Monday, August 30, 2010

The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner

Today, August 29th, is the day that the Church has chosen to remember the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, or as the feast is sometimes picturesquely known, ‘The Beheading of the Forerunner.’ It’s a fairly minor feast day (except apparently in Puerto Rico, whose patron saint is St. John the Baptist, and perhaps some other places) so most of us probably didn’t observe it today. But the story of John’s death is a powerful one, and well worth writing about. It’s one of the Christian feast days- like Good Friday, and like the Feast of the Holy Innocents- that remind us, painfully and starkly, of the magnitude of human evil, and the darkness that our species is capable of.

Many of us probably find it difficult- I find it almost impossible- to think about the Beheading of St. John strictly through a biblical lens. When we think about John’s death, we almost inevitably think of Oscar Wilde’s play, ‘Salome’, which makes the story come alive for us through vivid poetry that’s alternately ethereally beautiful and horrifyingly dark. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The best art, after all, has the same source as scripture has; like all good things, it comes ultimately from God, and whether or not Wilde’s version of the story is true in every detail, it conveys powerful truths to us; it serves the function, in other words, that myths are intended to serve. It might seem strange to call Mr. Wilde a Christian poet, but it’s none the less true for all that. Oscar Wilde’s famous ‘aestheticism’, and his often expressed view that art and morality had nothing to do with each other, were, I think, never something that he truly accepted at the deepest level of his being. While he converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, he was haunted by Christ for a lot longer then that, and there are deeply moral, and deeply Christian messages running through so much of his plays, poems, and short fictions. ‘Salome’ is no exception. The play is sometimes called ‘pornographic’, which would be annoying if it weren’t so absurd. I detest real pornography with a passion, and it saddens me that so many people nowadays, especially young men, patronize this kind of unnatural, antisocial and immoral rubbish, but as Justice Potter Stewart once said, ‘This is not that’, i.e. ‘Salome’ is not by any stretch of the imagination pornographic. On the contrary, it’s a deeply moral play, and a deeply religious one.

I’d call it a deeply religious play because it gives us a demonstration of what Bulgakov, in his ‘The Master and Margarita’, calls ‘the seventh proof of the existence of God.’ Namely, the demonstration of God through the demonstration of his opposite. The seventh proof relies on an evidential step: amassing evidence that this world is an evil place, in which people and other beings routinely exploit and abuse one another in truly horrific ways. It relies, then, on an intuitive sense; it asks us to accept that the magnitude of evil in this world is greater than what we would expect in a strictly materialistic and naturalistic world, and that we can explain the amount and degree of evil in this world only by postulating an agent of supernatural evil, the devil. And it relies, finally, on philosophical and theological reasoning, to infer the existence of supernatural good from supernatural evil. For shadows are only comprehensible if there exists such a thing as light; shadows are the absence of light, and the existence of shadows testifies to the existence of light. As another great twentieth century work of fiction ruminating on the nature of good and evil put it, “It is folly to think that in the triumph of evil there could be a winning side, in terms of anyone’s gaining anything by it. Without good to oppose it, evil is simply meaningless.’ Precisely, and this is why- according to Bulgakov, and I think correctly- the existence of supernatural evil implies the existence of supernatural good. Intuitively I accept the existence of supernatural evil- and the amount of evil in this world tells me that such an agent must be truly awesome in his power, intelligence, in the force of his will and in the ability to master nature and the world. “He doeth great wonders, such that he maketh fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men’ (Revelation 13:13). If there exists an even greater source of supernatural good, and it’s not hard to deduce why there must, then that source must be truly eternal, truly unbounded and unlimited by the laws of nature, truly perfect in power, in goodness, in vision, and in love, and truly a being ‘greater than which none can be conceived.” And as St. Anselm said, “You, Lord God, are this being.”

