Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holy Innocents 2011

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)

In lieu of a sermon or even a commentary, two stories. If the contemporary first one makes you think somewhat of the much older second one (especially the tradition of godparents to give poor children a chance in life), and then makes you reflect that the more things change, the more they remain the same...

well, it's because that tart observation is true.

And what Matthew meant was not to record an historical event, but to indicate that the world likes this just the way they are, thank you very much. And the world reacts quite harshly when it fears things as they are, are about to be changed. Especially when they are about to be changed radically.

Which applies as well to the story of the Christ child today as it did in Matthew's day. Or, as Robert Southwell put it:

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow ;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear ;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,

7:2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."

7:3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."

7:4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:

7:5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?

7:6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.

7:7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"

7:8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;

7:9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.

7:10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,

7:11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.

7:16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

Luke 1:46b-55
1:46b "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Romans 16:25-27
16:25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages

16:26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith --

16:27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Luke 1:26-38
1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

1:28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

1:30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

1:34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

1:35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

1:36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God."

1:38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

The arrogance of David; the humility of Mary. That is the obvious place to start.

Advent is about preparation. "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," the famous words say. How do we prepare? By making a highway in the desert, a straight road the procession of the Lord can travel down, so all can see it long before it arrives? And to we prepare it so we can praise our perceptiveness, our perspicuity, or insight? Or do we prepare ourselves so we can be a handmaiden to the Lord? That way lies all kinds of trouble, not least of which is: who wants to be a handmaiden?

We don't "do" humility. Mary's song is taken as a hymn of praise and power. Her response to the angel is taken, at best, as sly; at worst, as demeaning. None of these are quite right. Mary is humble because she has no power. She knows her position in the world, and what she can do with it. In Matthew's version, the visitation on an angel in a dream (which marks Matthew as more Jewish than Luke; for Luke, incarnation and ephemeral touch at all points. Matthew prefers the more traditional visitation in sleep.), and the power of decision lies with Joseph. Zechariah has just made a decision, a manly decision by a decision maker: "How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." (Luke 1:18, SV). It is the question of one used to being responsible, who knows the burden for declaring this vision to the community will rest on him. It's also the wrong question: "Listen to me: you will be struck silent and speechless until the day these things happen, because you did not trust my words, which will come true at the appropriate time." (Luke 1:20, SV). Mary asks only how this can be; not how she can possibly trust it. And of course, here's where the question of faith, of knowing God and the mind of God, comes in: because the angel is a messenger, is an agent of God. The angel is not God, but the angel speaks for God, literally speaks as God. But how can you be sure the angel is true and can be trusted? How can you be sure this is not a delusion?

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

And by the way, something comes up to underline the importance, the radical nature, the raw challenge, of the Magnificat. It seems that ancient Rome, at the height of its economic inequality, saw the top 1% of Roman society controlling only 20% of the empire's wealth. That, as compared to today in America, where the 1% controls 40% of the nation's wealth. Of course the ptochoi, of whom Jesus was one from birth, would see some strong differences between the Roman Empire and modern America, in favor of America. Do we imagine, though, that the 1% in America today hear Mary's song and tremble? Any more than Rome did when Luke first penned the words?

When will those words come true? How can we know the mind of God, and see those words finally come true? So long, of course, as we are not the ones toppled from our thrones, or sent away empty-handed and hungry. Justice is a terrible price to pay for mercy. And it is mercy Mary is singing about. It is also mercy that she expects from the messenger of God, and so she offers humility. The two are joined, like hand and glove. Mercy is the greatest act of humility, because there is no pride in it. And humility makes mercy possible, because pride will never stand for anything merciful when punishment and the exacting of payment will do.

What do we do with this idea, that we are now, in some ways, less equitable than ancient Rome? Do we look to laws to correct this error, so we can return to fuller employment and richer earnings and go back to storing up our treasures on earth with frantic passion and near-wild abandon? Well, when I put it that way, it seems almost as foolish and panicking in a crowded store and spraying pepper spray on anyone near you. We would never do that, so surely we aren't pursuing the goods of the world quite so manically as...well, as others are. If we just had a bit more, and some to put by, then we could calm down. We could relax. We could rest secure in what we own. If we just had enough, then we could think about taking care of others. We might even be able to afford to be merciful; if only our pride would let us.

