Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas 2018: Light Comes to a Dark World

And Joseph saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to him: where are you going? And he said: I am seeking a Hebrew midwife. And she answered: Are you of Israel? And he said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And he said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said: Is she not your wife? And he said: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit. And the midwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him.   
And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things, because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight.

That passage comes from the Protoevangelium of James, a text that dates to around the middle of the second century. It provides us with the details, previously unrecorded, of the conception, birth, and childhood of Mary. The text shows us a young girl who was special and holy from her youngest days, taking food from angels and spending her days in prayer. Knowing there was something special about her, her parents, Anne and Joachim, decided to have her raised in the temple. But when she came of age and her parents were gone, she needed to be placed in the care of a male guardian. The man chosen was Joseph, who in this telling is an old man, a widower with children from his previous marriage. He's embarrassed at first to be taking in such a young girl, but he does his duty to the temple and proves to be a good provider, even when his faith and trust are shaken by word of Mary's pregnancy.

The difference we find in this telling of the Nativity is that Joseph goes off to find a midwife. Salome, however, does little more than witness the miraculous birth taking place in front of her, as a cloud of light surrounded the birthplace.

The light, of course, represents the light that Mary's newborn son has brought into the world.

Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Birth of Jesus
Nearby shepherds would come to see and adore that night. But there would be no wise men. Not yet. Their presence at the stable is a conflation of the two Gospel accounts of the Nativity. Luke never mentions them, but Matthew only mentions that they followed the star to a house where the family was staying. Shortly afterward, Joseph is told in a dream to flee to Egypt, as Herod now knows he has a rival king to contend with and orders the murder of all boys in Bethlehem under age 2.

And with that begins the story of the Holy Family. A miraculous pregnancy, followed by an unlikely birthplace for a king, after which they become refugees -- a story that sounds all too familiar in our world. When we see families and their children fleeing for their lives for safer havens, may we always see Christ in their faces and their struggles. May we soften our hearts and see him in all who are in need, all who are cast out, all who are forgotten.

As love is born anew into the world today, may we ourselves strive to birth the love of Christ into a world that needs it, perhaps more than ever. For Salome is not the Christ child's only midwife. We all are, as St. John of the Cross reminds us:

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the Holy and say,
“I need shelter for the night.
Please take me inside your heart; my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ, taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yes, there, under the dome of your being,
does creation come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim,
the sacred womb of your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help:
for each of us is His beloved servant never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the street,
pregnant with Light, and sing!

Merry Christmas to one and all!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Advent Reflections: The Magnificat

And Mary said, 

"My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. 

"For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, 
and holy is his name. 
And his mercy is for those who fear him 
from generation to generation.

"He has shown strength with his arm; 
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones 
and exalted those of humble estate; 
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and the rich he has sent away empty. 

"He has helped his servant Israel, 
in remembrance of his mercy, 
as he spoke to our fathers, 
to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

~ Luke 1:46-55

Ben Wildflower.
Today's lectionary has Mary reciting the Magnificat, the longest passage spoken by a woman in the New Testament, and a manifesto of Christian values so revolutionary that its public recitation has been banned more than once over the years. Such is the case when the everyday people threaten the privilege of the powerful. And that is precisely what Christ came to do.

Yet a recent Washington Post article cited an unscientific Twitter poll showing that a vast majority of evangelical Christians -- 71%! -- either had never heard of the Magnificat, or their churches never read or discussed it. A further 21% said they'd come across it only a few times.

That's 92% who either have never heard the text or barely ever encountered it.

And that, in a nutshell, explains so very, very much about the state of evangelical American Christianity.

The Gospel of Jesus is a social gospel. He came to establish a kingdom of love that enshrined justice and equality. Being born into a world that was occupied by powerful foreign oppressors, he saw the plight of his people. And being born into the humblest of families in the humblest of circumstances, he became their voice, their advocate.

But he didn't bring the message that many expected. They expected a leader who would organize a violent revolution and take back their land for their own. Instead, he taught a gospel of loving and praying for those who persecuted them. Rather than stooping to their level and meeting violence with violence, he called on his followers to end the cycle of violence. More than that, he urged his followers to be so kind and generous to their oppressors as to bring shame upon them. If someone sues you for your coat, give him your cloak as well, and stand naked before him in court. If a solider conscripts you to carry his belongings for him for a mile, insist that you go two miles and expose the injustice of the request. As Paul put it, echoing Proverbs, by doing so you heap burning coals on their heads.

Thus can we see that Jesus did not teach a gospel of passivity in the face of the evil his people faced. It's often said that the nonviolence he preached isn't realistic for this world, in that we simply must meet violence with violence. But when Jesus said to turn the other cheek to the one who strikes you, he wasn't telling people to simply sit there and take the abuse. Just as when he told his followers to expose the injustice of their oppressors by doubling down on what they asked, so here he is exposing the hollowness of the violence that systems of power use to control the people. Rather than cower away after being struck, you stand up, brush yourself off, look your attacker square in the eye, and let him know that there's nothing he can do to take away your humanity.

In that sense, the nonresistance Jesus teaches is quite radical. It challenges systems of power both by refusing to meet their violence with your own violence and by showing them that they can't use their violence to control you.

That is what made Jesus so dangerous to those in power. He taught a gospel that, if followed, would render the common people unable to be controlled through coercion and violence, the only means that systems of power know. To meet their iron fist with love would confound them. To not passively cooperate when they demanded it of you would not compute. Gandhi understood this. Martin Luther King Jr. understood it. And before they paid with their lives, they changed the world for the better.

It's for this reason that Christian anarchist and activist Ammon Hennacy once said:
Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore one with love, courage, and wisdom is one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi.
Yet somehow this revolutionary message has been lost, as Christianity has been turned into a system of using select quotes to condemn and other the very outcasts Jesus embraced, a system that seeks the very kind of temporal power Jesus rejected, a hollow philosophy that eviscerates the Sermon on the Mount and reduces Jesus to a ticket to heaven.

Couple that with the fact that most Protestant Christians are allergic to Mary, and it's no wonder the Magnificat is forgotten. An evangelical once told me she didn't even know what the Beatitudes were, and if practicing Christians don't even know something that basic and essential about Christ's teachings, it's clear that the Magnificat doesn't stand a chance.

There's also the obvious fact that the Magnificat shows a woman preaching a powerful message, which to some simply gives too much agency to women. Far too many corners of the church would rather cite Paul's insistence that women remain silent than to point out that Jesus was an absolute radical for treating women as equals in a time when they were no more than the property of their fathers or husbands.

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones 
and exalted those of humble estate; 
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and the rich he has sent away empty.

That is the essence of the upside-down kingdom of God that Jesus brought to the world. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. And it was Jesus' mother, whom all generations shall call blessed, who first proclaimed it.

