“I Once Was Lost”: Rethinking Jesus’ Most Beloved Parable

Alexander Sokurov, “Lc. 15:11-32” (Prodigal Son installation, 2019). Sculptures by Vladimir Brodarsky & Katya Pilnikova.

 Life is a dialectic of dwelling and wayfaring, in the world yet not of it.

––– Erazim Kohák

I once was lost, but now I’m found.

––– John Newton

 

Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is the Bible’s preeminent tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. The welcoming father’s embrace of his foolish and errant son is a vividly concise summary of the gospel message: We can never be so lost that we cannot be found. We can never be so wrong that we cannot be loved.

Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, would be one of his final works. He was bankrupt, his style no longer in vogue. His wife and three of their children were long dead, and he would have to sell his wife’s grave to pay his debts. His only surviving son Titus, age 27, died of the plague even as the parable’s “lost son” was taking form on canvas. As Rembrandt struggled with his own sadness and despair, he created the most indelible image of mercy in the history of art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1167-1669).

Father and son emerge from a world of shadows, for compassion is the light of the world which no darkness can comprehend. The arch formed by the father’s welcoming arms is echoed by the arched doorway in the background, showing love to be the true way home. And unlike most other artistic depictions of this scene, there is no happy glance between the reunited pair. The prodigal’s repentant posture delays the moment when their eyes will meet.

Kierkegaard wrote at length about the “infinite qualitative abyss” between God and humanity, a condition due not only to the uncrossable difference between finite and infinite, but also to the profound estrangement from the holy wrought by human sin. Given the magnitude of the gulf between ourselves and the divine, how could we ever be in relation with One who is so totally other? “The danger,” said Kierkegaard, “is that God becomes so dreadfully and irreconcilably Other to the self that one is swallowed up by the horror of this infinite qualitative abyss.” [1]

The modern solution to the gulf between human and divine has been to ignore (or forget entirely) the Holy Other and concentrate on the human situation in solely human terms, permanently severing the problem of earthly existence from the problem of God. How well that works is a matter of some debate, but for the faithful, such a strategy omits far too much of value. Exiling God from the world is not a solution for our own condition of exile.

The Prodigal Son under the melancholy gaze of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman” (1654) in Sokurov’s installation.

We all long to go home, to find the place where we are loved and known and welcomed, the place where all wanderings cease, and we can finally know what it means to dwell. But with the longing comes doubt. Is there such a place? Can we ever get there? And how will the journey change us?

For the unbeliever, human life concludes with annihilation. After our last breath––nothing. But the future of the believer may also be described as a kind of annihilation. As we draw near the absolute center of all that is, the egocentric self can no longer maintain its pretentious fictions. The really Real exposes our own unreality. The gaze of God is fatal to our illusions.

When Moses asked to see God’s face, God told him that “no human may look upon Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This crucial Hebrew text reflects an ancient fear of direct contact with the divine, whose infinite voltage could fry the circuits of finite beings. But the biblical God posed an additional, even greater threat: the penetrating gaze which sees us for what we are.

Day of wrath! . . .
What a great tremor there will be,
when the Judge is to come,
who will examine all things strictly  . . .
I groan, as if accused;
my face blushes because of my fault . . . [2]

Who among us is ready to have every story told, every failure examined, every blemish known? Therapeutic honesty is hard and painful work. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal that “to see yourself is to die, to die to all illusions and all hypocrisy––it takes great courage to look at yourself.” And, he added, this “can only take place in the mirror of the Word.” [3]

The Christian goals of illumination and divine union must be preceded by confession and purgation. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Even the saints are not exempt; the best of them are brutally honest about their own incompleteness. St. John of the Cross, speaking from personal experience, said that the journey of faith “does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.” [4]

This annihilation of self––“the living death of the cross”––is not morbid self-hatred (fixating on my sin is just another form of ego), but the abandonment of everything false or misshapen as the necessary prelude to profound transformation. The death of self becomes the beginning of Self.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies. [5]

In Rembrandt’s painting, the Prodigal Son presses his face against his father’s comforting body. He is still in the confessional stage, kneeling with downcast eyes, not yet daring to stand face-to-face with the one he has hurt so deeply. But consciousness of his fault is overcome by grace––the leap of faith which accepts the “impossible possibility” of being forgiven. Only by knowing ourselves as sinners needing mercy can we become aware of forgiveness. The eyes which were cast down by shame will soon be raised up to see the welcoming father face-to-face. “By surrendering its despair before God, the self becomes open to forgiveness: the gift from the divine which is the impossible possibility of coming to know oneself as one is known by God.” [6]

