Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The 12 Days of Christmas: 12 Christmas Classics- 12 Reflections on How to Live a More Joyful Existence

When I was a teenager I was quite adept at figuring out ways to make myself terribly unhappy. Perhaps this bizarre quest for unhappiness can best be summed up in a little story that involves me and a magical snow globe, a little glass sphere wherein a snow man lived, complete with black hat- balloon in hand- and a world that apparently never wanted for snow… as long as it was properly shaken. I always associated this little snow globe with the magic of Christmas (in large part because that's when my mother usually put it on display).

At any rate, I loved that snow globe, but for some reason, I chose to treat it as if it were expendable, or rather like any other ball that existed for sport. So there I was one day tossing it up in the air, and catching it as it came down. In most ball games there is an actual point system- however, there was none in this particular "game". In fact, there was no real object to this game whatsoever, unless you consider "dancing with the devil" an objective. Lo and behold, after playing this game of "snow globe roulette" for a while, I dropped the magic orb, shattering it into a million pieces all over the tile floor. There it lay, that glorious liquid world dead on the floor, that adorable little balloon, limp, never to rise again.

Why do I begin Christmas with such a tragic allegory? Because there is something about Christmas that seems married to tragedy, not because Christmas is necessarily tragic, but because we are. And it is precisely for this reason that Christmas, or rather Christ, came to us in the flesh. The following movies/TV classics seem instinctively to grasp this concept. Subsequently, in this post I will seek to highlight the particular insights that I have gleaned from watching each of these classics, primarily as a means to assist the reader (as well as myself) in the ways of happiness. My selection stems from the fact that the following pictures/stories bring joy to the heart. The only real question is why? My contention is this: they bring us joy, because in some mysterious way they possess the secret to finding it.

1. It's a Wonderful Life - Gratitude for Life (and all of creation)

One of the primary obstacles to human happiness is a progressive blindness that sets in- primarily due to a loss of gratitude for the good things that surround us every day. Whether this is because of sin, world-weariness, or some combination of both, this creeping sense of ingratitude is always threatening to gnaw away at our basic appreciation for our lives. However, what a movie like "It's a Wonderful Life" offers is a lesson in how to avoid this kind of existential blindness. The lead character, George Bailey, who is on the brink of suicide, is given a vision of what life would be like had he never been born. In this vision he gets a taste of nothingness, a nothingness that is apparently worse than even death itself. In fact, it is so terrible that when he returns to reality, he falls in love with everything in the world, even the most mundane of things. By experiencing, in some mystical sense, a void of nothingness, he now possesses a boundless gratitude, not only for things that are patently good, but even for things that would otherwise not be highly regarded at all (i.e. he celebrates the possibility of going to jail). By being plunged into darkness, he realizes that existence, even its imperfection, are a grace compared to the alternative. By having everything in the world taken away from him, he can now begin to delight in everything in the world again- as if it were the first day of creation, and God were giving him the world anew.

Consequently, after this miraculous encounter, everything now seems magical and animated to George. He is thankful for large wooden rustic signs, he is thankful for his town, he is thankful for street lamps, for the blood running down his face, for his drafty old house. Indeed, he even kisses the broken knob on the railing going up the stairs because of his love for everything that is. Why? Because it might not have been at all! Thus, we should all keep a little bit of George Bailey about us wherever we go, striving to practice praise in this way, not seeing creation as one giant amalgam of things, but truly seeing it, observing and naming the particular as he goes, offering a litany of praise (as it were) for even the most mundane of things. Is this not, after all, what Christmas is about? A magnificent mystery, one that inevitably involves a man pulling from his giant cosmic satchel; the moon, the stars, the planets, and for that matter, everything else in God's good creation.

2. A Christmas Carol - "Memento Mori" and Redemption

After watching a movie like "A Christmas Carol" (or, of all things, reading the book), we all feel a bit like we have caught a glimpse of how good things could be if we lived the way we know we ought to… and then that glimpse/spiritual high seems to disappear as quickly as it came.  However, the point of stories like this is not simply to suggest that our lives will change after watching an uplifting movie, or that if we only think happy thoughts things will approve, but rather that if we put into practice some of the imaginative insights offered in stories like these, we might start to see similar changes. The imaginative practice to be exercised in this particular case is quite sobering, for it involves the act of "remembering your death" (i.e. memento mori) in order to find life more abundantly; "Old Marley was dead as a door nail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."

So why is there any good in this practice of "remembering that we die"? There is none... unless our death can be understand in the context of the larger story of our Redemption. The joy of Scrooge really does come with a side of death. Having a taste of mortality, losing everything, feeling like your down in a hole with no way out, experiencing a profound sense of helplessness/hopelessness... and then being miraculously (or at least providentially) yanked back to safety, now that is something capable of changing the heart. It is difficult to say exactly what transpires in the soul of a man when he experiences something like this, but suffice it to say it must involve the combination of two sentiments which are polar opposites. It must be like the man who goes from "dead man walking", to the man who inexplicably "walks" as a result of a last minute pardon, or a man who shuts his eyes in total fear, waiting for the final nail to be struck in his coffin, only to open his eyes and discover that he is at the center of a ticker tape parade, a celebration inexplicably held in his honor.

Yet even that does not quite suffice to explain this monstrous magnanimity on the part of the one who pardons. After all, this act of charity cannot begin to mean anything at all until/unless the one who "walks" is fully aware that he deserves death and even worse.What return can one make for this gift? How does one respond in the face of such generosity? Make your neighbor the object of your gratitude. You have received without cost, now you must give with a similar extravagance. In this new order, time is transfigured. It was once a symbol of death, and is now a joyful currency. Instead of treating people like objects, and objects as people, we now reverse the order, using our time and resources to heap happiness on others in gratitude for a second chance. Today is the first day. This is the meaning of redemption.

Incidentally, the Church also encourages us to walk in the way of Scrooge. One can indeed practice this spirit year round. For confession is always geared towards having the penitent visit the "three ghosts" in order to keep things in their proper perspective. Lent in particular demands an attitude of penance, not for its own sake, but so that we too (along with Scrooge), can burst forth from that terrible tomb of death, resilient and ready to live like "we were dying".