‘Salome’, like ‘Titus Andronicus’, is a deeply religious play in that it portrays for us- brilliantly and vividly- the horrific nature of a world from which God is absent. It gives us a snapshot, as clear as glass and as bright as the morning sun, of the City of Man in all its glory. And through our revulsion at what human beings are capable of doing to each other, at the magnitude of our capacity for lust, greed, hatred and pride, we are sent running away from the City of Man like frightened toddlers running away from a bear at the zoo. And when we run away from the City of Man, we sooner or later find us running towards its opposite pole, the only ultimate alternative to that city: the eternal, perfect, and superlatively beautiful alternative of the City of God.

Wilde’s play ‘Salome’ consciously echoes images from the ‘Song of Solomon’, that enigmatic book of the Old Testament which can be interpreted- correctly, I think- as a paean to romantic love, as a celebration of the erotic, as a prefiguration of the Ever-Virgin Mary, and as an allegory of the love of Christ for his people. Captivated by passion, Salome speaks thus to St. John as he stands before her in chains:

"Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut in twain with a knife of ivory. The pomegranate flowers that blossom in the gardens of Tyre, and are redder than roses, are not so red. The red blasts of trumpets that herald the approach of kings, and make afraid the enemy, are not so red. Thy mouth is redder than the feet of those who tread the wine in the wine-press. It is redder than the feet of the doves who inhabit the temples and are fed by the priests. It is redder than the feet of him who cometh from a forest where he hath slain a lion, and seen gilded tigers....:

But Wilde cleverly twists the imagery of the Song of Solomon, turning all that beauty to ugliness, by putting these verses into the mouth of Salome, a young woman for whom love and hate are inextricably tied together. She desires John the Baptist, and when she can’t have him, all her love turns to hate, and she wants to destroy him. The biblical narrative said that Salome was prompted by her mother to ask for St. John’s head: “And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist” (Mark 6:24). But Wilde makes the decision to ask for John’s head the fault of Salome herself, prompted by her bitter anger, and by her longing to destroy the man who spurned her caresses. He shows us, brilliantly, what eros, sexual and erotic love, can become when it’s separated from caritas, the love that seeks the good of the beloved, and not one’s own good. These two kinds of love were intended to be connected to each other, to be tied together within the context of romantic relationships. And when we separate them, as our society risks doing with its increasing acceptance of casual sex, we risk unleashingly truly dangerous storms of passion that set us against each other and against our own deepest natures, that drive us apart instead of bringing us together. As C. S. Lewis said, if you try to make eros into a God, she will become a demon. Wilde’s portrayal of Salome is a great example of this, a great portrayal of the nature of passion when it becomes centered on our own good and our own desires instead of on the good of our beloved, and a warning to his time- which in its way had even more erotic sin then ours, as the widespread prevalence of prostitution shows us- as well as to all times since.

Of course, in Wilde’s portrayal, Salome was a victim as much as a perpetrator of evil, and as guilty as she was, greater still was Herod’s guilt. The biblical account doesn’t make this especially clear- it says that Herod was ‘pleased’ with her dancing: “And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod, and them that sat with him…” (Mark 6:25). In Wilde’s play, however, it’s very clear, and explicit, that Herod lusts after Salome, and that his desire to see her dance is rooted in sexual desire. This desire, one can quickly see, was incestuous; in truth, it’s triply incestuous, for Herod and Salome were related in three different ways (due to the Herod family’s long history of practicing incest, and to Herod’s incestuous marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias). Salome was simultaneously the niece, the grand-niece, and the stepdaughter of Herod, and if you wanted an explicit biblical text warning of how evil and unnatural incest really is, you couldn’t pick a much better example (which may be part of the reason that this episode made it into the very short, and very concise, Gospel of St. Mark.) If Wilde was right and Salome secretly desired John, then the fact that she was presumably the object of sexual molestation by her stepfather/uncle/grand-uncle hints that she may have been a victim as much as a perpetrator of evil. We’ve learned over the centuries that people who are victims of abuse often become abusers themselves- a glance at the crime stories in the newspaper tells us that much- and personally, I can’t think of a much better example of the power of evil to beget more evil, or a better testimony to how much this is truly a fallen, and corrupt world.

