Monday, January 31, 2011

Matthew 3: The Baptism

I love the end of Matthew 3, that great story in Mark, Matthew and Luke of Jesus being baptized, and in that way, proclaimed God's Son.  If you're ever looking for a rich source of prayer, go to that passage, but instead of Jesus being the one that goes into the water, let it be you.  Let yourself hear God say those words  to you: This is my Son (or Daughter), my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

From a bookish scripture-y perspective, I notice this time around how this is another way Matthew tries to force us to see, hey, this guy Jesus we keep hearing about -- he's the real thing.  Seriously, the man has yet to lift a loaf or preach a sermon, and we've already been told in so many ways. "Scripture says", an origin story that very closely echoes god-man stories in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, angels revealing secrets in dreams.  

And now,  for all y'all haters out there that keep denyin, doubt no further -- God himself speaks! (Hello, four of a kind, say hello to my royal flush.) There's a comedy bit in there somewhere, with a Woody Allen character who doesn't get it even then. "So, when you say he's your son, what exactly do you mean?" "And well pleased -- how happy is that, would you say?"

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Escapism and Escapism (Human Torch, R.I.P.)

Don't know if you caught this on the news this week but the Human Torch, member of the Fantastic Four, was killed in action Tuesday. Not Chris Evans -- don't worry, he's fine -- the comic book character the Human Torch, who could literally burst into flame and was known for being sort of flashy and superficial.  Cute girls, fast cars, constant twitter feeds -- you know the type.

Comic books are one of only two genres of storytelling in which characters who die stand a very good chance of coming back. (Can you name the other?) The last few years very high profile characters Captain America and Batman have both undertaken the forever sleep of the ancients, and both are back in action today.  It's actually a major complaint in the blogosphere that death doesn't mean anything in comic books anymore, it's just a scam to boost sales.

But the guy who blew the Torch out, if you will, writer Jonathan Hickman, commented in an interview the last few days that while yes, in comic books death is more like putting a TV show on extended hiatus while you try to fix it, stories about death are important to have because that's our reality. And by presenting characters dying and other characters dealing with it, we offer people a little window into their own lives. We give them a way of coping with it.

I love that way of thinking about story.  People kvetch and kvetch about there's nothing good on,  everything's just escapism (or worse) -- and honestly, I don't know what that means.  Sure, while I'm watching television I may put aside the conscious consideration of my cares and concerns of the moment.  But it's still me sitting there, with those concerns and many others rolling around inside, and whether I know it or not I'm still looking for comfort and and release and ideas and answers and even new questions.

Good stories show us ways of coping with our lives, and open up new possibilities -- even if only in the temperment we bring to our situations.  I firmly believe that we identify with certain shows and certain characters for a reason, that they have something we want, that on some level they offer us some opportunity for liberation and new life. A real escapism, if you will, out of the chains of sin and fear that bind and torment us and into greater possibilities of love.  

I used to be embarrassed to read comic books. The tights, the story lines all can be a little silly. And watching a comic book character die is in some ways most silly of all, because you really do know, they'll be back. But in the moment, if it's well written, it's also a meditation on heroism and sacrifice.  And if anyone should know the value of hearing stories like that, it's us.

And if you're looking for a really interesting political twist on superheroes, Foreign Policy Magazine of all places ran this photo story on migrant workers a while back that's really wild.   A teaser:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Judgment: Matthew 3

In that middle section of Matthew 3, we get a couple really striking images of the last judgment that Jesus will inaugurate.  The axe is being put to the root of the tree; the grain is being winnowed. *  It's quite dramatic stuff, and a prelude, really, to Matthew's image of the judgment in chapter 24. (Don't sneak ahead; we'll get there.)

Just last week, another Jesuit and I were in a heated discussion about the usefulness of this whole idea of the last judgment or final judgment for Christians today.  You think, most of the New Testament was written with an attitude not only of wonder at what had happened, but expectation; the coming of the Son of God having happened in recent memory, they didn't think it would be too long until the whole human story was finally wrapped up with a bow. And so the urgency of the moment was tangible.  

Today, we're two thousand years later.  Jesus could show up at any time, and sometimes I kind of wish he would, because I want to see how it ends! But he may not. He may very well not.  And so that sense of urgency that Matthew is going for here is far harder to come by. 
But not too long ago I was listening to a writer talk about his work.  And he made this comment about wanting desperately to have a body of work to leave for the world.  He had no illusions of grandeur, just a sense of his own mortality, and a desire -- a fervent one -- to leave something good behind.  There was a way in which he was haunted by the reality of death.  

How's your health? Very well, I hope. I know I'm planning to live a while longer. But maybe I won't.  You and I both know, tragedies, surprises, horrible coincidences -- these things happen.  And if we knew that might very well happen next week, a truck turned wrong on the interstate, and you in its headlights -- would we feel like we were leaving things the way we wanted them? 