3. A Charlie Brown Christmas - The Triumph of "Tininess"

One of the beautiful secrets of Christmas joy is the celebration of little things, tiny things; things which might otherwise be regarded as negligible, weak, and forgotten. In this season, those "afterthoughts" take on a new shine in light of the Incarnation. How exactly did this come to be? When the All-Powerful, All Knowing, Inscrutable God became "tiny", dependent, and vulnerable, everything in creation, including the least of creation (especially the least), became lovable. Before this, no one needed God to tell them that the powerful ruled the world. This was patently observable. What they needed was to see power and beauty in weakness, a "weakness" that would ultimately conquer the world. Thus, what we tend to remember most about this feast are not generally the giant presents, or the amount of money we spent, but rather what is, by worldly standards, incidental and negligible (e.g. how does a manger and a shepherd go from being "mangey", to being romantic) God is truly Midas in the best possible sense. On this day, and during this season, those things which are otherwise of secondary importance take center stage. For example, when I think of Christmas, I think of the tiny ornaments (I am still looking for a lost ornament from my childhood; it was a little boy in a hot air balloon- inside the craft there was a tiny Christmas tree, with a bell on the bottom of it… if you see it, please let me know), traditions, funny hats, clothes, carols, food and drink, children that can't sleep, hot chocolate, trees, candles, and lights that cover just about everything. Enter "A Charlie Brown Christmas", wherein a tiny, vulnerable, forgettable little tree becomes a lead player. That tree still burns brightly in my mind all these years later. Everything else from that episode seems rather hazy to me, but not that tree! Perhaps that is why the show "interrupts" itself (and almost got censored for it), to read the Christmas narrative and remind everyone why our hearts are so moved by little things at this time of year. Because God became tiny, weak and vulnerable, we can now see his light shine in all three.

"I never thought it was such a bad tree really… Maybe it just needs a little love" 

4. Elf - Maintaining a Spirit of Wonder and Awe

The most recent entry on this list is the movie Elf. It is hard to find many people who do not absolutely love this film, in large part because of Will Ferrell's charming portrayal of Buddy the Elf. It contains many of the usual elements of Christmas stories, but what is most unique about the story line is how it seeks to introduce someone (i.e. Buddy) who was "raised by elves" into a cynical urban environment, wherein no one at all still believes that Santa is real. It would be comparable to a movie about an angel, who must learn to live in a culture where no believes in God (which would be semi-incomprehensible to such a creature). At any rate, what is particularly amusing about this scenario is the fact that because magic and wonder are so natural for Buddy, and because nothing seems impossible to him (other than Santa not existing), Buddy believes everything he is told no matter how ridiculous it may sound. The point here isn't that we should all believe everything we're taught (nor do I think that it is the point of the movie either), but rather that we as humans are made for belief (as opposed to complete unbelief).

What Buddy represents is not only wonder and awe for certain mysteries that lie beyond us, but for the mysteries that surround us every day. He sees the world as we used to see it before our own cynicism wore us down. He sees it with the wonder and awe of a child. Like Buddy, we too have been mysteriously plunked (as if by a divine stork), right into the middle of existence, and we should never cease to be in awe of this fact. Yet just as important- is what Buddy teaches us about belief. We obviously shouldn't believe everything that we are taught, but as strange as our existence turns out to be, shouldn't we at least leave open the possibility of miracles? Buddy responds with a resounding "yes"!

5. Little Drummer Boy (David Bowie and Bing Crosby) - Peace on Earth… or at Least a Little More of It

When this Christmas classic was created it must have seemed as bizarre as any collaboration could be. Then again, from the perspective of the apostles (and those who knew them), the calling of the twelve might have struck many in the same way. "So you are going to put a Roman collaborator (i.e. a tax collector) with anti-Roman nationalist (viz. Simon the Zealot)? While we're at it, why don't we get an ISIS fighter to team up with a journalist from Charlie Hebdo, or a Black Panther with a member of the KKK? Yet this is the remarkable program of the Christian revolution- the notion that there are some virtues higher, and even more essential, than our own individual pursuits and passions. Christ came not to establish a competitive religion, but more importantly, a way of life wherein, even while we might disagree on lesser things, on the essentials we are to be united. Consequently, Christmas offers- in so many ways- a greater opportunity for peace and solidarity. More than any other religious or secular festival, the Incarnation preaches in the most humble, beautiful way, a Gospel of human rights, a gospel of dignity, a Gospel of love and gratitude. How can any man now set himself above another, especially after God Himself has lowered himself to serve all of mankind? The highest has made himself the lowest, and the greatest, the least! This is why Bowie and Bing (or anyone else of "good will" for that matter) could come together and literally sing from the same theological song sheet.          

6. The Snowman - The Mystery and Magic Behind It All

Whether you believe in Jesus Christ or not, who can deny the magic of this season? Who can explain the number of carols, traditions, art renderings, movies, memories, all of the child-like exuberance surrounding this season? There is nothing like it. Thus, whatever one's persuasions, one is left with two equally improbable possibilities. Either this season is a series of absurd accidents, or God really did take flesh and become a homeless man. Whichever it is, who can adequately account for the manner in which this season is capable of moving our hearts? I can still remember being rather agnostic in my youth (especially about Jesus), and going to church and singing the carols, and saying to myself; "What is it in the air? What is this irrepressible feeling of joy in my heart?" Whatever that joy is/was, it certainly did not appear at that moment because I was a devout Christian. I most certainly was not. The larger point is this: whatever it is about this season that seems so capable of inspiring tears, laughter, and chills, it cannot simply be reduced to the function hanging up a bunch of lights around the house, or as in this case, building a snowman- and then subsequently shoving a carrot into its snow-head.

The snowman flies in our imagination, not because he can fly in real life, but because when snow flies, we feel as if we were floating with it on the air. Perhaps this is why snow gets attached to Christmas, even when one lives in a place like South Carolina, a place where there is so little of it this time of year. It looks and feels a little like manna floating from the heavens, as if the ordinary laws of nature were being suspended for a short period of time. Creation is covered in pure white, almost inviting us to conceive of a new world. Still, whatever causes our hearts to leap and dance with joy during this season (like John in the womb of Elizabeth), it should be recognized that it goes well beyond any human capacity to comprehend it. It is not the accoutrements of the season that ultimately make Christmas what it is, nor is it even all of the lovely trinkets that adorn this time of year. These special decorations are rather the vestments that help adorn the larger Mystery. Yet they are not the Mystery Himself... I am pointing all of this out because if the Source of the initial enthusiasm is ultimately lost or rejected, then how can one ultimately remain enthusiastic about the celebration itself? Go ahead, try your best to party in the name of the Solstice, and sooner or later you will find your spirits melting away about as quickly as a snowman in the midday sun.          

