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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Random Lent thoughts: "Mighty deeds," and lost in Babylon

Just a couple of Lent-inspired thoughts. The first thought occurred to me as I was re-reading the (ICEL) opening prayer in the script for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Lent (A), which, like so many other liturgical texts, refers to God’s “mighty deeds” in Christ. And like I do now with so many other phrases that formerly went in one ear and out the other, I tried to listen to it in the context of the “Christ the icon” insight I’ve written about, for better or worse. That is, exactly what is “mighty” in the context of considering a God who is agape, or kenosis? If someOne is perfectly described as completely given away, then what is “mighty”? It’s the aesthetics question, only written upon history. Christ the crucified, disfigured, broken pro vobis et pro multis, being God, defines beauty. It is not what is pleasing to the senses that is beautiful, it is agape that is beautiful, because that is what God is like. Similarly, I have referred often to David Power’s talk in which he spoke about how we’ve gotten “Jesus is Lord” wrong. Confessing that "Jesus is Lord," we have tended historically and ecclesially to define Jesus by the denotations of human lordship: power, victory, the ability to coerce, to make others do our bidding, to be owner, to have vassals, &c &c. But, David Power says, the meaning of “Jesus is Lord” to Paul and to the witnesses of the Christian scriptures is the opposite: lordship in the empire of God is defined by who Jesus is, that is, healer, exorcist, servant, paterfamilias and bread-breaker, washer of feet.

So the “mighty deeds” question raised its head to me in the liturgy. If this is what God is like, since Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God, then what are the mighty works, the deeds of power, by which we might recognize that the “reign of God is near”?

Back in 2008, there was an article in the Catholic News Service about the Vatican pulling in the reins on canonizations, telling the bishops of the world to cool it with the saints submissions because the paperwork for making saints is burying an entire Roman dicastery in papyrus. Apparently, some in Roma took issue with the late Pope John Paul II canonizing so many around the world because it made the “value of sainthood go down in the eyes of the world.” Really? That would be a good sign to me. What’s the big hang-up with every aspect of a person’s life not conforming to every aspect of Catholic doctrine, if they, for instance, gave up all they had and gave it to the poor? Does this give a person less a shot at heaven? I don't see “conform to doctrine” in the list we have in Matthew 25, or in the sermon on the mount, for that matter.

With this in mind, the “mighty deeds” of God might be the starting of Houses of Hospitality for street people in the U.S., or calling an ecumenical council that invited non-catholics and (gasp) a few women to participate. It might even allow a few crazies into heaven, like Pius IX, with his hatred of democracy and the enlightenment, and that odd little incident in which he kidnapped a Jewish child and raised him Catholic inside the walls of the Vatican palace. That would be a “mighty deed” in my eyes, because it would indicate a God for whom being right isn’t the bottom line, but something inside the heart that is unknowable. Let them all in, I say, the ragtag mob of great unwashed ancestors who stank up the churches every week but built them with their bare hands and provided the DNA and amniotic fluid and passed on the faith that made John XXIII, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day who they were, and us who we are.

The “mighty deeds” of a God who is a servant. This is reason for further reflection.

Then there’s the Nineveh incident.

I wrote last year about yesterday's first Lenten Wednesday reading about the “sign of Jonah” with its accompanying OT passage from the book of Jonah that sets up the story. The ironies in the story must have made ancient listeners laugh, ancient listeners who didn’t feel the stories were canonized and therefore beyond human risibility. God calls Jonah to preach to Nineveh, the greatest city in the world and a pagan one at that. Jonah says no, he hates Ninevites, and besides, they’ll kill him. God says yes. Jonah says no, and tries to escape by boat. God makes a storm, has Jonah swallowed by a Big Fish, and then has him vomited unceremoniously onto the very shores of the great city. Surrendering to his fate, Jonah walks around the city with his proclamation of God’s judgment, then goes off to watch God get eschatological on their sorry Baal-worshipping asses. And what happens? Nineveh repents, including the king, even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes. This really makes Jonah mad, because God changes his mind and doesn’t visit wrath upon this city of pagan trash. God reminds Jonah about which one of them is God, and how mercy ought not be reserved for one’s countrymen.

What struck me (even at that hour, even at a weekday mass) was that God changes his mind in this story, much as God does (or rather, offers to) in the Genesis story of Abraham and Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah, and as the prophet Joel indicates God will do with the devastation threatened in the reading we hear every year on Ash Wednesday. Then we have Jesus saying that “no sign will be given to this evil generation except the sign of Jonah.” The sign of Jonah? Is it the sign that God will make visible the divine love of all people, “chosen” or not? Might it be that when human hearts change (yes, it’s just a story, but it’s a really, really, good story) that it is God who gets converted, that it is God who changes? Well, that’s just a metaphor, of course, but certainly when our hearts change and we turn to the reign of God our perception of who God is changes, which is for all intents and purposes all we ever really know about God, who “dwells in unapproachable light.”

I was unloading this reverie one evening on some lovely people at Mt. St. Peter church in New Kensington, PA, and I’m talking about how Nineveh is the capital of Babylon, and the greatest pagan city in the world, and this and that. Then, afterwards, I’m trying to drink a cup of punch in the parish hall and sign a few CDs, and a man comes up and introduces his wife to me, a woman who teaches in one of the many fine universities in the Pittsburgh area, who happens to have been born in Mosul, the site of the ancient city of Nineveh. (How a whale could have swum up the Tigris to spit Jonah on the shore is another question.) She’s a Ninevite, for crying out loud, in Pennsylvania. The trouble is, Nineveh is not now, and never was, in Babylon, but it was the capital of ancient Assyria. See? I’ve forgotten more than I still know. Anyway, they were very charming and patient with my participation in the nearly axiomatic American ignorance of historical geography (including current history).

Those are my random thoughts, unfinished as they are, about the mighty deeds of perfectly empty Godhead, and the sign of Jonah, which is, what? I guess it’s God’s mercy on the outsider, and how the turning that we do changes who God is for us, even if God doesn’t change. That’s a matter for philosophers and theologians, and I have it on good authority that God isn’t telling them any more than s/he tells you and me.

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