It's an astoundingly powerful statement from a woman so often portrayed as silent, passive, obedient -- at times no more than a human flowerpot. For although Mary was fair and humble, she was also extraordinarily courageous and strong. To be told at age 14 or 15 that you're going to bear the human incarnation of the God of the universe? And that this pregnancy could cost you your marriage, your social standing, even your life? And then to journey for miles while ready to give birth, and to give birth surrounded by farm animals in a stable? To be told by a prophet that both you and your child will suffer? To lose your young boy in the city and you have to go back and find him? And, finally, after apparently being widowed, to have to watch your son die a horrible and gruesome death before your eyes?

This woman is as tough as nails. Beautiful and gentle, certainly, but also our bad-ass Queen of Heaven. The Magnificat, a sneak preview of what's to come in her son's life, is all the evidence you could need.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Advent Reflections: Where Pagan and Christian Meet

Georgi Chimev.
There's always talk this time of year about whether Christians appropriated pagan holidays and made them their own. Many bristle at the very idea, yet the facts are what they are. Christians did, indeed, adapt pagan traditions and celebrations over the centuries, not because they wanted to follow pagan ways, but to make Christianity attractive to the peoples in the places where Christianity spread. Easter eggs? An obvious symbol of fertility. Christmas trees? A symbol of fertility and new life in the dead of winter. Even Marian devotion rose to the level it did in part because people in places with goddess worship wanted to continue to venerate a female image of the divine.

As we dig deeper, we find even more connections between pagan and Christian. Many years ago, my wife brought me back a Celtic cross from Ireland, made from Irish peat, that included fine details of pagan symbolism and imagery. Then there's Brigid's cross, quite possibly a reworking of the pagan sunwheel.

Brigid herself is a fascinating character, almost a perfect bridge between the Christian and pagan worlds. Legend holds that Brigid was a beloved Irish abbess who could work wonders and miracles with her strong faith and great compassion. So beloved was she that she became known as "Mary of the Gael." One story holds that she was "accidentally" made a bishop, when the priest consecrating her as a nun read the wrong prayers and later said the Holy Spirit compelled him to do so. And thus does Brigid, often depicted in imagery as holding the shepherd's crook of the bishop, give us a strong argument for the ordination of women.

However, before the Christians arrived, the Irish pagans already had a goddess they knew as Brigid. The beloved pagan deity was the goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft.

It is probably not a coincidence that Ireland has both a Celtic deity named Brigid and a Catholic saint of the same name. The centuries have blurred the distinction between the two so much that it's impossible to tell where legend ends and history begins. It's likely that the Irish loved their mother goddess Brigid so much that they refused to give her up when the Christians arrived, and so the goddess, in a sense, became the miracle-working Catholic saint. Both are associated with the illumination and cleansing of fire, and with sacred Irish wells. Moreover, St. Brigid's feast day falls on Feb. 1, which also happens to be Imbolc, the pagan festival that welcomes spring and is associated with the deity Brigid.

But why speak of Brigid at Christmas? Because of a delightful story called Brigid's Cloak. In the story, a druid comes to visit Brigid's family at her birth and presents her with a beautiful blue cloak, the color symbolic of royalty -- and, of course, the Virgin Mary. Many years pass, and Brigid, while tending her sheep, suddenly finds herself in another place and time, where a traveling man and his pregnant wife knock on the door and ask for a place to stay for the night. Whether Brigid was transported to ancient Bethlehem or she was having a dream or a vision isn't entirely clear. But either way, Mary of the Gael knew what she had to do. With no room at the inn, Brigid prepared a nearby stable so the expectant mother could give birth. As her reward, Brigid finds her old cloak, tattered by the years, looking bright and brand new, and now dotted with brilliant stars.

Brigid's simple act of service prompts us to reflect this Advent season on what we can do to help prepare the way for the coming of the Christ child. Whether it's helping someone in need or merely softening our hearts to let the love of God shine in, we can all do our part to keep the spirit of Christmas alive and well in our world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Advent Reflections: Virgin Births and Sons of God

An article I read recently at Rival Nations (highly recommended, by the way) drove home an important point regarding the way Jesus is presented to us in scripture. It's something that we've forgotten, because we lack an awareness of the context the Gospels were written in.

In Jesus' time, divine conceptions and virgin births were commonplace for men of power and importance. Imbuing them with these qualities reinforced their right to rule over the people. After all, if you're the son of Apollo, as was said of "Son of God" Augustus Caesar, then who would ever have the authority to challenge your status? It's the divine right of kings taken to the next level.

Skeptics, then, might say that the Jesus story was simply a poor copy of what was common at the time, in an attempt to give him legitimacy as a moral authority. But I think that gets the intention backward. Rather, stating that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God and born of a virgin delegitimizes the claim that the temporal powers of the day claimed for themselves. It was a deeply radical political statement that announced to the rulers of Jesus' world that they held no true authority, that their claims to divinity were hollow, because the one who embodied those truths had arrived. And he was not a powerful man born in a palace, but rather a child of peasants, born among animals in the stink of a stable. If there's a clearer example of God's promise to exalt the lowly and bring down the powerful, I can't think of it.

We sometimes forget how political the Gospels were. We see them today only as religious texts, removed from the current events of their time. Yet they were a bold confrontation of a political system in which the poor lived under the violent occupation of a distant and powerful empire. Jesus rejected that power. His reign was one of love, and his kingdom was not of this world. He came to serve, not to be served. He turned everything upside down.

And so today, when we see self-proclaimed Christians striving for temporal political power, promoting violence and oppression, and using the power of the state to force others into compliance to live by a certain set of values, we can see that the message of Christ has been lost at best, and twisted at worst. Jesus is not about forcing people to do things his way from the top down, but by persuading them with love from the bottom up. Embracing the poor, the outcast, the forgotten. In short, when Christianity comforts rather than challenges those in power, then Christianity has lost its way.

This Advent season, may we reflect on the humility of Mary's yes, and on the humility of a God-man who was born in the humblest of conditions, embraced friend and enemy alike, washed the feet of his own followers, and gave his life for all. That is the Good News of the Kingdom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Advent Reflections: A Mother's Courage

Last year during Advent, I attended a lecture that explored Mary and the Annunciation. During the presentation, the speaker shared a poem with us that has ever since remained with me because of the beautiful language it uses to express what it must have been like for Mary in that life-altering moment that would change the fate of the human race. The words also invite us to look within and ponder what great things are being asked of us, and whether we, like Mary, are open to the challenge. Would we trust in God and show our courage? Or would we complain, bargain, find reasons why we just can't do what's asked of us? The answer, for all of us who are honest with ourselves, will be different. But we know Mary's answer. And it is to that example that we are all called to strive.

Here, then, without further commentary, is Denise Levertov's "Annunciation."

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book;
always the tall lily. 

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest. 

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited. 

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness. 

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes. 

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible. 

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered: 

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God. 