The Kierkegaardian surrender of existential despair in order to receive the gift of mercy applies perfectly to Rembrandt’s painting:

“Justice looks judgingly at a person, and the sinner cannot endure its gaze; but love, when it looks at him––yes, even if he avoids its gaze, looks down, he nevertheless does perceive that it is looking at him, because love penetrates far more inwardly into life, deep inside life, in there where life emanates, than justice does, which repellingly establishes a chiasmic abyss between the sinner and itself, whereas love is on his side, does not accuse, does not judge, but pardons and forgives.” [7]

The Return of the Prodigal Son, acquired by St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum over 250 years ago, has long haunted the imagination of Russian visual artists. In his metaphysical sci-fi film Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky returns his cosmonaut protagonist from the “far country” of outer space to the door of his childhood house, where he is embraced like Rembrandt’s prodigal. But his father, we have learned, is deceased, and his son remains somewhere out in space, light years from earth. Tarkovsky’s moving image of ultimate reunion with both parent and planet earth turns out to be only memory or dream. It is in fact “impossible”––which only deepens the desire to make it so.

The son returns home (in his imagination), from the closing scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972).

Another Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, included Rembrandt’s actual painting in Russian Ark (2002), a meditation on Russia’s troubled history filmed entirely inside the Hermitage in a single 87-minute shot, with the camera moving through the galleries to encounter both paintings and people from different centuries. The pensive French aristocrat we follow from room to room stops for a long time in front of Rembrandt’s great canvas, silently paying homage to its power. For the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sokurov himself returns to the painting, rethinking its themes with sculpture, video, music, lighting, a mirror, and various objects from an artist’s studio. His installation is called “Lc. 15:11-32,” after the biblical citation for Luke’s telling of the parable.

The sorrowful father in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”

In the first of two dark rooms, father and son stand far apart in the gloom. It is not clear whether they even see each other across the black abyss that separates them. Behind the father are two large video projections representing a world gone wrong. One shows a blurred image of a city dissolving in flames, like an apocalypse by Hieronymus Bosch. The other shows Christ sitting in a desert as soldiers enter with flame throwers to fill the screen with fire and smoke. We realize that not just the son, but the whole world has gone astray. Not even a divine father can fix it. Grace and redemption remain an impossibility in this terrifying darkness.

Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872).

The Christ in the video image is taken from a nineteenth-century Russian painting, Christ in the Wilderness (1872), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, whose humanized Jesus, unlike the serenely transcendent Savior of Orthodox iconography, reflected the revolutionary and questioning mood of the painter’s generation. In an age of religious doubt, traditional understandings seemed out of touch with experience. For Kromskoy, a self-assured Christ radiant with divinity was too detached from human suffering. “My God––Christ––is the greatest of atheists,” he said, “a person who has destroyed God in the universe and shifted him directly to the center of the human spirit and who, therefore, goes calmly to his death.” [8]

One of the video projections in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”.

But how calm can such a Christ really be, sitting now, according to Sokurov, amid the flames and smoke of our endless desert wars? He may be the “fellow sufferer who understands,”[9] but he appears to be as lost as the Prodigal Son, exiled to the far country of human sin. His inheritance of divine power has been squandered by incarnation. He may share our griefs––does he also share our helplessness?

In the vast first room of Sokurov’s installation, estrangement is absolute and unchanging. But beyond it lies a second room, like a small cave, where the abyss of sin and separation is overcome at last. In a sculpted restaging of Rembrandt’s painting, the lost son comes home to the father’s compassionate embrace.

In the second room of Sokurov’s installation, father and son are reunited.

Behind the figures there is a large mirror, whose reflected image repeats the scene, reminding us that every retelling of the parable is but a version of an original which cannot be grasped directly, but only experienced in the second-hand reflections of Luke, Rembrandt, Sokurov, and all the rest of us who engage Jesus’ story. The mirror’s surface is slightly wavy, and it sways slowly back and forth, producing a continuously distorted image, suggesting the instability and uncertainty of every interpretation.

