Tag Archives: Virgin Mary

Our Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

 

The last two weeks of my General Ethics class were spent on issues of gun violence, perhaps the most frustrating contemporary issue on the syllabus. As we discussed the issue from various angles, I was reminded that on the day after the San Bernardino massacre a year an a half ago, I posted the following in frustration on my Facebook page:

I’m tired–really tired–of hearing people say and seeing them write that “my thoughts and prayers are with” the victims of the latest mass shooting. God isn’t going to fix this, and the victims don’t need our prayers. They need us to f__king do something about the gun insanity in this country. just another dayUntil then, as a BBC headline said today, massacres such as today’s will be “Just Another Day in the United States.”

My post was prompted by an avalanche of “my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” sentiments in social media and from every corner of politics, as candidates for President fell over each other in the race to express the sincerity of their thoughts and prayers before those of their opponents. Given the cheapness of thoughts and prayers disconnected from actual action, I was not impressed.

Not surprisingly, my post generated more activity than perhaps any Facebook message I have ever written, comments ranging from mere “likes” and brief sentences of agreement to pushback of various sorts. One person suggested that we should pay more attention to the fact that gun violence is significantly lower in this country than it was twenty years ago; instead of wringing our hands over the violence that remains, we should study carefully what we have done right in the last twenty years and continue to do likewise (this comment set off a different, very volatile discussion that I did not participate in). 2nd amendmentSomeone else wanted to know if I believe in the Second Amendment (I do, but not interpreted as unlimited license to bear arms in whatever amount and of whatever kind one chooses). But given that the main concern energizing my post was the cavalier attitude behind offering impotent and ineffective prayers in response to random bloodshed and not a debate about gun control, what caught my attention most came from a friend whose faith perspective is of the sort in which I was raised.

  • Friend: How about this. Instead of each of us approaching this problem with our own fix, we all as Christian people pray that the light of Christ shine on this country and the world so all can see the truth for what it is. Most people don’t want this. To see the truth is painful. The light of Christ exposes all things hiding in dark places including ourselves.
  • Me: With millions of people praying for this every day and the problem getting worse, what would you suggest? I’m a Christian and I’m also a pragmatist—too many people are hiding behind the defense of “we’re praying for change” while never spending an ounce of effort actually trying to make it happen.
  • Friend: You missed it. I’m not talking about praying for change. I’m talking about praying that the light of Christ will shine! If Jesus is truly the light of the world, then no dark thing can be hidden from it. Everything would be seen for what it really is.
  • Me: True—but my question still stands. The Bible says God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That’s a lot more than just praying for the light of Christ to shine.

This was the sort of conversation that could have gone on indefinitely with each of us talking past each other and making no connection. Fortunately, another Facebook acquaintance jumped in and said clearly what I should have said.

  • Facebook acquaintance: God works through us, not instead of us. We are the physical manifestation of God and, while prayers do help us see and hear what must be done, we are the ones who must do it. The God you are praying to is waiting for you to be the light you are praying to shine. How does your Jesus shine light into the world if not by you?

This brought to mind a favorite passage from Joan Chittister, one that I arrive at frequently when I take the time to wonder what being a person of faith might actually require of us rather than mere facile verbiage.joan chittister

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

As long as persons of faith believe that “my thoughts and prayers are with you” is an appropriate response to anything, let alone the tragedy of mass violence, we wait in vain for the coming of the kingdom of God for which many of us robotically pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. I have often wondered how it is that faith commitment so frequently over time becomes nothing more than rote phrases and habitual practices; the most obvious answer is that it happens in the same way that intelligent commitment platitudeis reduced to bumper sticker platitudes in any human endeavor. It happens because real commitment is difficult and cuts far deeper than the simplified ways we construct to make it through our days, weeks, months and years intact.

It is worthwhile to pay close attention to the ways in which the divine, according to the Christian narrative, reportedly chose to insert itself into our human reality. It never happens in easily be the changeidentifiable ways or in events so spectacular that even the densest person would have to admit that “yes, that’s God at work.” Instead God enters the world through the pregnancies of a woman past child-bearing years and of a virgin, in private communications that only one person is privy to, and ultimately through a helpless baby in a manger surrounded by animals. This is good news, because it says that each of us—no matter how insignificant and powerless—can be the vehicle of divine change. But as it was in the stories, so it is now. We have to decide to be that change. We have to say “be it unto me according to your word.” This requires a lot more than thoughts and prayers.