7. Frosty the Snowman - The Transience of Life

Speaking of snowmen melting… One of the most painful aspects about a snow storm (leaving aside all of the practical inconveniences that make some dislike snow) is when the snow itself begins to stop and/or melt, or even worse, when the snow changes back into rain (thank you Dan Fogelberg). While Christmas, and all of the festivities that ultimately surround it are joyful, this time of year can leave you blue (i.e. like watching snowmen get built, and then subsequently watching them melt). During the holiday season, many of cares and concerns of life are suspended, as if you it were foretaste of heaven, but then, like waking abruptly from a pleasant dream, you are right back in your body again feeling the same old pain as before. The danger of this kind of festivity in life is that we can wind up clinging to the good times, and then being drawn to despair when the difficulties of life return.

Frosty the Snowman (as well as snowmen in general), are a good reminder that our lives (even the greatest pleasures) are a passing thing. So how might we turn this melted snowman into something a little more helpful, as opposed to dwelling so much on the negative? There is only one way to avoid despair in these matters. Only in light of the Incarnation, and ultimately the Resurrection, can we find true satisfaction and meaning in these moments. By putting our ultimate hope in the aforementioned mysteries, we avoid treating that the "vacation" as if it were everything, and instead treat it as a foretaste of something greater. If a melting snowman is basically an allegory for the hopes and dreams of life, then what a terrible story to tell everyone. Thanks Frosty! I knew winter was about death, but I thought there was hope when I found you… Wrong! Thus, the joy and celebration that is found around Christmastime is a sign that points beyond itself, and thus should not mistaken for a party that never ends (that's called a hangover), or a snowman that never melts.

8. The Night of the Meek (The Twilight Zone) - The Vocation of the Happy Man

There is nothing so sad as a man who either won't work, or one who would work but cannot find steady employment. This particular Twilight Zone depicts a department store Santa who is otherwise unemployed. Obviously the part-time position he holds is the farthest from a long term position, so in his depression he spends all his money on booze. Unfortunately he arrives to work one day during the holiday season thoroughly intoxicated. As a consequence, his employer fires him on the spot. Embarrassed by his own behavior, the Santa apologizes, but also explains why he is driven to drink. He  explains that if he didn't drink, he would constantly weep for a world that's so sad and unfulfilled, and for himself because he feels powerless to do anything about it. Just once, he declares, I wish that the meek would inherit the earth! Soon after making this request, he's starts walking in the snow, and all of a sudden he hears sleigh bells. He looks down and sees a giant satchel. This is no ordinary bag, for he soon discovers that it is filled with gifts. In fact, apparently the bag can produce whatever gift a person requests. The episode ends, not only with him sharing his new found abundance with everyone he meets, but also with him rejoicing in his new found vocation, for he apparently has a sleigh awaiting him, and elves at the ready to help him carry out his universal call to generosity and service. As maudlin as this may sound to some, not only is the writing exceptional in this episode, but so also its larger point. Man is made to be a sacrifice, and the more he is able to accomplish this the happier he is. There is something incredibly fundamental about Santa Claus. He is a  charitable and a generous man, who never waits around to be thanked for his good deeds (though you may catch him occasionally in the act), and his entire life is dedicated to this work of giving of himself in honor of this most Holy Feast of Christmas. This sounds to me like the vocation of every man.            

9. Family Man - The Secret Joy of Messiness and Imperfection

When ideas repeat themselves, take notice. This may be because of some kind of imaginative laziness, but it may also be because the creator of the piece may have hit on something of an essential nature, and one cannot help but to tell the story in different ways. There is particular kind of Christmas narrative, whether it be this one, It's a Wonderful Life, or Christmas Carol, that strikes right at the heart of Christmas joy? So what do these movies all have in common? All of these stories involve men who are blinded in one way or another because of their sin and pride. Unable to recognize what is of value, they need some kind of divine intervention. They need to be able to do something that is otherwise impossible to see. They need to be able to see things from a "God's-eye view". They need to be able to stand outside of themselves to see their lives objectively, and not through a well cultivated bias. The word for conversion in Greek is "metanoia," which means "to see beyond the mind that you have". This sums up perfectly the challenge of conversion. How can you see beyond the mind that you have? You can't, unless some transcendent experience allows you to do so. In this case, the Jack Campbell character (played by Nicolas Cage), requires some sort of divine messenger to slap him in the face, and thus wake him up from his excessive worldly delusions. In other words, he is living a life for himself alone, living for money and women, and he doesn't seem too broken up about it. As a consequence, one Christmas eve an "angel" (played by Don Cheadle) shows him a "glimpse" of what life would have been like were he to have been a "family man" instead of simply a materialistic jerk. Only in the shoes of the "family man" does he see what a meaningful existence would look like. This new life is much messier, and far less perfect (at least materially speaking), but the humor of the movie is precisely just that. From the outside such a life would never have been chosen by him, but once on the inside of it, he realizes that the secret to joy is not in getting everything exactly the way you want it all the time (that's in fact hell), true joy comes from getting everything you want in a way that you never expected you would want it. Joy requires surprise. This is the biggest obstacle to conversion, because from the outside, sin looks like a mansion, and holiness an outhouse, but from the inside it's the other way about. In the same way, Christmas is a surprise! Indeed, how could a literal outhouse become romantic... and yet here we are at the manger! For this reason, sometimes we all need a little bit of help (perhaps even a little divine trickery) to get us inside, or to allow us to "see beyond the mind that we have."          

10. A Christmas Story - Christmas and the Family

If we could only get ahead of life for once. If we could only appreciate all the good that is right in front of us, as opposed to simply relying on nostalgia and a kind of wistful regret to make us appreciate how good we had it. As complicated and weird as families can get, our time together, particularly in childhood, really does serve to fuse us together in a bond of memories that could comprise an entire album of awkward family photos. Hence, this collection of Christmas meditations would be incomplete without this aptly titled gem. This movie is magical, in particular, because there really is no magic in it at all. It is magical because it sums up humanity, the family, and all the comedic mundanity of what it is like to live with these unusual, extraordinary, average, flawed, unrepeatable, creatures, to whom we are inextricably linked, and who are the authors of this magnificent comedy/tragedy which is our existence. If only in a fit of magnanimity, we could stop and excuse a few (or many) of their excusable flaws, and marvel at their strangeness, feel a sense of gratitude for the fact that they have chosen to love us and spend so many hours with a pain in the ass such as ourselves (for yes, we too have flaws… imagine that), and most importantly of all, feel a burst of generosity (if all else fails), for the fact is that if not for them we would have no existence at all. If you want to catch up with the person you should be, this is a great place to start!      

11. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - Strength in Weakness

The idea that there is a secret treasure at the heart of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities should not be demised as a mere cliche or a platitude. Far from it! They, beyond any other aspect of ourselves, demand the most imagination in order to find something redeemable about them. We take for granted that a symbol of torture should "obviously" represent our salvation. However, this is a prime example of how repetition and mindless acceptance can turn wisdom into banality. Finding meaning in our weakness, or in our suffering, is perhaps the most important project we will ever undertake. Indeed, to persevere long enough to find out how God is going to turn our weakness into a strength is perhaps the greatest challenge to our natural sense of faith and hope. Yet as challenging as this might be, consider what wisdom, knowledge, and power you would have without that beautiful struggle, what authority and insight you would accrue without discovering how the sour lemons of life can be turned into a refreshing beverage, and not only that, but perhaps even the defining mark of our vocation. These things which set us apart are often a tremendous burden in our youth, especially during a time when general conformity is most preferred. However, what often seems to separate us most, is ironically the thing which can truly separate us in the positive sense. Rudolph of course is the poster child for this, and I suppose many today would gladly use him as a model for the evils of bullying. Yet to some extent there is no avoiding the feelings of exclusion in this life, or the fear of being different. The point of "Rudolph" is not merely that bullying is bad, or that we should include everyone in our "reindeer games", but rather that distinguishing yourself can be vital, not only to yourself, but for everyone involved. In fact, sometimes the things which appears to be most detrimental turns out to be most redeeming. The wisdom of this little story and stories like it is to recognize that not every strength is a strength, and that not every weakness is a weakness. And of course the Incarnation is the ultimate example of this paradox, for not only does it suggest that weakness and vulnerability can be a strength, but that in the divine order of things, they might even be the ultimate strength.

12. The Grinch - Charity in Magnanimity

Everyone who understands anything about Christmas appreciates the spirit of charity that goes along with it. However, this idea of "charity" is often understood in too narrow a sense (i.e. the only kind of charity is to be found in soup kitchens). Not that generosity to the poor isn't essential, but what is missing from this equation is an appreciation for the poverty of certain souls that are trapped in a cycle of bitterness, anger, and frustration. These are the poor ones out there that know nothing of the joy of Christmas, either because of their own sins, or perhaps because of the sins of others. What the story of "The Grinch" is all about is the kind of charity that actually has a chance to bring true peace to the world. Feeding the poor is not charity, it is justice (to quote Chesterton); forgiving people that have hurt you or slighted you, now that is magnanimity. It is the kind of largeness of spirit that is too joyful to begrudge. This is the only way to conquer evil, or rather the only way to conquer it in people that may have gone off the rails somehow, people who have forgotten what forgiveness and mercy look like. In any case, there is no chance to bring someone back from perdition if no one offers him a way back. Indeed, if no one is generous enough to offer the Grinch a second chance (whether he takes it or not), none of us will ever experience anything but a world of unforgiving Grinches, with us at the center of the narrative.      

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Big Lebowski and Why the Doctrine of Purgatory Makes Perfect Sense

In the movie the "Big Lebowski" the "Dude" (the post-modern hippie character played by Jeff Bridges) is distraught because some thieves have broken into his house and stolen some of his belongings. However, what seems to upset him the most in all of this is a particular rug that has been taken from his living room; a rug, mind you, that "tied the whole room together"!

In a similar sense, without the doctrine of purgatory being included in any proper discussion of the "after life", the conversation surrounding it just winds up sounding a little too simplistic and self-serving (i.e. it doesn't seem to hold together). If heaven only requires some sort of minimal assent in order to get there, then what does that say about the need for holiness? In other words, whether you are Mother Theresa, or someone who barely squeaks in, then it really doesn't matter at all. To God a "70" is pretty much the same as a "100", and a martyr, the same as the one who is barely saved.

Perhaps this is why in many Protestant circles there really isn't much room for notable heroic figures, not because they don't exist, but because the celebration of radical holiness is not generally permitted in the same way it is in the Catholic Faith. However, no matter what type of Christian you are, the starting point must be God's grace and mercy... yet surely God distinguishes between the one who gives everything, and the one who is simply a minimalist.

Speaking of minimalism, another unfortunate side effect of this minimalist mentality is the "well, as long as I'm not Hitler or John Wayne Gacy" approach. Indeed, in some quarters you can't help but suspect a kind of creeping (or sprinting) universalism in all of this spiritual largesse. Hell practically gets blotted out altogether. Everyone MUST go to heaven, and that's all there is to it!

Unfortunately, this "I'm OK you're OK" mentality, leads to the veritable glorification of mediocrity.  Everyone kind of becomes "The Dude", who is incidentally a really "nice guy", and thus who could possibly envision a cool guy like that ending up in the fiery furnace? Hell is empty, in fact hell is impossible. And if there is a hell at all, it's probably like that room in your house that no one wants to go in anyway. Ironically, by completely evacuating hell, we may well have unleashed it upon the earth.

Lebowski: A new kind of holy icon rooted in a sort of "lovable" mediocrity

On the more religiously conservative side of things, what a "purgatory-free" after life winds up inviting is a kind of "remnant" mentality (i.e. unless you are one of the chosen few... meaning me… and maybe Mother Theresa... you shall not enter in). One can witness this kind of exclusivity among groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Seventh-Day Adventists, who are probably too exclusive for even someone like Mother Theresa. They are something like the "gated community" of religious adherents.

Hence, purgatory, at least as it relates to a real sense of justice and sanctification, makes perfect sense. No one should for a second claim that the grace of Jesus Christ is insufficient to save us, but then again, no one should say that grace doesn't demand anything more of us either (like one's spouse, whose  name may incidentally be "Grace").

The real question is what happens when the demands of holiness aren't met in this life due to a lack of virtue or urgency on our part? Are we, the un-virtuous, to be rewarded in the same way as the virtuous? Is heaven like our present day society, wherein all you need to do is to show up in order to get a trophy? Perhaps. But this doesn't seem to line up with the general logic of Scripture, particularly as it relates to parables like that of the wedding guests, the Sheep and the Goats, or even the sobering admonition about doing the will of the Father.

And that's just the point, justice and reason demand an award (or demerit) commensurate with one's labors in this life (see Beatitudes). As for those who might otherwise be saved, but who are nevertheless lacking in certain necessary virtues for heaven, what shall we say? Do they just waltz right into heaven with the rest of the holy ones, or rather is there not some kind of refinement process that they may need to endure before they share that same vision with the rest? 1 Corinthians 3:15  seems to affirm this latter instinct (i.e. that they really do need a kind of "come to Jesus" moment before they can share the Beatific vision). In fact, all of Scripture seems to stand behind this logic.

