The Morning After: A Sermon for Christmas Day

Nativity (12th century), Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles, France. (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On January 2, 1734, a Boston poet and distiller named Joseph Green wrote these words in a letter to a friend:

 “The last Day I shall mention is Christmas. And this, I believe, keeps many People in good Terms with Religion, who would otherwise be at variance with it. They taste Sweet on this day, unknown to them the whole Year beside. Many who are Proof against a Religious Argument, cannot withstand a Dish of Plumb Porridge, and it is past all doubt to me, that a Christmas Sermon makes fewer converts than a Christmas Pye.”

But alas, I have no pie, so a sermon will have to do. But what exactly can we say on the morning after, when we’re trying to remember what really happened during the strange and wondrous night at that little stable on the edge of town. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time, and it was all just a dream. It seems like that now.

There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.

And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling by her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.

I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.

And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? I kind of hope it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I’m not sure I’m ready for whatever’s next.

Thus spake one of the Bethlehem shepherds. And each of us will have our own version of last night’s peculiar doings. But I suspect that everyone who was there caught at least a glimpse of a possibility, a promise, maybe even a vision of what this world could be if the angels’ beautiful song were true. But on the morning after, with the dazzling darkness of the holy night already a receding memory, will its meanings survive the cold light of everyday reality?

Well, as it turns out, what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.

And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-14)

In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the realm of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

But why? Why would God want to leave the peace and bliss of heaven to live and die as one of us? The doctrine of redemption says that God became incarnate to save us from the web of wrongness we have been powerless to escape on our own. That is no small thing, and we are oh so grateful for the gift of salvation. But was that the only reason for the Incarnation? The Christian imagination has suggested there may be more to make of this great mystery.

The nature of the trinitarian God is to be self-giving, and extending the eternal self-giving of divinity beyond the Godhead to include created beings is what God has chosen to do. In the language of the Fourth Gospel, God so loved the worldthat God gave the Only-Begotten to meet creation on its own ground. God loves us so much that God wants to be intimate with us, and not just love us at a distance.

So God didn’t just come because we needed saving. God came because God enjoys our company (though given our many faults, God only knows why!). But the Incarnation isn’t only a matter of God wanting to share our humanity, to make our humanness part of the divine experience. It is also God’s desire that we in turn become partakers of the divine nature.

St. John put it this way in his gospel:

To all who received the Incarnate Word, who believed in his name,” says the gospel, “the Word gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of human beings, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

In the centuries that followed, this theme of theosis, or deification––becoming God-like––has pushed the envelope of anthropology by setting a very high bar for the definition of human potential.

In the early church, Irenaeus said that “God became what we are, in order to make us what he is” Athanasius was even more explicit about the consequences of Incarnation, saying that “God became human so that humans might become God-like.” God-like! Imagine that after watching the evening news.

Martin Luther, perhaps surprisingly for someone so focused on the burden of human sin, said we were all called to be “little Christs,” and in a Christmas sermon he described the Incarnation as a two-way street: “Just as the word of God became flesh,” he said, “so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. . . [God] takes what is ours to himself in order to impart what is his to us.”

In the 18th century, some of Charles Wesley’s great hymns were almost shockingly explicit about our capacity to contain divinity.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join,
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

In the 20thcentury, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.” [i]

And after his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Merton said, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [ii]

Is this all this talk about divinization going too far? Could we really be walking around shining like the sun? Or at least have the potential for such glory, even if we’re not there yet? If the Nativity in Bethlehem means what I think it does, then the answer has to be yes.

On that wondrous night in Bethlehem, our nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

Another ancient theologian said, “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”

What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.

On the Winter Solstice about 25 years ago, I was flying across the San Fernando Valley into L.A.’s Burbank airport on a brilliant December day. The noonday sun was low enough in the southern sky to be reflecting its rays off the surface of swimming pools running along a line parallel to our flight path. There are so many pools in the Valley, and each one, as it was struck by the sun, exploded with an intense dazzle of white light. In rapid succession, tranquil blue surfaces were transformed into momentary images of the sun’s bright fire.

“They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness.” Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And though we have turned away from the Light, the Light seeks us out. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.

We may not feel capable or worthy or prepared to receive the Word into the flesh of our own lives, but it is what we were made for. Paradoxical as it may sound, partaking of divinity is the only path to becoming fully human.

A month before he died, Edward Pusey, a 19thcentury English priest, wrote to a spiritual friend about our God-bearing capacity:

“God ripen you more and more,” he said. “Each day is a day of growth. God says to you, ‘Open thy mouth and I will fill it.’ Only long. . . The parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself for the rain from heaven and invites it. The parched soil cries out to the living God. O then long and long and long, and God will find thee. More love, more love, more love.”

Participating in divinity doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. We won’t be throwing any lightning bolts. Just look at Jesus. His life tells you what “God-like” means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but as they are singing a carol about the mystery of the Incarnation, she leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to Love divine, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[iii]

So if you want to try it, if you want to complete your humanity by partaking of divinity, there are many ways to do that. Weep with those who weep and dance with those who dance,the Bible says. Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, free the captive.There are plenty of to-do lists out there. I recently came across an excellent one from the Dalai Lama:

May I become at all times,
both now and forever:
A protector for all who are helpless.
A guide for all who have lost their way.
A ship for all who sail the oceans.
A bridge for all who cross over rivers.
A sanctuary for all who are in danger.
A lamp for all who are in darkness.
A place of refuge for all who lack shelter.
And a servant for all those who are in need.
May I find hope in the darkest of days,
and focus in the brightest.

No, Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future.
And this is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey into God.

 

 

 

[i]q. in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own(2004), 403.

[ii]Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

[iii]The novel is The Greater Trumps(1932)

I Say Rejoice – A Homily for Advent 3

“Pay attention to the open sky / You never know what will be coming down.” –– Jackson Browne

Rejoice in the Lord always. Let me say it again: Rejoice! . . . The Lord is near. . . And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 –– Philippians 4:4-7

So said St. Paul 2000 years ago, and we have heard him say it again today: Rejoice!And because these words became the traditional opening chant in the medieval mass on the Third Sunday of Advent, this day became known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for “rejoice.”

Rejoice is one of the most important words in the Bible. It’s full of electricity, meant to jolt you out of sleep and despair. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” said the prophet Zephaniah. “God will rejoice over you with gladness…God will dance with shouts of joy for you.”

