Thursday, February 25, 2010

02-28-2010: Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:5-12,17-18 / Psalm 27 / Philippians 3:17-4:1 / Luke 9:28-36

Who knew? The origins of religion, the encounter with the divine presence, the meaning of life – all traced back to the art of barbeque (in the case of Abram); or to the Feng Shui of outdoor living, a la Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration.

In Genesis we meet Abram when Abram meets God: outside his tent where he is contemplating a skyful of stars and hears the divine voice promise him a progeny as numerous as those very stars. It’s then Abram cuts up some livestock and places their halved flanks on the fire. We are meant to imagine Abram comfortably sitting alone as dusk settled in, when the scripture reveals: a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

It’s anything but darkness on Mount Tabor when Peter and his friends are nearly blinded by the glory shining forth from Jesus, Moses and Elijah transfigured before their eyes. Peter, ever practical, offers to erect a few tents for the occasion (en suite, no doubt), trying to contain the glory – make the fleeting exhilaration more permanent. It’s then, we’re told, that a cloud overshadowed them and they became frightened.

One of my most vivid memories from early childhood was the time my parents took me to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Auriesville, New York; the place where, in the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries to the Iroquois Nations were martyred. At the time of our visit there was still a small reservation of Indians at the far end of the long ravine. It was a beautiful summer’s day and, as we walked down into the ravine, we could hear drums beating in the distance. Coupled with the vivid way my mother was reading of the Jesuits’ martyrdom, their hearts torn from their bodies and eaten by their once-friends, I was overcome with a feeling that can only be described as terror. I remember stopping cold, halfway down the ravine, refusing to go any further. My parents tried to coax me on - but to no avail. We returned to the large shrine church and then made our way to the cafeteria where the noise of people eating and talking – the ring of normalcy and familiarity – served to calm my nerves and let me breathe again, feeling like you do when you emerge, gasping, from holding your breath under water.

It was then, off to the far side of the large cafeteria, I saw him – the Indian. He was wearing traditional dress, sitting at a table with his friend (dressed in regular clothes), smoking a cigarette, looking quite “normal” – except for his clothes and the fact he wore a Mohawk haircut. I wasn’t the least bit afraid, but stood quite still, staring in awe of him. I still would not return to the ravine but later, in the gift shop, asked my parents to buy me an elaborate Indian headdress that would nearly reached the floor when I wore it, which I did - often. I kept that headdress for years, never quite being able to distinguish terror from awe in the memory of its acquisition.

It’s long been an accepted axiom on the part of those who study the phenomenon of religion that religion’s primary goal is to comfort people in the face of uncertainty and doubt, when confronted with pain and loss. There’s a lot of truth in that insight: religious practice and ritual can go far in alleviating a person’s anxiety in the face of illness or comforting someone over the loss of a loved one. But the pioneering psychologist, C.G. Jung, offered a disturbing insight into religion as well. It was a conclusion he made after counseling countless religious people about their emotional problems. He realized religion, in its effort to comfort and alleviate our doubts and anxieties, can be the very thing that ‘protects’ us from the experience of God.

Abram and Peter encountered the divine and did what any human being would do – they tried to “normalize” the experience. They divert their initial feeling of terror into action: Abram offers sacrifice, Peter wants to set up a few tents: one seeks to appease, the other contain. They try to normalize the abnormal, lessen the bite of the extraordinary by a return to routine. Religion translates the encounter with the divine, redefining it, changing the label, if you will. What was initially experienced as terror is reevaluated as holiness; the immediate experience of dread becomes a lasting awareness of awe. Remember: religion is not the experience but an important, and maybe necessary, element that helps us finite mortals peer through the curtain that separates the temporary from the eternal, the human from the divine. The grace of Lent enables us to stand our ground so we might come to recognize the holiness and awe despite the feeling of terror and dread.