People sometimes complain that Purgatory is not specifically in the Bible. Yet as is this case with any number of doctrines which were, after the fact, given a theological/philosophical formulation (e.g. the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation), so also with Purgatory. Saying Purgatory is not in the Bible is a bit like saying that the word Bible is not explicitly in the Bible, and therefore lacks the necessary authority to be accepted. The point is this doctrine is everywhere in the Bible to the point that it is patently self-evident, and would in fact be redundant to say so. Is discipline in the Bible? Is punishment for sin in the Bible? Is God promising to "purify", and thus "purge" Israel of their sin? Do believing people still suffer crosses, trials, deserts before they enter various "Promised Lands" (it would seem the desert of Sin is a perfect example of a Purgatorial experience). Do sons of Levi (i.e. the chosen of God), suffer crucibles of fire in order to be purified in the kiln of God's love in order to enjoy their Master's rest. Can punishment itself be seen as a sign of God's love? Well, apparently Proverbs and Hebrews seem to think so- not to mention the minor detail that everything else we know about life seems to gel with this simple idea.

The only real question then is not whether Purgatory exists, but whether it exists on the other side of the veil as well; which is why it is so important to look at the practice of the early church. Is this how the Church has interpreted God's discipline from the very beginning? Yes.

Perhaps this is why "purgatory", like the giant rug in the Big Lebowski, ties the whole room of eschatology together. Not because heaven and hell require any further explanation, but because we do. The truth is most human beings are neither the best versions of themselves, nor the worst, neither heaven nor hell people, and thus it only makes sense that the whole thing might need to be sussed out in some other way.

Some may point to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as wholly sufficient as a means to solve this entire dilemma. However, the more you try to over-simplify the implications of our redemption, the more unsatisfying one's conclusions become. If before the Fall, man was expected to use his freedom in a way that was consistent with his dignity and sanctity, then why does it make sense to say that after his redemption the same wouldn't hold? How can this "new man" be superior to the old, when all he is expected to do is accept Christ in his heart, while simultaneously working to down-play the very works that would actually lead him to a life of sanctity?  

Justice demands purgatory because it matters what we do with our time here on earth. And mercy demands purgatory, for if there is even a glimmer- a redeemable flicker of hope and goodness left in a person, would it not make sense that the Lord would do everything in his power to try to reach that particular soul.

Most importantly though, Purgatory is necessary- not because of what it means for the next life- but rather what it means for this one. If our trials in this life do not serve to purify our faith (2 Corinthians 7:10), then what are they there for at all? Or to put it another way, if our suffering doesn't cease the very moment we have accepted Christ in this life, then why should we expect it to cease the moment we meet him in the next (presuming we aren't yet completely sanctified)? And if God simply allows suffering to continue for no reason at all in this world, then wouldn't that imply that he is little capricious and cruel?

This is in some ways the worst crime of denying any notion of purgatory and/or redemptive suffering, for it completely empties the cross (both Christ's and ours) of its meaning. It doesn't simply make the final judgment seem arbitrary and gratuitous, but it makes our current trials seem so as well.

What is the point of suffering if our trials do not further serve as a means of sanctification? Scripture never presumes (nor ever really even implies) that judgment is pain free. To the contrary, there are plenty of instances wherein the "saved" must first be "tested" by "fire" before entering the Promised Land. If this Scriptural "fire" does indeed represent God's curative grace (as well as his judgment in general), then that experience may turn out to be a beautiful one, but there is no evidence that it would be in any case painless. Point of information: Fire burns… unless the thing that it happens to be burning is itself fire.

And that's all that Catholics really mean by the doctrine of Purgatory, not that there is some limbo-like state between heaven and hell (as some have falsely concluded), but rather that upon meeting God face to face, and subsequently seeing one's entire life flash before their eyes (i.e. the cause and effect of every action and every careless word ever spoken), one may well experience a certain level of discomfort and shame at this meeting; a discomfort that exists, incidentally, for the sole purpose of reconciling you to the Father. It is not easy to be conformed to the Lord's will in this life, so why should it necessarily be easy in the next, especially if you have not diligently "worked out your salvation in fear and trembling"? If you can accept this, then you should be able to accept the doctrine of Purgatory… whatever you wish to call it.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

What I Learned From Ronda Rousey About Palm Sunday...

To be honest, I have always felt that the transition in Scriptures from Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his rejection on Good Friday, was a little bit clunky and forced (at least on the narrative level). The whole thing just feels a little too "Deus ex machina" (or perhaps, in this case, Diabolis ex machina). Jesus enters Jerusalem and the natives are restless in the best possible sense; "Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" In point of fact, they seem to waving their palm branches in the air like just don't care.

The point is they were filled with a kind of holy enthusiasm that seemed unconquerable. They had been waiting their whole lives (and perhaps even centuries), for the Messiah's reign, and now, apparently, they seemed to see it being fulfilled in Jesus, both as a result of what he had done (i.e. the miracles), and as a result of what he was doing (i.e. riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, with a foal beside him). This behavior would have clearly indicated to those present that he was declaring, like some sort of Messianic general, that he was about to take Jerusalem.

So how do we get from that moment, which was so uplifting and inspiring, to utter condemnation only a few days later. This seems unlikely, and if read in a certain light, almost appears as if it is inserted into the narrative just to make the story come out a certain way. However, there is one thing about these events that seems profoundly atypical. It is one thing to force a happy ending into a story that is predictable, and quite another to force something miserable into the story which seems incongruent, especially when that event seems to have undeniably occurred.

All the same, how can one make sense out of this set of polarities. Until recently I would have found it more than a little difficult to explain such a turnabout, but then I experienced such a bizarre turnabout myself in the world of sports fan-dom (or at least I became more keenly aware of it). For example, my football team is about as up and down as any in the league. One day there is all the potential in the world for success, and the next we are cellar dwellers. One minute we are playoff contenders, and the next we "paper bag" awful.

Yet what is most bizarre about all this drama is not that it could happen in football, but that it can/does happen from week to week. At Sun Life stadium in Miami they can go from shouting the head coaches name in triumph one week "Dan, Dan, Dan", to calling for his head the next. Hence, the profound fickleness of man goes right to the heart of the matter, or rather right to the heart of the Gospels. The allegiance of men can sometimes be gained quickly, but it might just as easily disappear the next minute. What seems indestructible at one moment, turns completely precarious the next.

