Category Archives: Jesus

the other

I Was a Stranger

A few days ago in a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. If the raccoons are undocumented immigrants, it is not difficult to imagine what lessons we are to draw from the exterminator.

This made me think about an essay about strangers I wrote a bit over a year ago . . .

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform not long ago, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

Schrödinger’s God

Fifteen or more years ago my professional writing and research interests were largely focused on the philosophical implications of various interesting and important issues in the sciences, particularly the theory of natural selection in biology and philosophy’s contributions to cognitive sciencecognitive science (an interdisciplinary investigation of consciousness and the brain involving biology, neuroscience, physics, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and several other disciplines). For a number of reasons my professional research and writing energies have shifted over the years, but I still have a fond place in my heart for the intersection of philosophy and science. So when I read an essayist the other day compare the Christian claim that Jesus was both human and divine to the famous “uncertainty principle” in physics, my virtual ears perked up. With apologies in advance for oversimplification to my colleagues and friends in various physics departments, let’s take a look.

The uncertainty principle was introduced by Werner Heisenberg in 1927 as a statement of one of the most fascinating and mind-bending features of the world of quantum physics. The principle states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. In other words, you cannot know both the position and the speed of a particle at the same time. uncertainty_principle-The notion that two directly measurable quantities of the same physical particle cannot be nailed down simultaneously sounds odd, to say the least, but philosophers have long grappled with the problem of how to handle two truths that are both obviously and logically true yet are incompatible with each other.

Dualistic philosophers, for example, claim that a human being consists of two fundamentally incompatible things, a physical body and a non-physical mind. Yet we know experientially that our bodies and minds interact with each other all the time—something mind and body should not be able to do if they are substantially different. So are they really different sorts of things or not? descartee of bohemiaPrincess Elizabeth of Bohemia once pressed the great René Descartes so vigorously on this in their letter correspondence–How can mind and body be different substances and still interact in the human person?—that he finally wrote, in essence, “I don’t know. They just do.” Not a great philosophical argument, but at least he tried.

Which brings me back to the Ian Frazier essay I mentioned in the first paragraph that got me to thinking about all of this. Frazier writes that

Whatever Jesus actually looked like, trying to adjust him to any physical image is misleading, because he was both God and man. This concept is so powerful, yet so challenging, to hold in the mind that whole huge heresies have thrown in the towel and simply picked one side or the other. I try to think of Jesus as being a sort of oscillation between the two. science is realA similar idea in physics is the uncertainty principle, which says you cannot know both the position and the speed of a particle at the same time. Jesus was God and man oscillating back and forth—either and both, both or either, simultaneously.

That’s a peculiar notion, to say the least—I’m kind of picturing Jesus in an endless dance between two incompatible states at such speed as to make mere mortals unable to tell that he’s moving at all. I’m not sure it’s very helpful theologically. But this got me to thinking about another possible application of quantum craziness to Christianity: “Uncertainty Principle Jesus” is nothing when compared to another hybrid of Christianity and physics: “Schrödinger’s God.”

One of the strangest features of quantum physics is that atom or photon can exist as a combination of multiple states corresponding to different possible outcomes—a situation called a “quantum superposition.”Quantum_Supe We know that superposition actually occurs at the subatomic level, because there are observable instances in which a single particle is demonstrated to be in multiple locations at the same time. One of the leading quantum theory interpretations says that an atom or photon remains in this indeterminate superposition until it is observed, before which only probabilities can be predicted. We cannot know with certainty ahead of time which of the various states the atom or photon will settle into. The act of measurement affects the system, causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement. Yet another demonstration of the apparent conflict between what quantum theory tells us is true about the nature and behavior of matter on the microscopic level and what we observe to be true about the nature and behavior of matter on the macroscopic level — everything visible to the unaided human eye.

In 1935 Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger came up with a thought experiment that drives the point home directly, a thought experiment that has come to be known as Schrödinger’s Cat. Place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid, a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat.schroedinger experiment

But given quantum superposition, we cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, according to the quantum superposition of states, the cat is both dead and alive. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). to be and not to beThis situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer’s paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that the outcome as such does not exist unless the measurement is made.