God will dance! In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the word for rejoice is also the word for dance. An old Jewish Midrash takes great delight in this double meaning:

 In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him…saying, “This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

So on Rejoice Sunday, as we celebrate the dancing God, who’s this wild man of the desert crashing our party, calling us snakes and shouting about wrath? Who let him in?

You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? Do you really think you are going to escape from the mess you’ve made of this world? Is that what you think? Don’t tell me about your spiritual heritage. That’s not going to save you! You’ve got to show you mean business. You’ve got to turn yourselves around and get right with God. You say you’re Abraham’s children. Well, God doesn’t care a fig about that. You say you go to church. So what?

Are you bearing any fruit? I don’t see it. Your hearts are nothing but dead trees. Where’s the fruit? Where’s the juice? You know what happens to dead trees? They get cut down, leaving nothing but stumps.

Look, I’m baptizing with water the ones who really want to change. But I tell you, there’s someone coming after me who’s a lot more powerful than I am – I’m not even fit to tie his shoes. And he’s not going to be using any water to baptize you. He’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit – and with fire.

The winnowing fork is already in his hand. He’s clearing the threshing floor and gathering the wheat into the barn. But the chaff? Oh, the chaff he is going to burn in a fire that will never go out.”

So people, listen up. It’s time to get ready.
Stay awake. Keep watch. Change your lives.

Such an intrusion, such a message, and such a messenger, seem shockingly out of place on Rejoice Sunday. Thank God no wild prophets have wandered into our assembly today. But you never know!

About 25 years ago, a pastor in California asked me if I would make a surprise Advent appearance at his church as John the Baptist. No one else in his congregation knew this was going to happen, not even the ushers, who looked at me nervously when I entered the church in bare feet and a tattered old robe. At the moment when the gospel was to be read, I came up the aisle, looking people in the eyes as I delivered my fiery message. Then, after one last warning to stay awake and keep watch, I slipped out the door and disappeared.

This bit of guerilla liturgy got mixed reviews from the congregation, as you might imagine. But if the Bible is a living word, it doesn’t just tell stories about people in the past. It confronts and challenges us in the present as well, as the biblical truths retell themselves in our own stories.

Be that as it may, what are we to make of the Baptist’s unsettling message? Perhaps his most troubling phrase is “the wrath to come.” It conjures up all those abusive old images of an angry, judgmental and vindictive god, images which have done a lot of harm over the centuries, even though Jesus made it pretty clear that the heart of the law is mercy, and the end of all our stories is the victory of Love.

So what is the “wrath to come”? I believe it is really something of our own devising. If we break the laws of the universe, we will find ourselves contradicted by a reality more true and lasting than the constructions of our own self-will. If we engage in destructive behaviors, those chickens will come home to roost. Or as C. S. Lewis put it, “We are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins.”

We all experience this kind of blowback on the level of personal behavior, whenever we reap what we have sown. But it is true on a collective level as well. The rapid acceleration of climate change makes this abundantly clear. For decades we humans have been either unwilling or unable to change our ways, and now the consequent “wrath” is getting too big to ignore––although some still try!

A recent cartoon depicting a climate change denier puts this perfectly. A skeleton is lying on its back on ground that is baked and parched. Nothing is growing there. It’s a wasteland devoid of life. And the skeleton still has its fingers in its ears. Nobody’s going to convince himabout the wrath to come.

Perhaps the most interesting­­––and hopeful––thing about today’s gospel reading is that the people, even after being so fiercely chastised and challenged by the prophet, do not put their fingers in their ears. Instead, they ask the Baptist, “What then should we do?” John responds to each questioner in very concrete ways. And as the story concludes, what looked like judgment––the axe and the fire––turned out to be a strange form of good news, the best thing that could have happened, because it spurred people to let go of the unsustainable chaff and begin to change their ways.

Prophets can be hard, but they are so necessary to move us to repentance and action. Thank God for all those who push us where we need to go, who urge us toward transformation. We must change our lives, they tell us. And the time is now.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the immense challenges looming before us. Where do we turn for the hope and courage and strength we need for the facing of this hour? What faith says is this: We turn to God our Savior. We turn to the one in whom all our hope is grounded.

But in a world as secular as ours, where divine intention or activity is not a natural presupposition, and things just go on happening whether God is thought about or not, it can seem unintelligible to call God our Savior. What does it mean to say that God will save us? Doesn’t our culture teach us to act as if we are pretty much on our own, for better or worse? Isn’t God an unnecessary hypothesis?

If the question of God were nothing more than a theoretical proposition with which we agree or disagree, or simply ignore in the daily course of our lives, then it’s easy to live as if God makes no difference. But belief is not a theoretical matter. Belief is about how we live, and what kind of story we belong to.

It is certainly possible to live inside a story where God is absent or nonexistent. A lot of people do it. But I find that to be a bleak and unpromising account of reality––perhaps satisfactory, or even exhilarating, when things are good, but too vulnerable to cynicism and despair when the world goes off the rails.

People of faith, however, abide in a different story, a story where death does not have the last word, a story where Love wins. To say that God will save us is to belong to thatstory, and to live accordingly. And what are the fruits of faith’s life-shaping story?––trust, confidence, hope, and the kind of invincible joy which St. Paul proclaims with such passion. “Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!”

Paul’s own joy was often tested. Even in jail, he wrote to his friends, “Do not worry about anything. Live in hope.” And countless saints have done exactly that.

In the book of Lamentations, a text drenched in the tears of profound suffering, we find one of the most hopeful verses in all of Scripture:

When my soul is bowed down, I keep one thing in mind, and so recover hope: Love’s mercies are never exhausted; they are renewed every morning (Lam. 3:20-23).

In the faith story, no matter how rocky the road or dangerous the journey, our path leads beyond every annihilation toward an unimaginable fulfilment. What has been broken will be restored, what has been wounded will be healed, what has been lost will be found. If such a hope were a statement about the world, it would be a foolish optimism, soon blown away by the winds of calamity. But Christian hope is not a statement about the world. It is a statement about God.

Hope is not about what the creature can do; it is about the never-ending resourcefulness of the Creator, who turns darkness into light and brings life out of death. Even to the blackest night, God will bring the dawn.

One of my Advent rituals is to play my recording of Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” an encouraging song imbued with prayerful hope, despite being written in a time of personal loss:

Keep a fire for the human race,
and let your prayers go drifting into space
you never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near;
just as easy it could all disappear,
along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around.
Go on and make a joyful sound.

Into a dancer you have grown,
From a seed somebody else has thrown,
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own. . .

