Category Archives: Marginal Notes

Once in a Garden: Meditation for Earth Day/Creation Sunday

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The tree of Life, allegory with birds perched on branches. Mosaic pavement; 4th century CE

The first gift God gave humans was to make us from clay, to give us kinship with dirt. God named the first earthling adam, meaning ‘human,’ from the root word, adama, meaning ‘soil.’ To be human is to be grounded, in the earth. And when we remember that we’re dust, when we know our place, we become wise. And that’s a great gift.

The second gift God gave humans was breath, kinship with God, a sharing in God’s own life. The adam is related to God by breath, and every breath the human draws is full of God’s own desires. The earthling resembles God in this way: he’s drawn to beauty and full of appetites.

Which is one reason God gives adam another gift, The Garden, “beautiful to look at and good for food.” In the Garden, he could satisfy his desires, especially his desire for God. For God lived in the Garden too, strolling in the cool of the evening among rocks and plants and streams, with kitties, kangaroos, earthlings, earthworms, bunnies and bears.

And that was the way it was, once in a Garden—shared life, companions and kin, creatures all, made-in-the-shade of the Tree of Life that grew in a Garden near Eden, in the East of God’s new and wonderful world.

Now, it wasn’t all play and no work for the human. The world outside the Garden was perfect, but unfinished. Help was wanted: an on-site tiller of soil, someone who would care for the earth. God made the world with room in it for involvement and participation, for evolution and improvement. That’s why God made the earthling, the first gardener.

You’ve probably heard that God commanded Adam and Eve to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ To multiply and have dominion. And God does say that, in one story. The Bible has two creation stories, and in the second, God doesn’t say ‘fill and subdue,’ but till and care. The first story leads to possession and mastery. But the second story leads to belonging and participation. In this story, the humans have work to do, but it’s joyful work, because when they care for the earth, earth cares for them, too.

Then the story takes a sad turn. A smooth talking serpent appears and plants seeds of mistrust in the human heart. And that mistrust becomes a wedge. It splits things:

Humans had never felt shame in being naked; now they do. Their relationship with their own bodies is broken.

Once they’d walked with God; now they’re afraid of God and try to hide. Their relationship to God is broken.

Once they called each other ‘my own flesh and blood’; now they turn on each other in accusation and blame. Their relationship to other humans is broken.

God closes the Garden and sends the humans into the world outside. There they discover that their relationship to nature is damaged too. Participation in the world now brings suffering as well as joy. The story says that’s a punishment, but it’s not really. It’s just that we’re so deeply connected to the world that when things aren’t right with us, they’re wrong in nature too. And nature won’t be right again until we are.

But even with all its hardships, the world was still wondrous. Yet it never fully satisfied us like the Garden did. We planted garden after garden ourselves, hoping to sense God’s footfalls in the grass, to see flowers that don’t fade, to hear God speak to the heart. But nothing we made was like what we lost.

The story goes in many directions from here. For Christians, it goes to Jesus, God’s Child. The story says he came to find and stay with us who’d become so lost and lonely. He left his own Eden with God and took an earthy body, just like ours.

But by then, we were so practiced in ignoring our kinship with creatures and God that when he came to us in human flesh, breathing the divine breath, we did to him what we were doing to each other.

We treated him like a foreigner, even though he stirred a deep memory when he told stories of gardens and seeds, trees and birds, lilies, and harvests gathered into barns.

We said we didn’t know him, even though he ate, drank, sang, and danced with the happy abandon of one who knew what life was like in the Garden.

We regarded him as a stranger, even though we heard the accent of Eden in the way he talked and felt its cool breezes in the way he lived.

In a cruel twist, when we seized him, it was in a garden. And when killed him, we buried him in one too.

The ancient creeds say that as soon as he died, he descended to a gloomy place where for eons long-dead ancestors were waiting for the Messiah. Jesus “harrowed” them. That’s an old word for raking. Like a harvester, he raked them up and gathered them into his new life. Later, back at the garden tomb on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene saw him, but she thought he was a gardener. She wasn’t really wrong.

Genesis is the Bible’s first book. It recounts the first creation. Revelation is the Bible’s last book. It promises a new creation when time ends. The new earth, it says, will be like a jeweled city with walls and towers, but in its center God will plant a Tree of Life, just as God did once in a Garden.