Holy Family Values

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

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

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

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

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can This Be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joyful Owl

SagataganJust about seven years ago, on a beautiful summer morning very similar to the ones we are experiencing in Providence these days, I was just finishing a post-morning prayer walk around beautiful Lake Sagatagan behind St. John’s Abbey on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had been in Collegeville for the first four-and-a-half months of 2009 on sabbatical and was now back for a week of writing and relaxation while Jeanne participated in a workshop at the Episcopal House of Prayer nearby. ThMary at stella marise point of destination when walking the perimeter of the lake is Stella Maris Chapel on the opposite shore from the Abbey, a lovely little chapel which contains an exquisitely unique statue of a pregnant Mary. St. John’s is situated on a national wildlife preserve; I learned during my months in residence never to walk the trails without a camera. On this particular morning, I noticed a dark shape in one of the massive trees just off the trail to the right. I stared at it for what seemed like several minutes. After concluding that it must be a large abandoned nest or simply the remains of a long-ago fallen branch, the top third of the shape turned slowly 180 degrees and looked directly at me. It was an owl.100_0767

I have noted occasionally in this blog that I am obsessed with penguins, to the extent that I once dedicated a post exclusively to penguins.

Well-Dressed Birds

But I also love owls. They’re not quite as cool as penguins, but come in a very close second. If penguins did not exist (a world I do not care to consider possible), my office would be full of owl paraphernalia instead of penguin stuff. And I could make a better case for an owl obsession than I can for penguins. Owls are iconic symbols of wisdom, something everyone wants (I think).the owl of minerva Accordingly, philosophers should like owls. As a matter of fact, The Owl of Minerva is generally considered to be the best philosophy journal in the English-speaking world dedicated to the philosophy of the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, just in case you’re interested. The title of the journal is a reference to the owl being the favored bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom (Minerva is her Roman name)—who just happens to be my favorite resident of Mount Olympus. Stuttgart_Athene_ZeusYou have to take notice of someone who sprang fully grown and clothed in battle armor directly from her father’s skull and started giving him advice. So I immediately chalked up my owl sighting as yet another gratuitous favor sent to me from the divine as confirmation that this place in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is indeed a spiritual home. It only could have been topped by some penguins waddling down the path in my direction.

I don’t recall that owls were a favorite of mine as a child. My attraction to owls was most likely triggered during my first couple of years of teaching after graduate school. I was on the faculty at a small Catholic college in Memphis where they basically needed someone to teach business ethics to their business and engineering students. spotted owlSo I did—five sections per semester for three years. I always included a unit on environmental issues, and during the early 90s this invariably meant spotted owls. Native to the Pacific Northwest, the endangered spotted owls were very picky about where they nested and lived—which just happened to be in the middle of prime timber forest. Every time well-meaning people would relocate the owls, they immediately moved back to their original section of the forest that various constituencies wanted to cut down and turn into useful items that people will pay money for. So the debate raged—tree_huggertree huggers arguing that this forest must remain untouched so the spotted owls could live where they chose, and good capitalists screaming foul over the idea that a stupid, useless bird that no one ever saw because they only came out at night when everyone was asleep could actually hold up progress and money-making. My students had many fine, spirited debates—so many that at the end of one semester they presented me with a stuffed spotted owl toy that perches twenty years later proudly on top of one of my office bookcases.

Imagine my delight when taking the “What Animal Were You in a Past Life” quiz that popped up one day on Facebook to find out that

What Animal Were You in a Past Life?

You were the Owl. Graceful, quiet, and majestic, you glide silently through the night. You are self-sufficient, independent, and make the most of everything around you. You are not very picky about what you like, and when you love something, it will be forever. You would make a wonderful parent, but in no way would you spoil your children; they would be taught how to look after themselves. You are a symbol of guidance.

flying owlIt’s very interesting how these descriptions put a positive spin on features that aren’t that attractive. For instance, “You are not very picky about what you like” is a reference to the fact that owls are birds of prey and will basically eat anything they find. The positive qualities listed are ones that I certainly aspire to and I can almost remember “glid[ing] silently through the night” in my past life as an owl.

