Monday, December 28, 2015

Holy Innocents: Rachel Weeps for Her Children
Rachel Weeping Orthodox Icon,

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Today is the fourth day of Christmas. It is also the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It is a bit odd to call this commemoration a feast day. This day on the church calendar celebrates a legendary infanticide in first century Judea. 

This event, reported only in Matthew’s Gospel, occurs when the Magi fail to return to Herod with the whereabouts of the infant Jesus after showering him with symbolic gifts. The power crazed and paranoid Judean king, who served as vassal to Roman occupiers he was intent on impressing, then orders the slaughter of all of Judea’s newborns to eliminate the baby he believed to be a threat to his reign.

Fortunately, Jesus’ parents were warned by an angel of the impending infanticide and fled into asylum in Egypt. From Matthew’s perspective, Jesus, the refugee, survived to change our world’s history only because of the generosity of those who granted him and his family asylum.
There’s little evidence to suggest that this is a historical event. Jewish historian Josephus does not mention the event in his history of the era and only one of the gospels reports it. The writer of Matthew appears to be creating a literary device to construct Jesus as the legitimate heir of David in contrast to the questionable legitimacy of the hated Herod. 

This was a common practice among all the Gospel writers, none of whom likely ever actually met Jesus (bearing in mind that the first gospel, Mark, does not come to even an initial form until about 70 CE, a good 40 years after Jesus’ execution). Not having witnessed the events they described, these writers dipped deeply into the ink wells of Hebrew Scripture, history and legend to craft narratives about the figure at the center of their developing faith tradition using the primary resources of Jesus’ own Judaic faith. 

Clearly, Herod was known to be ruthless, killing off his own family members to retain his throne. And mass executions by the occupying Romans were common. However, the importance of this story is less as a historical event than as an archetype.
Phan Thi Kim Phuc, "Napalm Girl," AP photographer Nik Ut (1973)                      

A Long History of Innocent Blood 

Innocents are massacred in human history with regularity and that practice continues to this day. American soldiers in Vietnam destroyed villages populated largely by women, children and the elderly to “save them.” The celebrated “fall of Communism” was quickly followed by the ethnic cleansing of the new states of the former Yugoslavia once the coercive hand of its brutal leadership was lifted. 

Refugees from the obscenities that continue to fester in our world flood out of war torn areas to any place they can find to offer even temporary havens. Last year alone a million refugees poured into Europe fleeing the atrocities of a Middle East where fundamentalists bearing the latest American and European weaponry and claiming the imprimatur of the world’s second largest religion have created a true hell on earth in the failed states of Iraq and Syria. 

Meanwhile, in our own country, which is largely responsible for the conditions which have given rise to the floods of refugees from both the Middle East and the failing states of Mexico and Central America to our south, demagogic political and religious leaders exploit public fears in refusing to provide them refuge. They readily paint the victims of the savagery US policy has played a large role in creating with the same broad stroke as the fundamentalists of ISIS and the narcotraficantes and gangs of Latin America who have victimized them, forcing them to flee for their lives. 

This fear-driven heartlessness is often rationalized by pointing to the handfuls of recruits to the fundamentalist cause hatched out of the detritus of a faltering modernist west which prides itself on being a Panglossian best of all possible worlds. Many of us in the west cannot comprehend how anyone would find our largely superficial consumerist culture with its atomistic, alienated individuals unappealing. And we fail to see the irony that recruiting by ISIS and its kin is energized by the reports of the tactics western powers have used to terrorize the very places from which refugees now flee - sadistic torture in prisons during occupation and drone attacks on civilian sites after departing - all in the name of self-defense.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Rachel Weeps for Guernica

In the college classes I once taught on the 20th CE Humanities, a major concept we considered was the use of the arts to protest the horrors of the world wars. We would discuss the literature of Wiesel’s Night, the poetry of Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and Imamura’s 1989 black and white film about the aftermath of Hiroshima, Black Rain.   But chief among the arts of that era which required humanity to look at the obscenities of war was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
Picasso was a master of both form and content. His use of the sharp, angular shapes of analytic cubism readily conveyed the harsh reality of the bombed out city in Spain which had no way of knowing what was coming. The use of colors – greys, blacks, whites – permit no softening of the reality at hand. But it is the imagery of the broken statues, the fires, the screaming victims that truly conveys the reality of this test drive of Luftwaffe technology using innocents as guinea pigs approved by Spain’s fascist leader Franco.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the painting is the mother holding her dead child screaming her anguished protests of this obscenity to the heavens. I always had my students analyze the painting for its form, medium and content as well as trying to tease out the context and subtext of the painting. Then we would look specifically at the Madonna of Death, the mother and her dead child. 

