The Name of Names

crecheOne important feature of a name is that it identifies us and sets us apart from other people. Names do not just identify us individually; they also give us context, such as where we come from. Medieval names such as Francis of Assisi were like this. Names also identify the culture we live in and come depending on where we have German names, Japanese names or Scottish names such as mine. Within a national identity, our names tell others what families we come from such as the Smith family or the Bach family. Not only the surname but our first and middle names often repeat names used in the family. My baptismal name Robert is also my father’s name, for example. In mythology, deities tend to have names such as Zeus, Thor or Vishnu. These names designate distinctive personalities which are basically human, if writ large. The thing about names in all these cases is that each person who has a name, whether a dog, a human, or a deity is finite, a part of the world.

When it comes to speculating about what being may have created the world, we suddenly become very shy about names. We might use a term such as The Father Who Made us All or a term such as God which precludes having a particular name such as Zeus. When Moses asked the deity who spoke to him out of the burning bush for a name, the answer was Yahweh, which really was a non-name as it meant something along the lines of: “I am being what I am being.”

These considerations make the following verse from Luke’s Gospel astounding: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” This boy was/is also the Logos who was with God in the beginning and without whom nothing was made that was made according to the Prolog to John’s Gospel. The term Logos is another example of not naming the unnameable creator of the universe and yet this same Person without a name “emptied himself” as Paul said in Philippians, so as to be born as a human being. As a human baby, the unnameable was named, a name stamping him with a particular culture and a particular family. The circumcision of this body is yet one more cultural marker.

So deep was the Word’s immersion in humanity, that he humbled himself and was “obedient unto death, even the death of a cross.” The result of this descent was that the crucified Logos was raised up and the ordinary Jewish name he bore has become “a name above every name,” a name to which all humans should bow. And yet it is because the unnameable became human and nameable that this name is so exalted and awesome to us, all the more awesome in that we resist the lowliness of the Logos through whom we ourselves were made.

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Unwrapping the Future

crecheThe yearly cycle of celebrations and commemorations adds solidarity to our experience of time. Christmas, a holiday especially laden with traditions, is a particularly strong anchor, assuring us that everything is as it should be for all eternity. Amen.

One of the traditions of Christmas, however, is the giving of charity. That is a very good thing, considering the needs for generosity, and it helps that once a year, people have a custom of dwelling on such matters. But the need for such charitable giving suggests that not everything is as it should be. If huge efforts by charitable organizations have to be made to assure that no child is deprived of a Christmas, then obviously there are serious social problems that need to be addressed. That is, this cozy traditional holiday poses a challenge for the future.

Manger scenes with the new-born Jesus lying in the straw tug the hearts of many and have been a focus of devotion since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the custom in the twelfth century.  But the whole point of this nativity story is that Jesus was born in the stable because nobody had room for his mother, father, and himself. This is not business as usual. It raises the question: do we really have room for Jesus in our lives? Do we really have room for all the children being born and for their families?

The angel announced to the shepherds proclaimed that this newborn child was the savior, the Lord who was going to usher in a new era of peace. That may sound innocent when we hear this read in church today, but at the time, the Caesar thought he was the savior and he didn’t have room for somebody else to do his job! Of course, he was a savior and keeper of the peace his way, with military and cultural might. The story of the shepherds, then, challenges us to consider who really is our savior and the model of peace for us. Do we keep peace the imperial way though violence to keep everybody in line? We don’t have to have imperial armies to take this approach. All it takes is a drive to control people, by force if necessary. Or do we follow peace Jesus’ way, through vulnerability as a newborn child all the way to the cross and then the Resurrection where Jesus creates peace through forgiveness.

A major cog in the engine of Caesar’s peace in Jesus’ neck of the woods was King Herod. Killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem may not look like a peaceful action, but Herod was keeping the peace, imperial style. Most of us may think Herod a bit extreme, but if we are willing to sacrifice anybody who seems to threaten our control of life, especially the young, we are going the way of Herod, the way of Caesar. Jesus, although he had the power to send legions of angels against Herod, remained vulnerable, dependent on human protection until the time came to suffer the fate the boys of Bethlehem suffered.

All of this may be a downer for a joyful holiday, but the good news is that Christmas is a yearly wakeup call for renewal of life, a renewal fueled by the divine energy of a human child born over two thousand years ago. Everything that was wrong with the world at the time is wrong with the world now and a lot more. We can keep on going in circles if we want, but we have the chance to step off the not-so-merry-go-round and embrace the Christ Child. We will find that the Christ Child has a gift for us. If we dare to open it up, it is a gift for an open future that we can have if we really want it.