Owls are not funny. Here’ a typical example of owl humor:

An owl and a field mouse walk into a bar. The owl turns to the field mouse, but doesn’t say anything because owls can’t talk. Then the owl eats the field mouse, because owls are predatory birds.

Owls are serious predators of the night, wise and stealthy as they swoop about taking care of their nocturnal business. Nothing humorous there.

So I was confused a few days later when I took the “What is Your Spiritual Power?” quiz (I really do need to get a life) and was told that

What is Your Spirit Power?

You got Joy. You are the most joyful spirit around. The happiness within you never stops flowing. You’ve never kept it all for yourself either, you’ve always made others happy when they needed it most.

Joy? Really? This will come a surprise to Jeanne. She’s the one who has Pharell Williams’ song “Happy” as the ringtone on her phone.

I would be more likely to have the tune to “Leave me the fuck alone” on my phone. What would a happy, joyful owl be like? In the world of Photoshopping, all sorts of possibilities are available.untitled But in the real world, owl joy is hard to detect. Take my word for it—it’s in there. As soon as I find it, I’ll let it out.Caleb owl

I AM smiling.

I AM smiling.

Righteous Peace, Godly Glory

Over the past several weeks I have been working through the second draft of my current sabbatical book project; as I completed each chapter draft I had Jeanne, who is my “go to” reader for everything, to give me her impressions. After finishing one chapter she said that she liked it overall, but thought that I should rework the first section because it was “too depressing.” I made the suggested changes, replacing the opening section with something more upbeat and deciding to move the depressing part to today’s sermon. amtrakDon’t worry–it gets better at the end.

Jeanne, who manages to be on the road every time I am giving a sermon,  got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning a couple of years ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in the River’s Edge coffee shop just down the street, reading and doing my introverted thing. My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.herodotus1

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, stories based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,” codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to visit New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. lifes-a-bitch1Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In the midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

It’s not as if we need regular reminders of how a seemingly benign and beautiful world can turn dark at a moment’s notice. Just a year ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, a colleague at Providence College was killed far too soon in an automobile accident. SiobhanI’ve told people frequently since that time that if, out of the hundreds of faculty and staff on campus, I made a list of those persons who everyone liked and respected, Siobhan would have been at the top of the list. Truth be told, she might have been the only name on the list. Siobhán was the college’s Instructional Technology Development Program Coordinator, a position that put her in charge, among other things, of bringing the faculty into the twenty-first century technologically (after guiding them first through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Over the years I had dozens of interactions with Siobhán both in person and via email, sometimes asking for help with something that a two-year old probably would know how to do, other times asking for advice concerning what new technology might be useful and user-friendly for the faculty in the program I direct. She always had the answer, delivered both in language that I could easily understand and without a hint of condescension or impatience (even though I undoubtedly deserved both). Often Siobhán provided solutions for the next eight problems to follow that I didn’t even know about yet. She was gracious, creative, generous, funny, and had a smile that lit up every space she entered. I pride myself in responding to emails quickly, but Siobhán was the fastest I have ever encountered. I once complimented her on her immediate helpfulness; she responded “That’s because I like you!” I asked “What do you do to people you don’t like?” “I make them wait a week.”

During the days and weeks after Siobhan’s death, all of us on campus were in shock. How could such a wonderful person have been killed in a freak accident while still in her thirties? On the Friday of the first week after we returned from Thanksgiving Break, a memorial service for Siobhan was held on campus. As I settled into my seat in the chapel with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor Siobhan and celebrate her life, lamentationsI noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will give us the unwelcome advice that we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we feel.”

If you are not familiar with Lamentations, it’s probably just as well—it is undoubtedly the most depressing text in the Jewish scriptures, perhaps anywhere. I came face to face with it when on sabbatical several years ago. Of the many liturgical celebrations I participated in at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service. At 7:00 in the morning, the service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations, a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment. Except for a passage right in the middle of the book I had forgotten about, a place where for a moment Jeremiah comes up for air—the very passage read at Siobhan’s funeral.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

Advent is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; the promise of Advent is thaZechariah and Elizabetht a glimmer of light in the distance is about to dawn.