02-21-2010: First Sunday Lent

First Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:4-10 / Psalm 91 / Romans 10:8-13 / Luke 4:1-13
Anyone remember Nikos Kazantzakis - excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church for publishing his 1960 novel, The Last Temptation of Christ? And Martin Scorsese who, in 1988, made that novel into a movie, likewise condemned, but this time by the Catholic Church. I often wonder, in situations like these, if authors and filmmakers don’t have some brother-in-law or uncle with high connections in church hierarchies who feign outrage so as to elicit a formal church denunciation of the novel or film, thereby insuring - guaranteeing without fail - the huge success of something that would otherwise have gone largely unnoticed. (The only lasting impression I have of the Scorsese film, for example, was Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of Judas – memorable only because of the traitor’s Brooklyn accent).

Today’s gospel from Luke introduces the phenomenon of Lent as it recalls Jesus’ temptations in the desert. One might wonder why the modern novelist merits excommunication while the ancient evangelist is canonized: why the temptation recorded by the former elicits condemnation while that of the latter is held up for emulation. Is it because one is fiction and the other revelation? Or is it that the novelist’s imagination – that Jesus’ had sexual temptations – is objectionable; while the evangelist’s recorded temptation - Jesus’ battle with Satan about the nature of power and false Messiahship – is somehow honorable? One thing we can infallibly deduce from all this is the fact that, although the temptations in question are those of Jesus, they probably say a lot more about who we are than who he was. Besides: how did Luke know about those temptations?

I’m being facetious, of course. Everyone knows why people were outraged, feigned or authentic. In the novel Jesus’ sexual temptation is played out – as if he had succumbed to sexual temptation (though, in fairness to the author, he didn’t – it was a dream sequence). But even the hint of anything sexual in the life of Christ was, at least in 1960, strictly taboo. By 1988 it was somewhat less taboo, but there was considerable objection. By the time The DaVinci Code was published in 2003, and the movie made in 2006, the tables had completely turned and people were outraged not by Jesus’ sexual proclivities but by the assumed Vatican cover-up – as if there actually were a marriage certificate recording the sexual union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

In the course of half a century we’ve evolved from prohibition against any conjecture regarding Jesus’ sexuality to incredulity regarding anyone’s (even God’s) ability to resist genital expression. Vocabulary may well be at the heart of the dilemma – that difference or similarity between sexuality and genitality.
In the case of the God-man, the distinction is heightened and the stakes raised. If Jesus is completely human, as the Creed attests; and, as a gendered-human being - that is, completely male - then isn’t it legitimate to question how Jesus expressed his sexuality without expressing it in a genital way. And in asking such a question, of course, we are also wondering about how we as human beings ought, or ought not, express our sexuality. Such a question could not have been asked decades ago without inviting rebuke, but there’s just no turning back - you really can’t get that toothpaste back into the tube – sexuality is, from the Catholic perspective, integral to the human person; and somehow, albeit mysteriously, reflective of the divine image in which we were made; and thus must be discussed and explored with the same respect and awe as we once discussed such things as free will or the beatific vision.

Having said that, and despite the insights gathered from Freud onwards, it must be admitted that the psychology of a first century Jew vis-à-vis sexuality and genital expression may not be able to be evaluated as we would a twenty-first century American. But we might surmise that the temptation to the expression of power as seen in Luke’s gospel might legitimately be interpreted as an archetype of other equally important drives within human beings in general - and men in particular.

02-14-2010: Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 17:5-8 / Psalm 1 / 1 Corinthians 15:12,16-20 / Luke 6:17,20-26
Today’s Gospel of Beatitude (being blessed) coincides, providentially, with Valentine’s Day (being loved) – both proving to have a lot in common if we learn to read between the lines.

“While upon the shop and street I gazed,
My body of a sudden blaze;
And for twenty minutes more or less,
So great it seemed my tenderness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”

It was Yeats, I think, who wrote those lines. They might serve as a meditation for today’s Gospel of Beatitude – a word we often translate as ”blessed.” It’s a strange word, blessed. Filled with ambiguity, we’re never quite sure what it means. Is blessing, or being blessed, simply a matter of saying a word, of making a gesture? Is it, perhaps, a feeling that sinks through the pores of the skin and frees the body from the weight of gravity. Angels can fly, someone once said, because they take themselves lightly. Perhaps the key to meaning lies in the poet’s use of tenderness.

