Sunday, February 26, 2012

12-02-26: First Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-15 / Psalm 25 / 1 Peter 3:18-22 / Mark 1:12-15

The account of Noah’s Ark is one of those universal stories that even the unchurched and irreligious have heard of. Catholics too, notorious for being proudly unaware of the Bible, feel on safe ground when it comes to Noah and his floating zoo. You can’t say that for much else in the Bible or in the collective religious consciousness today. Stephen Prothero, in Religious Literacy, writes that on the first day of class each semester, in his Boston University Religious Studies seminar, he gives a quiz to find out how much his students know about what were once bits of common religious knowledge. One question, Who was Joan of Arc?, elicited this answer: Noah’s wife.

Biblical fundamentalists, like the Intelligent Design gang, like to make the point that they believe in the literal truth of the Bible, i.e. the six-day creation story, the young age of the earth (about 10,000 years), and the biblical account of the flood that gave rise to the story of Noah. On the other side of the debate are both modern biblical scholars and evolutionists who see in the account of Noah and his Ark the makings of a great religious myth (the former group reading “myth” as a poetic truth, the latter as fable). Some time ago archeologists discovered not one, but several, ancient extra-biblical accounts of a flood and a hero who builds a boat to escape. The hero goes by different names depending on the culture. In the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia, he is named Ut-napishtim. You would think that the fact that different cultures possess similar accounts of an ancient flood would reassure the fundamentalists that perhaps this was a proof that the biblical account of a flood might be historically true. But no, they can’t bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that God spoke to someone else in a book not called the Bible. Of course, Jungians might suggest that it’s all a wash and but a proof that there is such a thing as the collective unconscious. But it is intriguing, isn’t it, that virtually the same story is told by several different cultures indicating, perhaps, that there might well have been a huge flood or, even more intriguing, that the Bible borrowed stories and made them its own – perhaps making the God of the Bible not a primary source.

In the Gilgamesh Epic Ut-napishtim becomes divine through his ordeal. Noah never gets that far. Noah’s story continues after he lands on dry ground and he is subjected to some further ordeals, one of them involving a very kinky and unexplained sexual experience that’s not fit to be repeated in this above-board column. Though, to his everlasting credit, Noah is attributed with introducing wine into our shared history as well as being permitted by God to eat meat (up till then everyone was supposedly a vegetarian).

All this doesn’t jive too well with the beginning of Lent when we’re supposed to be more circumspect about certain sensual pleasures (forego the filet mignon and aged Cabernet and choose the salmon and iced tea). But maybe there’s some hidden wisdom here. After all, Noah had to endure the flood in that Ark of his, not only with his immediate family, but a menagerie of all living creatures (hope they had cross ventilation). When the Ark finally hit dry ground, atop Mount Ararat, Noah had to start all over again. Not easy for a more than middle-aged man; but he did so with a spirit of thanksgiving (the wine and roasted lamb might’ve helped). Maybe that’s a good lesson for us as we begin this Lent. Starting over is never easy, but when you begin again with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity - all things are possible. Come to think of it, those undergrads from BU should be grateful that the Bible beat out the Gilgamesh Epic: Noah is a lot easier to remember than Ut-napishtim.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

12-02-19: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 43:18-19,21-22,24-25 / Psalm 41 / 2 Corinthians 1:18-22 / Mark 2:1-12

Once again the gospels present a healing miracle of Jesus, but this time he connects healing with forgiveness and, thus, in the manner of the ancients – suffering with sin. If Jesus were plying his ministry anywhere but Israel few would have noticed, or cared, about the forgiveness part. But forgiveness, for Jews, was ascribed to God alone.

I once had the privilege of attending a series of lectures by Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. Levine, a practicing Jew herself, told the story of a hypothetical case posed by Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter. While addressing a mixed audience of Jews and Christians, he posed the following story: An SS guard lay dying in a Nazi concentration camp. He bids his comrades to send him a Jew, which they do. The dying Nazi looks at the Jew and asks rather matter-of-factly, sounding more like an order than a request: “Forgive me before I die!” Wiesenthal then asks his audience to identify themselves as Christians or Jews. He then asks the Christians: “Should the Jew forgive the dying Nazi? They answer, yes. He then asks the Jews. They answer, no. An understandable response on the Jews’ part, but there’s a caveat. Apart from the vested emotional interest a Jew would have in such a circumstance, he would insist the reason he cannot forgive is that he has no authority to forgive. Forgiveness is God’s prerogative, not man’s. Wiesenthal, and Levine, use this example to illustrate the different understanding of forgiveness between the two traditions.

