A Thought for the Annunciation

annunciationRecently, I read the Scythe Trilogy by Neal Shusterman. (For Girardians: Shusterman has shown much insight into mimetic desire and scapegoating in his many young adult novels.) This trilogy envisions a future where a massive computer called The Thunderhead runs the world: coordinating work, managing the healing of sick and injured people, everything except for one thing. Since people no longer die of natural causes, the population is lessened somewhat by the institution of Scythes who randomly kill people gently and without malice. This is called gleaning. The Scythes and the Thunderhead are separate and do not interact. What would a trilogy like this have to do with the Annunciation of Our Lady?

Not surprisingly, the Scythes eventually attract enough corrupt members to threaten the institution. The Thunderhead cannot intervene directly and must use very careful workarounds to counter this corruption. There are two incidents I can share without seriously spoiling the main thrust of the plot. These incidents offer helpful analogies to the Annunciation.

In the first incident, the Thunderhead decides it must inhabit a human being for a brief time as a necessary step to properly completing a project. Accordingly, the Thunderhead possesses a human. Although this is just for a moment or two, it is traumatic for the human and also for that person’s lover who shares the pain. This incident makes it quite clear that the Incarnation of the Son, the Logos, could not be accomplished by force and be a salvific event for humanity.

In the second incident, a woman, a very ordinary woman, but one who has done well in a pressure situation, receives plans for a highly ambitious project designed by the Thunderhead. This plan will go through only if this woman, representing humanity, gives assent to the project, which se does. The project then goes forward with momentous results. Here we have a strong analogy to the Annunciation. Only by way of a genuine free choice by a human being does the Incarnation of the Son, the Logos occur.

Mary’s fiat, her agreement to the angel, changed the world. The ordinary woman in the Scythe Trilogy and Mary, another ordinary woman in a pivotal situation, show us that, ordinary people like you and me never know how crucial each “yes” to God can be. But God knows.

On Washing our Eyes at Siloam

purpleFlower1

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (Jn. 9: 39)

This is one of the harder of the hard sayings of Jesus. It suggests that if we can see, we really can’t and if we can’t see, then actually we can. In the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9, the blind man sees pretty well in many ways even while he is still blind whereas the “Jews” prove to be blind as to what is really happening right before their eyes. The overt irony throughout the narrative makes it clear that physical sight is symbolic of the ability to see at other levels. We say “I see” all the time to indicate that we have understood something.

The trouble is that most of us think we can see very well at this figurative level. That is, we think our worldviews are correct, or at least mostly so. Jesus’ admonition should make us stop and think about that. If we are sure that we see, we are actually being pretty sure about ourselves, which gives us a pretty good chance, amounting to a certainty, that what we think we see is wrong, at least in important respects. So how can we truly see?

I think we are helped by the famous admonition from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt. 7: 1–3) Jesus makes it quite clear that judging other people automatically blinds us severely. This fits exactly with the story of the blind man in John. The assumption on the part of the disciples that either the blind man or his parents had sinned makes them blind on account of the judgmental attitude. The “Jews” are highly judgmental of the blind man for letting himself be healed on the Sabbath and all the more judgmental when the formerly blind man doesn’t see things their way when they explain the matter to him.

The problem now is that I am getting a bit judgmental about “the Jews.” Jesus has exposed their blindness and since I can see that, I assume I can see. But if I can see what “the Jews” don’t see, then there is the possibility, I mean likelihood, that I am becoming blind. I am seeing the speck in the eyes of “the Jews” and not seeing the log in my own. This blindness is quite serious when I reflect on the centuries of persecution of the Jewish people with stories like this present one being a pretext for that.

If we really want to see, we have to really understand that judgmentalism is our favorite blood sport and it really can be bloody in a literal sense. If I see a speck in somebody’s eye, that speck is probably there, but seeing the speck should be fair warning of the log in my own eye. We need to take Jesus’ advice and go to Siloam to wash the log out of our own eyes. If we do that, we will be much less judgmental and a lot gentler about helping other people with the specks in their eyes.

 

See also: Seeing with more than the Eyes and Sight and Vision Recreated.

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.