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse. 

A breath unbreathed,

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Advent Reflections: Mary, Sophia, and the Antiphons

Sophia, Wisdom of God,
from St. Sophia's Cathedral, Kiev.
A tradition dating back to the seventh or eighth century begins today, as the church honors the many aspects of Christ with the "O Antiphons." The prayers are reflected in the Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." One antiphon is recited each day through December 23, and they begin with an ode to Holy Wisdom.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

Translated from the Latin:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

And as reflected in the Christmas hymn:

O come, thou Wisdom, from on high,
Who orders all things mightily.

To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.

Those words, in turn, reflect what Wisdom herself tells us in scripture. From Proverbs (8:12, 14-15, 17, 22-31):

I, Wisdom, dwell with prudence, and useful knowledge I have. 
Counsel and safety are mine. 
Discernment is mine, and strength is mine: 
By me kings reign, and rulers enact justice. 
I love those who love me. 
And those who seek shall find me. 

The Lord possessed me, the beginning of his works, 
The forerunner of his deeds of long ago; 
From of old I was formed, at the first, before the earth. 
When there were no deeps I was brought forth,  
When there were no fountains or springs of water; 
Before the mountains were settled into place, before the hills, 
I was brought forth; 
When the earth and the fields were not yet made, 
Nor the first clods of the world. 

When he established the heavens, there was I;  
When he marked out the vault over the face of the deep; 
When he made firm the skies above, 
When he fixed fast the springs of the deep, 
When he set for the sea its limit, 
So that waters should not transgress his command, 
When he fixed the foundations of earth, 
Then was I beside him as artisan; 
I was his delight by day, playing before him all the while, 
Playing over the whole of his earth, having my delight with human beings.

And from Sirach (24:3-6):

From the mouth of the Most High I came forth 
And covered the earth like a mist. 
In the heights of heaven I dwelt, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. 
The vault of heaven I compassed alone, and walked through the deep abyss. 
Over waves of the sea, over all the land, over every people and nation I held sway.

And who is this Wisdom? How do we find her? Here, we turn to the book of Wisdom (7:24-29):

And she penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity.
For she is a breath of the might of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; 
Therefore nothing defiled can enter into her. 
For she is the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, 
The image of his goodness. 
Although she is one, she can do all things, 
And she renews everything while herself perduring; 
Passing into holy souls from age to age, she produces friends of God and prophets. 
For God loves nothing so much as the one who dwells with Wisdom. 
For she is fairer than the sun and surpasses every constellation of the stars.

The official church teaching is that Wisdom revealed herself in Christ -- which is true enough in itself, but it obscures an important part of the story. The most obvious detail that begs to be addressed is that Wisdom is a woman. The mystics throughout the ages have known her as Sophia, whom they recognized not just as the immanent presence of God, but as a being herself -- the feminine aspect of God, the Holy Spirit, or an expression of what the three persons of the Trinity hold in common, thus making her a symbol of the fullness of the Trinity, its ousia.

The book of Baruch (3:15, 29-30, 36-38) speaks of Sophia's descent to Earth:

Who has found the place of wisdom? Who has entered into her treasuries?
Who has gone up to the heavens and taken her, bringing her down from the clouds?
Who has crossed the sea and found her, bearing her away rather than choice gold?

Such is our God; no other is to be compared to him:
He has uncovered the whole way of understanding, and has given her to Jacob, his servant,
To Israel, his beloved.
Thus she has appeared on earth, is at home with mortals.

"Nothing defiled can enter into her."
"She is fairer than the sun."
"By me kings reign."
"Thus she has appeared on earth."

The Song of Songs (6:10) asks: "Who is this that appears like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars in procession?"

She sounds very much like God's masterpiece of creation. One who was full of grace and chosen above all others to bear the incarnation of God, and thus became the very Mother of God. As she consented to carry the Christ child, so by her kings reign.

Thus do we see Holy Sophia, the Wisdom of God, the maternal face of the Divine, the universal symbol of the Sacred Feminine, in the Blessed Virgin Mary, our perfect spiritual mother -- without whom we would have no Advent, no Christmas, no redemption, no hope.

If we follow Mary, trust in her, follow her example of faith and trust, we will find our way.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Advent Reflections: Walking With Mary

Photo by Kevin Birnbaum.
This past week, I officially broke my ties with the Catholic church. I asked both churches I was registered at to remove my name from their rolls. Administrators at both churches responded quickly, thanked me for letting them know, and wished me a blessed Advent. No questions asked -- which I found kind of odd. Not that I wanted the opportunity to air my grievances, but you'd think they would wonder why a parishioner was leaving. Maybe they're tired of being reminded of how the abuse scandal is causing people to leave. Or maybe they've been directed by their higher-ups not to ask.

A few years ago, when I was feeling called back to my Christian roots, I couldn't have imagined I'd end up rejoining and then leaving the church of my upbringing. It was a long and sometimes difficult road back. And I suppose I could sit back now and wonder what the point of it all was. But I think maybe I know.

The only profound religious experience I've ever had in my life came shortly after my return to the church. I was sitting in a side chapel at Seattle's cathedral, in front of a beautiful antique statue of the Virgin, contemplating. Mary had been the one constant in my spiritual life. No matter how far away I'd wandered from my Christian roots, she was always there, even if only remotely. So I felt comfortable coming to her with my questions, doubts, concerns, anxieties. At some point I stood and reached out to touch the statue's hand, and as I did, I felt a warmth engulfing my body. My skin broke out in goose bumps, and I was overcome with an intense rush of emotion. It felt, for lack of a better explanation, like love. Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked up at the face of the Virgin. It took my daughter to ask me what I was doing to break the trance and bring me back to the present.

Now, assuming my imagination wasn't simply running away with me, I have to believe that Mary was trying to tell me something. What I think she was telling me was that I was unconditionally loved, and that if I needed her help, she would take me by the hand and lead me to the source of that love.

At the time, I thought that meant I needed to remain in the church. And so I did. Even when I had doubts, I took the teachings on faith. I prayed the rosary daily, I went to confession, I dutifully followed the church's teachings.

But I soon began to struggle with some of the teachings -- the same ones I'd always struggled with. I began visiting some Orthodox churches and found that, to me, their theology made a lot more sense on several points. But the Orthodox church had its own problems (in my opinion), and my concerns with the Catholic church began to mount.

Then news of the latest abuse scandal broke, and for me that was the final straw. It wasn't so much just the abuse, although that in itself was horrendous, as it was the corruption and cover-ups of an old boys' club that allowed it to happen. With the response to the scandal being slow, ineffective, and often tone-deaf, in which clergy and church apologists have attempted to blame everything but the abusers themselves and those who covered up for them, I realized at last that this was an organization I could no longer support. Staying, to me, would have felt like enabling. Because if people keep showing up every week anyway, what incentive would the church ever have to change?