This anecdote helps us appreciate the sheer radicalism of the gospel story. The crowd who sees the paralytic take up his mat and walk away may have been astounded; but what shocks is the fact that Jesus has the chutzpah to say the man’s sins are forgiven. The shock is deep. If Jesus had simply mouthed words of forgiveness, the crowd’s shock would have simply been based on Jesus’ presumed blasphemy. But because suffering was viewed through ancient Jewish eyes as the result of sin, the “blasphemy” is more than mere words – it has an effect.

I would suspect that most of us no longer hold that ancient, arcane view that an illness or physical defect is the result of an individual’s personal sinfulness. Yet, it seems we do make that assumption much of the time when it comes to psychological or emotional aberration. One might argue that psychoanalysis, as curative, is based on the assumption that the patient sustained some kind of wound in childhood, intended or not, from a parent or adult-figure, and now suffers the consequences as fixation or arrested development. Therapy involves the recognition of the hurt and the capacity to forgive, or at least to let go, and move on with life. If the patient can do so he may be freed from laboring under a heavy weight, and life opens up in unexpected ways. What remains astounding as much today as in Jesus’ time, is the fact that the power to forgive can do remarkable things not only for the one forgiven but for the one who forgives as well. It is a power that Christ tells us is within our grasp, though we often view it as a kettle too hot to handle and so, for fear of the heat, seldom enter the kitchen.

Returning to Wiesenthal’s Nazi hypothetical, I’m reminded of the well-made movie for television, aired about thirty years ago, called The Scarlet and the Black. Gregory Peck plays Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi occupied Rome during WWII. The Nazi commandant, Col. Herbert Kappler, knew of O’Flaherty’s involvement and tried to have him assassinated. He fails. Then, when the Allies were about to liberate Rome, the Nazi pleaded – demanded really – that O’Flaherty help his family escape Rome. O’Flaherty was enraged that the Nazi would have the gall to even ask this “favor.” When the Allies liberate Rome, Kappler is arrested, but his family has inexplicably escaped to Switzerland. Kappler serves a life sentence. He has but one visitor every week – Msgr. O’Flaherty, who would eventually baptize Kappler a Catholic: a conversion story, as much Kappler’s, as it was O’Flaherty’s.

Lent will soon begin. As a creation of the Church, Lent can help us discover the extraordinary power of forgiveness which, when exercised or experienced, can have powerful, and rather shocking, repercussions.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

12-02-12: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46 / Psalm 32 / 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 / Mark 1:40-45

The readings this week continue the theme of suffering and Jesus’ response to it. Coincidentally, this Saturday (February 11th), we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. If you’ve ever been to Lourdes you might agree that it is especially moving to witness the great numbers of sick who are escorted to Lourdes by loved ones and volunteers (usually young people in search of something greater than themselves). All come seeking the curative waters and the possibility of a miracle. Most leave still suffering from the disease that brought them there yet claim, despite that fact, to have found a miracle nonetheless.

Illness and disease not only produce physical pain but also isolate the sick, causing them to withdraw from friends and family or causing their friends and family to withdraw from them. Sometimes this is a direct result of the type of illness: leprosy, a case in point. In the biblical accounts isolation was enforced, as a divine mandate, for the good of the community, leaving the observer to wonder which is worse: the disease or the isolation. If you’ve ever talked with a person who is seriously ill, especially the elderly, they’d tell you it’s the isolation and loneliness that end up hurting a lot more than the disease.

When a child suffers from illness, especially of the developmental kind (as in the various manifestations of autism) the entire family can feel isolated. Such a story was beautifully told in a recent New York Times Magazine article, Wonder Dog (2.5.12), about a couple who adopted two unrelated children from Russia: the girl, normal; the boy, later diagnosed as suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. As the boy grew the symptoms of his disease became more manifest: an inability to relate and communicate, his propensity for severe tantrums and, as he now enters adolescence, his inability to exert any kind of self control.

As you read how the family tried to deal with their son’s illness, your heart breaks for them. The boy’s illness not only isolated him, but caused his family to withdraw and isolate from the wider community. And then, when things seemed to become impossibly difficult, along came Chancer. Chancer was the Golden Retriever service dog who entered their family and changed everything. No, the boy did not suddenly become “normal” and everyone lived happily ever after. But the dog was nonetheless a miracle. Chancer was well trained as a service dog and became completely devoted to the boy. Although not uncommon for such dogs, but still fundamentally inexplicable, Chancer would somehow sense the approach of a tantrum before it engulfed the boy. In such tantrums the boy’s arms would lock as he grasped his shoulders, he would throw himself on the floor and begin to scream and wail. These tantrums could happen anywhere, at any moment - at home, at school, in the supermarket. When Chancer sensed such a tantrum about to erupt, he would run to the boy and place his snoot firmly on the boy’s chest as his arms were about to lock, preventing them from doing so, resulting in the boy embracing the dog. When Chancer was a bit too late and the boy was already engulfed in the tantrum, screaming and howling, the dog would begin to lick his face, slobbering all over the boy, as dogs are wont to do. And, in an instant, the screaming and howling became laughter and giggles. Chancer changed everything.

