Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Disturbs God

Last Sunday the Gospel reading dealt with John's account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, is informed of the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus' reaction is to be with their family, undoubtedly familiar with the upheaval and confusion that comes with death. Death is an awkward and terrible time for those left behind, but there is an innate desire to congregate in the hopes of making sense of it all.
I've heard this Gospel reading many times throughout my life, almost always conscious of its happy ending. Jesus comes to the family, asks to see Lazarus' tomb, horrifies Lazarus' friends and family by asking them to open the tomb, and then calls the dead Lazarus out of the grave, bringing him back to life after four days in the tomb. Knowing that things work out in the end isn't always helpful.  There's a mantra that most of us misguidedly tell ourselves when things are going fine with our lives: everything is okay...everything will be all works out in the end. But what if things aren't okay?

Last Sunday something else dawned on my as I listened to this weather-worn story and it came with this verse:

So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her
saw Mary get up quickly and go out,
they followed her,
presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him,
she fell at his feet and said to him,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping,
he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said,
“Where have you laid him?”

or, as the NRSV translates it:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, 
he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."

 (Joh 11:33-34 NRS)

 Jesus is "greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved", a point that is reiterated immediately afterward:

Jesus began to weep.
 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes 

of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. 

It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
 (Joh 11:35-38 NRS)

Both times, Jesus is rebuked for not doing enough to save His friend Lazarus. He is confronted with the charge that He could have done something but for whatever reason did not. The context of the passage tells us that not only could He have done something, but He was expected to prevent the death of His friend. In the Gospels, Jesus is known as a great miracle worker. His healing miracles are a sobering reminder of the nature of the Kingdom of God, Christ's primary message of God's reign on earth. They are a message to the world that God is alive and active in this world in a new way, and Jesus Himself initiates and embodies this change. So, if this is the case, why couldn't He prevent the death of a friend? Why make His friends and family suffer? Moreover, why go through the grief Himself? These little moments of great emotion are reminders that Jesus is very human, even painfully so. Soon after this passage Jesus weeps when he is faced with the burial place of Lazarus (John 11:35), as though the reality of his friend's death did not sink in until that moment. John's Gospel clearly pronounces this tension in Jesus: he is both undoubtedly God (John 10:30, 17:21, and the "I AM" sayings of 4:26, 6:35, 8:12, 8:28, 8:58, 18:5, etc) but also unmistakeably human. As such, people have no fear of laying blame and guilt on Him, even when it isn't quite deserved.

Before going on, it's worth saying something. Contrary to how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture, the books of the Bible are sophisticated literature, varying in style and genre. Translation often masks this, obscuring the structure of the individual books and the importance of grammar and vocabulary. Themes can be lost on the reader if they aren't careful readers.

There are two words used to describe Jesus' emotional response to this charge of irresponsibility. In Greek they are tarasso and embrimaomai. In this passage embrimaomai is used twice, the only two times in all of John's Gospel. In it's active form it is usually used to denote a kind of scolding or harsh treatment towards someone or something. According to the Friberg Lexicon, in the passive form (like in this passage) it means to be "deeply moved" or to "groan". The notes of the New American Bible say that it literally means that Jesus "snorted in spirit". It's an interesting word choice that shows a sense of deep pain that in Jesus was directed inwardly. It is not a gentle word, giving a sense of the depth of Jesus' grief. The image of the unaffected God has no place in this passage.

That's certainly interesting, but it was the other word that gave me the deeper pause. In the NRSV translation it stated that Jesus was "disturbed". As I left Mass last week, I had the NAB translation running through my mind: "...he became perturbed and deeply troubled", "perturbed and deeply troubled", "perturbed and deeply troubled". When I came home I took my Bible out: "disturbed in spirit and deeply moved". How remarkable! This Jesus...someone who 2 billion people identify as God, including myself. And here he is, experiencing that profound sense of being unsettled that I feel when I sense that something isn't right. Feeling disturbed, feeling a sense of trepidation, that is an unmistakably human experience. When we feel disturbed, there is a connection between an intellectual grasp of a disquieting state of affairs and our natural and emotional response. And death is always disturbing. I can't stand the idea of death when I let myself think about it. Death changes everything in me. Dealing with the death of those I love is a constant fear of mine. Death just isn't right. If death does not disturb you then you just haven't thought about it enough. It bothered Jesus and it should bother you too.