We are all dancers, the people who rejoice in hope, come what may. Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around. Go on and make a joyful sound.

Now to say that God is our Savior does not mean that God does all the work. Faith is not passivity. To be called into the story of God’s unfolding future means we ourselves have a lot of work to do: the work of changing our lives, the work of letting go what is unsustainable, the work of repairing the world, the work of becoming Love’s body in the here and now. Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own.

We do not do this work alone.
The Eternal One works beside us––and within us.
Our strength lies in a power deeper than our own capacities.
Our story is more than a dream of our own making.
And God’s mercies, Love’s kindnesses, are never exhausted.

Preaching on Jesus, Divorce, and the Kavanaugh Problem

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

 –– Mark 10:11-12

 

Is there any way to hear these words without wincing? It’s not exactly a preacher’s favorite text. We’d rather skip ahead to the part about Jesus blessing the little children. Divorce is a very painful subject. It’s painful to experience, painful to watch, painful to think about, painful to remember. But Jesus doesn’t sound very pastoral here. Don’t his words just add to the pain?

Certainly some Christians, and some churches, have used this text to judge and shame those whose marriages don’t endure. Some have even used it to deter spouses from leaving abusive or dangerous relationships. But I think that kind of hardheartedness to be a sadly mistaken reading of both the context and the content of this gospel passage. Let’s take a closer look.

In the full passage on divorce in Mark 10:2-12, there are actually two different conversations. One is public, and one is private. In the first, “some Pharisees” approach Jesus to “test” him. The Greek verb for “test” is the same one used by Mark for what Satan does to Jesus in the wilderness. So we know it’s not going to be a friendly dialogue. It’s going to be a verbal contest.

This happens a lot in the gospel. The Pharisees try to trip Jesus up, make him say something that will turn the people against him. In this case they ask, in a public setting where everyone can hear his answer, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Well, divorce was a hot topic at the time. Some Jews said yes, some said no. Whatever Jesus answers, think the Pharisees, he’s going to turn off anyone who takes the opposite position.

But Jesus doesn’t fall for this trap. Instead, he reframes the question in two ways. First of all, he makes it personal. The Pharisees present the question as abstract, not about a particular person’s situation but about a hypothetical “man.” But Jesus knows that the bond between two people is not theoretical but very personal and situational. So he asks his inquisitors, “What did Moses command you?”

In other words, “As individuals who wonder WWMD––what would Moses do?––tell me how you interpret Scripture when the question affects you personally? When Scripture and tradition speak on this matter, what do they say to you?”

It’s the kind of tactic Jesus used when he was asked about keeping the Sabbath. He made it personal and situational: Who among you wouldn’t bend a general principle when the need arises? The Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around.

So the flustered Pharisees, hoping to evade the existential dimension of divorce, try to keep the conversation theoretical. “Moses,” they replied, “allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Jesus now has them on the run.

“Why do you suppose Moses said this?” he asks. “It’s because your hearts are so hard, that you just aren’t very good at marriage. Nobody is, actually. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to let go of your selfishness and your power struggles and learn to give yourselves to one another with the same sacrificial self-offering that defines the divine life.”

Well, he didn’t exactly say it that way, but his employment of the Genesis image of two becoming one flesh implies everything which we believe about our calling as human beings: to give ourselves away for the sake of others, to live not for ourselves alone but in communion with one another. This is true whether you are called to be married, or to be single as Jesus himself was. The Trinitarian God desires that our lives reflect the divine life, that we be bonded with one another in a most holy communion. And woe to anyone who tries to divide and separate those whom God has joined together.

That was Jesus’ public teaching, and his inspired and exalted view of our vocation to love one another evidently reduced the Pharisees to silence. We imagine them slinking away, shaking their heads. Then Jesus and his disciples go inside, where they can speak more frankly as friends.

The disciples, who aren’t always so quick to understand their difficult teacher, want to know how his exalted idea of marriage applies to the specific question of divorce. We may wish for a more nuanced report of their private discussion, but all we get is the verse linking divorce and adultery, a saying which has caused so much trouble and hurt over the years.

The assertion that the remarriage of divorced persons is equivalent to adultery sounds extreme and unrealistic to us today. And it conjures up in our minds the pointed finger of judgment and shame, an image which hardly fits our understanding of Jesus as the model of compassion, the friend of those whose lives are fraught with brokenness and pain.

When we hear the phrase, “commit adultery,” it can sound like a specific act of a salacious nature, reinforced by countless movies. But in the original Greek text, the word “commit” is not even there. The verb Jesus uses is “adulterate,” and it is rendered in the passive voice, suggesting a condition or state of being rather than a specific occurrence. A more literal translation of the text would say that “whoever” experiences a broken marriage “is adulterated.”

Adulterate, from the Latin verb to alter or change, means to dilute or weaken an original substance by the admixture of other elements. When love is mixed with something less than love, it becomes adulterated. So perhaps we can hear Jesus’ words more as a statement of fact rather than an accusation or judgment.

There can be bad reasons for ending a marriage, and there can be good reasons. But a failed marriage, whether broken by commission or omission or irreconcilable differences, is an alteration, an adulteration, of the original intention expressed in the marriage vows: to be united in heart, body and mind.There is undeniable pain in such a ripping asunder, but there should be no condemnation or shame. We all come short of perfection, in relationships and a lot of other things. But God loves us anyway.

Marriage can be hard work, for any number of reasons. And try as we may, it doesn’t always work out. Divorce happens: it’s sad and it’s hard. But whether our story be sweet or not sweet, God is always in it with us, wiping away the tears and turning darkness into light.

That is my pastoral reading of the gospel text. But I find a prophetic word in it as well, a word that couldn’t be more timely at this moment in America. You see, when Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, he is also addressing the unequal distribution of power, not only between men and women, but between the powerful and the vulnerable.

In Jesus’ day, the divorce debate wasn’t about the degree to which a couple was expected to fulfill a romantic ideal. It was about the vulnerability of women and the exercise of male power. Jewish law allowed the husband, but not the wife, to end a marriage whenever he wanted. For a first-century woman, the consequences of divorce were devastating. If she didn’t have any family to take her in, her choices for survival were either begging or prostitution.

We know that Jesus always sided with the vulnerable, so we may read his critique of divorce as a forceful way to address the harm inflicted on women by the gross inequity of power between the sexes. This was not just an ancient problem. Despite all our best hopes for social progress, we have all seen in recent days how gross that inequity remains.

