die. Devastated by loss and with no means of support, Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem after saying goodbye to her former daughters-in-law. Orpah sadly heads back to her family home, but Ruth will not leave Naomi, touchingly saying “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

boaz_and_ruth[1]It’s the beginning of an unexpected love story—foreign woman meets wealthy Jewish guy (Boaz). Ruth and Boaz’s grandson, Jesse (who is no more than half Jewish), has eight sons. The eighth son and runt of the litter, consigned to writing poems and killing lions while tending sheep, is David who Samuel anoints as the second king of Israel. The line continues through Solomon, who is the product of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.DSC_0130[1] Even the Messiah’s line has its questionable elements and characters—which should tell us something about the divine plan and priorities.

So it is no surprise that the birth of Jesus is set up by Matthew not with the women of the story, Elizabeth and Mary, in central roles but rather with Joseph, the descendant of David. He is the central character both in next Sunday’s gospel reading as well as the text in two weeks when he runs to Egypt in the middle of the night with his young family to escape King Herod’s murderous plans. What do we learn from Matthew and from Luke, the only other gospel in which Joseph appears, about Joseph?

First, Joseph is the strong, silent type. While other major players in the stories of Jesus’ birth and formative years get major speaking parts, we have no record of Joseph ever saying anything. Mary gets the Magnificat, angels are singing and messaging at the drop of a hat, John the Baptist gets to yell “Repent,” Zachariah has the “Song of Zachariah,” the wise men have a brief speaking role, and even the minor character Simeon gets to contribute a song before he dies. But Joseph is silent. In reality, I suspect, he was capable of speech when necessary—84836-No Room Inn Logo“What the hell do you mean there’s no room at the inn? I made these reservations last month! I’ve got a pregnant wife sitting out there on a donkey in the parking lot! Sleep in a stable?? What the fuck?? I want to see your manager!”—but he gets no gospel speaking role.

Second, Joseph is in touch with his inner self in a way that would make modern therapists proud. He pays attention to his dreams and acts on them. Mary briefly argues with the angel at the annunciation in Luke, but Joseph hears an angel in a dream, wakes up, and acts on what he’s heard, both in this week’s gospel and two weeks from now. No questions asked. In fact, he’s perhaps the greatest dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake and distant ancestor Joseph from Genesis. scan0019[1]The difference between them is that Joseph in Genesis is not the strong, silent type, can’t stop blabbing about his dreams to everyone, and ends up in a well. Jesus’ stepdad knows that some things are meant to be acted on and not talked about.

Third, Joseph clearly is flexible and able to roll with the punches. One would think that the angel Gabriel might have made the annunciation to Mary and Joseph together, but no. Only Mary gets the message. We aren’t told if Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant because she tells him her story or because he happens to notice that she’s putting on weight, but because he is a “just man” he chooses to break their betrothal privately rather than making a public display of it as the law would have allowed. Finally an angel, either Gabriel or a part-timer, gets around to telling Joseph in a dream and the betrothal is back on—but no sex until Jesus is born. Bummer. But the New Testament and tradition indicate that Mary and Joseph did have several children in the years after Jesus was born, so at least that worked out.

220px-Loretto_Chapel_Ext[1] (2)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 staircaseimagesCAPEEH5G 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.

I tend to consider such stories to be apocryphal legend; we don’t even find out that Joseph is a carpenter until much later in Matthew when the people of Nazareth reject Jesus because this “carpenter’s son” claims to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. But this does sound like something that Joseph would do. There’s something spectacularly ordinary and efficient about Joseph. Something needs to be done, and he does it. After dealing with a pregnant fiancée he’s never had sex with, sleep-talking angels, a murderous king, lost reservations at the inn and delivering a baby in a barn, building a staircase that defies gravity for a bunch of nuns is nothing. Bring it on.images[10]

We Are Not Alone

This Christmas season seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe and in our country 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.

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.