The figures are reflected in a distorting mirror.

The mirror also includes the viewer, allowing each of us to know ourselves as witnesses to the impossible mystery of divine mercy. But such seeing does not always come naturally. While I stood transfixed in this cave of revelation, two young women entered. After a brief glance at the sculpture, they became absorbed with photographing their own misshapen reflections in the mirror, giggling at the funhouse gag.

In my mind, I judged their heedless frivolity, and the moment I did so I became equally blind to the meaning of The Return. I forgot my own prodigal culpability, my own need to kneel with downcast eyes. I forgot the unconditional nature of the father’s embrace. I had become the elder brother.

No matter, says the parable. The prodigal, the proud, the penitent, the foolish––we’ll all be gathered in eventually. And the conclusion of all our wandering stories will be a home of abiding welcome. The door is open. The feast is ready. Love is waiting. Come.

 

 

 

Related Posts:

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Venice Biennale 2019: “A wound in a dance with love”

 

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Simon D. Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), 8.

[2] Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), a thirteenth-century Latin poem about the Last Judgment and our collective plea for forgiveness. It became a traditional part of requiem masses, but its vivid images of doom and “wrath” sound jarring to modern ears accustomed to a kinder and gentler eschatology. However, when we consider the moral and apocalyptic implications of climate change, the notion of a “day of reckoning” when “nothing will remain unpunished” and “even the just can scarcely be secure” seems uncomfortably apt, as does the poem’s anguished cry for rescue and “the gift of forgiveness.”

[3] Kierkegaard Journal, cited in Podmore, 155.

[4] John of the Cross, cited in Hans Boersma, The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 184.

[5] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” cited in Boersma, 178.

[6] Podmore, 179.

[7] Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Podmore, 173-174.

[8] Ivan Kromskoy in a letter to a friend, quoted in Walther K. Lang, “The ‘Atheism’ of Jesus in Russian Art: Representations of Christ by Ivan Kromskoy, Vasily Polenov, and Nikolai Ghe,” I recommend the entire article for those interested in art and faith. It is found on the website Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn03/272-the-qatheismq-of-jesus-in-russian-art-representations-of-christ-by-ivan-nikolevich-kramskoy-vasily-polenov-and-nikolai-ghe

[9] Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of God has provided a moving and influential image of a divinity deeply affected by human suffering, a God who takes our pain into Godself. Critics of such theology wonder whether too much divine power has been relinquished. Can a vulnerable God still save us?

“The Worm That Gnaws the World”––Trump and the Problem of Evil

Dis gnaws the traitors in the pit of hell (Inferno 34), Codex Altonensis, Pisa, c. 1385.

Trump will eat your soul in small bites.

–– James Comey

What could I say, what could I do to help this wounded creature whose life seemed to be flowing away from some secret hurt?

–– Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

 

In his timely essay on “The Psychology of Evil,” Frank Batavick summarizes M. Scott Peck’s diagnosis of evil as a personality disorder:

“Evil individuals programatically indulge in scapegoating, blaming personal problems or the problems of society on someone else or another class of people. That’s because the evil parties consider themselves above reproach and must deny their own badness. By lashing out against others and saying they see evil in them, they are able to transfer their guilt. Evil people are also unable to assume the viewpoint of their victims, and so they lack empathy for the hurt they have caused with their cruel words and deeds.”

Such “malignant narcissists” reject all criticism and repress all self-doubt. They cannot bear the pain of introspection. As “people of the lie,” they deceive themselves as well as everybody else. Their own will trumps all others, and they take no responsibility for the damage they do. As Peck put it, “It is said ‘neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable.'” [i]

Our country was poorly prepared for such an “evil” person to be given the power of the Presidency. So far Trump has paid little price for defying norms and breaking laws. And his 10,000 lies (since being elected) go largely uncontradicted in the media, which simply repeat them without correction 65% of the time [ii], amplifying his corrosive disinformation many times over. Corruption, collusion, federal child abuse, a shameless war on the poor, the strangling of democracy, and the ravaging of planet earth are all met with a shrug by craven Senators and 40% of the electorate. Even our best-intentioned leaders lack effective means to contain the raging fires of fascism, tribal hatred, and climate suicide.

What’s going on now, what’s driving us all to the brink, seems more than one man’s “personality disorder.” It may be too late for therapy. We need an exorcism.