The Tree will yield a different fruit each month, and its leaves will be medicinal for the nations—for all people, no matter who. A Tree of diversity and healing, a Garden undefiled. It’s hard to imagine. We hide guns in our gardens. We bulldoze thousand-year olives. We delude ourselves, thinking we can demean, ignore, unhouse, and kill each other, and exploit water, earth, air, and animals, and suffer no lasting harm.

But now, as we witness the effects of our self-delusion, the truth scripture teaches is stark. In disappearing ice caps and disappearing bees, in bad water and very sick children we see plainly that there’s no separation between human beings and nature, between this nation and that nation, between this continent and that island, between our own generation and those to follow. We’re in this together. For better, and for worse.

Some people say it’s too late for the earth, too late for us. But although earth has been entrusted to our care, it’s still God’s earth, not ours. We can either believe that or we can despair. It’s still God’s creation. We can either trust God or despair.

I think we won’t despair. I think we will read and study and pray the Garden story, over and over. I think we’ll speak to each other about Eden and the earth, about creatures and God and divine breath, about Adam the gardener, and Jesus, the new Adam, the harvester of life. I think we won’t despair because we have this great green story and in it, a mission and a calling.

I think we won’t despair. I think we’ll ponder how to invest our money and how to reduce our footprint and how to organize and how to protest and how to vote. I think we’ll do all those things and more.

And it won’t seem like much against the odds. But each small thing we do will be a kind of remembering. Each small step a re-connection of broken kinship, an act of love. Small thing by small thing, we will become ourselves a Garden, an oasis, a taste of Eden, at play and at rest as God intended for us and every creature under heaven. Small thing by small thing, by endless grace and persevering response to grace, God’s glorious will for the earth and for all creation will shine and shine again.

You Shall Love the Lord Your God…

 

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You can’t claim to love God if you hate your neighbor, says the first letter of John; love of God is proved in love of neighbor. Nothing in all scripture is truer. But nowhere does the Bible say that neighbor-love is all there is to keeping the Great Commandment. We’re also commanded (first and above all else, mind you) to love God, and love God explicitly. Love for God is inseparable from neighbor-love, but it’s also distinct from it.

The progressive Christian habit, however, has been to collapse God-love into neighbor-love. If you love your neighbor, you’re already loving God—that’s what it means to love God. There’s no urgency (or need?) to love God any other way. Inseparability becomes substitution, and the result is what Jesuit ethicist Ed Vacek calls the “eclipse of love for God.”

Thinking about this scary phrase some years ago, I tried counting the sermons about loving God I’d heard in progressive churches. I couldn’t recall any. I realized that I myself had preached only one. I think you still have to strain to hear the sound of sustained progressive reflection on loving God explicitly and with everything you’ve got. In our wing of the church, Vacek’s eclipse is a near-silent one.

A pew-mate of mine once noticed this hush. After sitting attentively through yet another hortatory sermon about Christian obligation to the neighbor and social justice action in the world, this faithful old layman leaned in my direction and sighed, “You know, Mary, I think I know by now what God wants me to do. What I’d really like is to know is who is the God who wants me to do it?”

“Who is the God who wants me to do it?” This wasn’t a question about book-learning or theological concepts. It was a question about intimacy, a question about mystery, a question about prayer, a question ultimately about surrender; it arose straight out of a heart that longed somehow to love as well as to obey.

The habitual evasion of this question makes for an earnest, vague, and potentially joyless Christianity that aims only to make the world a better place, or else. Surely Jesus hoped more for the church than to be the delivery system of an incessant moralism that has us believing our world is so bad and our causes so urgent that the exhaustion, outrage, and bitterness we feel are justified—even a badge of honor. Surely Jesus showed us a God we could love, not the one we often project, who is as wired, anxious, workaholic, self-righteous, and unhappy as we are.

 

Ambrose and the Bees

honeycomb_wide-2c4f64a3a0de4582c1f62c306d23ef63da2e2d8c-s6-c30Bees were much appreciated by ancient Church teachers. St. John Chrysostom, who was known as the “mellifluous” teacher ( Latin: “mel”, honey), admired bees for their selflessness: “The bee is more honored than other animals,” he wrote, “not because it labors, but because it labors for others” (12th Homily).

