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.

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