When you further explore John's Gospel, tarasso is something of a minor theme. It is used five times in John's Gospel, in a Gospel where words are very important. From the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is identified as the logos, the "word" ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God", John 1:1) and word choice is not a minor issue in the Gospel. In chapters 11 to 14 of John's Gospel, "tarasso" is used first to describe Jesus' emotional state when confronting the death of His friend Lazarus. In chapter 12, Jesus' "soul is troubled" again, this time when facing His own approaching death. In chapter 13, Jesus is again "troubled in spirit" as he tells the apostles that one of them would betray Him. We are given this insight in three consecutive chapters.

Yet something very interesting happens in chapter 14. Here, Jesus begins to console the apostles as he prepare them for His death. He tells them the following:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me." (Joh 14:1 NRS)


"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." (Joh 14:27 NRS)

Again, we encounter the same word: tarasso. Jesus, having experienced a series of deeply disturbing events, is now asking His followers to not be "troubled". What does this mean? Isn't this hypocritical? How can Jesus ask His followers to do something that He did not do? Chapter 14 introduces a new word to John's Gospel. That word is eirene, which means "peace". This word is fairly common to the Bible, but in John's Gospel it is the introduction of a new word and, therefore, a new theme. On the eve of His death, Jesus is initiating a new order. After having just been told not to be troubled, Jesus wants to give them peace. And it's not just any peace, it's His peace. Jesus, the disquieted mourner, agitated at the point of His death, and disturbed by the betrayal of a friend and follower, is the repository of peace. His peace is not a generic experience of peace but an existential presence that stands against fear and a troubled heart.

But how? How can Jesus have both? How can He be both?

Another theme that runs throughout the New Testament and theology is kenosis, which refers to the self-emptying of God. In Christ, God allows Himself to be vulnerable and in doing so, shows us His truest nature as love. He is a God that suffers with us rather than removing all suffering, choosing to be someone at our side rather than a distant force of the universe. It may not be the god that we would prefer, but He insists on the way of compassion and love. In the person of Jesus Christ, the self-emptying of God allows Him to take on our suffering, to suffer as we suffer. This means not only that He experiences physical pain but also all existential suffering. He does this without resigning his divinity, but rather only the benefit of his divinity. "though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" (Phi 2:6 NRS). In her Book of All Saints, Swiss mystic Adrienne von Speyr recounts the relationship between Jesus and Judas in the context of a mystical vision. It's one of the finest and most succinct illustration of this principal at work. She speaks (the visions were dictated rather than written down) of Jesus in His divinity laying aside any right to knowledge of Judas' betrayal so that He may know Judas as His friend and not be spared the indignity of betrayal. The experience of the Son of God is one of limitation that is adopted in God's love for His people. At the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is able to know that all will be well for Lazarus, but instead chooses to experience what anyone else would experience at the loss of a friend. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15 NRS). God will suffer with us whether or not things will turn out in our favor. Yet, he remains God.

In Catholic theology, building on Greek philosophy, the logos/"Word" takes on another, more profound, meaning. It refers to the divine reason, the inner order and cohesion that binds all things together. It is the orchestration of all being by a common principal, a principal that is not only embodied in Jesus but is Christ Himself. God is the ground of all our being and, as C.S. Lewis wrote, "the realest thing there is". God is not a projection of our deepest longings, but is he in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28, quoting from the Greek philosophers). Reason is the operating principal of all reality, yet that principal is found in Christ. He is the "image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15). To see Christ is to see God for who He is. Recently on Twitter, Fr James Martin (a Jesuit who has written a number of popular books on Catholic spirituality) put it very simply: "...having a difficult time understanding who God is, or what God is like? Just look at Jesus."