Tenderness can connote kindness, gentleness; but, also, vulnerability, a soreness of sorts. In French the word blessure translates, oddly, not as “blessing” but “wound.” Perhaps, then, blessing as joy is born of tenderness, of vulnerability, of wounded-ness. Pop art celebrating Valentine’s Day has long pictured a cherubic Cupid shooting his arrow into young hearts to awaken romantic love. It’s a quaint cartoon image. But beneath the layers of saccharine sentimentality lie something very true – that love is often born of a broken heart. The myriad of young people who suffer emotional depression, I would wager, suffer because no one has told them that Cupid is indeed the reason for their misery. They “fall” for belief in the falsehood that authentic love can only encompass feelings of happiness. But the real Cupid is no pudgy toddler, giggling as he flings his dull-pointed dart in fun and frolic; rather, he’s a fierce and flaming angel whose pointed steel sears and melts both heart and soul. “Love,” Dorothy Day would write, “is a harsh and dreadful thing.” The Gospel of Beatitude – the formula for love and joy - is a continuum, a scale so to speak, balancing the woes of poverty and hunger, sadness, rejection and loss with the blessings of wealth, satisfaction, acceptance and love. The key to joy, it seems, is to see them as both/and – not either/or.
The power of today’s gospel is radically revolutionary: the unexpected truth that it is precisely from those “negative” feelings that blessedness is born. Wounds make the body (the heart and the soul) tender to the touch, while longing for the touch that heals. Cupid’s spent-arrow makes for a very thin line between pain and pleasure, between sadness and joy. But what the world judges to be a curse, the Gospel of Beatitude understands as a blessing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

02-07-2010: Fifth Sunday Ordinary Time

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8 /Psalm 138 / 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 /Luke 5:1-11
If asked, most people place morality at the heart of religion. Even some of the great atheists, like Freud, thought religion’s only useful function was to keep civilization from collapse by its enforcement of taboos against certain behaviors that would undo the social fabric. Both Isaiah and St. Peter, featured in today’s readings, might agree as they self-identify as sinners and thus undeserving of any good coming their way.

Sin, by definition, involves choice; it elicits intention. It’s long been understood in Catholic moral theology that an evil act must be accompanied by intention and circumstance to make the grievous act sinful. One of the greatest challenges that science has advanced inadvertently against religion is the clear evidence that we human beings were not as free as we once thought we were when it comes to moral choices. It seems our freedom to choose between good and evil is limited by any number of things, including our genetic and psychological make-up, which impinges on genuine freedom of choice.

But adherence to a moral code is not at the heart of the gospel – as much as we might want it to be. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice,” Pope Benedict writes. “But the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life to a new horizon and a decisive direction.” If that is true – and it is a radical truth – then how do we understand the seeming centrality of sin and sinfulness in the Christian experience? Both Isaiah and Peter know they are sinners; yet they are invited to become intimate with the divine presence. Saints are people constantly acknowledging their sinfulness – their lack of adherence to the moral law; yet they are saints - by definition, friends and confidants of God. A contradiction or a paradox?

Perhaps the lesson of the saints who cannot forget they are sinners is that forgiveness does not make us perfect; it does not make us sinless, nor does it guarantee we sin less. Yet it isn’t unreasonable that we should expect religious people to be more morally upright. Society, especially secular society, has this expectation of religious people. That’s why scandal is that much more juicy when the moral infraction (read: sexual) is committed by a priest rather than, say, a movie director.

If we understand holiness as that encounter with the divine, then its relationship to the experience of sin is all the more baffling. The baffling part is made more evident when we read John’s account of today’s gospel story. In the Gospel of John, after Jesus has effected the increase of fish, Peter puts on his clothes and then jumps into the water to swim toward the Lord. Peter seeks that encounter with the divine so much that he acts illogically, putting on his clothes before jumping in the water. Why? He’s baffled. He knows he doesn’t deserve it, but he’s not going to let the opportunity pass.

The revelation of Christianity isn’t that we are sinners, imperfect men and women and, at times, way too selfish. People knew that long before Jesus’ time. What the gospel suggests is that sin need not be the primary focus of our lives but serve only to baffle us by the truth that we are not equal to our sins but created for divine intimacy, an intimacy that makes us do the most unusual and extraordinary and selfless things.