We have seen a white male judge seethe with sarcasm and rage in his Senate confirmation hearing. We have heard a white male Senator respond angrily to the accusations of abuse survivors by saying, “We shouldn’t have to put up with this!” And we have witnessed a white male president lead a laughing mob in the mockery of a woman who has suffered sexual assault, while claiming at the same time that the really scary thing is that the powerful might actually be held accountable.

It seems bizarre to see abusers, and the enabers of abusers, to act as if they are the real victims. But the analysis of writer Rebecca Traister helps us make sense of this strange reversal of victim and oppressor. Traister has just published an important book called Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, examining the role of disruptive anger as an engine of social change. And in it she asks the question of who has the right to be angry in our society. As we have seen in the Supreme Court hearings, it’s okay for white males to openly display their rage, but women and minorities had better learn to keep it hidden.

Now we know that women and minorities have plenty to be furious about. But why are all those privileged white males so undisguisedly angry? It’s because anger is a weapon powerful people use to protect their power. As Traister puts it:

“It’s powerful men saying, ‘We shouldn’t have to put up with this. We shouldn’t have to listen to and absorb and in any way have our power diminished by, or assent impeded by, the angry dissent of these people who have less power than we do.’ That is very openly what they are angry about.”[i]

This is why, in what was essentially a job interview, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could weep and rage freely about his own victimhood without suffering immediate disqualification. As Traister explains, making exaggerated claims of personal suffering is a common response by the privileged when they are challenged from below. She writes:

“[Their] hyperbolic language of injury and death gives you a sense of perhaps the degree to which the power of a particular kind of white man is so tied to his identity that the lessening of that power feels like a death. The fear that facing any kind of repercussion at all for power abuse is tantamount to ‘revolution,’ to ‘social upheaval,’ to ‘violent insurgency.’ Right? That’s the language they immediately go for.”[ii]

Have I wandered too far from the gospel here? I don’t think so. While the topic of divorce, and our pastoral and compassionate response to it, is a critical one, touching most of us in one way or another, Jesus’ persistent objection to inequity in general––and the abuse of power that flows from it––is also something that needs to be high on the agenda of every faith community.

As God’s coworkers, laborers in the vineyard of love and justice, we are called to resist “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” That’s what we promised in our baptismal covenant, and this vocation is more critical than ever as the love which binds us becomes adulterated by inequity, selfishness and fear.

This is a time of crisis on so many levels, but we are not yet acting as though this is true. And perhaps the greatest emergency of all is “the lack of a sense of emergency.” [iii]

My brothers and sisters,
we have so much work to do.
Sleepers wake!
The wolf is at the door.
This is not a drill.

Therefore, rise up, you saints of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
to serve the King of kings.

Rise up, you saints of God,
God’s kingdom tarries long;
Lord, bring the day of truth and love
and end the night of wrong!

 

 

This homily on the gospel for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost will be delivered at Faith Episcopal Church in Poulsbo, Washington.

[i]Rebecca Traister, from an interview on All In with Chris Hayes, MSNBC, Oct. 2, 2018. Her book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, was published on October 2 by Simon & Schuster.

[ii]Traister, “Women, Rage and Power,” on Why Is This Happening?, a podcast with Chris Hayes (Sept. 27, 2018): https://art19.com/shows/why-is-this-happening-with-chris-hayes/episodes/5f30cc4e-bc1f-4b73-a920-4eca8960db25

[iii]Martin Heidegger, q. in Santiago Zabala, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 2.

Reading in France

Dormitory, Abbey of Senanque.

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. . . If [the pilgrim] does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him.  

 – Simone Weil

I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking a river in France. Late summer blooms sway in the gentle breeze. The trees resound with birdsong. Back home, my country is in turmoil. What a week to be away! 

The stakes are high in the U.S., and I celebrate the rising of the women and the trembling of the patriarchy. But to be unplugged for a time need not be escape, but renewal. As the Dordogne rolls on placidly below me, I think of a line from William Stafford:

What the river says,
that is what I say.

Dordogne River, La Roque Gageac.

It’s a vacation. And yet, the book here on the table under the umbrella is Robert Coles’ Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. A reflection on the life and thought of the uncompromising French thinker and radical believer, whose posthumous influence has been so profound, is bound to put the placidity of a pleasant afternoon into question. What is one to do with a voice that says so matter-of-factly, “Salvation is consenting to die”?  

Crucifxion, Abbey of Saint Foy, Conques.

Weil’s life was rooted in renunciation, whether it was rejecting the career path of a brilliant thinker or refusing proper nourishment when she was dying in hospital. “For God to be born is renunciation,” she wrote. “The birth of Christ is already a sacrifice. Christmas ought to be as sad a day as Good Friday.”

That may not be a winning sentiment for church growth, but Weil insisted that the life of faith demands no less than everything. Her image of God waiting to eat us is certainly unsettling. Nevertheless, she believed, it’s all about surrender:

“We must give up everything which is not grace, and not even desire grace.”

Isaiah, priory church of Souillac (12th century)

I did bring some lighter reading as well on this journey, but Weil has been an insistent companion. She will not be ignored. Her rigorous ideas, not just conceived but inhabited, beg the question, “So what are you doing with your life? Are you holding anything back?”

As I’ve read Coles’ book, I’ve discovered that some of the places visited on this trip were associated with Weil: Auxerre and Le Puy, where she taught, the Ardeche region where she worked on a farm, and the garden at her college in Paris, where her fellow students, intimidated by her philosophical brilliance, called her “the Categorical Imperative in skirts.”

So I suppose I’m on a Weil pilgrimage by accident. We’ll see where it leads.

Chapel of St. Michel-d’Aiguille, Le Puy.

My itinerary also coincides with the Camino de Santiago, visiting three of the four starting points for the French portion of that great pilgrimage: Paris, Le Puy, and Arles (Vezelay is the fourth).

I walked a 70-mile segment of the French “Way of St. James” in 2010, and all 500 miles of the “Camino Frances” culminating in northwest Spain in 2014 (you can read about the latter here and here). 

Blessing of pilgrims on Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, Cathedral of Le Puy

When I watched a band of joyful pilgrims set out last week from Le Puy after being blessed at the cathedral mass, I felt a little wistful to be only a tourist sightseeing by car. I felt a pull to join them. But then I remembered that for the desiring heart, the pilgrimage never ends.