And so I've sent myself back out into the spiritual wilderness, where I've spent most of my adult life. I know now that I'm a Christian at heart, which is to say I embrace, and do my best to follow, the ethics of love for all and care for the poor that Jesus established for us. But my other spiritual experiences, from Taoist to Buddhist, are also part of me and always will be.

As I continue to find myself drawn to the nurturing warmth and comfort of the Sacred Feminine, I think back to that moment in the chapel. And I can only assume that Mary, as the Christian face of the Sacred Feminine, was trying to tell me that if I needed to ground my spiritual walk in that feminine divinity, it would give me a solid footing no matter where life took me.

I do think it's given me a much deeper appreciation of Christian teaching, for one thing. Where, in the past, I'd decide I was fed up and walk away from Christianity altogether, now I don't feel as if I have to do that. And I think it's because I used to react to Christianity based on whether I accepted every teaching as literal truth. But when you discover the deeper meanings, when you see how the scriptures point to universal truths about the human condition, when you no longer see your faith as motivated by staying out of hell but by doing good for its own sake, then you realize you no longer have to run off to China or Japan to find your spiritual center in another tradition. You can stay right where you are, as you'll find that all the great traditions point toward the same truths about life and death and happiness and love. There's nothing wrong with embracing what's good about other spiritual and religious paths, but in the end I speak Christian. It's my spiritual dialect. So that's where I stay. I don't need a church to do it.

Granted, it would be great to find a spiritual community, but I'm not hopeful I'll find one. Most lean either too liberal or too conservative. And sadly, most outside the Catholic and Orthodox traditions ignore the Virgin. If they think about her at all, it's only during this time of year, leading up to Christmas -- the day we couldn't celebrate if not for Mary's "yes."

But wherever I go, I feel I'll have my Blessed Mother's presence guiding me, helping me to keep my focus on the things that are important. So as she makes the long trek to Bethlehem in the days leading up to Christmas, I feel almost as if I'm following in her footsteps, trusting her to lead the way, knowing that she alone will give birth to the Light of the World. I might lose my way as I journey through life, but looking back, I think the reason Mary reached out to me in that chapel was to let me know that however far off the path I might wander, she'll always be there waiting for me with gentle words, a kind smile, and welcoming arms.

I have faith that my Mother would never lead me astray.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Advent Reflections: Crazy Wisdom

Today's reading from the lectionary, Matthew 11:16-19, has Jesus pointing us toward Holy Mother Sophia. He says that when John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, the people said he was possessed by a demon. But when Jesus himself came eating and drinking, the people said he was a glutton and a drunkard who mingles with sinners.

One lesson we can take from this passage is that, sadly, people haven't changed in 2,000 years. They'll still find something to complain about, no matter what you do. It reminds me of this poignant little cartoon:

And what does Jesus say about this sad state of affairs? "Wisdom is vindicated by her works."

Sometimes we're so busy seeing the outer appearance and behavior that we miss the message lying under the surface. You can almost hear the critics muttering amongst themselves:

That John the Baptist? He's a nut. Eating locusts, wearing camel hair, living in the wilderness? Then he comes out to baptize people, warning them to repent, and berating the Pharisees? He's got a screw loose.

Look at that Jesus guy. Hanging out with tax collectors, preaching about the kingdom, going around thinking he can heal people and forgive their sins. And then expecting us to love our oppressors? You can tell he's related to John the Baptist. Crazy runs in their family. 

How many wise and prophetic voices do we fail to listen to because they don't conform to our idea of normal?

Because the truth is, the voice of wisdom doesn't only come from the old, earnest sage on the mountaintop. Sometimes it comes in the form of a person who may seem outright insane to contemporary society. Such has been the case for Sufi and Zen mystics throughout the ages, for example, or, perhaps most notoriously, through the "crazy wisdom" of Chogyam Trungpa, whose behavior was so extreme as to offend most societal norms and appeared to border on the abusive.

In the Christian tradition, there have been from the early centuries "Fools for Christ," people who pushed the limits of acceptable behavior in order to shock people into paying attention to their message. Many walked around naked. One would give away everything he had whenever anyone asked, without question. Another dragged a dead dog through a town square, to symbolize the dead attachments most people carry around with them.

St. Isadora of Egypt is one of the earliest recorded Fools for Christ. In her monastery life, she busied herself with the most menial jobs to be done, and rather than wear a proper cowl on her head like the other nuns, she covered her head with an old rag. She didn't speak much to the other nuns, keeping to herself, and ate only the crumbs others left behind, while drinking only dishwater. Though she was never confrontational, she was frequently mocked and beaten for her unorthodox behavior. And now some 1,700 years later, we speak with a fond smile of her outside-the-box holiness as the Orthodox Church recognizes her as a saint.

Many years later came St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. Widowed at age 26, she relinquished all her worldly possessions and wandered the streets of St. Petersburg for the next four decades, wearing her husband's military uniform and insisting to be called by his name, saying that it was she who had died. What little alms she was given, she offered in turn to her homeless companions on the streets. She was frequently mocked, yet she was also known as a prophetic speaker and continued to engage in small acts of kindness for others for the remainder of her life.

These women followed in the tradition of Holy Sophia herself, who shouted her words from atop the city walls, at the gates, in the bustle of the public square. In essence, she made a nuisance of herself, refusing to quiet down, for her message was too important for those who chose to hear it.

Ever have noisy women been treated as annoyances who need to learn their place. Yet it's their wisdom that prevails in the end. Teresa of Avila had the papal nuncio deride her as "a disobedient, contumacious woman, who promulgates pernicious doctrine under the pretense of devotion, leaves her cloister against the order of her superiors and the decrees of the Council of Trent, is ambitious and teaches theology as though she were a doctor of the church, in contempt of St. Paul, who commanded women not to teach." And Teresa got the last laugh: She is now, indeed, a doctor of the church, and regarded as one of the greatest saints and mystics the church has ever known.

John the Baptist and Jesus himself both illustrated that men, too, can embrace the wisdom of Sophia. She offers her words to all who will listen. The question is whether we have the ears to hear. Two millennia ago, many of us would surely have scoffed at the idea of the Nativity story itself. Can't you just hear it? God coming to Earth as a human? And being born in a stable? Nonsense! The God of the universe is great and powerful and would never lower himself to such a state. 

Yet today we all know the story. When it comes to crazy wisdom, the lessons of the Nativity are about as crazy and mind-bending as they get. Sophia, after all, doesn't always have to shout from the tops of the city walls to get our attention. Sometimes her wisdom shows up in the quietest and unlikeliest of places and people, too -- whether it's the Son of God carrying her word to the world, or the humble Virgin whose eyes she looked through as Mary said yes at the Annunciation and beheld the babe in a manger.