Scientists, philosophers, and fiction writers have had a field day with Schrödinger’s poor cat for the past eighty years; Schrödinger himself is rumored to have said, later in life, that he wished he had never met that cat. Further discussion of the scientific implications of a world in which things at a foundational level are radically uncertain until we interact with them is well above my knowledge and pay grade. Does God ExistBut transfer Schrödinger’s thought experiment to a classic question from an entirely different field of human inquiry: Does God exist? The traditional and common sense assumption is that there is a solid “yes” or “no” answer to this question—something either exists or it doesn’t, right? The issue then becomes “what do you mean by ‘God’?’ and “what evidence do you consider to be relevant to the question?” The fact that things immediately spin out of control in terms of complication and confusion does not obviate the fact that the original question—Does God exist?—sounds for all the world like a simple “yes” or “no” sort of question.

But in a Schrödinger world, even that isn’t clear. Just as in a world of physical indeterminacy Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead until someone looks, so in a world of theological indeterminacy God both exists and does not exist—until someone looks. As long as the discussion is abstract and verbal, no progress can be made and no conclusions can be drawn. But as soon as one commits to action rather than abstractions, something happens. Just as one finds the cat either dead or alive when the box is opened, so one finds a living or dead deity when one engages actively. What one finds is not simply a function of what’s going on “out there.”blind to sight It is equally a function of what one brings to the activity of looking. We tend to find what we are looking for. At the very least, the God question is answered experientially, not intellectually. For the blind man who said after Jesus had left town that “I was blind, and now I see,” his new faith was based on an experience, not argumentation. Before the experience, no argument would have convinced him. After the experience, no argument was necessary.

Donald Trump and Evangelicals

But understand this, that in the last days terrible times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, wolf in sheep's clothinglovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. II Timothy 3:1-5

The other day as I listened to NPR as is my custom when in the car, someone mentioned that although Ted Cruz seems to have the approval of most evangelicals in Iowa, Donald Trump does well nationally among conservative evangelical Christians. It’s probably not right for someone who claims to be a Christian to have a “What The Fuck!!” moment, but I did. I’ve expressed my confusion before over how someone professing to be a Christian can sign on to the political platform of the Republican Party,

The Return of Republican Jesus

but that confusion pales in comparison to my complete failure to understand how evangelical Christians can support Donald Trump. Rather than ask my numerous liberal friends and social media acquaintances, who would be as clueless as I am about this phenomenon, evangelicals-cartoonI decided to go to the source. I gave some evangelical Christians the opportunity to explain this to me.

This was a bit trickier to do than it might sound—where is a liberal Episcopalian, freelance Christian who is off the charts liberal on social issues and most everything else going to find some evangelical Christians willing to talk with a reprobate such as I? Although I do not call myself an evangelical Christian, I understand the mindset and commitments of evangelicals very well—it is the faith atmosphere into which I was born and in which I was raised. My father, a Baptist minister, was the founder and President of a small evangelical Bible school in northern New England during my growing up years; I spent a year there between graduating from high school and going across the country to begin my college education.

My dad’s Bible school closed its doors a half-dozen or so years after my year there; I was interested to discover a Facebook page a year or so ago for former students to reconnect and reminisce. Several of the people who were fellow students with me over forty years ago are members of this site—it has become clear to me as I drop in on occasion that although I have evolved away from conservative evangelical Christianity over the past few decades, many of my former fellow students have not. donald and evangelicalsSo when I wanted to run my Donald Trump question past some evangelicals, I knew where to go. I went to the Facebook site and posted this question:

Could someone explain to me why so many evangelical Christians like Donald Trump?

