Category Archives: incarnation

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 Sunday, 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.

Flesh and Blood

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. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison

ECSUI spent last Tuesday as an outside reviewer for the Liberal Arts Program at a Connecticut state university an hour or so west of Providence. I shared these duties with an assessment-guru administrator from a state university in Massachusetts; we are tasked with jointly producing a report of five or so pages within three weeks. I offered to get the report started by writing a rough draft over the weekend, since I have a long weekend away from classes from Thursday through Monday. “Why do you have a long weekend?” my envious colleague wanted to know. Easter breakAhh, the joys of working on a Catholic college campus—I often forget that not everyone gets Easter Break.

Although I grew up in a world in which Easter was the biggest event of the year, I have never settled into a tradition concerning how to celebrate it. Church, of course, but a familiar space filled with people who only show up once a year is a bit odd. Everything seems forced and unnatural, as if everyone is thinking “we’re supposed to be doing something special for Jesus’ resurrection, but we aren’t sure what it is. So we’ll just do what we usually do, only bit longer and louder.” After going to the 8:00 service, Jeanne and I celebrated by eating at Not your average joes“Not Your Average Joe’s” (their lettuce wraps and draft beers are outstanding) and went to see “Cinderella” (with Rose from “Downton Abbey” in the title role). Jeanne’s and my spiritual odysseys started at different poles and have evolved in different, perhaps opposite directions over time. Jeanne was raised Catholic and resonates with many aspects of evangelical and charismatic Christianity, while I was raised evangelical, fundamentalist Baptist and find the vibrations of liturgical worship very attractive. It’s a good thing that our paths have a wide point of intersection, expressed very clearly by the passage at the beginning of this post written by Bonhoeffer in prison mere weeks before his execution by the Nazis. Who is Christ for us today? In less religious terms, what direct impact should our faith commitment have on how we live our lives together and individually?

During the past two weeks the two colloquia I am teaching this semester have raised such questions in stark ways. trocmeIn “Grace, Truth and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” we have been studying the story of Le Chambon, an insignificant Protestant village in southeastern France that protected and saved thousands of Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The spiritual leader and soul of the village, Andre Trocme, taught and exemplified an eminently practical and effective reading of the Gospels—they mean what they say. When asked about his motivations after the war, Trocme said

If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic ethical theory? If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth; and if he existed, God has shown us in flesh and blood what goodness is for flesh-and-blood people.

invisible handAs if by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” my “Markets and Morals” colloquium unexpectedly raised the question “How does a person of faith bring her or his values into a market that frequently runs contrary to such values?” just in time for Holy Week. Our text was Is the Market Moral?—a series of essays and responses by Rebecca Blank and William McGurn, two highly respected economists who happen to be very serious about their Christian faith but disagree sharply about how it should intersect with a secular market economy. McGurnAt one point McGurn distinguishes between Christian faith as a guide for an individual life and as a model for social reform, a separation that contemporary Christians frequently make.

A frequent mistake in the social arena is to apply personal virtues to social contexts. To put it another way, our social virtues may complement our personal virtues, but they are not the same. Not least of the weaknesses in so-called “Christian” prescriptions for economic life is the idea that the gospels are somehow a policy platform, as though the Golden Rule can be simply legislated.

I brought these two very different spins on how one’s religious values might apply to one’s practical daily life to my two seminars for small group discussion. One seminar thought that McGurn’s dividing “personal” from “social” virtues is essentially a cop-out, a roadmap for excusing oneself from seeking to bring needed change into the market and other social arenas. The other seminar focused their negative energies on Trocme’s Sermon on the Mount commentary, labelling it as “naïve” and “unrealistic.” Jesus and easter bunnyAnd, I suspect, that the range of true possibilities lies somewhere between Trocme and McGurn.

So what’s a person of faith to do? In the immediate wake of yet another Easter, of yet another emergence of Jesus from the tomb, fighting for attention space with jelly beans and bunnies, with tentative agreements with Iran and the upcoming Final Four, it seems appropriate to ask once again, along with Bonhoeffer, who Christ is, really, for us today. The latest news cycle provides glaring examples of what happens when presumably well-intentioned legislators are unable to tell the difference between protecting religious freedom against perceived threats from the government and opening the door to discrimination in the name of religious values. And about those values—it’s not as if professed Christians have much agreement about what they even are. indiana pizzaThe Christian faith that the owners of an Indiana pizzeria cite as the basis of their refusing to cater a same-sex wedding is the very Christian faith that many have relied on as they call attention to the resulting discrimination and less-than-Christ-like virtues being exhibited by the pizzeria owners and the advocates of the bill. Never has the separation of church and state looked so attractive from the perspective of both state and church.

