“Mary Magdalene” Saves My Lent

I didn’t feel good about my Lent this year – until Holy Week. I don’t know why, but my heart just wasn’t in it till then. However, beginning on what used to be called Holy Week’s “Spy Wednesday,” a whole series of events unfolded that returned me to the spirit that should have characterized the previous 40 days. Its highlight was experiencing an extraordinary film that I want to recommend here. It’s called simply “Mary Magdalene.” It raises questions about women’s leadership in today’s Catholic Church.

What I did just before seeing the film prepared me. It began on Wednesday when I watched an Italian production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The next night brought a brief celebration of Maundy Thursday at our new non- denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church. The following morning, I took part in a two hour “way of the cross” through the town of nearby Darien. Immediately afterwards, came a “Tre Ore” observance at the town’s Episcopal Church. The recollection of Jesus’ three-hours on the cross was marked by long periods of silence broken by seven sermons delivered by ministers from a whole variety of area churches. (At times the latter seemed like a sermon slam, with the clear winner the entry delivered jointly in dialog by our own two pastors from Talmadge Hill.)

Then on Holy Saturday, Peggy and I took in “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Australian, Garth Davis. For me, it was Holy Week’s capstone. To begin with, Joaquin Phoenix embodied the best Jesus-representation that I’ve seen so far. It was understated, believable, sensitive, compassionate, and challenging. Phoenix’s mien and demeanor reminded me of the Jesus forensic archeologists have estimated looked like this:

But it is Mary Magdalene (played by an unglamorous, but beautiful Rooney Mara) who supplies the eyes through which viewers finally see the peasant from Galilee. She’s a midwife, we learn. Far from the one defined as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, she rejects intimate relationships with men. “I’m not made for marriage,” Mary explains to the shock of her scandalized father, brothers and suitor. “Then, what are you made for?” they demand. All of them join together and nearly drown her as they attempt to exorcise the demons responsible for her refusal to submit to marital patriarchy.

Nevertheless, Mary persists and eventually tags along with those following Jesus – the only woman among the band of men called apostles. She herself is baptized by Jesus. She also pays closer and more perceptive attention to Jesus’ words than the others. She even gently corrects her male companions, suggesting that their interpretation of the Kingdom of God entailing violent revolution might be mistaken. Peter’s comment about such impertinence is “You weaken us.” But in the end, Mary quietly retorts, “I will not be silenced.”

Soon Jesus commissions Magdalene to baptize women.  As a result, they end up following the Master in droves. From then on, we see Mary habitually walking next to Jesus as he treks across Palestine’s barren landscape from Galilee through Cana and Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. At the last supper, after washing Jesus’ feet, she sits at his right hand. Clearly, she’s in charge and a leader of men nonpareil.

At one point in the journey to the Holy City, Mary unmistakably demonstrates her unique leadership. She implicitly reminds viewers of the words John the Evangelist attributes to Jesus, “The one who believes in me, the works that I do shall (s)he do also; and greater works than these shall (s)he do . . . (JN 14:12) For after witnessing Jesus restore a dead man to life, Mary herself emulates the healer’s ritual and restores to life a score of people left for dead by the brutal Roman occupation forces. None of the males among Jesus’ followers even dares such close imitation of Christ.

Then there is Magdalene’s relationship with a young smiling, cheerful, and very sympathetic Judas. He came to follow Jesus after his wife and child had been brutally killed by the Romans. So, he hears Jesus’ words about God’s Kingdom as a promise that Jesus will inspire and lead a retributive rebellion against Rome. But after Jesus’ participation in a direct-action demonstration in Jerusalem’s temple, Judas appears worried that Jesus is losing resolve and direction. So, in an evident effort to force Jesus’ hand, the apostle cooperates in Jesus’ arrest and collects the reward on his head. Judas fully expects that his teacher’s plight will mobilize his followers to the uprising Judas confidently anticipates. When that doesn’t happen, Judas is filled with despair. He returns home. The next we know, he’s hanging from the lintel of his hovel’s doorway.