Here are a few of the exchanges that ensued, lightly edited for space purposes:

Conversation One was not very fruitful:

  • Him: There is no one more unqualified for the presidency of this great nation than the person currently occupying that office.
  • Me: Which, of course, does not answer the question I asked.
  • Him: The answer is, any of the candidates on the Republican side, though not perfect, would be orders of magnitude better than any on the other side, current or running.
  • Me: keep calm and answer the questionYou’re certainly free to answer whatever question you want, even if it’s not the one I asked, but I’m not the least bit interested in a useless political debate. You and I disagree sharply, let’s leave it at that. If you’re interested in actually responding to the question I asked, it was: Could someone explain to me why so many evangelical Christians like Donald Trump? I fail to see how “I don’t like the President” or “anyone but Hilary or Bernie” addresses that question. I posted it because I thought in this group there might be an evangelical Christian or two who could provide some illumination, since I fail to detect any glimmer of Christian anything in Trump. X provided a reasonable explanation above–if you care to try as well, I’d be happy to respond.

He didn’t. Conversation Two at least appeared to engage with my question:

  • Him: Vance, I think it’s simply and only because there has been such a climate of PC that has developed over the years, it’s refreshing to hear a person simply saying what they think with really no thought that what he says (may…might…possibly…to some unknown and unnamed person…) be offensive sometime. That would be my guess.
  • Me: You’re probably right–which worries me greatly. To think that a person who is entirely unqualified to be President is attracting followers because he has no filter is scary. And it is anything but “refreshing,” unless one finds racism, misogyny and egomania “refreshing.” Also, the above does not explain why evangelical Christians would be attracted to him–what you describe is hardly a trait affirmed in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance.

Conversation Three was the most fruitful and most worrisome:

  • Her: Vance, I am not sure that I am the person to answer the big question, but I find it refreshing for someone in the spotlight to speak up and say what many Americans are thinking. In my circle of friends, who consider themselves evangelical, I am hard pressed to find quote unquote any evangelical Christians who would vote for him. Even though they like what he says. They believe he is too quick and they don’t like how he talks about the other people and lacks experience. anyone but hillaryLet’s imagine that he is the nominee…would evangelical Christians vote for him? I believe that they would. They would not stay home and not vote, like those who did in the last election. They don’t want another Clinton in the White House. I hope that I have shed some light on your question and that I was somewhat coherent.
  • Me: I would not be surprised if conservative folks, Christian or not, might vote for anyone to avoid a liberal as President–often votes are cast against someone rather than for. But with a number of Republican candidates with credentials that line up better with evangelical concerns, I’m just wondering why so many like Trump.
  • Her: I think that many, myself included, will get the same old “Beltway” Republican, who easily caves into the Democrats on the “Hill”. I want someone who will stand up for something, fight the good fight and if he goes down, let him go down swinging. The candidates that are running aren’t that way. They are tied to big money donations. Seriously, do we want Jeb Bush as the next president. conservativesTalk about someone who appears wimpy and whiny. Ben Carson is not going to make it, he knows less than Trump. Chris Christie, no way, Rubio, no way, Ted Cruz…maybe. There is so much discord between liberals and conservatives that I believe that Trump may not be so bad. Who knows what he will be like in the White House if elected. I believe that this election will be one of the scariest and not knowing who the real person is that is being voted for. Does Trump have a hidden agenda? Don’t know. Does he really believe what he is saying? Don’t know. I do believe the election will come down to who has the most votes. I must say I am looking forward to watching both conventions. Yes, they will vote the person and not what they say to avoid a liberal democrat. I brought my bibleThey see liberal democrats as big on spending and taxes. But the bottom line is, many people who are unemployed, have had cuts in pay, struggling with meeting their budgets, feel helpless about the immigration, and the feeling that their Constitutional rights are slowly being taking away… YES, they will vote for Trump.
  • Me: I appreciate your thoughts. As you might imagine, we’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But I am glad to have a discussion with more depth than the usual sound bites from both sides.
  • Her: I have enjoyed the discussion, also. I believe that is probably the biggest problem in America. People don’t talk to others who have different opinions. They shout, call each other names and don’t try to understand another’s point of view. Just because I understand another point of view does not mean that I agree. But I will still talk to that individual. I read your blog, food for thought and gives me another perspective of another person’s world view. Though I don’t feel insulated, I know that I am compared to others. It always surprises me when others don’t have my view. LOL!