Jesus' moments of  trouble and disturbance tells us of something even greater regarding God's unexpected desire for raw vulnerability: that beating deep within the heart of the universe is a great and unfathomable compassion. There are moments in this life where I become so disturbed by something that it my whole soul is shaken. I can't help it, I'm human. But I also know that God knows exactly how I feel.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Catholic Kitsch and the Incarnation

Recently, my wife and I have been checking out different flea markets on Long Island. A really good flea market reminds me of a really bad mall in that a good flea market has the very best of the very worst. For me, the gold standard of crappy malls is the Latham Circle Mall in beautiful Latham, NY, a mall that only stayed open despite a mass exodus of quality stores and overall good taste because the owner didn't want his ex-wife to get her share of a buy out (or so I was told. This, coincidentally, was basically what someone once gave me as the actual reason why George Lucas really waited 16 years between Return of the Jedi and the Phantom Menace, but who knows for sure...).

Like the Latham Circle Mall (at least up until my last visit there) a good flea market is a mish-mash of boutiques that sell bizarre imports, dubious aftermarket items of varying practicality, and preserving the faint (or not so faint) aroma of a really damp basement filled with several decades worth of old clothes and discarded board games. They look and feel like a pastiche of disjointed memories that I can handle visiting only every so often but am grateful for visiting when I do come around to doing it. Maybe you know the feeling.

One of the most interesting aspects of flea markets are the cheap kitschy religious items that you'll find there. Only at a flea market will you find the Lord presented in so many varieties of cheapness. If at any point you've been moved by the Pieta or marveled at Notre Dame, you may begin to question those impulses when coming face-to-neon with an image of the Last Supper that plugs in and lights up as it shimmers in glorious gaudiness. If they all weren't such wonderful examples of the pitfalls of mass production, one might possible be tempted to consider them an interesting perspective on just what constitutes a "graven images".

Personally, I am rarely offended by these kind of things. Somewhere, someplace, for someone, an image of Jesus with a spinning light up wheel for a halo is a reminder of God's abiding love for them and their household. There's no mockery or irony intended, just earnest and humble devotion.

Sometimes, the more carefully thought out system of traditional Christian imagery is referred to as "iconography". In the book "God's Human Face" (and again more recently in his survey of Christology "God Sent His Son"), Christoph Cardinal Schönborn traced the history and purpose of icons in the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. Icons are those elegant images of Christ and the saints whose primary purpose is not necessarily to accurately or realistically portray their subject but rather to elevate one's heart and mind to prayer. These "windows to heaven" will often contain a few (or sometimes several) details of symbols, words, or even gestures that are often hidden to the naked eye before they are uncovered through prayer and contemplation.

For example, one of my favorite icons depicts the calling of St Peter. Upon a first glance it seems like a simple image of Christ and St Peter. But spend some time with it and other details become clear. The scene is clearly the moment where Christ calls Peter to follow Him. In the background are the symbols of Peter's life and livelihood: the sea, his boat, his fishing net. In front of Peter is Jesus who looks kind, compassionate, but intent. His hand is at Peter's shoulders. He has just asked Peter to leave everything and follow him. Peter's most distinguishing feature is that his hand is up as though in protest. How could he abandon his life, his responsibilities, his sense of place, permanence, and security? His hand is up as if to say "No! I cannot! I have all that I need." Except...

Except this doesn't seem to be everything. Praying deeper it becomes apparent that Peter is not merely standing in opposition to the Lord. In fact, while his body seems to move away from Jesus, his head is poised forward...paying attention, listening. The simple and unremarkable artistry of Peter's face still betrays a sense of his dilemma and his heartbreak. Here he is, face to face with Christ, and he cannot seem to bring himself to complete rejection...not now, and while he will sorely fail later in the story, his stubbornness and weakness will never have the final say. At this moment and for every moment hereafter, he is open to Christ and possesses the impulse to that basic desire to linger on His words just a little longer and perhaps follow Him for even a few more steps.