“The world of evil is so far beyond our understanding!” says Georges Bernanos’ fictional country priest. “Does the Monster [Satan] care that there should be one criminal more or less? Immediately he sucks down the crime into himself, makes it one with his own horrible substance, digests without once rousing from his terrifying eternal lethargy.”[iii]

Bernanos’ image of evil as an eater of souls, a black hole sucking everyone’s crime into its own “horrible substance” seems disturbingly apt for these times. None of us is exempt from its gravitational pull. Even as we resist its malignancy, we risk being tainted by it, feeding it with our own fascinated loathing. Gaze at it too long and your own heart turns to stone.

As Bernanos’ priest warns a young woman whose hatred for her father’s mistress is eating her own soul:

Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it. You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries––spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions––yes, companions for all eternity.”[iv]

 

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds the direct road to salvation blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, representing “the three dispositions that heaven refuses”–– incontinence (obsessive lust for one’s own satisfaction), violence (the will to do harm, but also mindless rage) and fraud (hatred of truth and betrayal of trust). His only remedy is the downward path into the depths of the human shadow, facing the condition of our fallenness with honesty and humility.

Aided by a wise companion (Virgil) and protected by the powers of heaven, he makes his harrowing descent into the underworld. Along the way, various monsters and demons try to hinder his pilgrimage. The Minotaur tries to bully Dante and Virgil, but it becomes so consumed with “inhuman rage” that it loses focus. “Run past him while he’s going berserk,” shouts Virgil, and the pilgrims slip safely by.[v]

Further down, the hybrid form of Geryon, “that foul effigy of fraud,” seems even more daunting. “Behold the beast whose stench afflicts the world,” warns Virgil. Geryon has the face of “a righteous man, benevolent in countenance.” These are qualities seen nowhere else in hell, but Geryon’s disarming smile is only a mask. His body is that of a serpent (the archetypal deceiver) and his tail wields the poisonous sting of a scorpion. In classical myth, Geryon “enticed strangers to be his guests, only to kill and eat them.”[vi]

But while Dante is left by himself for a time to converse with dead souls, his guide (we know not how) manages to tame the beast, who consents to carry them into hell’s deepest place. It’s a frightening plunge into darkness, with only the blast of air against the poet’s face to measure the speed of their descent. Recalling the tragic images of Phaeton and Icarus falling to their deaths increases Dante’s sense of panic. “I thrust my head forward / and dared to look down the abyss. / Then I was even more afraid of being dropped, / for I saw fire and heard wailing, / and so, trembling, I hold on tighter with my legs.”[vii]

Facing his fear of the beast and accepting the dangers of the downward passage enable Dante to continue. As Helen Luke insists in her Jungian interpretation of the Inferno, the journey toward wholeness requires us to embrace our shadow and hold on tight. “[I]f we have the courage to see the true menace, and will consent to be aware of our own frauds, then Geryon becomes our servant and will carry us down on his back that we may look upon the roots of evil in the [human] psyche.”[viii]

And what does Dante find at hell’s deepest core? He finds Lucifer, or what is left of him, forever stuck in ice of his own making (the bitter wind generated by his flapping batwings freezes the outflow of infernal rivers). His single head has three faces, each with a different sickly hue. The mouth of each face chews without swallowing the body of a notorious traitor. Everything about him is a wretched parody of the Divine. The three faces parody the Trinity, the freezing wind parodies the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, the eternal chewing parodies the eucharist.

This is not the heroic and colorful rebel of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a virtually lifeless thing without mobility, speech or thought. The “creature who had once been beautiful” is reduced to “the evil worm that gnaws the world.”[ix] Virgil calls him “Dis”––not a proper name, but a prefix: “away from,” “split-off,” “apart from,” as in “dis-ease” or “dis-order.”