“What do you think she’s saying?” I would ask them.

When they had given me their answers, I showed them my next slide. On it I isolated the image of the Madonna of Death and placed the language from Matthew’s Gospel quoting the prophet Jeremiah next to it: “‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Reuters photo, Hindustan Times, Sept. 3, 2015

Liturgical Purple for Mourning and Repentance

Rachel’s children continue to be slaughtered in our own time. Some are the victims of short-sighted US foreign policy decisions whose blowback comes home to roost with names like Al Qaida and ISIS. Others are victims of indifference, refugee children who drowned when their frail boats collapsed, their bodies washing up on the shores of the foreign lands where they, like Jesus, sought asylum. Some die in the sweltering cargo holds of commercial trucks smuggling them across borders into the land that made continuing to live in their homelands untenable. Yet others are victims of fear, ignorance and hatred, often couched in appeals to religion and jingoistic nationalism which seek to rationalize bullied children, burned out mosques, the firing of hijab wearing professors and the routine detention of bearded Muslim men at airport check points. 

 The color appointed for the liturgical celebrations of the Feast of the Holy Innocents is purple. That is the color associated with mourning and repentance, often used during Lent. The slaughter of the innocents - as well as those fellow human beings we deem for whatever reason not to be innocent - inevitably raises the age old question of what it means to be human. Regardless of the answer we conceive, their deaths diminish not only their own families and lands; they render those who have caused their harm and are indifferent to their suffering less than human. Whether or not we are willing to acknowledge it, that is always a cause for mourning and repentance.   

Holy One from whom all being comes and to whom all being returns, we remember today the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into your compassionate arms all victims of violence, war, torture and genocide. Embolden us and all peoples with your Spirit this day to frustrate the designs of evil tyrants that your kingdom of justice, love, and peace may indeed come on Earth as in heaven. Amen.
            (Collect, Feast Day of the Holy Innocents, adapted) 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Blue Christmas: Memories of Icicles Dangling from Orange Trees

The forecast for today is for record highs in the mid to upper 80s. Santa will arrive in Central Florida tonight wearing flip flops, red gym shorts and a white tee-shirt with SPF60 covering his exposed parts, no doubt.

It has not always been thus. Christmas has, upon occasion, been the time of horrendous freezes in Florida. While we await a Santa who will not doubt find his woolen suit very warm and itchy this Christmas Eve, my thoughts go back to Central Florida in 1983.

It was my first Christmas back in Central Florida after having spent the last two years in South Florida and the previous three years in law school. We had moved to Orlando the previous summer, Andy from Vero Beach, having left his job at the down-sizing Piper Aircraft, and I from Lake Worth, where I had tried my hand at a brief but painful stint as a Legal Services attorney and finished the year teaching journalism and English at Lake Worth High.

We had found a rental house on the outskirts of Orlando in an old neighborhood called Clarcona. Our subdivision of 1960s era CBS houses included the requisite crazy cat lady next door, the little hoods running the streets at night in their hot rods and the wheeling and dealing good ole boy landlord seeking to move into real estate after a lifetime of raising horses. The land had become too valuable for horse and cattle ranching and the pastures were already beginning to disappear by the time we had arrived in 1985.

I had auditioned and been accepted into the choir at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke downtown. It was a long ride each Wednesday to practice and each Sunday to church. But I loved singing with a very high quality choir which consistently produced beautiful music from its loft high above the looming Gothic style cathedral and periodically was asked to sing in a circuit of Anglican cathedrals in England.

Candles in a sea of scents

Christmas Eve 1983, I had spent the day at a friend’s house eating snacks and watching football. A cold front had moved through the area that morning and gale force winds blowing in a dome of very cold air had whipped the area. The sun had come out bright and clear that afternoon and the highs reached the mid-60s. While the forecast said it would be cold that evening, no one really knew what was coming, forecasters included.