Instead of a Psalm this morning, the lectionary organizers chose The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,” which is the canticle that closes every Morning Prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. The second Sunday in Advent is always John the Baptist Sunday; in today’s gospel we get a quick introduction to grown up John the Baptist from Luke 3, but for the context of the “Benedictus,” we need to go to the story of John’s birth in Luke 1.  You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. The Benedictus closes with a beautiful meditation on Zechariah’s new son’s role in the divine economy, then a stunning promise.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation

by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God,

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

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

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

downloadAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. A distant, long-promised hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as described in Baruch:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”

The phrase “It’s always darkest just before the dawn” is usually little more than a platitude, but in this case it makes sense. We have reason to hope, because help is on the way.

God Made Into Flesh

It's_A_Wonderful_Life[1]Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.”

Movies with Biblical themes were both attractive and problematic in my early years. We did not go to movies, but it was okay to watch them on TV (go figure), except on Sundays (go figure again).DVD_Quo-Vadis[1] Of particular interest were Hollywood epics of Biblical proportions, such as “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “The Robe,” and “Quo Vadis.” Moses always has, in my imagination, looked like Charlton Heston (and, I guess, like Ben Hur). Even more daring were the various Hollywood portrayals of Jesus, from “muscular Jesus” in “King of Kings” and “cerebral Jesus” in the-greatest-story-ever-told[1]“The Greatest Story Ever Told” to, some years later, “ethereal and almost effeminate Jesus” in “Jesus of Nazareth.” I have many memories of fellow fundamentalists watching such movies with me and saying “That’s not Scriptural” and “That’s not Biblical” when characters from the sacred text said or did things that were not contained within the leather covers of the King James Version.

220px-The_Nativity_Story[1]“The Nativity Story” would not entirely escape such criticism, but it presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod AntipasNativity. These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? I have a friend who tends to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories.line-in-the-sand[1] Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who know and love him expect him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.”

Toward the end of every fall semester, I spend a couple of weeks in the New Testament with a classroom full of college freshmen in the interdisciplinary course I teach in. Knowing that this was a group, largely the product of twelve years of parochial school education, for whom the Bible in college might be a tough sell, one year I asked my seminar group an out of the box question right at the start: What difference does it make whether these stories are or aren’t true? If it were definitively proven tomorrow that Jesus never existed, then what? A fascinating discussion ensued, full of more nuance and insight than even I expected. Contributions ranged across the spectrum of possibilities, but one student’s comment particularly stayed with me. “I’d still be a Christian,” she said, “because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the virgin birth is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight.melchior[1] At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” There it is in its simplicity and iconoclasm—the heart and soul of Christianity. God made into flesh.

When did the Incarnation become “mine” for the first time? Was it when I consciously noted new space deep inside of me while reciting a Psalm at noon prayer? Was it when I realized that I was no longer angry at people and issues from my past that had consumed my life100_0261? Was it while playing hide-and-seek with a couple of deer on a trail? Was it when I heard Catherine of Genoa’s “My deepest me is God” in a homily? It truly doesn’t matter when it happened, just that it did. On good days, I can look at another human being and detect holiness. On really, really good days, I can even turn my eyes inward and find something beautiful. I can say, with gratitude, awe, and disbelief all tangled together, along with Melchior gazing at the manger, “God made into flesh.” Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas

word-made-flesh-423x250[1]

Breaking Ground

A few weeks ago, someone from the College Events office contacted me, wondering whether I would be willing to speak on behalf of the faculty at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new humanities building that is being constructed on our campus. Since I am director of the large program that will be housed in this new building and have been part of the design and planning committee for the past year, the request made sense. I spent the next week and a half thinking about what I would like to say, then shaping it to fit into the rather tight four-minute slot reserved on the program for my insights.

