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.

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.

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.

Closing in on Christmas (an Advent poem)

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
CLOSING IN ON CHRISTMAS

I do not come bearing gifts like the magi,
or introduced by angels like the shepherds.
I have mistimed and miscalculated and misunderstood,
and the Christ I seek

is still a fetus, still developing the fingers he used
to form the world, the eyes that surveyed it,
perceiving it as “Good.”

Mary, you grow this human God inside you.
Eternity now bears your DNA.
Here, at the navel of the cosmos,
you prepare a place for him.

Holy Mary, Gestator of God,
I can only wait with you.
But tell me:

is the kicking I feel inside me
also Life? Is the emptiness around me
at work to make him room?

Your presence is the Lord’s coming.
Let me linger here and learn from you;
for soon you will be wearied with new motherhood,

and all the world will come to suckle
at your breast.

Christmas and Martyrdom: St. Stephen’s Day

Happy second day of Christmas! And happy St. Stephen’s Day.

Icon of St. Stephen.

Icon of St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also a deacon, one of seven chosen and ordained by the twelve Apostles to serve those in need. He also preached and “worked wonders,” which made him some very powerful enemies. Accused of blasphemy, he was stoned to death. You can read his full story in Acts chapters 6-7. Today, the Church commemorates him, and, in particular, his violent end.

It’s the day after Christmas, the second of the twelve days of Christmas. We’ve just welcomed the Christ child, marveled at the mystery of God becoming human. Most of us have domestic messes to clean up—dishes, gift wrap, laundry, and so forth—and are tired but happy, full of good food, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and magi. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the memory of violent death: not of the babies slaughtered by Herod (that’s the day after tomorrow), but of the martyrdom of a Christian who preached Christ crucified and resurrected, and who saw, just before he died, a vision of Jesus seated at God’s right hand. That’s quite a leap in the story! It seems a strange juxtaposition.

But it’s actually what Christmas is about. Mary’s “Magnificat” had predicted that the birth of her son would turn the world upside down. The world, however, doesn’t turn upside down without a fight.

God appearing among us, in our flesh, participating in our birth and in our death, is an invitation for us to be reborn into Christ and to participate in his death. Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to face martyrdom; but we are invited to die to our selves and to our own ambitions because we are called to something better. When St. Stephen had his vision of Christ enthroned, he was seeing the end result of the Incarnation: human nature, and with it, all creation, taken into the very heart of the Triune God. In the baby Jesus, the Word of God became human. He has never stopped being human. What he is—what St. Stephen saw—is God’s design for us all: to dwell intimately with God in perfect union, not dissolved into an impersonal oneness or reabsorbed into our source, but joined to our maker in the most beautiful unity-in-diversity.

That was, in fact, the goal all along. In the Incarnation, we see that God created the cosmos in order to dwell in it and to unite it to Godself in love. The Incarnation was no “Plan B” resulting from human sin. It was God’s intention all along, the very purpose of creation. Knowing that frees us from our own little lives that end with our individual, self-shattering deaths. That freedom allowed St. Stephen not only to accept death, but to forgive those who participated in his murder in any way (among them, the future St. Paul, who guarded the coats of those doing the actual stoning).

Holy Stephen, pray for us, that we may share your vision of Christ exalted, and so gain the freedom to die to our small selves and receive with you the life of the one whose birth we continue to celebrate these twelve days of Christmas.

A brief Advent reflection

Advent’s just begun.

Ordinary Time closed with a celebration of Christ the King; now we’re waiting for that King to be born…while at the same time, looking for him to “come again in glory.” Even while Christmas preparations must be done, we hold those celebrations at bay during this strange season of remembering the eschaton and anticipating Christ’s birth 2,000-some years ago, all while continuing to meet his Real Presence in the Sacrament at every Mass we attend. Advent is “timey-wimey,” as the Doctor might put it:

Well, in the Church, we usually use the phrase, “already and not yet,” but it’s a similar idea.

The entire Church year, in fact, is like this—not just Advent. When we walk the Way of the Cross with Christ during Holy Week, we’re also busy preparing for Easter celebrations, while celebrating the Eucharist before, on, and after Maundy Thursday. We know that Christ was born, lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, but we mark the days of our year in ways that combine memory, anticipation, presence, longing, and participation in ways that allow us to find, afresh, our own place in the story, year after year. We sound the depths of the traditions, which have accrued and continue to grow through the centuries, and find that they echo back our own longing, fear, joy, pain, faith, doubt—whatever we might be experiencing right now. We have the opportunity to put our lives as they are this year in conversation with that story which is both historic and eternal, the story of the One who was, and is, and will be.

