The Beloved Son on the Mountain

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aAt the end of Epiphany, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord to prepare for Lent. The vision of the glorified Christ is supposed to cheer us up for the grim days of penance and the grimmer days of following Jesus through his Passion. The Transfiguration also prepares us for Easter as it gives us a foretaste of the glorified body of the risen Lord.

The climax of the Transfiguration is the bright cloud overshadowing the disciples and the heavenly voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt. 17: 5) These same words were said to Jesus at the time of his baptism. These words of encouragement from Psalm 2 strengthened Jesus for his immediate trial in the desert when he was tempted. This time, they strengthen Jesus before his final trial at the time of his Passion. The royal psalm also has much of the same foreshadowing as the “kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed.” (Ps. 2: 2) This is exactly what happened to Jesus.

When the disciples heard the voice from the bright cloud, they “were overcome with fear.” What were they afraid of? Was it just the power of a voice from Heaven? That could account for the fear. But maybe there is more to it. The disciples had been following Jesus for some time but they often failed to understand him, not least when Jesus predicted his imminent suffering and death. Were these predictions giving the disciples second thoughts about Jesus? If so, the heavenly affirmation of Jesus would have been frightening if it was Jesus’ willingness to suffer that made Jesus the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. Worse, this could mean that being willing to follow Jesus through the same suffering and death was the way for them to be sons with whom God was well pleased. The glory revealed on the mountain was a powerful encouragement, but the kind of encouragement that must have left the disciples shaken, as it should leave us shaken.

Lenten penances are small potatoes compared to the willingness to suffer if the kings and rulers and all other people should rage together and rise against the Lord and those who follow the Lord’s anointed. May the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection strengthen us with the deep life that casts out fear so that we can bring peace into the world of strife and rage.

On Entering Jesus’ Baptism

HolyWater1When we dip our fingers in a holy water stoup as a reminder of our baptism, how much do we really remember? Do we stop to think that the water is as explosive as the bread we receive at the Eucharist?

John baptizing people with water at the River Jordan seems idyllic if we overlook John’s warnings to flee the wrath to come and the axe poised to chop down the tree of our lives; all this to prepare the way for the one who comes to baptize with fire to burn away the chaff. The baptism of Jesus seems much gentler in that Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sins and vices like the rest of us and so didn’t need to be saved from a wrathful response from God. But this peaceful event becomes dramatic when a voice from Heaven declares Jesus to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased. Whatever Jesus is going to baptize people with, it won’t be fire burning up the chaff.

At the end of his life, the baptism with which Jesus is baptized turns out to be his suffering and death on a cross. This makes it clear that we did not need to be baptized to ward off the wrath of God, but to ward off human wrath. What we needed was to be delivered from the wrath in our own hearts that led us to join the persecutors of Jesus. This is what Paul was getting at in his epistles, when he wrote of baptism as a passage through the death of Jesus into Jesus’ resurrection. The passage of baptism, then, is a passage into death to our own wrath, then unto the flood of the wrath of other humans which was inflicted on Jesus, and ending in a new resurrected life without wrath.

The acclamation of Jesus’ heavenly Abba becomes all the more significant in retrospect as it gave Jesus the loving encouragement to go through his own baptism. When we follow Jesus in our baptism, we also begin with the encouragement of the voice from Heaven that we are beloved of God. Far from being driven to flee God’s wrath, we are invited by love to enter the cleansing water so as to participate in God’s affirming love, a love that will sustain us when we struggle with our own wrath and suffer the wrath of others.

That’s a lot to think about when we dip our fingers into a holy water stoup.

Gifts to the Universal King

crecheThe story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Christ Child in Matthew is one of the archetypes of the Christmas season. Most popularly, the Magi are the archetypes of giving because of the gifts they brought to the Christ Child and they are often credited with being responsible for the exchanges of gifts customary during the Christmas season, even among people who otherwise have nothing to do with Christianity.