The midnight mass service at the Cathedral had been absolutely stunning. All the lights were extinguished following the communion. Candles had been handed out to parishioners and everyone took their turn lighting their candle from their neighbor’s candle to in turn light the candle of the person sitting on their other side. “Silent night, holy night….” we sang, the massive cathedral nave awash in a sea of wonderful scents of candle wax, incense and evergreens all lit only by flickering candles.

All too soon, that magical moment was over, the final processional hymn sung and the exhortation to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” was shouted from the narthex of the cathedral. The happy masses assembled responded “Thanks be to God!”

As I walked across the close of the Cathedral to the choir room to change, the cold wind of a winter Central Florida had not seen in at least two decades whipped up under my choir robe. Suddenly, I knew it was much colder than it had been forecast to be. And just as quickly I knew that my many tropical plants I had brought with me from South Florida sitting on my back porch were in major danger.

      Photo from Mt. Dora Citizen, July 17, 2015

Rolling Blackouts and Christmas Lights

Our house lay about eight miles north of Colonial Drive, SR 50, the eight lane highway which bisects Orlando east and west, stretching from Titusville across the Banana River from the Kennedy Space Complex on the east to Pine Island on the Gulf of Mexico to the west. The area along west Colonial Drive was an aging subdivision called Pine Hills, alternately known as Crime Hills for its high rates of burglaries and thefts.

Pine Hills was bisected by a major road called Silver Star. On our end of Pine Hills, Silver Star marked the limits of subdivision encroachment into the former citrus groves which prior to tourism were the economic mainstay of the region and which gave Orange County its name.

A strip shopping center had been carved out of the corners of Silver Star and Hiawassee Road, one of three north/south arteries running through Pine Hills. As I neared the bank at the intersection, the time and temperature sign out front read in succession 2:00 AM, 20°F.
My heart sank. I knew my tropicals were largely gone now. 

I got home, mixed myself a stiff hot toddy and went out to mitigate whatever damage I could. The first plant I picked up to move broke off in my hand, already frozen solid. I covered the plants with blankets and towels, an old Florida custom, and went back into my house to thaw out. There would be little left but a green mush when I took the coverings off two days later when the temperatures came back up above freezing.

The temperature would drop to 21°F that night at the international airport though in the hills north and west of the downtown core where we lived, the 18° recorded on my backyard thermometer would be closer to the lows experienced there. Rolling black outs occurred across Florida as power grids trying to keep largely electrical heating systems in homes and businesses overloaded the system. Public service announcements exhorted Floridians to turn off all unnecessary electrical appliances. Many huddled in the dark, some even resorting to the heated interiors of their cars, even as they awaited their Christmas lights outside to come back on along with their heat.

And that would not be the end of the cold. The following winter, a second killer freeze would follow the first with temperatures down to 19° at the international airport. Yet another killer freeze came in 1989. The landscape of Central Florida would be completely devastated with ancient palms and tropical trees and shrubs frozen to the ground, many never to recover.
The freezes came at a pivotal time in the Orlando region’s history. With the Disney complex to its south just over a decade old, there was already a tension between the historical ongoing agricultural usage of the land and the sugar plum fairies which danced in the heads of developers who envisioned a Central Florida of endless tract housing and strip shopping malls.

In the end, it would be that vision which prevailed, the unreliability of the weather making ongoing citrus production a poor bet. Many broken-hearted former citrus growers plowed their dead trees under after 1985. Thereafter the former grove land would sprout houses.

Photo from Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 24, 2014

This Year, Santa Comes on a Surfboard

This Christmas our worries are very different in nature. The beaches will be crowded this day as Cocoa Beach holds a Surfing Santa contest in temperatures usually not seen before April. The National Weather Service has predicted above normal temperatures all the way through January 5. The lows for the next week will not drop below 65°F, a mere five degrees below average highs for this time of year.

Many of us wonder if this is the harbinger of things to come in a state at great risk for coastal flooding if even the most stringent of predictions for climate change will prove correct. My father has long said that “In Florida only fools and Yankees try to predict the weather.” Perhaps that is true. I have no crystal ball to rely upon, only an uneasy feeling in my stomach these days.

I am glad that we do not face killing cold this Christmas. I remember those cold winters of 1983-84 and 1984-85  only too well. Even so, I would gladly welcome some slightly cooler temperatures if for no other reason than to give us a break from the daily highs in the 80s. And I look with no small amount of trepidation at a future in which this somewhat warmer winter may prove a desirable alternative to what could be coming.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


A Jerusalem Asleep in Heavenly Peace

There will be a rare full moon this Christmas Eve. While the fog from Central Florida’s unseasonably warm December may prevent many of us from seeing it here, I remember with clarity a nearly full moon at Christmas Eve that will likely be unmatched during my lifetime.

