Saturday, January 30, 2010

01-31-2010: Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1:4-5,17-19 / Psalm 71 / 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 / Luke 4:21-30
Last Sunday we read of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth: how he entered the synagogue, read from the scriptures, and asserted that he was the fulfillment of the Messianic promise made by God through the prophet Isaiah. Today’s gospel reports the reaction of those listening -- and it wasn’t pretty.
It’s interesting to note how Luke’s and Mark’s gospels differ ever so subtly in recording this event. Referring to Jesus, Luke writes “Is not this Joseph’s son?”; while Mark says ”Is not this the son of Mary?” In Hebrew and Aramaic a person is identified by the patronymic -- the suffix added to his given name meaning the son of his father (e.g. James, son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:2), or Joshua, the son of Nun (Deuteronomy 1:38). Jesus, then, should have been addressed: Jesus, son of Joseph.

Some scholars, fearing unpleasant speculation, tell us that Mark’s account presumes Joseph’s early death, thus the appellation son of Mary. Others wonder whether the passage doesn’t betray the probability that among those who knew Jesus’ family well (as the townsfolk of Nazareth certainly would have), it had long been understood that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Indeed, in John’s gospel (John 8:31) it is quite clear that the appellation son of Mary, used of Jesus by his enemies, was an intended insult categorizing him as illegitimate, his father putative, his paternal ancestors unknown.

This is all to say that names bear an enormous weight. They signify the soul, where inner spiritual realities encounter the external world. In other words, names are sacraments. I believe, as ancient and arcane cultures did and do, that names do indeed carry a certain power, contributing (for better or worse) something significant toward a person’s character.

Earlier this week (January 28th) I celebrated my name day, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, with whom I share very few qualities. My mother would often tell people that she named me for her father, a Thomas, and not for the great theologian-saint. What she meant was that she kept the name I had already been given and with which I had already been baptized by my birth mother who had named me before giving me up for adoption. When I met my birth mother she told me she named me after her brother, Thomas -- a Jesuit priest whom I never met, but in whose steps I had unknowingly followed. “We are linked by blood,” Joyce Carol Oates once wrote. “And blood is memory without language.”

In following orthodox teaching Catholics may infer that the only blood running through Jesus’ veins was the blood he inherited from his mother Mary. By insulting him, as the worshippers in the synagogue no doubt intended to do that day when they called him son of Mary, Jesus’ enemies inadvertently served the greater truth by acknowledging the lesser. By their intended insinuation, we may conclude it was an obvious fact that Joseph could not have been Jesus’ father. By using this truth as a weapon of denigration, they unwittingly opened up the way for the world to come to know the rabbi of Nazareth as Son of God. “There is no truth existing which I fear, or wish unknown to the whole world.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson, implying that truth - even when used as a weapon to denigrate - ultimately serves to liberate.

01-24-2010: Third Sunday Ordinary Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Nehemiah 8:2-6,8-10 / Psalm 19 / 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 / Luke 1:1-4;4:14-21
Did Jesus lie? Is God trustworthy?

In theology, such questions are understood by the technical term theodicy - the problem of God’s justice, or put plainly: How can a good God permit the innocent to suffer? It is the particular problem of monotheistic religions which claim that there is but one God and so cannot blame all the bad things that happen on some opposing, equally powerful deity. Or, as C.S. Lewis once put it: I have no problem believing in God, but I do sometimes wonder if he is good.

Witnessing the recent horrific events in Haiti - the earthquake, the untold number of dead, the suffering and desperation of millions - believers might wonder, with Lewis, if God is indeed good. Some, like Pat Robertson and evangelical Christians in general, rush to God’s defense at the expense of compassion. They assert that if God permits people to suffer, those people therefore must not be innocent. Claiming that since Haiti had long ago made a pact with the devil (regarding the practice of Voodoo, one assumes), God was finally taking his revenge. Or, like some zealous followers of the new ecological religion, Danny Glover would claim that planet Earth was taking her revenge for a lack of ardor expressed at the recent summit on global-warming in Copenhagen. Whether we blame human suffering on a vengeful God, bad karma, or the role of the dice, we human beings seem to need to make sense of things, find a reason for it all; we’re desperate to find a meaning in what seems just pure chaos - meaninglessness incarnate.

