Sunday, March 25, 2012

12-03-25: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Psalm 51 / Hebrews 5:7-9 / John 12:20-33

With the heated debate over religious freedom of conscience now raging as the presidential election approaches, that very issue of conscience has become entangled with sexual behavior and reproductive issues. Although for the past twenty years, with Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” the church has sought to engage issues of sexuality and reproduction within an “incarnational” framework, what unfortunately seems to result, when such topics mix with vying political agendas, is that the church is seen as the great nay-sayer, a puritanical voice amid the cacophony of voices that claim freedom and choice as its goals.

Today, March 25th, is the traditional Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and the virgin conceived “by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It’s odd that the church, for all its current concern over reproductive technologies and the legitimate conception of children, wouldn’t emphasize the Annunciation more – move it to a Sunday or, at least when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year, celebrate the Annunciation rather than the usual Sunday. But, alas, next to the mystery of the Trinity itself, there are few things so incomprehensible in Catholic life than liturgical rules and practices.

One of the current areas of contention between Catholic sexual morality and us moderns (Catholics included) is the issue of in vitro fertilization (IVF). One could argue, at least from anecdotal evidence, that Catholics by and large disobey, ignore, contravene this prohibition as much as they do the prohibition against artificial contraception. But not even the more conservative among Catholic leaders and politicians (are they the same entity?) dare broach that teaching for fear of alienating their brothers and sisters and, perhaps as time goes on, their own mothers and fathers. Yet, as far as I understand it, the moral reasoning prohibiting both is pretty much the same. In the case of contraception the church teaches that, in marriage, every conjugal act must be open to procreation and to circumvent that possibility, by artificial means, is immoral. In the case of IVF the church teaches that the unitive aspect of marriage must also be always evinced between a man and a woman and, thus, then to remove the act of fertilization from that marital “embrace” is also immoral. John Paul II’s “language of the body” understands marital intercourse to “speak” both a bodily self-giving (procreative aspect) and a spiritual self-giving (unitive aspect). To evade either is to, in this sense, act falsely; to lie, as it were, with your very body.

In a perfect world, I suppose, all that sounds quite admirable and a worthy goal to want to strive for. But one wonders where that world might be. I remember back in the ‘70s when Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” – the first to be conceived in vitro - was born. Pope John Paul I was one of the first to acknowledge her birth and did so without condemnation, rejoicing in her birth rather than focusing on the means of her conception. A wise political choice for that historical moment. Alas, times have changed.

It has since become, if not commonplace, then quite un-extraordinary, for a child to be conceived in vitro. The moral questions concerning what happens to the other fertilized but un-implanted eggs are, for sure, a grave moral concern. But that question really doesn’t impinge on the morality of how the born-child was conceived. Perhaps the Feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate the fact that a young unmarried girl conceived a child in an asexual manner without benefit of intercourse or marriage, can help us better grapple with this contentious issue. The Virgin Mary and her bodily experience does not fit the strictures or definitions of what Catholic morality insists should be – suggesting perhaps, a la Shakespeare, that there’s more to the mystery of life and its origins than is in our philosophy – or our moral theology.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

12-03-18: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent

2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23 / Psalm 137 / Ephesians 2:4-10 / John 3:14-21

History is filled with ironies. Just think of the import reflected in today’s first reading about Cyrus the Persian, responsible for the repatriation of exiled Jews back to Israel in the sixth century BC and then for rebuilding the Temple after having been destroyed by the Babylonians fifty years earlier. Cyrus the Persian, Cyrus the proto-Iranian if you will, was so admired and appreciated by the Jews that he is even given the title “Messiah” in the scriptures. Fast forward 2,500 years and Cyrus’s descendents, the Iranian ayatollahs, are Israel’s sworn enemies and the greatest threat to Jewish existence.

This weekend we’ll be celebrating the memory of Saint Patrick who, virtually single-handedly, converted the entire people of Ireland to Christianity. All the more remarkable when we realize that Patrick, probably from Roman Britain, had been kidnapped and enslaved by Irish pirates and, upon his escape, felt an interior call to return to Ireland as a priest and preach the gospel to his former captors. The legacy of the Catholic Faith that Patrick left in Ireland helped preserve the faith of an entire Europe during the barbarian invasions. Now, after the priest sex-abuse scandals and subsequent cover up by the Irish bishops, we see the Irish Church imploding and the Irish people themselves rejecting their ancient faith.

