Full Circle

Today is the second and last time this century that Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation fall on the same day. Historically, though, they’re linked. In the earliest centuries of the Church, the death and resurrection of Christ were observed, but Christ’s birth was not. However, the symbolic value of placing Christ’s conception – the Feast of the Annunciation – on the same calendar date as the day he died is actually where the date of Christmas came from: nine months after the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” Jesus was born.

God Incarnate sojourned with us, moving through the entire mortal circle of life, from conception to death. For us, that’s all there is. No immortality, no rebirth. The natural cycle for the whole created order was fulfilled by Christ on Good Friday.

An early Christian hymn declares Christ to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We know the story, how Easter changes everything. But this language, “image of God” and “all creation” also suggests, first, that the life of Christ is not a closed circle, and further, that it has cosmic significance.

I certainly would not be the first person to map Holy Week onto the week of creation in the Genesis myth (“myth” here meaning a story with deep layers of truth beyond a literal reading). Good Friday, being the sixth day of the week…oh, dear. That’s the day God made humans in God’s image. And the day God Incarnate dies. But it’s also the day God Incarnate is conceived. So the whole mortal human life of God begins and ends with God creating human beings. That makes sense.

The seventh day, God rested.

In Holy Week, that is the full 24-hour period in which the human God is dead. In our tradition, though, he descends into hell to free all the souls imprisoned there. Well, he’s still the guy who stirred up trouble healing people on the Sabbath. Yes, Christ is indeed “the same yesterday, today, and forever!”

This mapping was not lost on early Christians, who saw that the week could not just turn over into another week as we’re used to them doing. Once God has been conceived in the Virgin’s womb, has been born, has lived a human life, and has died a human death, something new has to happen.

The Resurrection, we’re told in the Gospels, happened early on the first day of the week. But just as Christ’s conception and death can be mapped onto each other, so can the first day and the eighth day.

The eighth day is the day of resurrection – the new creation, in which, in the hypostatic union of Christ (fully God and fully human), God creates something new: a completely new way of being human. We’re baptized into that new way of being when we’re baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s why so many baptismal fonts – or their bases, or the platform/steps they’re on – are octagonal.

That adds another layer: Christ’s death on Good Friday is a new kind of conception (as if a virgin conceiving weren’t enough!). In his death, Christ’s human body becomes the seed that must fall to the earth so that a different kind of life can bloom.

 

I feel a little bad that I’m only getting to this now, near the eleventh hour (literally) when the fruitful* coincidence is almost over. It’s been a long day, in a busy week with so little time to think. And now with all those circles and cycles interlacing and intertwining, I fear I’ve made myself dizzy! But I did not want to let this day pass without remark.

 

*And, yes, that’s a pun. The coincidence of today’s fast and feast is pregnant, we might say, with meaning. Just like the Blessed Virgin is beginning this day on one arc of the circle.

Merry Christmas! God is with us!

Gaudete! Christus natus est! Alleluia!

Tonight God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled.

Nativity reredos painting edited

Detail of reredos in Nativity Chapel, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit. Photo by the author, who is not too proud to admit this.

I love this gaudily-colored painting from the reredos of one of the side-chapels in my church. Christ is born, and everybody, human and otherwise, has shown up to celebrate! I’m reminded of a phrase from the requiem Mass (quoting from the Psalms): Ad te omnis caro veniet—“To you all flesh shall come.” As many Christmas carols—and the Bible itself—remind us, it’s not inappropriate for the mind to turn to death on this holy night. Christ’s death was inscribed into his birth:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’  Luke 2.34-35

And yet, isn’t that true of us, too?

In becoming human, God the Son destined himself to die. This is no surprise if you take the Incarnation seriously: all living creatures eventually die. Through his death, however, Christ made his divine eternal life available to all flesh. No surprise, then, that “to you all flesh shall come!”

His birth, life, death, and resurrection, however, were not a “plan B” contingency for human sin, but rather the very purpose of creation: by doing the impossible and becoming a creature, the Creator, having loved creation out into existence has loved it back to Godself. St. Ireneus put it this way:

“…it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”

Human DNA is now in the Godhead. That is the radical truth of Christmas. Tonight (paraphrasing Ireneus), God became human so that humans may become divine.

