On Expecting Patiently in God

simeonThe Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a belated closure to the Christmas Season. Since the excitement of Christmas and New Year’s Day is long past, we may have assumed Christmas was over, but the Presentation of Jesus is the last of the Infancy Narratives. The Christmas Cycle began with Advent, the time of expectation of God’s coming to us. In Simeon and Anna, we come full circle with two more people who were waiting for the consolation and redemption of Israel. Anna had been waiting for 57 years, with nothing to show for it until that day.

To wait in expectation as Anna did takes much patience. For most of us, expectation is coupled with impatience. If we expect something, we expect it now. There should be no delay when it comes to what I expect. God’s time is shown here to be different than ours. The many centuries during which Israel had been expecting consolation and redemption were a lot more years than Anna had spent coming to the temple fasting and praying.

Expectation can lead to rivalry and even violence. This is all the more likely when expectation is coupled with impatience. The more impatient we are, the more likely we are to act precipitously to bring about the consolation and redemption of our own people. This is what happened in Israel. Few, perhaps nobody at all, had the patience of Simeon and Anna and were violently hastening the redemption and consolation of Israel. This haste resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

Expectation is, however, quite different when we give ourselves over to it in patience and in God. The patience and presence of God wear away the trap of violent rivalry. Patience in God also made Anna and Simeon responsive to the Holy Spirit so that they came to the Temple at the right time to see the Christ Child.

More important, patience in God broadened the expectation of Anna and Simeon. Although Simeon had been waiting for the “consolation of Israel,” when he held the child in his arms, he said that he had seen the salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Not only was this child the glory of God’s people Israel, he was “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles,” the very people from whom they were expectantly waiting for deliverance.

Patience in God also deepened the expectation so that Simeon realized that Jesus would be a “sign that is opposed,” one who would reveal the “inner thoughts of many.” This child, then, was not destined to be a consolation and redemption of Israel in a comfortable or cosy way, but would console and redeem Israel and the Gentiles (i.e. everybody else) by revealing the truth of how we build human culture on collective violence and then offering us redemption through embracing this truth.

We also see patience on the part of Joseph and Mary who offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons as required of the Law for those who were poor. Many years later, Jesus would again make the offering of a poor person who had been opposed and so “reveal the inner thoughts of many” as they “look on the one whom they have pierced.” (Zech 12: 10)

On Being a Bad Samaritan And a Good Person

Good_SamaritanMany of us instinctively think that knowing is something we have in our heads, something we can recite, like a catechism. This is the sort of knowing that the lawyer demonstrates when he recites, correctly, the two great commandments when Jesus encourages him to answer his own question as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Lk. 10: 27) But then the lawyer shows a certain ignorance, a missing piece. He doesn’t know who or what his neighbor is. Jesus answers this question by telling a story that pinpoints exactly the missing piece in the lawyer’s cognition.

The key phrase in this familiar story that shows what the lawyer lacks is that the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The Greek word is one that twists the mouth all out of shape: splagchnizomai (pronounced splangkhnizomai). Literally, this word means his entrails were stirred up at the sight. Here is a visceral response that didn’t need the benefit of the catechetical verse from scripture to be activated.

The response of the Samaritan, then, was instinctive, a bonding with the victim who had been severely injured. We are naturally wired for this sort of solidarity, but René Girard has demonstrated that this natural solidarity often takes the form of bonding with other people at the expense of those who are excluded from this bond. Paul Dumouchel, in his analysis of this process in The Ambivalence of Scarcity, argues that the social bonds in early humanity required not only self-sacrificial nurturing of others in the group, but also the obligation to kill all those outside the group, who were considered enemies. The natural response to a person in trouble is hedged in with limitations. One’s entrails are not stirred by the plight of just anybody, but only the plights of those who are within the group.

It is this bonding based on exclusion that Jesus thrusts into the face of his listeners by telling us that a priest and a Levite both passed the victim by but then a Samaritan came to his aid. Since the victim might have been dead, both the priest and Levite would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a corpse. Ritual purity, like all kinds of purity, requires exclusion. One is pure only if something or someone is defined as “impure” so that the “impurity” can be purged from the social fabric. This kind of bonding by exclusion becomes so instinctive that it trumps bonding through sympathy with someone outside the group. The lawyer’s question came naturally to him because it was natural for him to place boundaries around who was a neighbor and who wasn’t.