Comparisons could be made. Iran is an Islamic theocracy that seeks to govern on Qur’anic principles. Ireland was the closest thing to a theocracy in the modern West till very recently. The Catholic Church in Ireland wielded enormous influence and political power. But the problem with theocracies, no matter when and where we find them, is that the power entrusted to a religious elite is often easily abused. That has happened in both Iran and Ireland. One just needs to listen to the ranting of the Iranian ayatollah or remember the abuse of power in the hands of a former Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.

Against that bleak backdrop there emerges an unexpected diamond in the rough – Diarmuid Martin, the current archbishop of Dublin, recently interviewed on 60 Minutes. Archbishop Martin seems a maverick among his brother bishops, not willing to go along blindly either with them or the Vatican. A seeming humble man, named to his post from outside the usual source of candidates, he came to near tears in the interview when talking of visiting a school and seeing the innocence of the children all the while remembering the stories of abuse told him by sex-abuse survivors. He’s no fool though. When pressed to speak about the recent rift in relations between the Irish government and the Vatican (Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See and the pope recalled his nuncio) he politely refuses to speculate. And, no doubt, 60 Minutes was told not to mention the Pope’s refusal to accept certain bishops’ resignations over the scandal or ask for Martin’s response. Yet Martin seems a light in the darkness now engulfing the Irish Church – perhaps the only light amid a bevy of bishops running in all directions; including Cardinal Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland and, thus, successor to St. Patrick himself, who has admitted to “silencing” sex-abuse victims years before lest they cause scandal to the church. While there’s little doubt Martin’s church career will go no further - he’ll not succeed Brady as Primate - one can’t help but think Martin is, in fact, Patrick’s worthy successor. If anyone will be able to begin to rebuild the Irish Church from this low point in its history, Martin seems to be the one.

Ireland and Iran are separated by a lot of geography but their attempt at workable theocracies bears more than a little similarity. And students of comparative linguistics have long known that both Persian Farsi and Irish Gaelic are distantly related, belonging to the same Indo-European family of languages. Interestingly, a case has been made for the remarkable theory that the place names, Ireland and Iran, share the same root, “Ar”- the same root of the name Aryan – an ancient and mysterious people who seem to have emerged from the Russian steppe some 4,000 years ago, spreading in all directions and leaving vestiges of their language and religion within disparate cultures. Let’s hope that the example of Cyrus the Persian, that proto-Iranian defender of the Jews, and Saint Patrick, that messenger of the Gospel to the Irish who once enslaved him, will win the day in both modern Iran and Ireland. And let’s pray that any attempt at theocratic government, from whatever religious background, will be seen for what it actually is: tyrannical despotism – albeit clothed in attractive religious garb.

Monday, March 12, 2012

12-03-11: Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20:1-17 / Psalm 19 / 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 / John 2:13-25

The American Atheists Association has once again gained media attention: it’s posting billboards in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, written in Arabic and Hebrew (Yiddish?), saying You know it’s a myth – you have a choice referring to belief in God. One old Jewish resident of Williamsburg was quoted as saying: “That takes a lot of chutzpah.” Maybe. If they really had chutzpah they’d forget about G-d and Allah and just question the bona fides of Mohammad… peace be upon him.

One of the pivotal stories in the Bible is recorded in today’s reading from Exodus about the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, the covenant made with the chosen people through Moses. We are oftentimes overly impressed by the fact that the essence of the covenant between God and his people is one framed in law, a set of prohibitions (the latter seven commandments) to ensure peaceful communal coexistence. We should remember that the civilization from which the Hebrews were escaping – Egypt – had long before achieved a level of high sophistication. Remember Moses found himself leading the Exodus because he had been running from “the law” having killed an Egyptian whom he had seen beating a Hebrew. No, there’s nothing essentially extraordinary about the latter seven commandments – but there’s quite a bit of dynamite in the first three.

If the last seven commandments teach how we should relate with others, the initial three are concerned with how we relate to the deity. Remember, Moses was the first human being to whom God had revealed his personal name which, paradoxically, is the heart of that second command – forbidding anyone to utter that name (the prohibition against using foul language – which most of us learned, and still is taught in Sunday school, is but a silly extrapolation). But it’s that first commandment that remains uniquely relevant: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me” (KJV). No doubt the command mirrors the great insight of monotheism which Judaism has brought to the world. But we think of it as a great insight only because we are viewing it in hindsight. It was anything but. It’s the generally accepted understanding of most scholars that strict monotheism took some time to be enthusiastically embraced by Hebrew-turned-Israelite-turned-Jew. The command says to have no other gods before this particular God; and the chosen people obeyed, though with a caveat. For centuries they were monolatrous though not monotheist, meaning they worshipped only one God while acknowledging the existence of other gods. Only after the Exile is there clear indications that their monolatry (one-god worship) had evolved into genuine monotheism (belief in only one God). Some might argue that, even today, Christians, Jews and Muslims still struggle with putting God first in their lives. When it comes to money, power, fame, sex we’re all monolatrous – striving to worship the true god while very cognizant that those other gods are vying, and often times winning, our attention and worship.

