Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018.12.30 Jesus Christ The Apple Tree?

Most Christians are familiar with the Garden of Eden myth in the Bible. Likewise, most Christians cast aspersions on the snake, or Eve, or the fatal forbidden apple itself. You’d think Eve was Snow White plucking and eating a fatal apple out of which popped the head of an asp. 
Incidentally, the Bible calls the fruit of the tree a “fruit” not an apple. Still, the apple won the day as the fruit of choice for delight and trouble, and snakes still scare the bejeezus out of many women. Ah the stereotypes we create!

Christians simply do not associate the apple with Jesus Christ    .   .  .  or do we?
This apple core stands today outside the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem. I loved posing with it.

Dick and I listen to the Festival of Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve morning. It’s broadcast live on radio from Cambridge England. This year was its 100th anniversary. It is, oh, so traditional, and oh, so beautiful. This year for the first time I noticed something amazing about that old apple. One of the 15th century carols sings of Adam “ybounden”—tied in knots you might say, and all for the sake of an apple he took. The carol goes on to say, however, that had the apple not been taken, our lady would never have been a heavenly queen. And so we sing:

Blessed be the time
that apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen  (may sing)
Deo Gratias

Interpretations abound of course, but this medieval one caught me up as I realized how valuable the old apple turned out to be for Christians. I now see the supposed curse of Eden in a new light, call it Eve and Adam claiming their place in the salvation scheme, taking the first bite into the Incarnation, that spiritual action by which things divine are joined with things human—and all thanks to an “apple” from the Christ-tree.

There’s even a medieval English carol singing praises to both apple and tree.

Jesus Christ The Apple Tree
  tune by Elizabeth Poston

1. The tree of life my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit and always green:

The trees of nature fruitless be

 Compared with Christ the apple tree.

2. His beauty doth all things excel:

By faith I know, but ne'er can tell

The glory which I now can see

In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

3. For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:

I missed of all; but now I see

'Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

4. I'm weary with my former toil,

Here I will sit and rest awhile:

Under the shadow I will be,

Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

5. This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,

It keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be

With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

                                                                     Deo Gratias.  


The apple ne'er does fall far from the tree. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Advent IV—Wonder, Wonder, Wonder: How Can This Be?

Advent is the season of anticipatory joy, the season of wonder.  Children are good at wondering.

Advent is nearly over and I am late with this post. Still: I want to remember with you Mary’s first response, the one for which she is less famous. When the angelic vision informed her that she would become pregnant, though a virgin, and bear a son who would be, in today’s lingo a spiritual rockstar, she  said: How can this be? 

Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth, through angelic vision to her priest husband Zechariah, found herself suddenly pregnant in her old age.  Both asked the same thing, and variations thereof, that Mary asked: How can this be? This was her first wonderment.

How can this be? is a wondering question. It is an Advent question and a daily question— both in those days and in these days.

How do we find enough stamina and  courage to carry on when unexpected, startling, confusing and challenging things happen, whether good or not good, tragic or miraculous? We are rendered powerless, and we wonder: How can this be? Where is God? How will I cope? 

One brilliant way we cope is simply to tell a heroic story, personal or communal. Most such stories tell of a God of spectacular reversals. Such stories are remembered and told over and over and they keep us in hope. Everyone has a heroic story. The Bible is full of such stories. We wonder and still say together: How can this be?

Luke's gospel tells the whole story of the birth of Jesus Christ and its prequel. Here’s what Mary did after accepting the inevitable facts of her condition and before marriage or birth: she set out, presumably alone, or at least no escort is reported, to cross the barren hills to visit her cousin Elizabeth. How can this be? Both women believed God was involved somehow, and both were scared in their vulnerable circumstances. The biblical story is called The Visitation. Here is The Visitation icon written by Benedictine nun Sister Marie-Paul. She was born in Egypt of Palestinian origin and Italian descent. She now  lives in a small community of French-speaking sisters near the summit of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Mary and Elizabeth embraced and talked to each other. They shared all their thoughts and feelings, all of them. This is a common practice women have, often before acting. They get together and talk about the best and the worst. I call my women friends right away when I'm befuddledWhether we agree or not, we listen to each other, and more often than not derive no secure answers, except through the connections we make and the stories we tell, there comes necessary strength to carry on. How can this be? I have no idea.  I wonder.

