And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
In all the years of working with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, especially when we were doing workshops around the country about reconciliation called "Remembering Church" and later "The Reconciling Community," I celebrated three or four Ash Wednesdays a year in addition to the ones that started Lent. So I'm pretty familiar with these texts, and have heard them preached on by some fine preachers. And because of the historical and theological connections between Lent and initiation, I've heard and reflected more on them when doing initiation workshops, and then when writing Change Our Hearts, my book of reflections on Lent and the baptismal promises. But there never seems to be an end to new insights, mostly because our liturgies and homilies get their authority from the scriptures, and as we learn more about what the actual language of the scriptures says, the literary, political, and theological matrices of its authors and editors, the meaning shifts as we go through life, sometimes subtly, sometimes more emphatically, and that's why "second thoughts" is important to me. It gives me a chance to share those insights I've heard since "the last time around," which give new depth to my appreciation of the gospel, and challenge me to assess my habits, good and bad, and make adjustments as necessary.
Well, what was strange this year was that on "Ash Thursday," the day after the long work day, I was leading the first installment of our last series of talks on James Alison's "Introduction to Christianity for Adults," called Jesus the Forgiving Victim. This fourth book of the series is sort of the "so what?" part. Part one starts us out from the ground: who are we, as human beings? It introduces us through our experience to our own nature as mimetic beings who receive our desire from others, for all the good and bad that does to us as a race. For me, at least, it helped to disabuse me of the idea that there is such a thing as a "self-made" individual, that there is an "I" whom I have made and whom I claim, and replaced it with an appreciation that who "I" am has rather been given to me through others. Part two introduced us to a new way of hearing the scriptures, understanding that the development of the bible was not historically linear, and we aren't receiving the Hebrew scriptures as a lesson in "salvation history" in any linear sense, but that it starts from its divine center and radiates outward from a point somewhere between the return from the Babylonian exile and the development of the Septuagint in about the 3rd-4th century BCE. The third book is "The Difference Jesus Makes," introduces the idea of a new reality in which people don't define themselves against others, but as much room as possible is made for everyone to be together, which Jesus called the "kingdom of God," and which, after the events described in Acts 10, James calls the arrival of "universal Judaism." Part four calls us "unexpected insiders," and through various gospel passages and stories invites us to see what it might look like to imagine ourselves on the inside of God's project, aware of the influences the "social other" has upon our self-image, the damage that mimetic desire and scapegoating cause in every society, and seeing ourselves as receiving a new, real self from a God who is approaching us from beyond the social other, and not in rivalry with anything that is.
The weird "Ash Thursday" thing about this first class was that, by the karmic luck of the draw, the passage Alison was setting out to talk about was the very passage from Matthew 6 that we had heard the day before at our ashes services, the one that causes so many people, inside and outside the liturgical tradition of ashes, to wonder, "why are they/we doing exactly what Jesus says not to do, and practicing our piety in public?" Since I have been through this book twice, and am now on my third time, I was aware of Alison's viewpoint on it, and so brought his unique wisdom to my hearing - four times, on Ash Wednesday.
Rather than framing the passage simply either in anti-ritual or anti-clerical rhetoric ("it's just you and God, religious leaders and rituals are poison") or even in "intention" as we so often hear it (i.e., "God wants you to do pray, fast, and give alms, but do them privately"), James comes at it from the angle of mimetic desire. The identity that we receive from the social other is for its own good—we learn to want what we want because others want it too. René Girard's phrase describing this phenomenon is "we desire according to the desire of another." The person whom we come to know ourselves as is a creation of others, whether it is parents, family, friends, political party, social caste. Who we are, what we like, who we like and who we hate, all comes to us from outside. This is also true when it comes to "religious behavior," what the "good" people around us consider to be good. The praise of others and their desire for us can become the only voice we hear, and thus the reason we do or don't do religious things. The trouble is, we receive what is "good" from them too, and it might or might not be good in the plan of God, and, generally, it is not, because it is a product of the anthropology of desire which sacralizes violence in its ritual, and achieves unity within its social groups through identification of others as "bad," "outsiders" and "evildoers" and so on. Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, however, the hermeneutical key to "good" and "bad" is, as Jesus puts it, from the words of the prophet Hosea about God's desire: "It is mercy that I desire, and not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6, Mt. 9:13, Mt. 12:7)."
