Thursday, December 11, 2008

More Things That Make You Go Hmmm..…
Advent 2008

OK, so I am reveling in having all my finals actually given with only three (!) sets of papers yet to grade. And I actually had time for my walk around Lake Underhill with the wading birds and the ducks this morning. I even had time for my morning meditation and reflection for the first time in a week.

For my Advent discipline, I am actually reading the Morning Prayer Daily Office as my Franciscan Rule provides. I should hasten to note that this is NOT because I consent to seeing the office as a form of obedience even for one second. Forcing people to pray – regardless of the format – as a condition of membership in a religious order is tyrannical and unsupportable, particularly in an order devoted to someone as spontaneous and free spirited as Francis of Assisi. People either are called to pray this way or they aren’t. That they pray might be a legitimate Order concern. How it happens is ultimately not the Order’s business.

Nevertheless, because Advent has a bit of a penitential sense about it, I chose to do the daily office. Though I obediently and somewhat mindlessly did the Office for years when I first became a Franciscan, I am finding many things in the readings for Morning Prayer that I had not noticed before. I find myself being troubled by the solipsism of the Psalms with their continual self-focused themes of rescue. And then there's all the smiting of the others. It’s tribal religion at its best, however good that might. It speaks of a god I no longer recognize.

But it also provides occasional moments of joy and inspiration. From today’s Morning Prayer:

Psalm 31

1 In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God....
9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away....
14 But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”

Today’s Psalm speaks of G-d as the rock. Clearly the writer of this verse saw himself as endangered and pleads for divine deliverance. Perhaps all human beings have had times in their lives where such an understanding made sense. As a spiritual, religiously educated man, I can relate to the notion of the divine being one’s rock, one’s foundation, one’s most basic reality. As a man who lost his home to a hurricane, his beloved mother, his cousin and two uncles within a four year stretch, I can relate to G-d as a refuge, a trusted dimension of life to whose hands I can commit my spirit.

But most importantly, amidst a sea of pious people who focus on believing - buying into a set of ideas and conventional morals confused with divine imperative - rather than belonging to community or even a more existential focus on being, the psalmist has hit a nerve. “I trust you.” Not I believe. Not even I belong. Rather, I trust – I place my existential being in your hands. That kind of assertion speaks of a G-d worth worshipping.

And then from today’s Hebrew Scripture, Isaiah 7:10-25, this interesting statement:

Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us). He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose kinds you are in dread shall be deserted.

In this time of guilt driven consumerist orgy in which one is subjected to six weeks of non-stop Christmas "music" during Advent before Christmas season even arrives, snippets of Handel’s Messiah will mercifully be heard more than once if one is lucky. Given that much of The Messiah is based in the presumption that the prophetic writings of the various Isaiahs (at least three that scholars can identify) somehow pointed toward the birth of Jesus, it’s interesting to see the reference above.

Immanuel means God with us. In Isaiah's understanding, the divine presence would be experienced in a human being who sprang from the house of David’s lineage to redeem the people, i.e., restore Israel. According to this passage, his mother would be a young woman, parthenos in the Greek text, which rarely refers to a virgin. Indeed, young women bearing children would have been totally expectable to Isaiah’s post-exilic readers. Virgins bearing divinely conceived children would have been incomprehensible. But to a 1st CE resident of the Roman Empire, gods begetting children with virgin human women were fairly common. And by the time of Handel, the words of Isaiah, the appropriation of Isaiah by the imperial resident Gospel writers and the understanding of Jesus constructed as the Christ (the Messiah) and the figure of Immanuel in Isaiah had become conflated, if not self-evident.

What is most interesting in the text, however, is the reference to a child who “knows how to refuse evil and choose the good.” Clearly Isaiah had never read Augustine, the 5th CE African patriarch of the Christian west whose construct of original sin would come to dominate western thought complete with its dysfunctional teachings about the body and sex. And if John Calvin, whose religious heritage has played a commanding role in constructing the American cultural self-understanding, had written this story, the child would be seen as born in original sin and thus unable to “refuse the evil and choose the good.” Depraved human beings are inclined toward evil and even when they choose the good, that choice is tainted with sin, per Calvin.

It never ceases to amaze me that people ever bought into the teachings of Augustine and Calvin and that they have been willing to jump through increasing numbers of hoops ever since to justify original sin/depravity constructs. Mary will have to become immaculately conceived, free will will need to be justified despite depravity, predestination will have to be sold to the damned by the self-appointed elect. What nonsense. What pessimistic ways of seeing humanity and the divine. And what a waste of energy defending deterministic constructions of human nature, much of it in a poorly disguised bid to control human behaviors.

Why not take Isaiah at his word instead? God is with us, all around us, all the time. If we are paying attention we can even recognize that divine presence in the world around us. Young women do bear children. Indeed, it is for a child we Christians wait and watch this Advent season. New born babies do bring hope, hope of new life, of the return of light to a darkened world. God is with us.

Children are not born sinful or depraved. They are born children. And they grow and mature into adults capable of recognizing evil and refusing thereby choosing good. God is with us in our growing and maturing. God is with us in our agonizing moral choices. God is with us in the presence of those who bore us and all who played a role in bringing us into fully human existence. God is with us in our daily lives. In our loving of our families, our toiling at our jobs, our celebrations of life passages, even in the harming of our relationships to ourselves, our bodies, others and the created world which is God’s very body, harm we Christians have called sin. And God is with us in our recognition of that harm, our remorse, our rethinking of our lives and our efforts to reconcile with those we harm.

Why must we retroject a construction called the Christ back onto a human Jesus and back even further to a child of exilic era Judea in order to see God with us? Why must we construct systems of control driven by notions like original sin as a condition of recognizing God’s presence with us? Why make Mary into the love object of a Greco-Roman divinity in order to tell the story of Jesus, the child we await this Advent season?

Perhaps my resumption of the Daily Office wasn’t such a good idea after all.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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