May the wisdom of Holy Sophia shine through us, in this season and always -- and may we have the discernment to know when she's knocking at out door.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Advent Reflections: Being a Light in the Dark

For the past several months, I've taken to wearing plain dress. Solid-color button-down shirts, black pants, black suspenders, black socks and shoes, and usually some sort of hat. Some people have asked about my choice, and I know others have wondered, why I prefer a plain-dress appearance, complete with the beard-sans-mustache that characterizes married Amish men.

There are a few reasons, but of primary importance to me is that I want to be a peace witness. I'm an affiliate member of a Conservative Quaker meeting, where some Friends still dress in the olde style, and I have quite a few Anabaptist sympathies as well. Both traditions hold fast to the commitment to nonviolence that the early, pre-Constantine church embraced.

To a lesser extent, though no less important, plain dress reminds me of the Anabaptists' commitment to keeping the Sermon on the Mount front and center, as they do their best to live out those values in the world. I'm in complete sympathy with that effort. For me, Matthew chapters 5 through 7 sums up what it means to live a Christian life -- the rest is commentary. 

I've long believed that if we all tried to live out the values laid out in the Sermon -- essentially, embracing an ethic of nonviolent enemy-love -- we could transform the world. Not into some horrifying kind of dystopian fundamentalist theocracy, but into a kindgom of love. Because as far as I'm concerned, the point of walking the Christian path isn't simply to "go to heaven when you die," to say you believe so you can get your ticket punched, but rather to put in the hard work of actually being Christ-like. To follow his example. To bring the kingdom of heaven to this world, by leading with love, compassion, forgiveness. To be his hands and feet in a world that needs a lot less hate and lot more tenderness. We'll fail in our efforts, over and over, but it doesn't mean we ought to stop trying.

And that brings me to an excellent, if not exactly optimistic, article by Andrew Sullivan I recently read. It's a long read, but well worth the investment of one's time, as Sullivan gets to the root of what ails our society. In a nutshell: If Christianity was the root of Western culture, as it arguably was, and that same Christianity is now on the decline in the West, as it most certainly is, then we're losing one of the things that bound us together as a people. Even if some were only nominal Christians, perhaps only going to church at Easter and Christmas, there was still a shared sense of basic existential values among most people. In the wake of Christianity's decline, because most people seem to have both a deep-seated religious impulse and a tendency toward tribalism, we now see other things trying to fill the vacuum. 

For example, we have leftist political factions -- "social-justice warriors" in contemporary parlance -- that squelch free expression and seek to destroy the reputations and lives of those who don't conform to their orthodoxy. For all practical purposes, they're every bit as rigid, fanatical, and fundamentalist as any extremist religious group, even as they rail against the perceived oppressiveness of religion, unaware of the irony.

Or, conversely, we end up with people who claim the mantle of Christianity but couldn't act any less Christ-like if they tried. In a recent article on Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr warned against what he called the "Kindergarten Christianity" that makes idols out of things like nationalism and political affiliation and that cheers on violence, endless war, acquisitiveness, and hatred of the "other."

The decline of a shared spiritual/religious vision is certainly not the only thing that's gone wrong with our world, but it does seem increasingly clear that there's little to hold us together anymore. Just as churches are dying, so are civic organizations, and getting to know our neighbors, and having friendships that are able to transcend personal differences of opinion. We build echo chambers around our micro-cultures and see others not as people with a different point of view but as enemies to destroy. 

We're more narcissistic, yet at the same time we seem to suffer from more self-loathing. 

We're the "home of the brave" that wants to fortify ourselves behind walls and guns and bombs. 

We fill our lives with fleeting pleasures, wondering why they don't make us happy.

Something is deeply wrong. 

And as we lose a sense of any greater meaning or purpose in our lives, we take comfort in the tribalism of politics. Or, worse, we descend into a helpless spiral of substance abuse and suicide, because we can't find any other way to deaden the pain inside -- all exacerbated by a system that's just as dead and decaying, serving the wealthy and powerful, ruling with violence, while the cost of living climbs and wages stagnate and the average people see a bleak future for themselves and their kids. Having lost the hope that a religious grounding might offer, they place the only hope they have left in politicians, knowing that the politicians don't really care about them and never will.

In the midst of all the confusion, anger, and despair, it becomes ever harder to find where the good guys are, as both "sides" become more strident, more desperate, more intolerant.

The older I get, the more I understand why Lao-tzu, the mythical sage of Tao Te Ching fame, decided to hop on his water buffalo and head for the hills, never to look back. 

I don't despair. Things will be what they will be. But it is hard to see how things will get better without first getting a lot worse.

Yet this is exactly why faith is so important in seeing us through such times as these. Perhaps it's difficult for our modern, rational, scientific minds to embrace the idea that a God-man rose from the dead and floated off to heaven. Maybe people simply don't want to be associated anymore with those who give Christianity a bad name. But if we can put all that aside, and open ourselves to the greater truths of the Gospel accounts, we find ourselves coming face to face with the greatest story ever told. 

Just think about it. Think how amazing it is that the God of the universe would love us so much that he would humble himself for our sake, to come down to Earth and become not just one of us, but an innocent, defenseless baby, completely dependent on his earthly Mother Mary for his sustenance and survival. 

There's a lesson in there for us, no matter our religious views. And it's not just a lesson about humility. it's a lesson about how we can follow in Christ's footsteps, in bringing the kingdom of heaven, the love of God, into this world. That is a story that will never lose its appeal and will never stop giving us hope, no matter how bleak the world has become.

And for those so inclined, we can also see that if the God of the universe gave himself over to the care of the Virgin Mary, trusting her completely with the biggest job any human has ever been asked to take on, then we, too, can surely take heart in knowing that we can place our cares in the arms of our Heavenly Mother, and that she will comfort and nurture us, her spiritual children, with just as much love.

Amidst the bad news of the day, the Good News springs eternal, as we draw ever closer to the day our loving Mother brought the light of hope into the world. May we carry that light faithfully, even through the most difficult times, as we lean on our Mother, who will always be there for us, for the strength and courage to press on.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Advent Reflections: The World's First Selfie

The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which the Catholic church observes today, traces its origin to 1531. In that year, legend holds that a man named Juan Diego experienced a miracle – one that would irrevocably change the religious complexion of what is now Mexico.

Diego, a converted Aztec, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hilltop. She asked him to take a message to the local bishop that she wanted a chapel built on the hill in her honor, on what happened to be the former site of a pagan temple.

The bishop didn’t believe Diego at first, so the Virgin, in another appearance, told Diego to pick the Castillan roses that had suddenly bloomed on the hill, well out of season, and take them to the bishop, who would recognize the roses that were native to his Spanish homeland. So Diego bunched them up in his tilma, and in the presence of the bishop, he unfurled it. The roses tumbled to the floor, to reveal, imprinted on Diego’s cloak, an image of the Virgin herself.