A simple icon betrays a depth that swings open the potentiality of its seemingly most mundane elements to effectively communicate God. In both of the above mentioned books, Cardinal Schönborn recounted the history of the Christian icon and showing that the root issue over the controversies on whether or not it was proper or heresy to depict Christ artistically was the claim that, in Christ, God allows Himself to become a human being, to embrace our frail condition and with it the fullness of our greatest joys and our worst sufferings. Remember that in Judaism it was a grave sin to depict God, and if Christians claimed Christ as God than images of Him would necessarily be controversial. That controversy was exacerbated by the various iconoclastic controversies where images of Christ and the saints were obliterated by other Christians who could not bear what was experienced as an abomination that had people claiming to be Christians worshipping paintings and statues. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the dividing lines were drawn and even today the use of such images is a source of interdenominational misunderstandings.

Cardinal Schönborn traces the tradition of making images to this simple point: while the Law of Moses prohibits making our own images of the invisible God (thereby curtailing the worship of God as we would like Him to be, something that is a perennial temptation), God Himself provides an image of Himself. That image is Jesus Christ, in whom God is seen concretely and personally, who was seen by those around him as clearly as one person can see another. Making images of Christ is as potentially harmful as taking a photograph of your spouse then being afraid that at some point you may mistake that photo for your wife. A truly corresponding image points to the reality represented, not away from it (or in this case, "from Him").

This was all in the air as I beheld these different images of heavenly things. In an odd way, the Incarnation of the Son of God lent a certain suitability to the kitsch and I could only find joy in these cheap Asian imports.

Still, one thing was abundantly clear: a lot of the stuff you'll find at flea market is...interesting. Interesting and weird...weird...weird.

So here's some stuff that I found interesting:

I would love the story on this one. This is an image of the baby Jesus positioned as though he were in a traditional kreche/nativity scene. What distinguishes this particular version of the baby Jesus from others is that here he is clearly an MD (or DO or maybe even a dentist...either way he's a doctor). If you're not sure if this is supposed to be the baby Jesus, the halo and the name badge ("Dr. Jesus") give it away. He is also resting on an easy chair. I'd like to know the history of this particular image (The Divine Physician by way of Doogie Howser?) but maybe I'd be better off not knowing.

I forgot the name of this particular version of Our Lady but I can say that I never heard of it (I guess it has a good chance of being Mary Star of the Sea). There are so many wonderful cultural expression of Our Lady that span all nations and all people, but these this statue looks more like Lady Galadriel from Lord of the Rings.

Anyone who knows me knows how much of a fan I am of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. So I should be all over this. But the second JPII from the left looks like he's plotting for world domination and JPII all the way to the left looks a little like Cary Elwes (Wesley from the Princess Bride, but he also played a young Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II in a halfway decent movie on his life). I give them points on having a genuine Benedict/Ratzinger and I wish I picked it up because it would be closest to having an action figure of my favorite pope.

As much as I love these popes, however, this. is. so. creepy.

I think this image speaks for itself. Hippy-ish, bizarre, oddly pleasant, but certainly well meaning. All I can add is that these multiple baby Jesuses look like the Eloi from the George Pal version of the Time Machine (1960).

I have a long standing devotion to St. Michael. My Confirmation name is Michael and I get a smug satisfaction of watching St. Mike give Satan a cosmic body slam. Much like the statues of Mary that have a serpent supplanted under her sinless heel, this traditional image of St Michael overcoming the devil is the heavenly equivalent of a poster of Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat sneaking in for the surprise sneak reversal that pinned "Macho Man" Randy Savage at Wrestlemania 3. Except Satan is no Macho Man...that's for sure.

But if you're going to capture St. Michael in a pre-smiting pose, DON'T FORGET TO GIVE HIM HIS SWORD. How can he smite if he doesn't have his sword?

It should also be noted that Satan's grimacing mouth kinda looks like it was given the Robot Chicken treatment (you either get that or you don't).