Bees were important to the 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan, who baptized Augustine and whose name means “sweet food” (Latin: “ambrosia”). He often referred to the gathering of pollen and the production of honey as emblems of Christian formation—the Church’s teachers gather the pollen of Scripture to explain the great mysteries of the faith and feed Christ’s people the honey of Divine Truth. For Ambrose, bees were a symbol of wisdom.

Ambrose was also known as a “honey-tongued” preacher and teacher. (Later, St Bernard would also earn this sobriquet.) This tag refers to his eloquence and persuasiveness, as well as to his fondness for singing in church. Legend has it that honey bees lighted on his face when he was an infant and left a drop of honey on his lips, foreshadowing his future eloquence. Bees and honeycombs were included in the early iconography of Ambrose. Not surprisingly, he is the patron saint of beekeepers and honey manufacturers.

Ambrose-bee-hive

At the start of the Great Vigil of Easter, a deacon sings the Easter Proclamation, often referred to by its Latin first word, exsultet—exult, or rejoice! It is a chant sung by the light of new fire, the Paschal candle, praising the God of light for the new dawn of Christ’s resurrection. In several ancient versions of this song, bees received a grateful shout-out.

The praise of bees is no longer included in modern versions of this old song, including versions used in the Protestant re-appropriation of the Vigil. And that’s a shame. The bees deserve thanks for their industry and for the sweet products of their work, all of which God uses to serve human need and enliven the creation. What better night to include these creatures in our praise than on the night when God brings forth a new creation through the resurrection of Jesus?

Here is the excised excerpt from the Exsultet: …

“… In the grace of this night, O Eternal God,

receive as an evening sacrifice this burning light,

which holy Church renders to you

in the solemn offering of this candle of wax, made by the bees.

We know the glory of this candle kindled by God’s bright flame.

Though divided, it is not dimmed, for it is fed from the wax

which the mother bee wrought to make this precious lamp…”

 

(Alleluia!)

In Due Season

 

 

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Reading one of the Seville daily papers online this evening, I saw a front page article announcing the arrival of the first snails of the season. Snails. It’s an event. It makes the news. Restaurants vie to be the first to advertise: Hay caracoles–Snails on offer. Whole families go out to eat them, as long as they last.

Seeing this article reminded me that I’d mentioned this snail mania to my congregation in one of the monthly letters I wrote them during my sabbatical in Andalucía in 2007. Here’s that excerpt. It brings back blessed memories. You might enjoy them too.

“… It’s snail season here in the countryside. Every restaurant in town and all the roadside ventas are plastered with handmade signs—Hay caracoles! We have snails! Most of these signs also specify that the snails on offer are “de Arcos”—from Arcos (de la Frontera).

We are not snail experts and cannot say whether Arcos snails taste or look different from snails gathered in Bornos, a few kilometers down the Antequera road, or snails from Prado del Rey, a few kilometers in the other direction; but it seems important to the restaurant people that it be stated clearly: these little creatures are from here—local, ours, and therefore good—no, not just good, the best!

I love this small claim about the best-ness of locality, the best-ness of home. And I love the fact that when we came four weeks ago, you could ask, but you would not be able to get any snails from Arcos for lunch. And in a few weeks, you won’t be able to get them again, anywhere.

In these small rural towns there is still “a time for every purpose under heaven”— and thus there are things to look forward to because they are not always available, at least not like this, snails from Arcos and nowhere else. There are still things to savor with a special joy, treats that the whole family dresses up and goes out for—asparagus, strawberries, snails—each delight in turn, each in due season.

Last Sunday we were eating at the Venta Antonio—at the next table were children as young as 3, middle-aged couples, very old grandparents, all tackling with gusto large clear glasses of Arcos snails, toothpicks wielded with great dexterity, “snail juice” slurped down and licked away neatly… to the last luscious little drop.

This age-old rhythm of deferred desire and momentary satisfaction, of the acceptance of the grace of this meal and no other, this day and no other, is all but unknown in our other world back home where we can easily gratify every desire in the very moment it seizes us and demands satisfaction.

We have a week left here at El Membrillo. Then we spend a few transition days in Seville before returning to the States on June 2 to enjoy the last full month of sabbatical—there are Red Sox games awaiting us, among other pleasures.

I’d be telling you fibs if I said that it isn’t hard to think about leaving this amazing beauty, this serenity, and this easy rhythm of life. Sometimes I wish it could go on forever. But most of the time what I feel most deeply is the goodness, the rightness, and the abiding truth of “things in their season.”