Blessed Advent. May the mysteries we ponder with Mary resonate in our lives throughout the coming year.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

PS: I’d be remiss not to mention that today, Detroit’s application for bankruptcy protection was approved by a judge. I ask for your prayers for the city and its residents, as well as the surrounding region, and for wisdom and a spirit of servanthood in the leaders who will be hashing out a plan going forward. For more information:

USA Today’s report, which gives a general overview of today’s news on the subject.

Huffington Post’s report centering on the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collections.

The Nation’s report, which considers the really bad precedent(s) that could come out of this.

Christ the King

In 1925, Pope Pius XI introduced the feast of Christ the King, which was meant as a reminder, amid the encroachments of secularization, that Christ is our Sovereign, reigning over all peoples in all places and all times—indeed, over all creation.

Such a small vision, really.

True, it’s a step beyond the old nationalistic thinking—prevalent in antiquity (according to the biblical record, at least)—that pits one people’s god against another people’s god to see which god wins. The winning god, of course, is determined through the spilling of human blood.

But with several millennia of monotheism under our belt, we know better than to think there are different gods backing different peoples and prodding them into war. We’re a little better than that. A little. The confession that Christ is King ought to help us see our unity under the one and only Lord, but instead, we want to test which of us the one Lord really favors. We want to use Christ the King to conquer our enemies and to put others in their place. If Christ is King the way human kings are king, then he might be swayed by our deference, our flattery, our lip-service, or even our genuine loyalty and obedience. As God, he’s the biggest, baddest king of them all, so we know we’re on the winning side, if we tactfully side with him:

Such a tiny, tiny vision.

Many today are uncomfortable with the language of saying that Christ is “King” or Jesus is “Lord,” and with good reason. Those words represent the kind of earthly power that Christians are being called to relinquish. Calling Jesus “King” or “Lord” can easily be misused to re-shape Christ into the image of Caesar. It has historically been used to justify social hierarchies in which the rich dominated the poor, men dominated women, clerics dominated the laity, and whites dominated people of color. These dominations and others, as we know, are still going on.

But the Gospel writers intended a much more revolutionary meaning when they said, “Jesus is Lord”—even more than the simple fact that if Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t. John, in particular, spelled out the insane Christian claim that the Cross of Christ is his throne, that true power is seen in self-emptying. Jesus wasn’t going to take over Caesar’s office, but rather to reveal that office’s inadequacy—irrelevancy, even. This is one of those radical reversals we find throughout Scripture. What on earth would Jesus even do with Caesar’s supposed power? It would be like a surgical nurse handing a neurosurgeon an AK-47. Or a fish.

To assert that Christ is King, or that Jesus is Lord, is to say that Kingship looks like Christ, not the other way around. Lordship looks like Jesus: it is cruciform. It takes the form of a servant. True power lays down its life and welcomes vulnerability. In the video clip above, the character of Jesus in the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, tells the crowd of his followers (in the Twitter sense—fans, really) that they don’t know what power is; that true power comes through death. Or, as the Book of Common Prayer words it, Christ has “made the way of the Cross to be the way of life.”

This is liberating news for the downtrodden and marginalized, but it is terrible news for those who hold worldly power—something most of us enjoy to some degree, if we live in the developed world. Christ’s Kingship should, for most of us (think the “99%”) be both comforting and unsettling: comforting, because we know that the powers of this world, which too often subjugate us, cannot claim ultimate victory; but unsettling, because in order to be fit for the reign of Christ, we will need to unlearn many habits. Habits that we like very much.

Habits like acquiring cheap consumer goods, the production of which most likely polluted the earth and quite possibly enslaved some worker somewhere (maybe even a child). Habits like demanding our own rights but neglecting the rights of others, or holding on to privileges we obtained through no real fault of our own. Habits like putting ourselves, or our own families, ahead of others and their families. Habits like judging others, and justifying ourselves. In other words, pretty much every habit we inherited from our pre-human ancestry. Even our good habits aren’t good enough, or they’re wrong-headed, motivated by self-interest. Christ’s self-emptying might make him seem harmless, especially when we look at a crucifix and see him nailed down where he can’t do any harm, head bowed in submission to the Father. But that self-emptying is the radical reversal of the self-interest that seems to have been one of evolution’s primary engines. Christ the King threatens to unravel everything we know and trust.