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." But only if you let it be with me according to my desires. After all, what am I, a servant? A handmaid? A slave?

How can you be sure that what the angel says is true, and can be trusted? "A Miracle on 34th Street" deals brilliantly with this problem. Is "Kris Kringle" truly Santa Claus? Or is he just a kindly but demented old man? We never find out, and the question is never settled. The courtroom scene turns on a simple cheat to avoid taking responsibility for an answer. The final scene, in either version, winks at the thought that the old man was really a right jolly old elf; but again, who can be sure? How, then, would you ever know that you were speaking to God, unless you already believed it was God speaking to you? How would you ever be sure? What proof would you find satisfactory? The proof to the little girl that the old man is indeed the myth incarnate is easily explained away with other reasons; it is not a final proof, except to her. And perhaps, at the end, the rest of us are humbled, a bit; humbled in our pretensions that life is not wonderful, that what seems like magic cannot happen, that love cannot transform us and bring out the angels of our better nature.

And is that God? And how do you know, one way or the other?

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

There's that blasted humility again! And what do we do with it? Do we accept it, and lower ourselves? Do we ignore it, and wonder how anyone can ever contemplate being merciful (except, of course, to us!)? Do we reject it, and harden our hearts against all entreaties to turn around. to change, to come and hear the angels sing, or at least see the oxen kneel? Which to choose, and how to choose it? If God has already scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; if God has already brought the powerful down from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; if God has already filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty, and already helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; have we simply not seen it? Is it possible this is true, and we keep rejecting the truth of it? Is it possible the truth is not bitter, but sweet; not sorrowful, but joyful; not despairing, but full of hope? Is it possible this truth is so simple, we simply have to humble ourselves to see it?

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Let it truly be unto you, according to your faith. Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"For poetry makes nothing happen...."

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

W.H. Auden, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"

Listening to NPR talking about the famous LBJ "Daisy Ad," I realized the last line LBJ speaks is a familiar one:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

And as a thought experiment, try to imagine any American Presidential candidate making an even remotely similar statement today.

Sometimes poetry does make something happen; whether it meant to do so, or not.

'Tis the season for epistemological adventures....

Speaking of epistemologies, and for those of you who haven't already discarded Richard Dawkins as a spent force in the "atheist v. believers" wars (a "war" which deserves as much regard as the annual "War on Christmas"), Mad Priest has the link to Dawkins shooting himself in his own epistemological and intellectual foot:

'Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?'
That's Dawkins to Christopher Hitchens, in an interview by Dawkins. Click through Mad Priest's link to the source, it's really worth the effort (short and sweet). What bothers me is less the violence of the attitude (the Rev. Pitcher takes that on nicely) than the arrogance of it. Really, Mr. Dawkins? Do you honestly think you are any threat at all to Christianity? Really?

What a sad little joke of a man. I understand he's actually contributed something to science. Wonder on what scale that contribution to humanity should be weighed?

So many epistemologies, so little time....

BBC "World Have Your Say" is hosting a discussion on science v. religion as I sit and try to do other things, and now the discussion has veered over to the question of whether or not religion can provide "actual knowledge." "Actual knowledge," of course, is a loaded term. One assumes the questioner putting it to the other participants means it in a rather logical positivist way, where the only knowledge worth having is knowledge as provided by science.

One problem with that, and we have this notion in Western culture: that kind of "knowledge" is what the Greeks, like, say, Plato, would call techne: knowledge of the world which is useful for making clothes, raising crops, building houses and other structures, but it isn't "actual knowledge" in the sense it's being put here. And now religion is being compared to fire, which can be useful or destructive, and can we not say the same of science? After all, mass death and global warming are both products of techne, are they not? Is that a good, or a bad, use of "actual knowledge"? Some would say good, some would say bad, some would say it's a mixed bag. Is religion, then, as this person put it, a human construct? Of course it is! But does that make God a human construct, an artificiality? Not necessarily, unless God is to be equated, let us say mapped, in a one-to-one correspondence, onto religion. I don't know of a world religion where God is equivalent to the faith itself. Certainly the concept of the God of Abraham and of Jesus of Nazareth is of a God far beyond even the imaginings of religion. Simply because we cannot fully know a thing, does not mean it cannot be.