There is indeed a time to rest, a time to work, a time for snails from Arcos, and a time for Chinese food in Harvard Square! A time for every purpose under heaven.

And so I also look forward with eager anticipation to the changes ahead, to the different delights of a different time. I breathe my thanks in and out, day after beautiful day.

I remember you fondly, all your joys and sorrows, challenges and dreams; and I commend you with faith to the God who is the gracious donor of all our days.”

 

 

Medicine of Eternal Life: Reflections on the Healing Properties of Holy Communion

183496_159820980825930_243873873_nEarly Christian writers sometimes spoke of holy communion as “the medicine of eternal life.”  Calling communion “medicine” implied a human condition that required powerful treatment — nothing less than the application of the presence of the risen Christ to the brokenness of the community, to the fragments of its soul. Communion was Christ’s kiss upon our wounds — an outward sign of the permanent offer of reconciliation with God and all creation: medicine of mercy, medicine of abundant life. To approach communion was to be diagnosed, admitted, treated and released to a new regimen of wholeness and health.

This way of speaking also implied a kind of preventative therapy: communion with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit at the center of the church’s common life inoculated believers against the disintegration and estrangement that always threaten to destroy human hearts. Being in communion with the Healer and with all the convalescing companions built up one’s resistance to evil and warded off the infections of a divided heart, moral error and a superficial or evasive life. To be excommunicated, or  “excommunioned,” then, was to be in mortal danger, fully exposed.

“Medicine of eternal life” was also a way to describe a future: by participating in the eating and drinking, Christians were promised not only a measure of healing and wholeness in their present lives, but also perfect and permanent health in the life with God to come. To be in good health, to have been saved, meant to have been drawn into a great mystery, to be living on tip-toe, as Paul put it, towards health as yet completely unknown, not even imaginable. Yet in communion, the church understood itself to be privy to a fleeting glimpse of this future: whatever that wondrous wholesomeness will be, it will be at least something like this — the beloved as one in the Beloved, feasting.

To think of communion as medicine of eternal life could strike us as magical, superstitious, or fraudulent—Christian snake oil for needy psyches, trembling bodies, and suggestible hearts. And it would be so, were it not for its intractable attachment to the reality of flesh. Early Christian teachers understood, wisely I think, that one arrives at wholeness and right belief not via secret knowledge nor philosophical constructs, not via a private moment of illumination nor by some doctrinal bee you get in your bonnet. One is in possession of truth and salvation most truly when one encounters the body. That meant “in the church,” and most especially, in the daily hum-drum rub of service and love, tending to bodies, the neighbor’s and the world’s: in imitatio Christi, a body on the line.

Thus, examining the life Christians lead in their own bodies and their conduct toward other bodies has always preceded the reception of communion. Such a prelude brought home to the conscience the inherent contradiction of drawing near to the table of embodiment in Christ while indifferent or hostile or disembodied with regard to the neighbor. Healing, like all authentic Christian religious experience, has its final proof in a dispensation of love enfleshed in the tangible service of the least — When I was hungry, you fed me.

Matthias the Apostle, February 24

200px-Saint_Matthias[1]The author of Acts is worried about numbers. Twelve is a very important number. Eleven is not. When Judas defects and soon afterwards dies, the remaining apostles feel a biblical urge to round up. It won’t do to have the formerly Twelve continue very long into history as the limping Eleven—eleven kind of messes up your biblical allusions. So they nominate a couple of men from the wider group of disciples, pray to God to show them which one God prefers for the job, and cast lots. The lots fall to Matthias, and he becomes an apostle. [Acts 1:15-26]

But who is he? The gospels don’t mention him before Jesus was crucified and raised, unless you think, as some ancient commentators did, that he was actually Zacchaeus, or even Nathanael, by another name. And after his elevation to the ranks of the ‘overseers,’ he is never heard from again. There are no remotely reliable later traditions about him either—although if I could choose one of his legends to be true, it would be the one about him preaching to the cannibals in Georgia. (No, not that Georgia.) Although his relics are venerated in the great church of St Matthias in Trier, Germany, most scholars agree they are not his, but maybe, maybe, those of another Matthias, one of the early bishops of Jerusalem. Our Matthias is a holy cipher.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that Matthias is haphazardly included (for all grace is, to human eyes, capricious) and subsequently so unknown. It’s instructive to know that among the Twelve there is one who fell into the apostolic role more or less by chance, one who was drafted into the witnessing business by a roll of the dice, one whose name alone is documented and all the rest unremarkable and ignored. It puts the spotlight on the calling itself, not on the personality and exploits of the called.