I know very little about Ronda Rousey, or MMA, but what I do know (other than the unmitigated brutality of the sport she plays), is that, prior to her recent bout, she was adored by many as some kind of modern day Gladiator. Indeed, many have celebrated Ms. Rousey as some kind of sexy barbarian. Sure she's obnoxious, and perhaps filled with a little bit of bravado, but she's also kind of "hot". So it's all for the good, no? And then something happened which changed the narrative, the "hot" bully got bullied…

Commence the insults, the morbid laughter, the mocking, the "I never liked her anyway", the twitter thrashings, the insults that sound like a com-box in hell. The agents of despair are always waiting to spit on someones grave, waiting in the shadows for the right opportunity to emerge and unleash their Id, if only to declare that they "knew it all along."

I am in no way attempting to turn Ronda Rousey into some kind of strange gladiatorial martyr (as if the one who slays is pitiable merely because they happened to have gotten slayed), though unlike many on Twitter and elsewhere, I do hope she gets off the canvas and lives to fight another day (if in a different way). What I am suggesting, however, is that after observing the stunning fickleness of mankind, as embodied in the above set of circumstances, I can now see how it is possible- in less than a week- to go from being a victor to a victim, to go from absolute triumph to tragedy. After all, basking in the warmth of another man's glory is generally quite appealing to mankind, while standing beside a man (or woman) who is still fresh with the stench of failure and humiliation, is quite another matter, whether that "loser" happens to be Ronda Rousey, or the Savior of the world.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Garden of Eden and How it Should Have Gone Down… So to Speak

This sounds like the start of a joke. Unfortunately, if it were, it would be the kind that, as the Bee Gees once said, "started the whole world crying". You know how it goes- Eve was beguiled, bewitched, and ultimately bewildered by the proposal of the serpent, in spite of the fact that Satan so deceitfully and cynically contradicted the will of God. She had won the lottery by being situated in Eden in the first place- but perhaps there was an even better deal. Thus, she fell for the "double-speak" of the serpent, the one who is the true begetter of "hocus pocus", the one in whom everything appears to be something, but is, in reality, little more than empty show.

Yet where was Adam in all this? Why wasn't he there to prevent this debacle from happening? According to Scriptures, it seems he was there, technically, but pretty much did what he always does in history when he isn't being the man that he should be.

He is there in body, but not so much in terms of virtue. Pink Floyd wrote a song about it. Wish You Were Here is not so much a song about physical proximity, but rather a lack of mental and emotional presence. And so apparently Adam was there the whole time, but nevertheless did nothing... that is until the crime was already in progress, at which point he formally cooperates, and then goes about blaming everything in creation for his own failure (Exhibit A: "it was the one you put here; she gave it to me so I ate it"). Thus, like some little Gerber Baby in the garden, he offers absolutely no resistance to Eve's proposal to sup on the tasty death fruit, though he does seem to have quite a strong opinion when comes to assigning blame.

There is a moral/ethical term that is commonly used in the Church for the respective culpability of both actors. The term that the Church uses for such an ethical failure is referred to as the "sin of commission" and the "sin of omission". The first involves a crime in which an individual concretely acts in a way which transgresses the moral law. The second involves the "action" of one who, ironically, fails to act in a situation where both justice and conscience demand such an action (usually in order to prevent some evil).

The Tasty Death Fruit

Considering all of this, it is then highly appropriate that the particular punishment Adam and Eve received suited their respective crimes. In other words, because Adam failed to act (viz. sin of omission), his punishment involved a corresponding physical virtue: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food." Because he failed to act heroically, his "labor" (so to speak) will take the form of a kind of physical sacrifice.

On the other hand, Eve's punishment, most fittingly, involves a kind of internal labor. Why? Because quite simply she failed to show the proper restraint in a situation in which she should have restrained herself. Hence, her agony will come primarily from within, and her sacrifice will involve, above all, the pain that comes from a deep empathy and compassion, a virtue which is capable of sharing the agony of others, and may even mitigate at times, but is nevertheless incapable of removing it entirely; "I will greatly increase your pain in childbirth; with pain you will give birth to children." (Genesis 3:16). This is not to say that both men and woman don't share the same punishment in some respects, but in this instance what Genesis is focusing on is where the punishment is most acute for each party.

While Eve's punishment seems linguistically tied to the actual "labor" of childbirth, it would seem obvious, for any number of reasons, why this form of suffering encompasses far more than the physical act of child birth, and ultimately extends to the entirety of what it means to be a mother. Who can define all the ways that a mother "labors" internally in the name of the child of her womb (or even the child that she hoped she would bear in her womb)?

So what image can be offered in order to shed light on this somewhat mythical event (along with well its subsequent punishment)? What story can offer both a rewind and a fast forward of what it means to both pay for and undo what has been done in the past? First point: Christ did not come to say the past did not happen; he came rather to change the significance and meaning of the past through the cross. Thus, in grammatical terms, he turned the "period"of everlasting death, into a conjunction, or an ellipsis, if you will, which gives us a second chance to be eternally happy, or as Oscar Wilde put it;
"The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that. It is the means by which one alters one's own past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their gnomic aphorisms; 'Even the Gods cannot alter the past.' Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it. That it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said- I feel quite certain about it- that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept he really made his having wasted his substance with harlots, and then kept swine and hungered for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy incidents in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison."
Thus, it was on that fateful tree, as reported in the Gospels, that Jesus bore witness to what it looks like  to truly become an Adam, or rather a Christ. Indeed, this second Adam, by the bloody sweat of his brow in a garden, amidst the thorns and thistles of his most exquisite passion, stands arms outstretched in front of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, blocking his beloved from tasting the bitter fruit of everlasting death. Like one who stands in front of a speeding car or freight train, he offers his body up so that she might live.

Far from being remote, this Adam both "labors" to protect his beloved, and labors to show her his fidelity and affection. Unwilling to throw his wife under the bus of accusation, this "Adam", in stark contrast to the former, makes excuses for the behavior of his bride; "forgive them for they know not what they do" (in this sense I am speaking of the bride as the Church collectively). And in spite of his feelings of abandonment, he does not blame the father for his God-forsakenness, but rather maintains his fidelity until all is accomplished.

At a short distance there is stands one who is silent, but not remote, one who is faithful because she will not be moved from her pedestal of loyalty. She is the true Eve, the Stabat Mater, the one who genuinely "stands by her man" throughout his trials. While in the original garden, Eve "labored" as she brought forth death into the world, this new Eve "labors" because she must watch her beloved take this burden upon himself. Indeed, her heart is lanced by the flaming sword of the cherubim because she cannot get to the tree of life without first enduring His death. She cannot save this Adam from the load he must bear because of the first. If her own will were done in this situation, the cross (and thus death) would be placed on her own back, or perhaps removed altogether. Hence, her agony is fundamentally indistinguishable from his, even while she is not the one on the cross.