The short story of what happened next is that Juan Diego’s tilma triggered a mass conversion of natives – as many as 10 million over the next decade – to Catholicism, as news spread far and wide about the miraculous event. The tilma was eventually put on public display in the chapel that the bishop built on the hill, as the Virgin had requested, and soon pilgrims began reporting miraculous events, including healings, in the presence of the image.

The longer, and perhaps more intriguing, story is that the event occurred at a time when the natives were chafing under the harsh rule of the conquering Spaniards, and talk of revolt was in the air. The Spanish Catholics, meanwhile, were struggling with how to get the Aztecs to renounce their barbaric practice of human sacrifice. The image on Diego’s tilma was ripe with symbols that the natives would have recognized, in a manner that suggested the Virgin’s subjugation of the icons of the Aztec faith; and at the same time the image was unmistakably a representation of the woman clothed in the sun from Revelation 12, wearing the color of royalty and pregnant with the Incarnate Word, yet taking on the appearance of one of them, a common Aztec girl. The message was unmistakable: The Virgin, the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, revealing herself as a young, humble Mestiza, became a bridge between two peoples and two faiths. 

And thus did the threat of revolt die, along with the practice of human sacrifice, as the Virgin of Guadalupe pointed the natives toward a new destiny.

The image now hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico City. The church is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, and the image remains of extreme importance to Latino Catholics and to Mexicans in particular. Today marks the annual feast day of Nuestra Señora, whom Pope John Paul II named the patron saint of all the Americas.

The image continues to inspire millions. But just as the Shroud of Turin has its skeptics, so does the Guadalupe image. Close examination has suggested the presence of brush strokes around the eyes, as well as flaking around a seam and possible sketch marks. Moreover, the very existence of Juan Diego is a matter of debate, as neither Diego nor the incident in which he unfurled his tilma is mentioned in the bishop’s surviving writings.

Yet the image holds just as many mysteries that have left even the most hardened skeptics puzzled. The most obvious matter is the tilma itself. Made of mere cactus fibers, the cloak should have disintegrated centuries ago. Those who have touched it remark on how the area where the image appears is soft, almost silky to the touch, which itself is inexplicable.

Moreover, some inspections have suggested that the only brushstrokes that appear are in areas where the image was known to have been embellished over the years, while the original underlying image lacks any evidence of brushstrokes whatsoever, as if it had been inexplicably imprinted onto the fabric. It’s also been confirmed that the stars on the Virgin’s mantle are arranged in exactly the way the night sky would have appeared on the day of her appearance in 1531. And perhaps the most intriguing part of all is that, under extreme magnification, Mary’s eyes appear to show reflections of the people who would have been gathered around the bishop at the moment Juan Diego unrolled his cloak, as if the image somehow recorded the moment.

And just as numerous pilgrims will attest to the tilma’s miraculous power, so the tilma itself seems to have been miraculously spared on at least two occasions. In 1791, nitric acid was accidentally spilled on it, yet the image remained unharmed. In 1921, a bomb exploded just under where the tilma hung, yet while the altar was badly damaged in the blast, the tilma didn’t suffer a single scratch.

In the end, those predisposed to doubt will continue to doubt. But for those who believe, the words the Virgin is said to have spoken to Juan Diego are in perfect harmony with the words of comfort she has given scores of faithful over the ages when she appears to them. At the time he saw her, Diego was concerned about the health of an ill uncle he had been attending to. The Virgin consoled him with these words:

Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?

According to legend, the Virgin promised Diego that his uncle would be healed – and he was.

Little wonder, then, that Latino Catholics have such a deep and abiding love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. May we open ourselves to Mary’s endless abundance of maternal love as we walk with her through this Advent season.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Advent Reflections: Undoer of Knots

Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner,
Mary, Untier of Knots
When my daughter and I visited a Catholic supply and gift shop today, I was reminded of just how much Marian iconography exists, and how beautiful some of it is.

On this visit, my daughter wanted to buy an adorable figurine depicting Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. I was happy to oblige, as that's one of my favorite Marian images as well. One angel hands the Virgin a knotted rope, suggesting a problem someone has brought to her. As she unravels the knot, with an expression that suggests great focus on the task at hand coupled with a graceful, unperturbed calmness, she hands the string to an angel on her opposite side, symbolizing a prayer answered and ready to be delivered.

Pope Francis has a special devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. This imagining of Mary dates all the way back to the second century, when Irenaeus wrote: "[T]he knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith."

Those words struck me today when my daughter wanted to wrap up the figurine and give it to her mama as an early Christmas gift. When my wife opened it, my daughter remarked, "It's you, Mom!" It's not that she thinks her earthly mom is Mary, but that she sees her mom as doing the same thing in her young life: My daughter takes her problems and concerns to my wife, and mama sorts them out, tirelessly, faithfully, because she loves our kiddo and wants her to be happy. 

And thus does a child's innocent remark reveal just why Mary has remained such a powerful icon for Catholics, the Orthodox, and other Christians throughout the ages. She is our tireless spiritual mother, always thinking of the needs of others, taking the problems we hand her with tenderness and care, and helping us to sort them out -- because she loves us, her children.

In this Advent season, we're reminded that Mary had her own knots to untie. 

How am I going to explain this pregnancy to Joseph? 

How is a pregnant woman supposed to make the long journey to Bethlehem? 

How am I supposed to give birth in a stinky stable full of animals? 

Why do they want to kill my son, and when can I take him home? 

Mary surely prayed about her many predicaments, but she was chosen for the job of bringing the Son of God into the world precisely because God knew she could handle it. She could unravel her own knots when she needed to. And so we should feel confident in going to her with our own concerns and dilemmas. For indeed, she continues to loosen all her children's knots today. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

Remembering Thomas Merton

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the untimely death of one of my favorite spiritual thinkers, Thomas Merton -- mystic, contemplative, advocate for peace and equality, friend to other religious traditions. He met with and befriended the Dalai Lama and became quite enamored of the Zen tradition toward the end of his life. He even translated his own version of the Chuang-tzu, a key Taoist text.

Merton found the Divine in the silence of the monastery, but also in the faces of the poor and needy. When I find myself getting too cynical, I remind myself of the words he wrote to Dorothy Day: 
Our job is to love others, without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.
Or if I get too full of myself, I sometimes meditate on his humbling prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Merton also had an intimate understanding of the ever-presence and the importance of Holy Sophia, how she awakens us to the Sacred Feminine, and how in Mary he saw Sophia's human face. These lines, appropriate to the Advent season, come from his poem Hagia Sophia:
Now the Blessed Virgin Mary is the one created being who enacts and shows forth in her life all that is hidden in Sophia. Because of this she can be said to be a personal manifestation of Sophia, Who in God is Ousia rather than Person.  
Natura in Mary becomes pure Mother. In her, Natura is as she was from the origin from her divine birth. In Mary Natura is all wise and is manifested as an all-prudent, all-loving, all-pure person: not a Creator, and not a Redeemer, but perfect Creature, perfectly Redeemed, the fruit of all God’s great power, the perfect expression of wisdom in mercy.  
It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is His Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.  
God enters into His creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient understanding, through the sweet yielding consent of Sophia, God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men. 
Photo by John Howard Griffin.
Not only were Merton's words and actions beautiful and inspiring, but he was also very relatable by being very human. He struggled with his monastic vows. He thought about leaving his cloistered life behind. He most likely had an intimate affair with a much younger nurse whom he loved deeply. His struggles were the same ones we all face, yet his faith persevered till the end. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, still stands as one of the greatest and most inspiring spiritual classics of all time.

