BAPTISM OF OUR LORD – THE INTANGIBLE, IMPALPABLE INSTANT


BAPTISM OF OUR LORD – THE INTANGIBLE, IMPALPABLE INSTANT

Matthew 3:13-17

“The spirit descends, /untying tongues, / but it doesn’t speak words: / it speaks flames.Language, lit by a god/ is prophecy/ of flames and a crash/ of burnt syllables: meaningless ash.” Octavio Paz: “To Talk” in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz

“Between after and before, / a parenthesis of stone, / I will be, for an instant that will never return, / the first man and the last. / And as I say it, the intangible, / impalpable instant / opens under my feet/ and closes over me, pure time.” Paz: Little Variation.

The poet Octavio Paz has revealed an image that brings into focus a transcendent occurrence, a thing that flashes as swiftly as a flame, disappears just as swiftly, but not before transfiguring the cosmos. It is “the intangible, impalpable instant” where the cosmos reclaims its original purity, pure time, purely human. In “the intangible, impalpable instant” the cosmos incarnates. And “I will be, for an instant that will never return, the first man and the last.” It is the embrace of Alpha and Omega, the complete completion of redemption.

These are the thoughts that sustain my exploration of the baptism of Jesus. All of the gospels have something to say about the baptism of Jesus. The synoptic gospels are clearly dependent upon Mark’s account in Mark 1:9-11. The gospel of John is as usual quite different, though it does indicate that Jesus was baptized by John. The Q Document which knows of the work of John the Baptist does not have an episode of the baptism of Jesus. However, like it, John the Baptist would have had his origin in the Palestinian community, and his baptism practices would have been a part of the Palestinian community. John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4. That his baptism drew many is shown in verse 5, for people came from throughout the region and were baptized by him, “confessing their sins.” John’s baptism was different from the ritual purification baths practiced by the Jews. John’s call and his message as reported in Luke 3:1-20 indicates the John’s baptism had both an ethical content, “repentance” and an eschatological content, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John believed that the end was near, that the kingdom of God was imminent, and consequently those who wanted entrance and new life must be baptized. This eschatological understanding of baptism was carried over into the ekklesia, that which was called into being in the fullness of time, the church. Baptism existed in the Christian community prior to the writing of the gospels. Paul, writing much earlier than the gospels, asks the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Rom. 6:3. The congregation in Rome had all been baptized.

Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus is quite different from the other gospels. John was reluctant to baptize him. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Mt. 3:14. What is Matthew doing here? In John 3:30 John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And one verse earlier, “for this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” I’m convinced that Matthew did not know of the gospel of John. However, it is possible that those ideas were current and available to him in other forms. Did John recognize Jesus as the one whom John had predicted would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire? If so, John would have known that Jesus was the promised eschatological Messiah. But there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist had such knowledge. Matthew is constructing a narrative, within which there is a dialogue between John and Jesus, to proclaim something special. Just what it is, is not yet clear.

John tells Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you.” It is a declaration, not a request. I assume that John had already been baptized. Matthew is declaring something about John, about baptism and about Jesus. I believe that Matthew has constructed this piece of narrative as Christian catechesis. To do this he presents the church with a picture that is memorable, graspable, and already common to their culture. They understand his language and imagery of apocalyptic because it was the language and imagery of their congregation. We are far removed from that culture today in the twenty-first century and we must excavate his words to uncover his message. He is teaching his congregation that everyone needs to be baptized by Jesus, but what he means by baptism is something completely different. Each early Christian congregation stood as the geographical center of the reign of God, the eschatological community that had been created and prepared for the arrival of the divine. John the Baptist as the one who was called by God to prepare this sacred center for the arrival of the divine must have understood that. His prophetic baptism was anticipatory: it was repentance; it was confession. John must have been aware of what comes next. Repentance and confession must be followed by absolution. I have said elsewhere that the gospel of Matthew is the gospel of absolution. John himself had received the baptism of repentance, confessing his sins. The “need” he expressed when he said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you,” must be to hear from Jesus himself the word of absolution.  When Matthew teaches his congregation that everyone needs to be baptized by Jesus this is what he means: everyone stands in need of absolution; Jesus is himself the absolution for which they longed.

What is Matthew proclaiming when he has John say, “do you come to me?” By having Jesus present himself for baptism, Matthew is teaching that no one is excluded from submitting to this eschatological sacrament who wants to share in the kingdom of God. This is the simplest answer for a missionary church: everyone who wants to be a part of the redeemed community must submit to baptism. Jesus himself is the example for surrendering to the demand of the divine because Jesus is himself the absolution towards which baptism beckons.

Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” For the moment let things remain as they are. Soon this moment, this instant, will be seen in a different light. When Matthew has Jesus say, “Let it be so now,” he is building his narrative. He is laying the groundwork for an opening to occur whereby what is “now” will be thrown into the light of what is “then.” The words, “Let it be so now,” slows down the narrative. I am helped in my approach here by the Beatitudes. In them we hear an implied “now” and before we realize the impact of the promise the “now” is completely swallowed up in the “then.” However, “now” and “then” have no reference to time or to what is temporal. Matthew is proclaiming “the intangible, implausible moment,” the transcendental emergence of the divine into the light where mortals dwell. Mortals dwell in oblivion of the divine. John the Baptist came proclaiming the imminent arrival of the divine precisely because his hearers were completely unaware that they were living in the absence of the divine. That was his prophetic power: he was revealing that of which they remained oblivious. And here he is, standing in the presence of Jesus who tells him, “Let it be so now.” John, the apocalyptic prophet immediately understands. “Then he consented.” He knows the “now” is nothing other than the punctuation mark signifying the end of the present age. The “then” is the eschatological dawn of the divine that has already arrived among mortals but still hidden except to those already in the kingdom of God. Matthew constructs his narrative in conformity with the apocalyptic faith that informed the Christian community that their hope has been fulfilled.

Jesus says “for it is proper in this way….” This is an extension and emphasis of “let it be so now.” It is fitting that the “now” run its course. Only when the “now” has completed the task for which it was created will it create a clearing for the arrival of the “then.” It is at this point in the dialogue that Matthew begins to reveal the full content of the “then.” I have referred to this as “the eschatological dawn of the divine.” Matthew says it is “to fulfill all righteousness.”  I have pointed out elsewhere that Matthew sees Abraham as the progenitor of Jesus. He is aware of God’s covenant with Abraham, where it is said that “Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Gen. 15:6. Further, God had chosen Abraham and all his family “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Gen. 18:19. The trajectory from Abraham to Jesus aims towards the completion of the promise to Abraham, that righteousness and justice will be fulfilled. Matthew is saying that when the “now” has completed its course, that is, when the present age has drawn to its close, then “all righteousness” will be fulfilled. He speaks not only of righteousness, but of “all” righteousness that must be fulfilled. Because righteousness is something which is reserved and will only arrive at the end of this present age, it too is an eschatological gift. It is something that will dawn with the arrival of the divine. It has the character of blessedness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Mt. 5:6. For Matthew, it is something that is still expected in the future, but that the future is here in the person of Jesus. Earlier in Matthew 3:8, John the Baptist had said to the Pharisees and Sadducees when the sought his baptism, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” from which I had concluded that John was speaking of the practice of righteousness.  Abraham’s faith was the foundation of the granting of righteousness. Jesus as a descendant of Abraham now approaches John for baptism, and he presents himself with worshipful humility, ready for the fulfilling of all righteousness. Matthew is proclaiming that in Jesus the “then” has arrived, and for this reason “all righteousness” will be fulfilled. Jesus as the eschatological bringer of salvation is the one in whom all righteousness is revealed. This is at the heart of the theological catechesis of Matthew.

I have still not explored the content of righteousness, except to say that it has the character of blessedness. The distribution of the word in the New Testament allows an insight into its use. Mark never uses it. Luke has it once in the gospel, 1:71, and twice in Acts, 13:10; 17:31. John has it twice in 16: 8, 10. It is central to Paul’s theology and is used most often in his letters. The word occurs for the first time in the Bible at Genesis 15:6, where Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. For Matthew, Abraham’s importance in the life of Jesus is crucial. John had criticized the Pharisees who came to him for baptism. In the same way Jesus said to them, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 5:20. Later, in comparing his listeners with the Gentiles, Jesus tells them, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 6:33. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus says, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” 21:32. In addition to this, Matthew uses the word “righteous” 13 times. I conclude that righteousness is critical to understanding the baptism of Jesus.

Righteousness is the practice of right conduct; this is its basic meaning. It would not be appropriate to see this from the point of view of psychology. Right conduct is not the way one behaves. It is an act of faith, a gift from the divine, as with Abraham, and that is complete and irreversible surrender to the divine. When Jesus tells the people “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he is not referring to an abundance of righteousness, for that itself is inconceivable. The scribes and Pharisees discover their righteousness in the law. In Matthew such righteousness must be transcended, and it is righteousness through faith that is uncovered in the word “exceeds.” It is only by faith that one submits to the will of God. Righteousness is rightly the gift that God bestows upon those who submit themselves in faith. As an eschatological gift, it grants to believers entrance into the kingdom of God. For this reason one must “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  Righteousness as God’s gift means that righteousness is another name for the grace that redeems. This is vividly stated in Ephesians 2:8. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” If we examine what Matthew means by “all” righteousness we may look to Micah 6:2 for a point of departure. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah counsels: surrender your all to the Lord. I am convinced that in Matthew’s vocabulary which his church understood very well the “all” refers to the entire Passion of Jesus Christ in which by his ultimate submission to God he carried within himself the whole of humanity, the cosmos itself, the long expected salvation, that is, eternal blessedness in the kingdom of God.

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

In his submission to John’s baptism, Jesus enters the flood bearing all of creation within himself, where judgment is pronounced and absolution granted. And rising now into a pure cosmos, he brings forth the new creation, cleansed, redeemed, transfigured. For me, this is “the intangible, impalpable instant” that Octavio Paz poetizes. In this passage Matthew speaks of an “ascending” (anabino) and a “descending.” (katabino).The Greek verbs are important for entering deeper into the meaning that Matthew intends. Would Matthew have been aware of Genesis 28:10-19?

Matthew clearly intends this event as a Christophany. The heavens were opened to Jesus, that is, the transcendental realm of the divine opened up itself to Jesus as he ascended from the water. One gets the picture that heaven itself has arrived to witness the event of the baptism of Jesus. The opening up of the heavens allows “the Spirit of God” to descend upon Jesus. The meeting place of the ascending and the descending, where heaven and earth, divine and human, embrace, (“alighting on him”) is called the horizon. The horizon is that which arrives to our sight “from the distance.” The horizon meets us where we are, and it meets the Christian church where it is. Wherever the church is, there is the meeting place of heaven and earth, there is the horizon. The divine, “the Spirit of God” descends into all that is human, all that is cosmos, and along with Jesus, lifts it into a transcendent eternity that the church later defined as eternal life.

“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Was it John who saw “the Spirit of God” descending? Was it Jesus who saw it? That is not easy to say. An insight may be gained from the way Matthew diverged from Mark on this. In Mark the second person, singular is used, to speak directly to Jesus. In Matthew, the third person, singular is used. The voice from heaven is a standard part of New Testament apocalyptic, where “heaven” is substituted for “God.” The meaning is that the divine itself is speaking. The essential message of apocalyptic is the proclamation of hope for the oppressed. The voice is not addressing Jesus but is disclosing who he is. Jesus is the hope of the oppressed. This indicates that the voice is addressing itself to John the Baptist, and that it was only John who saw “the Spirit of God” descending and alighting upon Jesus. Matthew intends this to be a revelation to John, henceforth to be an eye witness to this Christophany and thereafter to bear witness to it. For this reason the baptism of Jesus must not be seen as some kind of call to Jesus. As a Christophany it intends to reveal Jesus as who he is and as who he has always been, “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  In the baptism of Jesus, “the intangible, impalpable instant,” the divine is presenting itself as the fulfillment of ancient promises, as Mary reminds us, “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:55. Zechariah confirms this, “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” Luke 1:72-73.

Matthew has made this clear to his congregation, and for me, it is a reminder of Genesis 8:22. “As long as the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

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FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS:  “THE PROCREANT URGE OF THE WORLD”


FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS:  “THE PROCREANT URGE OF THE WORLD”   Matthew 2:1-12 “Where is He?”