All flesh is involved, too, because all flesh is related. By uniting creatureliness and uncreated Creator in his Person, Christ saves a cosmos that, of its own power, would tend toward extinction. Think of it as a rescue or a salvage operation; either way, creation was not meant to be disposable.

“You hate nothing you have made…” – BCP Collect for Ash Wednesday

It’s a miracle that anything other than God should exist at all. It’s a far greater miracle that God should enter creation. Again, this is no contingency plan. It was the point all along. God made us because God wanted to be with us, and God is with us, forever, in Christ.

Merry Christmas.

“O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the
brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known
the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him
perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he
lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.”
– BCP Collect for Christmas

On the Longest Night in Advent

OK, I’m off by a day or two…Solstice is over, and the days begin to lengthen. But on this eve of Christmas Eve, here’s one more reflection on the coming of Christ. Fittingly, it’s the longest poem I ever wrote.

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT IN ADVENT

There are times when I am so mindful of the life
growing inside me
that it seems to also saturate the world around:
These tiny leaves that twirl down to meet me,
kindred withered things,
that pass from their former greenness by the arrangement
of seasons, and fall
with such levity;
Damp chilled air that hovers
like a promise of ensuing warmth –
These are the portents of hope known by
the cold and lonely.

A shriveled leaf falls out of the frigid dark,
and I, who choose to hope,
must confess that I know only the weight
of believing, and wonder
if I wouldn’t rather
feel myself absorbed into the void of the empty night sky.

My tiny messenger of hope
crumbles at my touch. In the distance,
lit and unlit windows
speak in cryptic patterns,

like the few stars emerging from heaven tonight,
like the flashing beacons of radio towers,
like the questions
that spin in my mind, refusing
even to be formulated –

thoughts I wear like a thick skin
against the cold
as all pretense of contact
retracts, and the world sinks back
into the impenetrable dark. It needs
nothing from me.

The sun
is invisible now, but it burns tirelessly, fueling
even cold night.

The void
that presses against my skin,
that surrounds everything in space,
that swallows everything in time,

also relentlessly burns, but cannot consume me. My life
is buried deep inside,
embalmed in past appearances, waiting to be recollected
like a long-forgotten promise – waiting
to be born anew

into this world full of
life that is separate from me, hiding behind its own
thick skins: tree bark, brick and concrete,
headlight glare, human flesh, night sky,
the negative space that implies,
like a question,
the yet-unknown object of my belief.

The answers
will be ordinary. The prophets
will wear the faces of my neighbors, speak to me
in my own dialect, and I will understand them
through my senses: the same ordinary means
by which I interpret the universe of sense
that enwraps me, the universe of which
my body and its senses
are a part.

Immersed as I am
in routine and emptiness,
will I fail to recognize it?

Another leaf falls,
and I reach out to touch it –
a gesture that is no more faith
than desperation.

All my experience,
and all my memory,
and all my knowledge,
my collected bits of the appearances of Life
converge

As at the intersection point
between ancestry and descendants;

and the void
in which I exist
exhales its quiet chill,
becomes a sanctuary
for the hope that grows inside me:

the future drawn out of my past – a mystery
birthed in the familiar,
nursed in my own being,
destined to transcend me. It will begin
in the immediacy and subjectivity
of my own sight and touch and hearing,
and will unfold forever – boundless as the ever-growing
ever-cryptic universe.

Is it enough to believe?

The dark world reaches out with wind to brush my cheek,
and I feel its cold penetrate my skin.

Ruinenlust—Taking pleasure in ruins

This post is adapted from one of my comprehensive exams in my doctoral program.

