Saturday, January 22, 2011

11-01-23: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 8:23-9:3 / Psalm 27 / 1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17 / Matthew 4:12-23
(Caught up this week with too many deadlines and so must offer a repeat reflection with a bit of editing. The following first appeared 1/27/08 – tfb)

One of my first college experiences was taking a class in ancient Egyptian history. The professor, a very short woman with a weather-beaten face, had a Texas drawl accented by a smoker’s rasp. She conveyed an underlying excitement in what she was about to say during that first class, though she must have said it many times before. There’s one thing you should take away from your study of ancient history, she began, and that’s that there’s no such thing as a pure race. We’re all mixed.

Modern genetics has since proven her right. A recent study in Britain, for example, revealed some inexplicable anomalies. The DNA of an English school teacher, whose family tree can be traced generations back within England, possesses a strand of DNA that is unique to Polynesian peoples. And a Scottish fisherman, somewhere in his ancient lineage, acquired a gene distinctive to Koreans. But what makes us who we are: nature or nurture, that unique genetic inheritance or the family we’re raised in, a combination of both? The gospel today suggests an additional possibility – geography.

When Jesus heard of John’s arrest, the gospel relates, he withdrew to the Galilee. Translation: when things were getting a bit dicey, Jesus slipped back into the hood. The Galilee was Jesus’ home turf, way different from Judea, a crossroads for trade and a stop-over for those on their way to the Mediterranean. Penetrated through the centuries by various gentile populations, it was notorious as a seedbed of unrest, the locus from which arose many an uprising against the powers-that-be. Galileans spoke their own distinct brand of Aramaic which Jews from Jerusalem no doubt thought low-class. The gospels give evidence of these regional prejudices: Can anything good come from Nazareth… and the like. Yet, on his return to the Galilee, Jesus doesn’t go to Nazareth but makes his home in Capernaum, deep in what Isaiah called heathen Galilee. It’s there, amidst the mix of cultures, amid the ambiguity of religious orthodoxy and the syncretism that ran rampant, that Jesus begins to teach and heal. Jesus and his apostles were at home in the Galilee and would have been judged by those from Jerusalem as impure and impious – tainted with gentile ideas and, possibly, with gentile blood as well. The light that had been prophesied to come to the Galilee is, in fact, the light that emerged from it.

The Jewish elite from Jerusalem sought to preserve the myth that theirs was a pure religion and a pure race, and so they resisted the Galilean movement originating among those they considered impure and impious. The rest, as they say, is history.

In his recent memoir, Brown, Richard Rodriguez claims his Indian and Spanish heritage as brown, meaning mixed, mescla, mestizo-ed. It’s an obvious autobiographical fact, but Rodriguez offers it as a metaphor for culture as well -- and American culture in particular. We’re each of us a mixed bag: genetically, culturally, linguistically, sexually -- products of a confluence of this and that. No use pretending otherwise. In other words, none of us is pure anything. Yet, there will always be those who insist that their race is pure, their ideology superior, their politics correct, their religion orthodox, while the rest of us fall into that category they might call ethnic, low class, heathen. It’s a vindication, of sorts, to know Jesus came from that side of the tracks as well. In the more accepted translations we read Jesus came from Gentile Galilee. The Greek word for gentile is ethnos, which might afford a more literal translation like ethnic Galilee (a loaded term in contemporary American English for sure). But the most straightforward translation says simply that he came from heathen Galilee. It’s comforting, somehow, to know that Jesus, the Galilean, was a man who was brown in so many ways.

Friday, January 14, 2011

11-01-16: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3,5-6 / Pslam 40 / 1 Corinthians 1:1-3 / John 1:29-34
I know I‘ve mentioned it before but the gospel today reminded me of the fact that I’m a dragon, not a snake. That’s according to the Chinese Zodiac, of course, which is divided among twelve animals representing each lunar month. Although I was born in January 1953 according to the Gregorian calendar, I was born in 1952 according to the lunar calendar, which makes me a dragon rather than a snake. I hadn’t realized that for a long time, thinking I was a snake all the while. Needless to say this caused a bit of confusion for me since I was acting like a dragon while seeming to be a snake. But, truth be told, most of us go around thinking we’re something we’re not, or pretending to act like someone we aren’t. Identity confusion and learning to feel comfortable in your own shoes – it’s a universal struggle.