In addition to agreeing with my Conversation Three partner that it always surprises me when others don’t share my views, my main takeaway is to note that my conversants said virtually nothing about Christianity, evangelical or otherwise. The reasoning provided could have been given by a conservative agnostic.kim davis

Which means that I remain confused. One of the fundamental commitments of evangelical Christianity is to bring one’s Christian faith “into all the world”—a Kim Davis-like insertion of one’s religious beliefs into secular society. Those who responded to my Facebook question instead relied on their conservative political leanings with nary a mention of how any of this squares with their being an evangelical Christian. I just don’t get it—my own social and political commitments are largely shaped by my faith commitments. As I frequently say, I am a liberal because I am a Christian. And I am still waiting for a Christian to show me how their faith meshes with their conservative agenda. Or with supporting Donald Trump, who sounds a lot like the sort of person Paul tells us to avoid in Second Timothy.

There was one person, though—my Conversation Four partner—who was clearly interested in voting for the best Christian among those running for President.

  • Her: I would like to know which of the nominees is truly the one that has a relationship with Jesus? Does anyone know?
  • Me: Ultimately that is not for us to judge. But we do have what they say and do as evidence. As the book says, by their fruits you will know them.
  • Her: Thanks Vance, but I was hoping for some names.kicking ass and taking names

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.

Reading and Writing

My twenty-plus years teaching at Providence College have afforded me an opportunity every semester for team-teaching in the large interdisciplinary program that is the heart of our core curriculum (a program I directed for four years ending last July). downloadTeam-teaching is fun, exhilarating, and demanding; this begins with the planning of the next semester’s syllabus. Faculty from different departments having different experiences with and notions about pedagogy bring all sorts of ideas to the table and do not always agree, particularly about the amount of daily and weekly work to schedule for our future students. My contribution to the discussion is always the same: “They should read until they drop, then write until they drop again.” In that order—there’s nothing that feeds intelligent writing more effectively than reading.

It is strange that I temporarily forgot this important connection between reading and writing during the past few months. The working highlight of the first half of my sabbatical was an intense spurt of writing from September to Thanksgiving, surely energized by a bicycle mishap in early October; I all of a sudden had to find something to do with the four to five hours per day during which I had been riding my bicycle and getting into the best shape of my life prior to the mishap. In addition to completing a second draft of my current book project, I was able to maintain my established blog routine of two new 1200-1500 posts per week—something that my most famous writing friend, kathleen Kathleen Norris, suggested last May that I would probably not be able to do while writing a book. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the book is closely related to my past three-and-a-half years of blog work.

But since Thanksgiving, the writing energies have begun to dry up. I still have been able to produce new blog posts, but a couple of them seemed forced and I was often writing under self-imposed deadline pressure. The proposal that needs to be written for my book draft wasn’t getting written. Just a few days before Christmas I realized one of the main reasons for my current writing malaise—reading and writingI haven’t been reading much for the past few months. There are a number of excuses I might offer, but none of them fully explain why, when I actually have more unstructured time than any grown-up should have, I have been neglecting my first love—reading. I’ve even gotten out of the habit of reading the daily psalms every morning. Very bad idea.

A quick review of my blog posts from a year ago was illuminating. Many of my late December and early January posts either mention or focus directly on either Barbara Taylor Brown or Christopher Wiman. Why? Because just before Christmas break last year the work of these two authors was recommended to me by two different friends, so I spent Christmas break reading several of Brown’s books and a memoir by Wiman. The point? I write about what I am reading—the ideas, images, and insights of a good book never fail to be evocative. my life in middlemarchSince I think best when I am writing, that’s where these ideas, images and insights become my own.

Awareness frequently produces change, and this time was no exception. Awareness of my reading slump caused me to pick up Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a biography/memoir centered on George Eliot’s masterpiece (and my favorite novel). Sure enough, several passages inspired by Mead’s book are central to my New Year’s Eve blog post, and others will form the core of my forthcoming Valentine’s Day post for Jeanne. Then for Christmas Jeanne gave me The Good Book, a collection of essays, edited by Andrew Blaumer, in which thirty-two writers from all sorts of angles write about their favorite passages and characters from the Bible. Although the older I get the less I believe in mere coincidence, good bookI “coincidentally” opened first to “The Womb and the Cistern Cell,” an essay by Brooks Hansen about John the Baptist.