What does it mean to take pleasure in ruins? There’s a German name for it: ruinenlust. It turns out this is pretty much a European (and European-American) phenomenon, born out of a Romantic sensibility—that is to say, it’s relatively recent. Taking pleasure in ruins is sometimes equated with the “aestheticization” of ruins—what is commonly now called “ruin porn.” The critique of such a narrow understanding of aesthetics will have to be another blog post. Suffice it to say that its broader meaning incorporates how we learn, through our senses, what we ought to love. (My sources for this are primarily Thomas Aquinas, Alexander Baumgarten, and, especially, Charles Sanders Peirce.) So let us return to our ruins.

When I say “ruins,” the image that pops into your head probably depends on where you live and what your experiences have been. It is common to think of such ancient structures as Angkor Wat or the Parthenon, but there are other types of ruins, each with different (though overlapping) sets of aesthetic concepts and responses. For my purposes, I will categorize “ruins” into three broad categories: ancient (e.g., classical and medieval ruins in the West), ersatz ruins, also known as “artificial ruins,” a subset of which is the folly; and modern, also called “industrial” ruins. There are other ways, of course, to classify ruins—for example, by the cause of destruction (war, the effects of time, natural disaster, abandonment, etc.), which will also play a part in my discussion. When we know how a ruin became a ruin, such knowledge impacts our aesthetic experience of the ruin. But in many cases we simply do not know, and part of the enjoyment (for those who enjoy ruins) is imagining what might have happened.

Aesthetic attitudes toward all kinds of ruins have varied according to philosophical, religious, and political frameworks. For example, Christian polemicists have pointed to Greek and Roman ruins as an allegory of Christianity having supplanted the pagan Greek and Roman religions. But ancient ruins have also been upheld as reminders of a particular nation’s or culture’s proud history.

The most common source of such pride, naturally, is the ancient (pre-modern) ruin, as its continued existence hints at past wealth, power, or expertise—a culture’s ancestors’ having had the materials, such as marble, as well as the knowledge, skill, and workforce to build structures that have lasted. Ancient ruins have not always evoked such pride, however. In many parts of the world, ruins were simply part of the landscape until European tourists started showing up to see them. And in pre-modern Europe, disused or ruin structures were often left abandoned and forgotten, or they were treated as mines, so that materials such as large blocks of marble would be removed and re-used elsewhere. In other cases, new buildings were erected over ruin sites (as was a common practice in the ancient Near East) or integrated into them. The Piazza del Anfiteatro in Lucca, Italy consists of newer buildings that, over time, completely displaced the ancient ampitheater that used to be there—a little bit like the engine of my ’97 Dodge, I’m sure…

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, archaeologists were quite busy digging up ruins and artifacts. A fascination with ruins became a tourist industry. Eventually, ruinenlust developed as a romantic reaction to the Enlightenment aesthetic that prized perfect proportions and other abstract ideas as contemplated by the (disinterested) rational mind. In contrast, ruins were wild, incomplete, irrational, and highly sensual. Rose Macaulay’s classic early-twentieth century book, The Pleasure of Ruins, describes this aesthetic well. For Macaulay, the aesthetic pleasure offered by ruins is bound up not only in the visual appearance (although that certainly is part of it) but also in the sounds and smells of the plants, animals, and elements—water and wind, in particular—that have made their home at the site. She seems disappointed in any ruin that lacks “screech-owls” and jackals, ivy and wildflowers.

In the US, the lack of ruins (recognizable to Europeans as such, anyway) was alternately seen as an embarrassment—a sign that history was lacking—and as possibility. For Americans, it indicated that this continent was virginal, waiting to be civilized by European immigrants. It played into justifications for subjugating the Native peoples: as they had produced no ruins, they must have yet to produce any culture (again, recognizable by European-Americans). Visitors from Europe sometimes viewed the lack of ruins as a mark of the Americans’ cultural immaturity. But some European tourists (such as Alexis de Tocqueville) sought out other kinds of ruins, from Native burial mounds to log cabins abandoned by westward-traveling pioneers.