Theologically, the incident manifests the universality of the Christ Child. From the first, the child has received homage from representatives of other parts of the world beyond the Jewish culture into which he was born. The Magi were astrologers, but they had nothing to do with fortune cookie-type columns for daily newspapers; they studied the stars to probe the world’s mysteries. Since the sky was observable by all people, the study of the stars is an apt image for the universality of Christ. The star that the Magi followed is likely a reference to the prophecy of Balaam: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.: (Num. 24: 17) Here a mercenary pagan makes a favorable prophecy for Israel when he could have been richly awarded for doing the opposite. The gifts of gold and frankincense are often interpreted as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60: 6) The myrrh, not mentioned in Isaiah, would foreshadow Jesus’ passion and death.

The priestly authors of Numbers and the prophet called by many scholars “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) are among the writers of the Hebrew Bible who pushed for an inclusive Israel that would welcome all people from all nations against those who would shut the gates and keep them shut. In her book on Numbers, Mary Douglas offers the interesting argument that the story of Balaam’s prophecy is a lampooning of the exclusionary policies of Ezra who ordered his fellow Israelites to put away all foreign wives and their children after the return from the Babylonian Exile. (Ezra 9–10) The allusion to the prophecies of Balaam and Isaiah would put Matthew firmly in the inclusionary camp. The affirmation of an inclusive Israel where Jews and Gentiles come together, is also affirmed by Paul as one of his most fundamental teachings. In Ephesians, he writes of God’s plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1: 10)

This preaching of universality is among the more attractive strands in biblical thought. However, as with most good and glorious things, there is a shadow that we must deal with. It is very easy for an inclusionary view to become imperialistic and intolerant to the point that everybody must conform to the one particular inclusionary embrace that I happen to accept. Everybody must be a Christian, actually, my kind of Christian. As a committed Christian, I believe my faith is true and universal and I would like for all people to share its blessings, but I accept that people of other faiths feel the same about theirs.

The generosity of giving seems to be the best way out of this impasse. In the Isaianic prophecy fulfilled by the Magi, people bring their gifts to God from all over the earth. These gifts represent many cultures, many faiths. Each of these traditions have gifts that we all can benefit from and receive with gratitude. If we offer our talents, our insights, our beliefs, and the revelations we have received as genuinely free gifts, then we do not want to smother what others have to offer us in return.

An interesting question remains. If Jesus was given these valuable gifts at the time of his birth, how come he was a homeless itinerant teacher with no place to lay his head? If indeed he had some gold and other precious gifts when he was young, we have to assume that he did what he asked the rich young man to do: he gave all of it away to the poor. Jesus still keeps on giving us all of himself. What about us?

Jesus the True Human Being

creche1God is a mystery. That almost goes without saying since anything we can comprehend can’t be God. Humanity is also a mystery. One of the few things we truly know about ourselves is that we don’t know ourselves or our natures very well. When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the time God entered humanity, we have the mystery of mysteries to the zillionth power.

The notion that God would become a human being boggles the mind and is hard to believe. It is often suggested that modern people can’t believe it because the idea is out of date. Actually, it was hard to believe in Jesus’ time and in the early Christian centuries as well. Joseph himself had a hard time believing it.

Because of this difficulty in believing, there were thinkers who suggested that God pretended to be a human being and Jesus was some sort of phantom who looked like a human but wasn’t. Open Jesus up and, instead of the electronic wiring of an automaton, you see a blinding ray of divinity. In one of the infancy stories that were not included in the canonical Gospels, the little boy Jesus climbs up sunbeams as if they were a jungle gym. His playmates try to follow him up into the sky but they fall and Jesus has to bring them back to life to keep out of trouble with his mother.