See also, Celebrating the Prince of Peace and The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh

I Me Me Mine

abyssEach of us knows what my own self is, right? Yeah, my self is right here, right inside of me, running my life. My self is who I am. What could be more obvious? “Everyone’s weaving it, coming on strong all the time!” Hmm. Who is doing the driving, who the weaving. “I-me-me-mine” is doing it according to George Harrison put it? So where is my self in all this?

If René Girard is right, then the human self is not in the midst of our desires, I-me-me-mine, where we tend to locate it. Rather, we derive our desires from the desires of other people and they from us. (See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry) Well, we don’t want other people driving our desires or snatching ours away, so we fight back, insisting that I-me-me-mine is the one who wants whatever it is and others are copying I-me-me-mine. The problem is, the whatever-it-is falls away as a desire defining the self and the entire self of I-me-me-mine is embroiled with this rival. Some autonomy. So, I-me-me-mine will try refusing to desire what anybody else desires. This is resentment. Of course, resentment I-me-me-mine me into the enemy’s desire since opposition to a desire is as strong a driving motor as combat over the desire. (See Resentment)

This spiral of desire tilts I-me-me-mine to the abyss that shows this desiring self to be an illusion, a void. While reflecting on Chuang Tzu’s Taoist writings, Thomas Merton suggested that “it is the void that is our personality, and not our individuality that seems to be concrete and defined by present and past, etc.” This “not-I” is seen by Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton as a source of freedom, but “we are completely enslaved by the illusory.” (Merton & the Tao)

In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton warns us that “every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be who cannot exist, who cannot exist because God cannot know anything about him.” The false self a.k.a. I-me-me-mine, is constantly in rivalry with other false selves who have the same alias. “All through the night, all through the day, everyone’s saying it, flowing more freely than wine.” Like Merton, George Harrison warns us that an epidemic of desire threatens to flood the whole world.

We aren’t lost in this abyss of “not-I.” If we let go of the matrix of desires that I-me-me-mine clings to, than we find ourselves called by name. This calling voice asks us why we are persecuting him? Persecuting? We weren’t doing nuthin’. I-me-me-mine’s desire machine blinds us to what we are doing to other people, all of whom Christ identifies with.

When we answer with our names to the voice in the abyss, the self is still not-I, but that does not matter because the Persons of the Trinity are filling this void with their forgiving love that clarifies what all this forgiveness is about.

Well, Jesus did say something about dying in order to live.

Whose Axe? Whose Winnowing Fork?

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAfter centuries without a prophet, a wave of expectation flooded Judea and Galilee. A man dressed the way Elijah was dressed rode this wave and pushed it along with his boisterous preaching. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” What sort of kingdom did he expect? The call to repent tells us only that we must turn from the direction we are going and move into a different direction. Question the ways we live and look for a different direction.

Two astounding prophecies by Isaiah offer us intriguing, inspiring, but puzzling hints about what the Kingdom might be when he urged us to turn “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” so that we “study war no more” as the spiritual says and that “the wolf shall live with the lamb.” So, now we have all of creation at peace? Not quite. Isaiah tells us that the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” will “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Apparently taming lions and tigers and bears is easier than taming predatory humans. In calling the Pharisees and Sadducees, “that brood of vipers,” and asking who told them to flee the “wrath to come” while an ax was “laid at the trees” and his successor would have “a winnowing fork in his hand” suggests that they were not as tamable as predatory animals. The predatory lenders of today seem just as untamable. However, surely the kingdom of Heaven was not wrath of this sort, even if John, like the prophets before him, thought such wrath might clear the way for Heaven’s Kingdom.

As soon as he is baptized by John, Jesus cries out precisely the same words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” By saying these same words, is he perhaps telling us that John the Baptist, of whom there is none greater born of woman, hasn’t quite set the right direction either. His baptism has taken him on a very different track: the Paschal Mystery. That may seem a bit anachronistic, but from the preaching the Sermon on the Mount on, Jesus takes the direction of absorbing violence rather than inflicting it. Not only does the Kingdom not consist of threshing out the bad guys with a winnowing fork and burning them, but such threshing doesn’t even pave the way to the kingdom. If anything, this violence only blocks the way for everybody as, in our righteous indignation against predatory lenders and their ilk, the axes and fires for burning chaff multiply. One might argue that Jesus himself had some choice words for the Sadducees and Pharisees. However, Jesus called them whitewashed tombs filled with people’s man’s bones. Jesus wasn’t chopping off their heads or burning them up; he was warning them about how dead they were. If Jesus isn’t a thunder deity carrying a battle axe, whose axe is laid to the tree?

In his lectionary commentary, Paul Nuechterlein provocatively suggests that the axe is wielded by us. It isn’t God but we who are chopping down trees all over the world. That is indeed what happened on Mount Calvary. Moreover, according to Isaiah, it is from the stump that new life emerged. So, whose wrath should we flee? Ours. What should we run to? How about the chopped stump from which the new Tree of Life is growing?