Still, blankRebecca Blank points out in Is the Market Moral? that a sharp separation between private and public is not an option for “Christians who believe that human beings cannot be whole without their most important institutions tethered in some acknowledgement to transcendent truth.” If my Christian faith is to be something more than a very interesting and complicated private hobby, a sharp separation of secular and sacred cannot be the order of the day. At the very least, Jesus’ annual emergence from the tomb back into the real world should remind the Christian that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a promise of a pleasant and problem-free afterlife, but is Jesus’ frequent phrase to describe what the world, infused with the power of the Spirit and the energy of Christ-infused human beings, should be struggling toward now.tegel prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer, waiting for his certain execution, captures it well.

Christians, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, have no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal . . . they must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in their doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with them, and are they crucified and risen with Christ.

crucifixion[1]

Actually, He Died

Three Christmas Eves ago, Jeanne, Justin and I were invited to share dinner with a friend from work and her family, which includes two precocious and very active children. On display was a beautiful crèche, surrounded by all sorts of interesting items—who knew, for instance, that there was a duck and an elephant (both roughly the same size as the baby) at the manger? My friend is from Italy; her mother annually sends new additions to the crèche scene from the homeland, often forgetting the comparative size of the items she sent in previous years. My friend’s five-year-old daughter introduced Justin to the various characters in a monologue interrupted only by a few confirming comments.

And these are some shepherds, those are goats and sheep, that’s a dog a turkey and a cow, these are some angels, and that’s the baby Jesus.

Oh, really?

Yes. Actually, he died.

Yes he did, as Good Friday somberly reminds us. It is traditional for Christians, anticipating the end of the story and what will happen in three days, to attempt a symbolic descent into the depths of pain and devastating disappointment. But there is no evidence that any person among Jesus’s family and followers expected that he would rise from the dead. The crucifixion was an unmitigated disaster and they fled in fear for their lives. Some hid in anonymous locations to escape arrest. Some simply went home. The bravest among them planned to show respect for the dead body in traditional ways. Various hopes and dreams were shattered. As the travelers to Emmaus said, “We had hoped that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” But actually, he died. End of story—time to move on.

The idea of a suffering and dying God is not new—there are many traditions supported by myths and stories of a divinity suffering and dying for various reasons. But this story is so intimately personal, so representative of the crushed hopes and dreams, the inescapable pain and suffering, that are fundamentally part of the human experience. That’s what makes Good Friday so poignant and what made it so devastating for those who were there, those who had tied their lives to this man. He seemed to be something more, but turned out to be the same as everyone else—human, limited, subject to suffocating power and injustice, to the random events that ultimately shape each of our stories. We had hoped—and he died.

Simone Weil suggests that the entire story of redemption is contained in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. If the story ended with Jesus executed as a criminal and dead in a tomb, we still would have reason to believe in a God of love. Our very existence, as well as the existence of the reality we inhabit, is evidence of God’s choice to create in order to love. The story of a God who becomes fully human, who lives a life in time subject to all things each human being is subject to, including suffering, pain, loss, tragedy, injustice, and death serves to drive the point deeper. No supernatural cure for suffering is offered in this story, no promise that God will take pain and loss away. Rather a supernatural use for suffering is offered. Isaiah promises that the Messiah will be called “Emanuel—God with us.” Good Friday reveals just how far the divine chooses to go with us—into the depths of despair and death.

I saw a poster recently with a dark twist on a familiar saying. “It is always darkest just before—it goes pitch black.” And God is there.

despairdemotivator[1]

LIBBS

Come In, and Come In

As I considered with my students this past week one of the most beautiful, challenging, and disturbing true stories I have ever encountered, I was reminded of what I wrote about that story a year ago.

