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.