The first commandment, when viewed within the context of the ancient polytheistic world where gods abounded in every village and city, is thus primarily a command to not believe in many gods. It is, oddly, the command to become an atheist. The emergence of genuine monotheism goes hand-in-hand with the possibility of atheism, inviting all to relinquish long-held myths in favor of a mystery which we are forbidden to name.

So the American Atheists campaign in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Kensington neighborhoods among Orthodox Jews and Muslims is, for sure, iconoclastic – as iconoclastic, perhaps, as the Decalogue itself. Atheism, like a bastard child, is closely related to monotheism – a first cousin once removed. That first commandment continues to call each of us to question our belief and our worship of all those idols we make into God. Strange as it sounds, atheists are not unlike Moses coming down the slopes of Sinai with the tablets of the Law, calling us deeper into the mystery we so casually call God. I just hope, at their first meeting, those atheists have the good sense not to serve ham sandwiches – old habits are hard to break.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

12-03-04: Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 22:1-2,9,10-13,15-18 / Psalm 116 / Romans 8:31-34 / Mark 9:2-10

One could say that all of history, from the Christian perspective, can be summed up in that line by Paul Newman in the film Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

For what is the meaning of divine revelation if not communication? God trying to communicate with his creatures, who all basically suffer from ADD to one degree or another. That’s why God – not unlike the novelist Flannery O’Connor - has to shout now and again to get our attention, so impervious do we seem to advice from on high. Lent is meant to be a divine shout: Hey wake up, the divine voice says. I’m over here. Pay attention for a bit. Caught off guard we often don’t hear the message clearly or even correctly. Not only do we have a failure to communicate, but we misinterpret, misread, mis-hear what’s being said and so screw things up, leaving God to look like the heavy. Today’s story from Genesis may be a case in point.

The revered Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, wrote that Genesis 22 is one of the greatest pieces of world literature, filled with concise suspense and high drama, promises made and sacrifices asked. It’s also pivotal in the self-understanding of the three monotheistic religions (though the Koran substitutes Ishmael for Isaac). Yet, from our modern perspective, it is a dark tale no matter how later commentators spin the meaning, including St. Paul himself. Even the title of the episode eludes consensus: the Jews refer to it as the Aqedah (“the Binding of Isaac”) while Christians call it “the Sacrifice of Isaac.” The former suggesting the theme of submission of will; the latter, a proof of faith. In reality, it would best be titled “the Testing of Abraham.”

But what if Abraham just misheard God’s command? It’s possible, isn’t it? Why else would God have to send his angel to stay Abraham’s hand as he lifted the butcher’s knife to slay his favorite son as an oblation to the deity? God gets off the hook if we see it as a mandate to not imitate the practice of human sacrifice which seems to have been prevalent in Canaan at the time – but, alas, not everyone agrees about that. Maybe Abraham wasn’t interpreting his relationship with this new found God by the same terms as he had previously interpreted his relationship with the other gods he no doubt had one time worshipped. New God - new language. Things easily get missed in translation.

One of the great though frustrating things about the Bible is it’s fraught with the possibility for misunderstanding – just think of the myriad interpretations of various texts from creation accounts to prophecies of Armageddon. Even the personal name of God is a mystery still largely unsolved: both its meaning and its proper pronunciation. The Hebrew alphabet, having only consonants, records the personal name of God as YHWH first revealed to Moses in the burning bush. How Moses might have heard the divine name pronounced is lost to history (but, then again, the name “Moses” is itself more than a bit of an anomaly). So sacred was the divine name that Jews (and everyone, actually) are forbidden to utter it and must resort to circumlocutions like “the Lord” (Adonai) or “the Name” (ha-Shem). It’s a bit like the story of the seven-year old boy returning from Sunday school to be asked by his mother what he learned in class that day. We learned God’s name, the boy says. And what would that be? his mom asks. Harold, the boy answers. Harold? the mother questions. Yeah mom, you know, like when we pray we say: Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name

Communication is always problematic, especially when the connection is long distance – a long way from here to heaven. And maybe longer still when discerning the meaning of words read in 2012AD but originating from events that happened in 2000BC.