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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

That whole "obedient unto death" thing

Irish Catholic homes in the late 50s and early 60s weren’t places of particular lenience in the deportment department. I mean, it’s not like there was a drunken father with a belt in every house, or that corporal punishment was sternly meted out in every Catholic school, but there was a certain kind of “big stick” diplomacy that had a familiar refrain, “just wait until your father gets home, you’ll get what’s coming to you,” and we knew the refrain pretty well. We were intelligent kids though, and it didn’t take us long to get into the rhythm of good behavior, generally, if for no other reason than pain management. Self preservation. So, as long as I lived at home or was at school, I was a pretty good kid. Then, two months after my 13th birthday, I went away to seminary high school, and quickly learned a different kind of obedience. 

It was 1965, after all, and as strong as the Catholic subculture was, the counterculture embodied in the Beatles, the folk movement, the Haight-Ashbury culture, and the growing anti-war movement, which was quickly expanding to be anti-establishment on many levels, was even stronger. Keeping us away from the television and radio at school didn’t help much either - there are always ways of finding out what’s going on in the world, of tuning in to the music of the human family, especially in times of such high (literally) social awareness. 


Even in the seminary we got into a “question everything” kind of attitude. I was constantly pushing the rule on hair length until they hunted me down like an animal and used shears on me. (What a rebel, eh?) The social studies professor gave us John Birch Society propaganda to read, so I became a communist. Not a party member, mind you, but I read and could quote the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital as if I understood what they were talking about. The just-ending Second Vatican Council seemed to be inviting a new experimentation in music in worship, and my friends and I, as fond as we were of Latin masses and the TTBB harmonies of the St. Gregory and Benziger hymnals, were always ready to rewrite the lyrics of the current radio songs to use at mass. “And I Love Her,” from A Hard Day’s Night, became “And I Love Him,” about God. Similarly, the Stones’ “As Tears Go By” and the New Christy Minstrels’s “Today (While the Blossoms Still Cling to the Vine)” from the movie Advance to the Rear (does anyone remember that?) became part of our daily mass repertoire, along with other tunes that have slipped into oblivion. 
Let’s just say, I was never a hardened criminal, but the whole obedience thing escaped me. I was never a model student, a model citizen, or a model anything. I just didn’t see the glory, or wisdom, or virtue of being obedient.
Which is why texts surrounding the death of the Messiah and the suffering servant in scripture, heard so often during Lent and particularly during Holy Week, grate on my ear. As I went to mass for the first time last weekend, two phrases in the early moments of the liturgy caught my ear: one in the opening prayer (the ICEL version) and the other in second reading.
O God of eternal glory,
you anointed Jesus your servant to bear our sins,
to encourage the weary,
to raise up and restore the fallen.
Keep before our eyes
the splendor of the paschal mystery of Christ,
and, by our sharing in the passion and resurrection,
seal our lives with the victorious sign
of his obedience and exaltation.
(Opening prayer, Passion Sunday, ICEL Prayers. Note: don’t even try to find these any more since the NCCB revoked the imprimatur on them...Every liturgist I know put hers or his into a secret hiding place so that the Liturgiepolizei can’t confiscate them.)
...he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross. (Phl. 2:8) (Second Reading, Passion Sunday)