Take the Higgs boson as an example. Earlier in the week, on the same BBC programme (British spelling, v. posh!), this idea of physics (it has yet to be established, except theoretically) was said to explain why things have mass. Anything, you see. And then it was said that without this we would not exist.

Well, of course, that's not quite true. It may be the theory is wrong (I understand Stephen Hawking thinks it is, and he may be proven wrong about that; or not.). It may be the boson has not yet been identified after all, and the theory survives to another day and more investigation. What is certain is that things do have mass. Why? Well, answering that will not cause things to have more or less mass than they do now, but it will explain, to physicists, some very important things: about their theories about the nature of the universe. Which is good for techne.

But I'm damned if I can see what it has to do with the rest of us.

Not meaning to condemn the science behind the discovery, or even to disparage such things as the "Green Revolution" which, according to some, staved off the "population bomb" predicted by Malthus and then by Paul Ehrlich (and which was made possible by science). Techne is good; it would be insane to deny it. But is techne "actual knowledge," and no other contenders need apply?

How does finding the Higgs boson change my life? How does it affect the pollution in my city, the violence of the people around me, the nature of the traffic and the modern world I must contend with, both physically and spiritually? Will it create the political will to combat global warming, or rising poverty in America, or the grotesque inequalities in the economic system? Does it's discovery mean anything to ordinary persons? Does it affect daily life, or how we approach life, or answer in any way the question: "How should we then live?" If it is "actual knowledge," what real good is it? If we aren't careful here, we quickly find ourselves back at Hume's distinction between synthetic statements and analytical statements, and before you know it we're back to logical positivism (which has the sole distinction of being a thoroughly dead end in philosophical circles). Knowing about the Higgs boson may produce a valid synthetic statement about my sense impressions, but what does it tell me about the state of my being? However, since my being is not amenable to sensory impressions (because, per Hume, there is no one behind my eyes making these observations. It is all just a collision of sensory impressions that seems to be an identity), can I actually say I have being?

Not according to Hume. And there we discard him. Because the question of being became the question of the 20th century. And the problem is, while being is not really deniable, neither is it subject to "actual knowledge." After all, do you know you have being as an a priori matter, or as a posteriori matter; and does the distinction matter to you? Hume would say your knowledge of being is illusory, but Wittgenstein, after cataloging as carefully as possible the very nature of "actual knowledge," knew he had not categorized all there is to know: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Which is an address to the issue that, if we cannot speak of it, can it still be?

Take "love" as an example. Libraries could be filled with the books that would be needed to contain all the words expressed on the subject of love, and yet can anyone say to have "actual knowledge" of the subject? Is it contained solely within our words about it? Are our words ever sufficient to express any aspect of this subject, much less all of them? Is your experience of love truly contained within what you can say about it, or even what can be said? We cannot adequately speak of it; but does that mean it cannot still be, tantalizingly apart from our impressions of it? Can love be no more than what I can experience of it, much less the smaller set of what I can express about it, in words, art, music, dance?

Now take "God" as another example. Love is accepted as an experience of Western culture, but "God" is denigrated as a fiction, or at best something inexpressible. And yet, to return to the Austrian philosopher:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994). Can you penetrate my experience and tell me it is false, when it is not yours? To some degree, yes, of course. If I hallucinate giant bugs on the walls, or imagine myself to be God, the community (i.e., just one other person) can say I am wrong in what I describe. But is Bunyan wrong, or Julian of Norwich, or St. Teresa of Avila? Is my experience of God, real to me beyond description, false because it is not similarly real to you?

Who is the final arbiter of what experiences are real, and which false? Certainly some are falsifiable, but if others are not empirically provable, are they equally false? Then prove that you love someone: your wife, your child, your significant other, a family member. Prove it to me, as you would prove a stone is heavy, or an idea consistent with accepted reasoning. Go ahead. This should prove interesting.

I cannot falsify your passions; but neither can you establish them empirically. So, are they actual knowledge? Hume accepted them, but we don't have to; and besides, Hume denied the reality of identity, of the person, of what I call "me". And, as Kierkegaard pointed out, how can I prove that I exist? And yet if I don't, who is there to do the proving?

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)
That is yet another epistemology; an epistemology of the season. As Wittgenstein said of Bunyan, this is "a description of something that actually takes place in human life." I'm happy for those excited about the possible discovery of the Higgs boson. I'm bemused by people who think they know what "actual knowledge" is, as if knowledge were reducible to a small and convenient term. My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has put the arrogant to rout, he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things.

