Epiphany’s Choice and the Environment: In Reverence to Honor, or in Fear to Destroy

Hang on, you there, packing up the Christmas lights, dismantling the tree, boxing up the crèche with its cast of characters and that long-tailed star. Christmas is not over. Sure, come December 26th, it may have been all over for the “Little Drummer Boy,” Bing Crosby, and the Nutcracker; but not quite for Christmas. The wise men are just now arriving. And those magi from the East, with their three auspicious gifts, are not simply late to the party. They inaugurate a whole new thing: public acknowledgment by the world’s powers, of a radically new kind of rule. They’re not the only ones who notice (cue the soundtrack for the dastardly villain). What gets me now, thinking as I have been about environmental issues in Jesus-ish terms, is how relevant the contrast between the wise men and Herod is still today.

The Radical Vulnerability of God

As far as religious paradox goes, the radical vulnerability of God has got to take the cake (or the stollen, the bunuelos, the figgy pudding, the buche de noel, the truchas de navidad…).

As I’ve lost my grip on all the other Christmas traditions still dear to me — the weekly advent services leading up; making pepparkakor, rum balls, and sweet rye bread; practicing my piano part for the “Jesu Bambino” trio with my sisters; the pickled herring and cold duck; singing carols to myself while skiing through Lester/Amity’s quiet woods of birch and pine; even the iconic tree itself… Even as I’ve let these slip away in the context of new relationships and warmer climes (differently rich and delightful), there is one, sparkling mystery of the season that will not let me go.

Rembrandt’s Face of Jesus

The gospels say almost nothing about what Jesus looked like. Some days ago, I mused here on the matter of Jesus’ “second coming.” I threw out the thought: why should Christians (believing Jesus to be God) presume that Jesus should be limited by anything, even including human appearance? Yet we often get most excited about determining the historical nature of Jesus, as if that’s the ticket to an authentic faith. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presently showing a collection of how the Dutch master of light, Rembrandt van Rijn, chose to depict Jesus in his gentle paintings. “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” shows an evolution away from traditional European depictions of Jesus with pale skin and light brown hair to a Jesus that reflects the dark features of Jews that the artist knew – nearly all refugees. Reading about the exhibit and knowing a little of the history of Christians’ persecution of Jews got me thinking about the matter again – how even the most historically accurate images of a first century Jesus might disturb our sensibilities that God should conform to our expectations.

Second Coming, all the time?

What if Jesus has already come back or is even coming back all the time? That the first generation of Jesus’ followers expected the Parousia or “second coming” during their own lifetimes is certain. They were sure, based on Jesus’ teachings and their own, first-hand knowledge of him that it would happen. At least that’s how the Bible represents it. (That it didn’t happen as predicted makes its presence in the Bible even more striking. After all, why retain traditions of misunderstanding, even of failure? — another topic for musing…) And the business of waiting for Jesus’ return is still big business. Witness the most recent hubbub promoted by Harold Camping of Family Radio. Many Christians have a penchant for the sentimental — wishing to recreate biblical places and events in order to feel closer to Jesus, to God. I get it. But I wonder: if Jesus is God — a basic tenet of the three-in-one Christian faith, then what’s to say that God must be limited to popular ideas of what Jesus’ return would look like… what Jesus himself would look like? What if Jesus’ return is happening all the time, in forms far different from traditional expectations including that of a bearded man in flowing robes who causes some kind of revolution? What if Jesus’ second coming doesn’t actually involve a human being at all? What if it’s always been happening?