Of course, there is no uprising. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. Afterwards, his limp body is placed in the lap of his mother. He’s then buried. While the other apostles flee, distancing themselves from the corpse, Magdalene faithfully sleeps on the ground outside the tomb. In the morning, she’s awakened by Jesus’ voice. He’s clothed in martyr’s white. Without uttering a word, she quietly sits on the ground next to him, convinced that he has come back to life.

So, she returns to the site of the last supper and tells Peter and the others her good news. They refuse to believe her. It’s at this point that Mary says those words, “I will not be silenced.”

According to Pope Francis, that refusal and her bringing of Good News to the apostolic leadership has merited for her the title of “apostle of apostles.” She is more important than any of them.

As you can see, I’m grateful to “Mary Magdalene” for salvaging my Lent. However, her story makes me wonder about the absence of female leadership in Francis’ church.

How about you? See the film and decide for yourself.

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: (Homily for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

SON OF GOD
(Forensic archeologists’ estimation of what Jesus probably looked like)

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.

Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”

Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was? (By the way, the townspeople’s identification Jesus by his mother’s name in today’s reading and not by his father’s, was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.

And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.

As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. As pictured above, he was unimposing – probably about 5’1” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.

And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.

Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.

Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.

Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.

But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)

Why the Church? (Sunday Homily)

Sisters

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53

After binge-watching The Keepers last weekend, it’s difficult for me not to connect Ascension Sunday with the church as depicted there. Apart from the fascination stemming from the horrific events portrayed, the docuseries depicts a Catholic Church that has all but disappeared.

Before the 1970s, priests and women religious were plentiful. At my parish, St. Viator, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, our Viatorian priests all living together in the rectory were Fathers Fitzpatrick, Ranahan, Ryan, Burke, and Devereux – along with Brother Kelzer. In addition, women religious dominated our school. Every year a different Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught me there. To this day, I remember them daily in my prayers: Sisters Helen Clare, Mary Jane, Loyola, Rose Anthony, Mary Paul, Cyril, Rita Marie, and Irma. My mind can still see them at daily Mass where their community filled three long pews. It seemed like there were about 20 of them.

Then came Vatican II (1962-’65), and that was the end of that. With the great reforms, everything was called into question: the nature of the church itself, the priesthood, the communal religious life. Priests and nuns left their “consecrated lives” in droves.

Observation of today’s “feast day,” the Ascension of Jesus, was part of it all. Time was when Jesus’ Ascension was celebrated on Thursday as a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council, Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word is mixed with its alternative.

According the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus, return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires’ wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

Notes for a Home Church: Why The Church as We Know It Is Dead (Pt 2 in series of 4)

dead-church

In my last posting, I announced the first meeting of a house catholic (i.e. open to all) church. It will take place this Saturday, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, at 5:00 in Peggy’s and my home, 404 Jackson St.

I also mentioned that friends of mine wondered why, noting that the church as we know it is dead.

To be honest, I find their point hard to deny. As already noted, the institutional church is pretty much in extremis. If it disappeared entirely, most of our lives would be little affected. There’s good reason for that. The church has little to do with the historical Jesus, who (in contrast to the one worshipped in our churches) remains extremely relevant to this age of Donald Trump and its ushering in of fascism.

Let me explain

Jesus never intended to found a church. As James Carroll has pointed out recently in his Christ Actually, the Master was a prophetic reformer of Judaism. He remained a Jew to the end of his life. It was beyond his purview even to conceive of belonging to or persuading others to embrace a religion other than a reformed Judaism.

The same was true for his immediate followers. As shown in the Acts of the Apostles, they met in their homes to “break bread” [as was the signature practice of Jesus himself (see below)]. However, they also continued to congregate in the Temple and in local synagogues. Even Paul remained a good Jew. His work with “Gentiles” was with non-Jewish converts to Judaism. His concern was not to burden them by requiring circumcision and kosher diet of such “God-Fearers” wishing to embrace the Jesus Wing of Judaism. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg have argued persuasively about this in The First Paul.