The point, then, a way of understanding Matthew here today, is not fear (unless that's a positive motivator for you, in which case, fear on!);  it's focus.  Strip away all the busy and the idle and the checklists and the immediate priorities. You have a limited time here; how are you using it? 

* Do you know how winnowing happens? For some reason I imagined it had something to do with cutting the grain down, but the action is actually more akin to making pizza crusts. You grab a bunch of cut grain with a winnowing fork (think a rake, or Poseidon's trident) and throw it into the air, like you would pizza dough. The grain, the good stuff, falls back to earth, but the chaff, being lighter, blows away.

And that's how you separate the wheat from the chaff!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Metanoia: Matthew 3: 1-12

If you read the first 12 verses of Matthew 3, you'll see some version of the word "repent" 3 different times.  John's very first word in the gospel of Matthew, in fact, is "Repent." It's the same proclamation Jesus will begin with in his ministry at 4:17: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

What do we mean by repentance today? I would say the term has two parts, or maybe steps: first, an acknowledgement of having done wrong; and second, a rejection of that pattern of behavior.  I repent my sins; I'm sorry for them, and I'm not living that way anymore. A renunciation.

In the original Greek, the word is "metanoia", and it meant a change of mind or heart about something.  In other words, a conversion, a transformation.  Not that different from repentance, really, but fuller.  It's not just a stepping back from a precipice, or climbing back up a hill. It involves us coming more fully into being, becoming more fully human.  

The paradox of sin: we're warned by Scripture, by family, by cautionary tales, don't do X or Y.  And sometimes we heed those words, and sometimes we don't.  But the actual experience of sinning -- and by this I mean not simply breaking an abstract rule, but experiencing the damage which that break causes in the lives of oneself and others -- becomes an occasion for self-awareness, humility and transformation.  So often it's when we see ourselves for what we really are that we actually are open to change.

Trying to be a good person after you've done wrong looks just the same as it did before, but it's different, because we're not the same people we were  before we did the deed and faced all that came with it.  We're different.  Metanoia: Change! Open!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

I said I'd try each week to do a little pop culture riff.  Last week I let Jon Stewart do it for me -- and if you're not watching Jon Stewart's Daily Show, boy do I recommend it.  He's doing some great stuff on the political scene right now. Really transcending some of the us vs. them of our political landscape.

But this week I thought I'd maybe say a few words about the Golden Globes.  To be honest, I did not see them live.  Award shows have a great allure for me, like I guess most people.  I want to be surprised, want to hear the touching speech of Hollywood's versions of a princess. Probably want to have my vision of life affirmed.

 But at the same time, it all does seem a little ridiculous. These are artists, for God's sake, artistic projects. At their best, they all deserve awards, and our thanks.  And it doesn't have to involve anything as noble as The King's Speech, either.   I've wept or laughed through a lot of crap, quite frankly, and I bet so have you. And some of that is embarrassing, but some of it has also made us feel better.

I don't care what anyone says, I loved this film.

So the idea that it makes sense to take this panoply of artistic projects and pronounce one "the winner" -- it'd be like lining up children and deciding that this one is better than that one, just as a human being. "Right, you're better in school, but you're a little bit of a snot, aren't you? I think we'll go with the pug nosed athlete." Ridiculous.

So, I didn't see the Globes when they aired.  But of course, like I suspect most of you, I heard about them, and particularly about Ricky Gervais' many, many jibes at the Hollywood establishment, and at their jibes back.  Not only that, it seems like since then I've had quite a few spontaneous conversations on the topic, many of them with ordinary people quite furious at Gervais.

When I first saw some of the footage, I think I sympathized more with the megawatt stars like Robert Downey, Jr. or Tom Hanks who criticized him. (How could you not? It's Tom freaking Hanks! Somewhere along the line he's become a father figure/moral compass for the nation.)

I miss this Tom Hanks.

And I must say, I found the reference to Downey, Jr.'s substance addiction problems both incredibly out of date and just plain mean.  The man's made a fresh go of it, he's done amazingly well -- give him a little credit, why don't you?

But then I watched that opening monologue again. (Here it is, along with his other gags during the show.)  It's incredibly raunchy -- if you haven't seen it, beware. It's really raunchy.

But I have to say, a lot of it is very funny, too. Really funny. And also, such a high wire act.  He's playing the classic jester character, trying to send up this whole silly event and the ways we deify our stars, smacking them with a custard pie.

Comedians do this every night of the week.  But to do it in such a public venue, and to the faces of these, our kings and queens -- so much harder.  So hard.