Beyond just the relationship (which isn’t even suggested in the Bible, but which Wilde makes clear) of Salome and John, the connection of Herod and Salome, then, makes it clear that this is a story about sexual sin and the dark side of sexual passion, as much as it is a story about political tyranny and the death of a prophet. Herod, inflamed with wine and tempted by incestuous desire; Salome, frustrated in love and willing to turn all her lust into hate; Herodias, willing to leave her husband and enter an incestuous relationship with his brother; all of them show us Romantic love, at its best, is a mirror of the love that exists between the Persons of the Trinity, and between God and man. But when we separate the physical aspect of love from its spiritual and emotional aspects, when we separate desire from affection, when we separate the good that we seek for ourselves from the desire to seek the good of the person we love, then we open the door to a set of stairs that lead ever downward, into the black cellar where Herod’s executioner went to seek John the Baptist, carrying an axe on his shoulder and wearing the tetrarch’s Death Ring on his finger.

Down those stairs lies the path to the central square of the City of Man, the city founded by ‘the love of the self even to the contempt of God,’ and Herod’s pained cry at the end of the play, “I have committed a great crime, a crime against some unknown God’, tells us all we need to know about that City. Wilde’s play, and the biblical text on which it is based, give us all the reason we ever needed to set our feet in the path leading away from that city, and to start walking- as far as it may take us, as difficult as the path might be, up the highest mountains and through the hottest deserts- towards that other city, the City of God, which stands forever ‘as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Revelation 21:2), in a permanent and perpetual symbol of the beauty of true, genuine, and sincere romantic love.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A third year's reflection on the Assumption of the Mother of God

Today, August 15th, is the Feast of the Assumption (for the Roman Catholic church and for many Anglicans), and the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos for the Orthodox and Oriental churches. (‘Assumption’ comes from the Latin ‘assumptio’ = ‘taking up’, do not be confused that it’s used in a sense contrary to the common English sense.) The two names connote more or less the same thing, with slight differences of emphasis: the day that Mary the Mother of God, most glorious and ever-virgin, was taken up into heaven, ‘body and soul’. You can look all throughout the world for the remains of Mary, for her tomb and her bones, but you won’t find them; they aren’t here. Mary, with her whole being and person, body and soul united, is in heaven. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just about Mary’s soul rising to heaven. Of course her soul is in heaven; we knew that, for where else would it be? The meaning of the Feast of the Assumption is a bunch more bold and startling one: that Mary’s body did not remain here on earth either, but was lifted up to heaven, and that she is there in her full corporeality, body and soul, as all good people shall be when Christ returns and we experience the resurrection of the body.

There are slight differences of emphasis between the West and the East in regards to the question of whether she died and was then resurrected, or whether she was transported to heaven without dying. My understanding is that the Eastern churches tend to believe the former (this was the older belief) while Catholics and Anglicans who accept the doctrine believe she went straight to heaven, body and soul, without dying. I tend to favour the second interpretation: it seems to fit better with some enigmatic verses that seem to foretell the Assumption, for example, ‘In kinship with Wisdom is immortality’ (Wisdom 8:17, using ‘Wisdom’ of course as a symbol of Christ), but in fairness, the early legends and apocryphal writings concerning the Assumption do include references to her soul ascending to heaven first, and her body ascending three days later, in an echo of Christ’s resurrection. Of course, it’s not impossible that this did not represent _death_ in the sense we understand it, but rather some alternative temporary interruption of the relationship of body and soul, some hypothetical means of leaving this earth, that would have been meant for an unfallen humanity. C.S. Lewis speculates a little bit about what the end of life would be like for an unfallen race, in his book ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, and his account of ‘unbodying’ a dead creature on Mars bear some similarities to the accounts of the Assumption. It’s death in a sense, but not death in the sense we understand it on earth (he makes this point very clearly in the sequel, ‘Perelandra’.) Death had no power over Mary’s body, as St. John makes clear when he depicts her escape from the clutches of the dragon: “And to the woman were given two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly from the dragon’s wrath….” (Revelation 12:14). Understood in this way, the Catholic/Anglican and Orthodox understandings of the end of her life may not be incompatible at the deepest level.