Am I hallucinating? THREE Jesuses? Fret not, this is merely a confused rendering of the Holy Trinity...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only they all look like Jesus. Theologically you can kinda make a case for it because Jesus (the Son) is the image of the invisible God. Given the triune nature of God, He is really the only real image of God which we have to work with. It may have some basis in traditional art or iconography, but I think it was well-intentioned misfire. For one, the triangular halo is usually used in images of God the Father (an always tricky affair, depicting Him...see picture below) but here all 3 images have the halo. They all obviously look like Jesus. They are only distinguishable from the items they are holding and the images on their chests...with a scepter for God the Father, an image of a lamb on the chest of God the Son (the "Lamb of God") and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the artist was positing an interesting solution to Sabellianism, where the 3 persons of the Trinity are merely singular manifestations of the one God at different times (i.e. God is the Father sometimes, the Son at other times, and the Holy Spirit at other times still...all depending on the situation), but deep down I doubt that.

I also wonder why the artist thought it would be tasteful for God to be resting His feet on the heads of baby angels.

This is a more traditional image of the Trinity...the 3 persons are unmixed, distinguishable, and yet still united in their oneness-yet/and-threeness. The angels are no longer footstools but are hanging out with the Godhead. While I'm no real fan of depicting God the Father, in this image He certainly looks like Jesus' Father. The mystery of the Trinity....ready for your contemplation.

This is another image of the baby Jesus, this time in a more Infant of Prague position. This is most likely some older devotion to the baby Jesus that I don't know about, but this reminded of the 3 Musketeers.

I think the inspiration for this statue is a beautiful image I saw online of Pope John Paul II (presumably after his death) being embraced by the "Black Madonna", which is an image of Our Lady that is cherished by the Polish. While the sentiment is laudable, the execution (which transposed that image with the much more ubiquitous Our Lady of Guadalupe, an image that has found a home everywhere from traditional minded Hispanic homes, gang tattoos, and hippie "supply" shops) was just a little weird.

Finally this is an image from my own collection. This is a peculiar image of St Therese of Lisieux that I found in China Town in NYC. I saw it and I just had to get it. My wife had no problem with me getting long as it wasn't in our apartment. With it's green velvet background and distorted facial features, it's not what one would consider a flattering image of this quite beautiful saint. St Therese looked like this:

I have a huge devotion to her for a number of reasons, not least of which is that she helped me to really know Christ through simple love and simple service. It may sound weird talking about "knowing" Jesus, but I challenge anyone who would scoff at that to read her autobiography "The Story of a Soul". You would have to be pretty hardened if that beautifully simple book doesn't crack you even a little bit.

Still, there is this fairly hideous image:

In short, I love this image because the person who made it must have had some sort of respect for St Therese. The polished wood, the interlocking pieces, the dark green velvet...this thing took some work. At the very least it was made by someone who believed that a perspective buyer would appreciate it. Maybe the execution seems a little off but to me it's a beautiful piece of art. The time and care that this image required mean that the artist believed that this image could do something that a photograph or painting couldn't do.

Besides that, I believe that it is a wonderful allegory for what the Incarnation is all about, and along with it holiness, grace, and the communion of saints. St Thomas of Aquinas said that "grace does not destroy but builds upon nature". This means that God uses the raw materials of our nature to elevate and perfect us. We don't do all the work, we just need to be open to God's work. In fact, so much of our relationship with God is about "being open" what He can show you, to His mercy, to His transforming power in our the end of it all God does most of the work. We just provide the materials. In fact, we provide nothing more than what He gave us to begin with. He gave us our lives, our bodies, and ourselves, and our gift of ourselves back to Him is merely letting Him finish the job. The results are glorious. When we make the images, the results can be dicey. But since we are already in His image, the final results of His work in us will be glorious.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, April 1, 2011

Thank you Borders for closing your crappy stores   

When overpriced book stores go out of business

Today I picked a copy of Jacob Neusner's translation of the Mishnah at a Borders that is going out of business in Commack. It was 50% off of "way too much".