Seeing in animal traits reflections of ourselves is nothing new. Freud though it as old as humanity and the source of both religion and neurosis: he called it totemism. Indigenous cultures are still highly influenced by animal associations. I’m told that American Indians, of late, have revived their belief in shape-shifting. Shape-shifting, if I understand it correctly, is the belief or fantasy that certain people whose lives border on the mysterious can change into the form of an animal and adopt its traits. Chinese astrology, so much a part of the Taoist tradition that spread throughout East Asia, still influences a great many people and plays a significant role: from the choice of a name for your new-born to your choice of a marriage partner (by the way: dragons are incompatible with ox and goat but more amenable to monkeys and rats).

The Church, of course, has always been highly suspicious of all this. At different points in history, in the midst of cultural conflict, the Church would label such astrological adventures outright pagan superstition. And, if you’re old enough, you might remember being taught it was a sin for a good Catholic to read his horoscope. That’s why I usually don’t admit to being a dragon in front of the bishop (I suspect he’s either an ox or a goat, if you get my drift). I even used to uphold the prohibition myself, instructing others to ignore Chinese astrology, forget all those animals, real and imaginary. Then, after Mass one day, an old Korean gentleman asked me my sign. I told him we Catholics shouldn’t be concerned about such superstition. He asked if that was what Jesus would want. I said of course. Then why did John the Baptist tell everyone at the Jordan River that Jesus was a lamb, he asked. Oops – you got me on that one, I thought to myself. Well, that’s different, I said. How come, he asked. Well, it just is, I said (I relied on my inner dragon for this authoritarian reply).

But is it any different? The Baptist is identifying Jesus quite strictly. He’s using the cultural myth of his day to let others know that Jesus embodied the traits of the Lamb. The Lamb which would have been known to Jewish sensibilities. The Lamb, upon whose head the penitent places his hands, symbolically transferring his sins onto the Lamb as the priest offers the Lamb on the altar of sacrifice. Jesus would be known ever since by that very designation as Catholics, each week at Mass, call upon Jesus as the Lamb of God.

Human appropriation of animal characteristics, or totemism, is a complicated and much debated phenomenon in cultural anthropology. And although I am a dragon and thus susceptible to thinking I know something I don’t, I’ll nevertheless use my aggressive dragon-like tendencies and offer my own explanation. I think it all has to do with our attempt to retrieve something we’ve lost long ago – our animal instinct. We humans seem to be the only animals that have lost that instinctual sense which is obviously part of the rest of the animal kingdom. Perhaps it was precisely instinct which was lost long ago in Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At that moment instinct was overcome by choice and human freedom was born. The freedom to choose, as limited as it sometimes seems, is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Visiting the Zodiac is really just being a little nostalgic. But, as in the case of Jesus himself, the animal that best represents us can afford each of us a clue to the destiny our choices will one day bring us. Jesus would indeed become what the Baptist had always recognized him to be – the Lamb of God.

The Church teaches that the remedy for the loss of instinct suffered in Eden is Baptism, that sacrament which is said to cause an ontological change – a change in our being, our very nature. We human beings continue to share much with the animal kingdom but, through Christ, we have been elevated into the sphere of the divine. The price is the loss of our instinctual sense: the prize is our capacity to freely choose our destiny as sons and daughters of God.

Although it’s a glorious reality, this becoming a new creation, it doesn’t mean we are no longer connected to that animal kingdom from which we’ve emerged. There’s a great temptation to think we’ve done just that and to think that old wives’ tale just plain nonsense. You know: the one that says dog owners tend to look just like their dogs, and vice versa. I’m willing to concede that most of it may well be nonsense – except in the case of Puggs.

