Saturday, March 27, 2010

03-28-2010: Palm (Passion) Sunday

Palm (Passion) Sunday
Luke 19:28-40 / Isaiah 50:4-7 / Psalm 22 / Philippians 2:6-11 / Luke 22:14-23:56
Holy Week begins: the dread of every church sexton and not a few pastors. Holy Week can’t help but be overdone - too many symbols, too little time. While priests and participants blindly wade through a river of rituals feverishly anticipating an Amen that will signal they’ve reached the other shore, liturgists are in their glory explaining the ancient sources of these once-a-year practices and exhorting everyone about what is permitted or prohibited (How do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? the old joke goes. You can negotiate with the terrorist).

One thing to be said for the Holy Week liturgies, though: they evoke the gamut of emotion. From delight at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, through the fear and dread as he’s arrested on Holy Thursday, to the gothic gore and suffering of the scourging and crucifixion on Good Friday, to the glorious surprise and joy at seeing the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday – Christians of all temperaments can find a place to feel at home. Some more maudlin Christians over-emphasize Good Friday and Christ’s suffering with almost orgiastic delight, mortifying themselves both figuratively and literally -- they’re the ones who find Easter blandly anti-climactic. Others fast forward to Easter Sunday and, like frenzied Pentecostals, sway to the Pollyanna chirps of an alleluia people – all year long. The less religiously-inclined buy a new hat and walk up Fifth Avenue.

Perhaps I betray my own temperament by admitting my prejudice for the theologian von Balthasar who aligned himself neither with the suffering of Good Friday nor the ecstasy of Easter but with the in-between – Holy Saturday: the day devotion is absent, the sacraments forbidden, churches empty of the Real Presence – God gone. And the curse, usually shouted as metaphor, becomes literally true: Jesus go(es) to hell!

Holy Saturday, the descent into hell, represents Jesus’ complete identification with us in our sinfulness – dead, helpless, cut off from God – Jesus, in the words of St. Paul himself, is made sin. Holy Saturday reminds us of those feelings of abandonment, our god-forsakenness. Such a theology suggests each of us will know this experience no matter how sinful or holy we may be. Just ask the alcoholic who’s hit bottom, or someone diagnosed with a terminal disease, or the parent who’s lost a child. Religion, as human invention or, in Freud’s evaluation, as illusion, usually seeks to protect us from the darkness of such feelings; but, at its core, deep in the throes of holy week, Holy Saturday beckons us to face the reality of a hell not filled with burning flame or numbing ice, but with… emptiness.

Holy Week may be filled with prayers and piety, rites and rubrics, but Holy Saturday turns things topsy-turvy. It happens at least once each year on Holy Saturday: the church is left open so volunteers can decorate for the Easter Vigil and Altar Servers can practice when, inevitably, someone will come in to “make a visit.” He’ll walk straight up to the empty tabernacle, still standing at the altar of reposition, genuflect, cross himself, and kneel in a most reverent manner. The nascent liturgist in me wants to go over and point out the fact that the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, is not there; it’s been removed, as the rubric demands. But I catch myself, remembering it’s Holy Saturday - when absence is what it’s all about. Maybe the one kneeling so reverently and praying so fervently in front of the empty tabernacle is on to something whether he realizes it or not. Maybe God’s apparent absence is a presence of sorts, reminding us that when all else fails, when religion’s most sublime symbols of faith removed, when we find ourselves in the darkest of places – precisely then – there comes something deeper than emotion, an intuition perhaps, hovering on a whiff of leftover incense or heard as a haunting lyric from the practicing choir; a mysterious assurance that, despite apparent absence, we are not alone – ever.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

03-21-2010: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21 / Psalm 126 / Philippians 3:8-14 / John 8:1-11
You could say, from reading today’s gospel about the woman about to be stoned to death, that adultery used to carry a bit of a stigma. That stigma, encoded in the Sixth Commandment, eventually extended beyond the technical definition of adultery per se (illicit sexual relations between two people, at least one of whom is married to someone else) to include all illicit sexual relations, even those sexual acts within marriage determined illicit because they are not open to procreation. You could argue there’s little stigma attached these days to any form of sexual behavior, save, of course, for sexual relations with a minor (which, if some had their way, stoning would be back in force).