3 interesting things going on here:

1) Borders: all chain book stores suck but Borders PARTICULARLY sucks. No one should have to pay the SRP on books period and while Borders and Barnes & Noble have ripoff discount cards, Borders is worse because they haven't seemed to care about their book selection in about 5 years. When I worked for the Corporate Music Store (i.e. Coconut's/FYE), the basic stock of every store in America seemed to be guided mostly Soundscan (which gauges the most popular releases in the country), assuring that there was no real variety from one store to the other. The result was a homogenized shopping experience that was indifferent to variety among stores (even within stores that were in close proximity to each other) and indifferent to regional interests. Even Walmart will stock different stuff in different communities.

Most of the books I'm interested in are in the field of religion and history, which would be great if that meant I wanted historical fiction that related specifically go the faith of regular folks in the American frontier (they have that) or mostly insipid "inspirational" books (which are mostly saccharine with triple spaced gaps in text), but is pretty sour if you consider religion a serious field of study.

So I'm mostly glad they are closing. I'm sad to see any store that stocks leisure items close, even if it's a chain. A chain record store still carries Black Sabbath albums and even a chain book store carries David Copperfield. But Borders had it coming.

2) The Mishnah: I've been hoping to get an English translation of the Mishnah for a long time, which was a fairly cost prohibitive hope. The Mishnah, FYI, was compiled by around 200 AD and after the Bible is the first major text of rabbinic Judaism. By the year 200 AD, Judaism went through a crisis in it's self-understanding in the wake of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. The center of Jewish worship was the sacrificial system in the Temple. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in response to a failed uprising, the sacrificial system ceased. To give perspective, a substantial portion of the Torah is devoted to the sacrificial system. Jewish people would travel to Jerusalem at least 2-3 times a year to worship at the Temple (where God dwelt on earth and where it was understood that heaven and earth met) and make sacrifices. Long before the Muslims began to pray towards Mecca, the Jews would pray towards Jerusalem and its Temple. In fact, initially Muhammad required his disciples to pray towards Jerusalem, so central was Jerusalem to the religious landscape.

Once the Temple was destroyed, Judaism had to regroup. In a very real way, Judaism persevered as Jewish worship and practice moved its center towards the Synagogue rather than the Temple. The Temple was one building in one location but a synagogue could exist wherever a Jewish community existed. The central role of the priest dissipated and the formal role of the rabbi grew in prominence.

Tradition was very important to the Jewish communities and the Mishnah gathered the memories and traditions of the Jewish people that included commentaries on the right practice of the Law, the Temple and its sacrifices, and the practicalities of the life of the community. It's a fascinating snapshot into the communal remembrances of the Jewish people and a helpful tool to reconstructing where Jewish faith and practice were at in the centuries prior. It's a text worthy of respect.

3) Jacob Neusner: Jacob Neusner's is a name I've been familiar with for a long time but never really explored. That changed as I noticed that he was frequently cited by "historical Jesus" scholar John P Meier in his 4 book series "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus" and Pope Benedict XVI in his "Jesus of Nazareth".

Neusner is an expert in the emergence of rabbinic Judaism and Judaism in the 1st century context (among many other things). I've only begun to appreciate his work more. His translation of the Mishnah was carried in many Borders bookstores throughout the years (usually shrink-wrapped to keep it is published by Yale) but not so much in recent years. I was glad that a failed Borders still had one in stock, even after a series of successive markdowns. Some people have issues with the translation due to the exclusion of certain parts of the text but for my purposes a possibly problematic version of the Mishnah translated by a guy I respect is better than no Mishnah at all. I'm grateful to finally have a copy.

So goodbye Borders. You did it to yourself but I'll kinda miss you. As video rental stores close due to Netflix and chain book stores close due to Amazon and its Kindle (chain music stores, as we all know, have been a dinosaur for a while now), I do feel like something important is being lost even if it cost too much to begin with.