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.

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