11-01-09: Baptism of the Lord

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7 / Psalm 29 / Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38 / Matthew 3:13-17
Beware of prophets – even the officially sanctioned ones. That could be a subtext for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord we celebrate today. The image of John the Baptist standing waist deep in the Jordan dunking repentant sinners, preparing them for the Day of the Lord, has all the earmarks of a cult – and I’m using the word cult, here, in its most pejorative sense.

In this scene the Baptist takes his place in a very long line of end-of-the-world prophets who spend an awful lot of time scaring people. This type of phenomenon, by no means limited to the religious sphere, seems to coincide historically with significant political developments (I’m sure many of my generation were considerably shaken by the air raid drills we practiced in the event of nuclear Armageddon during and after the Cuban missile crisis). And sometimes coinciding with cultural upheavals and economic downturns – no doubt these days we’re ripe for the pickin’, as they say.

At the turn of the first millennium of the Christian Era – the year 1000AD – most of Christendom was consumed with end-of-the-world fever, awaiting Christ’s second coming and the day of judgment. It didn’t happen. On October 22, 1844 a widespread American following of the self-proclaimed prophet, William Miller, awaited that same second coming. It didn’t happen. On October 23rd some were already labeling the prediction, the Great Disappointment. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, predicted the end of the world in 1891. It didn’t happen. The Jehovah Witnesses have predicted the end of the world as well – more than ten failed predictions over the course of the twentieth century. And now Harold Campion and Family Radio are in the midst of a world-wide campaign to warn everyone that the Rapture will take place on May 21st of this year, followed by a very violent end of the world on October 21st. What Mr. Campion fails to mention on his radio show is that he had likewise predicted the end of the world would have occurred in 1994. It didn’t. The truly remarkable thing is that failed predictions seem to matter little to “true-believers.” Those disappointed Millerites of the nineteenth century would go on to found the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Jehovah Witnesses have increased their membership. And Family Radio’s ministry blossomed after that failed prediction of 1994. Go figure!

I remember during the 1990s, while living in the Korean community, a Korean Protestant preacher, a teenage boy, predicted the Rapture would happen on a certain date. Followers sold their homes, high school students didn’t bother with the SATs, business owners gave up their shops. When the date of the Rapture came and went, and Jesus didn’t appear, a number of suicides were reported, lives were wrecked, and the boy-preacher went missing. Some claimed (did they have any choice?) that he had actually been raptured.

Catholicism is not untouched by this cult-like phenomenon, but it has managed it better. The whole idea of Religious Life, the living of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience by monks and nuns down through the centuries, is a response to that mysterious promise that some day this world will indeed end and God will be all in all. Religious Life is an institutional way of pointing to the fact that there is something beyond this world, something fundamentally mysterious; yet a mystery that seeks our good rather than instill in us a groveling and paralyzing fear.

Although the Church might praise the Baptist as precursor of Christ, it’s significant to point out that it’s not John’s baptism with which we are baptized. Even Jesus doesn’t stay very long after he takes the plunge at the hand of the Baptist, but leaves immediately for the desert – a little peace and quiet, perhaps? Commentators are hard-pressed here: they suggest John’s baptism initiated Jesus’ public ministry. But isn’t it just as likely that Jesus had had it with John and his ilk, tired of the hackneyed harangue of divine retribution for all the mistakes we’ve made, tired of the repeated predictions of Armageddon, tired of the fear that such prophesying engenders in the impressionable and the innocent.

