Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ The King?

Christ the King?
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”
                -Luke 23:43
Says Jesus to the thief who defends him as they hang on the cross.  I try to imagine such a conversation. It is the scripture for what has become called Christ the King Sunday. In the conversation between Jesus and the thief on the cross I hear echoes of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower.

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

I will not presume to know what Dylan has in mind, but the pieces fit in an odd sort of way, and he did study wholly writ. The elements of Luke’s portrayal of the last moments of Jesus on the cross could be like this.

Christ the King? It is a modern feast of the churches. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a supposed bulwark against a perceived creeping secularism. Another example of what happens when the church employs novelty to impose its world view – a world view which may or may not conform with that of the young man in Israel whose vision she hopes to live and enshrine. I grow increasingly leery of such attempts by the Church. Take Christmas for instance. Not until around the mid-fourth century does it appear on a calendar on its present date, December 25 – the time of pagan celebrations Sol Invictus and Saturnalia. Whether or not the Church intentionally meant to “Christianize” these older holidays, the result has morphed into a post-Dickens orgy of commercialized consumer driven capitalism without which many businesses would not survive today. Despite many attempts to take this pagan-like orgy out of Christmas who among us really thinks Christmas bears any resemblance to what Jesus was thinking that day on the cross he talks to the thief about paradise?

An odd metaphor to be sure, Christ the King. After all it is Pilate who orders these very words to be nailed upon the cross beneath his feet. Or very nearly. “The King of the Jews,” he ordered. We can still see the sneer on his face and hear his laughter at what he no doubt thought was at once a clever joke and menacing warning to all and any who may be tempted to continue what this upstart from Galilee had begun.

We may not know a lot about this Galilean, but what we do know is that unlike other kings, he had no army, no land holdings, no possessions, no money to speak of (relying on the generosity of others to support him and his followers), he wrote no books, issued no proclamations, and, according to tradition, “emptied himself taking the form of a common slave.”

What he did possess was a vision that things could be different – very different – which today’s gospel from Luke describes as “paradise,” an interesting word which appears to be of Persian (Iranian) origin, imported into the Greek pardiso of the New Testament.  Interesting in that it is often used to describe a walled or enclosed garden or park. I cannot help but wonder if Jesus knew of one known simply as The Buddha, the Awakened One, who lived some five or six hundred year earlier in what has become known as the Axial Age. The Buddha, who upon his awakening is said to have been tempted by the demon Mara to turn his back on the world and depart to some eternal nirvana – a total escape from the world of suffering. “No one will possibly understand what you have just understood,” taunted Mara. The Buddha thought about it and then declined. “There are those who will understand,” he is reported to have said. He then committed himself to some 40 or 50 years of living with and teaching those who desired to understand. Like any movement, these followers divided into several groups, some who sought individual deliverance from the world of suffering, and those who like The Buddha himself tip-toed up to the edge of nirvana but elected to stay just this side to nurture others along the way.

The story is told of four fellow travelers crossing a wilderness when they come upon a wall. One climbs to the top, looks in, and scrambles over the wall. So does the second one and the third – all three scramble over to the other side. The fourth climbs the wall, looks and sees – a walled in paradise of trees and flowers, rivers, streams, lakes, abundant fruits – beauty and abundance as far as the eye could see. This one climbed down and returned to this world saying, “There are those who will understand. I will not climb over the wall myself until even the grass is enlightened.”

Major trade routes, from east and west, north and south,  all criss-crossed through the middle east of Jesus. No fantastic tales of a young Jesus traveling to India or China is necessary to imagine that with all the travelers making their way through ancient Israel that tales such as this one were common place.

Perhaps this is what he had in mind as he spoke to the thief – as women and barefoot servants were making their way for one last moment with the one who had shared with them a vision of another kind of world; as princes keep their view from afar and businessmen drink his wine. More than a victorious king on a cross I hear in these ancient words of Luke the commitment to the end to return, to use this last possible moment before his dying breath not to miss the opportunity to offer the experience of Awakening to one last person who reaches out seeking to understand. He empties himself one last time, taking the form of a servant – serving his last earthly companion until three days later he too climbs down from the wall to continue an eternity of selfless service to others, until one day even the grass understands.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Days of the Dead

Days of the Dead
1 Samuel: 28:3-25 – Saul and the Witch of Endor

All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls constitute what appears to have evolved as a three day observance in the fall – specifically Oct 31, Nov 1 & 2. All Saints, or All Hallows day, constitutes a day to stop and remember those who have gone before and have one way or another hallowed life – people we now refer to as saints but who often were anything but. Nonetheless they are people who remind us what things are most important in this life. And All Souls, as it sounds, is a day to remember all those who have gone before us who have contributed one way or another to the lives we live today. All Hallows Eve, now Halloween, began as an evening vigil before the observance of the following two days.