Once many years ago, a couple I was close friends with was having marital problems. For the first (and only) time in my life, I found myself frequently playing the role of telephone confessor and therapist for each of them—I’m quite sure that neither was aware that I was doing this with the other. imagesThe phone calls became so frequent that one evening as I talked to the male in the relationship, the woman beeped in on call waiting. Toward the end of their relationship, she complained to me one evening that “There is no problem so great that he can’t ignore it!” These informal therapy sessions were unsuccessful; the couple soon divorced, one of them remarried, and both seem to have spent the past twenty years far happier than they were when together. Maybe that means my input was successful after all.

My friend’s complaint about her husband was, unfortunately, all too recognizable as a typical human reaction to information or truths that we don’t want to hear. il_570xn_240184042In the Gospel of John, Jesus is reported as having said “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I don’t think so. I think the real situation is more like what one of my students wrote in a recent intellectual notebook entry: “The truth doesn’t set a person free, but it does complicate their life.” So what is one to do when the truth about something is so obvious that it cannot be ignored—and you don’t want to deal with it?

  Along with a colleague from the history department, this semester I am in the middle of a colloquium entitled mein kampf“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom, and Truth during the Nazi Era.” After several weeks of immersion in the world of the Nazis, including Mein Kampf and Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, I could tell that everyone was feeling the same way I was—worn out by exposure to human pain, suffering, and evil and how these are facilitated by deliberate ignorance and evasion created through the choices we make. LIBBSWe returned from Spring Break to Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The subtitle of Hallie’s remarkable book is “The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” It is, in many ways, more challenging and disturbing than being immersed in the depths of human depravity.

Hallie’s book is the little-known story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small and insignificant Protestant village in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Le ChambonBetween 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, and at great risk to their own safety and lives, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. As a woman whose three children’s lives were saved by these villagers told Philip Hallie decades later, “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain—and Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Hallie comments that Rainbow“The rainbow reminds God and man that life is precious to God, that God offers not only sentimental hope, but a promise that living will have the last word, not killing. The rainbow means realistic hope,” a hope that was incarnated in Le Chambon.

It is a beautiful story, one that is virtually unknown in comparison to more familiar and dramatic narratives. Everyone who cares about the human spirit should read it—I dare you to make it through with dry eyes. My first question to the thirty-some students in the colloquium at our first class on this text was simply “How did this happen?” There is nothing special about Le Chambon—there are hundreds of similar rural villages throughout Europe. There were dozens of them within a short train ride of Le Chambon. Yet none of them did anything like what the Chambonnais did; indeed, many of them collaborated with the Vichy police and turned their Jewish neighbors and Jewish refugees in to the authorities as the occupying Nazis demanded. What made Le Chambon different? Andre and MagdaHow did goodness happen here?

According to the Chambonnais in virtually every interview Hallie conducted, there was nothing special about what they did at all. After being described as a “hero” or simply as “good,” Magda Trocmé, wife of the village’s dynamic pastor André Trocmé, asked in annoyance

How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people. Who else would have taken care of them if we didn’t? They needed our help and they needed it then. Anyone else would have done the same thing.

“Is she right?” I asked my students? “How many think anyone else would have done the same?” Not a hand was raised—certainly not mine. So the question remains. How did this happen? How did goodness happen here?

As with a giant jigsaw puzzle, a possible answer can be assembled from various facts throughout Hallie’s book. 130528-004-C0524E59The Chambonnais, for instance, are Huguenots, descendants of French Protestants who were a persecuted minority from the sixteenth century forward in predominantly Catholic France. What it means to be in danger and what it means to resist, to stubbornly stand for something in the face of persecution and death, is embedded in the DNA of these villagers. Le Chambon was also blessed during the war years and the decade before with the daring and lived leadership of men and women who by example showed them what it means to be a true community. But the most important reason that goodness happened in Le Chambon is so simple and basic that it cannot be overlooked. The Chambonnais believed one fundamental thing concerning human beings—that all human life, whether French, Jewish, or Nazi, is fundamentally precious and must not be harmed. Period. Many people, then and now, profess to believe this; the Chambonnais not only believed it—they acted on it. Consistently and regularly. Without questioning or equivocation. For such people, Hallie describes, “The good of others becomes a thing naturally and necessarily attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence. For certain people, helping the distressed is as natural and necessary as feeding themselves.” TrocmeThe villagers of Le Chambon were such people.