Children are expert wonderers. Here is a recent and true story of one such child. I dedicate this true little story to a dear friend, a woman whom I have named the stealth evangelist. She is in California now visiting her son and daughter-in-law and their two sons. The oldest is a boy named Jack. He is just six and he loves it when his Grandma reads him stories, mostly because Grandma has  time to reflect with Jack, to have a conversation about the story they read. Many times Grandma has read  Jack a book by Eton Boritzer called What Is God?  The book illustrates in words and drawings the basics of many world religions. All of them have a special prophet/leader/founder. All religions conclude that God is Love. The Christian prophet/founder is Jesus Christ. Jack knows that he is a Christian, but has not been to church much. He wonders—a lot—about this Jesus.

This Christmas Grandma decided to tell Jack that Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Jesus was born at Christmas.  Jack’s eyes flew open. He looked at Grandma with an expression of wonder and incredulity and said: No!  (Jack’s version of how can this be?)

Jack is on wonder overload now, and Grandma is empowered. They are now reading the biblical story in Luke 2.  Jack wonders about everything, chiefly mangers and angels, and he says: “Read it again, Grandma. Read it again.”


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent III—What Then Should We do?

Biblical characters are frequently demanding and commanding in the name of God, even to the point of name-calling, like John the Baptist’s indictment of the crowds seeking baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Trees that do not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire and burned up. This is harsh. John the Baptist would never win any popularity contests. And yet he sheds glaring, revelatory light on human behavior. What you do matters to you, to your neighbors, and to God.

Does God judge? Yes. Does God condemn forever? No. Does God call for repentance and change? Yes. Does God love with zeal equal to the zeal with which God judges? Yes.

“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John. They, like us, wonder about this kind of God, and feel threatened, a little scared.  

The Baptist’s answers are inconvenient but quite clear: give away one of your several coats; do not extort money falsely; no usury or threats of violence; be content with your own wages. Someone more powerful than I am is coming.

Ah, good: our Jesus Christ is coming with the Holy Spirit in tow. Good news! Whew!

Not so fast. This Christ, whom we think is our Christmassy Jesus, has a winnowing fork and bears exactly the same message as the Baptist delivered. The harsh light of judgment exposes us all, inside and out. It hurts. Certainly no one would dare be silly and sentimental about the power of this Word, this Christ, this God who calls for right behavior.

What then should we do?

The first thing to do is to scrutinize your own greedy habits. The second thing to do is to realize you can’t blame the OLD testament for this one. It is in our NEW testament. Then resist the temptation to blame, even yourself. Historically and today, one of the first reactions when we feel afraid, challenged, insecure, and powerless is to defend self by blaming others, rather than taking into account our own behavior.

Just like the crowd the Baptist warned, we are in disarray, not centered, unclear about what to do, how to behave. Our values are askew, so we blame: Republicans, Democrats, climate-deniers, the media, the atheists, the theists, God godself, science, the White House, the northeast, the southwest, the midwest, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, the law, religion, the Bible, the police, car salesmen, LGBTQI  people, THE Institution—on and on. Add your favorite blamee—even shaming yourself neurotically counts. All of this gets us off the hook. Face it: we might just be a brood of vipers who need to get honest.

Throughout history, the preferred blamee has always been the Jews. NOTE: John the Baptist, Jesus, Mary, Paul, the gospel writers, all of our beloved biblical forebears, were Jews.

I worry about this die-hard and deadly habit of blaming the Jews. All -isms are on the rise in our confused world, and anti-semitism is too. It’s always the Jews, or the OT, which is to say the same thing in disguise. Why is that? Cynthia Ozick proffers an answer in her essay “Hep! Hep! Hep!”, published in A Sense of Wonder (2016).

H.E.P. was the call of the Christian Crusades in 1099. It stood for Hierosolyma est perdita (Jerusalem is destroyed.) Hep! Hep! Hep!—a raging marching song, a Christian cry, a Nazi cry, an anti-Zionist cry. It’s the cry of blamers and haters anywhere. If you listen carefully to your deep inner self you might hear the impulse to cry Hep! when you feel frustrated, angry, wanting to vilify another and declare yourself absolutely right. Toddlers do this well.

Such impasses happen everywhere and any time to any society and people, so why do Jews bear more of the brunt than other groups? Ozick suggests it has much to do with: “. . . the forceful powerful resistance to what Jewish civilization represents—the standard of ethical monotheism and its demands on personal and social conscience.”

We’re right back to the Baptist’s cry, to Jesus’s winnowing fork—calling us to high standards of morality. We plain don’t like it. Think Ten Commandments—foundational divine expectations, the manifesto of the Jews.

I think the worldwide symptom of this resistance is that we are stuck in fight mode—spewing toxic, hostile energy, and humor that falls short of being prophetic, into the midst, rather than enough respectful intelligence to open up relationships with and any and all putative blamees.
                                                     *  *  *  *

Still: are we less divided than we think we are, or than we are told we are? As long as we think we have to fight we will have to blame. The space between us will remain contaminated, and that space is where commonly held values live—gasping for air.