“Each of us is inevitable. “ WW

“I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end, / But I do not talk of the beginning or the end. /There was never more any inception than there is now, / Nor any more youth or age than there is now, / and will never be any more perfection than there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. / Urge, and urge, and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.”  Walt Whitman:  Song of Myself

The Visitation of the Magi and the fear of King Herod are two events integrated into one narrative by Matthew. He alone of all the evangelists tells this story. It does not appear that the legend of the Magi existed in any of the sources at Matthew’s disposal. He himself must have created this narrative because he wanted to use it for a particular Christian apologetic. I will explore the legend of the Magi as summary of Matthew’s soteriology. The Visitation of the Magi is an epiphany that unveils the event of redemption. That the event occurred “In the time of King Herod,” is meant to convey the idea that what Matthew is presenting are facts of history. He interweaves matters of fact and matters of faith without leaving clear edges to indicate the difference. According to Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem rather than in his hometown of Nazareth as a result of prophecy. Mt. 2:6 quoting Micah 5:2. No other reason is offered for his parents being there. Matthew’s motif is that Jesus is a child of promise, his birth prophesied in an earlier time and awaited eagerly. The reason for this expectation is not as clear as supposed. In Matthew, “wise men from the East” probably Persia and Babylonia came in search of him, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” 2:2.

Not much is known of them. As the legend of the Magi developed in later tradition, it gave their number as three, sometimes as high as eight, and even gave them names. But that is not important for my reflection. The Magi came to Jerusalem is inquire about the child. Why did they not go directly to Bethlehem? If the star was indeed leading them, why did it lead them to Jerusalem? Jerusalem was the religious and cultural center of the Jews. It is also the home of the king. When one is seeking a king one needs to seek in a place where kings reside, that is, in palaces. If there are answers the Magi would certainly find them there. Of whom did they inquire as to the location of the child? Matthew offers no answers to these questions. The presence of the Magi in Jerusalem must have been widely known. Certainly King Herod had heard of them. There were asking about a “child who had been born King of the Jews.” This got his attention. Up to this point in the gospel, nothing has been said about a king of the Jews. All that has been said is that “he will save his people from their sins.” 1:21.

The idea of kingship is introduced by the Magi. Why does Matthew present this new idea at this point? There is ample cultural evidence in the gentile world that kings were honored in this way, but it is not a part of the ancient Jewish tradition. The motif of the Visitation of the Magi must have something to do with the arrival of the gospel message in lands that were predominantly gentile and Hellenistic. Even so, it would have had to indicate something particular to people of faith. I believe Matthew’s motif is the developing universalism of his gospel, culminating in the command of Jesus to go and make disciples “of all nations,” in 28:19. Matthew wants to show that not only is the birth of Jesus predicted in Jewish prophecy; it is also predicted in the stars. “For we have observed his star at its rising,” 2:2, and consequently, the wise men followed the star to Jerusalem. Matthew is proclaiming that all are included in “his people” whom he will save from their sins, both Jews and gentiles. I believe that there is another motif concealed in the legend of the Magi. They offer “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” 2:11. Some of these gifts are associated with anointing for burial. The Jewish prophecy speaks about birth; the legend of the Magi speaks about death. The gospel message at every point has in sight the death of Jesus. However, the symbolism of the gifts does not yield a greater understanding than that the Magi presented gifts to the parents of the child, and should be seen as nothing more than this.

King Herod heard about the birth of the child and the arrival of the Magi and he was frightened by what he heard. It says “all Jerusalem with him” was afraid. What caused this fear? I believe the fear of King Herod and the fear of “all Jerusalem” had quite different causes. Likely, King Herod feared a challenger, especially one predicted by ancient prophecy. It is possible that “all Jerusalem” feared the reaction of King Herod. In both cases, they feared for themselves. King Herod’s fear has a particular object, and with effort it was possible to locate and possibly destroy this object. His fear was something natural and manageable. The fear of all Jerusalem was very different. They did not know why they were afraid. With the birth of the child and the arrival of the Magi, something had descended upon the people of Jerusalem of which they were unaware, but which made them uneasy. A sense of foreboding was all around them that they could not point to, or define, but which laid heavily upon their hearts. This is not fear but anxiety. “All Jerusalem” was overtaken by anxiety. They were powerless in the face of this anxiety. Only that which resides in anxiety could release them. I sometimes wonder why did they not go to Bethlehem and see for themselves. I should have thought that the birth of a king should have attracted large numbers of people to his birth place. But Matthew’s narrative intention would certainly have subverted that.

King Herod consulted with the chief priests and the scribes about the place of the birth of the child. He was told that prophecy indicated that it was Bethlehem. He then consulted secretly with the Magi about the exact time when they received the sign from the star. The consultation would have been awkward, for King Herod to be seeking help from the Magi who had come in search of a new born king in the kingdom of Herod. The answer they gave him is not stated but for the Magi to have arrived at the birth of the child, they would have had to have seen the rising star at least a year earlier, if not more. Their caravan would have traveled many months to reach Bethlehem at the appointed time of birth. King Herod would have surmised that much for himself. Yet, he had to be completely certain. I suspect that the only reason they left there with their lives was that King Herod thought he could use them to locate the child in Bethlehem. He sent them on a mission: locate the child and inform me. The reason he gave was that he “may go and pay him homage.” 2:8. Really. I am reminded that when Oedipus was born it was predicted that he would grow up to kill his father. His parents then gave the new born to a shepherd to raise him as his own, and never disclose his royal birth. Oedipus did indeed kill his father, though he did not know that it was his father. I am sure such cultural legends were well known in Jerusalem, even and especially by King Herod. These two events, the consultations with the chief priests and the Magi, show that King Herod had considerable power which he used to address that which he feared.

The Magi went on their way, following the star. They had left their homes and families and all that is dear to them and had followed a star, not knowing where it may lead them. Something similar happens when Jesus enters into the lives of people. They leave everything of value and worth behind, to follow him. They too do not know where he may lead them. He touches something in the deepest parts of their soul that only he can nurture and sustain. They follow him, because what goes before, what goes ahead invokes and welcomes the future. Those who touch the plow cannot look back. The plow that uproots the soil lays bare their soul to the cleansing power of his word. So it is for the Magi also. For the Magi this was not a simple act of following a star. This act was the substance of their faith. They were being faithful to their religious heritage, the content of their teaching, their vocation. For the Magi, their lives depended upon following not only this star, but the cosmos that gave them life and sustained them daily. They saw the story of their lives played out in the heavens. They were at home in the night because for them when darkness falls upon the face of the earth, the glory of the heavens is revealed in all its brilliance.

What is it about this special star that they are following? What message does it hold for them whose faith is much different from that of the people of Jerusalem and Bethlehem?  This new star had entered into their cosmos, burst upon their vision, from a source unknown to them. Its origin was as mysterious as its arrival. This star declared to them that something new has happened that will affect all of humanity. They had to make it known to the whole world; that was their mission, to declare to the whole world that something new had entered into creation, something that existed before all creation, something without which creation would not have come into being. What the star announced to them is “seek me! I am the King of the Jews.” But the Magi understood that this was not just a king, and not just for one people. What is hidden in the phrase “the King of the Jews” is nothing less than the divine. The Magi who read the cosmos know that the divine who encompasses the entire cosmos has made an appearance and must be revealed. William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” is instructive here. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.” When the ears hear “King of the Jews” the heart understands the transcendent has arrived, the eternal has dawned.  The child whom they seek, whom they have seen spread across the nightly cosmic vastness, beckons them, speaking through a star whose light he has always been and will always be because he is the Light before all lights, the Word before all words. They have arrived in time to witness “the procreant urge of the world.” The cosmos with one new star is no longer the cosmos of an ancient day, nor of yesterday. The new star transforms, renews, and initiates an ever-creating cosmos.

Early Christian apocalyptic such as the Revelation of John concealed the divine under a rich symbolism that was easily understandable to the initiates, the persecuted Christian community. They understood that the symbolism itself could not contain the divine, but that to embrace the symbolism is to embrace the divine. I take “King of the Jews” to be an apocalyptic symbol also that the early Christians understood and embraced. The fact of history is that Jesus never was the King of the Jews. He lived and died as a prophet and an itinerant preacher, regardless of the inscription on the cross. This is what history declares. However, Matthew’s narrative is the eschatological unfolding of the divine that has sought shelter in a new born child. This child too is symbolic. Through him is expressed “the procreant urge of the world.” The Micah 5:2 passage cited by Matthew says that the one who shall come forth is he “whose origin is of old, from ancient days.” Bethlehem has become the eschatological center for the “procreant urge of the world.” He who is from everlasting to everlasting, who was before all creation, must arrive among us, “for us and for our salvation” as we arrive among ourselves, in a human birth. He who has no beginning begins as we do. The gradual unfolding of grace which began in creation with Earth’s Adam, continues in a home with Mary’s Jesus: the home, Eden’s completion, the simplicity of the grandeur of God.

The Magi followed the star which stopped over the place where the child was. “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” 2:10. To be overwhelmed means to be taken over so completely that one loses sight of who one is. One’s existence is absorbed by that which overwhelms. One who is overwhelmed is not pushed down into oblivion, but is transported into the light of that which overwhelms. To be overwhelmed by joy is to be transported into the recurrence of salvation. Salvation as joy recurs because the exile always exists as exile, and only as exile can the exiled one be transfigured. The joy is the fount of all life to come. It comes upon them before they enter into the sacred place of birth. Just as Adam was transformed so that his eyes could be made to see Eve, something new in creation, so also the Magi had to be made ready to behold the new thing that had arrived upon the earth. Joy too arrives; joy recurs, it does not arrive to remain. It meets, comes upon, overwhelms. Joy is the epiphany of that which still remains sheltered, and what is sheltered is what grants salvation, the transfiguration of the exile who has traveled far to enter into the nearness of the divine.

To be overwhelmed by joy is to live in the constancy of Absolution, in the enduring presence of the Absolute. The Magi were not merely happy when the star stopped, they were changed. They are no longer the same as what they arrived. Transfigured by joy they can now enter the house of the divine, the sacred place of birth. Transfigured by the epiphany that hides in joy, only now can they kneel down and worship the one who had called them to follow his star to this holy ground. From that joy, the fount of all life to come, pour out gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. I have said earlier that one may not push too far the symbolism of the gifts. They gave gifts; that is as much as one may say. Matthew emphasizes neither the gifts nor the number. In the presence of the divine, and standing upon holy ground, that which is human pours forth itself as gratitude. Worship is nothing other than delivering all that is human into all that is divine. It is the complete surrender to, and irreversible return to the fount from which all life originates. The Magi did not travel to worship “the King of the Jews.” From the beginning they were led here. They were called by a star and by its light they were guided to this place. And when all was accomplished they were warned in a dream as to their further course. At every step they were led by the divine. Their journey is the unfolding of an epiphany. It is in the act of kneeling and worship that their journey comes to its end, but not an end as a point from which nothing further evolves. This end is the place from which the journey of the Magi begins again, and so “they returned to their own country.” Humanity, the Exile, has come home.

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NATIVITY OF OUR LORD – 2016 – THE OTHER SIDE OF DESPAIR


NATIVITY OF OUR LORD – 2016 – THE OTHER SIDE OF DESPAIR  

Luke 2: 18-20             “Good news of great joy for all the people.”

“Where does one go from a world of insanity?

Somewhere on the other side of despair.” T. S. Eliot: The Family Reunion

“When the flaming lute-thronged angelic door is wide; / When an immortal passion breathes in mortal clay; / Our hearts endure the scourge, thy plaited thorns, the way/ Crowded with bitter faces;/ The wound in palm and side/ The vinegar-heavy sponge, the flowers of Kedron stream;/ We will bend down and loosen our hair over you/ Then it may drop faint perfume, and be heavy with dew/ Lilies of death-pale hope, roses of passionate dream.”                                     William Butler Yeats: The Travail of Passion.