The source of this simple but powerful lived commitment depended on the person. For Pastor André Trocmé, on the one hand, his commitment to nonviolence and active goodness was rooted in his commitment to emulate Jesus and to take seriously, in a remarkably straightforward way, the message of the gospel. During his theological training, for instance, he was taught by his professors that the 6a00d8341bffb053ef0134818071ae970c-500wiSermon on the Mount is intended to be read as an allegory or as a standard set impossibly high so we can understand our sins and failures more clearly. André had no patience for such evasions. In a book written shortly after the end of the war, he asks

If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic ethical theory? If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth; and if he existed, God has shown us in flesh and blood what goodness is for flesh-and-blood people.

André’s wife Magda, on the other hand, had no patience for doctrine, religion, or any esoteric debate that might take her attention away from what was right in front of her. MagdaShe did not believe that something was evil because it violated God’s commands. She believed that something is evil simply because it hurts people. A person’s need was the basis of her moral vision, not any sentimental love she might or might not feel for the person in need, and certainly not any calling to moral or religious excellence. There is a need and I will address it was her motivating energy. Simple as that.

I have taught this book a number of times in ethics classes, but not for seven or eight years. As I worked through the story with my students last week, I realized with a new depth just how disturbing and shocking the story of Le Chambon is. “I think I know why I haven’t taught this book in a while,” I told them. “These people make me uncomfortable. They let me know just how wide a gap there is between what I say I believe and what I actually do.” When the truth of what I profess is laid out in front of me in a way that I cannot ignore, I want to look away. I shift into philosopher mode—“This is idealistic, this won’t work in real life, real human beings won’t treat each other this way,” and so on. And my students would have been very happy to be told all of this, because they were just as uncomfortable with the Chambonnais as I was and am. 14992918595385727520But goodness did happen there in the midst of some of the worst evil humans have ever manufactured. Real people created goodness in the midst of evil by actually taking what they believed seriously enough to do it. I have a two-hour seminar with eighteen students this afternoon that will continue our exploration of this book. The best I can do, which is perhaps a lot better than I could have done not long ago, is to make Hallie’s closing words in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed my own and invite my students to come along.

I, who share Trocme’s and the Chambonnais’ beliefs in the  preciousness of human life, may never have the moral strength to be much like the Chambonnais or like Trocmé; but I know I want to have the power to be. I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from the depths, “Naturally, come in, and come in.”

oil change

In a Nutshell

John 3 16

 

Sports fans old enough to remember the 70s and 80s will recall that a regular occurrence at baseball or football games either in person or on television was, when the camera panned the stands, to see a person—often wearing a colorful fright wig—holding up a large homemade poster board sign with a cryptic reference that made sense only for initiates: John 3:16. John 316I often imagined the confusion that many might have felt at this ubiquitous, almost subliminal communication, especially in a pre-Google world. John 3:16? What does that mean? But for those in the know, it was no mystery, for John 3:16 is the address of perhaps the most familiar of all Bible verses, the first one (followed by hundreds more) that I learned as a young Baptist boy.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

In our fundamentalist, evangelical world, the whole gospel was summed up in this verse, often followed by its less quoted companion John 3:17:

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

It really does have it all—a God of salvation rather than condemnation, of love rather than judgment, the incarnation, and—most important in the religious world of my youth—the promise of eternal life, which we interpreted as going to heaven and avoiding hell. It really is the gospel in a nutshell. Really. gospel in a nutshellI remember a crafts event during summer Bible camp when we inserted the text of John 3:16 in tiny print rolled up like a paper towel inside the two halves of a walnut shell which we then glued together with the end of the John 3:16 roll sticking out of a convenient slot. When completed, the text could be rolled out and admired, then snapped back in like a window shade.