In December 1994, I was awarded a scholarship as a seminarian to travel to Israel for a two week seminar on Jesus and the historical holy land. Our group of 45 seminarians and theological scholars from around the country assembled at John F. Kennedy International in New York to board the Tower Airlines flight to Ben Gurion in Jerusalem.  

It was an incredible two weeks. Our travels took us from the Negev Desert to the south to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in the north and out to the ruins of Caesaria on the Mediterranean. We had been allowed into the excavations on the southern steps of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This was the place where Jesus is recorded in both Luke and Matthew’s gospels as lamenting the coming destruction of the city by its Roman overlords:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Many of us took our shoes off that day to feel the recently unearthed rough stone beneath our feet, to touch the steps that Jesus may have stood upon in the hours before his death. An overwhelming feeling of despair swept over me as I stood that day looking out toward Bethlehem in the far distance.

“You’ll be disappointed…”

Even though we were in Israel at Christmas, we found to our surprise that Christmas lights were displayed all over the country. Many Muslims celebrate Christmas as Jesus is seen as a prophetic figure in that tradition. And Christians have been in this holy land for many years as a minority religious presence first among Muslims and later among Israeli Jews.

A rabbi friend of mine had warned me I would not like what I found at both the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. “Harry, I know you and you will be greatly disappointed,” he had said. And he was right. The interiors of those churches are divided up between competing factions of the Christian tradition, lines painted down ancient flooring to denote where Eastern Orthodox, Armenian and Coptic space ended and Roman Catholic space began. It was, as my rabbi friend had warned me, disgusting.

Even so, a number of us had decided that we simply had to celebrate Christmas Eve by going to Bethlehem for Midnight Mass. Our instructor had tried his best to dissuade us from this plan but we charged ahead, summoning taxis to take us the 9 miles from our hotel on the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

While I am convinced there is no time in Israel which is not tense, with its time bombs of settler communities with their luxury condos and swimming pools guarded by IDF troops dotting the landscape of increasingly desperate Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza, this time was particularly tense. The Palestinian Authority had just officially adopted a flag and insisted it be flown over Bethlehem at Christmas. The Israeli government had initially refused, arguing that this would grant a legitimacy to a people and authority they did not recognize but eventually worked out a compromise on where the flags could be flown.

We encountered eight checkpoints between Jerusalem and Bethlehem that night. At each checkpoint we were required to show our passports and explain where we were going. Upon arriving at Manger Square, we were required to pass through metal detectors and then go into a plywood room to be bodily searched by Israeli Defense Guards (IDF). Once through the screening, we emerged into Manger Square only to encounter IDF troops with automatic weapons standing atop the two story buildings surrounding the plaza.

Very quickly we found out that our cab driver had misled us, that we had no passes into the service in the Church of the Nativity which was reserved for Roman Catholic and local dignitaries but not for those of us commoners who fervently wished to attend the mass. Ironically, it was the descendants of Herod and the occupying Roman Empire who stood above the grotto over which the church had been erected to celebrate the birth of the peasant carpenter’s child Herod would fail to kill as an infant and the Empire would succeed in crucifying a mere 32 years later.

Bedlam in Bethlehem

Out in the plaza, things were hopping. A large screen displayed the closed circuit broadcast from the church’s interior next to which a set of bleachers hosted several American evangelical church choirs. In the bars and restaurants surrounding the plaza, drunken tourists celebrated. The noise grew louder by the hour and people began to throw their finished beer bottles up into the air only to have them come crashing down and splintering into a thousand fragments amid the crowd.

But the beer bottles were not the only danger. The only bathroom in the complex was down a set of stairs into a dank, poorly lit basement that became increasingly nasty over the night with urine and waste paper all over the floor. Having travelled in a number of developing countries over my lifetime, that did not bother me so much. It was the comments being made to me about being an American in tones that suggested this was not a good thing that made me increasingly apprehensive.