During the same period, as the aesthetic interest in ruins grew, and with it, the understanding of ruins as symbols of nationalist glory, the ersatz ruin emerged. This phenomenon was especially popular in England. Land owners might build a small “ruin,” a broken column, or a shack of sorts, made to look ancient, in a corner of their property—some going so far as to get a hermit to live in it! Other property owners constructed larger artificial ruins or collections of “ruins.” A house might be designed to look as if it had been built into the Gothic arches of a ruined church, for example, even though no church had existed there. Some houses used visual tricks, optical illusions that might give the impression of structural instability. Such “follies” were meant not to imply a grand past but to play with the visual aesthetic of ruins.

A similar “art for art’s sake” visual aesthetic seems to inform much of the photography of modern ruins that has recently become so popular. Whether seeking to capture a fleeting moment or to study the geometrical designs of a building and the decay that disrupts them, many “urbex” (“urban explorer”) photographers seem to pay little attention to the meanings that might be read into their work. Whereas earlier painters generally used ruins allegorically, contemporary photographers seem to prefer not to push a message. Painters had depicted ruins as a primary subject, often in order to contemplate some moralistic idea about human mortality or the ultimate futility of earthly power. Later, the ruins became a backdrop for another subject, but still carried allegorical import, as, for example, when the nativity of Christ was depicted among classical ruins to suggest the passing of pagan religions with the advent of Christianity. These uses fed into the appreciation of ruins as “picturesque,” an aesthetic idea that justifies their appreciation for their own sake, and not for their symbolic value. Perhaps the present urbex photography simply is an extension of that.

Cass

Modern ruins, especially in North America, tend to be the result of abandonment resulting from the exigencies of consumer capitalism as well as from technological changes. Older ways of making cars, e.g., such as the multi-story factory, are replaced with more efficient methods—e.g., the single-story, sprawling factory that is easier to build in a rural setting. Workforces shift, or are shifted when cheaper labor is found elsewhere. Or the demand for a product wanes. Not only the factories, but the entire local economy supporting and supported by them, fall into disuse and decay, leading to the abandoned factories, churches, schools, houses, libraries, train stations, office spaces, and other buildings enjoyed by “urban explorers.”

But there is another kind of modern ruin, the one produced more suddenly by disasters such as war, earthquake, tsunami, fire, or terrorist attack. These ruins also fascinate, but our primary impulse is to demolish or restore them (as the economic and cultural resources warrant) in order to efface the memory of the devastation. (Macaulay wrote briefly of war ruins, and left it an open question as to whether or not there was any room for aesthetic enjoyment of them. She leaned toward answering no, citing the fact that any relatively new ruin has not yet reached that state of détente where the ruin continues to exist relatively unchanging. By contrast, photographers Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre cite the ephemeral nature of modern ruins as integral to their project.)

These aesthetic responses to ruins are, naturally, framed within cultural, religious, philosophical, even political contexts, and shaped by cultural attitudes toward decay, imperfection, impermanence, and conceptions of history. For example, Christianity in the West has normally emphasized the perfection of God as the standard of beauty. In addition, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures use ruin as a metaphor for divine judgment. While these are not the only aesthetic concepts available to Christians or to Westerners more generally, the suspicion exists—even among lovers of ruins—that there is something perverse about an aesthetic appreciation of decay. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi can be helpful here, and can find correlates in Western thought if one searches for them.

“Wabi” is a term relating to a philosophy of life; “sabi” is a corresponding aesthetic. “Wabi” initially meant something like “the sadness of poverty,” but has come to express the spiritual value in living simply, in contentment with what one has, and a mindfulness toward living that appreciates material objects for what they are—however imperfect—and for their impermanence. It involves a profound awareness and acceptance of the fact that nothing lasts forever. “Sabi” is the aesthetic appreciation of imperfection, as well as the age of materials and the effects of time and use. It values patina, even, in some cases, grime. At the same time, it encourages care for material things. The patina comes from use, not neglect or abuse. Several centuries-old temples built of wood, with no aspiration toward permanence, still exist in Japan. I think that speaks to a valuing of place, buildings, and materials, a valuing that has preserved the structures.