The apocryphal stories about the Assumption aren’t history, of course, nor canonical scripture, but it seems reasonable to take them as having some core of remembered traditions and some kernels of truth which were passed down over the roughly five centuries, and it’s worth taking a look at them to see what we can extract. One particularly touching aspect of the accounts of the Assumption, purportedly deriving from the memories of St. John himself, suggests that Christ responded to a direct prayer from his mother. It wasn’t a prayer for her to be assumed into heaven- quite the opposite! One can’t imagine the embodiment of humility and modesty, she who had said of herself, “For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (Luke 1:48) and submitted to her God by saying, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” (Luke 1:38), asking for the estate of Queen of Heaven. In contrast, she asked for something much more modest: “As the all-holy glorious mother of God and ever-virgin Mary, as was her wont, was going to the holy tomb of our Lord to burn incense, and bending her holy knees, she was importunate that Christ our God who had been born of her should return to her”.

Picture this woman, who had lost her only child, whom she had loved more than anything in this world, and seen the Apostles go their separate ways, left behind with only St. John to take care for her. St. John tells us that she regularly burnt incense at his tomb as an act of worship, but that in her loneliness, she was pining for her lost child and wishing, no doubt with any hope of the wish being granted, that Christ should return to her. It’s a wish that we can all identify with, at some level. I lost my father when I was about seventeen, and for a year or two afterward I would have periodic dreams where he was somehow returned to my family, and where he was talking with us and living with us again. How much more does this have to be the case for someone who loses a child? When I lived in Madagascar I knew quite a few families who had children die, and it tears people apart like few other things can. One couple I knew ended up separating after their child died of malaria; the relationship had been forever destroyed by the memory of what they had lost. And for Mary, it was even worse in a sense, for her son had been returned to her for forty days, before leaving again, this time for good. She had had a taste of the sweetness of resurrection, the wonder and joy of having her dead child returned to her, in the fullness and strength of new life; but all too quickly, the taste turned bitter as she realized this was just temporary, and that she would soon have her child taken from her again. Of her experience of the Lord’s resurrection, it could truly be said, “It was in my mouth sweet as honey, but as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter” (Revelation 10:10) and I’m sure St. John, who had lived with her and cared for her every day since Christ ascended, was thinking of her when he wrote these words.

Of course, on another level, what she was asking for was impossible, and I’m sure she realized it. The dead don’t return to this earth; even when resurrected, their destiny is somewhere else. I’m sure she knew that, and she was praying more than anything to console herself, asking for something she knew was impossible, more out of blind, baseless hope then out of any belief that the prayer could be answered. She had no idea, of course, that God had plans for her that were much greater, deeper, and richer then she could ever have imagined. The goodness and glory of God, and the destiny he has planned for each of us, is something that with our limited imaginations, and our horizons and thoughts limited by the contours of a harsh, fallen, and often painful world, we can’t even conceive of. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9) says St. Paul, and there are good reasons for this: our ability to think and envision the future is limited by our experiences and by our capacity to imagine, and finite creatures that we are, these are limited and often pitifully small. God doesn’t share our limitations, and while we can’t see or even accurately imagine the destiny he has in store for us, we can be assured it is greater and better than anything we could ever conceive of; any analogy we make to heaven must necessarily fall short of the reality. Imagine the best thing in this world you can, take it to its perfection, and even still, we can be sure heaven will be better, for God loves us and wants the best for us even more than we do for ourselves. So it was with Mary, the Mother of God.

