Friday, December 31, 2004

And so this is still Xmas....

The secular calendar says the new year starts tomorrow.

The liturgical calendar says it started on the First Sunday of Advent.

In the not so recent past, in still rural parts of Europe (Ireland, specifically, and well within the reach of the first half of the last century), "Christmas" was still a season that stretched from December 25th to January 6th. As this was a fairly quiet time for agricultural regions (but livestock, like children, require attention 24/7; they don't give you time off for a vacation away), it was a time easily devoted to holiday (i.e., "set apart") pursuits, and the "12 Days of Christmas" could really mean something.

They could, again.

Christmas is a holy observance, for the faithful. For the world, it should at least be a time of rest, a time for humanity, not the machine. Holidays have changed since the Industrial Revolution. Like animals, machines need constant attention. But they make constant demands: they never get sick, but they never stop, either. We've moved beyond treating children as commodities (before child labor laws, children commonly worked the "graveyard shift" in factories). We can move beyond treating ourselves as commodities, too. It wasn't so long ago we wiped out the season of Christmas from the secular calendar. It wouldn't take much to restore it.

But it will have to happen one individual, one family, at a time.

So consider the alternatives. Consider a Christmas Day that is spent on leisure and family, not wrappings and football and too much food. This year, for example, we cooked our "Xmas" turkey a few days ago, because we were elsewhere on Christmas Day, enjoying someone else's feast. We have cookies and breads and cakes and pies to enjoy through Twelfth Night. And it doesn't have to end on January 1. It can continue, in your hearts and lives if not in your work-a-day world.

In fact, consider the rightness of it. Time was Christmas began on Christmas Eve, and ended on Twelfth Night. Parties, at either end, and pleasure and peace and relaxation and fellowship in between. And what is more valuable than that?

May the Peace of God Which Passes All Understanding

It was the mathematician Leibniz who introduced theodicy into our vocabulary, arguing in an essay that this was the "best of all possible worlds," and therefore the evil in the world did not contradict the goodness of God.

Interesting that this became the theme of Voltaire's Candide, a book prompted not only by the savagery of warfare in the 17th century (see, also, Jonathan Swift's descriptions of war in Gulliver's voyage to the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver's happily naive description of the destructive power of 17th century weaponry convinces his host, an intelligent, thoroughly rational horse, that Gulliver's people are even worse than the Yahoos who live in the land of the horses.), and the abuses of the Jesuits (especially in the "New World"), but by the earthquake in Lisbon. "Interesting," because the earthquake in the Indian Ocean will undoubtedly be the "Lisbon" of our age.

Athenae, however, has already, and wisely, warned us against "learning" from this, a comment that reminds me of my place, and my relationship to this event. I promised a discussion on theodicy, but this is not the time for that. This is a time, for believers, for prayer. Not prayer to an otherwise indifferent god who needs mumblings to take action. That is not prayer, at all. Prayer that changes our hearts, and moves our minds, and directs our bodies, to take the action of human beings filled with compassion for other human beings. Prayer that opens us to the peace of God, which passes all understanding. Which peace, as all the Christian mystics knew, and know, and as the liturgy understands, leads us back into God's world; not away from it.

Questions of theodicy are questions of theory. This is not the time to learn from this event. This is the time to respond to it.

The peace of God be to you
The peace of Christ be to you
The peace of Spirit be to you

Thursday, December 30, 2004

"All Manner of Things Shall Be Well"

The theodicial aspects of the Indian Ocean earthquake are not to be dimissed lightly, nor to be despised. But I am often guilty of trying to reinvent the wheel, too. Before wandering off into deserts of theology and Hellenistic reasoning, we should consider the heartfelt thoughts of the Christian mystics. The is from the "showings" to Julian of Norwich. Thanks to Eliot, these are probably her most famous words.

This is not a response to the suffering brought by the earthquake and tsunamis, nor is it a comfort to be offered to those who mourn. But it is hope, in the mourning.
"It seemed to me that, if sin had not existed, we would all have been pure and like Our Lord, as he made us. Thus, in my folly, before this time, I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin had not been prevented, for then, I thought, all would have been well.

This stirring definitely ought to have been given up; nevertheless, I mourned and sorrowed on its account without reason or discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all I needed to know, answered in these words, saying:

"Sin is necessary, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

An appropriate message at any Christmastide, one worthy of returning to before Epiphany.

"Are We Stingy? Yes"

The title of the lead editorial in the New York Times this morning. It's worth reading, and quoting, in full, so disgusted am I with this Administration, and the stupidity among the American public that promotes the theme that "nobody's more compassionate than us!"

President Bush finally roused himself yesterday from his vacation in Crawford, Tex., to telephone his sympathy to the leaders of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, and to speak publicly about the devastation of Sunday's tsunamis in Asia. He also hurried to put as much distance as possible between himself and America's initial measly aid offer of $15 million, and he took issue with an earlier statement by the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, who had called the overall aid efforts by rich Western nations "stingy." "The person who made that statement was very misguided and ill informed," the president said.

We beg to differ. Mr. Egeland was right on target. We hope Secretary of State Colin Powell was privately embarrassed when, two days into a catastrophic disaster that hit 12 of the world's poorer countries and will cost billions of dollars to meliorate, he held a press conference to say that America, the world's richest nation, would contribute $15 million. That's less than half of what Republicans plan to spend on the Bush inaugural festivities.

The American aid figure for the current disaster is now $35 million, and we applaud Mr. Bush's turnaround. But $35 million remains a miserly drop in the bucket, and is in keeping with the pitiful amount of the United States budget that we allocate for nonmilitary foreign aid. According to a poll, most Americans believe the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent.

Bush administration officials help create that perception gap. Fuming at the charge of stinginess, Mr. Powell pointed to disaster relief and said the United States "has given more aid in the last four years than any other nation or combination of nations in the world." But for development aid, America gave $16.2 billion in 2003; the European Union gave $37.1 billion. In 2002, those numbers were $13.2 billion for America, and $29.9 billion for Europe.

Making things worse, we often pledge more money than we actually deliver. Victims of the earthquake in Bam, Iran, a year ago are still living in tents because aid, including ours, has not materialized in the amounts pledged. And back in 2002, Mr. Bush announced his Millennium Challenge account to give African countries development assistance of up to $5 billion a year, but the account has yet to disperse a single dollar.

Mr. Bush said yesterday that the $35 million we've now pledged "is only the beginning" of the United States' recovery effort. Let's hope that is true, and that this time, our actions will match our promises.

Good to know there is a still a very public moral voice in the land.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

"Rachel weeping for her children...."

I heard this earlier, and simply couldn't believe it. But now, with the death toll set at over 100,000, the UN is saying the deaths in Aceh (the region of Indonesia closest to the epicenter of the earthquake) may reach 80,000. One region; alone.

And disease and starvation and bad water and tainted food, still to come.

And so this is still Christmas.....

From an article at CNN:

Measured another way, as a percentage of gross national product, the OECD's figures on development aid show that as of April, none of the world's richest countries donated even 1 percent of its gross national product. Norway was highest, at 0.92 percent; the United States was last, at 0.14 percent.

Such figures were what prompted Jan Egeland -- the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator and former head of the Norwegian Red Cross -- to challenge the giving of rich nations.

"We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries," Egeland said. "And it is beyond me, why are we so stingy, really.... Even Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least how rich we have become."
Mr. Egeland didn't exactly call the U.S. stingy, now, did he? Or the other "rich countries." He says his comments were taken out of context. I think he's right.

Compassionate Conservatism?

It is impossible not to make note of this, if only in passing:

After a day of repeated inquiries from reporters about his public absence, Bush late yesterday afternoon announced plans to hold a National Security Council meeting by teleconference to discuss several issues, including the tsunami, followed by a short public statement.

Bush's deepened public involvement puts him more in line with other world figures. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cut short his vacation and returned to work in Berlin because of the Indian Ocean crisis, which began with a gigantic underwater earthquake. In Britain, the predominant U.S. voice speaking about the disaster was not Bush but former president Bill Clinton, who in an interview with the BBC said the suffering was like something in a "horror movie," and urged a coordinated international response.

Earlier yesterday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president was confident he could monitor events effectively without returning to Washington or making public statements in Crawford, where he spent part of the day clearing brush and bicycling. Explaining the about-face, a White House official said: "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.' "

Many Bush aides believe Clinton was too quick to head for the cameras to hold forth on tragedies with his trademark empathy. "Actions speak louder than words," a top Bush aide said, describing the president's view of his appropriate role.