As I’ve indicated in my own book, The Emperor’s God, the Jewish Jesus-Community at Jerusalem was led by Jesus’ brother James the Just. Its members were effectively wiped out or driven into exile in the year 70, when the Romans utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. The resulting Jewish diaspora (refugee Christians among them) spread throughout the Roman Empire. There Christian concern for the poor drew numerous (typically impoverished) non-Jews into their orbit. Largely variant interpretations of Jesus’ identity subsequently emerged – some strictly Jewish, other gentile, some pro-Empire, others Empire-resistant.

In fact, four basic understandings of Jesus  came out of the hodgepodge: (1) Jesus was a completely human prophet like John the Baptist, (2) he was a human being who eventually became divine, (3) he was from the beginning a God who pretended to be human, and (4) Jesus was from the outset somehow fully God and fully human.

It was the latter interpretation that eventually prevailed as “orthodox.” The other three interpretations (along with additional opinions) were labeled “heretical” and suppressed, often quite violently.

In the early 4th century, the non-Jewish, “orthodox,” and pro-empire factions within Christianity rose to prominence. That was after Constantine issued his Edict of Milan in 313. It made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. Then in 325 Constantine himself convened the Council of Nicaea. Its Nicene Creed effectively transformed Jesus into a Roman God – above history, thoroughly Roman, and no longer Jewish. As such, he was not a threat to Rome or any other regime willing to dispense rich favors on the church. By 381, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. As the pro-empire faction of Christian leaders consolidated their power, the historical Jesus and his specifically Jewish concerns were lost forever.

Even more tragically, following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, the Church gradually stepped into the breach and took over its functions. Increasingly, popes resembled emperors, cardinals became “princes of the church,” bishops aspired to princely rank, and priests often fell into the role of religious hucksters hawking spiritual favors such as forgiveness of sins and “indulgences” in exchange for money.

Throughout the process, what gave priests their authority was the power the church claimed for them to “transubstantiate” bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Their ability to forgive sin in the sacrament of penance consolidated their influence. It rendered them indispensable for those wishing to get to heaven after death – which was for Catholics the whole point of life. Without such powers, priestly authority would have vanished.

None of that is to say that the Church sold its soul to empire entirely. Over the centuries, there were plenty of reform movements. Beginning around the 3rd century, the Desert Fathers rejected the growing worldliness of the Church. Franciscans in the 13th century followed in that tradition. Then came the great Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Key to the latter was the denial of priestly status or authority. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others undercut the priestly class by correctly recognizing that neither Jesus nor the apostles were priests. In fact, the reformers said, any special priesthood was a compete aberration for Christians. If anything, in virtue of baptism, all Christians are priests. They were empowered to forgive one another’s sins. There was no need for the sacrament of penance. Moreover, all the reformers agreed with St. Augustine who taught that belief that a priest’s words could change bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ was absurd and cannibalistically repugnant.

Modern biblical scholarship has proven the Reformers correct on most counts. As Garry Wills has argued in Why Priests?, outside the obscure Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is nowhere in the New Testament identified as a priest. Instead he is consistently portrayed as a lay person – a prophet extremely critical of priests and their work. When St. Paul lists the charisms, gifts or offices found within the Christian community, nowhere on his list of 16 separate categories does he mention “priest” – much less of a power to change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood or to forgive sins in “confession.”

Well, if the Eucharist is not a ritual intended to miraculously render Jesus present in the host and chalice, what is it? And what is the meaning of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

We’ll take that up in next Tuesday’s posting – Part 3 in this series.

Mary’s “Virginity”: Its Warning about Donald Trump and Sexual Assault by the Military (Sunday Homily)

sexual-assault

 Readings for 4th Sunday in Advent: IS 7:10-14; PS 24 1-6; ROM 1: 1-7; MT 1: 18-24.

Do you ever wonder what effect Donald Trump’s proclivity for sexual assault might have on the problem of military rape? After all, his racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments along with his personal behavior have already emboldened copycat words and actions by many of his followers including schoolchildren. Will Mr. Trump similarly embolden enlisted men and officers to follow the example of their Commander-in-Chief?

That question becomes relevant on this Fourth Sunday of Advent because the readings for today emphasize Jesus’ “virgin birth.” Such emphasis resurrects a persistent tradition identifying Mary’s “miracle” as the result of military rape.