In Philemon 24 Luke is mentioned among the co-workers of Paul. In II Timothy Luke is with Paul. In Col. 4:14 Luke is referred to as “the beloved physician.” It is believed that Luke is also the Lucius mentioned in Rom.16:21. In some non-biblical literature Luke is the abbreviated form of Lucius. His writings, the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, show that he is associated with Hellenistic Christians, that is, the Greek-speaking community. The fact that he traveled with Paul who is a missionary to the gentiles would indicate this also. Some people dispute that he was a physician, but that does not matter as regards his writing. He is not writing as a physician, but as a defender of the Christian faith.

Luke stated clearly his purpose in writing this Gospel in the first few verses. He intended to write an “orderly account,” which hardly implies a chronological account, specifically that Theophilus “may know the truth (certainty, not alethia) of the things of which you have been informed, (catechesis, oral teaching).” Luke’s purpose is clearly to present the certainty of catechesis, teaching the faith through word of mouth, meaning “the things which have been accomplished among us just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” (In Luke logos is Gospel, while in John logos is Christ the Revealer). By the time Luke is writing, the proclamation of the word had moved from word of mouth, oral tradition, to a written text. “Many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the event.” Luke 1:1. What Luke intends now is to offer certainty through apologetics. The gospel is entirely eschatological. Jesus is the bringer of the eschatological kingdom of God. The aim of Luke’s early Christian apologetics is not to present the certainty of fact, but the assurance of faith. This is what he promises Theophilus.

Luke 2:8-20 is his own creation. It is certain that he had before him the gospel of Mark and the Q Document. There were also oral traditions available to him. If indeed he was a co-worker with Paul, then he would know the content of the preaching of Paul, which is much older than any of the written gospels. Paul himself had received some of the earliest traditions of the Christian gospel. He said in I Cor. 15: 3-5, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve.” These verses indicate the earliest form of the gospel.  It consisted entirely and solely of the passion of the Christ. Luke constructed his gospel around this kernel, adding what he learned from Mark and Q. Thus, the revelation of Jesus Christ is the revelation of his Passion. This is the center and core of the story of salvation. His passion is a theological dialectic of hope and despair which integrates what is mortal with what is eternal. The result is nothing less than a miracle: the human being, the mortal, consequent to the passion of Christ, is the synthesis of redemption.

In exploring the event of Luke 2:8-20, it will be necessary to investigate the vivid description much of which is no longer shared by 21st.century believers. The appearance of angels surrounded by the glory of God, for example, is not an ordinary event to which we are accustomed. Therefore we must examine this world-view as thoroughly as possible to uncover the meaning that it wants to communicate, not only then, but also now. Since childhood we have been delighted by these stories. But there are unanswered questions, and to this we must now turn.

Why was this announcement by the angel made to shepherds? There is no clear answer to this. The shepherds were living in their fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. This was not just their night job; it was their life. They lived in the fields. Abel, a shepherd, died in the fields in Genesis. Danger lurks there. The angel came to their home, where they lived, to make an announcement about someone who thought of himself as homeless, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” They were born and lived among their animals, just as Jesus was born among animals. In this way even his birth was hidden from the world, and who he is remains hidden to this day, and comes into view only through revelation. For the shepherds it must have started out as any other night. They keep watch. Those who keep watch are awake, alert, and vigilant. In order to protect themselves and their sheep they must guard against any and all danger. The night presents danger. What constitutes night is darkness. Darkness covers over, hides what is threatening. What it hides may appear at any moment, hence they must be always vigilant. Often during his ministry Jesus advised, watch and pray, for you know not the hour. It is precisely to the watchful that the angel appears.

Then the unexpected happened. Tonight, the terror was not hidden in darkness but in light! What strange paradoxes befall us. The angel of the Lord appeared in their midst, full of the light of the glory of God. To stand in the light of Christ must also be terrible, to be seen as and for what one is. It says, “they were terrified.” What is the terror that terrifies them? That the darkness was suddenly shattered by light must have certainly jolted them. However, I am trying to understand the terror that terrified them and this is not easy to uncover. There are many candidates: the light, the angel and the announcement. Often an angel is a disguise for the divine. Is it possible that what we have here is a theophany? This certainly seems to be the case. Before them is an “angel of the Lord.”  Further, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” The glory of the Lord is that within which the Lord resides, as is said elsewhere, “he dwells in unapproachable light.” I Tim. 6:16. I believe that this is a glory that is reserved for the Lord himself. The passage goes on to say that there appeared also, “a multitude of heavenly host,” praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” I cannot believe that such a heavenly host accompanied an angel to deliver a message. I am convinced that this event is a theophany that the Lord himself has appeared to them. Compare the story of Hagar in Genesis 16: 7-13, where it is clear that the angel is none other than the Lord himself.

If it is, then to stand before the Lord is to stand in terror, because for the shepherds to look upon the face of the Lord is to die. What the surrounding light reveals to them is their mortality. The terror that they fear is the certainty of their death because they have gazed upon the face of the Lord.  This would make sense, because the angel immediately says, “Do not be afraid.” 2:10. This is the third time that an angel has counseled this “do not fear” in the opening of Luke’s gospel: First, to Zechariah in 1:13, with the promise of a son; second, to Mary, in 1:30, also with the promise of a son, and now to the shepherds, with the announcement that her son has arrived. The angel encourages them, “See!” Behold! Open your eyes! That is, they can look upon the angel without the fear of dying. For the angel brings them life not death. This is the initial proclamation of the gospel. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 2:11.

After the angel had departed, and while still in shock, the shepherds left their flocks and went to Bethlehem to find the child. Their action calls for further exploration. They did not simply leave their flocks. They put their flocks in danger by leaving them at the mercy of the darkness. Why would they do this? Let us remember they spent their entire life with their flocks. In leaving them behind the shepherds answered a call to go and find the child. When Christ calls, whether it is shepherds or fishermen or tax collectors or sinners, all immediately leave everything and follow him. The story of the shepherd who left ninety-nine of his sheep unattended to go in search of one which was lost is instructive. “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.” The angelic announcement of the good news of the gospel was a call to find the One who was born in the city of David, another shepherd of old. Others will seek him later also, wise men and kings, with different motives. The shepherds found the child, how many mangers they explored is not stated. But upon finding him, they testified to the truth of the message, and returned with praises and glory.

The story of the birth of Jesus Christ is still a challenge to our imagination and our intellect. The message is that he comes into our homes to confront us. He meets us where we are, and then demands that we abandon the ground upon which we stand and embrace him on his holy ground. He demands that we leave everything behind and follow him, and that means ultimately, that we leave our life behind in pursuit of the life he offers. To leave our life behind is nothing less than to die. We must face our own death, for that is what sin has placed before us and from which we avert our eyes. Our mortality binds us to a here and now that always remains a here and now. Our mortality is not something that we voluntarily confront. For the most part we are oblivious to it, unaware that our mortality is devouring us bit by bit. And then comes the announcement of a Savior! The good news is that this Savior has come to give us life, and to give it abundantly. Abundantly does not mean “a whole lot of life,” but rather eternal life, life that transcends the here and now that devours us. The Savior has come to confront the terror of our mortality with the promise of eternity. This is what it means to say that history has become eschatology. How may we understand this in the 21st. century?

Yeats “When an immortal passion breathes in mortal clay,” brings together two images whose essence is to confront and contradict each other. What is “immortal” is that which shall never endure anxiety in the face of death. “Mortal” is that which already and always lives within that anxiety and can never emerge from it. It is instructive that newer translations of the Bible use “mortal” instead of “man” as a way to achieve “inclusivity.” It certainly accomplishes that. It also retrieves from obscurity an image with which human beings are not at home: the mortal who is ever faced with the existential anxiety of death. “The immortal” which never has to face the existential crisis of death is not the same as “the eternal.” The eternal is that which shall not be comprehended by time. The Nativity of our Lord is that event in which the eternal has arrived to deliver the mortal from death. Yet, this deliverance does not grant the mortal immortality. For Yeats, what is immortal is a passion within the mortal, that leads us “to bend down and loosen our hair over you,” making reference to the Anointing at Bethany of Jesus Christ. Passion lies at the heart of devotion and worship, and for this reason there can be no mission where there is no passion. The passion of the Christ is the passion of the Church. This is evident from the beginning, from the initial announcement of the birth of the Savior. According to Luke 2:8-20, the shepherds to whom the revelation of Jesus Christ comes initially must immediately “go and see” in order that they may “go and tell.” Revelation grants passion, and passion bestows strength through grace to “go and tell.”

II Timothy 1:8-11 gives a good summary of the coming together of passion, mortality and eternity. The writer is “suffering for the gospel,” because he has been given a “holy calling” by God’s grace. “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” 9-11. In another place he writes, “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.” I Tim. 6:16. Earlier he had said, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever.” I Tim. 1:17. Paul also calls attention to similar connections in Romans 1:23; 2:7; I Cor. 15:53-54. From the original announcement by the angel in Luke 2 to the later proclamation, the message has remained the same: it is “good news of great joy for all people.”

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

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ADVENT IV – 2016 – THE CRUSHING INERTIA OF EXISTENCE


ADVENT IV – 2016 THE CRUSHING INERTIA OF EXISTENCE

“The worst thing in life is the fact that it repeats itself, and the mission of art is to avoid this, eliminating monotony and giving respite for the crushing inertia of existence.” Ramon Gomez de La Serna: DALI

“He will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

The gospel of Matthew is anonymous, the name Matthew being added long after it was written. The identity of the evangelist is unknown. However, something can be said about him. The fact that he gives a translation of the name of Jesus and the name Emmanuel may indicate that he is writing from within a community that is not Semitic and does not know Aramaic. The fact that he is presenting something like a virgin birth shows that his community is not Jewish Christians, for Judaism does not entertain that idea. On the other hand, divine births are common in the literature of Hellenism. The evangelist might have been writing for an Hellenistic Christian community. I have suggested, though I cannot discuss here, that the gospel must have been written somewhere in southern Syria, most likely Antioch. Only Matthew and Luke show an interest in the birth narratives of Jesus. Mark, Paul, John and the Q Document have no interest in it. The evangelist had at his disposal different sources. He used the gospel of Mark and the Q Document. He must also have had numerous oral traditions available that he wove into different parts of the gospel. Finally, he constructed his gospel with theological and apologetic intent to respond to the needs of his audience.

Matthew 2:18-25 is an account of how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. Just prior to this narrative, Matthew presents a genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Abraham. Luke, however, traces the genealogy of Jesus back to son of Adam, son of God. I believe Matthew’s choice for his genealogy is important for understanding the gospel. According to the narrative, Mary was engaged to Joseph, but was found to be with child. Nothing is known of Joseph’s age, but it is certain that he was older than Mary. Whether like Abraham he was past his reproductive years is unknown. What is known is that both Sarah and Mary bore sons as a result of divine intervention. Matthew must certainly have known the history of Abraham. Both Abraham and Joseph are described as righteous men with a sense of integrity. Both men are known to respond to the voice of the divine and to comply with its directives.

At the beginning of his life Jesus is protected by Joseph. At the end of his life he is placed in a new tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. This may be no more than a coincidence of names. They are joined by Joseph the dreamer in Genesis who saved his family from death during a time of famine. This may be of no consequence, but if I think along with Matthew about the importance of names (Jesus, Emmanuel) this may yield some insight into his apologetic.

As the spirit of God was present at the creation of the world in Genesis, so it is present in the conceiving of Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes its appearance twice in this brief narrative, as the source and instrument of Mary’s conception. Matthew is making an important point, that the birth of Jesus is a miracle brought about by the divine itself. It is an announcement that the divine has entered into the human and that the first steps toward the overcoming of its existential alienation and estrangement from the divine have been taken. In the pre-dawn of human history, a rupture occurred in an original paradise during humanity’s incubation so to speak. The rupture, a tragedy of mythological proportions, marked an initial direct challenge to the sovereignty and authority of the divine, and resulted in the exile of Adam and Eve from paradise. That exile is the concretization of estrangement. The exile can dwell only as one estranged from the divine. Exile, homelessness, is henceforth the existential condition of humankind. The pre-dawn of history has given way, beyond the seventh day, to the dawn of history. History as what is always here in its invisibility is the amnesia of alienation and estrangement. History, sustained by its essential inertia bears the exiles further away from their source and origin. This is not distance or dimension in time. The amnesia of the exiles has its source in being borne away by a spirit now alien to them, whose name is Will. Will is that which has the power to say “yes,” but also to say “no.” The progenitor exiles of Eden and their descendents, as a result of their amnesia, live in the total and complete absence of the divine. What is tragic in this tragedy is that those who stood at the origin have been thrown into a void, its content pure nothingness into which the progenitors have been absorbed. This is referred to as “The Fall.” I think this is the point that Matthew is making. Eden’s rupture, Eden’s tragedy cannot be healed. It must be transcended and transfigured, and for this to come to be, a New Creation must come into being, and that through the divine Will alone.