I will not speculate here on whether this "second Eve" experienced pain in giving birth to Jesus, but what is undeniable is the excruciating pain she encountered in giving birth to mankind through the death of her Son. Thus, can anyone deny what pain she must have endured, beholding the child of her womb suffer to the degree that he did?

A colleague of mine once eloquently described the experience of raising a child. "When you see them", he said, "it is like watching your heart outside your chest running around." And what better way to describe the nature of trinitarian love? Perfect love really is a kind "out of body" experience; it really is so selfless that the lover experiences everything (whether joy and sorrow) through eyes of the beloved. It is almost as if their experience is more yours than your own, and vice versa.

And so also with the story of our lost Eden. The hell that the first one begat was the direct result of complete and total self-centeredness, an absolute autonomy, a dictatorship of ego which looks to collapse everything into the black hole of one's own personal preferences. The new Eden, one the other hand, is the exact the opposite. This Eden is so consumed (or consummated, if you will), with the work of salvation, that if anything in it "collapses" at all, it is on account of the kind of labor that accompanies the man who sacrifices his body in the name of perfect love.      


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why Hell is "Perfectly" Awful and Heaven is Wonderfully "Flawed"

In my mercifully brief stint as a youth minister, I ran across a book of "non-competitive" games (seems oxymoronic to me… but I digress). The one thing I remember from this little gem of youth ministry was an exercise called "race to a tie". This ingenuous attempt to avoid any real competition proposed that two or more people could "race", but instead of attempting to excel, these individuals would excel at not excelling. Indeed, the primary objective of the game was to remove both tragedy and triumph entirely from the process, and instead institute a collective mediocrity whereby one attempts to sync one's self with everyone else (read: sync yourself with the slowest runner). If one failed to "achieve" a tie in one's first attempt, the ingenuous suggestion was to simply "try again" until the tie was "perfect." Welcome to hell.

…unless they are all engaging in a delightful game of limbo

Recently in my apologetics classes we have begun discussing the so called "problem of evil." In case you might be unfamiliar with this philosophical dilemma, it goes something like this: if God is all powerful and  all good, then how can evil exists? This would seem to imply that either God is not all powerful, not all good, or some combination of both.

One of the major complaints from my students surrounding this issue was the fact that they felt God was unjust (or perhaps foolish) for giving us this gift/curse (viz. free will). Why, they complained, could he not have simply given us enough freedom to enjoy everything, while simultaneously preventing us from performing anything amounting to an evil action (i.e. a kind of "free will scrimmage")? In other words, you get the glory of the victory, without all the danger of truly competing.

Such a world, they argue, would have been far superior to the one we now inhabit. However, the problem with this supposed "perfect world" is that such a world would not be free in any appreciable sense. Sure, you could be "free" to choose Coke over Pepsi (or vice versa), but in what sense would your moral decisions be anything but a form of automation.

Creativity in every sense of the word (love, freedom, and goodness) demands volition/will. If one is simply capable of carrying out an inevitable task, in what sense is there really a "they" present at all to carry it out? It is a little like figuring out a flaw in a video game, wherein you are able to make your character invincible in the game, not by skill, but by simply discovering a loop hole. When this happens all of the artistry and skill immediately disappears from the game.

Perhaps an even better example of this imposed goodness can be seen in an episodes of the Twilight Zone. "A Nice Place Place to Visit," as it is called, begins with the death of a notorious thief who loses his life in the midst of an attempted heist. (Spoiler Alert) Almost  immediately after his death he finds himself in the presence of a luminous guardian angel with in a glowing white suit and a tie. Initially, the thief is surprised by the positive attention he receives, for he is under no illusion that he had lived a saintly existence prior to his death. But after the angel seems relatively unconcerned by his long litany of transgressions, the thief makes himself at home in this apparent paradise.

The angel offers him anything his heart desires. Whatever he wants he gets. He wants women? They're his. He wants money, it's his. He wants to win at pool, the table is "tilted". After some time, however, this form of success and invincibility grows cloying to him, and he longs for a little bit of surprise and uncertainty. Consequently, he says to his angelic host; "Is it possible to arrange it so that on occasion there's chance I might not win at pool?" His angel responds with a thoughtful nod, and replies; "Sure.. sure, I think we could arrange that… How often would you like to lose?" The thief then replies; "No, no! You don't get it… You don't understand! You know what? I don't think I belong in this place, I think I belong in the other place." Laughing diabolically, the angel responds with a sudden infernal clarity; "You fool, you are in the other place!" The episode ends with the "angel" breaking off into a sinister form of hysterics, and the camera pans out, leaving us to imagine the horror into which this man has placed himself.

Hitler was trying to build an "immaculate" race. The former North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, reportedly commanded every male in the country to get the same hair cut. Serial Killers are quite exacting and methodical about how they torture and violate their victims. People with OCD are very… well... obsessive, and precise in their attempt to kill germs. The point is there is something higher than this kind of "perfection," something far superior to making all of the margins even; more essential than an all-knowing grammar Nazi who imposes autocorrect on everything.

By contrast, from the perspective of a more heavenly sensibility, a little child can misspell a word in a birthday card and it can actually be more perfect than any of the subsequent words that are correctly spelled. The reason for this is simple. A grammar mistake by a child is not beautiful and adorable because it is a mistake. It is beautiful and adorable because- in spite of his or her grammatical limitations, the child wills to express his or her love for their parent. Hence, it is in such a sublime limitation as this that the true intention of the individual is ultimately revealed. This divine imperfection not only reveals that the child is more than a tiny automaton, but equally important, that they have a will which, in spite of certain developmental limitations, seeks to express itself through love. It is like the story of the Widow's Mite, but set against the background of a child's sweet and sincere gesture.

Thus, when my students object to man having free will, I can understand the sentiment. Yet at the same time, I have to wonder how much they genuinely believe their own objection. In other words, do they really want to be forced to wear a Catholic school uniform for the rest of their lives? Would they really prefer to be completely incapable of objecting to anything I say in class, as if I were the magisterium of their lives, and they were some kind of human tupperware dish of information, or some kind of file cabinet of my preferred thoughts? Oh, how I would love such a classroom full of eager little puppets pupils!