Miracles are usually identified when the pain of illness or disease is relieved or reversed – and there are well-documented cases of such happening at Lourdes. What’s not documented, at Lourdes or anywhere else, are the miracles that occur when the effect of disease and illness – the isolation that the victim suffers – is relieved and reversed, as in the case of this boy and his dog. The divine can enter our human reality in stupendous, extraordinary ways. But most often it arrives through the ordinary. Chancer is a dog, not human, not of our species. Yet he serves this boy unconditionally and without judgment. By entering the boy’s world and placing himself in the boy’s arms, licking his face, converting anger and frustration into laughter, we can understand how grace builds on nature – even our very flawed nature. Or, as Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian Muslim put it: “Be helpless, dumbfounded / unable to say yes or no / then a stretcher will come from grace / to gather us up.”

Grace – that healing divine presence - comes to us in many ways, in many forms: as angelic beings or slobbering Golden Retrievers. God always surprises.

12-02-05: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Job 7:1-4,6-7 / Psalm 147 / 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23 / Mark 1:29-39

Who said Jesus didn’t play favorites? Here he is in today’s gospel curing Peter’s mother-in-law so she can get up and go back to serving her guests – Jesus included. The gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus healing and curing, relieving the sufferings of those in dire straits. But he obviously didn’t get around to healing and curing everyone. Suffering and pain continued then, as it does now, to be a part of everyday life, though we should be inordinately grateful to those who have fomented tremendous relief of suffering through medical technology and pharmacology (having endured the torture of a kidney stone until morphine was administered has made me a committed proponent in the use of opiates to relieve suffering).

Suffering, and what we make of it, has always been a dilemma. But it’s especially a problem for us who say we believe in a singular God who claims to be good. For the ancient polytheist, suffering and evil could be ascribed to the one or more gods, among many, who ruled the dark side of reality. But for the monotheist, who insists that the one God is also a good God, the problem of suffering is seemingly insurmountable. C.S. Lewis once remarked, after he saw his wife dying in agony from cancer, that he had no difficulty believing that there was a God, but he had tremendous difficulty in believing that that God was indeed good.

Most scholars think the Book of Job was written some 2500 years ago. Yet Job himself seems thoroughly modern, or better, postmodern. Like us, Job doesn’t know what to make of suffering. And like us, he doesn’t know what to make of life without it. In a recent book by Jonathan Weiner, Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality, the author interviews a leading scientist who claims that science will soon be able to increase our life span, not by a few years, but by hundreds of years, enabling us to live a thousand years without pain. The reaction of most people to this promise was simply: Why would you want to? The prospect of living a thousand years might make us echo Job’s words: “Isn’t life a drudgery?” It’s sort of like the reaction to the Islamicist claim that suicide terrorists (martyrs for the cause) will be rewarded with 72 virgins when they gain heaven for their sacrifice. When weighed against eternity, even 72 virgins aren’t all that enticing; at a certain point boredom becomes the worst suffering. But it’s Job’s wife who is the most postmodern of all. When she sees Job’s suffering only increase with no end in sight, she tells him “curse God and die.” In other words, take the extra dose of morphine and be done with it.

Some Christians, mainly of the evangelical stripe, see suffering as inflicted by God in response to our sinfulness. When confronted with the problem of the suffering of innocents, their response is that there simply are no innocents – everyone’s guilty of something to one degree or other. We saw this response after the attacks on 9/11 when the TV evangelist Jerry Falwell pronounced that Americans invoked God’s wrath because of our permissive society – abortion and homosexuality being the catalysts. Even Mother Teresa fell prey to this cognitive dissonance when she pronounced in the early 80’s that AIDS was a punishment from God for immoral behavior. These types of “explanations” for suffering seem utterly inadequate when confronted with the fact that not all victims of AIDS have found themselves there by choice; and not all the victims of the 9/11 attacks had an abortion or were gay (some still insist that it could be possible that they voted for someone who might have been in favor of both). Their God seems especially capricious, not only permitting such things to happen, but deliberately causing them to happen in order to make a point.

The more nuanced Christian response is to believe that meaning can be found in suffering. Like Christ, one can offer one’s suffering for others as a redemptive suffering. Yet the gospels are filled with Jesus relieving suffering. If suffering were always redemptive, shouldn’t Jesus have let those who were suffering continue to suffer so they might be redeemed? But he doesn’t. He is continually healing, curing, relieving pain and suffering. This gives me, coward than I am, a bit of hope that not all of us are called to endure our sufferings without limit, be it nobly or not. I’d gladly take the “mother-in-law option” and happily serve the guests - rather than endure the alternative.