Another variation on this unbelief is the notion that Jesus was just a human being who at some time or other became possessed by the divinity, sort of like someone being possessed by a demon who overtakes a person, only this time it is God who did the possessing so he didn’t hurt Jesus in doing that. This is a little like an episode in the Scythe trilogy by Neal Shusterman where a super computer with godlike qualities comes to the conclusion that it can’t create the next generation of super computers without knowing, however briefly, what it is like to be a human, so the computer possesses one of the characters, which is traumatic for the human. The point is, the super computer does not become a human and no superior force, not even God, could really become a human in that way.

Neither was Jesus a Superman in the sense of being faster than a bullet or a speeding train. The miraculous powers that he did show, such as healing and walking on water are not necessarily beyond all human possibility as stories of the sort are told of other holy persons. Besides, Superman was from another planet and Jesus was born on this one. Another version of a Superman Christology is the notion, taught by no less a theologian than Thomas Aquinas, that Jesus always knew everything and could never be taught. That would mean that Jesus knew everything about carpentry and could have instructed Joseph in the finer points when he was still a toddler. That’s sort of like climbing up sunbeams.

Unbelief often takes the opposite form where Jesus is considered just another human being, only nicer and wiser than most. This is still wrong, but at least we have a Jesus who could be taught how to use a hammer and a chisel.

In none of these errant models do we have much insight into the mystery of either humanity or God and we don’t learn much of anything about being human. The real mystery of being a human is developing, growing, learning, and changing over the years. Not even his virgin birth, as Matthew and Luke would have it, could change the need for Jesus to learn his table manners. Fantastic as stories like the one about climbing sunbeams are, at least they show that Jesus had to learn how to play nice. The story in Luke about Jesus in the temple is more incisive into Jesus’ young development. Here, Jesus was willing to learn from the elders even as he amazed them with his questions and insights. Like most other children, Jesus also has to learn to remember to let his parents know where he was and deepen his own sense of obedience.

The author of Hebrews stresses the importance of Jesus sharing our humanity in this respect, that Jesus was tested in the same way that we are, although without sin, so that Jesus can help us when we are tested. (Heb. 2: 18) In calling Jesus a “pioneer of faith,” this author is stressing the way Jesus is a model for us, a model for undergoing tests and trials as a human so as to learn how to be a human being. The author of Hebrews also tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb. 5: 8–9)

There are many things Jesus taught us about being a human being through his suffering, of which forgiveness is the most profound and challenging. We are prone to think that, in being sinless, Jesus separated himself out from humanity, but although to err is human, and Jesus could and did err, sin is not human; it’s inhuman. That is, we are not full human beings and Jesus is. That is why a tiny babe on his mother’s breast is a model for what it really means to be human.

John’s Offended Puzzlement

Mattia_Preti_-_San_Giovanni_Battista_PredicazioneJohn the Baptist is so closely associated with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that it’s easy to see them as two of a kind. Both preached repentance. Both died the death of a martyr.

But if the two of them saw eye to eye, why would John send his disciples to ask Jesus if Jesus was “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11: 3) As is usually the case when asked any kind of question, Jesus gives only an indirect answer. He lists the miracles that are happening such as the blind receiving their sight and the lame walking. Then he caps it off with the cryptic and seemingly incoherent words: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Mt. 11: 6) The implication is that John is taking offense at Jesus, or is in danger of doing so. If Jesus is concerned that John, his onetime mentor, might take offense at him, what about his followers? What about us?

The Greek word used here for “offense” and throughout the New Testament is skandalon. We get the English word “scandal” from it. The word means “a stumbling block” and it particularly applies to conflictual circumstances. In the thought of René Girard, two or more people in conflict are stumbling blocks to one another. In his important book The Scandal of the Gospels, David McCracken examines the concept of scandal at length. Jesus’ challenge in his reply to John’s followers is central to McCracken’s argument that faith and scandal are inextricably entangled. What this amounts to is that “only when the possibility of offense exists will the possibility of faith exist.” Being offended, scandalized by Jesus takes us half-way there. One who is not offended because of indifference has not even started. (McCracken 1994, p.82) On the other hand, someone who is stuck in being scandalized for the sake of being scandalized is not likely to move forward either. The people who were scandalized by both John and Jesus, although for opposite reasons, fit this profile. (Mt. 11: 16–19)