When Matthew begins the revelation of Jesus Christ with Abraham he intends us to understand Abraham as Progenitor. He is not just one incident in a vast number of incidents comprising something known as history. He is inserted into history on a particular day that Matthew wants us to see as the origin. Abraham as origin is the originator of the revelation of Jesus Christ. And from this perspective the gospel of Matthew is as much a revelation as the Apocalypse of John. When I speak of the progenitor as originator I mean to say that the new day of the Lord has its origin in a source from which it emerges. Emerge means coming to light. Matthew presents Abraham as the Source from which the revelation of Jesus Christ emerges. As such, Abraham himself belongs to the revelation. He is neither a by-stander nor an observer. As the Source of the revelation, Abraham is carried along with it.

In Abraham the mythic paradise recedes in order that cosmos, pure futurity, may come to birth. (In time to come this cosmos will be seen in its essence as ekklesia, the church. But that must wait. It too incubates). In him myth becomes history as the evolution of a drama that transcends time. With Abraham myth becomes history, and history itself is now remythified into eschatology. The divine drama being acted out is the revelation of Jesus Christ, with Abraham as Progenitor and Jesus Christ as the eschaton, the end that is always present. Where the human exists, there is the end; hence also the beginning. Consequently, eschatology is the only vehicle that can bear Jesus Christ rightly into the opening up of the Omega. The Omega which is none other than the Alpha coming into itself has already happened. It is in this light, the light shed by eschatology that we can begin to grasp what is said in the words “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” and further, “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” These statements cannot be grasped by historical analysis. They are not statements of history. They are eschatological statements.  As with Abraham so also with Mary, who is the Source from which emerges the drama of revelation.

Matthew has made it impossible to speak of the “story” of Jesus Christ or the “history” of Jesus. Only as eschatology can the revelation of Jesus Christ be appropriated, and this too not in the general sense of “knowing” something. Paul rightly refers to this as a revelation “through faith for faith.” Rom. 1:17. For Matthew, Abraham as Progenitor means that eschatology has already become the means whereby the salvation of humanity will be revealed. Even “salvation” itself still exists in the world of myth and must be demythologized, that is, reinterpreted from the meaning contained in revelation. “He will save his people from their sins.” This is not a rescue mission in which all’s well that ends well. This announcement cannot be evaluated historically. History cannot comprehend someone “saving” another from “sins.” Matthew is not writing a story about Jesus. He is proclaiming what “eye has not seen, nor ears heard.” I Cor. 9:2. What he announces arrives from beyond what eyes can see and ears can comprehend, but which for faith stands ready.

What Matthew announces is Absolution. The gospel of Matthew is the announcement of absolution. “He will save his people from their sins.” The exiles from paradise of old, for whom Abraham is the new progenitor has come to rest in Mary who is with child by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, “do not be afraid,” for “he will save his people from their sins.” That is the announcement of Absolution that overcomes the existential alienation and estrangement of the exiles. It is only now after the pronouncement of absolution that Matthew can say Emmanuel, “God with us.” Later Jesus will speak for himself. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mt. 28:20. He is the only one who can say, “remember,” to transfigure the amnesia of the exiles. Re-member does not simply mean to recollect. It means also to make whole again that which has been dis-membered. A relationship has been dismembered. Now God has reconciled the exiles. The Exiled One who resides in Mary is the only one who can say “absolution,” for only the Absolute can absolve.

But what is the sin for which this absolution is necessary?

I began my reflection upon tragedy with my reflection upon the reading for Advent III. I said there that tragedy cannot be defeated, it can only be transfigured. I am still pursuing the elusive definition. What is it? What is this “crushing inertia of existence” under which the human struggles? Tragedy interrupts the normal evolution of divine and human relationships, even mythological relationships in the predawn of history. Something profane is introduced into sacred myth. Tragedy uproots normal human relationship over the entire span of history. Something takes place, often quite unexpectedly for which one is obviously not prepared. Something cuts into a day, breaks the continuity of time, which stops temporarily for one who has been grasped by tragedy. Time will begin to flow again, but for now, tragedy is in control. It inserts itself into time, creating a “before” and an “after.” Tragedy pauses time. Between the before and the after tragedy dominates. The tragic within tragedy is a yawning abyss, that ancient edenic void, into which falls all that is human, the entire range of humanness plunges downward into nothingness. Human life is upturned, its rootedness gone. Meandering across the expanse of its soul, now shrunk and diminished, are new phenomena: confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, loss, pain, grief, anxiety, guilt, shame, in a single word, suffering. The abyss that is tragedy does not yield, does not release its hold. It demands recompense for its “gift,” from those so immediately transformed by this “gift.” All that has fallen into the void has now been absorbed by it, disappearing into its substance and structure until all that remains is an empty loneliness whose content is abandonment, isolation, alienation and estrangement. In other words, this is none other than the existential dismemberment of a soul once human. This is the void where nothingness lies in wait. This is the gift of tragedy.

Tragedy abides, roaming through the landscape of debris of the human spirit. It scans the geography of the diminished human soul, seeking a place of rest, a home, so that its abiding in finding a home becomes a remaining. Tragedy remains, its permanence now resides in memory. Tragedy let no one forget. Eventually time will heal itself and move on. But it does not move on alone. It is not yet aware that tragedy has embedded itself as memory into its once and original pure essence. Memory, ever since the ancient days the midwife of time, preserves for all time what is tragic within tragedy – the shards of an originally whole and complete creature called human. What is tragic within tragedy is the existential alienation of the human, its uprooting and consequent exile from its ground that gave it form and substance and meaning. What is tragic within tragedy is the recurring in memory of a rupture, at once ancient and modern, now abidingly present, a homesickness, a longing for some ancient paradise and even a yearning for yesterday’s peace. What is tragic in tragedy is that its presence holds sway over human existence so firmly that existence itself, which is none other than the human being itself, is now permanently alienated and estranged from its “life.” What is tragic in tragedy is the complete existential helplessness of the human to extricate itself from the alienation, and the thorough hopelessness to overcome its estrangement. This is “the crushing inertia of existence.” Tragedy can only be transcended and transfigured. This tragedy is the sin to which Matthew says, “He will save his people from their sins.”

To the Exiles living in the complete and total absence of the divine Matthew lets the Exiled One who now resides in Mary proclaim absolution!

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ADVENT III– 2016 – CLEARLY INSISTENT UPON HIS DESTINY


ADVENT III– 2016 – Clearly insistent upon his destiny

“Ah, let what I am go on existing and ceasing to exist, / and let my obedience be ordered with such iron conditions / that the tremor of deaths and of births will not trouble / the deep place that I wish to keep for myself eternally. “Let him be, then, what I am, in some place and in every time, / an established and assured and ardent witness, / carefully destroying himself and preserving himself incessantly, / clearly insistent upon his destiny.”                Pablo Neruda: It Means Shadows

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought too them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Matthew 11: 4-6

The quotation from Pablo Neruda captures for me the essential thrust of this passage. The poet joins Matthew to celebrate one who is “clearly insistent upon his destiny.” The gospel reading for this day is Matthew 11: 2-11. It appears also in Luke 7: 18-28. Both readings are for the most part congruent with the Q document, to which Luke adds 7:21, and 27, and Matthew adds 11: 2 and 10. That means that on the whole this reading goes back before the gospels themselves were written.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus, along with their followers are part of an ancient religious tradition that expected a coming deliverance sometime in an eschatological messianic age to be ushered in with signs pointing to a specific person. This figure, variously described as the Messiah or the Son of Man, will bring about the end of the present age and the dawning of the age to come. The framework and content of this expectation is the apocalyptic hope dominant in the many deliverance movements of the time, two of which were that of John the Baptist and Jesus which announced that the kingdom of heaven is near, or has already arrived, and that participation in the kingdom of heaven would require baptism and metanoia.

There was never a great certainty as to who this messianic figure was, or whether he was already present among them. John the Baptist too was uncertain, even though he leaped in his mother’s womb when Mary the mother of Jesus greeted Elizabeth. Luke 1:41. He certainly knew Jesus, knew what Jesus was doing, but as yet he did not know definitively that Jesus was the one. John sent two of his followers to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Matt. 11:3. “The one who is to come” is a phrase associated with the messianic figure. With his coming the advent of the kingdom of heaven for which Jesus taught his followers to pray, Mt. 6:10, is secure. For the rabbis in the time of Jesus, the Messiah is definitely “the one who is to come.” Jewish hope had settled on this figure who will bring deliverance to the people. Deliverance is salvation. Jesus sent his reply to John pointing not to himself, but to what is taking place in his work. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought too them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The language is instructive. The disciples of John came to hear and to see. Jesus tells them, look around you, here, even the deaf hear and the blind see, and more. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The point is now clearly made: I am He.

In Exodus, Moses went up the mountain to see and to hear, to discover something for himself. In this passage, they come to see the one who has come to cast fire upon the earth. Perhaps what we have here is an epiphany, a veiled theophany whereby Jesus is presented to the world as the one who does not simply reverse what has gone wrong, but as one who brings in the new age and the new creation.

It is strange that Jesus would point to these acts of miracle as some kind of proof of who he is. In Mt. 12:39 he refuses to give proof to “an evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”  Yet Jesus points to his miracles for the disciples of John. Miracle is the self-presencing of the divine that can only be witnessed through faith. That is why a faithless generation could not see it. Miracle is the reintegration of the divine and the human, the creation of wholeness and unity, the rejection and overturning of brokenness and division, the defeat of sin and death. The poor hear the gospel. Miracle is the original Word, the Word before all words that opens up a new world to be grasped by faith, where deliverance resounds in the celebration of healing.

These images of miracle speak directly to John’s question. They are images of hope fulfilled. In each phrase the words stand in contrast to one another, an unimaginable opposition under any circumstances. They are the substance of miracle, the sign that the one who is to come has arrived and is speaking with them. Perhaps it is the proper task of miracles to oppose, to stand in contrast, an image that challenges the imagination. The deaf can hear what the hearing ones cannot. The dumb can speak what the speaking ones cannot. The blind can see that the seeing one cannot. Hearing, speaking seeing are all actions that arise from the deepest source of soul. Miracles return us to that deepest source and give us hope of change, transformation, renewal, rebirth, a sense that instead of an imminent end, there is an endless beginning. When the soul lives in contrast it loses its sameness, its identity, its oneness and integrity. It is diseased. It is to this disease that the miracles of Jesus speak. In the healing of the soul the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the blind see. This is the message that Jesus sent back to John. Nothing is known of how John received it. Perhaps silence, total silence as existed before the first Word was spoken, the first “let there be” was said, perhaps that silence is the only proper response to an epiphany, a theophany.

The one who is to come is associated with Jesus in other contexts. In Mt. 21:9, when Jesus enters Jerusalem the crowds shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This verse from Psalm 118:26 may be an indication that the religious people in the crowds were certain that the eschatological hope had been fulfilled and that the Messiah had finally come.

The Revelation of John which I have presented elsewhere as a comprehensive presentation of the Passion of Christ and the Passion of the Church, has some interesting statements in this regard. In Rev. 1:1-3 “the time is near,” for “what must soon take place.” The writer who identifies himself as “John, your brother,” greets the churches of Asia in the name of “him who is and who was and who is to come.” Rev. 1:4. “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him.” 1:7. All will know who he is. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and was and is to come.” 1:8. Later, in what appears to be a liturgical scene, the congregation sings, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come. “ Rev. 4:8. The one who is to come is identified with the Divine. His coming with the clouds suggests that there is a theophany, somewhat akin to the Transfiguration, in which he is revealed to the churches.