If that tradition were true, what light would it shed on the problem of rape in the military in connection with the example of its Commander-in-Chief?

Let me put that question in context by offering some background for today’s reading from Matthew along with a reference to the selection from Isaiah traditionally seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ virginal conception.

To get from here to there, try to understand the situation of Joseph and Mary as young marrieds in a context of imperial aggression. They’re a teenage couple; they are poor and living in an occupied country. Joseph is a jack-of-all-trades – that’s what the Greek word we translate as “carpenter” meant in first century Palestine. Like everyone from his class, he was unemployed most of the time. But he’d fix your leaking roof if you hired him. When he could, he’d harvest grapes and wheat for local landlords.

And he was probably deeply involved with the local insurgency against Roman occupation. (Nearly every impoverished patriot is in such situations.) Additionally, the only commentary we have on Joseph’s character is Matthew’s single word “just.” He was a just man. (By the way, his son, James – the one who headed the Jerusalem church following his brother’s death – was also known as “James the just.”) In the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day, justice meant taking the side of the powerless. It appears to have been a central value Joseph passed on to his children.

As resisters, Joseph’s kind would have been considered terrorists by the Romans. In fact, the very year in which Jesus was likely born (6 BCE) Galilee’s countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers fighting against people like Jesus’ supposed father. The occupiers were busy laying siege to the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee – a mere hour’s walk from Joseph’s village.

There the insurgency had taken a decisive stand against Rome’s puppet, King Herod. And like Americans in Iraq’s Fallujah under “Mad Dog” Mattis, the Romans were determined to make an example of the city by laying it waste utterly. Before their final offensive, that involved night raids, kicking in doors, and raping young Jewish girls. (All forces of occupation – including our own today – know the drill.)

In any case, according to that persistent tradition about her “virginity,” that’s where Mary came in. She was a young teenager about 12 or 14. Although she eventually became Joseph’s “dream girl” (MT 1:18-25), she was probably linked with him by the village matchmaker perhaps when they were both still toddlers. They had not yet begun to live together, because they were probably waiting for Mary to come officially “of age” – able to bear children.

Be that as it may, Mary suddenly finds herself pregnant out of wedlock. Can you imagine her worry? Innumerable teenage girls can relate to her panic – and disgrace. Obviously, Mary did not want to be just another of her community’s “virgins.” [Matthew’s term “parthenos” (virgin) to refer to Mary was often connected with children of unknown paternity. Such offspring were disparagingly called “virgins’ kids.” “Virgin” is what (behind their hands) local matrons called an unwed mother.]

According to the story, Joseph too shared Mary’s disgrace and embarrassment. He wanted a divorce (i.e. release from his commitment to marry). And he probably demanded it with the anger and recrimination that are inevitably associated with the dreaded “d” word.

Joseph’s anger, suspicion, and thoughts about divorce may also have come from his hatred of the Romans. (And here comes that persistent tradition about Mary’s “virginity.”) It even remembers the rapist’s name. According to Celsus’ “True Doctrines” written about 178 C.E., the rapist was called “Panthera.” That was also the name of one of the Roman legions involved in that siege of Sepphoris.

Such suspicious circumstances around Jesus’ questionable conception also find some support in John’s gospel, where Jesus is called a “Samaritan” (8:48). That was a harsh term equivalent to our “bastard.” Additionally, Mark refers to Jesus simply as “Son of Mary” (6:3) – a quite unusual reference in a culture where children were identified by their father’s name.

With all of that in mind, and if Celsus’ tradition has merit, it’s easy to understand how the thought of taking up with a girl defiled by a Roman “pig” (what Jews called the occupiers) probably turned Joseph’s stomach. No wonder he wanted a divorce.

That is, if the tradition has merit . . .  You see, we can take our pick here. And that brings me to the point about the historical veracity of the stories around Jesus’ birth: all of the traditions are entirely questionable as far as historical fact is concerned.

For instance, the familiar account of Jesus’ virgin birth is found only in two of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke). Mark and John make no mention of it. That means that they either didn’t know about the tradition, or Mark and John didn’t think it important enough to include. (By the way, if Jesus’ conception was as miraculous as we’ve always been taught, how likely is either of those alternatives?)