Typically, but unfortunately, the textual context of this gospel in a nutshell was usually ignored. John’s gospel is strange and (for me, least) somewhat off-putting. It was written last of the four gospels, at least twenty years later than Matthew and Luke, perhaps thirty years later than Mark. The Jesus of John often sounds more like a theology professor than the no-nonsense man of few words and mighty deeds in Mark’s gospel. In John chapter 3, Jesus is visited secretly at night by Nicodemus, setting up one of the strangest conversations you’ll ever hear.

laurenceNicodemus, described by John as “a ruler of the Jews,” was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—a significant player in the religious and political structure that Jesus was clearly challenging. For me Nicodemus will always be the bearded and aging Sir Laurence Olivier as he played the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s  Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus undoubtedly comes by night because he does not want his colleagues to know of his fascination with Jesus. It’s sort of like John Boehner checking in with President Obama in the middle of the night for budget-making advice—Boehner wouldn’t be able to live it down if word got out. Nicodemus gives Jesus an opening which Jesus takes by saying cryptically “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We Baptists took this to mean that “unless you accept Jesus into your heart as your personal savior, you don’t get to go to heaven” (although Jesus doesn’t say this), but the “eternal life” business isn’t what catches Nicodemus’ attention. Taking the “born again” line literally, he wants to know “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born”? Debates were raging in Jesus’ world between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether resurrection of the dead is possible—Jesus and NicodemusNicodemus, familiar with those debates, thinks Jesus is taking a position. But he’s not. He’s talking about something else entirely.

As the conversation continues, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the strange story from the history of the children of Israel wandering in the desert that was the focus of our first reading this morning from Numbers. In response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and their penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”   bronze serpentApplying the story to himself thousands of years later, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Which sheds a whole new light on the gospel in a nutshell passage just two verses later. Jesus is not talking about crawling back into your mother’s womb, nor is he talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about importance of what we choose to look at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that human beings are creatures who make pictures, then over time come to resemble the pictures they have made. And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. Two years ago when standing in this pulpit I talked about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” a tale about a secluded New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hung some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.” Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_4-26-03In the valley there is a legend that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.”

Ernest, a young man born and raised in the valley, was obsessed with the story of the promised great man his whole life, spending hours per day staring at the Great Stone Face and sharing the villagers’ disappointment as numerous visitors failed to live up to expectations. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime. Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to them all, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and is telling us, that the possibility of transformation and renewal is right in front of us—but our attention is focused elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that John 3:16 does not require us to do anything but believe. No deeds need to be performed, no special words need to be said, no special prayers need to be offered, no sins need to be confessed. Just believe. I spent many years trying to figure out what I needed to do to gain God’s favor—I suspect I’m not the only one in the room who has tried to figure this out. As it turns out, belief is about focusing my attention on the right thing. Not on my shortcomings and failings, nor on my strengths and what I think I have to offer that God might be able to use. lookJesus’ message to Nicodemus is “don’t act—LOOK.” In our consumer society we want solutions that we can make our own, that we can add to our list of useful things we have consumed. But Simone Weil writes that “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” The gospel in a nutshell.

Nicodemus’Michelangelo_Pieta_Firenze conversation with Jesus clearly had an impact; we see him two more times in John’s narrative, once when he reminds his brethren in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, the second time when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial after the crucifixion. He did not drop everything he was doing and start following Jesus, but he did begin to see things differently. As we travel the Lenten path we would do well to wonder the same things that Nicodemus must have wondered about. Where do I usually focus my attention? What would it mean to shift my gaze toward something different? What would it mean to stop looking at the shortcomings, failures and sins in my own life and the lives of those around me? What would it be like to stop staring a few inches in front of me as I sleepwalk through my days and weeks and look up? What difference would it make if I looked at the promise of life rather than the inevitability of death? The bronze serpent lifted in the wilderness. The Son of Man hanging on a cross. Both are iconic images of God’s love and forgiveness, promising that new life can be ours now, that the kingdom of God is available now, and eternal life begins now. All we need to do is look.

violet

The Wisdom of Violet

All this thinking is highly overrated. Violet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

season fiveThe American showing of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey’s fifth season just ended, to the dismay of its millions of fans who now must wait until next January to get their next Downton fix. It’s a bit worse for Jeanne and me. Late last year Jeanne signed up to throw a few monthly dollars in the direction of our local PBS station; in return, we were shipped the full fifth season of the series in DVD at the end of January. The fifth season had just started its Sunday evening run a couple of weeks earlier, and now we had in our hands the rest of the season with no need to parcel the episodes out one week at a time. The DVDs showed up a couple of days before we got smacked with Juno, the first and worst of a series of winter storms that came in unrelenting succession over the next month. With Tuesday and then Wednesday classes cancelled, we binge-watched Lord Grantham along his relatives and homies cavort and angst through eight straight episodes—about eleven or twelve hours of viewing. And we wanted more.