And that is the reason for the season.

Yes, I had a different picture up originally. Then I found this one at the Mad Priest, and I couldn't resist. It is so much better.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Wages of Sin

This is more appropriate to 12 days ago, but I find it coming up every Advent now; for me, at least.

And this is what brings it to mind today:

“I mean, whether it’s a result of our action or other action, you know, discovering 20 bodies, throats slit, 20 bodies, you know, beheaded, 20 bodies here, 20 bodies there,” Col. Thomas Cariker, a commander in Anbar Province at the time, said to investigators as he described the chaos of Iraq. At times, he said, deaths were caused by “grenade attacks on a checkpoint and, you know, collateral with civilians.”
Those who advocate war are often accused of not wanting to go to war themselves, because of the personal dangers war poses to the warriors. What is seldom considered is the psychic cost imposed on soldiers by war. It isn't like even the most graphic war movies. There isn't a "good" war, or a war where bodies are not dismembered and piled up, and the sight of death becomes a commonplace; and that atmosphere affects people in ways profound and shallow. No, we never consider the cost of violence to those who we order to inflict it. There is always a cost to violence, and those who advocate it, are seldom the ones who suffer directly from it.

As for the rest, it is from earlier years:

In the world, Advent means precious little; frantic for Christmas to come and go, the world is in a hurry. To the liturgical church, though, Christmas doesn't begin until December 24th, and it doesn't end until January 6th, on Epiphany. And before it ends, it will include two days of death: the Massacre of the Innocents, and the first Christian Martyr, St. Stephen. I mention that because Advent is actually akin to Lent, not to "December" on the American calendar. It is a time of preparation for shattering change, not for celebration of consumer excess.

This highlights a distinction I think needs to be made, between Christianity, and Christendom. It's an old distinction, but, like the Massacre of the Innocents and the death of Stephen right after Christmas, little acknowledged or its importance understood.

As I type this, I'm listening to a Christmas mix of my own devising, and Joni Mitchell is singing "River." That's the tone I'm going for, if it helps.

This is from Memory of Fire: Volume III, Century of the Wind, by Eduardo Galeano, tr. Cedric Balfrage, Pantheon, 1988.

"ARCHBISHOP Romero offers her a chair. Marianela prefers to talk standing up. She always comes for others, but this time Marianela comes for herself. Marianela Garda Vilas, attorney for the tortured and disappeared of EI Sal-vador, does not come this time to ask the archbishop's solidarity with one of the victims of D' Aubuisson, Captain Torch, who burns your body with a blowtorch, or of some other military horror specialist. Marianela doesn't come to ask help for anyone else's investigation or denunciation. This time she has something personal to say to him. As mildly as she can, she tells him that the police have kid-napped her, bound, beat, humiliated, stripped her-and that they raped her. She tells it without tears or agitation, with her usual calm, but Archbishop Romero has never before heard in Marianela's voice these vibrations of hatred, echoes of disgust, calls for vengeance. When Marianela finishes, the archbishop, astounded, falls silent too.

"After a long silence, he begins to tell her that the church does not hate or have enemies, that every infamy and every action against God forms part of a divine order, that criminals are also our brothers and must be prayed for, that one must forgive one's persecutors, one must accept pain, one must. . . Suddenly, Archbishop Romero stops.

"He lowers his glance, buries his head in his hands. He shakes his head, denying it all, and says: 'No, I don't want to know.'

" 'I don't want to know,' he says, and his voice cracks.

"Archbishop Romero, who always gives advice and comfort, is weeping like a child without mother or home. Archbishop Romero, who always gives assurances, the tranquilizing assurance of a neutral God who knows all and embraces all-Archbishop Romero doubts.

"Romero weeps and doubts and Marianela strokes his head."

This is the First week of Advent. In Christianity, we are told to watch. We are watching for the apocalypse. We are waiting in faith, faith not so much in certainty as "acting-as-if in great hope." Hope is supposed to be what we desire; Advent reminds us hope is also for what we need, whether we really want it, or not.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An Early Christmas Present

While doing other, more important things, I simply have to post this for the 6 or so people who won't see it anywhere else:

Friday, December 02, 2011

O Christmas Tree

In case you haven't seen it, this is why it's fun to have the Internet.