But the heart has its reasons, Blaise Pascal wrote, which reason does not know. If there’s one word to describe what’s going on in Haiti, it’s misery. And misery is itself a strange word. It’s cognate with the Latin, misericordia, which we could literally understand as heart-misery, but nevertheless translate as mercy. Or maybe there’s an innate connection. Mercy may be the only authentic response to what the heart perceives as misery. When misery touches the heart, mercy is born. Mercy, different than mere goodness or charity, is always and intimately linked with suffering. Mercy is the practice of goodness and charity made personal, made heart-felt.

Perhaps this is why there was so great a response on the part of so many to the events in Haiti last week. We want to somehow help in the rescue, to relieve the heartache, the heart-misery. Since we cannot help directly, we do so by our prayers and donations. We live the hero’s role – vicariously. But here is where the events of Haiti can teach and reveal something further: we are all called to be heroes - and not just vicariously. We relish news of our heroes, Helen Hayes once said, forgetting we are extraordinary to somebody too. The lessons of misery and mercy don’t begin or end with Haiti; they can help each of us reflect on our own particular lives, our personal experience of misery and how that misery in another evokes mercy in me. The sad thing is (or is it a blessing in disguise) there is no dearth of misery in the world - and so there remains a great need for heroes. Who is calling to you for mercy? Whom will you seek to save?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

01-17-2010: Second Sunday Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 62:1-5 / Psalm 96 / 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 / John 2:1-11
The wedding feast at Cana, today’s gospel story, is oft cited as the bedrock on which the Church’s intricate theology of marriage, and her even more convoluted laws regarding marriage, are founded. This, despite the fact that there is no mention of a bride or groom, no allusion to a ceremony or ritual (Was there a hoopa? Did the groom smash the wine glass?); only the dilemma of no-more-wine and how Jesus solves the problem. We might conclude that if this passage was indeed about the foundations of marriage as sacrament and institution, then wine must be an indispensible ingredient.

Although I find the Church’s laws and regulations regarding marriage at times incomprehensible, some of the theological tracts regarding marriage that have come down to us through the ages are quite beautiful, predating and possibly contributing to our western notion of romantic love and its relationship to marriage. The idea that there are both a procreative and a unitive component to marriage is uplifting and edifying. Young people falling in love, wanting to share their lives with each other, create a family, make a go-of-it despite the contrary pressures found in contemporary society are all attractive and ennobling sentiments. There’s an especially poignant line in the Catholic Nuptial Blessing: married life has been established as the one blessing not forfeited by original sin or washed away in the flood. But, at the risk of bursting that seemingly perfect bubble, the idea is but an ideal – and ideals and reality are seldom the same.

Truth is, marriage as an institution has changed, and changed in very fundamental ways through the centuries. Arranged marriages were the rule in most cultures from history’s beginning to very recent times, and in many parts of the world today remain the norm. Of course this doesn’t negate the unitive aspect of spousal love even if husband and wife find themselves in an arranged marriage, but it does eliminate the rather parochial western notion that people must marry for love. And though polygamy is unacceptable to the Judeo-Christian West, a great percentage of the world’s population still practices it. Less we Christians get too soon judgmental, remember that many of the great figures of the Bible whom we venerate as saints were practitioners of polygamy. From Abraham to Moses to David – and don’t forget Solomon who, not content with mere multiple wives, took on those 900 concubines as well!

Divorce is often given as a reason for the breakdown of the institution of marriage, but divorce has always existed in various forms in every culture. Some will no doubt contend that the Church does not recognize divorce – true enough. But at the risk of inviting objection, it seems to me for all intents and purposes a Catholic annulment is effectively just a euphemism for the same. I recently had a couple who requested to write their own vows. Obviously very much in love, they wrote to promise to marry each other for all eternity. I had to point out to them that even God doesn’t require that depth of heroism – until death would do just fine.