So why might John or we take offence at Jesus? Both Jesus and John called for repentance but John’s warnings were accompanied by images of wrath: an axe at the tree, a winnowing fork, fire. John’s preaching can be heard as a renewal of Isaiah’s prophecy of hope: creating a highway through the desert as God did to bring the Jews back from the Babylonian exile, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, coming with vengeance and “a terrible recompense.” (Is. 35) If we tick the boxes of Jesus’ ministry, there is a check mark for each item except for the “terrible recompense.” There are also no axes, winnowing forks, or fire in Jesus’ preaching. Perhaps John felt like an emcee announcing a dramatic act only to get a puff when he thought he’d get an explosion.

When we think of the people in our lives and public figures who affect us that we sincerely think are “a brood of vipers,” do we want the wrath they are fleeing to fall on them? Are there people we think should be chopped down and thrown into the fire? If we harbor the same vengeful feelings, we are scandalized by these people. How then do we feel about a preaching ministry where the poor and the peacemakers are blessed and we are asked to forgive those who scandalize us? Are we scandalized at the idea of renouncing vengeance against these people? If so, then we are taking offense at Jesus and we are not blessed.

The earnest moral sense and integrity of John the Baptist represents the best humanity has to offer but “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” That is, as soon as we take even the smallest of baby steps in the way of forgiveness and not being scandalized by seriously scandalous people, we are better than the best humanity can offer. There’s nothing to be proud of here. Jesus healed the cripple when he forgave his sins. This same forgiveness heals us and gives us the strength to take these baby steps into the Kingdom of God.

The Place of Jesus

crossRedVeil1When Jesus warns of wars and insurrections fought by nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom, he is painting an image of humanity divided by violent conflicts on a grand scale. These conflicts are coupled with catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes, plagues, and famines. .(Lk. 21: 9–11) Jesus then goes on to warn his followers of persecutions on an equally large scale involving kings and governors, clearly suggesting a strong connection between strife and persecution. In the late twentieth century, the French thinker René Girard speculated that humanity suffered the same dangerous conflicts at the dawn of civilization and it instinctively resolved the conflicts by persecuting a victim or small group of victims. These victims were blamed for both the violence and the earthquakes and the plagues and famines. Blaming the victims entailed falsifying the reality of what had happened. Persecution and lies are inseparable. It is not difficult to see that Jesus saw clearly the truth in his time that Girard was to articulate in ours.

When warning of persecution, Jesus advises us not to prepare a defense in advance because Jesus will give us words and a wisdom that “none of [our] opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk. 21: 15) How is this so? Since persecution requires falsehood, then it follows that truth is found in the perspective of the victim of persecution. That is, the victim is in a highly privileged position to see what others, clouded by the accusations of persecutors, do not see. This is a dubious privilege since the place of the victim is excruciatingly painful and sometimes does not last very long.

But this is the place Jesus occupied and this is the place where any of us who would be followers of Jesus also have to be ready to occupy. Jesus knew that, barring a massive social act of repentance, the volatile situation in his time and place was going to result in the persecution of a victim. Jesus made sure that he, and not somebody else, would be that victim. This is what it means to say that Jesus died for us; not that Jesus died to deflect the alleged wrath of God.

In this place of the victim, reality is crystal clear in a way that it is not in any other place. This is why we really do not know what to say, how to say it, how to act, what our bearing should be until we are actually there. Presumably, Jesus had no script for facing Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. He knew what to say and what not to say only when he stood in that position. And only if and when we stand in that same position will we know what to say, how to say it, and what not to say.