Gustave Doré, Dis frozen in the lake of ice (1861)

Dante scholars Charles H. Taylor and Patricia Finley “dis” the king of hell as the epitome of brokenness : “The figure at the center of the realm of darkness symbolizes what is most split off from consciousness; separated into opposites the ego does not conjoin, giving rise to the psychological splitting and the paranoia that are at the core of destructive pathology. . . Dis stands frozen at the nadir of Hell as the emblem of lovelessness, the coldheartedness at the core of our deepest failures to be human.”[x]

In Perelandra, C. S. Lewis gives a similar diagnosis of Satan as “no longer a person of corrupted will,” but “corruption itself, to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person; but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation.”[xi]

What does all this add up to? Although these various literary and psychological descriptions of evil seem chillingly on the mark with respect to our current political situation, the point is not to demonize Trump. He is doing a fine job of that without our help, and he is a symptom more than a cause. As Gandalf says of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know. . .”[xii]

And I make no claim for anyone’s innocence––not even the saints who “persevere in resisting evil.”[xiii] As Will Campbell has reminded us in his succinct summary of the Christian faith, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[xiv] Or as Pete Buttigieg, the most theological of the new presidential candidates, told Time magazine recently,

“This idea that we just sort people into baskets of good and evil ignores the central fact of human existence, which is that each of us is a basket of good and evil. The job of politics is to summon the good and beat back the evil.”[xv]

Good and evil are not usual subjects for political discourse, but we live in apocalyptic times. Souls are at stake, the human future is at stake, and to ignore the spiritual dimension of our current crisis only gives the advantage to the malignant shadow trying to consume the world. Night is falling, and it is time to put on the armor of light.

But as the Bible says in its most political book, the battle will not be won by our own violent replica of the devouring beast, but by the wounded Lamb of self-diffusive love.[xvi] Bernanos’ compassionate priest is an incarnation of this sacrificial archetype:

“Truly, if one of us, a living man, the vilest, most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner.”

But the priest is also realistic about the soul-eating alternative: “the sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”[xvii]

Trumeau (detail), St. Marie de Souillac, France, 12th century.

 

Related post: Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Frank Batavick: “The psychology of evil,” Carroll County Times, March 23, 2017. https://www.carrollcountytimes.com/columnists/opinion/ph-cc-batavick-032417-20170320-column.html

[ii] Matt Gertz & Rob Savillo, “Study: Major media outlets’ Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day,” Media Matters, May 3, 2019. https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2019/05/03/study-major-media-outlets-twitter-accounts-amplify-false-trump-claims-average-19-times-day/223572

[iii] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 144.

[iv] Ibid., 138-139.

[v]Inferno, Canto xii.

[vi] Robert and Jean Hollander, note on Canto xvii.1-3, in their translation of Dante’s Inferno(New York: Doubleday, 2000), 295.

[vii] Inferno, Canto xvii, Hollanders translation.

[viii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’sDivine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 33.

[ix] Infernoxxxiv.108 (Hollander).

[x] Charles H. Taylor & Patricia Finley, Images of the Journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 111.

[xi] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (1943).

[xii] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London: The Folio Society, 1997), 162.

[xiii] From the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[xiv] Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1975). In a conversation following the killing of Episcopal seminarian and Civil Rights martyr Jonathan Daniels, Campbell was asked to sum up Christianity’s message in 10 words or less. His response indicated that simply pointing the finger at the evil of others did not do justice to the shared condition––and salvation––of fallen humanity.

[xv] Buttegieg, an Episcopalian, has also referenced Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet as model for serving the common good. Time interview is quoted here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/5/1855559/-Pete-Buttigieg-shut-down-homophobic-hecklers-then-got-support-from-a-surprising-sourceThe footwashing quote is here: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/04/07/pete_buttigieg_hypocrisy_of_evangelical_christians_supporting_trump_is_unbelievable.html

[xvi] In Revelation, a beast uttering “haughty and blasphemous” words makes war on the saints. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” everyone wonders. God’s reply is not an angelic army, but the Lamb offered since the creation of the world (Rev. 13).

[xvii] Bernanos, 164.

A fig tree and a burning bush walk into a homily. . .

Richard Misrach, “Desert Fire #81” (1984)

This homily for the Third Sunday of Lent is a double feature. The lessons from the Episcopal lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13: 1-9, are not thematically connected, but I felt both stories demanded attention.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus and some other folks talking about the local news. It’s something humans have always done, shooting the breeze about unusual or dramatic events. We don’t expect our conversations around the water cooler or wherever to be recorded for posterity. But 2000 years later, we’re still hearing about some Galileans slaughtered by the Romans during a sacred ritual, and eighteen unnamed victims killed by a falling tower.

