Monday, April 13, 2015

Billy Elliot, Doubting Thomas, and the Resurrection

The Resurrection of Jesus is one of the most challenging Christian tenets to explain and to believe.  In my experience, painstaking argumentation often does a poor job of deconstructing doctrines like the Resurrection, the Trinity, or the Assumption.  Perhaps I'm just not clever enough to pierce the mystery's veil.  Thomas Aquinas I am not, and even he admitted, "all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me."  Ain't it the truth.

What I have found useful is to tell a story, to share a personal experience of, say, the Blessed Virgin Mary, that will offer insight into why the Church has long venerated her as the God-bearer, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, or Our Lady of Sorrows.  After all, it is no surprise that people would have an easier time connecting with my lived relationship with Mary than with a dry abstraction.  In seminary, I was taught that the Hebrew Bible was the story of one people's attempt to come to some kind of understanding of their identity and their relationship with God.  Scripture, Doctrine, and Tradition--often spelled reverently with those initial capitals that convey authority--are at best a best-guess, an attempt to codify a faithful people's experience over time of mysteries that defy rational explanation.  That is not heresy, but humility before the mystery of God.  We feel, we cogitate, and then we struggle to find words that can capture our deep experience of God.  We want to nail it down, but alas . . .  One my favorite French words is insaisissable, which translates clumsily as "uncapturable" or "elusive."  The translation misses something, maybe its all those s's hissing away musically like air, invisible, and yet perceptible.  Maybe we should rely less on theologians and more on poets, storytellers, artists . . . 

Or dancers.  This weekend, my partner and I went to see a community production of Billy Elliot, the Musical.  It is the story of a young boy in an industrial town in northeastern England during a coal-miners strike in the mid-1980s.  Billy turns out to be an aspiring, albeit reluctant, ballet dancer in a culture where gender roles and expectations were fixed and rigidly enforced.  There is one especially moving scene when Billy dances with his future adult self and takes flight, connecting with the promise of a new life and identity on the other side of his current existence of stagnation and hopelessness.  Even after he succeeds in getting into the Royal Ballet School, he wavers, fearful to leave behind his family and the life he has always known.  He especially grieves the loss of his ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, who practices tough love by telling him to leave and never come back.  The musical closes with Billy setting out for his new life in London as the rest of the town returns to the dirty, hard-scrabble existence of the mine.

There is no guarantee that what we or Billy will find on the other side of the grave/mine will be all peace and light.  In the example of Jesus' life, crucifixion, and resurrection, we detect a model for our own striving, for reaching beyond places of certain death and despair to grasp the potential for continued growth.  Like Billy, who knows what kind of people we will grow into beyond the mine?  Jesus shows us that giving into death is not an option, and that it is worth the risk to venture into unknown territory, even if it promises uncertainty, the discomfort of growth, and the possibility of failure.  The Resurrection, in this understanding, then, is not a single event, but an orientation of hope built on trust, trust that God is leading us toward something good and that we have what it takes to engage what we find waiting for us, however insaisissable it may be. 

This past Sunday focused on the story of Doubting Thomas.  I always have an easy time relating to him, his skepticism, his demand for empirical proof.  He would make a great patron for postmodern seekers.  What rises to the surface of his story for me is his failure to recognize the risen Christ; and perhaps that's because, Jesus, like us, is changed by his experience of transformation, of crossing the threshold of hopelessness and death and emerging into the light of new life.  His wounds, like ours, remain; they become integrated into us as we mature and grow and learn.  But we become different people.  As our seminarian preached yesterday, these wounds become scars, which remind us of all we have been through, all we have survived, and that is an empowering message.  Thomas's story invites us to put our hands into our own wounds (and those of others) as a sign of our own triumph over the grave.  It may not answer the question about our ultimate destiny following bodily death, but it illustrates nonetheless the striving for hope that Jesus commended us to practice.  Easter is a time to affirm that in the midst of death, life is still possible.  Our wounds serve as reminders that on the other side of suffering, shame, and despair may be a transformed person we don't yet recognize. 

Easter joy and blessings,

Fr. Ethan.+

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

More Than Just A Holy Week

Last Saturday, I drove to rural southwestern Michigan to bury my grandmother.  Although I had conducted her funeral a few weeks before at the Episcopal parish her great-great grandmother had help to found, we had been obliged to delay the burial because snowbanks had barred access to the gravesite.  I tossed clumps of still-frozen ground onto the coffin, "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and recited prayers in the King James English my Grandma Kib would have found familiar--the Lord's Prayer, the Benedictus, the commital.  I was aware as I watched family and friends bundled against the cold--some praying, all grieving--of the enduring relevance of the Church to the deepest moments of human experience, despite frequent claims to the contrary.  We waited for the casket, encased in its concrete shell mounted with a cross, to be lowered into the ground before dispersing.  Burials are about closure, finality, no going back.  Then, we all returned to the land of the living and had lunch, sharing our favorite stories of the lady to whom we had just offered our final goodbyes.

The next day, I entered Holy Week, palm frond in hand.  I went to confession, dodged the unanticipated hail during the procession down the block, and confected the Sacrament at the altar with my brother and sister priests.  Later that day, I rehearsed the Exsultet for the Great Vigil of Easter and emailed a couple that I am marrying on the Saturday after Easter.  Colleagues at work on Monday began to comment, "this is your big week, right? to which I usually responded, "it's already begun."  But the truth is that Holy Week is not a priest's or even a Christian's big week, even though it is a bit of an endurance test.  Sure, there is that juggernaut of liturgies known at the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.  And then the Easter Sunday High Mass, which at Atonement, includes an orchestra playing to a packed house.

Exsultet, 2014
BUT Holy Week is really an invitation to a holy life.  What a lot of people miss is that Christianity is meant to be a lifestyle, a pattern of living that shapes identity and faith out of an accumulation of little moments, whether we are in church every Sunday or only come at Christmas and Easter.  As a priest, these little moments are often explicit: presiding at a burial, a wedding, and the Eucharist; reciting the Daily Office; meeting with my spiritual director and confessor; offering comfort to a person in distress.  They are meaningful in isolation from each other, but they also have a cumulative effect, a significance and a relevance that add up to be more than the sum of the parts.  These moments reinforce singly and together the values and commitments we make as Christians.  Holy Week enacts a story, a single narrative, that integrates all of our little moments into the larger chronicle of human redemption and salvation by a loving God.  The text of the Exsultet, which the Church sings at the Great Vigil of Easter, encapsulates this story well.  It puts into perspective and brings into relief the bread and butter of human experience: birth and growth, suffering and struggle, love and commitment, life and death.  What could be more relevant than that?

Abundant blessings for a solemn Holy Week and a deeply holy life,

Fr. Ethan+