All Downton fans have their favorite characters—I’ve noted in a previous post from a few weeks back that mine is Mister Carson, the erstwhile butler of the establishment.

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

violetBut everyone loves Lord Grantham’s mother Violet, the dowager countess and source of endless entertainment from meaningful glances to pithy retorts, a lovably manipulative force behind virtually everything going on in each episode with a wit as dry as a martini. Violet is played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith that I cannot imagine anyone else being Violet (although I suspect Dame Judi Dench could do it, just differently). In this most recent season any number of Violet one-liners made me laugh, then think. Here are a few of them.

All this thinking is highly overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody ever thought.

Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and in five seasons has proceeded through the Great War to the disturbing, iconoclastic years in the war’s wake, concluding the fifth season at Christmas 1923. In my twenty-plus years of teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, the most important thing I have learned about history is that no event ever changed the world so fully and irrevocably as World War One. yeatsWilliam Butler Yeats captured these dark transformations perfectly in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the

Worst are full of passionate intensity.

That these lines are directly applicable to our world a century later is testimony to just how complete the changes were.

Violet finds herself in a world she does not understand in which none of the fixed and reliable rules that have given her life and society stability apply. There was a time when people knew their place, when one knew what to expect, when things made sense. That world is gone, and she blames it on too much thinking. She might have a point. Not long ago some philosophical wag wrote that “Socrates may have been right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.”

A lack of compassion is as vulgar as an excess of tears.

maryThis is Violet’s comment to her granddaughter Mary when Mary shows a remarkable lack of concern for her sister Edith’s sadness and mourning over the death of her lover and father of her child. It is a remarkable comment from a woman whose whole life has been defined by the sort of British aristocratic reserve that looks, at least on the surface, like lack of compassion on steroids. But an excess of any sort on the spectrum of emotion is “vulgar,” perhaps the worst thing that could possibly be said about a British aristocrat in the post-Edwardian era.

In my team-taught colloquium entitled “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom and Truth in the Nazi Era,” my students (and I) regularly struggle to find the appropriate emotional response to the horrors we are studying. At the end of our final class last week before spring break, my historian teammate Ray ended the two hours with a few minutes video from the liberation of Auschwitz. Emaciated, skeletal bodies piled fifteen feet or more high. auschwitzThese bodies being thrown one by one into a mass grave. Ray wisely ended the class with no comment, switching the computer off as students quietly gathered their things and filed out.

As I’ve been reading my students’ intellectual notebook entries this week, several have written “I don’t know how to respond to what I was seeing.” And neither do I. But our response cannot be academic and clinical, nor can it be a paralyzing wave of emotion. The worst that we humans can do to each other must be responded with all of the resources available to us. Our response must be human, in other words. This reminds me yet again of why I resonate with a religion whose central truth is that God became human.

Hope is a tease to prevent us from accepting reality.

To which the idealist responds that realism or pragmatism is a device to help us avoid dreaming of and hoping for what could be rather than settling for what is. I have written occasionally about the dynamic of hope in this blog,

Hopeful Thinking

and like to think of myself as a “pragmatic idealsimpragmatic idealist” or perhaps an “optimistic realist.” These things really are not contradictory, although many (including Violet) assume that they are. The philosopher in me tends toward realism, with Aristotle, David Hume, William James as three of my most important philosophical influences. Yet that realism is tempered by my faith which in my understanding both applies directly to the real world I struggle with every day yet offers transcendent hope that there is more to reality than what I struggle with every day. I resonate with Hamlet’s conviction that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”—this is how I manage to be both a philosopher and a Christian, something that a good friend worried that I would not be able to pull off many years ago.

Thanks, Violet, for your thought-provoking insights and asides—keep them coming!violet 2

the jesus lizard

What I Would Love to Find

bird by bifdIn Bird by Bird, the best book on writing that I have read, Anne Lamott tells the writing wannabe to “write what you would love to find.” That’s great advice—but of course that means the prospective writer has to do a lot of reading. At least I do, since I often don’t know what I would “love to find” until I find it. When things get busy, when I tell myself that I don’t have the time to read anything other than what I’ve assigned my students for the week (since it’s always a good idea to be a class or two ahead of them), my blog writing begins to resonate like vibrations in an echo chamber or the sound of one hand clapping. one handWhen I tack a new paragraph at the beginning of an essay I wrote a year ago and call it a new essay, I know it’s time to find another hand to clap with.