The ethnicity of the victim in the parable is not given but Jesus’ listeners would have assumed that he was a Jew like them, most likely a Galilean. Samaria came between Judea and Galilee. This was a problem because all Jews hated all Samaritans and vice versa. When Jesus went through Samaria with his disciples, they were refused hospitality at a village they came to. The reason this Jew from Galilee would have been on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was because he would have traveled along the Jordon River to avoid going through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. So, the traveler, in trying to avoid Samaritans, ended up encountering a Samaritan who helped him and undoubtedly saved his life!

What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by. For a Jew of the time to help a Samaritan in similar circumstances would have been unthinkable. Such a person would have been a bad Jew—like Jesus. Likewise, the “Good Samaritan” was actually a bad Samaritan in the eyes of other Samaritans and all Samaritans were bad in the eyes of the Jews. In his novel A Boy’s Life, Michael McCammon presents us with a similar situation that brings this parable home for many white Americans. A violently racist white man in a small town in Alabama tried to blow up a museum of Black culture but ended up in a life-threatening situation, caught in his own trap. This racist was then rescued by a black man. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the man who had hated blacks so viscerally all his life was highly dramatic. In the broader context of the novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist Corey, a white boy, consistently showed a visceral sympathy for victims that extended to saving a black boy from drowning during a flood.

Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.

The Breath of the Trinity

Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But math, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.

The Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God when, among other things, Jesus exerted divine power to walk on water and still the waves of the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the math ever since. We shall reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7: 47) The Pharisees were incensed because Jesus, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Jesus had, in fact, done what only God could do.  Before he died, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20: 22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2: 38)

The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin and forgiveness. In spite of some outbursts of anger, Yahweh claimed to be a God who was chesed, a Hebrew word meaning full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But Yahweh’s hesed did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Jesus and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.

Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own wrath. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s hesed. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.

Handing Ourselves Over

crosswButterfliesLuke’s version of Jesus’ Resurrection is much the gentlest among the synoptic Gospels. No earthquakes and no women running off so afraid that they can tell nobody what they had seen at the empty tomb. The women were, indeed, terrified of the two men in “dazzling clothes” who appeared to them. But by the time, but before long they have remembered, with prompting from the men in white, Jesus’ words to them.

Among the words the women were reminded of was that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified.” (Lk. 24:7) The key word is that Jesus was “handed over.” Jesus was put into the power of the sinners. However, something much deeper had happened than that. If we look back to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with the fear that his ministry had come to nothing, but then he handed himself over to his heavenly Abba. (See Gethsemane) It was only after handing himself over to his Abba that he allowed himself to be handed over into the power of sinners.

The death of Jesus is also portrayed more gently in Luke than in Mark or Matthew. Luke does not include Jesus’ anguished cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” although Jesus did cry out in a loud voice. What he then said was: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk. 24: 46) At the last, Jesus in handing himself over to sinners, had really handled himself over to his heavenly Abba. The words, in themselves, seem serene, but, in Gethsemane, where Jesus made his decision to hand himself over, his stress was so great that his sweat became “like drops of blood.” Commending himself to his Abba was not easy.

On Easter morning, Jesus found himself alive because he did not try to grab his life with force, but rather, Jesus had given it up. Grabbing his own life with force would have entailed using force to lead an insurrection against the Roman Empire. In doing so, he could, for a time have thought that his ministry had come to something after all. But by trying to make his life secure, he would have lost it. (Lk. 17: 33) In receiving his life from his heavenly Abba, Jesus had the Abba’s life to give to all. This is why it was futile for the women to look for the living among the dead. (Lk. 24: 5) Jesus, very much alive, was not there. He was among the living, walking on the Road to Emmaus, seeking to make Cleopas and his companion more alive than they were, so that their hearts would burn as Jesus explained the scriptures to them. If Jesus had not given up his life to gain it, he would not have had such overflowing life to give to others.

We too, are called to hand ourselves over to Jesus’ heavenly Abba. As our world grows more violent, we are tempted to do something rather than hand ourselves over to our Abba, but doing something in violent situations tends to keep them violent. Instead, we need to create space for the heavenly Abba to give us the life He gave to His own Son. In this way, we participate in Jesus’s death and in his glorious Resurrection.