Some foreign policy specialists said Bush's actions and words both communicated a lack of urgency about an event that will loom as large in the collective memories of several countries as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks do in the United States. "When that many human beings die -- at the hands of terrorists or nature -- you've got to show that this matters to you, that you care," said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Lack of urgency, and then a childish need to lash out at someone who is not busy "clearing brush" and "thinking about" his inauguration (there are reports Bush is deeply involved in every aspect of that $40 million extravaganza), and instead personally expresses sympathy over this horror.

Good grief.

Death toll: 70,000, and rising

I'm trying to get a handle on this, and I can't.

The toll from the Indian Ocean earthquake is now at almost 75,000, and estimated to run over 90,000. 75,000 is about the population of the town I grew up in, when I lived there. Impossible to imagine everyone in that town, those I knew and all those tens of thousands I didn't, wiped out. The number is simply too large.

And then to know how many deaths could have been prevented. A tsunami only reaches so far inland. Warn the people, they can move out of the way, unlike a hurricane, which cuts a huge swath and travels well inland.

This is horror piled on tragedy undergirded by nightmare. Simply beyond comprehension.

And the deaths from disease that will follow.....

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of we can help in this time when help is needed. So we can show compassion in this time when compassion is needed. So we can be servants, in this time when we remember: Christ is born.

Give us strength, O Lord. And let our cry come unto thee....

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Massacre of the Innocents--Part II

I simply cannot improve on these words of Gabe Huck, but I can edit them down to make a single point.
Like most other peoples, the Christian people have waited for the solstice. We have waited, and called those waiting days "Advent." We have waited to tell the stories and sing the songs and pray the prayers. We have waited to put into word and melody and procession all that we want to stake our lives on: this place, this earth, this flesh-God's dwelling place.

Before there were theologies for that, there were stories and around the stories there came to be festivity. The stories were not histories or documentaries. They were tales told about a birth by people who had to see everything through the other end of life, the death in which this Jesus triumphed....

And not only, the stories tell, the blood of birth spilled, but other blood, the world's most innocent blood. It is a true story being told for that, we know, is the way it goes, the way it went, the way it will go: We've all known kings like Herod. It's practically a prerequisite for the job: "Sure, somebody's going to get hurt, a few lives lost, but isn't it worth it?" It comes with the territory.

But then consider how the medieval drama called "The Play of Herod" ends: the escape to Egypt, the hasty retreat of the magi, then the intrusion of the military into the village. The children are murdered and Rachel - the biblical mother -
weeps and laments. A comforter is sent by God, but she re-fuses to be comforted because her children are no more. But this is not the end of the play. Did they somehow invent a happy ending? Nothing of the kind. The ending is not happy, it is a great mystery. For there is a Te Deum sung: "We praise you, God, we confess you as Lord." The greatest chant of praise. This is sung by Mary and Joseph, processing through the audience, but they are joined in their song and procession by the animals and the angels, by the shepherds, by the la-menting Rachel and the parents of Bethlehem, and they are joined by the soldiers and their victims and by Herod. Knowing that...they all, incarnate God and all creation, even death, tyrants and martyrs, all process and all sing praise. And we sing too, and find ourselves in the procession.

Today we can't imagine it. We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And take it in a day. Though we've been baptized into his death, we have little time for or patience with how that death is told at Christmas, a death that confuses lament and praise forever. And no wonder we are careful to keep Christmas at an arm's length. What is Herod in these times?

...From this year's news: how many places, how many innocent?

Where is that mystery in our Christmastime, the mystery that is victorious cross? It is right there in the stories we tell, the carols we sing, the gifts we give and cards we write, the time we take to process through the dozen days from Christmas to Epiphany, the many ways we have to whisper to one another that the days are numbered now for the world's business-as-usual: somehow, some way we are going to join hands and take the procession all over this earth.

Massacre of the Innocents--Part I

By an odd quirk of synchronicity, I had 5 CD's in the changer and pushed the "Random" button on the remote control. This was the first song "randomly" selected:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
bye, bye, lully lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
for to preserve this day,
this poor youngling for whom we sing,
bye, bye lully lullay.

Herod the king in his raging,
charged he hath this day,
his men of night, in his own sight,
all young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee!
And every morn and day,
for thy parting not say nor sing
bye, bye, lully lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
bye, bye, lully lullay.

Words: Coventry carol, fifteenth century

"Odd" because of the day, and the fact I had these verses waiting to be posted today. The story behind them is in Matthew. It takes only a few verses, and happens entirely off-stage:

"When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true:
'In Ramah the sound of mourning
and bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled:
They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)

Did this happen? No more than the census in Luke that compelled the journey to Bethlehem. Why, then, did Matthew include it? I think because he understood: a child, even a two year old child, is not a symbol of power. Symbols, however, don't matter to Matthew. It is Matthew's gospel that applies the Hebrew prophecies quite literally. But Matthew also understood that there is no power, without resistance.

And so this is Christmas/And what have you done?

Via Atrios, originally, we have this moral challenge issued by U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland, regarding the international response to what is being called the worst natural disaster in a century.
"It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really," the Norwegian-born U.N. official told reporters. "Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, [of] how rich we have become."
"There are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy," he said, adding that politicians in the United States and Europe "believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It's not true. They want to give more."

The death toll is now up to 44,000. One third of those are estimated to be children.

Atrios compares this to the cost of the upcoming Inauguration. Which makes me think of Ambrose, in the 4th century:

The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attactive floor covering.

Do we? Do we have to?

Monday, December 27, 2004

Idle speculations

In between the more ponderous ponderings, an idle thought.

Prompted by a commentary on the radio, just now. A comparison was drawn between America in 1850, and America today. In the 1850's, America was in the grip of the 3rd "Great Awakening." Wall Street was silent at noon on weekdays, as everyone was in a prayer luncheon. Really praying, or keeping up with the Joneses is of little import to the thesis, which is that people actually took time, the last time religion was held to hold sway over public life, for something other than work. No such hiatus in the day today, of course. And that, the commentator averred, is damaging to democracy.

People, like gardens, need to lie fallow, he said (and the wisdom of work and rest centered on the life agricultural, v. the life industrial (the machine never rests unless it breaks, or runs out of fuel), is a topic to be explored further in the future). We don't allow ourselves to "lie fallow" now, which means we pay less and less attention to our democracy, among other things. Interestingly, he cast this in economic terms: he said this was costing us more than it was worth, that the cost quite literally outweighed the benefits.

Certainly it does spiritually: all work and no play makes Jack a psychopathic killer; at least according to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. But what about people as political creatures? Can we consider fairness, issues of justice, issues of community, if we don't have time for them?

I must confess, much of my contemplation and the products of those contemplations, comes from long periods of unemployment or under-employment, when I was able to spend my time in other pursuits, or just chasing a thought down to its final end. One of the appeals to ministry was, and is, for me, the opportunity to think: to sit idle, and let the mind wander at play in the fields of the Lord. And to try to find ways to expand that sense of the Lord's fields to more than matters of mind. But what ways would we implement this vision? It's one thing to recognize the problem. It's quite another, to do something about it.

John the Apostle and Evangelist

It was John who taught us all Greek: "En archain hain ho logos: In the beginning, was the Word." Not the language, but the concept: the idea of Christ as word, as Logos, as organizing principle of creation. He meant it, in his gospel, to be a shattering of order, the presence of this ordering principle. But it was another John who led us, through words, to a shattering vision of the Nativity:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven 8eads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she hrought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Revelation 12.

Not something often connected with the Nativity; but it is as natal as the first words of the gospel of John. The poet Ted Hughes used it to great effect for his "Minstrel's Song." A reminder that this season, for Christians, is about shattering change and the establishment of a new order; not one to come, as many seem to believe, but one that has already come, a kingdom that is already here. We do not hasten this vision by exerting our power over human life. We hasten away from this vision, when we fail to recognize it describes what has already happened.

News of the World

The interest in Christmas here seems almost an obsession, but the world demands its due:
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor with hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

Shakespeare, Hamlet

The news this morning now doubles the estimated dead in Asia, from 10,000 last night to 21,000 this morning. What can one say about such things, except to offer help, and to offer prayers? In the face of this, words are small indeed.