Pilgrimage is the image Coles used for the all-to-brief life of Simone Weil, which ended at 34 in 1943, a bleak and violent year when, in Weil’s words, “it took a special person to be hopeful.” In our own dark and foolish time, Coles’ summation has particular resonance:

Hers was a modern pilgrimage; she entertained all our assumptions, presumptions, and anticipations – her journey is ours. She experienced, in the few years she knew among us, our buoyancy, our optimism, and soon enough, our terrible discouragement and melancholy. She saw Pandora’s box open, revealing its cheap tricks, its deceptions. She saw clear skies cloud up overnight. She saw all the castles we have built in the skies; she entered them, took their measure, and left with tears or anger, bitterness. In the end only one sight was left for her eyes; in the end, that modern pilgrimage so swiftly concluded, she looked upward, affirmed unflinchingly her last hope, the hope of heaven – and died, one suspects glad it last, glad to be hurrying home, to be with God…

Dordogne River, La Roque-Gageac.

 

All photos by Jim Friedrich

Who Is the Real Jesus?

One of the earliest images of a bearded Jesus (Roman catacomb of Comodilla, late 4th century)

I looked for him and did not find him.
I will get up and walk round the city.
and will look for him whom I love with all my soul.

–– Song of Songs 3:1-2

 

When I teach my seminar on “Jesus and the movies,” I show 20 different actors who have played the gospels’ leading man on screen during cinema’s first century. Every actor has his moments, and some of the cinematic Jesuses are very compelling. But something about the role itself invites the critical knives.

Jeffrey Hunter was 33 when he played Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961).

The casting of teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961) caused some to call the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus”. But “to his credit,”one reviewer said, Hunter “plays the Son of God with embarrassment.” In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the Swedish Max von Sydow, whose art-film resume set him apart from the “Hollywood Jesus” stereotype, was nevertheless slammed for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Another critic added that von Sydow “hardly varies his expression, which is mild suffering, as if he had a pebble in his sandal.”

Ted Neely’s hippie Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstarwas dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair,” while Godspell’s playful Jesus was savaged by Time Magazine as “a teeny-bopper stoned on himself.” Robert Powell’s eyes in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) were just too blue to suit the historical realists. And Willem Dafoe’s uncertain and anxious Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) caused the NPR critic to complain that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who––who wrote the book of love?”

Even positive reviews were tinged with doubt about the viability of portraying the Son of God. Writing about Robert Wilson, who played Jesus in my father’s 1954 film, Day of TriumphNewsweek said that while he doesn’t make Jesus seem “pale or namby-pamby … neither does he make him the red-blooded he-man.”

Interpretive representations of Jesus­—–in theology, painting, and film–– have been the subject of debate from the beginning. Even when he was present in the flesh, people gave very different answers to the question he posed: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s only natural. We humans are a mystery, even to ourselves. Add divinity to the mix, and the interpretive task becomes an endless play of perspectives.

The original “screen version” of Jesus (Hans Memling, St. Veronica, 1475)

I once did a video interview with a young Palestinian woman whose idiomatic phrasing expressed this perfectly. “Jesus is a very big word,” she told me. “You can never get to the end of it.”

When a critic, or one of my students, looks at the screen and thinks, “That’s not Jesus,” it implies that they themselves would recognize Jesus if they saw him. And that guy on the screen just isn’t him!

But if there is no definitive way to play a role so inherently mysterious, then no actor has to be the Jesus. He only has to make us see some things that we may have missed in previous tellings. Painters and preachers will tell you the same thing.

A youthful Christ evoked Resurrection (St. Costanza, Rome, c. 5th century)

Over the centuries, we’ve had Jesus meek and mild, and Jesus the Pantocrator––emperor of the universe. We’ve had the loving Jesus and the angry Jesus. We’ve had the Prince of Peace and the troublemaker, the Man for others and the social revolutionary. We’ve had the Good Shepherd, the Cosmic Victor, the healer, the teacher, the prophet, the mystic, the ascetic, the party animal, the Suffering Servant, the Savior, and the Man of Sorrows.

In 14th-century England, Julian of Norwich pictured Jesus as our nurturing mother. Other cultures have added their own distinct perspectives, seeing Jesus as shaman, medicine man, and exorcist. And what we know these days about Jesus is that he was a feminist, radical, egalitarian, postmodern critic of consumer society.

Revolutionary Jesus (Russia, 20th century)

Martin Scorcese, who directed The Last Temptation of Christ, was savagely criticized for taking liberties with the gospel story. His response?

“You have the choice between my wrong version
and your wrong version
and somebody else’s wrong version.”

Every narrative is fictional, a version from a particular perspective, with some things emphasized and some things left out. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted story, or an uninterpreted Jesus. And that’s okay. The Incarnation means that God is fond of particularity, choosing to dwell in a particular human body in a particular way. And to say that “Jesus lives” means that the particularity of incarnation continues to go on. Jesus keeps turning up in many guises, seen through many eyes.

Jesus is a very big Word. So every version will be “wrong” in the sense of being incomplete. That is why diversity of interpretation is a blessing. The reception of revelation is a collective act performed over time. The four lives of Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John establish this principle of interpretive diversity at the very beginning of Christianity. Each gospel offers a distinctive perspective, a different Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus is a rebel who challenges the oppressive powers: the clergy, the demons, and the empire. His revolution is a mystery that most fail to see or understand, except a few followers to whom “the secret of the Kingdom has been given.” The revolution seems to fail in the end, but then there is the empty tomb and those strange angelic words:

“He is not here.
He goes before you into Galilee.
You will see him there.”

And where is Galilee? It’s where the story began, so there is in Mark this circular motion which takes you back to the beginning to look again at the story in the light of the Resurrection, and this time maybe you start to see what’s really happening, you start to see who––and where–– Jesus really is.

Matthew’s Jesus is the rabbi, the divine teacher who conveys to us the mind of God in the Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom parables, and the representative suffering that seems to fulfill and redeem Israel’s destiny. His gospel starts with Emmanuel, the newborn child who is God-with-us, and it ends on a mountain top meant to recall the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, with Christ’s promise that “I am with you always.” As in Mark, Jesus is a story that never ends.

Luke gives us the compassionate companion who embraces the poor and the outcast. Only Luke’s Jesus speaks of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Unlike Mark’s gospel, which keeps circling us back to the original story of the historical Jesus, Luke’s version propels us forward into the future of the risen Jesus, who continues among us as the Spirit-filled church, manifesting divine presence in the breaking of the bread and the healing of the world.

Supper, George Tooker (1963)

John’s Jesus is the most variant of them all. The divinity of his Jesus is clearly visible from the start: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Fourth Gospel resounds with the divine name first revealed to Moses: “I am.”