Gethsemane

crossRedVeil1Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane may well have been the loneliest moment of all for Jesus. His disciples were not able to stay awake with him. Much worse, his disciples still seem not to have understood anything of what Jesus had tried to teach them. At what he knew would be his last meal with his disciples, a meal when he had poured himself into the bread and wine to give his life to his disciples and all others who would follow him, his disciples fought yet again about who was the greatest. (Lk. 22:24–26) As he had done many times before, he told his disciples that the one who would be first would be the one who served, but he must have realized his words had had the same effect as before.

Jesus was alone with his heavenly Abba, but he was having difficulty believing that the path leading to the cross was going to accomplish anything. Jesus prayed that the cup he knew he must drink be taken away from him. Many think Jesus was shrinking from the pain of crucifixion. He probably was, but his anguish went much deeper. Jeffrey B. Gibson, in his book The Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity, suggests that Jesus was tempted to opt for the restoration of Israel by dominance. It was the same temptation he suffered when he called Peter “Satan” at Caesarea Phillippi, and the same temptation he suffered in the desert right after his baptism. As he prayed in the garden, it appeared to Jesus that his whole ministry had come to nothing and that “the path of suffering will really be effective in achieving the task to which he has been commissioned.Like us, Jesus felt the pull of the mimetic spiral of violence. It was hard enough that the pull of violence was strong throughout his entire social ambience. It must have been doubly hard that his disciples were still within that social pull of violence and were pulling Jesus in that direction as well. Worst of all, the full wrath of humanity’s rejection of God from the beginning of time had fallen upon Jesus and there seemed to be no way for that human wrath to be quenched. That Jesus accepted the cup anyway shows a profound trust in his heavenly Abba at a time when his Abba’s will was inscrutable to him. It seemed impossible to believe that the heavenly Abba loved Jesus, his Son, and loved all of the people Jesus had come to save, all of whom had turned against him. Impossible, yes, but with God, even these thing s were possible.

Care for the Small Child

HolyFamilybyGutierrezIt is well-known that humans can be competitive, sometimes just for the sake of being competitive. Competition tends to draw rivals close together, even if, and perhaps especially if they really hate each other. People who are close to each other to start with are often competitive just because they are close to each other. Sibling rivalry is an old story as the story of Cain and Abel tells us. René Girard attributes this phenomenon to mimetic desire. The reason for the rivals’ competition is because they want the same thing. This does not happen by chance. The desire of one person inspires the desire of another. Often the mutual desire is instantaneous, or at least seems so. In any case, when two or more people fight over who is the greatest, each person thinks it is the others who are copying him or her and never the other way around. Girard further suggests that when this kind of rivalry spreads through society, it leads to a social meltdown that is usually resolved by the mimetic desire focusing on one person who is blamed for the crisis and who becomes a victim of collective violence. We see all these elements in a nutshell in today’s reading from Mark. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be betrayed “into human hands” and put to death. And then the disciples fight about who is the greatest, the very thing that has been happening on a broader scale in first century Palestine and so has made Jesus the designated victim of the social tensions around him.

All of this suggests that mimetic desire is a bad thing but that is not so. Mimetic desire is built into humanity by our Creator and therefore, in itself, it is good. It is good because it is the basis of deep connections between people. It is through mimetic desire that our parents and other caregivers initiate us into the world by sharing their desires for certain foods and learning to share desires for the well-being of other people. This is the significance of what Jesus does when confronted with the tense silence that greets his question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus places a child in their midst and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus doesn’t reprimand his disciples as we think he should and as most of us would in his sandals. What Jesus does is very simple. Caring for a small child is the deepest manifestation of positive mimetic desire. Jesus subtly breaks up the closeness among the disciples that is brewing through their discord and instead unites them in their desire to care for the small child. This story puts before all of us the choice of how we will connect with the desires of other people: Will it be in rivalry or in nurturing others?