The good news, though, is that Christ is King: no other power will ultimately stand against him, not even the powers that bind us in our bad habits and keep us from reaching our full human potential. Because Christ is King, we are liberated from ourselves and toward each other. Our King has conquered death, by showing us that the path through death is the way to life—so that the fears and struggles for survival that shaped us as a species and as individuals ultimately hold no true power.

In the Gospel lection this year, one of the two “thieves” (read: political troublemakers, threats to worldly “power”) who is crucified with Jesus recognizes the truth we celebrate this last Sunday before Advent. He asks Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a strange thing for one dying man to ask another! Especially when their deaths, according to Rome, would expose them as frauds, whose aspirations to power had been thwarted by the great power of Rome that ruled the whole world!

Yeah, no. Rome had it entirely wrong.

Worldly power rewards those who worship it and punishes those who work against it. If we imagine that Jesus is aspiring to the kind of power we humans, cousins to bonobos and chimpanzees, find alluring—the power, e.g., that destroys its enemies, rewards its cronies, and makes a name for itself—then we’re trying to shoehorn Christ the King into the worthless role of Caesar. Even worse, when we aspire to that kind of power, we are swearing our allegiance to Caesar, not Christ.

And that is such a myopic vision.

Good thing Christ is King, and we aren’t.

 

Wrestling with angels

Eugène Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Eugène Delacroix,  Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

This past Sunday (October 20), many of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary heard the wonderful story of Jacob wrestling with the “angel”:

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32.22-31, NRSV)

It’s a great story, with many possible readings. For example, I learned today that one rather ancient Rabbinic interpretation is that Jacob was wrestling with himself—his own inner demons, you might say, or his own past, or his hopes for the future. Do listen to the homily at that link; I won’t rehearse the whole thing here. But it’s intriguing to re-read the text with that interpretation in mind. “Why is it that you ask my name?” asks the mysterious man. We might imagine him continuing, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m your very self!” And it could be a therapeutic, spiritual exercise to reflect on what it might mean to not only wrestle with, but to bless oneself, and to receive that blessing.

But I’m going to go in another direction—one no more nor less valid, I think. We’re fortunate to have the ancient stories in Scripture precisely because they are so rich with meaning. Not only is there no one “right” meaning, there’s no one “right” way to approach the text. So actually, I’m going to go in two related directions. Let me get the shorter of the two out of the way first.

Some years ago, while working on my master of arts in theology, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a course called Gender, Sexuality, and the Bible. As you can imagine, one of the “angels” we wrestled with was the traditional response to Scripture readings in Church: “The Word of the Lord.” For many, even among those who love the Scriptures, calling the Bible “the Word of God” or “The Word of the Lord” is problematic, because, well, frankly, so much in Scripture is problematic. That’s another thing I don’t really need to rehearse here, I should think. But we discussed whether there might be ways to reconcile that appellation with our discomfort with so much contained in the Bible. I suggested this passage as an image: perhaps “the Word of the Lord” is that inheritance—birthright, you might say—we continue to wrestle with both while it wounds us and until it blesses us. And, as so much in life is rather messy, it may be hard to parse out what is the wound and what is the blessing. Either way, we emerge with a new name.

My second reading of this text is not unlike the first. Jacob is told that he has “striven with God and with humans, and [has] prevailed.” And he himself stammers that he has seen God face to face—and lived to tell about it. So, what if we suppose that it’s God Jacob is wrestling with here? Why would God injure a man God is about to bless? Why would Jacob be left with that injury, left to walk off with a (likely permanent) limp?

Some years ago, in fact, I heard a preacher ask the question, Why Jacob’s hip? Personally, I actually get that. Our bodies are not incidental to our identities. Jacob’s body has changed along with his name, his identity. But why his hip? It’s precisely the limp: it’s a new gait to go with the new name. Jacob—er, Israel—can no longer walk through his life the same way, figuratively or literally. Alejandro García-Rivera named that kind of experience “a wounded innocence.” Innocence, García-Rivera writes, is not an ignorance we lose, not a pristine perfection that can only be marred, but rather a virtue we gain. Given the world we live in, we usually, if not always, gain it through struggle. Even Jesus, risen from the dead and seated at God’s right hand, still bears the scars of his awful death. And in the Resurrection, perhaps Israel ( Jacob) will still have his limp.