In my current state of affairs, this happens during semester or summer break. Last summer was filled with reading multiple volumes of Scandinavian noir mysteries which provided me with new ways to consider the familiar. What would I discover during the all-too-short Christmas break between semesters that just ended? I have learned to trust the apparently random suggestions of friends and colleagues for new reading material over the years, and once again they delivered. Thanks to two friends, I have discovered two more authors to love and to use as new sparks of writing energy.

The first suggestion came from my friend and colleague Bill, who occupies the office directly across the hall from mine in our still-new cathedral to the humanities. Bill and I know each other well; we have taught on an interdisciplinary faculty team together, have frequently talked about pedagogical issues, and share the privilege (?) of having directed the program I currently run (he was the director before I was). abyssBill brings his sons to his office on occasion—they like to peek into my office to see the penguins. And Bill reads my blog. One morning not long ago he said “I’m reading a book you would like. It’s called My Bright Abyss; Christopher Wiman is a poet, but this is sort of a spiritual memoir. It’s tough reading at times, but he writes about the sort of things you write about.” On Bill’s recommendation I ordered it from Amazon, despite Wiman’s being a poet (I have frequently described myself as “poetry challenged”).

Boy was Bill right. One of the many things I love to find is well-trampled territory described as if the author just discovered it for the first time.

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions.

Ain’t it the truth? I call myself a “person of faith” regularly, but that makes faith sound like something that—once the decision is made—is a regular part of one’s daily apparel like shoes or underwear. But faith is much more ephemeral than that, something that Wiman captures perfectly. When Jesus asks Peter, whom he has just rescued from drowning at the end of Peter’s ill-fated effort to walk on water, doubt“Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” I’m hoping Peter answered (or at least thought) “Because I’m a human being and this faith thing is like a magic trick: Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Wiman also has little resonance with the notion of finding comfort in religious belief. My students often suggest that “comfort” is the main attraction of faith commitment: comfort that “all things work together for good” and comfort that in an afterlife “everything will work out.” The next time I hear that in a classroom discussion (or anywhere else), I’ll introduce this from My Bright Abyss:

shardChrist is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.

Imagine if Jesus had said that “following me will be like a shard of glass in your gut.” How many followers would that have attracted? Come to think of it, though, the gospels claim that Jesus said many things like that. We just tend to ignore them.

My other Christmas break discovery came to me when my good friend Marsue asked if I had ever read in the darkLearning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. “I want to get it for you,” she said, “but the last time I got you a book you already had it.” I had not read any of Taylor’s work, but her books have showed up frequently enough in the “Suggested Reading” on my Amazon Prime site (which I guess is generated based on what I have purchased in the past) that I have had this very book on my “Wish List” for a few months. Not wanting to undermine Marsue’s intended generosity, but taking this suggestion from a trusted friend seriously, I read three of Taylor’s other books over break. Not only have I found another literary soul mate, Jeanne is reading these books as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church is her memoir of how tending for her own spiritual health and growth required her leaving the active Episcopal priesthood, a story that I resonated with at many points. Her treatment of suffering and the book of Job in altarAn Altar in the World, however, was unforgettable, beginning with her memorable description of why pain and suffering are not logical puzzles to be solved or abstract challenges to faith to be overcome.

Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act can vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove. Your virtues can become as abstract as algebra, your beliefs as porous as clouds.

I have for the most part been mercifully free in my life thus far from the sort of paralyzing pain that she is describing. I also have no reason to believe that the faith I care about and profess would mean much of anything in the face of such pain. But her directness and honesty is unusual and much appreciated from a priest and theologian. She’s excellent at “making it real”—something I continue to strive for both in my writing and in my life.