About two hours into this experience, I decided I’d had enough. It was three hours until midnight. I had had enough mind numbing praise music from American evangelical kids and dealt with enough push and shove in the crowded square of increasingly intoxicated revelers in a scene more akin to Times Square on New Year’s Eve than the silent, holy night of Christmas Eve. A number of us gathered, left the secured area, hailed a cab and headed back to Jerusalem.

In retrospect, I am not sorry I went. Though it was not a particularly happy experience, I learned a lot in that short time. Today the road to Bethlehem requires crossing through a military checkpoint in the midst of the massive concrete barrier separating the settlements on the edge of Jerusalem from the increasingly Islamic Bethlehem from which Arabic Christians are slowly departing. The closest I got to Bethlehem during my visit to Israel in the summer of 2014 was the barrier, looking across to the Church of the Nativity in the far distance as I stood beneath bullet pocked plexiglass windows of Israeli settlements on the hillside. 

It was a very sad view, indeed.

A Taste of Home

But the night was not over and it would have an unpredictable ending. I knew St. George’s Anglican Cathedral just outside the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem would be holding midnight mass in English. A couple of seminarians went with me to the service. It was glorious, complete with the smells and bells we Anglicans love. It even featured tea and crumpets afterward in the parish hall. After a trying night, it was a welcome respite of Christmas like we celebrated back home.

When I finally departed the Cathedral gates, I began to look for a cab. None in sight. Indeed, no traffic at all at 2 AM Christmas morning. I waited for 15 minutes and nothing passed by. Jerusalem was shuttered and sleeping.

That left me with a dilemma. My hotel was on the far side of the Old City on the Mount of Olives, a good 3-4 miles away. While I have always like to walk, I was keenly aware that I was alone in the middle of the night in a foreign country with a long history of violence. Worst of all, I was suddenly aware that the only way I could get home was by walking back through the city gates into the walled Old City of Jerusalem and out the far side because it was the only way I knew to get there.
I gulped, summoned up my courage and took off, entering the Damascus Gate. The Old City was dimly lit where lit at all. Whole blocks of its passageways were dark. I was alone, hearing my own footsteps echoing off the paving stones, bouncing off shuttered shops and restaurants.

While I probably was not in any great danger that night, I did not know that. The words of the psalmist echoed in my mind: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...” I was terrified. But, like the psalmist I felt that G_d was indeed with me that night. I made my way to the Via Dolorosa and soon saw the Lion’s Gate ahead. I had made it.

Photo from Times of Israel, Dec. 24, 2015

Heavenly Peace

Emerging from the Lion’s Gate I could see the lights of my destination, the Seven Arches Hotel on the top of the Mount of Olives. Getting there would require weaving up the hillside on a series of two lane roads populated by Arabs offering camel rides and photos with his donkey during the day time. No camels, donkeys or their tenders were in sight as I began the climb to the hotel.
As I walked, my anxieties began to subside. I was safe, had a good story I’d actually survived to tell, and was almost home. That was when the beauty of the night swept over me.

The moon would be full in two more days that Christmas. But in the dry, desert air of Israel, not a cloud obscured the nearly full moon. Everywhere I looked the hillsides were illuminated by white moonlight, bright enough I could see the graves in the nearby Kidron Valley, the church next to the Garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, it was bright enough I could actually read the service booklet from St. George’s I’d brought with me.

Even more striking than the landscape around me bathed in that ocean of white moonlight was how incredibly quiet it was. Jerusalem, with its crushes of tourists, its vendors of everything from falafel to olive wood nativity scenes, its church bells and calls to worship emanating from tinny public address systems in Islamic prayer towers all around the city, can be quite overwhelming.
But not this night. As I looked around me, I suddenly heard the words of the hymn we had just sung to conclude midnight mass at St. Georges:

            Silent night, holy night
            All is calm, all is bright…
            Sleep in heavenly peace

Everywhere I looked, it was, indeed, calm. It was bright. The city whose very name means a place of peace indeed slept in a heavenly peace. For one shining moment, the internecine strife that marks daily life in Israel had relaxed its bloody grip. Peace had actually come to the city of peace.
I will long remember that night in Jerusalem. When I close my eyes as we sing Silent Night at the end of our Christmas Eve mass this night, it will be that brilliantly lit valley outside a heavenly peaceful city that I will envision. And I will give thanks to a generous G-d that I was privileged to be there for that beautiful sight.

May the heavenly peace of Christmas be with you, your families and all the living beings in the good Creation this night, folks. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)