But there’s no film at 11. We are given no further details. Some scholars speculate that both incidents involved the Zealots, Jewish rebels who may have been killed by the Roman soldiers during acts of resistance. Perhaps some Zealots were staging a demonstration in the Temple when the Romans struck them down. They died in the very spot where animals were being sacrificed in an atonement ritual. The image of their blood mingled with the blood of animals sacrificed on the altar was a horrific mixture of violence and the sacred. People wondered, if the animals were dying for the people’s sins, for whose sins did those Galileans die? Could it have been their own?

As for the Siloam tower, could it have been a rebel stronghold destroyed during a Roman siege, another case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword? Or maybe it collapsed in an earthquake, a so-called “act of God.” Or maybe it was built by crooked contractors who used shoddy materials. Or maybe it collapsed for no apparent reason at all.

Whatever the causes of those tragedies, people wanted to make sense of them, so they could continue to live in a predictable universe where events have reasons and everything can be explained. If we’re unwilling to live in a universe of absurdity or blind chance, we need to know why bad things happen to good people. And one of the easiest answers is to say that maybe good people aren’t so good. Maybe in some way they get what they deserve, like people’s bad habits catching up with them, or our collective addiction to oil bringing the climate apocalypse down on our heads. Or maybe human suffering is somehow God’s will, even if we can’t say why.

Jesus quickly dismisses this kind of simplistic blaming of the victim. He says there is no simple correlation between sin and suffering. The victims of those tragedies were no worse offenders than anyone else. The problem of reconciling human suffering with the providence of a loving God remains complex and ultimately insoluble in human terms. Jesus recognized that. And 2000 years later, we are still puzzled by the question of “why?”

But Jesus was not that interested in a theoretical discussion about the problem of suffering. He wanted the people in that conversation to consider their own situation. Did they think their story needed to get different? Were they prepared to change their life?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What does Jesus mean by this? Without knowing the actual details of those ancient news stories, it’s hard to say for sure. If both incidents involved acts of armed rebellion, repentance could mean a refusal to participate in a world of reciprocal violence. Stop living by the sword, or else. More broadly, it could mean that we should stop describing the world as a place where God dishes out suffering or endorses any form of human violence.

Jesus could have meant many other things as well.  Renounce your self-righteous pride, and stop demeaning those who suffer as less good or less deserving than you are. Never presume your own innocence. No one is without sin, whether it’s personal sin or collective sin. The world’s troubles are not somebody else’s problem. Like it or not, everyone is implicated in a world of interrelated causes. And don’t treat life’s blessings as rewards for good behavior. They are gifts freely given by a generous and loving God, and you should receive them humbly and gratefully.

Stop trying to make the world controllable or predictable with simplistic explanations. Life is complicated and sometimes it’s sad. You can’t always have it go your way or have it make sense. You have to live by faith in love’s bigger picture.

In other words, if any of you think you can live in this world without grace, without mercy,
you have perished already.

Jesus ends this challenging conversation with a parable of mercy. A barren fig tree is taking up valuable space in a vineyard, sucking up nutrients and moisture needed by the grapevines. “Time to cut it down!” says the owner. But the gardener pleads, “Give it a little more time. I’ll add some fertilizer to help it along. That may make all the difference. If there’s still no fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

That’s how the parable ends, but when next year rolls around, I suspect that the gardener will be telling the owner the same thing: “Just one more year. I know it can be fruitful. It just needs a little more time, a little more nourishment. A little more tender mercy.”

Now let’s leave that fig tree, and travel further back in time, 1400 years before Jesus, to see a very different kind of plant: a bush in the wilderness of Sinai—a bush which burns, without being consumed.

I saw a burning bush once, not in Sinai, but in the hills of Palestine. I was walking on a trail near Ramallah in the West Bank, when I saw a shepherd leading a small flock through a ravine below me. About 30 yards beyond him, a bush was on fire. I never found out why. But having imbibed the story of Moses since childhood, I could only experience this inexplicable reenactment with a sense of wonder. It was a gift, and I received it gratefully.

I heard no voice. For me, only the story speaks now. But for Moses, the voice came from the midst of the fire: “Moses, Moses!”

The Scripture does not tell us whether Moses is surprised, shocked, or frightened by this sudden intrusion of the divine into the routineness of a shepherd’s day, though we might imagine all of those things. All we know is that Moses responds as if his life were made for precisely this moment: “Here I am,” he says.