This tri-partite celebration falls at a time of year in the Northern hemisphere when leaves are falling, the sun is doing its disappearing act, days are darker in the morning and the evening, the weather is cooler, frost begins to kill off less hardy plants and flowers – a sort of natural winding down to the “death” of winter. So our minds naturally tend to recall those who have passed before us – which takes one to think of cemeteries and columbariums, spirits, ghosts and pretty soon one also finds oneself thinking about all those creatures that inhabit the shadow worlds of darkness – hobgoblins, devils, and things that go bump in the night!

As I was carving the traditional jack-o-lanterns, first emptying out all the “guts” of the pumpkin, then carving eyes, nose, mouth in either friendly or scary stylings, two verses of the new testament came to mind. First Paul in Philippians, when he says that Christ did not take equality with God something to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the life of a servant; and the first verses of John which equate the Word, the logos, Jesus, with God and with that first Light that burst upon the world in Genesis 1 or The Big Bang (take your pick) – the light which is the light of the world. The pumpkin is emptied and then filled with light to shine in the darkness – a somewhat appropriate reminder of Christ after all is the Jack-O-Lantern, sentinel of the night as little ghosties and beasties roam the streets looking for a treat as we collectively thumb our nose at death and all its acolytes.

Then I recalled the days of my childhood, when on Saturday evening my father would go to the El Station in Oak Park to buy the first edition of the Sunday papers – all four Chicago Daily Papers: The Sun, the Tribune, the Daily News and the American. I would wake up Sunday morning to find the color comics from all four papers at the foot of my bed and would gleefully and diligently read them all before getting up and getting ready to go to church.

On this Halloween weekend the Tribune would always have a special banner cartoon depicting a harvest moon and haystack scene. Just below it would be Peanuts with Linus van Pelt sitting in the pumpkin patch with a sign, “Welcome Great Pumpkin,” as he waited for the Great Pumpkin’s arrival – or at least a sign. And every year he was disappointed.

All of which eventually turns my mind to this story about King Saul and the Witch of Endor. I believe it is the only Bible story to feature both a witch and a ghost – the ghost of the boy prophet Samuel. Saul, like Linus, is looking for a sign – a sign or a word from God – as he faces a hostile Philistine army about to attack. He has been praying to God but gets no answer. He asks his men to find someone who can conjure dead spirits. They remind him that as King he has outlawed any and all such people from practicing their “trade.” He insists he needs to find someone and finally they say, “Well there are reports of a witch at Endor.” Disguised as not-the-king, off they go to Endor.

Saul-disguised asks for a séance. The Witch wisely replies, “Have you not heard? Saul has outlawed such things!” He says, “Don’t worry, he won’t find out – I won’t turn you in.” Still hesitant she asks who in fact he needs to speak to. “Samuel.”  So up rises Samuel from the dead – at which point the Witch realizes this IS Saul in her house. “You tricked me – oh, woe is me!” “Don’t worry,” he says, “all shall be well.”

Not exactly. Samuel is not happy to return only to find it is Saul who has awakened him from his eternal rest. “What do you want from me?”

Saul explains that God is not answering his prayers, the Philistines are on the horizon, can’t you get God to give me some sort of an answer, some sort of sign? Samuel replies in effect, You never listened to God before why should he listen to you now. Things look bad and guess what? They are!

Samuel leaves, and Saul falls over, we are told, like a dead tree. At this point the Witch of Endor springs into action. She kills the fatted-calf, makes some bread and tries to get Saul to eat. He has not eaten all day and is refusing to eat now. He is in total despair. Yet, she convinces him to rest and have a good hot meal before going on. She cares for him and gives him strength to face his fears head-on.

One take away from this odd episode in the longer story of the life of faith is that often, like Linus and Saul we look for a sign – some assurance that there is some power greater than our selves, be it God, be it the Great Pumpkin, be it the Big Bang. But sometimes we are looking for the wrong thing, or asking the wrong questions, or seeking the wrong answer.

Note how Saul gets what he needs, not what he wants. In the peculiar calculus that is the Bible, he meets the face, heart and hands of God in the very person he has banished from his kingdom – a witch. He wants a sign from God and it is given – for what he needs at that moment is someone who cares for him, nurtures him, and strengthens him.  We often find what we need is not what we seek, and just as often what we need comes from places and persons we have written off long ago.

All Hallows Eve. Filled with lessons not too late for the learning, if only we will open ourselves to what the Witch of Endor and all her colleagues really have to offer us – a vision of how what we really need is someone who cares – someone who reflects the light that shines in the darkness – light which the darkness has not overcome. Amen.