So Jesus's identification of the problem of some of his fellow Pharisees is not that they need affirmation in their righteousness. Everybody needs affirmation. It's that they're getting it from the wrong place, and it's not righteousness. They're actually "receiving their reward," getting what they asked for, and thus their desire to be truly righteous is short-circuited. By letting the adulation of the crowd seduce them (or us, or me—I have nothing on the Pharisees), they are not allowing themselves to be open to the one voice, the voice of God, the voice that calls from within all of creation, to a new kind of righteousness not based on rivalry at all. It is a generosity of heart and spirit so great and deathless that it leads Jesus right to the darkest place there is, the death as an innocent victim of a crowd's desire, and leads him right back back into life. His resurrection is without rancor or accusation, just exposing the lie for what it was, and the offer of his life and word as an invitation to a new world, a "different game," in which we don't define ourselves over and against others, but define ourselves as neighbors by choosing to care for the victim and take the side of the oppressed.
So in the Ash Wednesday gospel, quoted at the beginning of this post, Jesus says, in so many words, "stop listening to all those people telling you how good you are. They don't know what they're saying, and you shouldn't be listening anyway. Go into your inner room and your Father, who sees in secret, and already knows the righteousness and affirmation you desire, is already waiting there." James says it much more eloquently, letting us in on a bit of exegesis of the Greek for us who thought that "Your room" meant "your bedroom." It's not like that at all. The Greek word tameion means "larder" or "pantry," an enclosed room inside a house (where there is no "bedroom," and all the sleeping quarters are quite exposed) where food is kept in darkness and in as much protection as possible from extremes of heat and cold. You are completely isolated from everyone there, and the voices of your fans can't get to you, nor can they see your pantomimes of righteousness. In Alison's own words:
...the word ταμει̑ον is more accurately rendered “storeroom”, larder or pantry.…(Jesus) is saying, “You are addicted to being who you are in the eyes of your adoring public, or your execrating public, it doesn’t matter which, since crowd love and crowd hate give identity in just the same dangerous way. So, go into a place where you are forcibly in detox from the regard of those who give you identity so that your Father, who alone is not part of that give and take, can have a chance to call your identity into being.”The Forgiving Victim course challenged us to identify the larder of time or the pantry of location that might prove the place where we can go to be isolated from the voices from which we derive our identity, in the hope that over time we might receive our true identity from the one who loves us for who we might be and who we might become that we have not even imagined. So I'm trying to do that. I'm trying to do that even as I type these words and get ready to unleash them on you, Legion that they are, in the hope that they might ring true for you.
Alison, James (2013-11-11). Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 411-12). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
The gospel of this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, is a great example of Jesus in "detox," someone who has a habit of getting away from multitudes who want to make him their kind of messiah and listening for the one voice that is true, that calls him Beloved, and has shown him his own life in a way unimagined before, a messiah who will finally put an end to sacrifice and the cycle of imitation and violence that has ruled the world for ages. All the temptations of divinity, all the masks of human gods, those anthropomorphic monsters that stand for our desire to control, to have everything we want, to make people happy, to be immortal, the Great Divider who will cheer for us and give us everything as long as we worship his habit of pitting one against the other and blaming victims. In that moment, Jesus in his desert experience lets himself rest in the voice of the one who calls him Beloved, and accepts his destiny as God's servant, knowing that whatever might befall him, God has nothing to do with death, and that the life that created the universe is both his origin and his destiny.
That voice is the one I want to hear. My life, as much as anyone's ever has been, is poisoned both with praise and rebuke, I'm as damaged by one as the other. What might it mean to know fully what God wants from me, and to have the courage to move in that direction even though I might not ever clearly see the destination? I'm sitting with that as Lent begins, and as I listen to the story of Jesus and Satan vying in the desert for the soul of humanity. Who knew that the name of God was not Power or Riches or Indestructibility, but rather vulnerability, solidarity, and invitation? Looking around me, at the best of my friends and the hope and vision to which we cling, we might not be far off the path after all.