God calls, Moses responds. No matter how unlikely or uncanny this encounter between divine and human may be, no matter how unprepared Moses might feel for such a meeting, his whole being rises to the occasion. Before the voice even identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, Moses experiences the kind of recognition described by the mystics, an awakening to a reality so profound, so insistent, so real, that it seems to make perfect sense despite its utter strangeness.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote a poem, “Love after Love,” about the sudden recognition of your inmost reality, your deepest truth, which was there all along even though you hadn’t quite known it until it suddenly greeted you face to face:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. . .

That is what I think Moses must have experienced, must have suddenly known, when he heard his name called from the midst of the flaming bush. That voice, however uncanny and unfamiliar, also produced a sense of recognition. Oh! it’s you, isn’t it. It’s you. The one who knows me by heart!

And Moses, however surprised he may be to meet at last the stranger who has loved him all his life, consents to the encounter with his response: “Here I am.” That couldn’t have been easy, for the divine stranger in the burning bush was not the gentle presence in Derek Walcott’s poem. Whatever Moses knew about God, he believed that it was a fearful thing to look divinity in the face. Mortals were not wired to handle so much voltage. So while Moses listened to the voice, he was afraid to stare into the fire.

So what happens next? As we know from our baptismal covenant, when God calls our name, that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new life, a life where something is asked of us. Vocare––to call––is the root of vocation. To be called is to be given a vocation. When God calls us, it is to do the holy work of repairing the world.

That work takes many forms, as each of us must discover as we practice our own vocation in a world of such great need. In Moses’ case, his work was to speak truth to power, stand up to the tyranny of Pharoah, and lead God’s people out of bondage to the land of promise.

That was a huge and intimidating assignment. Moses balked at first. “Who am I to do such an impossible thing?” But God was insistent. When God gets an idea, it’s no use saying no. And there’s no turning back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Every time we gather in God’s house, the bush burns and the flames speak. We hear the voice of God, the stranger who has loved us all our lives, who knows us by heart, calling our name. But we don’t get to stay by the fire forever, gently warming ourselves in the loving presence of the divine. Mary Oliver’s poem, “What I have learned so far,” makes this point perfectly:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?

The poet goes on to say that our only choice is “indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.”

The voice in the flame is the voice that ignites us and sends us forth, to do the work God has given us to do. Some of that work seems feasible enough. As the Prayer Book says, “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” But some of the work of loving our neighbor and repairing the world can seems overwhelming, even impossible. When we hear words like “racism,” “mass killings” or “climate change,” we cringe at their magnitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry, “Who am I to make a difference?”

And what does God say then? Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

Okay, Moses says. But if we’re in this together, I need to understand something about who you are. I need to know your name.

And God says to Moses, “‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.” It is a strange and mysterious name, whose precise meaning has eluded translators, scholars and theologians ever since. Robert Alter, whose recently published and profusely annotated translation of the Hebrew Bible should be in every library, says that “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible rendering of the Hebrew. But he suggests that its linguistic ambiguities could also produce variations such as “I-Am-That-I-Am,” “He-Who-Brings-Things-into-Being,” and “I-Am-He-Who-Endures.”

But whether the preferred translation stresses the being of God or the doing of God, whether it evokes the eternal source and essence of reality or the ongoing providential activity woven into the causalities of time and history, God reveals to Moses that whatever happens in this finite world or in this transitory life, God is. God endures. God will be. God will be with us.

However dark the night of violence and death, however deep the waters of catastrophe, God is with us. The God who endured the cross and grave, the God who makes a way where there is no way, will share our journey and deliver us to the place of promise.

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. . .
[the] soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

This is not a prescription for passivity, as when people say stupid things like “God will take care of climate change, so why worry?” No. Passivity in the face of human sin and folly is not faith. It is complicity.

To those who are called and ignited by the Spirit’s fire for the work of repairing the world, God’s promise to be with us produces not passivity, but courage and action. Come what may, whatever sorrows, tragedies or defeats may await us: ‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Holy One remains, arms open wide, to welcome us to our abiding home, the loving heart of the divine mystery.

Or as Jesus put it, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

 

 

 

Related post: The voice that allows us to remain human

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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