The position of the victim is not one that involves calling for vengeance, hoping that God will burn the bad guys into stubble, but instead, one only prays for “the sun of righteousness to rise with healing in its wings.” (Mal. 4: 1–2) To wish vengeance is to wish to become a persecutor if the opportunity should arise. Jesus himself did not call for vengeance, and when he was raised from the dead and could have inflicted vengeance, he did nothing of the kind. Jesus assures us that, in this place of the victim where we may be betrayed and even put to death, not a hair of our “heads will perish,” and by our endurance we will “win our souls.” (Lk. 21: 18–19)

Winning our souls can be understood in many ways, but in the place of the victim, winning our souls means seeing God as God truly is by being like God in the same place as God, like the sun with healing in its wings. (Cf. 1 Jn. 3: 2) This winning of souls is precisely what we see in the story of the 21 Coptic Martyrs in 2015, whose story has been told by Martin Mosebach. In interviewing the families of these martyrs, Mosebach encountered grief but also rejoicing in their loved ones’ rising in Christ. In losing sons, brothers, husbands, these people were also in the place of the victim. Mosebach said in his many conversations: “never once did anyone call for retribution or revenge, nor even for the murders to be punished.” This is what it means to be in the place of the risen and forgiving Victim.

Unjust Judges and Widows

crosswButterfliesThe introduction to the Parable of the Unjust Judge tells us that we should keep on praying and never give up. At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that we should keep on praying even when our prayers go unanswered for so long that we think we are praying to one who does not care and perhaps is not even just.

It happens that in life, nagging and nagging is often the only way to get justice, or what we think is justice. There are some people who are eager to help and will hop to a request as soon as it is spoken, but many people are rather slow to do what is asked of them, and many people have vested interests in denying pleas for justice. These are the people who have more power than others and they usually use that power to take advantage of those who are weaker. Do the people with power take an initiative in renouncing their power for the benefit of others? Do people with power renounce it when politely requested to do so? We all know that doesn’t happen very often. Even in the top-down case of Czar Alexander II freeing the serfs in Russia, the class structure in Russia didn’t change very much.

Most of us instinctively identify with the widow who is trying to get justice. As widows, we expect that God’s granting of justice involves God strong-arming the unjust judges of the world until all of us widows get our rights. But that is not what happened with Jesus. Far from dismantling the unjust rule of the Romans, Jesus himself was condemned to death by the unjust judges among the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor, and the rest of us in the crowd. As the culmination of the persecuted prophets, Jesus reveals God to be the widow who is pleading with us, for justice.

That is. we are the unjust judges. Even people with little power overall tend to be unjust judges over those (such as children) who have even less power. This portrait of humanity raises the question as to whether it is God who delays justice. If humans act unjustly and delay justice to the point that injustice is a longstanding epidemic, then God could have been working overtime since the dawn of civilization and still have no hope of keeping up with the injustice.

Jesus as the crucified widow who died at our hands, the unjust judges, is not what we were looking for when we thought of ourselves as widows. But that is what we got. Not only that, but we also got the resurrected widow who still pleads for justice without ceasing. As the resurrected widow, Jesus has offered us, the unjust judges, forgiveness and the offer to enter into the kingship of Jesus. The parable suggests that we enter as importunate widows who plead with forgiveness and love for the unjust judges as some of our greatest leaders have done, leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu. But we also enter the kingship of Heaven as repentant unjust judges. In the parable, the Unjust Judge only relents because he is more miserable from being hassled by the widow than he is with any power he might lose by giving her justice. But at least the Unjust Judge finally does the right thing, even if his motives are as selfish as those of the Dishonest Steward in the earlier parable. (Lk. 16: 10–13) Maybe if we start to do the right thing, however grudgingly, we might find that doing the right thing, of granting justice to those weaker than we, isn’t so bad after all. Maybe giving justice can become a habit.

What does this parable teach us about prayer? It surely teaches us to pray constantly like the importunate widow, and to thirst for justice, as the Sermon on the Mount would have us do. However, we are not praying to a strong man who will manhandle the bad guys for us. (We would be among those so manhandled in that case.) We are praying with God the Crucified and Risen Widow who offers us freedom from our own injustice so that we can spread justice to others with a burning desire.