And, completely unrelated, a new poll finds 56% of the American people think if cost of war outweighs the benefits, which is some measure of comfort in what seemed a country saturated with violence and the fever of destruction and raw exercise of power. On this day between the remembrance of Stephen and the massacre of the Innocents, that gives some reassurance about the American character. A character that clings to practicality, or what seems practical, anyway; as "58 percent still say U.S. forces should remain in Iraq until order is restored."

Even as the Secretary of Defense himself says that the presence of U.S. troops is the destabilizing influence, and so refuses to countenance sending in even more troops (which is nearly impossible without a draft, anyway).

Ignatius wrote about the Nativity of Christ, in his letter to the Ephesians:

Thence was destroyed all magic,
and every bond vanished;
evil's ignorance was abolished,
the old kingdom perished,
God being revealed as human
to bring newness of eternal life,
and what had been prepared by God
had its beginning;
hence all things were disturbed
because the destruction of death was being worked out.

Soon, soon. But as always for us, never soon enough.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

St. Stephen's Day

As long as we're going to put things back in to Christmas (it's an argument I first heard decades ago; it wasn't until Greek studies in seminary that it became apparent the "X" in "Xmas" was the Greek "chi" is "Christos." Which, of course, is where "Christ" comes from. "Xmas" became widespread when people in early 20th century America were interested enough in Greek to study the language by mail), maybe we should start with death.

Not as far fetched as it sounds. Of the three gifts brought by the Magi, all three are symbolic of royalty, but one particularly signifies death. Frankincense was used to perfume corpses, for reasons too obvious to really need explanation. Odd gift to bring a young child. And what follows from their visit; well, we'll get to that on its day.

But today, the feast of St. Stephen, is the memorial of the first martyr of the Christian church. Not a big day on the American calendar because most of our religious forebears specifically excluded saints days from their religious calendars. But the liturgical observance of Christmas is not all about babies and toys for children and huge red ribbons on the roofs of luxury cars. It is also about those things modern America seems set up precisely to deny. That inclusion has a theological point, too. One we'll get to shortly.

A Christmas Wish

Thumbing through a book of Christmas poems, I came across two by Hardy, who gave up novels in a response to the public reaction to Jude the Obscure, and who became even more cynical as world events led into the war the reshaped Europe:

Christmas: 1924, by Thomas Hardy

'Peace upon earth!' was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison gas.

And then, during the liturgy this morning, we sang this hymn, and I paid attention to words I hadn't paid much attention to before.

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on earth, good will to men,
from heaven's gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats
o'er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains
they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o'er its Babel-sounds
the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife
and hear the angels sing!

O ye, beneath life's crushing load
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold,
when the new heaven and earth shall own
the Prince of Peace their King,
and all the world send back the song
which now the angels sing.

Wise Fools

The New York Times has an interesting editorial up about Isaac Bashevis Singer's story, Gimpel the Fool. It raises a good question about rationality, but more significantly, about authority, and what power it really has.

Moral authority, in particular. If we seek moral authority, the power to condemn others for doing what we would not do, do we understand we are wielding power? And are we capable of wielding such power wisely? And what does wisdom look like, after all?

Is Gimpel a fool? Or the wisest of the wise? Moral authority had meaning within limited communities, once. Israel was such a community. All communities need their morality, of course, their ethics, their expected behaviours and the rules to govern them. But moral authority presumes power, and the ability to wield it well. In the story, the community uses their power to torment Gimpel. But is there power without resistance? Is Gimpel foolish, because he doesn't resist? Or wise, because he doesn't resist?

Israel was a community, once, with laws applicable to all, accepted by all. Now, even among Jews, such moral authority is largely an individual matter, although the community is intimately connected in the decisions of what is moral, what is not. But seeking power, even moral power: is that wisdom? Or foolishness? And how do we tell the difference?

In this season that celebrates a god coming as a peasant child, these are entirely relevant questions.

Comites Christi

We come, after Christmas, to the Comites Christi, the companions of Christ. They are honored with feast days following Christmas, and two will be of special concern here: St. Stephen, and the Holy Innocents.

But there is no better introduction to the Comites Christi, for now, than the words of St. Augustine:

Consider what is said to you: Love God. If you say to me: Show me whom I am to love, what shall I say if not what Saint John says: No one has ever seen God! But in case you should think that you are completely cut off from the sight of God, he says: God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God. Love your neighbor, then, and see within yourself the power by which you love your neighbor; there you will see God, as far as you are able.

Begin, then, to love your neighbor. Break your bread to feed the hungry, and bring into your home the homeless poor; if you see someone naked, clothe him, and do not look down on your own flesh and blood.

What will you gain by doing this? Your light will then burst forth like the dawn. Your light is your God; he is your dawn, for he will come to you when the night of time is over. He does not rise or set but remains for ever.

In loving and caring for your neighbor you are on a journey. Where are you traveling if not to the Lord God, to him whom we should love with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind? We have not yet reached his presence, but we have our neighbor at our side. Support, then, this companion of your pilgrimage if you want to come into the presence of the one with whom you desire to remain for ever.

Saturday, December 25, 2004


Merry Christmas (-:

Yes, Merry Christmas from the Dread Pirate Roberts and me.
Rexroth's Daughter

Merry Christmas! Let nothing you dismay, as the song says.

A Merry Christmas to you all. Keep in mind or in your prayers the people in Iraq, both Americans and Iraqis. NPR reported this morning that Christians in Iraq were afraid to go to church, affirming my conviction that irony is one of the major forces of human history.

Fortunately, there are more powerful things than force. We celebrate one of them today, whether we welcome the Christchild, or just welcome the family of humanity, as Charles Dickens did through Ebenezer Scrooge.

Merry Christmas, y'all!

Christmas Eve

I've never experienced this; but a friend has told me about it.

When he was travelling, he visited an Orthodox church on Christmas Eve; one probably in Turkey or Asia, as he had lived there before; but I don't know where it was. An Orthodox service, from what I gathered, is quite different from a Western service. People mill about, while the priests conduct the rituals behind a screen that separates the people from the sanctuary, the "holy" or "separated" space.

At midnight, someone comes from behind the screen, as the rituals of worship continue, and whispers to the nearest person. Who, in turn, whispers to those around him or her; and so the whisper spreads, in a wave, across the whole space, among all the people. Very quietly, very reverently, they say to each other: "Christ is born."

Christ is born. Christ is born. Christ is born.

And once again, the miracle occurs, and once again, the word is made flesh: carried from tongue to ear, from larynx to tympanum, from soul to soul through the only medium we have, the flesh, by the only communication we have for such thoughts: the word. The miracle is re-presented, the incarnation is re-played in the simplest and most direct way, and the connection for believers between themselves and their Creator is carried in and by the very substance of their being, and is real because they share it among themselves, because they pass it along.

Christ is born. Christ is born. Christ is born.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Show or Tell?

In all the haste of the season, as per usual, I lost my way.

Well, slightly.

So concerned with telling was I, the power of showing was neglected. My purpose has never been to dictate a proper celebration of the season, but to describe it. Actions speak louder, but when all we have between us is words....

There is a passage, on a Christmas Revels recording I have, that captures it. A woman reads from her own Kentucky memoirs. She tells of a time, within her lifetime, when Christmas in America was still not about gifts and trees and electronic carols blared from loudspeakers. In fact, she tells of the first time her family thought to get a Christmas tree, a new idea in the hills where she lived, one she figured her Maw got from magazines and "the outside world." They went out in a snowstorm to get it, and had to settle for a sycamore sapling with almost bare branches. But, she says, when they'd strung popcorn and bits of colored paper torn from catalogs and decorated it, it was the most beautiful thing they'd ever seen.

Hard to imagine, isn't it?

And on Christmas morning, they celebrate by going out at dawn, gathering outside her grandmother's window, and singing. The song they sing is one of the most beautiful in the American catalog. If you don't know the tune, the words alone almost don't do it justice:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

Ye winged seraphs fly, bear the news, bear the news,
Ye winged seraphs fly, bear the news
Ye winged seraphs fly,
like comets through the sky!
Fill vast eternity, with the news, with the news!
Fill vast eternity with the news!

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb Who is the great “I Am”;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And that, Charlie Brown, is getting a lot closer to what Christmas is all about.

Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head

In keeping with the theme of the evening (or the grumpiness of the host, take your pick), while the evening settles in and the pecan pies make their way to the oven (for yours truly, anyway), one last bit of poetry. From the wisdom of the people of Appalachia. If you don't know the tune from the Christmas Revels, you probably know it from George Winston's "December" album.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable on that Christmas eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
stars were glowing, glowing, glowing.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

To that manger came then wise men,
Bringing things from hin and yon
For the mother and the father
and the blessed little son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks,
and sat beside the ass and ox.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

Amahl and the blessed poor

I have this tape, one made off the Austin radio in 1982, and driving back from Austin today I was listening to it, after I drove out of range of the radio station. s her child, who should, in her eyes at least, be a king. The Magi decide to leave the gold for Amahl, and tell the mother about the kingdom this "king" will have, one that doesn't need gold, and where no one will need wealth or be poor. This causes her to change her mind and relinquish the gold, because this "king" is the one she's been waiting for. Which accomplishes a miracle, as Amahl is healed and can walk without his crutch. The opera ends with Amahl setting out with the Magi to see the child.

A made-for-TV story, certainly. But it struck me how we never hear any mention of the "poor" and "Jesus" on television any more, or in the popular press, not even a connection between the poor and Christmas. Many of the "traditional" celebrations of Christmas, after all, centered around giving to the poor for one time in the year: wassailing, carolling, many "traditional" Christmas practices, were simply forms of allowed begging, whereby the rich gave something to the poor. Many folk Christmas carols (I realized there were several on this tape) are about taking care of the poor for at least one season in the year, about Christmas being the season for them.. Amahl's mother is desperately poor, and loves her child; and her poverty is not her fault, or her responsibility. And the kingdom described for the Christchild in this opera is not a worldly kingdom of power at all. But when has anyone talked about that message in connection with Christmas or Christianity, on television or radio? When have we dared make that quite radical connection?

Maybe there is something wrong with our observance of Christmas, after all....

And so this is Christmas....

In 24 hours, it will have begun. Has it been frantic? Hectic? Stressful? Manic? Insane?

And this is a holiday? A day separated from others, set apart for happiness, pleasure, joy, refreshment, something good? Is something wrong with Christmas?

No. Not really. What's wrong is only with the celebration, the idea that Christmas "comes" at a single point in time, appears at a certain moment, is ephemeral as a soap bubble, is gone the moment you grasp it, is available only to children, and then only in the joy of ripping open packages and tearing into boxes and tossing aside ribbons in a great pile of waste and tape, to get at the pearl inside every quite beautiful square oyster.

This is not Christmas, but only because Christmas is not a solitary moment. It is a holiday; something set apart, for the pleasure of the company of family and friends, for the enjoyment of human contact or quiet time or respite from worldly duties, or for worship, which is a respite all it's own.

Christmas is not the haste to be ready with all the cookies and cakes and pies prepared, and the turkey stuffed for the oven and the decorations pulled out and all put where they were last year, and the perfect memories planned before they happen. Christmas is the time, and how you spend it. In fact, "spending it" is the wrong metaphor. We don't spend time; it spends us, so long as we treat it as an economic cycle, something earned or stored or only dealt with wisely when it is "spent well." We don't spend time; we live in time, bounded by mortality, by the womb and the grave. We are spent by time when we think we control it, have power over it, dole it out or keep it tight-fisted, used only for our benefit, for what we think we see we want and need. Spending time is not Christmas.

Christmas is letting ourselves fully into time. It is the holy-day, the set apart day, the day kept pure by letting it keep itself. Ideally, it isn't even a day; it's all twelve days, enjoyed wholly in themselves, one into the other, kept less by observance than by thoughtful living. Thoughtful living, and living for others.

That, too, is Christmas. That is what is almost lost, right now. That Christmas is about others.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Stumbling toward Bethlehem

Anyway, whether one is religious or not, I do agree that we need to have "times set apart, meant to be kept pure of work and effort and toil and the burdens of authority," primarily because, as social creatures, we need to sustain and reinforce our committments to each other- to realize that our labors are a means and not an ends to life, that we work to sustain each other. Unfortunately, I see crass materialism being elevated to a sacred status.
(The words of the inappropriately denominated "no imagination.")

In a nutshell, that was the purpose of "sabbath." A day to be kept holy not because the God of Abraham would withhold the blessings if it wasn't observed (that became the thinking after the Exile, at least in some quarters), but because it kept the day separated from toilsome labor (interesting that it was work that tainted the sabbath, not play). Because creation was meant to be enjoyed, the sabbath was kept holy from the mere effort of living. A way of reminding of the source of life, and of giving an excuse to enjoy life and creation, every seven days.

So holy days are "sabbath" days, too. Days that should be set apart, kept pure and undefiled. What is "pure" and "undefiled" I leave to you. What we can do to keep the holidays "holy," in this sense at least, is what I'm stumbling toward. And what days we keep, is another issue. Twelve days is good; and in a culture not dominated by the machine that never rests, by the lights that destroy night and disturb sleep (remind me to tell you about the opposition to the "moonlight towers" in Austin in the early 20th century), twelve days were easily set aside as "holy." As recently as the mid-20th century in parts of Europe, in fact.

But the deadline, too, is not a "dead-line" at all. That's part of the "American problem" of holidays: that they should occur in decency and good order, and not disturb our calendar otherwise, one devoted to thrift and conscientiousness and hard work. Perhaps that's why we rush our holidays. Perhaps that's why I feel rushed to finish this "series" before December 25th.

But we have twelve days to consider it; and they haven't even begun yet, have they?

The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

In the meantime, an occassional poem for the season:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Preliminary Expectorata

One thing to keep in mind, is that "holiday" has its etymological origins in "holy day." And "holy," with all the attendant religious overtones and understones attached to it, is best understood, as pure, as undefiled, as bounded off and kept safe.

It can, of course, be hierarchical; a privileged position, even a superior one: "Come not near to me, for I am holier than thou." Isaiah 65:5. But it can also be understood as simply preserved, bounded off, kept pure and so deserving of reverence, of awe and respect and honor. "Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy," the law of Moses says. In a subsistence agricultural society where that law began, such a command is an act of faith, indeed, way of enacting, one day out of every seven, "give us this day our daily bread." Keeping one day holy is, among other things, keeping before the people the reminder of where the sustenance of their lives comes from; to remind the people of the source of their life. Clearly this is particular and peculiar to the children of Abraham. But to keep the day holy, is a profession and confession of faith, not a burden and another obstacle. "The Sabbath was made for man," Jesus of Nazareth will remind the lawyers, later.

And so were holidays: they were times set apart, meant to be kept pure of work and effort and toil and the burdens of authority. It was the Puritans, trying to establish a new authority, who wanted to keep holidays pure of worldly entertainments, and so keep holidays "pure" by their own lights. It's a tricky quest, trying to do things right. But that's the one we're set on.

So, keeping the "holy-days," the holidays. How can we do that, outside of a religious context, a specifically Judeo-Christian context? Maybe, if we do not profess one of the religions of the book, we can still do it from that context. That, at least, is where we're going.

Monday, December 20, 2004

"Everything is groovy, everything's okay..."--John Prine

Apologies. Lately I find myself getting busier and busier with preparations.

My intention was to lead up to the issue with a few more posts (the better to convince you all of the rightness of my positions!). In truth, I just had more to say than I could get around to, which probably means much of it was not worth saying, after all.

As it is, I'll be away from any access to the site for a few days, so I'll try to bring this to a conclusion before Christmas actually starts (on the liturgical calendar, anyway). Bear with me. There is yet more, well, something, to break forth.

I just can't get to it yet.....

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Or, Why the Church is So Busy with Preparations.

When Gabriel had spoken in due measure and had heard immediately the responses of the Virgin,
He flew away and came to his bright and gleaming abode;
Then, it is probable that the young woman summoned
Joseph to her
And said, "Where were you, my wise husband?
Why did you not guard my virginity?
For a certain winged being has given me a bridegroom. He has hung his words
Like earrings of pearls on my ears.
Look, see how he has beautified me,
As he adorned me with what he said to me. Just so you
will say to me
In a short time, holy one,
'Hail, virgin wife.'"

When Joseph saw the maiden whom God had blessed as highly favored,
He was struck with fear and amazement,
and he thought to himself:
"Just what manner of woman is this?" he said, "For today
she does not seem to me as she did yesterday.
Both terrible and sweet does she appear
to me now, and it gives me pause.
I gaze upon burning heat in snow,
Paradise in a furnace,
I gaze upon a smoking hill, upon a divine flower with
young freshness,
Upon an awesome throne, on a pitiable footstool
Of the All-Merciful One. I do not understand the woman
whom I took.
How, then, shall I say to her:
'Hail, virgin wife'?"