In the West, such a value for the very materiality of things as such, for their use, and for their impermanence does exist, and does make up part of the fascination with ruins. But the values of wabi-sabi have not been so well fleshed out, articulated, and intentionally practiced here—they tend to be more the idiosyncratic tastes or values of individuals. In our consumer culture, especially, we value newness, sparkle, and disposability, and also cheap goods that simply will not last, and certainly will not age well. Perhaps we would do well to consider ancient ruins in this light, and to learn from modern ruins where our consumer-culture aesthetic actually leads.

Occasionally, Western architects have imagined their work as eventual ruins. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, was charged with building structures that would make for beautiful ruins to provide a lasting testimony to the glory of the Third Reich (which was, meanwhile, engaged in the production of ruins throughout Europe and inviting the Allies to likewise produce ruins in Germany). When architect John Soane built the Bank of England in London, one of his draftsmen, Joseph Michael Gandy, drew it as a future ruin—perhaps to symbolize its importance as an institution. A New York periodical invited writers, in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, to describe New York’s buildings in ruins, as an exercise in considering building design and technology. Today, as sustainability emerges as a value among architects, engineers, and building owners, perhaps a similar exercise is being practiced, or should be—if not imagining the building as ruins, paying close attention to chosen materials with an eye toward impermanence. If the West were to adopt the values of wabi-sabi, what would we build?

Lift Every Voice for Charleston

I have a friend who believes the correct response to whatever befalls a community of faith is: “What, then, shall we sing?”

This morning in church, many of us throughout the United States joined in solidarity with the congregation at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC by singing the great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (#599 in The Hymnal 1982 if you’re Episcopalian like me; the text is by James Weldon Johnson and can be read at poets.org).

I love that hymn. Being a Detroiter, I know it by heart. But it was particularly difficult to sing today:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

I don’t know about heaven, but earth does not yet know the tune, much less the harmonies. We have work to do. So the triumphant-sounding words in the hymn, which sprang so easily from the tongue in 2009 when our nation elected its first Black president, felt a little flat today.

We were gathered as community to celebrate: that’s the term we use when speaking of the Eucharist. It’s a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we celebrate it. Our story, as people of the Christian faith, looks death squarely in the eyes and takes it on, in the “sure and certain hope of resurrection.” On any given Sunday, that resurrection faith is easy to sing. But this week, we were made keenly aware that we are still, in the words of the hymn, “treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” It was difficult to sing.

Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“No,” I wanted to reply. The hymn refers, in past tense, to “the day when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet it feels like we’re living in such a time.

Reflecting on the contradictions we were singing, I recalled the words of Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ’em hope.” Biblical scholars often encourage us to interrogate the text of Scripture by asking, “Where’s the good news?” It’s a question we should also ask while looking out at the world trying to find what the Spirit is doing, and another way to word it is, “Where’s the hope?” Today’s hymn, I think, is actually quite useful in training our vision to see hope where it seems to be absent.

There’s no denying that, even though we keep retreading the same stony road, we are “already and not yet” in a place for which our ancestors hoped. Ground really has been gained, no matter how much journeying still needs to be done. Today’s triumphant-sounding hymn carries that sense of the “already-and-not-yet” by proclaiming a bright future even while acknowledging a “gloomy past.” That in-between stretch of road that spans from hopeless past to future promise continues to be watered with tears but also continues to point us toward the consummation of our hope.

Wisely, the hymn does not end on either a mournful or a celebratory note, but with a prayer, reminding us that our hope lies in praying these words and striving to live them out, together:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Perhaps the rhetorical-sounding questions earlier in the hymn are intended to evoke a mixed response. Have we arrived in the place “for which our parents* sighed”? That language is reminiscent of the biblical descriptions of patriarchs and matriarchs in the faith hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We read, for example, in Hebrews 11 [NRSV]:

…By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Our “native land,” to which we pray in today’s hymn to stand true, is that city “whose architect and builder is God.” We’re not quite there yet, but we catch glimpses, especially when we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. May we remain true to that native land, and bring along with us whoever we meet along the stony road.

*The Hymnal 1982 changes the word “fathers” in the original poem to the gender-inclusive “parents.” You know our mothers were sighing, too! Maybe more, even.

Pentecost—It’s a beautiful day!