On the other hand, perhaps in truth my students would prefer to be as free as they are right now to fight me every step of the way. Perhaps they might prefer the autonomy and opportunity to challenge something/everything that I have to say in class, especially when they fail to see the logic in my arguments. The truth is this may not be their will for themselves, but it is my will for them… that they actually have one in the first place.

My will for them is not that they agree (or disagree) with everything I say, but that as a result of taking my class, they might receive all the tools they need to fight, pull, and claw (if necessary) in order to "get to what's real" (as David Lee Roth once said). Far from wanting them simply to parrot back what I have to say, I want them to be seekers of truth and goodness, even when they doubt whether God Himself possesses these virtues. After all, if they are seeking beauty, truth, and goodness, then they are (I would argue) seeking the Lord in disguise. Hence, by opposing me and by arguing (in essence) that it is not right for God to give us such a dangerous gift, they are implicitly arguing in favor of everything that they claim to be arguing against; namely, the freedom to oppose injustice in all its forms.        


Monday, September 28, 2015

Why Men Should Propose to Women (and not the other way about)

I have never been a particularly huge fan of the so-called Sadie Hawkins dance, or "Morp" as they call it around here (prom backwards). I am not dogmatic about it, I just think that there is more virtue and value in men asking women to these events than the other way around. In order for young men to reach beyond their little "man-cave" mentality, they need to learn how to address and reach out to the other half of the species. Simply learning how to ask a lady out on a date is one of the first steps in a man's journey beyond the typical grunts and growls of their adolescent reality.

Call me sexist if you like, but men would never have dreamed of writing poetry, singing love songs, or behaving in a chivalrous manner were it not for the feminine. Indeed, this co-mingling of the sexes allows for the full expression of the Yin and Yang of reality, elevating both sexes according to their own respective needs. Boys are perfectly content to be catered to as long as the opposite sex is willing to do them the honor. The problem is if you only "do them the honor" they may never learn to honor you.

All I can say is the hardest/scariest words that I have ever uttered in my whole life were; "Will you marry me!" Not because my wife isn't wonderful and beautiful (she is), but because I knew I had to own them, and I didn't know if I was "man enough" to be a "man of my word". Yet how much more would I have doubted myself, or the situation, had those words not come from me; "You pressured me into this, I wasn't ready!"

Obviously it is easy enough to dispute this claim by simply pointing out that my circumstances are not the same as others, and that in such and such a case it might be just as "romantic" (and necessary) for a woman to propose to a man. Perhaps. But allow me to explain why, historically speaking, it makes sense that every woman (especially the feminist), should revel in the fact that it is a man's duty to propose to a woman.

In the ancient world the norm was not to honor power in its more subtle forms, but rather to emphasize personal or collective might (viz. "might makes right"). An individual's ability to impose their will on the rest of the world came- not from their value as an individual- but rather from their particular fate/birth. The recognition of an individual's dignity, or the idea that they were a part of some "underprivileged class", did not warrant you any special attention or sympathy. To the contrary, it re-enforced your destiny. The "fates" dealt you a particular hand, slave or free, and their wasn't much you could do about it, nor were you under the impression that you could (or should) do anything about it. This kind of fatalism was part of the air they breathed in the ancient world.

For this reason, unless a woman was born into nobility, she too was treated according to her physical power and influence. In other words, she was not "here own" in any sense of the word. Because women were presumed to be the "weaker sex" they were treated as such. That doesn't mean their weren't exceptional cases here or there, but on a general scale, no one presumed, including women, that they were free to do anything but obey. And servitude extended even to the bonds of marriage (both in choice of spouse and during the marriage itself).

If for no other reason than this alone, the symbol of a man proposing to a woman on one knee should be honored. Indeed, the above photo(s) do not suggest a new kind of liberation for women, but rather the re-establishment of the old order (however ironically it may be re-envisioned).

What tends to be honored today is more of a generic equality of the sexes, one which simply assumes equality involves only having a woman do everything that a man used to do, without any regard for what makes a woman unique in her own right. In other words, a woman (in my humble and right opinion) is not only valuable because she is capable of performing every task that a man can (whether that is true or not), but because she can perform many that he can't! I must admit I am for a higher equality in this regard, or rather a higher "inequality."

I am for the Christian revolution that turned the pagan world on its head, not by castrating men (see above photo), but by compelling them to use their swords in the service of their lady (as opposed to using it to subjugate them). A man genuflects when proposing to a woman, not as a means of diminishing her, but as a means of diminishing himself. He does this as a courageous recognition of her power over him. At this moment, the man is not only saying that he intends to place himself in her service, but even that she is free to reject his offer. There would have been no such choice for women in antiquity. And wherever this kind of chivalry is not embraced in the world today, we can see just how ugly the consequences may be.

There is so much in this gesture that is both a rejection of what was wrong with the ancient world, and an an embrace of what was right (if we truly wish to be truly liberal about the whole thing). In itself, there is nothing at all wrong with a patriarchal sense of duty, ruggedness, and responsibility. What this small gesture introduces into the narrative (in one fell swoop) is a shift in the balance of power from a kind of primitive Darwinism, to a story that is a little more like a romance. The king will reign, yes, but his power will come from his love and service to the queen… So much so in fact, that one will have trouble distinguishing who's reign it is in the end.

Incidentally, it is important to note that this shift in power is not a happy coincidence of history, but rather a direct result of the Biblical narrative. Christ triumphed over evil through his vulnerability to his bride as expressed on the cross. He won the battle over death and evil because he exercised a form of weakness that is more powerful than any worldly strength; a love, as it were, which is "stronger than death" (Songs of Songs 8:6). And thus as the curtain was/is lifted/will be lifted in the book of Revelation, it seems highly appropriate that we should find ourselves at a wedding ceremony, awaiting the sacred "yes" of a mysterious Bride, the veiled one who has such profound dignity, that even God must await her answer to his proposal. If that is not a higher equality, I do not know what is.
Thus, wherever you see a double standard with regard to sex and sexual behavior today, do not blame Christian theology for such a terrible misogyny, rather blame a culture that is backsliding towards the worst of paganism. Blame a culture that no longer recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of women,  and instead views them as chattel for consumption. Indeed, it was only with the advent of the doctrine of Christian dignity, coupled with the notion that as Children of God we all have the power to choose our own destiny, that people for the first time began to subscribe to any notion of equality of the sexes. In fact, in the beginning such a disparity apparently did not exist at all. For according to the book of Genesis, it was only in the communion of flesh between a man and a woman, that one was truly able to witness the face of God. (Genesis 1:27)