Think tug of war. If each of only two teams dropped the rope and abandoned the fighting spirit, the passion to win and to be right, the dust would settle. Could we then see clearly and hear each other clearly? Is this the baptism of the Holy Spirit and cleansing water? 

Is this then what we should do?

Sunday, December 9, 2018

2018.12.09 Advent II—Lions of God

In Advent we hear a cry of warning from the wilderness, the city, within our own souls. It's a call to change, to return to the ways of God, to seek goodness in God, self, and neighbor—ALL.

I initially wondered what a female version or image of John the Baptist would be?  All I envisioned was some variation of the cartoon cave-woman, Wilma Flintstone, going from cave to cave with the latest news and a baked goodie of some kind. I used to love the cartoon characters, the Flintstones, as did my children: Fred and Wilma Flintstone with Barney and Betty, their BFFs.  Here they are, Wilma at left.

But let’s be serious. John the Baptist is a biblical character, not a cartoon, and a key figure in the New Testament stories of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a fierce and deeply honest biblical prophet, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John was mostly associated with dire news: Change before it’s too late, you brood of vipers! Also, a bad wardrobe: clothing made of camel’s hair; and a lean and strange diet: locust and wild honey. His job description was stark: baptizer of frightened hordes in the Jordan River and preacher of a new reign. And his death, like Jesus’s, was brutal and violent—imprisoned for treason by Herod Antipas, ruler of Palestine (4 BCE-39CE) and beheaded at the whim of Salome, a young girl who danced for the king at a banquet and requested the head of John the Baptist in payment for entertaining the drunken Herod and his court.  (See Midrash , "The Vow" by Lyn G. Brakeman in her book The God Between Us: A Spirituality of Relationships).

Jesus’s day, like our own, was beset by unrest, fear, distrust, and persecution of anyone who resisted the tyrannical ways of oppressive authority. Classism was then, as it is today, a most terrifying sociocultural plague. John the Baptist and Jesus preached God’s reign of justice, peace and hope for the poor and oppressed. If ever there was a time to heed the Baptist’s cry of CHANGE! it is now. This eccentric figure frightens us with his warning to be alert in bad times while choosing the path of Good. His clarion call for repentance, although terrifying, also brings hope against hope.

All the images of John the Baptist I found were either too stylized/religious, or too bloody, or for sale only. I wanted an image that was fierce and noble, one that bespoke a story of terrorism and greatness all at once, good news and bad in one. Then I ran across C-Boy.
C-Boy was an African lion who lived a longer than average life (14 years) for an African lion.  According to “Elegy for a Lion”  in National Geographic Magazine, December, 2018, this lion was admired for his “tenacity and fierce spirit.” He would be my John the Baptist image. “He was everything an African lion should be: resourceful, cantankerous, patient, proud but pragmatic, seemingly indestructible, continually imperiled, and gorgeous to behold.”

No one knows how C-boy managed to survive in the wild and live as long as he did, breaking the mortality record. We do not know why he got a second chance at life after a battle with killer lions. The number one cause of death for lions in an undisturbed environment like the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, is other lions. Like John the Baptist, C-Boy gives us a story of mystery and hope that lives on. No one knows how John the Baptizer survived the wilderness and managed to risk provoking hostile authorities for as long as he did—long enough that Jesus sought him out, followed his teaching, and continued what John started. John and his follower, Jesus, live on in the memories and memoirs of the Biblical New Testament.

There are books, films, and animated versions of great Lions of God—Christ, Paul the apostle, and Judah of Israel. Now I have added John the Baptist to this regal leonine array. The Holy One is so vast as to require multiple images. Look in your mirror.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

2018.12.02 Advent I: Grief Almighty

Advent is a cry,
   a screeching O in the wilderness of time.

Advent is howling, hollering,
   hollowing, hallowing.

Advent is a baby in a womb,
    a woman at a tomb—suspended, unknowing, 


Advent is darkness unhinged,
    a fireless hearth.

Advent is the breath-sucking vacuum
    of divine longing:
“Come back to me with all your heart.
Don’t let fear keep us apart.
Long have I waited for your coming
Back to me and living
    deeply our new life.” *

Make no mistake, world.
 Your hype and cheer and glitter—all
    is the weather of idols.
The real climate surges untamed
    beneath—wailing, melting, shivering, begging:

O Come
    O Come ON!

*Gregory Norbert, OSB, “Come Back To Me” (Hosea 14:1)