Romanos, 6th Century

Saturday, December 18, 2004

"Can somebody please tell me what Christmas is all about?"

The observance of Christmas in this country has a rather checkered career. Ironically, Newt Gingrich's question had an answer by our Puritan forebears: Yes, they'd have happily eliminated the word from the language. It meant, after all, a "Christ-mass" (and I am grateful to Prior Aelred for bringing some of this to our attention), a term immediately too Catholic (and Anglican!) for men and women who had left England because they rejected the practices of the state church. The other complaint of the Puritans was that people "kept" Christmas by revelling, when the proper response to such a "holy-day" was reverence and respectful worship. That problem was not new, however.

According to Penne Restad (Christmas in America, Oxford 1995), because the church expressly overlaid Christmas with the Roman Saturnalia (human nature being what it is, it is always easier to modify and existing holiday than to try to stamp it out;* All Saint's Day and its Eve, Hallowe'en, was an acknowledgment of the importance of Samhain, the Celtic celebration of summer's end), there has been a debate ever since over how to "keep" Christmas. As Restad says, for centuries "the Church sustained the hope that sacred would overtake profane as pagans gave up their revels and turned to Christianity." (Restad, p. 6). Sound familiar?

So it is an old debate: what is "Christmas," and how should it be kept? The Puritans in AMerica wanted to leave it alone, much like Ebenezer Scrooge. The very human need for revelry, however, worked against them. December is a fairly bleak time of year. In northern climates especially, people simply seem to need some kind of revelry to get through the period of the winter solstice. How Christmas turned from a day (or even twelve days; that tradition goes back at least to King Alfred's reign, in the 9th century, when the twelve days from December 25th to January 6th (the Epiphany) were set aside for celebration. (Restad, p. 6)) on the Christian calendar to a raging commercial enterprise is another subject entirely, one we can't even get to. If that's where your interests lie, Restad's book, and Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas, are both excellent (and fascinating).

Really, there are three subjects here: (a) the Church's Christmas; (b) the world's Christmas; (c) and what Christmas means. This is not getting any simpler (as I had hoped), but by December 25th we'll try to get around to all three..

*(and yes, December 25th was chosen as the day of the Nativity precisely because of the cult of Mithras in Rome. December 25 was the winter solstice on the Julian Calendar; Emperor Aurelian declared that day, in 274 C.E., would be kept as a public festival in honor of the Invincible Sun God. Christians, a bit later, challenged the pagan festival, which was extremely popular, by taking December 25th as the day of the Nativity. [Restad, p. 4] Traditions run deep, and it is usually wiser to adapt them than to eliminate them.)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

"I'm pretty tired of Xmas, myself."--Hecate

Question: when is "Christmas"? (a) December 25th; (b) the Friday after Thanksgiving until noon or so, December 25th (c) the time between December 25th and January 6th.

One of the advantages of the liturgical calendar, especially when it crosses over the secular calendar (at least three major holidays in America are based on Christian observances*), is that the liturgical calendar offers a sharp and clear alternative to the secular calendar.

At least when the church upholds it.

When is "Christmas"? Most people will say "December 25th," but they'll follow up with "But, it starts on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and runs all through December." Why? Because that's when the shopping starts. And early in December, the parties start. Which is usually just the time when school is getting busier; and business is trying to do all it can before year's end (when I was a trial lawyer, December was frantic until the 25th.). And all of it rushing up against the brick wall of Christmas Eve.

Christmas is, after all, the only holiday that we observe beginning on its eve. But Christmas Eve is the deadline. If it isn't done by then, it isn't done "by Christmas." Because, in good American efficient fashion, a holiday just gets one day in our observance, and then it's back to regular life. "Thank goodness," in the minds of most Americans; especially at the end of the monthlong mad-dash marathon we label "Christmas."

Was it always this way? No. Does it have to be this way? No. In short, follow-up posts, I'll lay out both my understanding of what Christmas is; some of how it got this way; and some suggestions for how to respond to it; or live with it; or just ignore it; whichever is your preference.

*The third is Hallowe'en, or All Hallow's Even, the night before All Saint's Day.

"Are we going to abolish the word 'Christmas'?"--Newt Gingrich

I can see I need to get out more. Having heard about Bill O'Reilly's claim of being the only defender of Christmas in America (apparently), and being surprised to learn Christmas was even under attack, Frank Rich, in a column that deserves wider consideration, lays out the current "case against Christmas," as presented by its "defenders."

Apparently Christmas is on the verge of disappearing; something which will come as news to all of America, if not the world, since the American "style" of celebrating Christmas is now almost ubiquitous in the world (I remember a story last year about store employees in Germany filing a claim over "Xmas music" being played in their stores in December. They claimed it was a violation of their human rights, because it was inhumane to force them to endure such dreadful music all day every day for a month. I could only sympathize.) But apparently, according to Bill O'Reilly:
"...more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest — and has to be dealt with."

What's going on? Well, as Mr. Rich points out:
The idea is to intimidate and marginalize anyone who objects to their efforts to impose the most conservative of Christian dogma on public policy. If you're against their views, you don't have a differing opinion — you're anti-Christian (even if you are a Christian).

That, and the connivance of the media. The Rev. Debra Haffner (a Unitarian Universalist minister who directs a national interfaith group, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, and quoted by Mr. Rich) "detects an overall "understanding" in the media that religion "is one voice — fundamentalist." And, says Frank Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice: "There is the belief that the conservative view won, and the media are more interested in winners."

So this is a silly thing, but a silly thing with momentum. Demonize your opponent, turn anything they say into blasphemy (anti-Christian, anti-American; it's all one), reduce the issue to "us v. them," and get people to vote on their fears. It's perhaps the oldest political strategy of all; and the most effective. We have always been at war with Eurasia.

How do we respond to it? I have some suggestions; some ways, even, of celebrating Christmas (or Winter Solstice, or the year's end, or what have you) that are responses in themselves. I was going to present them in the next week anyway. But now I have a "framing device."

The "O" Antiphons

They will begin tomorrow night, December 17; and continue through December 24th. They are such a centerpiece of the Advent liturgy that they were made into one of the most famous songs of Advent: Veni, Veni Emmanuel.

Mary's Magnificat is part of the Vespers liturgy the year 'round. It is always preceded by an antiphon, recited before the "praying" of the song (songs and psalms are considered prayer in Christian liturgy). The "O" Antiphons were in liturgical use by the 8th century, and probably existed for some time before that. "The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. " And they are "a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God".

As is typical of Christian liturgy, "The antiphons are, in fact, a collage of Old Testament types of Christ. Their predominant theme is messianic, stressing the hope of the Savior's coming. Jesus is invoked by various titles, mainly taken from the prophet Isaiah. The sequence progresses historically, from the beginning, before creation, to the very gates of Bethlehem." But also, they are simply lovely; and worth contemplating as the Christmas rush swirls us into a vortex down a Venturi tube. A beginning point to re-focus the celebrations of the season, and the ending of the calendar year.

O Wisdom, O holy word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care; Come and show your people the way to salvation.

O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

O Flower of Jesse's stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; rulers stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

O Key of David, O royal power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heave: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and lead your captive people to freedom.

O radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal night, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Ruler of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart, O Keystone of the mighty arch of humankind: Come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

O Emmanuel, ruler and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people; Come and set us free, Lord our God.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Las Posadas, Part II

Las Posadas began as an attempt by Father Diego de Soria to contrast with the Aztec winter celebrations in Mexico. It quickly spread throughout Mexico, and celebrates the journey of Mary and Joseph, looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.

I've been pondering the Lukan nativity story lately, and it looks more and more interesting to me, especially in light of the "beam in your eye, splinter in your brother's eye" light of things. There is a "renegade" reading of the Lukan nativity story, one that comes from a scholar who lived much of his life in the Middle East. He insists that the standard reading of the story completely misunderstands the culture of the area. Such inhospitality would be unthinkable; and besides, if Mary and Joseph did come to Bethlehem, family there would put them up (if they were as poor as most of the people, the thought of an inn would never occur to them, if, indeed, such commercial establishments existed at the time. More than likely, they didn't. The economy was very sharply divided between the "haves" (less than 5% or so), and the "have nots." There probably weren't enough people between very rich and poor to keep "inns" in business.)

So where do we get the idea? This scholar said the word translated as "inn" referred to the guest room, not a free-standing building. He also said the "manger" was the feeding trough, a feature of most homes of the time.

