“The gesture in the temple is all the more poignant and prophetic when we imagine it executed by a man too slight to carry his own cross without assistance, a man whose idea of a workout is a forty-day fast.”
Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger
Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return. Gen. 3:19
The language of “spiritual journey” is commonplace in describing the season of Lent–the 40-day pilgrimage Christians undertake as they trek with Jesus from the wilderness to the garden to the garbage heap of Golgotha and beyond. “Spiritual” in this context, as in almost every other, is so vague as to be not merely unhelpful but an actual obstacle to understanding what it is that Lent through the centuries has called Christians to.
Generally, “spiritual” is meant to signal a concern with matters of the heart or the soul or the deepest self. More pointedly, it almost always springs from–even as it continues to endorse–the tired dualisms of modernity that have divided body from soul, matter from spirit, earth from heaven. This false divide, as Wendell Berry has observed, is “a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault.”
Interestingly, it is geology (sort of) that can help get us back on track or–forgive the pun–onto solid ground. When we receive the ashes on our foreheads we are marked with a visible sign of our mortality, yes, but we are also reminded of our link to all of creation past, present, and future–to elements both earthly and celestial, to the soil and to the stars. (We could even say: “remember you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return!”).
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“The Ancient of Days has become an infant.”
John Chrysostom, 4th century
On Christmas Eve we read Luke’s dramatic account of the birth of Jesus. On the first Sunday of Christmas (or, as it happens this year, Christmas Day) we read the prologue from John’s gospel. At first glance these texts seem to offer two very different perspectives on the coming of Christ into our world: Luke’s is earthy and political, conveying the historical contingencies (and palpable dangers) that attended the first Advent; John’s is meditative and philosophical, written in academic Greek, locating the “Word made flesh” not in the provincial politics of first-century Palestine but boldly and unapologetically in the sweeping history of the cosmos.
But despite the differences there is, I suggest, an affinity, a necessary and even urgent correspondence, between these two traditional Christmas narratives. And perhaps especially this year, as liturgically we read and hear them only hours apart, this affinity is worthy of deeper exploration.
In Luke, we glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically, ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky border crossings.
Perhaps our response to Sunday’s lectionary gospel text ought to be Quaker-like silence.
It’s Matthew, after all, so we are familiar with the uncompromising eschatology. But what to say? It’s a passage that contains one of the hard(est) sayings of Jesus: plenty of mystery but seemingly little grace.
In Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet (would that it was Luke’s!), a king plans a great nuptial feast for his son. Twice he sends slaves to summon the invited guests but, for reasons left unsaid, “they would not come.” (The second wave of slaves are brutally slaughtered by some of the guests—a shocking, inscrutable over-reaction that prefigures more violence to come). Read more
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Immediately before the story of the feeding of the five thousand is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the multitude fed on the beach (a detail unique to Matthew’s version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John’s demise: Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and serves up the plated head to her mother. (That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew’s gospel — recall also the women who appear in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter one – is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas’s 1990 essay in Theology Today).
Also interesting is the juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John’s beheading) with that of fulfillment and abundance in the feeding narrative. The murder of John the Baptist is a result of power confronted and hypocrisy exposed. Where fear reigns, violence cannot be far behind. Herod’s birthday party is an occasion for the casual disregard of human life to come to a head (forgive the pun) in the expedient execution of a political troublemaker. And while this blood-tinged birthday banquet represents the old order with its fear-mongering and death-dealing ways, the feeding of the five thousand heralds the new order: fullness of life and health for all (even women and children). Read more