The opening scene of the Revelation of John is an amazing piece of the literature of hope. The Kairos is near, that is the theme. Kairos must confront chronos, this was the inevitable conflict from of old. It is the conflict of heaven and earth; spirit and flesh; eternity and time. This final battle must be waged. And it is now – for Kairos has arrived.

Chronos, earth’s first and final gift to humanity, the abyss that existed before the earth itself came to be, is time’s vortex that swallows equally the living and the dead. Time is the other face of death, my own face that knows and does not know that there is no exit. This gift of time from the earth, which only the earth is capable of giving, which it alone is destined to give, silently speaks what is uniquely human: tragedy. Tragedy is earth’s purest and unique gift to humans. Only humans can receive it. What is tragic stands in need of what is human, for only humans can name it, with a naming that is simultaneously an invocation that rouses tragedy from its slumber within time’s breast and brings it to presence within the one creature that is destined to receive it. Tragedy is the offspring of time; or perhaps, time is the offspring of tragedy, for their essence is the same. What is the same can exist only as itself; it can never gather to itself what it is not. Tragedy, time, cannot gather to itself that which is human, for what is human does not share the sameness as they do. It is, rather, that humans who can live only so long as they live openly to what is to come, to the future, who can gather time and tragedy to themselves.

Human existence is sustained by its openness to what is to come, and tragedy has found its home in that openness. The one who is to come has arrived with no other objective than to enter the openness which is humanity itself and to take into himself all that tragedy has nurtured there, and to confront it. He alone knows that tragedy cannot be stopped, that it has no end, being as eternal as the earth from which it arises. He who comes alone knows that tragedy can only be transfigured. Only in the transfiguration of tragedy can that which is human transcend sin and suffering and death. The deaf who now hear can grasp this, and perhaps the hearing ones of old can hear: Adam, Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Lear, me. This is chronos. It awaits me, bears me, devours me. It is completely unaware that it is about to be devoured. The one who is to come has arrived. That is the gospel proclamation. Transcendent time, Kairos, is dawning soon, and has already arrived, and with its dawning comes the hope for deliverance from sin and suffering and death.

Kairos is the ground of hope, and Kairos, divine time, is grounded in the one who was and is and is to come. The divine with whom Kairos is integrated, transcends the momentary suffering, descends into that suffering as the human one, and presents itself to a suffering world and suffering church as the one who has “freed us by his blood,” who has made us into a “kingdom,” made us “priests,” and to whom we give glory, forever and ever.” The divine, the transcendent incarnate one, calls forth the church and summons the priests to a new awareness that will reveal the one who is already there, but who nevertheless paradoxically, is coming soon, that is, coming out of his hiddenness into the openness of suffering and death, so that “every eye will see him.” Kairos unveils what chronos has hidden. And the church has to be reminded of this unveiling, this revelation,  repeatedly, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come.” The Alpha, the beginning, Kairos before chronos, has not left us. The beginning has accompanied us on this journey of faith and suffering, faith through suffering, the human narrative that itself seeks redemption. The Omega that is about to dawn has always already been present. It is none other than the Alpha in its Otherness that has remained hidden until now. The end is the beginning in its total otherness, and is not to be feared. This is the true and proper ground of hope. The divine transcendent one, the Origin and Source, remains Origin and Source, and only as such can it call us forth to undertake the journey home. The divine arrives as the one who is to come, to become who we are, and in so doing, accompanies us home.

Other passages refer to the Son of Man who comes in glory to inaugurate the final signs of the coming kingdom of heaven. It is clear that the early church did not accept Jesus immediately as the one who is to come. John the Baptist’s question is easily the question which the church was asking. Gradually the church accepted him as can be seen from the documentation in the New Testament.

While John the Baptist was wondering if Jesus was the one who is to come, Jesus had his own concerns about John. The disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus shared a common belief in deliverance by the Messiah in the eschatological age to come. They differed on just who is the messianic figure. When the disciples of John had departed, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about who John is. Three times he asked them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” He was sure that they did not go out to see a “reed shaken by the wind,” that is, someone whose mind changes as rapidly as the shifting winds. Jesus knew John as someone who held strong beliefs, and would hold them even if his life was threatened, and even if in the end he would be executed for his action and his beliefs. Jesus knew that John was not someone who prided himself in “soft robes,” but who chose the harsh life of the desert to hone his prophetic preaching. The answer is that they went out to see a prophet. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Mt. 11:10. He quotes Malachi 3:1, relating John the Baptist to the messenger that God will send in the messianic times to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, himself. Jewish eschatological hopes had signaled that before the Messiah arrives, he would be preceded by Elijah. Jesus himself says, “For all the prophets and law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Mt. 11:13-14. Similarly, Mt. 17: 10-12. John is more than a prophet, he is more than a messenger, he is Elijah who has returned from heaven with the announcement that the one who is to come has arrived. “Truly, I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Mt. 11:`11. Jesus has made clear to the crowds just who John the Baptist is. Great as he is though, John is not the Messiah. John’s task is to announce the Messiah. Jesus also makes clear who he himself is. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus points to himself. I am He. He is clearly insistent upon his destiny.

Who are the “least” in the kingdom of heaven? There is an answer in Matthew 25. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Mt. 25: 35-36. These are the one who are least: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. 25:40. In addition are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead who are raised, and the poor who have the good news. These are the least in the kingdom of heaven, and each of these is greater than John the Baptist.

From now on the proclamation is “Go and tell!”

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ADVENT II – 2016 –  What So Incites Our Savagery


ADVENT II – 2016 –  What So Incites Our Savagery

“The little threshing floor /that so incites our savagery was all/from hills to river mouths-/revealed to me/while I wheeled with eternal Gemini./My eyes then turned again to the fair eyes.”       Dante:  Paradiso, Canto XXII

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3: 12.

John the Baptist came preaching a baptism for repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Mt. 3:2. This is the story of metanoia. This is also the message in Q, which is the earliest evidence there is for the preaching of John. The gospel of Mark begins with John rather than with Jesus. It seems clear from the evidence that John is a prophet and preacher who announces the end of the present era and the dawning of a new era for humanity. He stands within the apocalyptic tradition proclaiming the coming eschatological judgment of God, and calls for metanoia. People came to him for baptism, “confessing their sins,” and hoping for entry into the kingdom of God.  He gathered a sizeable enough following, (“the people of Jerusalem and all Judea was going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan”), that he became a political threat, and was consequently executed by Herod.

He was also a threat to the religious leadership. He denounced them in his preaching. In the pericope under consideration, John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him for baptism. He addressed them with stinging words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Indeed! Who could have warned them? John was certainly aware that there were other prophets and preachers in the same territory. He certainly knew of Jesus of Nazareth, who not only was a close relative, but also one who came to John to be baptized. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus himself uses the phrase, “You brood of vipers,” to refer to some of the Pharisees who were accusing him of being in league with Satan. In Matthew 23 where Jesus proclaims woe against the Pharisees he refers to them again, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Mt. 23:33.  It is not likely that Jesus would have been the one who warned the Pharisees and the Sadducees to flee from the wrath to coming by seeking baptism from John. There is no evidence for that, and yet  is there no answer to John’s question, “who warned you to flee?”

It is more likely that they come to John for Baptism under the pretense that they believe his prophecy. But John saw through this pretense, and knew that they were only trying to flee from the wrath to come, and not really interested in metanoia or baptism. The source of their warning could be none other than the devil himself. In I John 3:8 they are described as “children of the devil.” In Rev. 12:9, we read of “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” The relationship of Serpent, Devil and Satan seems to have been an accepted part of apocalyptic preaching. Satan is referred to 8 times in The Revelation of John. Those who oppose the Divine belong to the synagogue of Satan, Rev. 2:9; 3:9. Is it possible that both John and Jesus, who are apocalyptic preachers, have the creation story in mind when they refer to their opponents as a brood of vipers? It could make some sense from the point of view that both John and Jesus intend a new creation coming upon the heels of the demise of the present era. Jesus warns his followers in Mt. 10:6 “to be wise as serpents.” Just as John uses water for baptism, so also the serpent can use water for his own purpose of destruction. Rev. 12:15. Who warned them to flee? The answer must be their father the devil.

What exactly is this wrath that is to come? Clearly the New Testament concept points in the direction of divine judgment. Paul writes in Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” The wrath to come, that is, the wrath that is to be revealed as the new age is dawning is the judgment of God against ungodliness. It is a battle of the divine and the counter-divine. It is the theme and substance of the apocalyptic preaching of the New Testament. The revelation of God’s righteousness in Romans 1:17 and the revelation of God’s wrath in 1:18 is as precise a definition of the apocalyptic imagery of the two ages, this world and the world to come. Paul speaks of “the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” Romans 2:5. And Revelation 6:17 reminds us that the great day of wrath has finally arrived. The Revelation of John 6:12-16 gives the content of the wrath that is to be revealed, the wrath from which the Pharisees and Sadducees seek to flee. In Revelation chapters 8 and 9 there is the opening up of the seven seals and seven trumpets, and what is unleashed upon the earth of this day of God’s wrath. But when the seventh trumpet is opened, there is a shout of victory. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his messiah.” Rev. 11:15.

Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith. This means that those who are seeking to flee from the wrath to come under false pretenses can understand neither the baptism of John nor the metanoia which must precede it. Their pretense shows clearly that they do not understand the true nature of metanoia. It cannot be faked. Genuine metanoia is the complete and irreversible transformation of the human being. It transports the human being immediately from this age into the age to come where the kingdom of heaven has already dawned. Consequently, metanoia is not an action taken by the human person, however good that action may be. Metanoia is truly and comprehensively a divine act, the granting of grace that removes the human being from the imminent existential threat of death and grants the human being that new life, described as eternal life, in the kingdom of heaven.  However this divine act of grace does not completely absolve the human from actions that demonstrate that that the transformation has already and finally taken place.

For this reason, after John has denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees, he insisted, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” He is telling them that if they want to flee in earnest from the wrath to come they must submit to genuine metanoia, as a result of which they will bear fruit worthy of it. This is clearly a metaphorical statement. “Fruit” must stand for something else. What is it that is worthy of repentance? John is encouraging them to take some kind of action, to demonstrate something special, without defining it for them. In Matthew 23:23 in the midst of proclaiming woes to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says they ought to have practiced “justice, mercy and faith.” These might well be the fruit worthy of repentance. In Micah 6:8, there is a clear understanding of the fruit of metanoia. It is this, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Galatians 5: 22 gives a comprehensive list of fruits of the Spirit. Galatians 6: 8 says, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right,” and in verse 10, “let us work for the good of all, especially those of the family of faith.” Hebrews 12:11 speaks of the fruit of righteousness. In Romans 6:13 Paul encourages his readers to become instruments of righteousness.  John the Baptist speaks of fruit worthy of repentance. In the same breath he speaks of Abraham, saying that they cannot presume to take Abraham as their ancestor. Why this statement? What has Abraham to do with fruit worthy of repentance? In Genesis 18: 19 it is stated that God has chosen Abraham so that he, his children and his household may “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.”  Hebrews 11 presents Abraham as a man of faith. In Genesis 15:6 Abraham believed the Lord, “and this was counted to him for righteousness.” Paul quotes this passage in Romans 4 where he has a long discussion on the faith of Abraham, and the content of this faith is righteousness. Consequently, I conclude that when John the Baptist speaks of the fruit worthy of repentance he is speaking precisely of righteousness, out of which proceed justice, mercy and faith.

Righteousness is itself a quality of the divine. It is not something that one can possess. It comes as an act of revelation. In Romans 1:17, Paul writes that “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith and for faith.” Indeed, “the one who is righteous will live by faith” The righteousness of God is revealed, that is, for the most part it is hidden until it is appropriated by faith and for faith. It is faith that brings righteousness out of hiding, just as it is faith that brings the divine out of hiding. The divine abides in concealment, that is its cover. It comes out of hiding to pronounce judgment and to establish grace as the new foundation of life in the new age. This is ambient grace, that within which “we live and move and have our being.” It always remains the grace of God.