Imagine that you are poor, but own a few animals. What you don't own, is land, because land is power, and wealth. But you own animals. Where do you put them at night, if they are so valuable? In the one building you control, of course. Homes had a raised area,a platform just high enough for a feeding trough. The family slept on the platform, which also, because of the height, kept the animals out. The children of such poor families were regularly placed in the trough as a makeshift crib. So what Luke is telling us is not a story of inhospitality, but of peasant hospitality; of a ruler living as the poor lived, fully and completely.

"But at the coming of the king of heaven, all's set at six and seven." Well, it is for us, because we are the rulers, not the peasants. The hospitality that is common among the poor, and practiced widely in the Middle East (the Bible is full of exemplary stories of hospitality, as valued by that culture), is not common among us. There are inns for travelers, other places for them to stay; and if they can't afford it, what business is that of mine? Who are they to me?

And then we attribute that attitude, of which we are justly ashamed (and which we vigorously disavow), to "them."

So Las Posadas is a lovely practice. But it can also remind us of our shortcomings. Perhaps it is no accident that it is not as common a practice in this country, as in Mexico. There are physical problems, of course (I can imagine doing Las Posadas here in Houston; it would take us all night to reach some of the houses of church members, even by car). But is there a cultural one, as well? Would we welcome the stranger so easily? And is there anyone more stranger to us, than the Christ? The One who told us that when we tended to the poor, the sick, the prisoner, we tended to him?

Update: the word Luke uses, katalamati, could mean "inn, but "is perhaps best understood here as lodging...or guest room...." Arnot and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd edition, 1958, p. 414

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Who Do You Think You Are?

I don't mean to glibly drag things out of the comments and make posts of them, but something cervantest said (of course) caught my eye, for more reasons than one:

One of the difficult things to manage about American national identity is that pluralism has to be at the center of it in order for it to work. If we are to be unified at all, it is around the principle of diversity. E Pluribus Unum. A lot of people, it seems, have a hard time getting that.

The problem is, "diversity" has to be understood as a search for meaning. Who am I, if I'm not you? This problem can be understood in terms of sociology (in which I have no expertise; but I read a book once....which is where I get the terms I'm about to use). Put simply, and in the context in which I encountered it, it's the problem of joining the Church of Belonging, or the Church of Meaning and Belonging.

The first you join by accepting the principles of the group, principles which are given to you and by which you are to abide. This is, in fact, the usual view of church many have who either (a) have no experience of church, or (b) had a bad experience of church, or just rejected it after childhood.

The other church, the "Church of Meaning and Belonging," doesn't give you a ready made list of what to believe and how to believe it. Going back to my "tent" analogy, this church provides the basic structure for you, but leaves it to you to decide what you do with it, how much of it you accept, etc. Let me try to give you an example:

I attend an Episcopal church, now, and it's very "high" church, the stereotype, in some ways, of an alienating space to the uninitiated. There is a procession and recession with two crucifixes, a Eucharist served to those kneeling at the rail of the sanctuary (the area around the altar), kneeling benches, people who enter, cross themselves, bow toward the altar before entering or leaving the pews, etc., etc. And yet it is the most welcoming church I have ever attended. No one notices that I don't cross myself reflexively, or bow, or even where I sit. No one even seems to care if I come or not, although they are always glad to see me. The liturgy always runs over an hour, but no one seems to mind.

I have attended churches where you don't sit in certain pews, because you are taking someone's "place," and where, if you don't do things "the way we've always done them," you are in trouble. Of course, the "tradition" there is peculiar to the congregation, not to the denomination. And it is rigidly enforced by the "true powers" of the congregation. Needless to say, such churches are never welcoming, and are usually dwindling, rapidly, into a handful of tired old people who seem to come on Sunday out of habit, and who want to leave promptly at the end of an hour (although where they have to be has always been a mystery to me).

In the latter, meaning is supplied by rigid adherence to "tradition," which is tightly controlled by a handful. In the former, meaning is supplied by you; fit it into the context of the denomination as you can. I have, indeed, met more liberal members in that church, than some of my seminary professors (who were members, some of them, of the Jesus Seminar).

It's a matter, you see, of what unites you. If it is not something from "outside" the community, which provides the structure for you, then you have to invent it yourself. Invention is hard for most people; they shy away from the existential effort. They simply want to belong, and be left alone otherwise. Diversity, for example, means I have to find meaning in your difference from me. And that's hard work. Better to just quash your difference (or ignore it all together) and praise "our" sameness. This is the divide in the country now: between those who want to be in the Church of Belonging, and those who want to be in the Church of Meaning and Belonging. We all want to be Americans: but what kind of Americans?

It's easier to belong, than to search for meaning.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program...

Holden, over at First Draft, brings this to my attention. A snippet from a New York Times report on Bernard Kerik (the news link is at First Draft)

The White House said yesterday that its check into Mr. Kerik's past had actually been more extensive than officials had indicated earlier. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said that the review had gone on for weeks before Mr. Bush nominated Mr. Kerik....
There were also indications that Mr. Kerik may have been under consideration for the job of homeland security secretary as early as the summer. A former city official said Mr. Kerik went to Washington twice in August to meet with White House officials about his views on domestic security.

There were reports that Bush settled on Kerik because of Kerik's "tough guy" demeanor, and that Bush had swept aside any warnings about Kerik's background as negative press coverage, the kind he, too, despises. So now we see Bush's "man-date" in action. A "vigorous vetting process" means nothing if the President says "That's my guy." Being President means always saying: "Damn the press torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"

Having come to grief so quickly, is our President learning? We'll just have to wait and see.....

Monday, December 13, 2004

No Exit?

I was with two young girls tonight (a high school senior; I work part-time in a bookstore, and most of the other part-time employees are teenagers; I’m the “adult” who closes the place), and the talk turned to “outspoken” celebrities. One girl was American, through and through; the other British. The American was greatly offended by the opinions of two celebrities; she said they could influence too many people, and so shouldn’t express opinions that weren’t staunchly supportive of the U.S. (meaning, of course, the current President). (The British girl was quite astonished by this attitude.)

These are opinions the American girl has picked up at home. I recognize them as the ideas I grew up with, and around. Perfectly sound, decent people who consider any loud dissent about politics (“loud” being anything expressed beyond a private conversation) to be tantamount to treason. Not indecent, not improper, but positively dangerous. Religion is often accused of fostering such an attitude, but I think that’s altogether too simple. I think it’s human nature; it’s just more particularly and peculiarly expressed by Americans, because they have no “center” to their belief system.

My reasoning, in a nutshell, runs like this: consider a tent, like an old circus tent. Without a center pole, nothing keeps the tent up, no matter how well staked the sides are. Remove, or break, the pole, the tent collapses. In a belief system, where does the pole come from? Either from some outsides source; or from the participants in the idea of the tent (or the nation; or the church denomination). If the source is outside of the group, and forms the group, the pole does the work, and the group is free to associate under the tent as they please.

However, if the source for the belief system comes from the group itself, then any change in that source threatens the life of the group. Either everyone stands on everyone else’s shoulders and holds the tent up, or the whole structure collapses around the group, and they are left groping under the heavy canvas.

In any national system where identity comes from a long common history, that history is the “tent pole.” (In a church, the identity comes either from the denomination, especially episcopally structured churches, or from the congregation; outside the group, or the group itself). In America, without any common history except as “Americans,” the idea of what is “American” has to shrink to a handful of dried concepts, and the tent pole depends on each and everyone one of us “staying in line.” The identity comes solely from the group, and every member of the group is obligated to uphold (i.e., conform to) the agreed upon identity. Which is necessarily vague and non-specific and so, vulnerable. But if one person steps out, the tent pole will collapse; and so will the tent.

This is, by the way, the weakness of the system, and I think it’s irreparable. The original voters were white male landowners, a class as guaranteed as any can be to have such similar interests at heart as to always agree on what is best for the nation. That didn’t last, of course, and it couldn’t. Now there are too many disparate interests, and the pressure to conform is not something relegated to the 1950’s. In fact, having discovered a national identity during World War II (we barely had one as a nation before that; just as we barely thought of individuals as individuals, and not components of a group, before Romanticism), crushing conformity was inevitable. The 1960’s came about because of the shelter of the 1950’s, not in spite of it, or even in response to it. The hippies, after all, were almost all white, middle class or better, children. Having enjoyed their fun, they quickly reverted to their parents.

Which leaves us with a question: which way out?

"Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still"--T.S. Eliot

"Would that my head were a spring of water,
my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my people." Jeremiah 9:1, REB

Reports today are that over half of the armed forces of America are involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the number of wounded exceeds those from the Revolutionary War and the early years of Vietnam. Such numbers are for comparison purposes, obviously; to try to put some kind of perspective on the horror.

There are also reports that the number of homeless soldiers returning from Iraq and seeking shelter and aid here at home is "shocking." What should be learned once has to be learned over and over again: that the military recruits bodies, and uses them as tools, and when they are used up, the tool is thrown away. All those children being recruited in the poorest areas of our country, promised a way up and a way out; and how many of them left worse off than they began?

The troops live under
the cannon's thunder
from Sind to Cooch Behar
moving from place to place
when they come face to face
With a different breed of fellow
whose skins are black or yellow
They quick as winking chop him into beefsteak tartar

John is a write-off and Jimmy is dead and Georgie was shot for looting
And young men's blood goes on being red
and the army
still goes on ahead recruiting

"Cannon Song," lyrics by Bertolt Brecht

The more things change....

"God grant me the serenity...."

The author of those words was Reinhold Niebuhr, a pastor of an Evangelical & Reformed Church in Detroit in the 1920's, an era of labor strife; a German-American voice raised against the naivete of the "Social Gospel" and those who feared war more than justice before Pearl Harbor; a professor at Union Theological Seminary; and a tireless worker for social justice and what we would, today, call "liberal," if not "progressive," causes.

When he delivered what we now call "The Serenity Prayer" at a worship service, he was asked for a copy. "Take it," he reportedly said, handing over the slip of paper, "I have no further use for it."

Niebuhr was not at all a sentimentalist. He stood for labor unions in their struggles in Detroit. He tells the story of preaching a fiery sermon against management one Sunday morning, following a round of particular brutal lay-offs and firings. One of his church members, as he left, looked Niebuhr in the eye, and told him of the week he, a manager, had had: having to call people into his office and fire them. The manager was well aware of the families he was hurting, of the lives he was touching. He made it clear to his pastor that this hadn't been an easy or painless task, and Niebuhr realized such situations are always complex, that there are human beings on all sides.

Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, has written an excellent memoir of her father's life: The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. Niebuhr was a friend and advisor and counselor to many of the Democrats in power under FDR. He worked hard for "liberal" political causes, was very concerned about the reconstruction of Germany, about the nature of evil and how it affects international as well as human relationships. I say this because he was a theologian as much as a political scientist, but he blended the two, and even added insights into sociology, in his long career.

But when the war ended, as his daughter makes clear, so did many of his hopes. WWII gave way to the "Red Scare," to Republican presidents and McCarthyism, the ethical questions of the use of nuclear power, to the problems of race relations (which the Republicans worked hard to avoid confronting, even then).

I admire Niebuhr, because he understood things like this:

Democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and history with which the democratic credo is linked are a source of peril to democratic society, for our contemporary experience refutes this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. Modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis.
Given our recent experience, those words could have been written today.

But there is a warning in Niebuhr's life, too. His daughter paints a picture of a man deeply, almost physically, nearly spiritually, disappointed by events. Again, what Ms. Sifton writes of, could be taken from the events of today:

Ministers all over America might have been pounding the lecterns and delivering fire-and-brimstone sermons, but their social conformism was pretty complete. Little changed in their privileged lives. They pussyfooted around feel-good mega-preachers like Norman Vincent Peale or Billy Graham-who like so many of their successors never risked their tremendous personal popularity by broaching a difficult spiritual subject, and rarely lifted a finger to help a social cause. They checked up on their pension funds and ignored their parishioners' lives. It's easy enough to assert today, as I do, that Tillich and Niebuhr, or Dun and Temple, or Horton and McConnell were vital presences in the modern life of the Gospel. But they weren't acknowledged as such by most American parsons, and I doubt that they would be today. Freedom and democracy, meanwhile, were being traduced or betrayed. (The Serenity Prayer, Elisabeth Sifton, W.W. Norton, New York, 2003, p. 317)

The more things change. And, unfortunately, they keep changing. Ms. Sifton also records a conversation with her father, shortly after Eisenhower wins the Presidency. "You poor girl," he says, without an apparent trace of irony, "you've never lived under a Republican administration. You don't know how terrible this is going to be." (Sifton, p. 328)

Why am I telling you this? As a warning, in part; a bit of advice about where to put your treasure. The picture of Niebuhr painted by this daughter, wittingly or not, is of a man disappointed in his struggle, who ends perhaps pondering Pound's famous statement about his life's work: "Wrong from the start." Not that Niebuhr despaired as deeply as the poet. But a great deal of what he worked for simply evaporated; if it was ever noticed at all. A great deal of what he tried to do, was aimed at events simply beyond his control. But he wasn't wrong to do it. It's more a question of emphasis, of wisdom, of, if you will, "serenity." Because of one other thing she says, one other thing that was true about her father. This is, as they say, the "money quote." Or at least it is for me:

Is it implicit in virtually everything Pa wrote on the subject that there's little point in having a foreign policy, or an arms policy, unless, as a nation, you know who you are, what sort of nation you are or imagine yourself to be. I don't mean in the narrow sense of an instrumentally calculated "national interest" but in the larger spiritual and cultural sense. Pa's constant gripe was that American political leaders imagined a diminished America and presented it falsely, that they themselves were stupider, prouder, more self-righteous, more moralistic, more vain-glorious than the American people on whose behalf they spoke. (Sifton, pp. 329-330)
And we never have to settle for that.

...and about what you are waiting for.

Today is the one year anniversary of the capture of Saddam Hussein, the event that was to have "broken the back" of the Iraqi insurgency and insured peace in that country.

Reports today are of Iraqis who tell reporters that "things were never this bad under Hussein."

The kingdom of God is a choice few have made. Prayers for peace are always in order.

And then I remind myself that Advent is about waiting....

Listening to NPR this morning, and I can’t help noticing:

A report on the “War on Terror,” where David From is given free rein to bloviate nonsense (“largest loss of American life in one day”, he says of 9/11. Apparently Americans who die in war or natural disaster are no longer Americans, so this statement goes unchallenged. Where’s a BBC reporter when you need one?), and even Brent Scowcroft is identified as a former adviser to Poppy. But Richard Clarke, the harshest critic quoted, is not identified as an expert in terrorism, or the former White House advisor that he is, or given any reason to be there, except we all “know” who Richard Clarke is. And after Clarke slams the “war on Terror” is creating more terrorists than it has stopped (contra the thrust of the report from the other “experts” interviewed, who all praise it, in one way or another), we are told Condi Rice has gone on TV and said “Richard Clarke does not know what he is talking about.”

Neither, of course, does Condi Rice. But that inconvenient reality would embarrass the Secretary of State-designate, and Richard Clarke holds no position in the government, and From used to bloviate for NPR, and even Scowcroft is still seen as a man of influence, so....

Nice to know the reporting is fair and balanced and completely objective.

Advent Wreath

Found myself sitting by one tonight, and looking over at it. Do you know these things? A wreath designed to lay flat, not hang on a wall, and contain four candles, usually 3 purple, one pink. Today is Gaudet, so the pink one is now lit. But in an Advent Wreath with regular candles, the candles burn away as they are lit. Which means that, by the time you get to Gaudet, and the time for praise, two candles have been burned, and are burning now. But one is burned badly away, another is starting to fade, and the third is just started. And then there is at least one more to go, if not two. If the set includes a central white candle, the "Christ" candle, it won't get lit at all until the other four are burned; and then it will only be lit for a short time. When the others are used, it is scarcely begun.

One candle dispels a great deal more darkness than you might imagine. Accustomed as we are to lighting measured in candlepower, it's easy to forget how much candlepower one candle has. But candles are used up quickly; and if they are lit only sequentially, the rate of loss is only more evident. The first gone is giving up its light before the second one is lit; and though it prevails, it is clearly fading when it is time for the third one to burn. When it is finally time for the fourth one to glow, the first one is nearly gone. But the glow of the four together, in anticipation of the light of five....

Nature, as Annie Dillard once observed, is profligate, but wastes nothing. Burning candles is not exactly profligacy, unless you see it from the candle's point of view. One candle dispels what darkness it can, but not forever, and gives up a great deal in doing it. It burns to predict the burning of other candles, other lights, other inevitabilities. And it is a small, symbolic thing, an Advent wreath. It means so little, it means almost nothing. But if you look at it and see an illustration, an indication of what it might take to give a sign, to even be a sign, of what is here, and what is coming....