And then there’s that business – recounted in today’s first reading – about Isaiah’s supposed prediction of Jesus’ virginal conception. Matthew takes Isaiah’s words completely out of context.

Actually, Isaiah’s not referring to Jesus at all, but to his own time more than 500 years earlier. And the Hebrew term he uses is not the equivalent of “virgin.” That’s a mistranslation. The word the prophet employs simply means “young girl.” Isaiah’s prediction is that a “young girl” of his own time will conceive. The prophet’s words had nothing to do with Jesus or virgin birth.

The point here is we’re not dealing with “history” in the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. Instead we’re confronted with a miraculous “birth story,” – a literary genre that characterizes accounts of virtually all “Great Men” in the ancient world. Its point is that God’s Spirit entered into Jesus from the very outset – long, long before his actual birth.

In that light, historically speaking, rape is a much more likely explanation of Jesus’ conception than intervention by the Holy Spirit. Think about it. That’s simply a fact.

How then was Jesus begotten? If Joseph was his father, we understand how Jesus was so concerned with social justice. And through this pre-birth story we can hear (once again!) a summons to learn from Joseph the way Jesus and his brother James did. It’s also a reason for re-evaluating our culture’s drumbeat of indoctrination against “terrorists.” Jesus came from a family the Romans would have considered terrorist.

If Panthera humiliated Jesus’ mother (and Joseph), and Jesus was the product of rape – and if rape is an inevitable strategy of war – then that’s an additional reason for pressuring the U.S. military to aggressively investigate and punish perpetrators of military rape. It’s also a reason for refusing to honor the U.S. military in general, for opposing war, working for peace, and appreciating Jesus’ solidarity with the poorest of the poor.

Finally, it’s yet another cause for reflection on the unsuitability of Mr. Trump as Commander-in-Chief. Predictably, his example will embolden soldiers to objectify, demean and rape the ones the president-elect termed“fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” It is certain that the Roman military made similar characterizations of Jewish girls like Jesus’ mother.

The bottom line here is that (as Pope Francis would have it) if we’re not resisting war, military culture in general, its Commander-in-Chief and working for peace, our observation of this Christmas season is pure theater and sham.

Christmas Is Blasphemy: Put Mithra Back in Christmas!

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Last year at this time, two very different religious leaders – one considered left of center, the other a fundamentalist preacher – converged in agreement about the meaninglessness of Christmas. They both concurred: except as a secular winter festival, Christmas is religiously meaningless.

On the left, Pope Francis called the Christian world’s upcoming Christmas celebration a “charade.” He said there’d be parties, gift exchanges, and family gatherings in the name of celebrating Jesus’ birth, but it would all be absurd pretense.

That’s what charade means: an absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.

And the pope was right. Starting around Thanksgiving, so-called Christians pretend to honor “the Prince of Peace” – the one who took no one’s life, but sacrificed his own rather than take up arms — who was himself a political refugee – conceived out-of-wedlock – brown-skinned, poor, and living under imperial occupation – the one who would be a victim of torture and capital punishment – who was all the things that good Christian supporters of Donald Trump and of the U.S. War on Terror hate and despise.

That’s right. our culture despises Jesus and all he really stands for.

And that’s where the fundamentalist preacher comes in.  He agrees with the pope – well kind of.

About the same time Pope Francis was talking charade, Rev. Joshua Feuerstein, denounced Starbucks for hating Jesus. The good reverend was outraged by the coffee giant’s holiday cups which display no specific reference to Jesus. That’s a sign, Feuerstein said, that Starbucks agrees with the movement to remove Christ from Christmas. Starbucks hates Jesus. So let’s boycott Starbucks!

On the one hand, could anything be more absurd? The world is burning. Our way of life is destroying God’s creation. Our country is waging war against the poor everywhere – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia . . . We supply weapons to all sides in the endless war our “leaders” have declared. And our man was worried about Starbucks’ drinking cup! He denounced Starbucks for simply recognizing what is: Jesus has long since been removed from Christmas.