I am the light of the world.
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the true vine.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the door.
Before Abraham was, I am.

Some people worry about whether Jesus actually said any of these things during his earthly life, as if they could only be true if spoken by the first century Galilean Jesus. But if Jesus is risen and living and with us always, then to have these words spoken through the voice of the inspired community, the Body of Christ on earth, expands rather than violates the norm of authenticity. Read the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17) as if they are spoken by the risen Christ, and John’s Jesus feels more like revelation than invention.

Whatever the historicity of John’s Jesus, he is the one many of us have met––as the bread of life, the deep well of living water, and the door between the worlds by whom we make our own safe passage through death into life.

The foundational narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were only the beginning of the process. Now it’s our turn to add to the story of Jesus, from the particularity of our own experience. How, exactly, do we tell the gospel according to us?

 

Hans Memling, Christ Blessing (1478)

 

Related posts:

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

Ten Questions to Ask About Your Own Picture of Jesus

Faith Meets Works: And the Winner Is . . .

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jesus open eyes of a man born blind (1311)

Without faith, no good work is ever begun, or completed.

–– Caesarius of Arles

 

A homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the longest running debates in Christianity is the one about faith and works.
Which is primary? Which is more necessary?
Are we saved by faith alone, or do our works matter as well?
Is our salvation due entirely to God, or do we ourselves play any part in it?

This argument goes all the way back to the New Testament. As James asks in today’s epistle, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14)

James is responding to the notion that we are saved sola fide––by faith alone–– and not by anything we ourselves are able to do. He seems to be dissenting from St. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith,” worrying that it could weaken our ethical motivation.

If the good works that we do make no difference in whether we’re saved––because God is as gracious to sinners as s/he is to saints–– then what’s the point of working hard to do the right thing?

Like the workers in the vineyard, can’t we just show up at the last minute and receive the same wages as those suckers who spend the whole day sweating in the hot sun? (As if our own reward is the heart of the matter!)

Such a caricature, of course, does little justice to the nuanced reflections on faith and works by great thinkers like Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. But still, in the end, it is fair to ask whether the whole debate is more a matter of language than substance. What do we mean by “faith,” or “justification,” or “salvation?” Without getting too far into the theological weeds, I’ll just say that such words, whatever their particular meanings, all signify a state of being tuned in to the divine way–– a condition shaped by and conformed to what James calls “the royal law”: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, the life of faith is the life of love, mirroring the eternal self-offering of the Holy Trinity in our own manner of living each and every day. When we no longer live for ourselves but for God, anxiety about whether we’re good enough is the last thing on our minds. When we surrender our lives to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, good works are simply who we are and what we do as Love’s chosen instruments.

Good works are not a means to an end, a way to glorify ourselves or earn heavenly rewards. They are simply what happens when God is in us and we are in God.
If you are a blazing fire, you give off heat and light.
If you are “Christ’s own for ever,” your actions are radiant with love and justice.

As Jesus put it, “Let your light so shine before others,
that they may see your good works and give the glory to God” (Mt. 5:16).

Jesus was speaking from experience. As St. Peter said in one of his sermons, “because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Today’s gospel, cramming multiple healings into two paragraphs, fits Peter’s concise description of Jesus as a man who went around doing good, a man in a hurry to repair the world.

Good works have been called the fruits of faith, because they make the inwardness of faith visiblein a way that others can see, and nourishingin a way that others can taste. “Good works are witnesses to the Christian faith,” said a fifth-century priest named Salvian, “because otherwise a Christian cannot demonstrate that he has that faith. If he cannot show it, it may as well becompletely nonexistent.” [i]

Where would the world be if we were all faith and no works? The hungry can’t eat our ideas. The vulnerable won’t get much protection from our “thoughts and prayers.” Intention without implementation is pretty useless, as James reminds us in his Epistle:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).

There was once a man whose heart was so broken by all the pain and injustice in the world that he cried out in anger and despair, “O God, see how much your people suffer! See how much anguish and misery there is in the world! Why won’t you send some help?”

And God answered, “I did send help. I sent you.” [ii]

So where do we start? There’s a world of hurt out there. Can we make a difference? Scripture gives high priority to serving the poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, including the outcast, protecting the defenseless, tending the sick, visiting the prisoner, and guarding Creation. At a time when the exact opposite of all these things is being carried out by the highest levels of our government––with the enthusiastic approval of a shockingly high number of white Christians––we can become exhausted, if not despairing, just thinking about the immense labor of resisting evil and preserving the common good.

That’s when works need faith as much as faith needs works––faith that another power is at work here; faith that we aren’t doing it by ourselves. In fact, repairing the world is not a humanproject at all. God started that work, and God will finish it. Meanwhile, as God’s hands and feet in the world, we chip in as best we can for our brief span. Be not afraid. God is always out there ahead of us, hard at work.

God is out there in the attorneys fighting to protect and reunite the children and parents being separated and abused at our southern border. God is there in the faith communities offering protection and sanctuary to the victims of bigotry and racism. God is there in the striking prison inmates who refuse to be treated like animals. God is there marching in the streets against gun violence and environmental suicide.

Oh wait. Is this mixing religion and politics? Of course it is, because religion and politics have always been inseparable, if what you mean by politics is that people actually matter, and the common good actually matters. In a 1979 manifesto, activists Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson defined politics in what I would call religious terms:

“Politics is the way we live our lives. . . It is the way we treat each other, as individuals, as groups, as government. It is the way we treat our environment. It is the way we treat ourselves. Politics has to do with where we shop, what we eat, how we maintain our health. It has to do with the kinds of schools we create, the energy we use, the neighborhood organizations we build, the work we do. Politics involves our way of seeing the world, of developing our consciousness, of awakening our whole selves. It has to do with our attitudes, our values, our innermost dimensions.” [iii]

Of course, for many of us the work of repairing the world is relatively quiet and local most of the time. Random acts of kindness and so forth. As Wendell Berry says, “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling . . .” [iv]

A writer named Bob Libby gives a lovely example of this. He liked to go running at the beach, and whenever the tide was low he saw an old woman “walking along the shore in her white tennis shoes, floppy straw hat, and oversized print dress. She always carried a crumpled brown paper bag that matched the texture and color of her skin.”