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.” Matt. 3:10. Again this is the language of metaphor. The trees stand for something other than trees and the root for something other than roots. John the Baptist is saying that the foundation is about to give way, and everything that stands upon it will come tumbling down. Mark 13, “the Little Apocalypse,” may be used as an example of what is to befall the people. The “good fruit” of which John the Baptist speaks is none other than “fruit worthy of metanoia.” The tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire. Fire is a theme of  apocalyptic proclamation in the New Testament. The word occurs 27 times in the Revelation of John alone. The one who is coming after John will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The Holy Spirit itself has the capacity to appear as fire. Acts 2:3. Notice that the one who comes after John the Baptist does not baptize with water. Something has shifted. Something new is about to take place. Baptism takes on a completely different image. Fire, which is associated with the judgment of God, now is the substance of baptism. Baptism is a cleansing, a purifying, that must take place before entry into the new age. In Luke 12:49, Jesus says, I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  Mark 9:49 warns, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Baptism by fire separates one from this age and makes one ready for the age to come.

(I presented the following ideas elsewhere, but they seem relevant here). Fire discloses, uncovers something without which humankind is not complete. Heraclitus thinks fire is light. Light illuminates. It makes visible what has been hidden. When Matt. 3:11 says that Jesus will baptize with fire he indicates that the outpouring of fire upon humanity brings something new to light. This cannot be the unquenchable fire of verse 3:12, which surely is a metaphor for judgment. Jesus baptizing with fire is something other than judgment. Something is hidden that will be revealed by Jesus in this baptism with fire. John the Baptist does not say what is to be revealed, only that Jesus will baptize with fire. Fire shines brightly. It is light. Baptizing with fire is baptizing with light. He who is the Light will pour out upon humankind his light, that is, he will pour out Himself. John the Baptist may be indicating that Jesus will give Himself for humanity, that baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire is about the sacrifice that Jesus will make, and therefore when Matthew says that Jesus will baptize with fire he is conveying the idea of the Passion of Christ. If this argument holds, then I may conclude that the life of Christ is Passion, from beginning to end. Further, those who are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit are forever the Passion of Christ. The Revelation of John conveys the same idea: the Passion of Christ is the Passion of the church. The fire is not judgment. It lights up the way into the Passion, and the Passion is sustained by its light. The divine which no longer inhabits fire as in the burning bush has, by its exit, made room there for the church to exist in the fire and be illuminated by its light and enlightened by its wisdom. The church exists in the fire and is not consumed. It may be that today the church is the burning bush, the place of revelation, the final proclamation that God is still with us.

John the Baptist now changes his metaphors. He speaks of the winnowing fork that is in the hand of the one who comes after him. The imagery is certainly that of a cleansing, a clearing, a separation of one thing from another, and the different destinies of those separated.

I wonder if this prophecy of the threshing floor is a veiled reference to Matthew 21:12-13, the Cleansing of the Temple? The Temple of Jerusalem was built upon a threshing floor that David bought and paid for. He set up an altar there, and later after the death of David Solomon built the Temple upon the threshing floor. (I Samuel 24:18-25; 2 Chron. 3:1-2). None of this would have been new or strange to those who listened to John the Baptist. As religious leaders they would have known the history of the Temple, from the time of David to their own time. They could not have failed to see that John was talking about an event that would take place within the Temple itself. If this is so, the cleansing of the Temple, making room for the arrival of the Divine, would fit into the framework of apocalyptic themes upon which the Passion of the Christ is built. The Cleansing of the Temple is already a separation of the wheat from the chaff, a theme of judgment that is at the foundation of the apocalyptic eschatology of the gospels.

Dante, in his travel through Paradise, while he was still in the constellation Gemini, had a revelation of the earth. He saw the earth “the little threshing floor that so incites our savagery.” The little threshing floor, symbol of faith and religion, is also symbol of our savagery, the ungodliness against which the wrath of God is revealed. Whether the winnowing is of the Temple of Jerusalem, or of the whole earth as Dante saw, the imagery is that the divine is about to bring in a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. Revelation chapter 21 tells of the victory of the divine over the counter-divine. The new Jerusalem was descending from the heavens. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.” Rev. 21:22. The church which has become church because it exists as metanoia, as Passion, embodies the transparency of the divine that continues to announce itself as the hope for an eternal future, an eternally transformative life of grace.

The prophecy of John the Baptist has been fulfilled.

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ADVENT I – 2016 – WE HEAR THROUGH MIRRORS


Advent I – 2016          WE HEAR THROUGH MIRRORS – These are some of my Reflections on a very hopeful season.

“Only a single bird

is singing.

The air is cloning it.

We hear through mirrors.”

Replica: Federico Garcia Lorca

Matthew 24: 40-41 “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Much has been written on this passage, and I do not need to repeat those discussions. Matthew’s version differs from that of Luke 17:34-35, which repeats the Q statement. Luke’s is more original, but Matthew has changed verse 40 to accommodate verse 41, and is reminiscent of his many references to farmers and farming. This statement existed very early in the Palestinian Christian community. Q’s version ends with “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” Luke has something similar, Luke 17:37. Matthew ends with, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

Both Matthew and Luke are agreed on one thing, that the ideas expressed in these verses reflect the eschatological preaching of Jesus. In the preaching of Jesus, apocalyptic is eschatology, and eschatology is apocalyptic. Jesus stands firmly within the apocalyptic tradition which expected the destruction of the present age and the dawning of the new age. His immediate predecessor, John the Baptist, is clear on this. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Mt.3:2. Later, confronting some religious figures, he proclaimed “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance….Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut won and thrown into the fire.” Mr. 3:7, 8, 10. The present age is under judgment, and is passing away. Jesus began his proclamation in the same way,” The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1:15.

The content of the Matthew 24: 40-41 is the immediacy of the Parousia. One is coming who will judge the living and the dead and whose kingdom will have no end. One is coming swiftly with judgment, casting fire upon the earth. “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mt. 13:49-50. Therefore, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whosoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” Mt. 10:32-33. The one who comes does not bring peace but a sword. The passage in Matthew 10:34-39 expresses clearly the content of judgment. The one who come sets things in opposition. People are placed before a choice, for or against God. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Mt. 12:30. But there is also encouragement. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

He who is himself the Parousia will judge the nations as in Matthew 25:31-46. He will separate the sheep from the goats, some at his right hand and some at his left. In light of this judgment, to accept the call of Jesus is to accept it unconditionally. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Mt. 8:22. Even family relationships suffer consequences for following Jesus. Mt. 10:37-39. Upon close reading, the entire chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel supports the idea that Matthew 24:40-41 is the immediacy of judgment, separation, punishment, and reward that accompanies the one who is himself the Parousia. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is worthy of the Kingdom of God.” Luke 10:62.

Matthew 24:40-41 must be seen within the context of apocalyptic ideas in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. The end of the age is near, it is so near that it is already under judgment and would pass away swiftly. The dawn of the new age has arrived in the person of the Son of Man. The Q Document prefers this title. He comes as judge of all the world. He separates that which is together: two in the field; two grinding meal, the sheep and the goats, sinner and righteous, wheat and tares, wheat and chaff. While Matthew 24:40-41 may seem difficult to interpret, from my analysis it falls well within the apocalyptic message of Jesus: the Divine has entered into the human sphere. The encounter is consequential. The Divine that is trans-historical has brought forth itself in that which is historical, in the human community.  The Divine takes into itself that which is human, and the human takes into itself that which is Divine. The Parousia, he who is himself the Parousia, speaks from within the human community, from within that which is patently human. The Parousia is what we are, what we have always been, what we will always be. The Parousia does not exist apart from us, outside of us, beyond us or above us. The Parousia has chosen to be us, to be who we are. When Jesus is mocked, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Luke 23:35.” He does not answer. It is already enough that he saved others, because in those others he already exists, and is himself saved. There is no need to answer. Lorca said, “We hear through mirrors.”

On this First Sunday in Advent, we speak not of rapture, but of Rupture. The fabric of the curtain has been torn apart. The human community, the human person, in its identity as the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the communion of saints,” has been called, summoned and transformed into an eternal presence as the Parousia of the Divine. Eschatology, which alone understands tomorrow’s essential eternity, has become today’s eternal history, the recurrence of the Parousia, in the one who is to come, who is already here. Keep awake, therefore!

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THE POST-CARD


THE POST-CARD  

I had gotten off the train early after two days and two nights of travelling. It was still very dark and there appeared to be nothing moving outside. I was the only passenger to disembark, and even the night agent showed some displeasure at being roused from his routine. I took the opportunity to use the restroom to make myself presentable. Clearly, I thought, it was not part of his routine to keep a clean restroom. I washed as best as I could and changed into a clean shirt and neck tie. I decided to wait until it was light outside to continue on.

            The quiet early morning, together with an eerie stillness to which I was not accustomed provided a temporary space in which to think. The magic may be broken at any moment by the arrival of anyone. I began to think of how my journey started. I had been reluctant to think about this, though I knew that sooner or later I would have to put together the few facts that I had, with a large dose of conjecture. I still did not know enough. I am not the kind of person who waits for a flash of insight to cast light on an issue. I will painstakingly assemble every tiny bit of fact, educated guesses, lessons learned from experience before I try to reach some kind of preliminary understanding that would make sense. So far I had attempted none of this, because I did not know enough. I had one piece of incontrovertible fact, a post-card that arrived in the mail with a simple message. “Come. Please.” I had of course the date and place of origination and the date of arrival. There was neither greeting not signature, but I knew immediately the sender.

            The hand-writing showed care and precision which I would have expected anyway. The message was trying to reveal something but I could not grasp it. Two words, each followed by a period. I might have expected, “Please come.” “Come, please?” Or “Come. Please?” It felt more like a summons with an after-thought of request, than an invitation. That’s how I felt reading it at first. But now I was not so certain. The post-card had taken eleven days to arrive. Eleven days ago someone wrote, “Come. Please.” I could not guess why. Now I wondered, had the situation changed in eleven days? Had the sense of urgency lessened? Did I still need to go? But here I am. I could not learn anything new from the post-card, though I looked at both sides repeatedly. It was just an ordinary post-card, which I would have expected anyway.  Somewhere in the station a clock was striking the hour. I did not see one upon my arrival so I supposed it was in the station agent’s office.

            Something stirred. The sound was imperceptible but I was certain that I heard it. Though I could not identify it, I felt it was close-by. I am not one to fear the dark, but I felt myself growing apprehensive. A side door to my left opened noiselessly and a small child entered, carrying a loaf of bread in one hand and a green thermos in the other. She appeared to be not more than six years old, clumsily clad, but clean. She passed in front of me and went directly to the station agent’s office. One minute later she left the same way. The station reclaimed its silence, and I my thoughts.

            A creeping tiredness was beginning to overtake me, and my thoughts began to fade. I needed sleep. I needed rest. I needed food. Suddenly, the post-card flashed upon my mind as if to remind me why I was here. Instinctively, I reached into my pocket to retrieve it then decided not to. For a moment I felt that my mind was not illuminated. It was an expansive dark region from which an idea was trying to break free. I wondered if this were the same idea that was trying to reveal itself to me earlier when I first read the post-card. Nothing came to light. I decided that I was too tired to think, closed my eyes and shut out the rest of humanity from my world. A man alone, asleep at a railroad station, and for whom nothing else existed. In an alternate universe, perhaps, the very first day of creation.

            They came for him very early in the morning. It was pitch black outside; he could hardly see his fingers on his outstretched arm. There were three of them. He had heard stories of them, that they always came in threes. He had never believed any of it, thinking it was just local legend meant to frighten children into good behavior. Now that they had taken him he was ready to believe, but not quite yet, being a sceptic of all things. They still had not uttered a word; they just took him by the hand and led him away. No one was there to witness this. He tried to protest but his voice was silent. He was not really afraid of them for he was still not sure that they were real. He went quietly, hoping to find out more, but wanting to continue on his mission even more as planned. They entered a small building, only one storey that seemed to be a complex of law offices and suites. He had taught law at one point in his life and had always claimed that he could smell a law office a mile away. He felt comfortable in these surroundings.