Then there’s gay marriage – the latest assault, some say, on the never-changing institution of marriage. According to recent poles and ballots, most Americans seem to be firmly against it. All well and good. But, apart from issues of medical insurance, pension and death benefits etc, it seems to me more a matter of semantics than anything else. If it were to be legalized across the nation, it’s hard to imagine how it would mean the end of the institution of marriage. People seem to jump to dramatic conclusions and then equate very different issues like gay marriage and abortion. Mixing apples and oranges is nothing new when hot button issues arise. I recently read an article in a respected Catholic publication that proposed the theory that the changes in the liturgy since Vatican II was a direct cause of the priest sex scandal and the horror of abortion. Reductionism is always a danger, but never so counterproductive than when used with a religious zeal.

If marriage is indeed the one blessing not forfeited by original sin or washed away in the flood, I’m sure it will survive these more recent and way-less spectacular “threats.” Perhaps it’s important to remember that for all the poetry and theology and law, marriage is about relationships between human beings; and relationships are arguably the most complex and confounding of human experiences. It’s refreshing to think that long ago in little-known Cana Jesus might have understood this better than most when he offered his solution to the problems of the day: sit back, he seems to be saying, and have a glass of wine.

01-10-2010: Baptism of the Lord

The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11/ Pslam 104 / Titus 2:11-14;3:4-7 / Luke 3:15-16,21-22
Today’s gospel passage regarding the baptism of Jesus by John is oft employed to highlight Jesus’ divine identity. It’s used as a proof text, so to speak, to back up the Church’s understanding of Jesus as having both a divine and human nature; his unique being which the Greek-speaking Church of Late Antiquity would call the hypostatic union. After all, what could be more to the point than the voice of God the Father addressing Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.” But the Bible, not unlike Afghan politics, is often a victim of corruption. And there’s no doubt this text is corrupted; the problem is no one can agree on what the original text said. We have the older text, but we know that the early church fathers quoted another version: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” For monks copying the ancient texts centuries after the church’s doctrine on the hypostatic union was formulated it is easy to understand why they might change (corrupt) the text: Jesus being the Son of God from eternity - not “adopted” by God at the moment of baptism. On the other hand, the phrase today I have begotten you is a direct quote from the Psalms which would indicate that the New Testament writer, and not some later redactor, had put it there.

Adoptionism was a long-lasting Christological heresy which (if I follow it) claimed that Christ could not be both the adopted and the natural son of God; therefore, it was anathema to refer to him as God’s “adopted” son. None other than the famous Abelard held the heretical view, claiming that if the union of the divine logos with a human nature was in fact substantial, and not merely accidental, it would make the Trinity itself into a finite entity; thus, as man, Jesus could not be the natural but only the adopted son of God. It’s easy to fall into this either/or dichotomy and people in bygone days got really hot and bothered by it all. These days, no one seems to care much – or do we?

How we identify others and ourselves is rather problematic – just ask anyone involved in making up the questions for the upcoming Federal Census. Identification tells us a lot: not only about whom we’re observing but about ourselves as well. One thinks of the relatively recent insight that race is not based in biology but is merely a social construct. The phrasing – with the use of the word merely – reveals the bias of those who understand biology as more important than any social construct. The problem is that for those who see race as an on-going issue in modern society it doesn’t matter if it’s biologically based or not. Indeed, if it is merely based on a social construct, then one could conclude that social constructing is a mighty powerful thing.

Recently there was a legal case in which a woman arranged for the fertilized embryo of another woman to be implanted in the womb of a third woman (the surrogate or gestational mother) who would bring the child to term, at which time the first woman would then legally adopt the child. Things went wrong and the surrogate (the gestational mother) appealed to the court for custody; the court subsequently granted parental rights to the gestational mother. Talk about complicated social constructs vis-à-vis biology!

Those of us of a certain age who took Pysch 101 in college had to read Erik Erikson, the “Father of Identity Formation.” Not many know, however, that Erikson never knew his biological father; indeed, his mother had continually misled him regarding the identity of his “real” father. Seemingly fed up with all the lies, Erik traveled to America where, at customs, he dropped his legal name (Homberger) and reinvented himself as Erik Erik-son. Now that’s identity formation!