Her name was Maggie, and she’d walk along with her head down, pausing occasionally to stoop over, pick something up, and examine it. Then she’d either toss it away or put it in her bag. Libby assumed she was collecting shells, but when he asked her about it one day, she said, “Not shells at all. Glass. Sharp glass. Cuts the feet. Surfers land on it. It sure ruins their summer.” [v]

It doesn’t take much to make the world better, does it? As John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can. [vi]

I’ll leave you with one more story, a parable by Megan McKenna:

There was a woman who knew the world was falling apart. Every day the news made her more depressed. But one day, as she wandered sadly through her town, she had the impulse to step into a little shop she had never noticed before. To her surprise, standing behind the counter was Jesus! At least he looked like all the pictures she’d ever seen of him.

 So she went over and asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.” “Oh. What do you sell in here?” “Just about anything!” “Anything?” “Yep, anything you want.” Jesus leaned forward. “What do you want?” “Um, I’m not really sure.” “Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

 So she did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. When she returned to the counter with her very long list, Jesus looked it over. Then he glanced at her with a smile and said, “No problem.”

 Then he bent down behind the counter, picked out a bunch of different small packets, and laid them out in front of her. “What are these?” she asked. “Seed packets,” Jesus said. “You take them home to plant, then you nurture them and help them to grow, and one day in the future there will be others to come and reap the harvest.”

“Oh,” she said. [vii]

 

 

 

[i] Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2007), 336.

[ii] David Wolpe, Teaching Your Children About God, q. in Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (New York: Scribner, 1996), 317.

[iii] Ibid., 330. McLaughlin and Davidson were part of the New World Alliance, an idealistic project to create a “transformational politics.”

[iv] Wendell Berry, q. in Brussat, 341.

[v]Bob Libby, Grace Happens, q. in Brussat, 341-2.

[vi] q. in Brussat, 360-61.

[vii] Adapted from a story in Megan McKenna, Parables, q. in Brussat, 359. McKenna has the woman walk out without buying anything, like the rich young man who decided following Jesus was too hard. My wife, also a preacher, thought the congregation should be left with the woman’s final response still undecided. So I ended it with “Oh.” But I can’t help hearing the disappointment in her voice.

 

Mountains to Try Our Souls

The author in the North Cascades, August 2018.

For once I stood
In the white windy presence of eternity.

–– Eunice Tietjens, “The Most-Sacred Mountain”

 

For most of European history, people found little pleasure in mountain landscapes. Mountains were a nuisance––obstacles to travel and economically unproductive. And they had little value as scenery. Their artless, irregular shapes disturbed classical ideals of order. Christians of the Middle Ages would allegorize the chaos of wild wastes and broken stones as the unsightly rubbish of a fallen world––the postlapsarian antithesis of Eden’s gentle and harmonious garden. As late as the eighteenth century, travelers crossing the Alps drew the curtains of their carriages to prevent any upsetting glimpses of geological chaos.

Yet the theological mind has long been lured by the sacredness of mountains––the places where earth dares to reach for heaven, and the solidity of matter converses with clouds. Their alien, forbidding environment evokes the mysterium tremendum, that dangerous energy “beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.” [i]

Dante and Virgil as the foot of Mount Purgatory (after a 14th century illumination)

Dante’s Purgatorio provides the supreme western model of physical ascent as transformative spiritual pilgrimage. Its seven-story mountain offers neither picturesque scenery nor recreational adventure. It’s no place for the casual or careless visitor. It exists only as a rigorous ordeal of purgation and rebirth. Such mountains are best avoided unless you want to change your life.

In contrast, Dante’s Italian contemporary, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) left us a rare record of medieval mountain walking as an appreciative outing unburdened by excessive meaning. When he ascended Provence’s Mount Ventoux in the spring of 1336, he became “the first to climb a mountain for its own sake, and to enjoy the view from the top.” [ii] That may be a slight exaggeration, but Petrarch’s enthusiastic write-up of his day-hike does feel closer to Wordsworth than to Dante. He took pleasure in the nearness of drifting clouds and the distant vistas of snowy Alps and the Mediterranean blue.

Petrarch remained medieval when he reflected on the allegorical dimensions of his walk. “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain,” he told himself, “happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life.” And when he opened the copy of Augustine’s Confessions he always carried with him, the passage that caught his eye made him worry whether he had been enjoying the creation more than its Creator. If only he had brought Mary Oliver instead!

But still, the Italian humanist couldn’t really renounce the pleasure of that walk. “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote. Centuries would pass before it became common practice to climb mountains simply because they are there, and embrace the experience as an invigorating challenge. [iii]

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Anglican theologian Thomas Burnet’s response to the Alps in 1671, we can foresee the emergence of a more modern sensibility. But it didn’t come easily. Still deeply imprinted with Europe’s cultural aversion to mountains as the “ruins of a broken earth” and “a dead heap of rubbish,” Burnet was appalled by the Alps’ “ghastliness,” disorder, deformity and lack of symmetrical balance. They threatened his understanding of God as the Great Architect whose glory shone in Creation’s meticulous design. “I was not easy,” he confessed, “till I could give my self some tolerable Account how that Confusion came in Nature.” [iv] But at the same time, he was unable to dismiss the Alps’ emotional impact.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, in her classic study of the “aesthetics of the infinite,” describes the drama of Burnet’s fierce struggle between head and heart:

“Whenever we look among his passages on wild nature, we find conflict between intellectual condemnation of asymmetry and emotional response to the attraction of the vast. . . If Burnet could not forgive Nature for her confusion, he could not deny the effect of her vastness. . . The emotions he felt among the Alps were enthusiastic, primitive, and violent and as such repellent to a disciple of Reason.” [v]

Burnet tried to resolve his inner conflict by writing The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), blaming Creation’s visual disarray on the Flood––and the human sin that caused it. The post-diluvian mess of mountains and other wastelands was therefore no failure of intelligent design. The Divine Architect was off the hook. Neat, but I suspect that the unnerving wildness of the Alps continued to haunt Burnet’s dreams.