I used to tell people I was a Thomas Merton-Dorothy Day Catholic, given his peace activism and contemplative spirituality and her lifelong dedication to "the least of these." If there were more Thomas Mertons and Dorothy Days in the church, I might still be a part of it today. Even so, they both continue to exert a significant influence on my spiritual path.

And so on this anniversary, I extend my thanks to Thomas Merton and highly recommend his writings to anyone looking to deepen their own spiritual lives. Like his friend Dorothy Day, he is a modern-day saint, even if the church hasn't officially canonized him.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent Reflections: Father/Christmas

Jump Start, Robb Armstrong, 12/27/98.

“We seek unity, not uniformity.”

That was part of the mission statement spoken at the opening of a gathering of “inclusive” Catholics I attended. In theory, I thought, that sounded great. Far better to create an environment where people are given room to be themselves than to demand a rigid conformity.

But I soon found out what “inclusive” meant to this gathering. On the positive side, it meant that the group welcomed people and groups that may have felt left out in the institutional church. But on the negative side, it meant that the liturgical language was diluted, one assumes so as not to give offense, to the point that it drew attention to itself and thus distracted from the message.

As in other liberal-leaning churches I’ve attended, every effort was taken to avoid referring to God in male terms. Usually, that means you hear awkward constructions in which the word “God” is repeated in place of a pronoun, such as “God revealed Godself to us.” Or references to “Father” are replaced with words such as “Creator,” or “Holy One.” That, of course, means, that references to the Trinity, as when we make the sign of the cross, are also altered. Instead of invoking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one may hear a reference to the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.

But the group I was visiting took its gender-neutral language one step further and avoided even references to a heavenly kingdom (your kin-dom come) and to “the Lord.” And thus, when the lector (not the priest, oddly) was reading from Luke, we heard not the familiar wording of the quote from Isaiah – “prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for him” – we heard “prepare the way for God; make the paths straight.”

Well, not only does that remove the rhythm and majesty of the verse, but it also renders our experience of God sterile and distant. We use human metaphors for God in the first place so that we can better relate to him. It’s not that God is a literal man in the sky, necessitating that we call God a “he”; it’s that the God that Jesus revealed was a deity he referred to as his Father in heaven, for reasons that were no doubt cultural but also theological. 

The people of Israel thought of their God in male terms. Other peoples around them had female deities, but theirs was traditionally referred to with male pronouns. If we deny this God a pronoun, then it becomes harder to approach him on a personal level as a Father, or even as a person at all. Instead of the loving, forgiving, embracing father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he becomes an abstraction — which is what the human analogies we use to refer to him are meant to avoid in the first place. After all, if Jesus referred to God as Father, one would think that would be a compelling argument in favor of our doing the same.

Of course, Juliana of Norwich was correct when she said that God is Mother as well as Father. And to that end, we have at our disposal feminine aspects of God, most notably Holy Sophia from the books of Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach, but also the Holy Spirit, who in the early church was often regarded as a feminine presence, analogous to the Shekinah — the indwelling presence of God, the spark of the Divine – who, in Hebrew, was always referred to with a feminine pronoun. And some view Mary as a human face of the Divine Feminine. So with these feminine aspects at hand, it seems we should seek equality and diversity within the Divine by embracing both the masculine and feminine expressions of God, rather than by neutering God of either expression and flattening our experience of him.

I see the same impulse playing out with society’s insistence on preferring the generic word “holiday” over “Christmas.” Now, I’m not much of a War-on-Christmas type of person, but I find this to be another case in which an attempt to be well-meaning and inclusive, honoring our differences, instead leaves us with a kind of gray, undifferentiated sameness, where we have to restrain our desire to express Christmas greetings to each other even though 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas.

The argument typically goes that there are other holidays at the end of the year and we shouldn’t neglect them. But the fact is that Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday that only gets attention because of its proximity to Christmas, and Kwanzaa doesn’t preclude those who observe it from also observing the celebration of Christmas. 

If we were concerned about not causing offense to those who observe other holidays, then it would make more sense to focus our efforts on expunging the word "Easter" from our vocabulary, since Easter falls within proximity of Passover, which actually is a major Jewish holiday. Yet no one suggests doing that, and no one hesitates to wish others a happy Easter. Why we've gone to such an extreme over Christmas alone, when you look at the bigger picture, makes very little logical sense.

Moreover, Christmas is more than just a religious holiday; it’s part of what binds us together as a culture. And that’s really the bigger problem with suppressing the use of the C-word: If we can’t freely acknowledge the traditions that hold our culture together like glue, it’s little wonder our culture is falling apart and so many of us seem to be at each other’s throats these days.

Homes and public spaces are decorated this time of year with Christmas displays. The familiar tunes we hear on the radio are Christmas songs. Corporations use those songs, along with images like Santa Claus and his reindeer, to make loads of money off people who are buying things for Christmas. Christmas is all around us, and it does no harm to acknowledge it. As we see increasing attempts to politically correct certain seasonal songs and programs out of existence, we can only conclude that what may have once been good intentions have been turned on their heads, so that now, rather than ensuring we acknowledge and respect minority views, the majority is now expected to capitulate in favor of the minority. Without getting into a long sociological discussion, it’s fair to say this is not how diversity is supposed to work.

The thing is, the spirit of Christmas is big enough and generous enough to embrace all beliefs and traditions, so there was never a need to suppress references to it. Similarly, God the Father is big enough and loving enough that he leaves us room to honor him as a father figure and also acknowledge the feminine aspects of the Godhead.

And so I wish my readers, without hesitation, a joyous Christmas season, and I pray that the Father shines his love on you while Sophia and Mother Spirit fill you inwardly with their peace.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Advent Reflections: Immaculate Mary

The Immaculate Conception,
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Today, the Catholic church marks the feast of the Immaculate Conception. People who aren’t Catholic – and, in all fairness, a good deal of Catholics as well – think the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus. That’s understandable, especially since the feast day falls during Advent in December. But in fact, this is the day the church celebrates its belief that Mary was spared from the stain of Original Sin. The church views her sinlessness as a necessary precondition for carrying the Son of God in her womb.