Now you or I might not like it, might not have found it funny. That's fair enough. It was certainly sprinkled with a more than its fair share of mean.

But still, take a step back and consider not just what he's saying but what he's trying to do, what his angle is, and I think you find a guy who's also unafraid to demand that everyone in Hollywood admit that they put on their pants one leg at a time and have their fair share of failures, just like everybody else.  In the culture of celebrif-ication (new word, terrible word) in which we live, that's pretty brave.

Two favorite Gervais bits: Gervais meets Elmo

And at the Emmys with Steve Carell.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Flight into Egypt

Have you ever undertaken a journey without knowing exactly where you were headed, or how the trip would go?  It doesn't sound very realistic, does it? "Let's take a vacation, honey." "Cool.  Where to?"  "Oh, I don't know. Let's just go."

In Genesis, Abram, Sarai and their immediate family were asked to do exactly that. They're with their friends, cousins upon cousins,  when God shows up to say, Go.

In Exodus Moses and the Israelites are called to do pretty much the same, and the Israelites are a lot less happy about it.  "Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert?" they ask, even before they've crossed the Red Sea.  (Ex 14:11)

And in Matthew, Joseph experiences a similar invitation. "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you," an angel tells him in a dream.  No sense of where they'll stay when they get there, or what they might encounter, or jeez, how long they'll be gone.  Just, Go.

As much as we might not relate to the idea of a friend or partner saying, let's just hop in the camper and drive cross the country 'cuz it's there, I think we all undertake journeys like this.  A new school; a new job (or a first job, for that matter); a new neighborhood; a new leader or boss; a new war; a new child; a new diagnosis for oneself or someone else -- it's always a leap into the unknown, not all that far removed really from that first day we went to school, our parents or guardians having let us go (and then bawling or worrying for an hour).

Maybe for some of us it gets easier.  I tend to think it's more often the case that we find ways of hiding from the fear and the uncertainty roiling around in ourselves.

And yet... and yet... that dependence, that's the natural order of things.  No matter how stable our lives are, it only takes one surprise to realize it's all just a facade.  A heavily reinforced one, no doubt, but still.

And maybe there's whole other sorts of blessing to be had in acknowledging the reality of our situation,  and our discomfort.  Maybe that truth can indeed set us free.

The Holy Family rests on the journey.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

Matthew 2: The Magi

The magi are an intriguing bunch. They're only found in Matthew, and in fact their story really stands in place of the story of Jesus' birth.

We place them in contradictory professions -- wise men, kings,  astrologers.

Some say there are three, but that's not specified in the scripture.  Probably instead it's derived from the fact that they bring three gifts.

One thing that seems pretty likely is that they weren't Jews.  They come from the East, and don't know the whereabouts of Christ;  astrology was a profession of Babylonia; and the gifts they bring, gold and frankincense in particular, are associated with Arabia or the Syrian Desert.  So they're not Jews. They're Gentiles, just like us.

And for me, that's the key.  Theologically, of course, the fact that they're Gentiles is a way of indicating the breadth of Christ's authority.  He's not just king of the Jews, he's king of us all.

But much like the shepherds in Luke's gospel, the Magi are also our stand-ins, people who don't totally understand what's going on and yet have this good news announced to them in different ways and respond. As with the story of Joseph, really, the emphasis here is not on the fact that Jesus is born but how people respond. The Magi pay homage; Herod wants him dead.

What response will we choose?

Some years ago, I came upon a great poem by T.S. Eliot about the Magi.  In it, Eliot imagines in great detail their journey, the challenges of it, the moment of arrival.

And then he ends, quite unexpectedly, with the cost of what they've seen.  As Gentiles, worshippers of other gods, to come face to face with Jesus is to have their own faith foundations shaken, their worlds turned upside down and rendered in some ways foolish, in others irrelevant.  

If the Magi stand in for us, so their struggle is our own.  What failures or lacks does the Christ child reveal in us? What gods that we worship are proven to be false?

And how will we choose to respond?

Journey of the Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T. S. Eliot

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Matthew 1: Annunciation

Matthew 1:18 begins the story as we know it, with the annunciation of Jesus' birth.  But rather than Mary it's Joseph that gets the news, in a dream. Mary is left offstage, and it's weird. She's been given this big, blow your mind revelation, center stage stuff that as an audience we want to see, but Matthew doesn't give it.

Maybe Matthew chooses this to suggest that what's important to him is not the drama, and not the news of Jesus' birth, but how people receive it and him.  Do they welcome Jesus, welcome the action of God, or do they turn away?

I also wonder if Matthew is trying in another way to connect his Gospel to the Old Testament. Joseph here echoes Abraham, the "man of the house" spoken to by the Lord and saying yes.  Yes, I'll pack my bags and leave my comfortable surroundings (a parallel which we'll see actually play out in the next chapter of Matthew).  Yes, I'll accept that this is the son of God and be the child's father.  