What would I like to find (and what am I interested in writing)? Anne Lamott is right—the answer is often the same to both questions. A friend and colleague the other day asked who the audience is for what I write. I couldn’t believe it when I answered “I guess my audience is people like me.” I’m writing in the hope that once in a while something I write will be what someone else will love to find. I write for people who might resonate, as I do, with Christopher Wiman’s analogy for the life of faith:

To live in faith is to live like the Jesus lizard, quick and nimble on the water into which a moment’s pause would make it sink.the jesus lizard

Holy Family Values

The first Sunday after Christmas in the liturgical year is always “Holy Family” Sunday. In anticipation, here’s what I was thinking last year about what life in that particular family must have been like.

Lake-Wobegon[1]Each week, Garrison Keillor tells “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake Wobegon, 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 trip 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.

Grace and Peace

Grace means suddenly you’re in a different universe from the one where you were stuck, and there was absolutely no way for you get there on you own. Anne Lamott

A year and a half ago for Father’s Day, Jeanne surprised me by taking me to a concert in Maryland by one of my favorite musicians. I discovered OrtegaFernando Ortega’s music three or four years ago after plugging the name of one of the few Christian artists I can stand into Pandora. After playing a few of that artist’s songs, the Pandora elf decided that something by Fernando Ortega was close enough. The song, “Grace and Peace,” caught my attention sufficiently for me to find some more of his music—suffice it to say that I now have over six hours of Fernando’s music on a Spotify playlist. I brought all of my Fernando CDs to the concert and grinned like a groupie as the diminutive Ortega signed them.

This tune kept looping through my mind a month ago as I was away at a retreat in Minnesota called “Prayer in the Cave of the Heart.” When at a retreat, I’m always wondering what the take-away will be. What will this several day escape from real life give me that will be applicable to the daily grind when I return as I inevitably must? Two words kept jumping out at me during our liturgies and conversations at the retreat: Grace and Peacegrace ad peace. Which, of course, caused Fernando’s setting to bubble up as I sat frequently in silent meditation with my twenty-or-so fellow retreatants. Grace and Peace. I’ve learned something about peace over the past few years as I have learned incrementally trust my cave of the heart. It’s a good thing, since externally the past four years have provided me more opportunity for stress than any in recent memory. But I learned from saying Psalms with Benedictine monks that Psalm 131 is a good internal retreat in times of stress: Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a weaned child at its mother’s breast, so is my soul. And my heart rate slows—every time.

Grace is more of a challenge. I recognize moments of grace more clearly than I used to; using Jeanne’s spiritual vocabulary, I usually call them big bird“Big Bird Moments,” those times when, as Anne Lamott writes, suddenly you’re in a different universe from the one where you were stuck, and there was absolutely no way for you get there on you own. But the philosopher in me wants to explore grace, to define it, to map out the lay of the land of grace—something that is likely to be a New Year and sabbatical project. How does one tap into the transcendent energy of unexpected gratuitous moments in order to energize all the days, weeks and months until the next Big Bird moment? As Christopher Wiman writes, To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. That, perhaps, expresses better than anything else why I write this blog—how does one build a daily life around occasional grace?

Today is Christmas Eve. As Jeanne and I watched my favorite Christmas movie, “The Nativity Story,” for the umpteenth time a couple of days ago I was reminded that at the heart of what I believe is a foundational story of grace and peace. Given that human beings have turned Christmas into one of the most stressful, hectic, and unmanageable seasons of the year, it is easy to forget that the original story is wrapped in simplicity and human ordinariness—but infused with transcendent grace. nativity story mangerThat’s how I think grace happens—it emerges in the most ordinary corners of our reality, taking its time and surprising us when we discover that nothing has changed, but everything has changed. There were probably more animals at the manger than humans; in “The Nativity Story’s” beautiful rendition very little is said. “God made into flesh,” one of the magi whispers. “He is for all mankind. We are each given a gift,” Mary tells an old, grizzled shepherd, encouraging him to touch the newborn child. And we are each given a gift—incarnated grace. That’s the mystery—God continues to use human flesh to be the divine conduit into the world.

I wish you the happiest of Christmases and hope you have the opportunity, whatever you believe, to look for moments of grace. They are everywhere.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christword-made-flesh-423x2501

2006_the_nativity_story_007[1]

That Mary Thing

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.” Neither do I. But every fourth Sunday of Advent, including yesterday, is “Mary Sunday,” 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 remarkable and glorious favor toward me and has bestowed abundant 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