            They led him to a non-descript suite of offices and pointed him to a chair, still not a word was spoken. There was nothing here that indicated that the suite was ever occupied, not even a house plant to show that someone cared. The three left him alone for a long time. He tried to figure out what was going on but no idea came to him. From an adjacent office a guard appeared, looked at him briefly and left. He supposed it might have been a guard, and it might have been a woman, but he could not be sure. The three appeared again with a fourth, who was wearing a robe that reminded him of a judge. He was not sure that the three were the same ones who had taken him. They exited the same door he had entered earlier, and he was alone again. He wanted to explore the offices to gather some kind of information so that he could understand what was happening with him. He could not move. Fear suddenly overtook him. He summoned all his strength but could not move even a finger. His fear increased. He knew he was not afraid of them. They had showed him no ill-will, nor demonstrated any act of violence against him apart from taking him into custody. He was afraid of himself, afraid for having lost control of his body. Now he was completely vulnerable. His thinking slowed as he tried hard to think his way back into control of his body. It was useless. His fear intensified. He thought, my emotions seem to be intact, unaffected by my current situation. Somehow he knew that it was not he who was thinking this. His own mind seemed to be under the control of someone other than himself. If I cannot think my own thoughts, then who am I? That idea vanished as suddenly as it arose.

            Another unit of three entered the office and took seats directly opposite him. Or so his eyes told him. Whether they were seated or standing he could not ascertain. He was sure only that he was no longer alone. He felt a tinge of hope as he realized that he was able to read their thoughts; or was it their minds? He was encouraged by this sudden realization and wanted to hide it from them. He now knew that the units of three thought as one. He still was not sure whether he was thinking these thoughts or someone else. Occasional flashes in his mind made him wonder if he ever really existed. Now he knew. The unit of three was thinking this. They were questioning his existence. It appears that I am before a tribunal, he thought. Indeed, you are, came the reply.

Why am I here?

You are not here.

I am in the office. You are in the office.

Some might think that.

We are here together.

Together is absurd. Impossible.

I am sure I can see you.

We are not here.

You said I am not here.

No one is here.

I am here. I can prove it.

There is no here!

I have seen this building. I entered it. I am seated in this office. You are with me in this office. I can see all this with my own eyes.

Then your eyes can see what cannot be seen.

My eyes are certain. What I see is here.

You are not here. No one is here. There is no here!

            The unit of three left abruptly, taking their thoughts with them. He was alone again, wondering just where he was. From the adjacent office the female guard appeared again, looked him over briefly, and left. He thought he heard a sound, but it was only he screaming. His eyes had seen; his ears had heard; his feelings were felt. He was sure of this. But why was he before a tribunal that was questioning his existence? He wanted answers, and now he had a sense of desperation.

            A unit of three entered the office from the direction of the adjacent office. They indicated that he was to follow them. He did so without realizing that he was again able to move about. They seemed to be taking him to the far end of the complex, and he wondered why it was taking so long since the building was rather small. Came the reply, you have not yet exited the office. We await you. This was troubling because he was sure that he was no longer in the office. A voice was telling him, leave the office now. Do as they say.  He realized that it was his own voice but he was not in possession of it. Someone was using his voice to speak with him. With little effort he followed the unit of three. He was beginning to feel that he was not in custody any longer. He could move about freely. This was coming from the mind of the unit of three. He was hearing their thought. For the first time he felt assured. He followed them into a waiting area that had a set of escalators toward the rear. This confused him, because he was sure that the building had only one storey. He clearly noted that upon entering earlier. He could not say how much earlier because he had lost track of time. As with the office, the waiting area was bare, except for chairs and small tables. There was no sign that it has been used recently or ever. A thought occurred to him that everything here was completely new, and he thought again that none of this was real. The unit of three motioned him to sit, and he did. They exited the waiting area via the escalator. He was alone again.

            He did not have to wait very long. But if nothing here is real, he thought, then also time is not, and may not even exist. He dismissed the thought from his mind, but it persisted as if it really wanted to be thought. If nothing is real here, then he himself is not real. Was this the reason they were questioning his existence? If nothing were real, and if he were not real, then he would be at home here. Thus he reasoned. But what does it mean to be at home if nothing existed? One simply could not be! If his logic were sound, then he himself did not exist. Of this he was certain. He would back track his logic to make sure he did not miss something. However, that would have to wait, for, descending the escalator were three persons, certainly not a unit of three, but distinct persons. They were dressed similarly to the unit of three, but they had a completely different bearing. He was sure that he was the object of their arrival. But he was completely wrong. They passed through the waiting area and disappeared in a hallway at the other end of the building. Almost immediately they appeared again in the hallway, this time accompanied by a fourth person. As they approached the waiting area he thought he recognized the fourth as the judge he had seen earlier, but without the black robe. Again he was wrong. This fourth person was clearly female.

            The quartet approached him purposefully. The female sat directly in front of him while the three stood behind her. No one spoke. He tried to read their minds but these were different from the others. The female said, please give me the post-card.

I will not comply.

You have no reason not to.

I am not represented.

This is not a trial.

It is an interrogation. The same.

I must have the post-card.

I must decline.

            The female rose abruptly and departed, leaving the three others standing in place. He thought, if this is a battle of wills, I have won the first round. He was now even more determined to find out what was going on. He did not have real facts to go on, and what he knew did not amount to much. To his left, another person was descending the escalator. In appearance he was entirely different from the others. A sense of benevolence gathered around the new comer as he approached. He acknowledged him with a slight nod.

You may leave now, but first, you must surrender the post-card.

It brought me here, there must be a reason.

It has served its purpose.

I must know why I am here.

You were invited.

For what purpose?

To surrender the post-card.

It is the only evidence I have.

Evidence of what?

That I am having this conversation.

You have already had this conversation.

            A wave of emotions encompassed him. He felt at once nauseated and exhilarated. Something deep inside him stirred into wakefulness. It was invigorating and terrifying. He tried not to show this. There was movement within and stillness outside. Between movement and stillness a harmony was struck.  He felt calm enough to continue the conversation.

I remember no such thing! Defiantly.

You had coffee in the court-yard. You left abruptly.

He tried desperately to remember the scene, coffee, court-yard, conversation, but could not.

You said you could hear her calling out to you all night.

            Suddenly, a sound reached his ear, tiny, distant, hers!

She has never stopped calling out to me.

You may leave now, but you must first give me the post-card.

            He reached into his breast pocket and retrieved the post-card. Reluctantly, he handed it over. He felt as if he has just delivered his soul into the hands of strangers. They all turned and left him seated where he was. How long he remained there he did not know. For here, time did not seem to exist.

            Somewhere in the distance a clock was striking the hour. I opened my eyes and slowly gazed all around. I was alone, in a railway station somewhere. I did not know why I was here, or how I got here. I assumed that I was here to take a trip, but I was not sure. A train crept noisily into the station and stopped. I reached into my breast pocket for my ticket, handed it over to the station agent, who smiled benevolently, and boarded the nearest carriage. The train slowly pulled out of the station. I adjusted myself into a comfortable position. The train picked up speed and headed into the darkness. The dim light of the carriage flickered then went out. I was the only passenger on board.

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THE EVANGELIST


The Evangelist 

They said he was coming soon. We were given no other information. For us this meant a lot of work preparing for his arrival. For the entire week we practiced in the hot sun, marching, singing, repeating words of welcome. None of us was enjoying this, not for one moment. Once back inside the school house, we returned to reading, writing and recitation. The period for arithmetic and geography was taken up by marching and singing. We had rehearsed the national anthem and, of course, “God save the king” repeatedly, which convinced some of us that it must certainly be difficult for the king to be saved. The guest’s arrival had been announced many months ago. The initial excitement and expectation fizzled over time, and all enthusiasm disappeared when the marching started. The rest of the day was normal. The children were restless as is customary, especially on Friday afternoon, waiting for three o’clock and dismissal. Promptly at three o’clock the head-master rang the bell. Everyone stood at attention. The head-master prayed a stern prayer as fervently as if this was his last day on earth. No one really listened. We wanted to hear “amen” which was a good clue he was winding down. Today he had already said “amen” three times with no signs of ending. This was disappointing. The weight of the prayer led to fidgeting and low sounding giggles, but nothing as disrespectful as a cough or other vile things. The final “amen” was received gratefully, but then we were told to sit and wait for an announcement. This was clearly unusual, and if I may say so, inconsiderate. We had already tolerated a lengthy prayer. It was the custom to bolt for the door at the “amen.” Today, it seemed, something was up.

            The head-master introduced a gentleman whose name escapes me. He was short and rather stout in stature, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt. He held a fan in his right hand with which he relieved the heat in his red face. Someone in the back of the class giggled noisily, and the teacher wrote down her name for later castigation. The stranger announced that the special person for whom we had been preparing was to arrive on Monday morning and all of us were expected to be present. He sat down without thinking to thank us for our patience or the inconvenience. We immediately made for the exit, but the head-master rang the bell and stopped us in mid-step. He was not done with us yet. He announced again that all of us were to be present. He expected everyone to bathe and wear our best clothes for the arrival of the special guest. Then, as if to show the stranger that he had total control of the school house, he dismissed us one class at a time, each forming a line and marching mannerly and respectfully. My class was just in front of the stage, so we were the last to leave. Mine was a very disciplined parochial school.

            I did not think of school during the weekend. I seldom thought of school anyway. Very late in the day on Sunday I remembered to tell my mother that I must wear my best clothes on Monday for the event. This was, of course, the first time she heard of the event, as it was not my custom to let school events intrude upon my home. This was my way of  showing respect to my parents while at the same time protecting them from any unseemly complaint about their child at school. More than a year ago in one of his Wednesday sermons the head-master had mentioned that one must not mix apples and oranges; more than that I did not hear. I assumed that he had brought that idea from his home in America, but I found it useful, and was in total agreement with him. We seldom saw apples in my country, but I knew an apple when I saw one, and I doubt that I would ever mix apples and oranges, nor did I mix school and home. I felt satisfied that his sermon had given me justification for my way of life and I pledged to listen more carefully next time.

            I met Monday without enthusiasm. I had to go to school, which was distressing enough; now I had to wear ill-fitting clothes that I had last worn to the funeral of a relative, which I was forced to attend, because the deceased was a relative of my father, and all males must attend. To this day I do not know why. I had never been to a funeral for female relatives, though in my short memory two had passed, one, an adolescent, the other an ageing cousin of about thirty years of age. Monday morning at the school house was a sight to behold. The head-master stood at the door to examine each child for defect. I don’t recall that any was turned back, but it took some time to settle in each class. The normally authoritarian and severe teachers were overtaken by an anxiety that was clearly visible. Everything had to be just perfect. I was sure that no one was enjoying this day. Upon the stage in front of me were many folding chairs not yet occupied, and also special chairs for important guests. I thought that we were going to have many guests on the stage, which I relished, because they were often more entertaining than the speakers we had had.

            The head-master rang the bell and everyone stood to attention. We were well rehearsed. He opened the day with a prayer that sounded more like a lament than a benediction, but children could not be expected to know the difference. After the prayers we sat down in an orderly manner that would be expected in a parochial school. The head –master then announced that the third standard (3rd.grade) had been selected to sing the national anthem and we were asked to take our seats upon the stage. I was surprised and annoyed. I don’t know all the words to the national anthem, and of course we were to sing “God save the king,” which I don’t remember well either. However, my class had several good singers and I would not be noticed in the back. We took our seats, with decorum, in silence, as befits a chosen group.

            With great excitement the guest entered the school house with two attendants, probably from the church as they were both dressed in black suits and wore a somber look. He ascended the stage with a flourish, shook hands with the head-master and took his seat. I am sure that this was rehearsed as it was flawless. The head-master led the third standard in the expected songs and motioned us to sit. The guest saluted us with polite applause. The head-master then introduced the guest, reading from a printed page. He spoke for so long that I wondered if the guest were ever going to get a chance to speak.

            Our guest was identified as an Evangelist. He was taller than anyone I had ever seen, and sweated more than most. He was clearly uncomfortable in this heat. Added to that, it was Monday, and the slaughterhouse was open, the breeze bringing the scent of things to which he was not accustomed. He had come from America, a place called Moline, as best I can remember. I cannot tell you his name for I made no effort to remember it. I don’t think any of us knew what an evangelist was. Whatever they were, they did not live among us. However, all of this was cleared up by his very first words. “Jesus is coming to save you from your iniquities.” I knew immediately than an evangelist is a preacher, but not like the preachers here. An evangelist is a preacher that comes from far away, from America, to save children from the devil. I was very impressed.