Stigma can be a powerful catalyst for keeping people from rocking the boat, upsetting the cultural mores that seem to keep a society knit together and functioning somewhat successfully. But it can also be a catalyst for inflicting terrible pain and engendering cataclysmic decisions in an individual’s life.

I’m thinking here of my mother, my birth mother, who became pregnant with me back in 1952 when the stigma of being pregnant, unmarried, and white was at its peak (black women in the same circumstances kept their children far more often than white women did). Class and race played a big part in the efficacy of the stigma, but religion was the powerful catalyst behind its enforcement, portending a solution to “the problem” as well. If the unmarried woman went into a maternity home, names could be changed, babies adopted out to “more-deserving” parents, and records sealed, effecting, in essence, an un-bloody abortion: no evidence of the sin -- no suffering of the stigma.

Religion fueled the stigma. Americans were, by and large, more observant of religion’s prohibitions from the ‘40s to the ‘60s than they are today or than they were prior to World War II. A case in point: back in the ‘20s a young woman -- agnostic, educated, liberal, having already had one illegal abortion, and unmarried – found herself pregnant again. She was white. She was not religious. She became part of the beginnings of the Communist movement here in New York. She was a writer by profession. And she decided to keep her baby, not to give her daughter up (either to abortion or adoption), which set her on a journey – completely unanticipated - that would eventually lead to her being declared Venerable by the Catholic Church.

Dorothy Day is on that road toward sainthood, one might conclude, because she didn’t care if she were stigmatized as being pregnant and unwed, a bohemian-adulterer with Communist friends. After she and her daughter were baptized, she lived the rest of her life as a devout Catholic, a chaste woman, an extraordinary friend to the homeless and misbegotten, an obedient daughter of the Church – but she never, in all her many years, ever denied Tamar, her illegitimate daughter, or ever ceased being friends with the man with whom she had broken that sixth commandment who, in the mysterious workings of Divine Providence, gave her the gift of her child and serendipitously placed her on that bumpy and crooked path to holiness – which, if she was right, is the same road to happiness. From one perspective we might conclude that adultery was itself the catalyst for such a splendid outcome; or, from another, that it was Dorothy’s love for Foster (its expression, misplaced or misspoken – perhaps) which was at the heart of the journey.

Goes to show, it seems to me (as someone born of those illicit relations proscribed by the Sixth Commandment) that when religion swaps stigma for forgiveness, those wonderful surprises – blessings all -- which the Divine Providence has in store even for us who break the rules, are too easily overlooked or tragically lost.

03-14-2010: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9-12 / Psalm 34 / 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 / Luke 15:1-3,11-32

In his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio John Paul II identified a theme running through all the great religious traditions -- the pilgrimage toward self-knowledge. “(A) journey,” the pope said, “that leads us to heed the admonition carved on the temple portal at Delphi -- the admonition to know thyself -- and to answer the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I and Where have I come from? Those who seek to answer these questions set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings,’ that is, as those who ‘know themselves.’”

Others have said the same thing in different ways: “First you have to be one with your soul,” Ghandi wrote, “Then you will be one with the others.” And the inverse insight by the American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray: “The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.”

If Lent is about conversion there’s no better story to illustrate it than that of today’s gospel, the Parable of the Prodigal. We can read it in any number of ways, from all different points of view, and find a lesson well worth the time. At the very least, it’s a story about how a young man (like many young men) veers down the wrong path and ends up in dissolute living, drifting from fleeting pleasure to fleeting pleasure. But if we left The Prodigal here we would only glean a peripheral message. The most important lesson, the one cited by all the great religious traditions, is about self-knowledge, self-awareness. In the parable, when The Prodigal has hit rock bottom, his inheritance spent, his pride obliterated, his stomach empty, the English translation reads: “he came to his senses.” But the original Greek reveals a deeper insight and the real meaning of conversion: “Then,” the Greek has it: “coming to himself…he got up and returned to his father.”

Yes, conversion is about encountering God – eventually; but, first, you must come to yourself. That moment when the light goes on, when consciousness is born, when we begin to want to be free of what enslaves us – that’s the coming-to-self the parable rejoices in. Homer knew this way back (even before the portal at Delphi was inscribed) when he first placed the wandering Odysseus in the sexual embrace of Calypso (a name meaning "to cover over") and, later, in bloody confrontation with Antinous (a name meaning, literally, "against-consciousness"). When Odysseus overcomes both these enemies of self-awareness, he will have come home, he will have come to himself.