Here in Detroit, the gorgeous weather we’ve had this weekend is starting to gear up for the thunderstorms that are predicted over the next four days. But luckily, I’m not talking about weather.

I’m talking about the feast the Western Church observes today. In my own Episcopal church, we dress up the church (and sometimes ourselves) in festal red, the color of fire; we listen to Scripture read in multiple languages; we sing, “Hail Thee, Festival Day!” A beautiful liturgy for a beautiful day—the “birthday of the Church,” Pentecost.

The name “Pentecost” derives from the Greek for “fiftieth,” and was originally applied to the Jewish festival Shavuot in the Greek-speaking diaspora in the Roman Empire. Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover, commemorates God’s gracious gift of Torah at Sinai, and the people’s reception of it. Shavuot also celebrates the first fruits of each year’s early harvest. The Christian festival picks up these same themes, but with the different inflections of a different language.

St. Luke mapped the Christian onto the Jewish feast, in the second movement of his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Because Jesus died and rose again around Passover—a deeply meaningful connection made by all four canonical Gospel accounts—it certainly makes sense to link the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the giving of the Torah. Hints of the parallel may be found in today’s Gospel, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 (follow the link for the text):

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [NRSV]

The Spirit will be to the Church what Torah has been to Israel: a teacher and guide; a way for humans to deepen their understanding of the divine; a means to be in relationship with God. (That, of course, is not an exhaustive list.) Placing the Christian celebration of God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost should not efface God’s gift of Torah to Israel or fuel the unhelpful (and often destructive) “spirit v. law” dichotomy. Rather, it links together the two great events, showing them to be two harmonious movements of God’s love song for the world.

But there’s another element to Pentecost: the “gift of tongues.” St. Luke describes it in Acts 2:1-11:

When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [NRSV]

It is often remarked that this scene represents a reversal of Babel—the story in Genesis where God “confused the language of all the earth.” It is a strange story. According to the text, everyone in the world spoke one language. They decided to build a city, the highlight of which would be a tower reaching all the way to heaven. The reasons given in the text are “to make a name for ourselves,” and to prevent humankind from being scattered throughout the world. So God comes down to earth to check it out. Apparently, God is impressed, but not in a good way. In fact, it sounds as if God feels threatened by what humans had achieved, and worries about what else they might do. So God decides to break them up by causing them, rather suddenly, it seems, to all speak different languages so that they cannot understand each other. It worked: people found the others who spoke their language, and these language groups each went their own way, simply abandoning the work they had begun together.

The story leaves us with some strange impressions: for example, that human unity is a bad thing; or that God feels threatened by human achievements. Certainly there is an element of hubris in what the humans in the story have proposed to do, but there is nothing inherently evil in building a city or a tower.

What struck me today, hearing these texts in church, was the vastly different visions of unity in each story.

In the first story, human unity is grounded in homogeneity. “Look,” God observes, “they are one people, and they all have one language…” They proposed to build one city with one tower, in an attempt to preserve this kind of unity. It is a unity that has to be enforced, lest it disintegrate naturally. The city, had it been completed, probably would have been full of sameness, micro-managed by homeowners’ associations and building codes and fashion police. God’s presence, then, was a dangerous and threatening one. God seemingly just wanted to thwart the construction project—and to destroy mutual understanding among humans. That doesn’t sound like any God worthy of the Name, does it?

Maybe, though, if we read this story through the lens of Acts, we might see that God has a different vision of unity.

One ancient definition of beauty, in fact, is unity-in-diversity: different parts making up a harmonious whole, like the movements of a symphony. What if in “confusing” human languages and dispersing people through the earth, God was creating diversity, in order to unite humanity again more beautifully?

The unity we see in Acts involves disparate peoples together in one place, understanding each other through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Unity, in other words, is not something humans can engineer, no matter what building projects we undertake. Unity finds its source in the one God. What does that unity look like? Christianity affirms that the one God is three Persons. God is inherently relational (“God is love”). So beauty finds its source in God: the Holy Trinity is unity-in-diversity, is beautiful. This beautiful, loving, relational unity is God’s gift to us humans. It is a major concern of the Torah, and it is Christ’s own prayer for the Church.