John “just happens” to be one of my favorite characters from the New Testament; twice in the past four years I have had the privilege of giving an Advent sermon on John the Baptist Sunday in early December. On one end of his life is a miraculous birth narrative that in my estimation rivals that of his younger cousin Jesus, and at the end of his life he finds himself in a dungeon (a cistern well) and a state of despairing doubt. He sends a question via his disciples to Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? These are the last words we hear from this man, the first person recorded to recognize adult Jesus for who he was. Hansen finds this remarkable, and so do I; he concludes his essay by reflecting on the intimate connection between belief and doubt.

Light is born of darkness. Darkness is the necessary precondition of light. Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, the baptistwhich is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows. Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if we ever encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith. That, in fact, is a fairy tale.

I wish I had read this before my most recent sermon three weeks ago—it would have made the cut. I frequently say and write that in just about all aspects of belief, certainty is vastly overrated—Hansen makes the same point much more eloquently. This is why reading feeds writing. Reading enlarges one’s vocabulary, broadens one’s perspective, and provides examples of the richness of language and experience. And it is fun—what’s not to love?

one thing

One Thing

In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays New York executive Mitch Robbins, whose hassled life is wearing negatively on his work, his marriage, and his friendships. At thirty-nine years old he finds himself deep in a midlife crisis. three amigosFor his birthday, his two best buddies purchase a two-week vacation for the three of them at a dude ranch in New Mexico to participate in a dude cattle drive. As is usually the case with Billy Crystal, hilarity and poignancy ensue simultaneously. The tough-as-nails trail boss Curly, played to great effect by Jack Palance, is an enigma to Mitch from day one—Curly is silent, curmudgeonly, skilled at his job, self-assured, and clearly in possession of information that Mitch badly needs. One day while rounding up strays, Mitch asks, “Curly, what is the secret of life?” As a good philosopher should, Curly answers with another question.

You know what the secret of life is?

No, what?

(Holding one finger up) This. one thing

Your finger?

One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.

That’s great, but what’s the one thing?

That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.

One thing. Finding out what that one thing is might be the point of anyone’s life, but that’s a pretty big task. At the beginning of a new year, a more manageable question might be “What is the one thing that I resolve to do this coming year?” And I don’t mean something like drinking less coffee or going to the gym more. I mean “What is the one thing that I resolve to do in this coming year that will be good for the inner me, for my soul?”one more thing I gave this assignment to the Living Stones seminar group that meets once a month after church when we met in December, and they’ll be bringing their “one thing” resolution when we meet next. As for me, I resolve that in 2016 I will be a more reverent person.

Reverence is not a concept that is particularly in favor in Western culture—it probably hasn’t been for decades. The term is almost always used in religious contexts, especially during the holiday season just ended. The shepherds and wise men gaze reverently upon the Christ child, Mary listens reverently as the angel tells her that her world is about to be turned upside down, the stable animals chew their hay reverently as they observe Mary reverently giving birth to Jesus while Joseph reverently boils water and finds some swaddling clothes. I suppose that sort of faux holiness has its place (maybe), but that’s not what I have in mind.

The sort of reverence I am resolving to develop this year is more like Moses’ reaction to the burning bush in Exodus. As he is taking care of his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks one day, he notices something weird out of the corner of his eye—a bush that is on fire but is not being burnt up. He could have thought “that’s weird” and kept on going. burning bushHe could have made a mental note to check back later when he wasn’t so busy. He could have Googled “burning bush” on his tablet after dinner with Zipporah and the kids when he had a few minutes of down time. But he didn’t. Instead, he said “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Loose translation—“Holy Shit! What the hell is that?” Moses was willing to interrupt his busy day to take a look at something outside his usual frame of reference. Reverence begins with the ability to see in a different way, to notice what’s going on outside the boundaries of my agenda, to be attentive to even the most mundane items and events that cross my path. Most importantly, reverence is cultivated by an increasing awareness that everything is important in its own right. simoneThe Greek philosopher Protagoras famously claimed that “man is the measure of all things.” Reverence says that I am not the measure of anything—what is most important and interesting is almost never about me.