For the Christian, “the Word of God” is not, properly speaking, the Bible. It’s Jesus, God made flesh, the primary revelation of God to us humans. Through transitive logic, we could liken Jacob’s rough night at Peniel to our own encounter with Christ. That Christ offers us his blessing is something we easily accept. But Jesus also told his disciples, rather frequently, that life would not be easy for them—that sometimes they would suffer because of their discipleship. But he also challenged others around him (“challenged” is putting it mildly, if you ask the moneychangers in the Temple, e.g.) to give up their privilege, to “take up [their] cross” and follow him. He said horribly inconvenient things, like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18.25, NRSV).

What I am getting at, rather clumsily, I admit, is that once you meet Jesus, you wind up with a blessing and a limp. The rich young man who was told by Jesus to sell all he had and give it to the poor—he walked away sadly, but presumably, with an unchanged gait. Had he resolved to do as Jesus said, he would have been set free, but into a curious kind of freedom: any life-changing encounter with God in Christ will leave you unable to walk in the world in the way you did before.

It might mean a life of self-giving sacrifice. It might mean the renunciation of privilege—economic, racial, sex, whatever. I believe it should mean you can no longer acquiesce to the way things are, to the power and money and the “logic” of the market that (seemingly) make the world go round, or the various –isms that offer comfortable certainties, often at the expense of others. It probably means wrestling with yourself, like Jacob/Israel did. It will definitely mean no longer living for yourself, but rather being broken open to God, to all humans, and in fact to all creatures.

So, let us go limping. That awful, dull ache or sharp pain can be transformed: it’s a reminder of our new identity in Christ. A sort of stigmata, really. Own it or wrestle with it until it gives you insight, a new way of seeing, of being in the world.

On what road are you currently limping along?

The Geresene Demoniac

(This passage is the Gospel assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for Year C Proper 7: Luke 8.26-39. In other words, this past Sunday. My point isn’t to stay ahead of the lectionary, obviously. This is too good a story with too many insights to let go without blogging on it, though.)

If you’re not familiar with the story, please read it at the above link.

 

[Reading this story as a] factually literal account of what happened…is not only boring, it impoverishes the text.

In this Gospel story, Jesus steps off a boat only to see a crazy man, “demon-possessed” in first-century language, naked and thrashing about in a tomb, cutting and bruising himself. He had shackles on his hands and feet, but had broken the chains. Still, he remained where he had been shackled. “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” the man screams as he sees Jesus approaching. Yikes! The demons inside him knew who Jesus was!

Jesus, being Jesus, engages him in dialogue.

“What is your name?” The crazy, not the man, replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

Jesus commands the demons to leave the man alone, to never bother him again. Now, demons, just like the rest of us, apparently are not interested in being sent to hell. They beg Jesus to let them enter a herd of swine—which tells you how many of them there were!—instead, which Jesus does. Then they drown the pigs. Oops. Off to hell with them, now, we assume. The story doesn’t find that detail important, though, so doesn’t really say.

Sadly, to some, this story is nothing more than a newspaper account—a factually literal account of what happened. In my opinion, that sort of reading is not only boring, it impoverishes the text. To be clear—there’s nothing wrong with believing this all literally happened, or not believing it all literally happened, either. The point is that biblical texts have so much more to offer than a surface reading. This story isn’t just there to wow us with some cool miracle Jesus did, even if by being wowed by it we come to believe Jesus is the Son of God as he claimed—not that such an insight isn’t already quite valuable!

People who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.

On a recent thread (NB: the link may break if the thread disappears) over at Ship of Fools, we were discussing this text, and I think the original question posed is a great entry into the text: Why did Jesus destroy the livelihood of the pigs’ owner(s) and/or tender(s)? In a story about healing and liberation, in which Jesus clearly values the demon-possessed man more than a herd of swine, doesn’t Jesus care about the person(s) who will suffer as a result of losing their swine? Pointing out that pigs are unclean under Jewish dietary laws doesn’t help much; this is the same Jesus we believe eventually gave Peter that vision of the sheet full of unclean animals and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Meaning primarily, of course, the Gentiles who eat that stuff, but also the stuff they eat.)

