Monday, April 8, 2013

The Annunciation and the HIC Town of Nazareth

Inscription on the Altar of the Annunciation.

We know from the scriptures that Nazareth was a hick town (i.e. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), but when I was there in the fall of 2006, I found it to be a hic town, as in the Latin for “here.” On the altar in the Basilica of the Annunciation, the inscription reads, “Verbum caro hic factum est”: “The Word was made flesh here.”


Bethlehem is overshadowed by the tableau of the wise men and the heavenly host; the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem radiates the drama of the salvation; but the holy sites of Nazareth have a homely hic that may convey the reality of the incarnation more than those greater sites. It was here that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. It was here that he spent most of his life, here that his family lived.

Ritual bath in the crypt of the Church of St. Joseph.

The grotto of the Annunciation in the Latin Basilica is built on the traditional site of Mary’s house. The Church of St. Joseph is built over the traditional site of the house where the Holy Family lived and in the crypt you can look down a shaft to see the tiled floor of its ritual bath. The Greek Cathedral stands over the site of the well where Mary drew water. Every place seems to cry out hic! There is none of the grandeur of Rome’s great churches and the shrines here lack the anthill bustle of the Holy Sepulcher. Instead, there are an infinity of little hiccups, from places associated with the Lord’s childhood to the precipice where the adult Jesus was rejected by his fellow townsmen.

The Church of Mary's Well.

It becomes just a bit harder to remake God in our own image in the face of these commonplace remembrances. In Nazareth, the Word defers to the reality of the flesh. Here God took on humanity, and Mary treasured up all of these things in her heart.

The Precipice.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Low Sunday: Are We Afraid Not to Be Doubting Thomases?

An old sermon for Low Sunday from seminary days asking fellow progressives whether they really doubt the resurrection or whether they actually fear the consequences of not doubting.  Many people certainly doubt, but I think there are also many educated folks who fear the social and intellectual consequences of believing.

*  *  *

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, . . . but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

            For many years it has been fashionable among some preachers to portray Thomas as the romantic doubting everyman.  In my tradition's lectionary, today's gospel is the same for all years on the second Sunday of Easter.  Each year I dread what sort of homey portrayal of Thomas to which I may find myself subjected.  Or how I might be told that Thomas's doubts are like my own grapplings.

              It seems all too rare that we reflect that Saint John uses the empirical Thomas's doubt as a foil for Thomas's subsequent confession, "My Lord and My God," which is the capstone of the fourth Gospel.  Thomas's confession finishes the declaration of John 1:1 that "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."  The confession is the climax of the story, not the skepticism.

            While garden variety Thomas sermons annoy me, I recognize the reality to which they speak.  In my years at Harvard I have had discussion section with Thomas.  I have been Thomas.  Like the doubting apostle, our community is better known for what we can liberate, demythologize, and deconstruct than it is known for what we confess.  Too often, however, I question the honesty of some of our doubt.
            I do not question that many of us confess particular creeds, but I know that too often we have a reticence to speak of them.  We fear whom we might offend.  We fear who might ridicule us.  We fear that we may find ourselves on the community’s margins.

            Many of us spend evenings and weekends in convents and covens, but in our common life we seem to be afraid to transcend being clever.  We speak in the language of doubt and inquiry though many of us were brought here by faith.
            We are like Schopenhauer’s porcupines.  The philosopher tells the story of a group of porcupines caught in the open during a winter storm.  As the night progressed and the temperature dropped, the porcupines moved closer together for warmth.  As they moved closer, their quills began to prick one another.  The closer the porcupines drew together, the greater the pain.  Some, no longer able to bear the agony,  dropped our of the circle as the night progressed, but when morning came, only those who had drawn together despite of the discomfort had survived.

            We must become all too willing to risk discomfort and blood loss if we are to make our years in Andover Hall worthwhile.  We must risk confession.  Each week this chapel is the site of Zen meditation, Mass, and many other forms of prayer, but how often do we take that spirit beyond these doors and into our halls?  How often do we feign Thomistic objectivity, then confess in some upper room?  We like Thomas must engage our fellow porcupines.  Thomas did not believe the first reports of the resurrection, but he remained willing to return to the company of the disciples for a second time.
            For the most part, we have not come to Harvard Divinity School for ourselves only.  Many of us are preparing for lives as priests, preachers, advocates,  and educators.  How comfortable are we with letting our particular lights shine?  Have we hidden our lights under a basket of detached discourse or have we illuminated others?  In speaking of our beliefs, have we too often settled for being clever when we could have been clear?

            I recently reread Emerson’s "Divinity School Address."  Emerson warns the senior class of 1838 against the formalism which he feels has weakened the church.  He says:

To this holy office you propose to devote yourselves, I wish you may feel your call in throbs of desire and hope. . . For all our penny wisdom . . . it is not to be doubted that all men have sublime thoughts We mark with light the memories of the few interviews we have had with souls that made our souls wiser . . . that gave us leave to be what we inly were.

            Like poor maligned Thomas, Emmerson's contemporaries seized upon what he doubted, not the vision that he confessed.  What formalisms and etiquette do we hide behind that keep our colleagues and peers from seeing the confession behind the critiques?

            Emerson would, I think, share my impatience with the current Tommy-rot.  After Thomas's confession, Christ answers him:

Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  

            Blessed are we when honest inquiry leads us to risk speaking from faith.  Blessed are we when we transcend being clever.

            Christians now enjoy the season of Easter, the great 50 day feast of the resurrection.  As my Christian brothers and sisters and those of other faiths celebrate the possibilities of new life in this season , I ask that we search our souls for the boldness and vulnerability in each of us that could transform our community.  I encourage you to risk the quills.  I ask that we may all overcome our crutch of detachment and liberate Thomas from the homiletic hell of doubt.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Richard Weaver on Simplicity as Barbarism

As the liturgy wars heat up once again, I am reminded of this favorite passage from Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences in which he proposes that calls for simplicity are often symptoms of a narcissistic personality: 

"It is characteristic of the barbarian … to insist upon seeing a thing “as it is.” The desire testifies that he has nothing in himself with which to spiritualize it; the relation is one of thing to thing without the intercession of the imagination. Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy. Where the former wishes representation, the latter insists upon starkness of materiality, suspecting rightly that forms will mean restraint. . . .

"Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom. . . .

"All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. . . .

". . . or, when these veils are stripped aside, we find no reality behind them, or, at best, we find a reality of such commonplaceness that we would willingly undo our little act of brashness. Those will realize, who are capable of reflection, that the reality excites us is an idea, of which the indirection, the veiling, the withholding, is part. It is our various supposals about a matter which give it meaning, and not some intrinsic property which can be seized in the barehanded fashion of the barbarian."