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

By the eighteenth century, such lingering resistance to the sublime began to collapse. When poet Thomas Gray toured the Alps in 1739, he looked upon the same “magnificent rudeness” which had so disturbed Burnet, but he fell for it utterly. “You here meet with all the beauties so savage and horrid a place can present you with,” he wrote in his journal. Rocks, cascades, ancient forests “all concur to form one of the most poetical scenes imaginable.” [vi]

As if the ancient curse had been forever lifted, the mountains would become for nature lovers like John Muir an inexhaustible source of joy and blessing. “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” he wrote about his beloved Sierra in 1911, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” [vii]

But if the mountains can bring such joy, has their wild otherness been forever tamed? Those who climb say otherwise. My friend Robert Leonard Reid, an experienced mountaineer and one of my favorite writers, sees engagement with the high country as inherently spiritual:

“No sport that I know of has spawned a literature as introspective, as probing, or ultimately as religious as mountaineering. The sport causes climbers to experience unimaginable hardships and then, at the ends of their ropes, to plumb their souls for meaning. They emerge from their excursions to the edge of unknowing with insights into their spiritual natures that transcend the possibilities of mere sport. The literature is replete with tales of magic and mystery, of wild humor and terrible sadness and loss and then rebirth––all integral to the practice of climbing, all the result of protracted contact with the unseeable.” [viii]

 

Dante carried upward in a dream to Purgatory’s gate. (Gustave Dore)

I fell in love with mountains as a boy on family vacations at Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada range. There’s a 10,000’ peak above the lake, and the steep scramble to its summit was one of my favorite adventures. I’ve rambled the high country ever since, including Mt. Agazziz (13,899’), Mt. Rainier (14,411’), and Mt. Whitney (14,505’).

I am drawn to the way mountains mean. I sometimes carry a copy of Purgatorio in my backpack. It’s a perfect guide for the pilgrim who seeks “the mountain where Justice tries our souls” (Purg.iii.3).  And a holy mountain was the subject of my first film as writer/director. It was a Pilgrim’s Progress ascending through a series of obstacles, ordeals, distractions and temptations. As the climber nears the summit, a suave Satanic figure urges him to be reasonable and admit the folly of his spiritual ascent. In our disenchanted world, what does the search matter when there’s nothing really to find? [ix]

“The mountain of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb,” said Gregory of Nyssa.[x] He used the word epiktasis (“straining forward to what lies ahead”) to describe the goal of human life, in this world and the next, as the endless pursuit of God’s inexhaustible mystery. Never knowing what’s beyond us is the life of faith. It’s why we keep climbing.

When Moses summited Mount Sinai, he disappeared into the Cloud of Unknowing, the dazzling darkness of divine mystery. Whatever happened to the Hebrew prophet up there, the mountain itself became a foundational archetype for every spiritual ascent. The Arabic name for Mount Sinai is Jebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain.” Although not the tallest of the region’s peaks, its volcanic mass, “rearing its giant brow above the plain, as if in scornful contemplation of the world beneath,” proved a persuasive indicator of its biblical authenticity. [xi] Two millennia of Christian pilgrimage have further burnished its sanctity.

An English pilgrim’s description of its “savage grandeur” in 1885 speaks the language of the serious mountaineer: “The whole aspect of the surroundings impresses one with the conviction that he is here gazing on the face of Nature under one of her most savage forms, in view of which the idea of solitude, of waste, and of desolation connect with those of awe and admiration.” [xii]

There are more difficult ascents, but none more serious. St. Stephen, a 6thcentury monk at Sinai’s monastery of St. Catherine, would stand at the “Shrive Gate” where the 3000-step Stairway of Repentance began, posing to every aspiring climber the challenge of Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in God’s holy place?

You needed to make the correct response if you wanted to set foot on the holy mountain:

Those who have clean hands, and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
They shall receive blessing from the Lord,
and righteousness from the God of their salvation. [xiii]

I climbed Mt. Sinai in 1989, reciting the Jesus Prayer as my tired legs slogged up the final 750 steps: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” At the summit, I celebrated Holy Eucharist with a community of Anglican and Catholic pilgrims. I also managed to drop my binoculars off a precipitous ledge. I had to laugh at this unwilled offering to the mountain. Their untimely end seemed a fitting metaphor for the mystic’s loss of natural sight in the presence of the holy

When I climbed Mt. Whitney nine years later, there would be a sudden burst of sunshine to brighten the cloud-shadowed summit, followed quickly by lightning and snow. But Mount Sinai provided no comparable display of power and might. Whatever the mountain of God wanted to tell me, it whispered in an unknown tongue. When I returned to the world below, this is what I set down in my journal:

Egeria, that talkative 4th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, is strangely mute about her experience on Mount Sinai. “Now that we had done all we wanted,” she wrote, “and climbed the summit of the mountain of God, we began the descent.” We have to wonder: what happened to her at the top? We long for a more eloquent reporter, perhaps a John of the Cross, who could write of his own spiritual progress,

 “The steeper upward that I flew on so vertiginous a quest,
the humbler and more lowly grew my spirit,
fainting in my breast.”

And what did experience at the summit? Hmm––Egeria was right. You can’t talk about it. Whatever I felt is irrelevant. The mountain is not about me; it pays no attention to my comings and goings. And whether such sublime indifference is a matter of annihilation or splendor is the question over which faith hangs suspended. [xiv]

Perhaps silence is the best homage we can offer our holy mountains. What is most valuable can never be possessed. What is most real can never be fully seen. Louis Golding makes the point perfectly in his 1937 account, “I Stood Upon Sinai”:

“I found I had got to the top of Gebel Musa, a grand mountain commanding grand views, but not to the top of Mount Sinai. For the Holy Mountain is a spiritual, not a physical experience. Few men have ever reached the summit, and few will get there again. Perhaps it is only when the Mountain is veiled round with impenetrable cloud, that the Mountain begins to be visible at all.” [xv]

 

The author on the summit of Mount Sinai, 1989.

 

Related Post: “Every common bush afire with God”

[i]Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy(1923), 28.

[ii]Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art(1949), 23.

[iii]You can read The Ascent of Mount Ventouxhere: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/petrarch-ventoux.asp

[iv]q. in Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959/1997), 207.

[v]Ibid., 213, 215, 220.

[vi]Ibid., 356.

[vii]John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra.

[viii]Robert Leonard Reid, “The Mountain of Love and Death” in Mountains of the Great Blue Dream(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 15-16. Reid’s writing about the high country is full of wit and wonder. His latest collection of writings, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West,just came out in paperback.

[ix]Ignatz(1972) is not currently available, but I’m working on it. I took the protagonist’s name from the mouse in Krazy Kat comics, with a simultaneous nod to Ignatian spirituality and the German term for a holy fool. The blockhead game played by the man in black references Death’s chess game in Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

[x]Life of Mosesii.46, in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106.

[xi]Edward Palmer in 1871, q. in Mount Sinai, Joseph J. Hobbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 100.

[xii]Edward Hull, in Hobbs, 123-24.

[xiii]Hobbs, 234.

[xiv]Personal journal, May 12, 1989.

[xv]Geographical Magazine6 (1937), q. in Hobbs, 239-40.