Sometimes I wish for a little more back and forth to appreciate the leap of faith that entailed, but when it comes to sacrifice Joseph, like Abraham and like many of our parents and parent-figures today, is reticent.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jon Stewart on Tuscon

I don't know if you watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I think from time to time I've posted some of their bits here. Their bread and butter is watching the political scene and the media responses to it and uncovering the absurdity or hypocrisy to be found there.  They lean left, but they're definitely willing to take just about anybody on, including the President. 

Anyway, on Monday night Stewart took off his clown nose for the first ten minutes of the show to talk from the heart about the weekend shootings in Tuscon.  And rather than going for finger pointing or "Is Sarah Palin to blame?", Stewart offered a really sober and I would say profound meditation on our hopes and fears in this country.  Check it out. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Matthew 1: The Jewish Gospel

The Sunday readings at Catholic liturgies follow a three year cycle (and the daily readings, a two year cycle). Each year of that three-year cycle draws primarily during Ordinary Time from one of the three synoptic gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke.  (John can be found during special seasons like Lent, Easter or Advent, as well as sprinkled throughout the liturgical year.)

"Synoptic" -- "Seen together".  Luke and Matthew both use Mark as a source for their narrative.  (Yes, Matthew is the first gospel in New Testament, but not the earliest.  Funny, isn't it?)  Since the two build from Mark, we can look at all three together, i.e. side by side, to compare and contrast.  And so, synoptic -- able to be seen together.   

For the liturgical year beginning with Advent 2010 and going until Advent 2011, the main gospel is Matthew. (Note: Not Luke, as I wrote last week.)  So, for the coming months, I'm going to take a little blog space a couple days a week walking through the gospel offering some reflections.  Sometimes, they'll be a little historical; other times, just what the reading kindles in me. 

 The Inspiration of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio
(You have to click on this; an extraordinary work)

Matthew begins with a long genealogy, starting with Abraham and going all the way to Jesus.  It's a little daunting to read; so few of the names are familiar, they all blur together.  Often you hear this reading around Christmas, and the point made by homilists is that, if you dig into this list of names, you'll find kings and criminals, adulterers and Gentiles and prostitutes.  That is to say, though he is the Messiah, Matthew doesn't imagine Jesus coming from some sort of "perfect" stock.  His lineage is as crooked and broken as any of the rest of us.

In fact, one scripture scholar, Dan Harrington, points out that the inclusion of Rahab the prostitute was the mother of Boaz is unattested elsewhere in the Old Testament. Which is to say, rather than hide what would seem an embarrassing ancestor for the son of God,  Matthew might have actually chosen to add that detail!

At a number of different points, sort of like chapter breaks, the book of Genesis presents similar genealogies. And that's important to know, too, because it helps us see right away what Matthew might be intending with this gospel.  More than any of the other gospels, Matthew is interested in presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish history, Jewish prophesy, Jewish law.  So we'll see lots of Old Testament readings referenced, with note that now, in Jesus, these things are fulfilled.  And we'll see Jesus the teacher, interpreting the Hebrew scriptures and law with authority. Having a genealogy at the start is a sort of literary version of the same. It says this book that you're reading now, it's part of the same  text you already know.

It's fun to try and learn about some of those names mentioned in the genealogy of Matthew.  Each of them has a story, many of them at least referenced in the Old Testament.  If you want to read one of the more strange and interesting of them, check out the story of Tamar, one of only a few women mentioned in the genealogy (Genesis 38).  I suspect you'll be surprised to find the story in the scriptures....  

One artist's take on the story of Tamar...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Your New Year Happy

Happy New Year. I hope your holidays have been great and filled with all different kinds of rejoicing!

Yesterday I was at Mass and heard this most interesting story: recently a social scientist wondered what it is above all that people need to be happy. If you could narrow it down to just one thing, he asked, the most important thing, what would it be? 

What would you guess might be the most important thing people need for happiness?  

Some might say security.  Some might say food and shelter.  Some might say education.  

But it turns out, according to this scientist's research, the most important factor in a person's happiness is vulnerability.  True story: the more a person allows themselves to be vulnerable, takes risks, steps outside their comfort zone, the happier they tend to be. 

An interesting thought for your New Year...

I'm going to start posting again starting next week, probably 2 or 3 days a week. This year in Ordinary Time, Luke is the gospel du jour, so I think I'm going to write a couple times a week about what's up in Luke, little reflections that might be helpful.  And once a week I'm going to do a little pop culture and spirituality commentary.  We'll see how it goes!

Go out there and get vulnerable! (Or I guess you could say, go out there and expose yourself!)