Will and God’s Desire Revisited

AndrewPalmSunday2

Some time in the past I published a post called “Will and God’s Desire.” I have just thoroughly revised this post so as to use it for a brief introduction to a book I am writing that will explore various ways that Girard’s insights into mimetic desire can help us understand and live the Christian life. Several other blog posts will also provide matter for this book. Since a pair of introductory pages are of crucial importance for making the rest of the book work, I am posting it here and asking for any suggestions I might consider to make it clearer and stronger. Here is the introduction as I have it currently:

Spiritual writing often place much emphasis on obeying God’s will. That is good, but I think we can deepen our relationship with God by shifting the emphasis from trying to do God’s will to sharing God’s Desire. The two seem to amount to the same thing: if God desires something, then God wills it. But the differing connotations of these two words have a big effect. The words “obey God’s will” suggest that God’s will is something we should allow God to impose God’s on us. The phrase “share God’s Desire” has a much gentler connotation. It suggests that God has a certain Desire that God wishes to share. Sharing a desire is a very different thing than giving us marching orders. God’s Desire extends an invitation to us to enter into a great mystery. I purposely use the singular form of desire for God because, although God could be said to desire many things, they all converge into one all-encompassing Desire for the well-being of all creation.
Thinking and praying in terms of God’s Desire is attractive in the sense that it opens up a collaborative relationship with God, such as what Abraham and Moses showed when they bargained with God on behalf of God’s people. But our desires are complex, stimulating, and troubling. This problematic aspect of our desires makes us want to exert our own wills against them and then ask God to take the same dictatorial approach on them as well. But if God shares God’s Desire with us instead, then trying to do to ourselves with our own will what God does not do to us is not likely to work. That Desire is something God shares with us rather than imposes on us tells us something important about desire: desire is shared.
Here we come up against the biggest problem we have with our desires. We think they originate within ourselves and so belong to us. This causes us to treat them in a proprietary manner through exerting our wills on them. The French polymath thinker René Girard has suggested that the desires within us are not exclusively our own. They do not originate within ourselves but they originate from the desires of others. That is, our desires are shared. Not only are they shared, they are contagious like an epidemic. We see this when rage flares up throughout a social network like a firestorm. Shared desire can also be as contagious as a gentle smile that floats through people like a soft breeze. Girard calls this shared desire mimetic desire. That is, desire that imitates the desires of others. Actually, as I shall show when I explore this trait in the course of this book, it is important not to think of imitation as an external copying like mimicking the actions of others. Rather, our desires our shared through a deep resonance that connects us with other people and with God. When we think of desires as our own, we are likely to treat them like weapons in battles with other people with the will acting as the general aspiring to be a war god. But the more we try to assert our desires as our own, the more they are governed by the desires of others. The more we rebel against the desires of others, the more subject we are to them. If we try to control the desires of others by trying to make them imitate us, we are still organizing our lives around their desires all the more. Meanwhile, the people who have us trapped into imitating their desires are just as trapped into imitating ours.
This phenomenon of shared desire is like a dizzying labyrinthine worm that boars to the depths of our personhood. This is why trying to control our own desires as if they were strictly our own is beating the air. (1 Cor. 9:26) On a broad social scale, this labyrinth of mimetic desire can lead to meltdowns that lead to collective violence such as the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. For his part, as I will explain at length, Jesus nailed this persecutory meltdown to the cross, to quote Paul creatively (Col. 2:14).
God’s Desire enters into this dizzying matrix of human mimetic desire more deeply than the devouring worm ever could, probing far more deeply than the desires of other people so as to saves us from being overrun by these desires. The amazing thing about God’s Desire is its spaciousness, quite a contrast with the cramped nexus of human mimetic desire. In God’s Desire, there is all the room in the world. That is not surprising since God created all of the room in the world. While human mimetic desire creates scarcity through conflict, God’s Desire provides abundance such as the abundance Jesus that flowed from five barley loaves and two fishes in the wilderness. The gentleness of sharing God’s Desire might make it look like an easy option, but I find it highly challenging. Sharing God’s Desire asks of us nothing short of a total transformation of ourselves as we open our hearts to embrace the expansive Desire of God.
In bringing the shared aspect of desire to our attention, Girard and his many colleagues have opened up a powerful avenue for spiritual and social renewal. This small insight may not look like much but it has the power to help us understand how violence, especially violence connected with religion, occurs. This is especially true with the Paschal Mystery of Christ. More important, this small insight can help us learn how we can become living stones in the temple of God that explode into God’s Kingdom. In the pages that follow, I will explore these ideas as means of hearing God’s Word and making it flesh in our acts of service and prayer.