Continuing his story in Acts, St. Luke tells us that Peter, prompted by the Holy Spirit, preached to the (highly diverse) crowd, and three thousand of them believed in Christ and were baptized. Not only that, but “day by day the Lord added to their number.” These were the “first fruits,” we might say, of Christ’s Passover. St. Luke describes this nascent but growing community thus:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. [NRSV]

As with Shavuot, we have a multi-faceted commemoration: God gives, we receive. God’s gift bears fruit, and we feast with “glad and generous hearts.” God’s gifts create covenanted communities, in which we are united with God and with each other.

The gifts we receive from God are for the life of the world, as both Jews and Christians can agree. So the movement builds, weaving familiar motifs into increasingly complex and beautiful music. Or, if you prefer the gastronomic metaphor, each successive harvest adds new flavors, colors, textures, and complexities to the feast. At any rate, it is a unity-in-diversity which, when scattered throughout the world, produces a harvest of beauty.

There’s a famous quote from Darwin that I think applies here:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [Source: On the Origin of Species, last line in the text.]

Being there

“I probably shouldn’t be grinning on Good Friday,” I said to the Dean after today’s Good Friday service. But one of the features of bipolar illness is that sometimes you just aren’t in charge of your emotions. On a day like today, when I’m teetering on the edge of hypomania, sometimes I just feel giddy, no matter what. I was in that state when the first of my grandparents died. I got the news, tried to be sad, and failed miserably. So I went to the store and bought a pack of cookies, and probably ate them all in one sitting. Probably giggling, I don’t remember.

Today’s liturgy was the second part of the great Triduum, the three services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve, respectively. In a way, it is actually one liturgy broken across three days, and so it encompasses the full three days which it spans. The appropriate emotions would run the gamut of human experience, from the cozy togetherness of Maundy Thursday’s footwashing and Last Supper, to the pain of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution, through the shocked, perhaps numb, state Jesus’ friends must have felt on Holy Saturday, to the bewildering joy of Easter’s unprecedented resurrection. But few of us can muster all those emotions in three days just by participating, however fully, in the liturgies. “Were you there…?” we sang today; and even though in a way, we were, we actually weren’t. We were in a beautiful church, fully aware of the story’s arc and what happens at the Easter Eve vigil.

Then there was me, feeling giddy…able to rein it in, but unable to keep my mind from wandering throughout the service.

Which is one reason I truly appreciate our sacramental tradition. My spirituality is not something that happens in my head, or what my emotions are doing (emotions actually being much more bodily than we tend to acknowledge). Even when my mind is wandering, there is my body, in the church, sitting attentively, or standing, or kneeling, or kissing the Cross, or bowing, or, most importantly, receiving the Sacrament.

Today, we received the Sacrament under the species of bread only, reserved from Maundy Thursday’s Eucharistic celebration. Traditionally, Episcopal and Catholic churches keep Reserved Sacrament, in which we believe Christ is truly present, somewhere in the church at all times. However, on Good Friday, it is all consumed. There is no Reserved Sacrament in the church. I was reflecting on this after receiving Communion. Very dramatically, we see that Christ is now only present in the bodies of the faithful who are gathered there. Yes, we believe in resurrection, and we are preparing for it in ways Jesus’ disciples and other friends could not have done after seeing him crucified. But in his dying, as in his Incarnation, he gives himself so fully to us that we have a responsibility to be his body in the world.

And for that, as for worship, it doesn’t matter how we feel. What matters is what we do with our bodies. Show up, do the good work God has given you to do. Put one foot in front of the other and trust that God is directing your steps. Proclaim the Resurrection this Easter not only with your words, but with your body. This side of death, we already share in Christ’s resurrection in our mortal flesh, even if it’s broken or diseased (bipolar, say), even if we aren’t feeling it, even though we can’t break all our bad habits. Show up, put one foot in front of the other, do the good work God has given you to do.

Resurrection is coming.