Saturday, March 30, 2013

It's not all hymns and praises here

Sometimes there’s all kinds of muck in this vale of tears. This valley is haunted by what traditionally we have come to call “sin”—envy, anger, sloth and, of course, pride are common around here.

“... I know my inquity, and my sin is ever before me ...” says Psalm 51 (Douay, NRSV chapters).

Today, Holy Saturday, is perhaps an appropriate moment to contemplate just why redemption was necessary.

The Apostle's Creed says that Jesus κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα (“descended into the abode of the dead,” often translated as “hell”). The harrowing of hell refers to the time between Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection.

By very ancient tradition Jesus brought salvation to all the faithful people—folks such as Abraham, Moses and the prophets, plus many more—who had died before the sacrifice of the cross. Perhaps this is the meaning of the antique Spanish moniker Sábado de Gloria (Glory Saturday) by which my mother referred to this day: the Saturday in which Jesus brought the righteous dead to the glory of the presence of God.

That same tradition also holds that Jesus expressly did not bring salvation to those who were already damned. On this matter, I happen to take a view that is thinly orthodox, just this side of what would get me arrested by the Doctrinal Police: hell exists, but I just don't know if anyone is there. So maybe Jesus didn't exclude anyone because there was no one to exclude.

Let the angels-on-pins folks debate the question.

The teaching is that we are born into a befouled, corrupt and unjust world and, from time to time, we assent to joining in the orgy of wrongdoing. Maybe we do wrong that wouldn't get rated more than R or PG, but we do.

Maybe none of my good readers sin, but I certainly sin, have sinned and probably will sin again. Despite my best intentions.

I admit to all and sundry, especially some readers of this blog whom I have injured at one point or another (you know who you are), that I have sinned against others, against myself and against God.

Sin exists. I know it exists because I have committed it and it is ever before me.

But you know what? The psalm from which I quote above hints at an ending to this movie that is not hell. Let's read the idea in whole:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me. (Ps 51:1-5)
 And? What did the Psalmist expect to happen in response to this repentance?
O Lord, thou wilt open my lips: and my mouth shall declare thy praise. For if thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it: with burnt offerings thou wilt not be delighted. A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up. Then shalt thou accept the sacrifice of justice, oblations and whole burnt offerings: then shall they lay calves upon thy altar. (Ps 51:17-21)
The crucified Lamb of God has been laid upon the altar in our stead. Rejoice!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Two Psalms, Two Meditations (Part II)

Continuing backward in my reading of Psalms, we hit 135 (136).

My Father, My Mother

This psalm is a hymn of praise, one of those lengthy ones that even monks recite wearily in the morning. Praise for this and that and, yes, that other thing over there. Someone, please, get me a cup of coffee!

As secondary school classmate used to say that God is an egotist, always wanting people’s worship and praise. Or someone with an insecurity complex, I myself occasionally pondered.

I don't take to praises and hallelujahs. Even in Charismatic meetings, when the folks went wild, I simply watched. It was a beautiful performance of sorts. But I wasn’t gonna; no, sir.

In this psalm I'm supposed to praise God for great wonders, the heavens and the Earth. My capitalization. The Psalmist is still stuck in the pre-Ptolemaic cosmology of a flat earth sitting in a bubble of waters, light blue heavens above, dark blue oceans below and underground. Please!

Praise God who stilled the hand of the Pharaoh, who freed Israel. Long ago, God, what have you done lately? Praise God who was mindful of us in our affliction. Mindful, of my affliction, when? When you didn't bring my father back?

Then I begin to catch the refrain. Praise God ...  for his mercy endureth for ever. That sounds more like my mother, forever bearing the wrongs done her, always willing to forgive me (after slapping me silly), enduring at my side.

That's why God seems a she to me! God the Mother. God the abiding one, the one who can be relied to love unconditionally. The one who always forgives, whose mercy is eternal.

Reminds me of a theology class in which we tackled the problem of the crucifixion. Why was such a sacrifice necessary? Textbook answer: because God is merciful, but also just. That's a discussion for another day. Right now I want to fasten on to justice tempered by mercy. We haven't suffered the punishment deserved.

God the Father, God the Mother, they're one and the same. I see God as Mother more than Father.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Two Psalms, Two Meditations (Part I)

I have been reading the Psalms backward in recent days; I mean, starting from Psalm 150. It’s a not-quite-daily effort to use the Psalmist’s words to pray, that is, to let the Holy Spirit utter the words I need to speak with God.

Of course, I’m not always in the Psalmist’s frame of mind—certainly not in the subway—and this gives rise to little meditations.

On Exile

Psalm 136 (Protestant editions 137) summons two musical evocations.

The first verse takes me to Don McLean’s Waters of Babylon, which he sings in rounds (click here for this beautiful performance). As McLean explains the sadness of loss is partly recovered in the end by the remembrance of the object lost, in this case, Zion. Anyone who knows me well enough, knows during my sojourn from 1961 to 1970 in Argentina I came to call my life there an “exile” from the United States—to me, a familial Promised Land of sorts—and that is what the song I first heard in 1973 evoked.

Verses 2-4 bring back another sad religious song, On the Willows, from the musical Godspell (click here). My friend Matt P (hi, Matt, wherever you are) took me to see the show circa 1972 in Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, during a period of faith enthusiasm inspired by the Catholic Charismatic movement. With this plaintive song, the apostles foreshadow bereavement after the arrest of Jesus. As with the previous one, it harkens to the Babylonian exile, from which it echoes a terrible sense of loss.

Then comes the fifth verse and the spell is broken: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.”

Hold on, there, Psalmist! When did I know Jerusalem to be able to forget her? Life has taught me that the United States is no Zion, much less Argentina, not even polite Canada. No matter where you are, it's the same old story of love, hope and glory—broken, dashed, snatched.

Yet aren’t we all in exile from the Godhead, in whose mind Augustine tells us we were envisioned long before we were born? Aren’t we all hoping to abide in that Yeru Shalom, or mount of peace, as the Passover song has it: “Next year in Jerusalem”?

Clearly, it’s not the ancient Jerusalem, whose temple’s antechambers were rife with seedy vendors. Nor is it the modern Jerusalem, the epicenter of an endless war between cousins.

I don’t know the Jerusalem I yearn for.

In Mordechai Richler’s Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the protagonist’s zeyda (grandfather), sits in his Montreal shtetl (or ghettoized Jewish village), talking about the ideal of a farm he will never own. Duddy gets it into his head that he has to get hold of land to make that dream come true only to discover a misunderstanding. Read the novel, or rent the movie, for details.

As with the zeyda, the idealized other place tells me there is something more out there than the dreary day in, day out. To dream, perchance to fly, to arise from this condition as the exiled children of Adam and Even in this vale of tears.

Like the Psalmist, I will always remember that hoped-for dream. May my body wither if I forget!