Regarding Jesus and that hypostatic union again – these examples - used analogously, of course - can help us appreciate the immense complexity of personal identity which seems to roam, and at times trespass, the boundaries between biology, social construct and even spiritual or metaphysical categories, and help us realize that none of us, Jesus included, can be limited to the sum of our parts. In other words, although Jesus is from eternity the Son of God, the real mystery may well be how exactly was he the son of Mary as well. We are all mysteries when it comes to identity, each greater than the sum of our many parts.

Friday, January 1, 2010

01-03-2010: The Epiphany (C)

The Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6/ Psalm 72/ Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6/ Matthew 2:1-12
The Magi (the Three Wise Men or Three Kings), renowned for their famous trek in pursuit of a star, remained nameless until the Venerable Bede would inform the world some seven hundred years later of their given names: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Although noted for the distance they traveled in following that star at its rising, they would travel much farther in death than they ever did in life. The Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helen, is said to have taken their bones from Persia to Constantinople in the fourth century. Their remains would later be carried on to Milan; and, when Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor, invaded the Italian peninsula from the north, he would retrieve the Magis’ bones and reinter them in Cologne, Germany.

Such wanderlust, in life and death, is appropriate for these enigmatic pilgrims whom legend tells us had likely originated in ancient Persia – modern day Iran. Linguistics scholars have long understood the ancient connection among peoples who speak Indo-European or Aryan languages: Persian Farsi is related to Italian and German just as the words Iran and Ireland may share a common heritage. In these global connections, the Magi remind us of the universality of our shared humanity, especially when it comes to travel. Humanity’s origins, evolutionary biologists tell us, can be traced back to Africa from where two major migrations of our distant ancestors populated all parts of the world over the course of millennia. It seems, as human beings, we have an innate need to travel, to escape, to migrate, to search. Some of us have a clear notion of where we want to head; some need to escape disaster or certain death; others just need to get up and go with the hope of discovering a destiny en route, so to speak, to who-knows-where. Psychologists tell us that travel is often the catalyst for personal insight and self-discovery, providing unexpected breakthroughs for those of us stuck in some emotional muck or mire (Bette Davis imaged such an experience when, after an emotional breakdown, took that cruise in Now Voyager and discovered new life with Paul Henreid). It seems that changing our routine, replacing the venue, feeling displaced, can spark a fresh look at one’s life, helping us meet challenges by providing a different perspective. It did for me.

Although I had often thought about searching for my birth family since I discovered I was adopted, it wasn’t until I first traveled to Korea to study language and culture back in 1984 that I made a firm decision to search. I attribute that decision to the experience of culture shock and the displacement I first felt when I found myself far from the familiar. And mine is not an uncommon story. A good friend of mine, adopted as well, decided to search for her birth family after she joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Nigeria. When her dog gave birth to a litter of puppies in her lap, my friend realized she must have come from someone’s body as well and, on her return to America, began the search for the mother that gave her birth.

But you don’t have to be searching for a lost family to have had this experience. You just need to recognize that you’ve lost something. And, as one character from the 1996 film Secrets & Lies poignantly noted regarding his wife’s infertility: You really can miss what you’ve never had. It’s that mysterious longing for the ineffable, that something you can’t quite put your finger on, that is at the heart of wanderlust, migration, the sacred-searching religion calls pilgrimage. You can’t know the end result when you begin your journey; only pray you will recognize your destiny when it makes itself known. The Magi didn’t know what they would find when they followed the star, they just knew they had to get up and go, being caught up in the awe of it all; and the promise that, despite the experience of danger and fear, they would discover something wonderful at the end of their sacred journey.

For most of us the physical experience of actually moving, of feeling displaced, is a prerequisite for recognition of the sacred nature of our particular migration. But even if that were not possible, St. Teresa of Avila reminded us long ago that the greatest pilgrimage any of us can ever make – is the one within.