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.

No comments:

Post a Comment