On the other hand, there was wisdom in Rev. Feuerstein’s accusations. And it’s not just Starbucks that “hates Jesus;” it’s our entire culture – including our churches. In that sense, Feuerstein agrees with Francis. However, hating Jesus has nothing to do with coffee cups. As I said, it means despising those Jesus identified with in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) – the poor immigrant refugee from our endless bombing campaigns, the hungry street person, the homeless beggar, the imprisoned desperado, the coatless person we pass on our way into Starbucks.

So what to do to avoid making this Christmas an empty charade?

We can start by recognizing that Christmas is a winter festival and nothing more. Every culture has them. They are times for ice sculptures, bright lights, reunions with family, for feasting, drinking, parties and exchanges of gifts. All of that distracts us from the oncoming season’s dark and cold – and from our destruction of God’s planet.

That’s the way it was in ancient Rome too. Rome had its Saturnalia. In fact, December 25th was the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra, who was a favorite with Roman legionnaires. In that sense, Mithra’s birthday was a military holiday – a celebration of empire and its wars. Our militarized culture should be at home with that.

So let’s end the charade. Have fun.  Eat, drink, and be merry. That’s what winter festivals are about. But forget the blasphemy of associating Jesus with any of it.

Raise your Starbuck’s cup and toast a happy feast of Mithra!

President Trump: Harbinger of Revolution

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So Donald Trump is now our president-elect!

Of course, the F.B.I.’s James Comey is the proximate cause of this disaster. His October Surprise intervention in the presidential campaign represents yet another coup by the ruling class to nullify grassroots democracy. It’s like the Supreme Court’s selection of George W. Bush back in 2000. This time however the F.B.I. is the agency of intervention on behalf of the elite.

In any case, Comey’s maneuver, like what happened 16 years ago, embodies the corruption of a system that needs to come down for reasons far beyond banana republic pre-election shenanigans.

After all, the American system with its burgeoning police state at home and its brutal imperialism abroad is responsible for most of the world’s problems: unending wars, oppression of poor people everywhere, planetary destruction by way of human-induced climate chaos, and reversion to pre-Magna Carta torture and imprisonment without charge or trial.

In the name of humanity, in the name of Mother Earth, then, the system just described has long deserved dissolution.

But how would such destruction occur? Until November 8th, it all seemed so entrenched –  controlled by overwhelming military and law enforcement powers, not to mention a network of propaganda and miseducation that keeps citizens asleep and rebellion at bay.

Enter Donald Trump! Enter the U.S. electorate!

The election of Donald Trump represents (in Michael Moore‘s words) the Molotov Cocktail the desperate subconsciously required to destroy dysfunctional arrangements that no longer serve them. It’s like the Brits and Brexit. There too ordinary people refused to be led by the “experts.” They knew the system had to be destroyed. So they gave the middle finger to their “betters.”

Yes, Trump remains an absolute lout, and a know-nothing. He’s a climate-change denying sexist and racist xenophobe. But as such he makes clear to the entire world what “America” has become – what it in fact is: loud, boorish, fearful, uneducated, racist, sexist, domineering, undemocratic, and xenophobic. With his election, it is no longer possible to pretend otherwise.

Ironically, however, the Donald Trump version of us all might represent exactly what’s needed to spark and catalyze the revolution against everything he, our country and many of us have come to embody. He’s what’s required to destroy the system as we know it, and to coalesce revolutionary forces roiling just below the surface of contemporary American life.

So following his inauguration just watch the agents of revolution come together.  I’m talking about:

·      The civilized world

·      Women tired of being objectified and harassed and underpaid

·      Environmentalists

·      Black Lives Matter activists

·      “Fight for Fifteen” workers

·      The new First People’s Movement resisting installations like the Dakota Access         Pipeline

·      Prison strikers

·      Immigrants

·      Young people energized by Bernie Sanders

·      Muslims at home and abroad

·      Religious leaders like Pope Francis

·      And Mother Earth Herself

But, be forewarned: the next four years will be rough. There will be a lot of broken heads and imprisonments. We’re about to experience a genuine revolution.

Thank God.