The work of the French, Jewish mystic, activist and philosopher Simone Weil has been important to me both personally and professionally for many years, but one of her many cryptic phrases has been a mystery to me until just recently. In Gravity and Grace, she writes that “Here below, 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.” This truly made no sense to me for a long time. But as I’ve learned something about peace, silence and attentiveness over the past few years, I’ve begun to see Simone’s point. Human beings are naturally acquisitive and devouring creatures—we are seldom willing to let things be as they are. If X is attractive, I want to buy it. If Y looks useful, I want to consume it. If Z is important, I want to make it mine. We turn these manic energies on the world around us and on each other on a regular basis. Simone’s point is that not everything is here for my use and pleasure. it isThe importance of what I encounter during a given day is not to be judged according to how important it is to me. And as I learn that everything is important in its own right, I can begin to see it differently. To “let it be,” as the Beatles sang, and to remember that “it is what it is,” as Jeanne frequently says.

So in practical terms, what does reverence amount to? At the very least, it means giving each task, person, and event in my life my undivided attention. A colleague of mine defines “multitasking” as “doing several things poorly at the same time.” If multitasking is the enemy of reverence, which I’m quite sure it is, then I’m in trouble. I find it very difficult to do one thing at a time—the very writing of this essay has been interrupted, sometimes in mid-sentence, by going to a second screen to check on my blog numbers, multitaskingthen a third screen to see if my latest important email has been responded to yet. During a typical evening it is not unusual for me to be watching a television show with Jeanne, farting around on my tablet, and grading a paper or two all at the same time.

So I resolve to ask myself the following question frequently in the following weeks and months: Is what you are doing worthy of your undivided attention? And if the answer is “yes,” then the follow-up question is Then why are you not giving it your undivided attention? Learning to give my undivided attention to each thing as I encounter it is the first step in recognizing the value inherent in even the tiniest and most insignificant part of reality. Moses took the time to check out something unusual and found out that he was standing on holy ground. And so are we. All the time.tutu

Colene

Remembering a Friend

“Happy Stoning Day!” Brother John said as he greeted me below the choir stalls after noon prayer. December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, officially designated as the first Christian martyr. Brother John, a guitar-picking, out-of-the-box product of the sixties, is not your typical Benedictine. Dylan“I’ve always wanted to play Dylan’s ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’ at mass on St. Stephen’s Day,” he said. My kind of monk—irreverence is my favorite virtue.

Stephen has always been a problem for me. Although Acts has been one of my favorite books of the Bible since childhood, with its exciting stories of early Christians acting just like imperfect and flawed human beings, regularly bailed out of tough circumstances by the Holy Spirit, I got uncomfortable when Stephen came up in church or Sunday School. Stephen died for Jesus, jstephenust like some missionaries in South America that we were always hearing about. “Would you die for Jesus, just like Stephen did?” the pastor or teacher would ask, to which I (internally) would definitively answer “Hell No!” Dying for Jesus ranked right up there with becoming a missionary to deepest, darkest Africa as things I definitely did NOT intend to do with my life. If being a good Christian meant being willing to die for Jesus, I thought, then maybe I should check out what they do at the Catholic church on the other, spiritually mysterious side of town.