What I did not anticipate was that as one of four speakers at the ceremony, I would be doing more than just speaking. I would also be one of the six persons ceremonially “breaking ground.” The 150 or so attendees were driven by a driving rainstorm inside the library for the speaking portion of the event, but the rain mercifully stopped long enough afterward for everyone to step back outside. In front of the security fence surrounding the construction site was a mound of dirt; stuck in the mound in a neat row were six small shovels painted gold—in size roughly half-way between a kid’s sand shovel and a working shovel—topped by six white hard hats, of the sort that one might buy at Toys ‘R’ Us. A shovel and a hat for the college President, the Provost, an honors junior representing the student body, the several million dollar lead donor, his wife, and me. Orchestrated by the main photographer, the six of us were photographed several times each with our hands on the shovel, picking up a tiny bit of dirt, and throwing it gently in front of us, all the time wearing hard hats that could not have protected us from a falling twig from the overhead elm.

It has struck me frequently since what a strange and peculiar ceremony this was—the official start of construction on a $20 million dollar, 63,000 square foot building that will take 15 months to assemble is marked by several people wearing fancy clothes pretending to work, equipped with pretend and completely useless work tools. The actual construction work began the next day as a barrier wall and small utility building were demolished, numerous backhoes arrived, and real workers wearing real hard hats and wielding real shovels started in earnest. I’m thinking that at the dedication ceremony when the building is finished, we should mark the event by asking six construction workers to don academic robes and submit to a few photo ops while they pretend to be professors.

Of course, no one thought that any real construction work was going on at the groundbreaking ceremony—it’s just a tradition that has developed to mark the beginning of a long, expensive, loud and messy process. I think it might be good to think of church attendance as having the same relationship to the life of spiritual commitment as a groundbreaking ceremony has to the construction of a building. In church we are going through various ceremonial reminders—liturgy, scripture, Eucharist—of important elements of the life of faith. But these ceremonial reminders are no more a replacement for real spiritual work than digging up a few clumps of dirt with a toy shovel is a replacement for the heavy lifting of actual construction.

My lengthy list of novels to read this past summer included The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. It is an end-of-the-nineteenth-century story of a woman who came to be considered by many people in Mexico as a saint, a miracle worker and a healer. Half Indian and half Spanish, abandoned by her mother and abused by her aunt who is raising her, Teresita is recognized as possessing special gifts by Huila, a midwife/healer/miracle worker in her own right. Huila welcomes Teresita into her home and becomes her mentor. In the midst of a lesson about the sacramental nature of all things, Huila tells Teresita of a fascinating legend.

“The Virgin came to your people,” Huila said.

“My people?”

“Oh yes. The Mayos saw la Virgencita before the priests came.”

Teresita stopped and stared up at her teacher in the dark.

“What happened?”

Huila puffed her pipe. It was good. It was very, very good.

“It was before. Before you, and before me.”

Teresita was astonished by this revelation: there had been a time before Huila.

“The Mother of God appeared to a group of warriors who were out in the desert, hunting. And they looked up, and there she was, descending from the sky. She was, I imagine, all in purple. The Mother of God likes purple. So she came down to them from heaven, and they were stunned and shaking with fear.”

“What did they do?”

“They ran away and hid behind bushes.”

“What did she do?”

“Well, she had an accident.”

“What happened?”

“She landed on top of a cactus.”

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes. The Mother of God was stuck on top of a huge cactus, and the warriors started throwing rocks at her and shooting arrows at her, but they could not hit her. You see, they had never seen a Yori before, and they had never seen a flying Yori, or a magnificent creature like her! So they tried to kill her.”

Teresita put her hands over her face.

“And then what?” she cried.

“Then the Mother of God spoke to the warriors from atop her cactus.”

“What did she say? What did she say?”

“She said—‘Get me a ladder!’”

“What!”

“Get me a ladder, that’s what she said. It’s true. Holy be her name.”

Both burst out laughing.

“What did they do?”

“I imagine they fetched her a ladder! You see, this is how Heaven works. They’re practical. We are always looking for rays of light. For lightning bolts or burning bushes. But God is a worker, like us. He made the world—He didn’t hire anyone to build it for him! God has worker’s hands. Just remember—angels carry no harps. Angels carry hammers.”

Annie Dillard once wrote that if we truly paid attention to what we were doing, we would wear hard hats to church rather than fancy clothes. Or perhaps at least during the Sanctus when we celebrate the “Holy Lord, God of power and might.” Each of us is “something under construction—real tools are in order.