The Bible, Natural Disasters, and Suffering

Does the Bible have anything to say about Japan’s devastating earthquake? Because I wrote about biblical responses to pain some years ago, people occasionally ask me what the Bible says about natural disasters. It’s discomfiting — not the question (it’s a good one, and I’m happy to discuss it), but the absence of a single honest answer to give. Most people know the stories of Noah’s ark and Sodom and Gomorrah. Many are also familiar with Jesus’ describing “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, and famine as “the birth pangs” of a better time, or of the apocalyptic prognostications of Revelation. In other words, they know how the Bible tells of God orchestrating cosmic events of destruction to punish people or clean the slate, but they suspect that’s not the only word or way of reading. The existence of such stories and passages has armed often well-meaning people with the slings and arrows of criticism, dismissal, and even hate. But the Bible speaks with many voices, each representing faithful efforts to understand our place in relation to God, to others, and to the world around us. There are different kinds of literatures in the Bible that deserve to be treated, then, in different ways. Some preclude literalist interpretations (Noah’s ark, for example); some demand contextualization (explanations of national defeat that exonerate God even at the expense of the people, for example); and some are unapologetically human efforts to express human experience, including suffering and pain (the book of Psalms is full of these). That there are so many different perspectives in the Bible, so many different ways of wresting sense out of senseless and comfort out of disaster, solicits sympathy and compassion. The Bible demands that we listen with whole hearts and minds, that we bring our humanity to bear on our reading. That posture and process may be the answer — not so much why did God do this, or how could God let this happen, but how do we respond with human kind-ness? I cannot answer with a single tidy word what the Bible says about natural disasters. But I can suggest that to its many voices, we are invited to add ours — of collective lament for great loss and enduring grief; of repentance for any way in which our actions, choices, or ideas may have contributed to the destruction (as an ecological response to human behavior, for example); and of hope in a future we cannot know full of possibilities we cannot yet imagine.

Jesus and Groundhog Day

            I love the movie Groundhog Day. It’s such a great story about redemption, and I for one, an accomplished bumbler, would love a few do-overs to get things right. Besides, the film’s hilarious. I might have guessed that it would have some sort of religious theme to it, but until recently, I didn’t imagine that Punxsutawney Phil and Jesus share that auspicious day… and not by mere coincidence. Groundhog Day is exactly forty days after Christmas Eve, and Jewish religious tradition required that certain things happen forty days after a boy’s birth. Those traditions, together with ancient legends, ultimately led to the connection of that cheeky little varmint with the Christian “light of the world.”

Forgetting… and Remembering

Living as a nomad, it was bound to happen: I left my computer behind. Bouncing between cities (two) and offices (four) as I’ve done the past semester, I rely on THE LIST — things to do before leaving the house (empty the kitchen compost, e.g.) and things to bring (er, that’d be the computer, e.g.). The list works great… if I actually use it. Last week, I didn’t. The irony is, I’m finally settling in again, finally staying put  — one city, one office, for the most part, anyway. Maybe that was it. I let my guard down, got cocky.

No Fishing in the Sea of Galilee

The storied “sea” (actually a freshwater lake) where Jesus performed miracles among its fisher-folk and from which Jesus called his disciples to become “fishers of men” is now off limits. Galilean fish stocks are so depleted that Israel has instituted a ban on fishing there, in effect for two years, in the hopes that that piscis population will rebound. For those of us who know Galilee from the gospel stories, it’s easy to get sentimental, wishing for a 21st century reality just like we read about Jesus’ first century one.

A Gospel Easter

This essay first appeared in the Fredricksburg Free Lance-Star on April 4, 2010.  

Of all the Christian holidays, it’s Christmas that gets the most attention. And can you blame us for that? Light and life in the dead of winter, gifts galore, and cookies to boot — no wonder it’s a favorite. Yet Easter is the most important Christian holiday and was celebrated long before Christmas became what it is today. We can be comfortable with Christmas, its jollity and twinkling beauty, the stable, newborn, and serene mother. Easter, on the other hand, is different and a bit unsettling. For one thing, it is preceded by a gruesome, torturous death by crucifixion. What’s more, it’s based on an utterly unnatural event — the coming back to life again of a definitely dead man. Let’s face it, being born is nothing special. We’ve all done it, and in every case at least one person was on hand to witness the occasion. But resurrection?… 
 

Jesus and Punxsutawney Phil

 I love the movie Groundhog Day. It’s such a great story about redemption, and I for one, an accomplished bumbler, would love a few do-overs to get things right. Besides, the film’s hilarious. I might have guessed that it would have some sort of religious theme to it, but until recently, I didn’t imagine that Punxsutawney Phil and Jesus share that auspicious day… and not by mere coincidence. Groundhog Day is exactly forty days after Christmas Eve, and Jewish religious tradition required that certain things happen forty days after a boy’s birth. Those traditions, together with ancient legends, ultimately led to the connection of that cheeky little varmint with the Christian “light of the world.” 
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