Although I’m much more aware of it now, since I’ve been married to a cradle Catholic and have taught in Catholic institutions of higher education for the past two and a half decades, my still dominant Protestant sensibilities are occasionally jangled by the strong Catholic focus on saints and martyrdom. eyeballsJust a few years ago I burst out laughing when I stumbled across a very peculiar piece of artwork while looking around a little church in Boston’s North End. Peculiar in the sense that it was a statue of a demure young woman holding a plate with two eyeballs on it. “Oh yeah, that’s Saint Lucy,” Jeanne said in the same tone of voice with which she might have gestured in my direction and said “Oh yeah, that’s my husband” to an inquiring stranger

Two Sundays ago—December 13—was Saint Lucy’s Day; this is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Saint Lucy is the adopted saint of Sweden, the country of my ancestors on my mother’s side. For reasons about which I am not entirely clear, the celebrations and festivals commemorating the life and martyrdom of this third century Sicilian woman are most entrenched in Scandinavia—apparently the marauding Vikings carried her story back north with them after doing their part in bringing about the fall of the Roman Empire. candlesThese celebrations are striking, including young ladies wearing wreaths of lighted candles on their head—something that strikes me as worthy of being reported to the safety authorities. Lucy’s story is indeed compelling; as is often the case in stories of martyrdom, she was exceedingly faithful to her beliefs asaint lucy candlesnd suffered greatly before she died. As part of her suffering and torture her eyes were gouged out before she died; accordingly, she is the patron saint of blind people as well as of those who take care of our eyes. Which reminds me of a good friend who recently died.

Over the past few months three people I was close to have died. Ivan, with whom I formed a strong friendship during my last sabbatical, was in his seventies and died of a massive stroke during the summer. Matthew, a colleague with diabetes who regularly failed to take sufficient care of himself during the close to twenty years that I knew him, died of complications a couple of months ago. ColeneColene, a close friend of Jeanne’s and mine and one of the loveliest women I have ever known, died after a long and heroic fight against cancer a few weeks ago. The death of a friend is always difficult, but I’m particularly struggling with Colene’s passing.

Jeanne reminded me on Saint Lucy’s Day two weeks ago that Colene and Tom were married on Saint Lucy’s Day in 2009, a wedding so beautiful that I remember it as if it happened last week. Colene and Tom were not your typical love story—Colene had been married twice already and had five children, while Tom is a former Catholic priest. They met in Colene’s office—she was an ophthalmologist and he was one of her patients. Tom is one of Jeanne’s oldest friends, a relationship that predates Jeanne’s and mine by many years. weddingColene and Tom had been together for a while when they decided to have a wedding; I’ll never forget when, during the time reserved for the bride to make comments and offer a toast at the wedding reception, Colene let the hundreds of people gathered in on a secret that only a few knew about—she said that she had cancer and probably only had a few months to live.

Those few months ended up being six years, but they were not easy ones. Tom and Colene’s love had to withstand not only her intense periods of illness but also problems from her previous marriage that never seemed to let up. She worked as an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon until shortly before she died; at her wake and funeral literally hundreds of people told Tom and her children about how she had changed their lives. Although we did not see each other often,opthalmologist Colene and I had a strong connection. For one thing, we were both extreme introverts married to out-of-control extroverts. We understood each other in the sort of way that only two introverts can, without words or fanfare but deep nonetheless. Colene was very rational by nature, as I am, and often struggled with the intuitive way in which her husband and others sometimes approached spiritual matters without much concern for logic. Although I have learned over the past few years to trust intuition more strongly than I ever have, I still appreciate it when things fit at least generally into a logical pattern—I resonate with Colene’s clinical mind.tom and colene

People prayed for Colene’s healing until they were hoarse, and she died anyways. When visiting her grave with Tom a couple of weeks ago, he told Jeanne and me that although some might say that her passing was a “healing” of sorts in that it ended her pain and suffering, it was not the healing that she wanted. Or, I might add, the healing that her husband, her children, her friends, and her patients wanted. Colene was a modern Saint Lucy. She was a healer who literally brought light into darkness and caused the blind to see. She was an admirable tower of strength and resilience, and death had to work overtime to take her. Her passing left a huge hole in many people’s lives that will not be filled. But my guess is that Colene would not be pleased by an extended period of mourning. When a person of Colene’s character and beauty dies, we best remember her by being thankful for her all-too-brief presence in our lives and by finding ways to bring healing into our corners of the world, just as she did.

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.

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 this coming Sunday, 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