Lent is often understood as a time to grow closer to God, but most of us haven’t yet reached that high a plateau on life’s journey. We need to start small, at the beginning, with our own selves. Lent is meant to be a pilgrimage of self-discovery, humbly accepting ourselves for who we are and where we’re at. Our first task in life, as the pope so eloquently put it, is to become human beings – “those who know themselves.” As for God: the parable suggests he is like the prodigal’s father – a father prodigal in mercy - who meets us where we’re at, not where we might wish we were.

Monday, March 8, 2010

03-07-2010: Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 3:1-8,13-15 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12 / Luke 13:1-9
Sigmund Freud, ever curious about personal motivations – especially for behaving out of the ordinary - might have stretched out on his well-worn couch and undergone some of his own psychoanalytic technique after he wrote Moses and Monotheism in the 1930s. Freud was taking a clue from the scholarship of his day when he suggested, as the thesis of his work, that Moses was Egyptian and not Hebrew; in other words Moses was not adopted as the biblical tale tells, but born to Egyptian nobility. This assertion would not be especially striking had it not been for the fact that Freud himself was a Jew (albeit non-believing) and, more poignantly, writing all this while the Nazis were beginning their horrific legacy and sending other Jews off to the death camps (Freud would flee Vienna and live out his remaining months in London). All this in sharp contrast to today’s passage from Exodus where Moses encounters the burning bush and has a conversation about identity and destiny with a voice that, simultaneously, both terrified and mesmerized. A voice which, if we read the text carefully, makes a double disclosure: revealing not only who God is, but who Moses really was as well.

Part of Freud’s argument, and one that is generally accepted by scripture scholars today, is the problem of names we encounter in the passage. Remember this is the place where God reveals his personal name for the first time. So sacred do Jews hold the divine name, the sacred tetragrammaton (YHWH), that no one is permitted to utter the personal name of God. The second commandment reiterates the prohibition: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (a commandment which has absolutely nothing to do with our modern notion of cursing). Just last year, in seeming deference to this ancient prohibition, Pope Benedict XVI issued a directive to the universal church prohibiting the utterance of the sacred name of God during the Mass.

The name Moses is problematic as well. Some would suggest that the name comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to draw water.” But most would argue that the name Moses is the result of redaction – some severe editing on the part of the biblical writer. Why edit? From embarrassment, it seems. Moses is of Egyptian origin, merely a suffix, meaning “born of.” You don’t have to be an Egyptologist to understand: just think of some of those Pharaohs’ names: Tuthmose(s) “born of the god Tuth,” Ram(o)ses “born of the god Ra,” and you can see that our Moses was most probably named for one of those Egyptian gods. That’s why it is so intriguing that in the Hebrew Bible, after Moses asks the voice “who are you,” and the voice responds “I am the God of your fathers,” there’s a grammatical pause (in Hebrew, the athnach) – as if to give the reader a chance to realize that what would follow next – the names of Moses’ forefathers – would be the key to his identity and his destiny. I am the God of your fathers – not of Thutmose and Ramses, but of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A double disclosure: revealing not only who the true God is - but who the real Moses was as well.

The lesson today from the Book of Exodus (in Hebrew, called the Book of Names) concerns the import of names and how names symbolize, sacramentalize if you will, our very identity and our ultimate destiny. In what will probably be an everlasting irony, save for the discovery of some very ancient text, the names of those whose names are the subject of the biblical passage will never be fully known or understood (neither YHWH nor Moses), continuing to convey a mystery or, at least, a riddle. Because the Jews were forbidden to utter the sacred name of God, they would employ what would become a standard circumlocution: the God of your fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But of course it was the circumlocution, the euphemism, the substitute for the actual name that was the real revelation – at least for Moses - who had been wandering, lost, confused about where he came from, where he belonged. He found his answers – he found his life - by asking the questions, directed simultaneously at the mysterious voice and at his own self: who are you, what is your name?

In the end, we’re all Moseses, aren’t we? Searching to unravel the mystery, solve the riddle, fill in the blanks of identity and destiny – by asking those very same questions. Lent helps us listen ever more carefully for the answers which will come, somehow; disclosed, revealed in some fashion, sooner or later - by a nuanced insight, perhaps some Freudian slip, or an occasional circumlocution.