Having said all that, when the end does come and we’re all raptured in one way or another (they really should find another word), I would really like to know how Mr. Campion and Family Radio had invested their assets - and whose name was on that life insurance policy. Matter of fact, if Mr. Campion reads this before May 21st, I’d challenge him to put his money where his mouth is and, if he really believes what he preaches, to put my name down as beneficiary – and I promise to speak only nicely of him from May 22nd on.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

11-01-02: Solemnity of the Epiphany

Solemnity of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6 / Psalm 72 / Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6 / Matthew 2:1-12
I couldn’t let the Epiphany go by without expressing my outrage over the billboard commissioned by American Atheists outside the Jersey-side of the Lincoln Tunnel. If you’re the suspicious-type like me, able to sense there’s something sinister in their intention, you might conclude with me that the Atheists are implying something so untenable and so unacceptable that outrage is the only possible reaction. The billboard pictures the Bethlehem star hovering over the manger where Jesus has just been born. From the left the three wise men are making their way towards the star as if they’re about to enter the Lincoln Tunnel too (would camels have to pay as cars or trucks?), as if they’ve been traveling with you – or you with them – which, of course, means that those sneaky atheists want you to believe that the magi might have come from New Jersey! Outrageous, totally untenable, quite inappropriate. Persia, maybe. Saudi Arabia, perhaps – but New Jersey? They’re supposed to be wise men after all – of course, you’re practically forced to conclude that it, indeed, must be a myth.

Apart from that – I rather like the sign. The slogan: You KNOW it’s a Myth – This Season Celebrate REASON! could just about have come from the pope’s recent Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Dei (the Word of God). The slogan is reflective of the beautiful Prologue from John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God. The Greek word for “word” is logos, from which we obviously get our English word “logic.” Logos is, ironically for those atheists, often translated as “reason.” “Creation,” Pope Benedict writes, “is born of the Logos and indelibly bears the mark of the creative Reason that orders and directs it…we acknowledge the Creator by contemplating his creation…’every creature,’ St. Bonaventure would write, ‘is a word of God.’”

I suspect, though, the Atheists are using the term “reason” as it comes to us from the Age of Enlightenment when faith began to be understood as opposed to reason by both skeptics-become-materialists and believers, causing Pascal to note that “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” Yet reason can lead us to wonder if the material world is all there is. Matter of fact, if you are an ardent materialist, where do you situate reason itself in a world that only judges things real if they can be detected and measured. Does your reason weigh an ounce or more? Is it only produced by synapses in the brain or might the heart have a say in it as well?

We’ve come to think of myths as inherently untrue. That’s too bad, really. Because myths, even if not historical, are meant to convey truth; or, at least, myths attempt to discern what’s true. C.S. Lewis, that student of myth, believed that myths are “man’s blind gropings for God” – trying to make sense out of things, employing reason in an attempt to understand nature, especially human nature. C.S. Lewis would say that Christianity is likewise a myth, but it is the myth that really happened in history, in time and space - not just in imagination.

Those magi traveling to Bethlehem hadn’t read the Bible. They didn’t know of any prophecy about would-be Messiahs or sons of gods. They were curious, though, searching the heavens for a key to help them understand life and its inherent mysteries. The magi were the scientists of their day, following the star, by the light of their own reason, to its unexpected end - the manger at Bethlehem.

If the American Atheists are proposing we do the same – then it’s not such bad advice. There will be doubt, even skepticism – but that is part of the process in this search for truth. The American Atheists seem to want people to confess that doubt and, in so doing, join their club. But they don’t realize it’s our club that they already belong to. It started way back on Mt. Sinai when Moses received that first commandment which commanded us to become atheists in a way: you shall have no other gods before me. Faith is born of doubt.

Christmas turns things upside down. It bids us question long-held assumptions, entertain doubt, even engage atheism. Christmas is a myth – how could divinity express itself in any other way – but a myth whose adherents claim to have taken place in history. A myth, not so much about the nature of divinity as it is about the nature of our humanity. That we human beings, so obviously related to other primates, nevertheless possess something that makes us quite different, enabling us to become receivers of divinity, fitting perfectly like hand-in-glove. Reason, according to the Atheists, might make you reject the Christmas story. But isn’t it just as reasonable to wonder why the possibility of Christmas even entered the human imagination in the first place. Christmas is a topsy-turvy myth that helps us see things that were once hidden and entertain possibilities never before considered, even the one sneakily suggested by that billboard: wise men from Jersey – indeed.