Well, it may seem like profligacy. But it won't be wasteful. It could be a sign of steady endurance; of the light passing on. A metaphor for time; and revelation. Or even the kingdom of God; here, and coming: announced; arrived; and arriving. A metaphor for living; for no life that is spent giving light, being wasted. For the value of giving light, rather than complaining about the darkness.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Third Sunday in Advent

The Third Sunday in Advent: Gaudete, a break in the penitential season. “Gaudete Sunday is … marked by a new Invitatory, the Church no longer inviting the faithful to adore merely "The Lord who is to come", but calling upon them to worship and hail with joy ‘The Lord who is now nigh and close at hand’.” The shattering that is promised is, for the moment, seen; in the first great song of praise in Luke’s Gospel, named for it’s Latin translation: the Magnificat. But is what is seen presence, or prophecy?
“My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-56, SV)

Quite a lot to claim on just the word of an angel; a lot of expectation for her child. But she doesn’t speak in the future tense; she sings about the present. She praise what God has done, not what God will do; she focuses on the fulfillment of the promise, not a new expectation.

And everything is shattered: thrones, wealth, worthiness; all mean nothing. Hunger and low estate are reversed, power and arrogance are defeated. All without firing a shot. All without anything yet having really happened. How can this be?

One other thing: this is not a political statement. This is not about a greater power than all others on earth, overwhelming what we know and wiping it out. If reason is really going to save us from ourselves, it can only do so by overpowering emotions; it will only do so when we all finally and fully think alike, and praise the same things, and damn the same things, and there is no deviation. It will only finally rule supreme when human emotion is wiped out, and desires and wants are expunged. Reason will only finally be our best and highest ruler when everyone is a slave and no one thinks unlike the rest, and the philosopher kings take their rightful place, and we all learn to bounce our ball in sequence on the coldly perfect planet of Camazotz.
The Magnificat is not a political song. It is not the Maccabees taking on Rome and precipating the slaughter of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It is not the Pax Romana that finally fell, never to rise again. It is not the plea of the Populists, of New Deal Democrats, the Yippies, or the Green Party. The Magnificat is not about what will be, but about what is.

It is not about resistance, about plans to rule and overpower, either malicious or benign. It understand implicitly: there is no power without resistance. It is not a song of resistance, or a song of prediction.

It is a song of now.

So, where did Christmas come from?

First, if you want the "definitive" history, go to Penne Restad's Christmas in America (Oxford University Press, 1995). I'd also recommend The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum.

There are a lot of traditions around "Christmas" that are as old as America itself. One is not going to church on Christmas Day. The Puritans considered that "too Papist," so the day itself didn't even figure on their religious calendar. Not surprisingly, the observance of Christmas day services still lingers only among those churches closest to the Roman Catholic (well, in the Western traditions), and in rural areas (the German country church I pastored in seminary continued the tradition;we "revived" it with a "communion" of hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls; a cause of some concern in the seminary community, by the way.). And, when the holiday was observed, it was seldom done in a "religious" manner, or for religious reasons.

The fact is, few holidays were celebrated in America as late as 1832 (glancing through Penne for this; this post is not a scholarly review). And actually the Christmas we observe now (or wish we observed) is made almost entirely of nostalgia, formed of unequal parts of Dickens' four Christmas novels, and Washington Irving's essays on a "traditional" English Christmas. Dickens and Irving appealed to a sense of a "family" holiday, instead of a communal one (the first Thanksgiving, for example, went on for 3 days. It takes a village to throw that kind of party). And that appeal slowly turned the tide, just as the middle class was beginning to rise in both Europe and America (at the same time as the Romantic movement became mainstream, and for the same reasons. It's no accident the Christmas tree is first observed in Germany by Coleridge, and comes "quickly" to England and America.)

The other culprit that helped: Moore's "Night Before Christmas." Remember Santa, the peddlar from whom nothing is to be feared? That was Moore domesticating the holiday, making it safe for middle class families.

Obviously, it's complicated, and this isn't doing the subject justice. But the very idea that Christmas was once a religious holiday that's been corrupted by the world is wrong. It has always been a "worldly" holiday; which was the main reason the Puritans objected to it. Cotton Mather (who really wasn't all that bad), asked: "Can you in your consciences think that our holy saviour is honored by mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude revelling, by a mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the light of Mahametan Romandon?" Sound familiar? And to at least some of that, my answer (given the actions of the Jesus of the Gospels), would be: "Yeah!"

There's more to be said about it; especially how the holiday was "domesticated" by Clement Moore. But there has always been a "battle for Christmas," even over the name "Christmas" (Xmas?), and probably there always will be. And it will always be two different holidays: one for gifts, one for observant Christians. It is, really, the point at which the two coincide and, largely, reconcile.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Las Posadas

I used to use this on Christmas Eve; but it's not too early in the season....

The Guest
by Anonymous

Yet if His Majesty, our sovereign lord,
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
And say 'I'll be your guest to-morrow night,'
How should we stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! 'Let no man idle stand!
Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall;
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a light.

'Look to the presence: are the carpets spread,
The dazie o'er the head,
The cushions in the chairs,
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place!'

Thus, if a king were coming, would we do;
And 'twere good reason too;
For 'tis a duteous thing
To show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleased, to think no labour lost.
But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All's set at six and seven;
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain Him always like a stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge Him in the manger.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Ne timeas, Maria.

The question of God and nations is ultimately the question of power: who gets to wield it?

The history of the Hebrews as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures, is fundamentally about power coming from God, and no one else. The Hebrews are enslaved in Egypt and led out of Egypt not because God is vengeful, but because their treatment is unjust. (And yes, God "hardens the heart" of Pharoah to prove God's power, but the fundamental issue of our relationship to power remains).

Once they were established as a nation, they had judges to settle matters, not to wield power. The desire of the people for a king is disputed by God, because the power then would flow into human hands. God is not jealous of human rulers, but knows what problems will come. The problems start with Saul, and continue with David. Finally, the power is so corrupted that Jeremiah tells the king, who has forgotten where the power comes from: "Though your cedar is so splendid, does that prove you a king? Think of your father; he at and drank, and all was well with him. He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor; then all was well. Does not this show he knew me?"

Yes; and the kings who didn't, lost the whole nation in the Babylonian Exile. Then they returned, and tried to re-establish Israel; and Rome came calling. Finally, any dream of a nation ended in 70 A.D. when, according to Josephus, the streets of Jerusalem ran red with blood, and the Jewish diaspora became a permanent fact of life. The notion of a nation of God went from a nation-state, to a group of people, connected across time, but not necessarily organized in one place.

The emphasis of the revelation shifted from the preservation of the nation, to the preservation of the faith. And the test of faithfulness turned from wielding authority in the world, to living by wisdom. And the reality of power became clear: there is no power without resistance.

Ne timeas, Maria, Gabriel says to Mary. Do not be afraid. Zechariah is, and is silenced for his disrespect. Mary is not, and sings her song of the fall of nations as her blessing. The Magnificat is an amzingly subersive song; perhaps that's why its hardly mentioned in most Protestant worship. but it isn't about wielding authority. It's about removing resistance. It's about how there is no power without resistance. It's about what power really is.

Who am I?

The question of identity is the question of our age.

This began with Romanticism, and its emphasis on the individual qua individual. It became what it is today when the idea took root in early 20th century Europe that we were fundamentally sexual beings. That is, that what we are is sexual first, and everything is explained from that. Now it brings us down to the question of sexuality, and everyone has to ask him/her-self: are you heterosexual, or homosexual? Who are you?

Identity, however, is never that simple. Identity comes from other people: family, friends, community, nation, heritage, "race." The sources are as various as the categories we apply to ourselves and our relationships. So who am I is first defined as "not-you." But where is the boundary? At what point are you you, and not-me?

The boundaries, of course, are fluid. Which is what scares people. If the boundaries are too fluid, if the line between homosexual and heterosexual is an extremely thin one, then who am I? If we are supposed to talk openly about sexuality and matters of sexual conjugation, does that mean I have to consider the mechanics of homosexuality? (Which, for many, is the "ick" factor,a and may explain the violent reaction to homosexuality and homosexuals in American culture.) But if I am primarily a sexual being, then shouldn't sexuality be natural, whatever form it takes?

But what if I am primarily a spiritual being? What then?