            “Jesus is coming to take away your iniquities,” he repeated. I only got the part about iniquities. I thought, I don’t have any iniquities for Jesus to take away. If I had had any, my mother would certainly have taken them away by now. Since the third standard class was nearest to him on the stage, he decided to use us as an example. After speaking about sin for about an hour he was going to apply lessons learned to us. He knew a lot about sin, I must give him that. He was going to deliver us from sin and set us free and show us the way to eternal life. He spoke with conviction and sincerity. And perspired profusely.

            But he knew nothing about the third standard class. The third standard is an impregnable heathendom, impenetrable to commands, exhortation or threats. We believe everything. We believe nothing. But never for more than a few minutes, certainly not long enough to be delivered from hell. The third standard is filled with vortices of challenges into which ideas, beliefs, doubts, rumors, are all sucked by the minute. No belief survives; no doubt survives. The third standard is a laboratory of creation and decay, where certainty and uncertainty come to be born and to die. It is a place where we are the experimenters, challenging the forces of knowledge and learning.  We are an encyclopedia of possibilities waiting to gain a footing. The third standard is where the art of living takes its first steps, where first love strikes hard without warning, and where each desk is filled with broken hearts.

            The Evangelist knew none of this.

            He prayed over us, a long and tiresome prayer, smacking his lips occasionally apparently in satisfaction that his prayer was effective. When it was all over, and he departed  after receiving a fond farewell, we all went back to our seats. The teacher handed out small leaflets that we were to take home and read and returned the next day, upon which to be questioned as to content. I did not take mine home. I stuck it under my desk with  bit of glue for safe-keeping. It was one thing to be delivered from hell. It was quite another to have to read about it. I just don’t mix apples and oranges. When Monday ended with the obligatory prayer by the head-master, we were given another surprise announcement, that the Evangelist would return the next day to continue his work of redemption. I could not understand why. This went on all week and we grew to like it because little time was left for teaching or homework. Each day a different class was chosen to sit on the stage and was delivered from hell, the reputation of the Evangelist growing more solid with each new soul rescued.

            Friday arrived none too soon for all of us, and I would think also for the teachers as well. All enthusiasm for the Evangelist had been diverted to three o’clock post meridian, the time for dismissal, and for us, the real deliverance. However, all did not go well for me. I had noticed during morning prayer a book on the teacher’s desk, poems by Wordsworth. A while ago the head-master had quoted a poem by Wordsworth in one of his Wednesday sermons. Immediately I wanted to be able to quote poems by Wordsworth. I could not resist this opportunity of poems by Wordsworth on the teacher’s desk. I took it without permission and was reading it covertly under the lid of my desk my desk. I was searching for the poem about daffodils when I was discovered. This was definitely proof that I had not been delivered from the devil. I received six lashes with a cane on the seat of my pants for my moral failure in front of the class as was customary. My deliverance had failed, and I blamed the Evangelist for the evident rise in moral awareness in the school house. But I would not be deterred. In the midst of the lashes, I decided that I would read Wordsworth this weekend, and that matter was settled once and for all as far as I was concerned,

            Later that morning we listened to the Evangelist. But it was Friday and the boys in third standard came with regular gear, rubber bands and dried beans, instruments of war. Often during the Evangelist’s preaching someone would leap to his or her feet with a loud cry, the result of dried beans reaching their mark. These cries the Evangelist mistook for jubilant surrender to Jesus. His preaching, motivated by such signs of success, became even more fervent, even to inviting people to stand up and profess their faith. Many in the school stood, and this was a golden moment of opportunity. Dried beans found their targets and children jumped and howled. The Evangelist sensing a movement of spirit was as close to glory as one might come and still remain in this world. You could see in his face the joy of new saints marching into the kingdom. His preaching had borne fruit, more than he ever expected. He finished his evangelism with what sounded like a prayer of victory. We had stopped listening around Tuesday at eleven o’clock to attend to the more urgent matter of the cohesion of the third standard. We were going to stick together to get through this ordeal. We certainly did.

            Before the Evangelist left the head-master led us in a verse from “Beautiful Savior” which pleased the Evangelist. We gave him a rousing farewell as he prepared to lead another week of evangelizing at another parochial school some distance away.

            Over all, it had not been a bad week. We probably learned more than we would admit. Children in the third standard continue to live within the whirlpool of education where nothing survives more than a moment, to give way to something new. This endless curiosity impelled us became stronger with the passing of time, and took us through the rest of our schooling. We developed minds to comprehend; eyes to behold; ears to hear; and the undying sense that nothing is too large for us to imagine nor too small to ignore. And for at least one person, a love of Wordsworth. But please, don’t look in the desks, they are still filled with first love broken hearts, each one lastingly precious.

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A FIT OF COMPASSION


A Fit of Compassion

The last time she left in a fit of compassion as she would say later. “ I did not want to see him die that way.” She expected me to understand, and I nodded slightly and politely. Polite deceit had become my favorite method of pretense. It worked especially well with arrogant people, among whom I am numbered as well. One cannot use polite deceit with oneself, though one may certainly lie with impunity in the absence of witnesses. I cannot say I understood what she was saying. The two had been old friends, as once they had been young friends, as both insisted, but nothing more.

He had been buried many months ago without fanfare nor as little as a prayer for his eternal soul. I had seen to the arrangements, as he had requested, noting severely that there was to be no clergy nor funeral services. I has acknowledged his wishes and carried them out precisely as he had instructed. I had not called her, nor she me, before or after his passing. There was no public notice, obituary or announcement. But she must have known, given his condition at their last meeting. Why else would she be here so many months later? She was not one who would embark upon a lengthy period of grief.

I was surprised when she showed up at the restaurant that Friday morning. For a number of years I had taken breakfast at this same restaurant, same table, same time each week-day. I was not sure she knew that, but that she was standing at my table, of that I was quite sure. She was a stunning figure of a woman to whom the years had not been unkind. I half-rose to welcome her but she motioned me to remain seated. She seated herself opposite me with no reluctance. “I see nothing has changed,” she said. Somewhat taken aback I did not reply immediately. Her assumption or observation was certainly not true. I had changed. I had lost my friend and mentor of many years. I decided to let her statement pass. I hoped my silence would be taken as an encouragement not to speak. I stared blankly as I saw the shattered remains of my hope die in mid-air. She decided to fill the space of my silence with an autobiography of remorse. This was not how I has anticipated starting my week-end.

At the end of her story I was still speechless. Finally, I said, “I am saddened by your story.”

“Is that all you offer me, your sadness?”

“It is what I feel at the moment.” I was not sure why I said this. It sounded conventional and defensive. I may well have told her that I had no interest in her story, but she had told it to me; I listened; and that made me a part of her story. That’s the thing about stories, one cannot extricate oneself from a story told and heard. One becomes a character, perhaps invisible at first, but with time one plays openly if only as an interpreter. One cannot listen as an observer. The phenomenon of listening is different from the phenomenon of hearing. One hears because one has ears. One listens because one is Present. Listening is sequential self-presencing.

“It took courage to seek you out,” she was saying, “and the swallowing of a lot of pride.” Her lament clearly made her uncomfortable, and the distress in her voice was obvious.

“I’m relieved that you came, but perhaps not for the same reasons.” She looked at her coffee for what seemed like a life-time, then pushed it aside. Finally she said, “I do not want to know how he died.”

“I’m glad about that,” I said, “because I too do not want to know how he died.”

“Were you not at his side?”

“I was with him every minute, but he managed to die alone.” Sadness was creeping into my voice and I tried without success to push it away.

“I’m sorry he was alone. I’m sorry I left him alone to die.”

“He was not alone, I was with him to the end.”

“But you said he died alone.”

“Indeed, he did.”

“I do not understand.”

“He died, the last man on this earth. Or perhaps the first. It’s hard to know the difference.”

“You are not making any sense to me.”

“His last words, I remember them well. Very lucid he was, never for a moment did he lose his senses. Perhaps he felt the words rather than spoke them. I’m not sure I know.” I had often thought of those last moments, not because I wanted to, but because they inserted themselves into my day, letting me know they belonged. I did not want to share my thoughts with her, though I could not account for my reluctance. I felt that something had changed in her and I wanted to express some sympathy, that I still could not access. Many senses had awakened in me at her arrival but sympathy was not one of them. What I was thinking was, if only I could bring myself to like her, things might be different.

“I did not come to speak of him. I left him once; he left me forever. He’s dead. There is a difference.”

“You came here to learn that difference?”

“I don’t know.” The confidence that she possessed flickered. She was not accustomed to uncertainty. That was sure. “I could not endure his silence when he was alive. I cannot endure it now that he is dead.” She paused, reflectively, waiting for my response, then added, “There is a difference.”

I nodded agreement since I could not think of what to say. She had come here for something that she could not articulate. The plain fact is that she had come here. She had not gone elsewhere in her quest. She had come here, and that meant something. She sought me out, and that meant something. A thing deep inside me shivered. What it was I cannot say.

“He cannot teach me now.”

“Yet he summoned you here.” I was thinking of any reason she might have come.

“I came of my own accord. No one summoned me, least of all from the grave,” she said with conviction and some defiance.

“You must have had a reason for coming.” I said lamely, having no other thought.

“I suppose I came to find out why I left, “ she said in response. “I left in a fit of compassion because I did not want him to see me see him die.”

“You wanted to spare him the embarrassment of dying?” the amazement fresh in my voice.

“Something like that.” Pensive silence, then, “I have never seen anyone die. I have never seen anyone dead before. I avoid funerals.”

“Then you left for your own sake?”

“Perhaps. But one cannot admit to that, can one?”

I felt that I had intruded upon something dear to her, and regretted at once what I said.

“I have never felt the pain of losing someone. Or grief, for that matter.” She was trying to control her voice, but her eyes were not cooperating. They spoke of an emptiness unnamed. The thing about eyes, they can’t be trusted. They will betray you every time. Your eyes are always seeing you in a way you will never see yourself. There is something truthful about your eyes even when they delight in deceit.

“And now? You feel a sense of loss, even grief, for that matter?”

“Something like that.” Non-committal. “I half-expected to see him in town when I arrived. A feeble expectation may be better than none at all.” She was having difficulty speaking. Her words were drier than her mouth. But she managed, and I was pleased at that.

“But you do know that he died several months ago?”

“I suppose I knew, but still, one can’t be certain of such things, can one?” She spoke as if uncertainty protected her from the reality of his death. I must give her the benefit of the doubt, I thought, but did not say anything.

“I wonder if you came here to begin grieving? Better late than never?” My words were meant to encourage her to speak but they were met with resistance.

“I can grieve whenever and wherever I choose,” she said with disdain.

“You’re right, of course,” I said clumsily, still hoping to encourage her to say more. I wondered if ever before she had uttered the words, “I can grieve.” Maybe she said more than she intended. Maybe I heard more than she said. As she might say, “There is a difference.”

“To be quite frank, I’m not sure I would recognize grief when it comes, or for that matter, I don’t think I would know how to grieve.” I was not expecting such forthrightness, and it took some time to gather my thoughts.

“You would know if you were grieving,” I said, trying not to sound severe.

“I suppose so. It hadn’t occurred to me. I gather one doesn’t simply look up grief in the dictionary.”

“No, I gather not.” She had spoken true. It seemed to me that she was circling above what she thought was grief as if to get a bird’s eye view of it. I was still trying to figure out what she was after. She held on so tightly to who she is in a way of warding off any threat to her identity or invasion of self. To my dismay, I realized I was not of much help to her. Even now I wonder what I might have done for her had I found entrance into her quest.

“I’ve taken up your breakfast time,” she said apologetically.

“We’ve managed both breakfast and conversation,” I replied, hoping to assure her. We had not accomplished much besides breakfast.

Before we left my table I invited her to take tea with me that afternoon. She declined politely, saying that she had a very long train ride ahead of her, and must get started. I nodded an acknowledgment. I knew that the train slowed as it neared the curve of the cemetery where he rested, but I said nothing. Somewhere ahead her grief awaited her, as grief always does, with patience, and a fit of compassion.

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