Now, forty years after my first seminary experiences, people who know me would still raise an eyebrow if you tried to tell them, as some have tried, that I’ve become a conservative, or that I’ve settled into a monkish obedience to liturgical law (no offense to any monks who might be reading...it's just an expression). But as a father learned the value, over the years, of obedience from my children as an alternative to chaos, and as a way of rehearsing the limitations that life places on us in all kinds of subtle ways. I’d like to think that I still know the value of a little anarchy and civil disobedience, too, but that’s not the subject I’m trying to get to today. I’m trying to deal with what it means that Jesus was “obedient to death.”
Most people hear this (or I should say, my experience is that people seem to understand this) to mean that God ordered or requested that Jesus die for our sins, that it was the only way his anger and righteousness could be appeased. People broke God’s law, and someone had to pay, and God loved us so much that he did it himself by coming a human being. I find this “atonement” theology revolting. If God is a god of life, s/he has no business brutally forcing death on anyone. I’m willing to struggle with the reality of death in the whole economy of salvation, but saying that God willed Jesus’s death, and Jesus obeyed him and died, doesn’t make sense to me. So I keep working with it.
Our word “obey” has its roots in a Latin compound, “obedire,” that is made up of a preposition, “ob”, and a verb, “audire.” “Ob” means “toward” or “alongside,” and “audire” means to hear or listen. The Latin is a translation of an earlier Greek word “hupakuou” and the Hebrew “shana” which both are derivatives of the verb “to hear or listen” in their respective languages. Hearing and listening is thus at the heart of obedience in the biblical sense. To hear the word of God, which is efficacious and “accomplishes the purpose for which I sent it,” is to be in harmony with the divine will, to be just, to have shalom, right relationship with all things. To obey is thus to attend to, to lean toward, to be ready to catch in the ear any instruction that comes from the mouth of the divine. So the question is, how do you know? How did Jesus know?
I think that it’s pretty clear that Jesus knew his scriptures. He may have found particular guidance and comfort in his later life and ministry in relatively recent “servant songs” of Isaiah and apocalypse of Daniel and related writings, from which the evangelists seem to have extracted the phrase “the son of man” as an epithet for him. This phrase simply means “someone born of human parents,” or “a human being.” From the servant songs seems to have come the dawning realization that the fate of the servant was in the hands of God, who would not let his chosen, whether the nation of Israel, its prophet, or Jesus himself, be destroyed, since they were the object of God’s affection and covenant, and God would be bound to give them life by his own faithfulness. No matter how awful things might get around him, there was the sense that, as God’s chosen, he would not be destroyed. If God is God, then God will have the final word. Since God is life, then life would have the final word. It had been such in the darkest periods of Israel’s history, at the Exodus and both periods of captivity in Babylon (the first of which was the milieu of prophet Isaiah), as well as the more recent horrors of the Hasmonean atrocities under Antiochus Epiphanes (recorded in the books of Maccabees) and the current occupation by Rome.
But beyond this knowledge, which was certainly the faith of Jesus’s heart, there was the intensity of the bond that is recorded in the various accounts of the baptism of the Lord, when a voice from heaven (out of the clouds? the wind? the river? who knows?) declared “This is my son, the beloved.” Again on Tabor, in an episode recounted in the lectionary just four weeks ago, after Jesus had predicted his own death and was about to set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem, the voice from heaven repeated its declaration of love. These moments (were there more?) must have been the ones that fixed themselves in his memory. Jesus obeyed that voice, the one so full of tenderness and empowerment. It was that word toward which he turned, that tone he heard, that music to which he harkened as he made his way to Jerusalem and his destiny.
I’ve spoken before about the trial in the desert, the “hour” of trial before this great and final hour of his exodus when he reverses the murderous selfishness and malignant desire of humanity for a hundred thousand years and refuses to be allied with any voice or agenda other than that of the One who calls him beloved. By embracing the divine voice, Jesus fully embraces his humanness; by opting to desire what God desires, he opens himself up to a world where obedience to God’s voice will mean numerous acts of disobedience in a worldview and culture that does not understand love because it is bound to death and self-preservation. By choosing what God wants rather than his own desire, Jesus is going to be able to love universally, see all people as children of Our Father, while many of his countrymen and the occupiers of the nation will still see walls of race, habit, caste, wealth, and gender dividing up the human family into bickering, resentful cliques.
So obedience leads to disobedience. Where have I heard that before? It sounds like Gandhi. It sounds like Mandela. It sounds like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Romero, and Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers, and so many other witnesses who have heard the same voice that Jesus heard in the baptismal waters. Once you’ve heard that Voice, once you “listen toward” that voice in obedience, you see how hollow all human law is, much of it written to protect the majority from the minority and keep people apart rather than bringing them together. Of course, much law is also good and necessary, it protects the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich, and the minority from the majority as well. But bad law, from apartheid to Jim Crow to Die Endlösung der Judenfrage becomes transparently demonic once one has listened toward—obeyed—the voice of God.
None of this excuses my recalcitrant behavior as a youth: only hormones explain it, at least until I turned 20. For the next twenty years, it was pure orneriness. Now I try to recognize it and foster it when it seems to originate from the dissonance between divine love, implanted in me at baptism and renewed in me at every Eucharist, and human law. The “precious blood of the martyrs” is witness to the ferocity of the backlash toward the civil disobedience by God’s anointed in every age and nation where the gospel has been preached. Let us pray that we all have the strength to listen toward the voice that calls us lovingly by name to live here as resident aliens, citizens first and forever of the City of God.