Thursday, February 25, 2010

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.

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