It may be that we can accept that Jesus was, sometimes, and toward some people (and animals), a bit heartless. But this troublesome question might also suggest that we not take the pigs bit so literally. One common reading of this story actually has the pigs symbolizing the occupying Romans—after all, the demon(s) self-identified as “Legion.” I do find this reading helpful. In fact, it provides a further insight (as I realized while posting on Ship of Fools): that people who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.

Note that the man possessed by demons actually broke his own chains. Yet he continued living in the tombs, cutting and bruising himself. Most of us read this story as the healing of a mental illness rather than the casting out of literal evil spirits, but the demonic is still a powerful symbol. Luke, in good poetic fashion, seems to take the opportunity to let the demonic oppression of this one man symbolize not only his own mental and physical suffering and captivity, but that of the people living in occupied Israel. And while Jesus drives out the occupying forces, letting them drown themselves (as God did with Pharaoh’s army in the prototypical liberation story), the most important liberation is the healing of the formerly-possessed man. He is seen, at the end of the story, “clothed and in his right mind.” He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus gives him something more important to do: stay home, and declare what God has done for him. He now occupies his home land. But his neighbors are terrified of Jesus precisely because Jesus has returned this man to his right mind. What will they think of the now-sane man? Will they receive him? The story doesn’t say.

Are we supposed to take all this
greed and fear and hatred seriously?
It’s like watching dust settle.
It never changes. It’s too consistent.
Mercy is not consistent.
It’s like the wind—it goes where it will.
Mercy is comic,
and it’s the only thing worth taking seriously.
T Bone Burnett, “The Wild Truth

One alternate way of reading a passage, at least on the occasions when the passage is read in church, is to listen to its juxtaposition with the other selections from the lectionary for that day. For the Sunday in Year C on which this Gospel is assigned, the Revised Common Lectionary allows a choice for the Hebrew Scripture reading. One of those choices—the one I heard in church this past Sunday—is Isaiah 65.1-9. In that passage, God declares judgment on those who “sit in tombs” and “eat swine’s flesh,” among other things. I doubt St. Luke intentionally alluded to that passage when composing this story, but when placed together, something interesting happens. Instead of judgment, Jesus brings the demoniac liberation and healing, restoration to his family and community. Yet no one had sent for Jesus. In Christ, God was, as Isaiah puts it,

“…ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
to a nation that did not call on my name.”

Jesus overcomes the demonic oppressors just because he sees a suffering man and pities him. Mercy goes where it will.

When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?

This past Sunday evening, Jude Harmon, a minor canon at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, preached precisely on that compassion of Christ, pointing out two other instances that, unlike the first, are unexpected. First, Jesus has compassion on the demons, who ask to not just be sent back “into the abyss” (v. 31). Jesus honors their request. Of all the characters in the story to receive Jesus’ compassion! But at the end of the story, Jesus also has compassion on the townspeople, who are terrified by the whole event. They beg him to leave, and he honors their request too.

What were the townspeople so afraid of? It’s an interesting question. Liberation can be scary: it leads to the unknown. Clearly Jesus was a strong force who could effect that kind of miracle—what might he do next? Jude invited the congregation to see themselves—ourselves—at this point in the story. When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

In our discussion over at Ship of Fools, a member who goes by the screen name “leo” had another interesting insight about the drowning of the pigs. In his reading, not only does their drowning recall the Exodus, but it also symbolizes the now-bearers of the evil spirits being plunged into the waters of chaos at creation (to be re-created)—perhaps even into the waters of baptism! Recall that for the early Church, and still in the Catholic, Orthodox, and (sometimes) Anglican traditions, baptism was and is an exorcism. In the Catholic Church, there are prayers over catechumens during Lent that refer to this ancient understanding. In the Episcopal Church, it mostly turns up in our baptismal liturgy:

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”
“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
“Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”

Reading this story in light of baptism, then, actually makes sense—not that it’s the “correct” or only reading, but that the symbolism really is there. The man formerly possessed by demons is clothed as the newly-baptized are. Baptism, then, puts us in our “right mind”—what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ.”

Personally, I want all these readings to be true. I want the story to tell of a literal physical and mental healing, of the liberation of a people, and of the spiritual liberation given in baptism (despite what political, mental, or physical captivities we might still suffer). While I still have questions about this passage—for example, why do the demons get a name, but ultimately the man doesn’t?—I find a lot of hope in the story. And why not? It’s the nature of a good story that it have many layers of meaning, many truths to keep telling. And this one is nothing if not a good story.

Especially if we re-write the pig bit.
(Image swiped from this blog post.)