Now, you won’t find many bigger fans of Mary than me. But I’ve always found this feast day problematic, mainly because of what it says about theological hair-splitting and the corners those theologians paint themselves into. When you have to start carving out exceptions to your own rules, maybe it’s worth revisiting the validity of the rules themselves.

Without going into too much detail, I think the concept of Original Sin has caused a great deal of suffering throughout human history. It’s a faulty piece of theology that tries but falls short in its attempt to wrestle with the idea of why human beings do bad things and can’t seem to help themselves. Some denominations, to their credit, take a less harsh view than others on the matter. The Orthodox church, for example, doesn’t need to exempt Mary from Original Sin because its view is that although we’re all born with a tendency to sin, we don’t bear the guilt of our ancestors’ sins. Their sins are their own, and ours are our own. All we inherit from our forebears is our broken human nature. No need to invent Limbo as a place where unbaptized babies go when they die. No need to claim, Reformation-style, that all of humanity is totally depraved. And no need to exempt Mary from something she didn’t inherit.

Yet I don’t take issue with the Catholic claim that Mary was immaculate. The thing is, I believe we’re all born immaculate. No baby is born a sinner.

And still, Mary is clearly special. She was chosen from among all women for a reason. Some would argue that she was imbued with so much grace that she was able to resist the temptation to sin – a view I’m sympathetic toward, as a model for the rest of humanity to strive toward. Almost all of us will fail, yet it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try.

Indeed, both the Catholic and Orthodox churches are wise to find Mary prefigured in the Old Testament, such as in the sealed sanctuary gate in Ezekiel, through which God passed but no man could enter. The most striking connection is arguably to be found in the parallels between Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and David’s interaction with the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel. When you see the links between the two passages, it becomes evident that the writer of Luke intended to draw a direct comparison between the Ark and Mary.

  • 2 Samuel 6:9: And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?”
  • Luke 1:43: “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

  • 2 Samuel 6:14-15: David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.
  • Luke 1:44: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy.”

  • 2 Samuel 6:11: The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.
  • Luke 1:56. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Thus is Mary the new Ark of the Covenant, the holiest of vessels where God dwells. And this is why the Catholic and Orthodox belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity also makes sense. It’s not that sex is dirty. It’s that once a vessel is made holy, it would be unfit to defile it by the mundane acts of humans. A communion chalice is unfit for pouring a soda into. Or if one were to find the Ark of the Covenant, one wouldn’t throw it in a garage and store tools in it. They’re sacred items that ought to remain so.

However, my reason for believing in Mary’s purity and holiness reaches deeper, into something one of the mystics of the church touched on some two centuries ago. Anne Catherine Emmerich, a nun and bearer of the stigmata, fell into many deep ecstasies during which she received visions of the Divine. In one of them, she recalled seeing the creation of Mary’s soul:
I had a vision of the creation of Mary's most holy soul and of its being united to her most pure body. In the glory by which the Most Holy Trinity is usually represented in my visions I saw a movement like a great shining mountain, and yet also like a human figure; and I saw something rise out of the midst of this figure towards its mouth and go forth from it like a shining brightness. Then I saw this brightness standing separate before the Face of God, turning and shaping itself, or rather being shaped, for I saw that while this brightness took human form, yet it was by the Will of God that it received a form so unspeakably beautiful. I saw, too, that God showed the beauty of this soul to the angels, and that they had unspeakable joy in its beauty. I am unable to describe in words all that I saw and understood.  
When seventeen weeks and five days after the conception of the Blessed Virgin had gone by (that is to say, five days before Anna's pregnancy was half accomplished), I saw the Blessed Virgin's holy mother lying asleep in her bed in her house near Nazareth. Then there came a shining light above her, and a ray from this light fell upon the middle of her side, and the light passed into her in the shape of a little shining human figure. In the same instant I saw the Blessed Virgin's holy mother raise herself on her couch surrounded by light. She was in ecstasy, and had a vision of her womb opening like a tabernacle to enclose a shining little virgin from whom man's whole salvation was to spring. I saw that this was the instant in which for the first time the child moved within her. Anna then rose from her couch, dressed herself, and announced her joy to the holy Joachim. They both thanked God, and I saw them praying under the tree in the garden where the angel had comforted Anna.
Her vision builds on the pious tradition that grew up around Mary’s early life, as told in extra-canonical works such as the Protoevangelium of James. Those stories tell us that Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was raised in the temple, proved to be the holiest of children, and was betrothed to Joseph, an elderly widower, when she came of age.

It’s also notable that the Catholic and Orthodox churches tend to read Old Testament passages about Sophia, Holy Wisdom, on Mary’s feast days. The official stance of the churches is that Sophia, the Wisdom of God, manifested in the person of Jesus, but that we also ought to recognize the importance of the holy and feminine vessel through which he came into the world. Thus, the churches aren’t attempting to draw a one-to-one correlation between Sophia and Mary – yet there’s no reason, other than adherence to existing theological views, not to make such a connection.

I find that the book of Baruch helps connect the two in a way that other passages don’t. Here, Sophia is spoken of as the Wisdom that all yearn to obtain, and so God reveals her on Earth to his people – and not explicitly through a male person:

“Thus she has appeared on Earth, is at home with the mortals.”

Now, go back to the story of Mary at the Annunciation and ask how such a young girl, probably no more than 14, could have had the maturity, calm, humility, understanding, selflessness, and bravery to say yes to carrying to incarnation of God – a decision that surely made no sense to her and easily could have cost her her life, given the punishment at the time for women who became pregnant by someone other than their spouse. 

Ask why Elizabeth declared, upon seeing Mary, “Blessed are you among women.” Or why Mary herself proclaimed in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. 

Or ask why the Protoevangelium of James revealed Mary as the holiest of young girls from her earliest years, and how Anne Catherine Emmerich’s vision of the creation of Mary’s soul ties into that narrative.   

Was it simply that Mary was given some kind of holiness exemption that the rest of us are deprived of? Perhaps.

Or perhaps there was something special about Mary from the moment her soul was created. Perhaps there’s a greater connection between Mary and Sophia than the church is willing to acknowledge. Perhaps Sophia ensouled herself inside Mary’s body.

Mystics throughout the ages have hinted at the idea but have shied away from outright saying it. It’s the stuff of heresy in “official” Christian thought.

Yet it would explain so much – and it would offer us an image of the Sacred Feminine that not only gives us a human motherly figure but also connects us to the Divine in the same way Mary’s Son did. If he was the face of the Father, so can she be the face of the Mother, whether we view the Mother as Sophia, the Holy Spirit, or simply the great feminine force that permeates all of creation and gives life to all things – in Eastern terminology, the Mother Tao. 

Thus would Christ be our yang and Mary our yin – two aspects of the Divine that complement and complete each other, revealing themselves to us in human form.

If we open ourselves to seeing the Divine Feminine in Mary, then we can say without hesitation that she was holy and immaculate indeed.