Which takes some pressure off those of us who believe ourselves also chosen to be witnesses, but who, despite years of trying, have yet to build a church of more than forty members, end world hunger, bring a lasting peace upon the earth, or die a heroic death among cannibals. Maybe St Matthias’ day is a day to be glad that the grace and wonder of the choice of us lies elsewhere. Maybe on St Matthias day it’s enough to celebrate that God chose him. Maybe today we honor not an apostle so much as a choosing. And maybe not a choosing so much as the Chooser.

Matthias’ liturgical commemoration has traditionally fallen on February 24. The Anglicans still commemorate him on this day, but the Catholics have moved him to May 14, nearer to the feast of the Ascension, in order not to have to celebrate an apostle in Lent (too much festivity for a solemn season), and to associate him more closely with his election, which occurred in the few days between the Ascension and Pentecost.

He is, of course, the patron saint of lottery players. Today might be a good day to buy a ticket.

—–

P. S. If Matthias is unheralded, imagine the obscurity of the other guy in the running! If you commemorate Matthias today, take a moment also to remember Joseph, called Barsabbas [aka Justus], disciple of Jesus and loser.

Weeping for Moses

SimchatTorah47                           Temple Shir Tikva, Winchester, MA–Photo: Steven L. Alexander

I have a friend who is a practicing Jew, although not a person of conventionally devout temperament. She is a tenacious, full-hearted Jew, but you won’t hear her spouting pieties. Nevertheless, on the morning of Simchat Torah, when the last Torah portion of the annual cycle of readings from the Five Books of Moses is read in her synagogue, she always finds herself weeping. It never fails, she says; she is inexplicably overcome at the death of Moses every year, downright inconsolable in fact—until she remembers that ‘he comes around again’ in the liturgy of the following year.

To her on this morning Moses is no distant hero, and his story—and the story of the Hebrew children he liberates and leads and begs God to spare when they get up to unforgivable mischief in the wilderness—no mere ‘bible story.” He is her liberator and leader, the story of the people her story. Her memory is so collective it’s personal, like the pre-teen Jewish kid in a New Jersey middle school class about culture who, when asked to summon up his very first childhood memory, declared without missing a beat, “I remember Abraham.”

And so my friend weeps on Simchat Torah, overwhelmed with sadness that Moses has died. She doesn’t get that weepy over all the weekly parshas, to be sure; but there’s something about finishing the story, coming to the end, that affects her deeply. The gift of the liturgy, however, is that the very next week, it starts all over again with the reading from Genesis—“In the beginning…”

When we Christian lectionary preachers complain about getting bored when this story or that one comes up again in the 3-year cycle and we have to preach on it again, I think about my friend weeping over the death of Moses. When we chafe under the repetitious nature of preaching with a lectionary to begin with, or we wish we could tell some other story because we don’t resonate with a particular text—it just doesn’t speak to me, we say— I think of her sadness. Her sadness because it is ending, and her joy when it all begins again. And when we are bent over our commentaries or searching the internet looking for a new angle to preach, something relevant to say, something  ‘creative’ we can do with these texts, I think of the festival of Simchat Torah, when the scrolls are taken out and handed ‘round to be kissed and danced and acclaimed, the festival when critical questions cease for just a little while so that love can take over the room.

Chaim Potok writes about the experience of a young Orthodox Jew named David Laurie in a scene from his novel, In the Beginning. There’s a question for us gentiles at the end of the scene that I am trying to hear. That I am trying to answer. Maybe you want to think about it too.

“I remember one night when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning. The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember one white-bearded Torah-reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls, as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and my uncle danced for what seemed an interminable time, circling about one another, rocking their scrolls, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my scroll to someone in the crowd and went out  the rear door to the back porch, and let the air cool my face. The noise and the dancing came clearly through the open windows; and undulating swelling and receding, thinning and growing and receding, and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with Torah, rocking it and holding it close to your heart, the very word of God. And I wondered if gentiles ever danced with their Bible. Hey, Tony and Eddie: do you ever rock it and hold it and know how much you love it?”