Christ had mercy on his mother and granted her prayer, but he granted it in a way that she could never have foreseen, something beyond the capacity even of this sinless and morally perfect woman to imagine. Rather then descending once again to share life with his mother, he promised her, and his promises are always fulfilled, to raise her into heaven, where she would be crowned forever as its Queen, and where she could remain forever close to her Child; as it was said of old, “Upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir” (Psalm 45:9), and as much as this was true of Solomon, it was fulfilled even more truly when the Mother of God took her place in heaven. The most St. Mary could imagine, the greatest promise she could ask for, was for her son to return to her, at least for a little while; but God the Word, who had taken human nature from her, was able to imagine a greater and better good for her than she could imagine for herself, and where she had hoped to be united with her son on earth, he summoned her to be united with him forever in heaven, perfect in her corporeal being, with no need of death or resurrection. In her earthly life, Mary never imagined what she would one day become. We can search the New Testament for hints that Mary was aware of her full glory, and find nothing, for she seems to have seen herself as nothing more than a carpenter’s wife, socially downtrodden and economically poor, living off bread and occasional broiled fish. Perfect in other virtues, as tradition tells us, St. Mary the Mother of God was perfect also in humility. But God had greater plans for her, and of this meek and humble Palestinian peasant girl, he one day intended to make the Queen of Heaven. He granted not only her prayer, but those of her parents who had asked, “Bless her with the last blessing, that shall be forever” (Infancy Gospel of James 6:4). No doubt they had merely meant ‘forever’ to mean a very long time, in the figurative sense that people normally use it; perhaps they were asking for a blessing that would last all of Mary’s natural life. But God understood them more deeply than they even understood themselves, and granted them a blessing that would, truly, last forever; the blessing of immortality, spiritual and corporeal, that would raise Mary to heaven and allow her a resting place there for all of eternity.

Consider again St. John’s beautiful and haunting vision; consider it in detail, and let the words wash over you like the ocean’s wave at high tide; drink their beauty as you would drink the water of a cool and pure mountain lake. “And there appeared in heaven a great portent: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and crowned with twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). The stars, sun and moon represent, I think, the holy angels, for St. John calls the angels, “the stars of heaven…” (Revelation 12:4).. It’s a very old tradition in the religions of the world to associate various gods, or angels, with the sun, moon, and planets of the solar system (C. S. Lewis, again, uses this tradition in his Space Trilogy, in which the moon and various planets are associated each with their own tutelary angel, which he identifies with the Greek gods). In the Hindu temple near my hometown, there’s a piece of devotional statuary depicting nine important deities, associated with the highlights of our night sky: the sun, the moon, and seven of the planets in our solar system (the seven of which we were aware before modern astronomy). Of course this association isn’t literal, it’s symbolical; the sun, moon, and stars (or planets; in ancient times the distinction wasn’t clearly made) are used to represent and symbolize high spiritual powers- as we can see, in Hindu, Greek and Christian tradition alike, and in other traditions as well.

St. John borrows that imagery here, and by showing Mary clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars, he is illustrating that, though a created human being with human limitations, she has been raised to a rank higher then the highest angels. As the ‘Axion Estin’ tells us, she is ‘more glorious than the cherubim, and incomparably more honourable than the seraphim.” Who could possibly have expected, or hoped for this? How far had she come, this Palestinian peasant girl, wife of a carpenter, a consecrated virgin who had seen her only son handed over to horrible death, who had spent her life in poverty and oppression, mocked as Galilean provincials, struggling for each day’s food, enduring heat and drought in a dusty backwater of a vast and tyrannous empire. For this unassuming, humble, gentle and giving young woman who said ‘Fiat’ to the angel’s entreaty, was raised to a throne higher than any of the angels, and far higher than any other human being could ever aspire to. “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased,” said Jesus, “and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14); could there be a better fulfillment of Our Lord’s saying than the assumption of Mary? For above us are the holy angels, but above them is the Mother of God; and her heavenly throne she owes to two things; to the humility that led her to give up all she had been planning for her life, and to submit to the request of the heralding archangel, and even more importantly, to the boundless and limitless love of her Son.

This is always the way with the promises of God: that the good that He desires for us is greater than the greatest good we can desire for ourselves. Ask yourself what you desire in life, and remember that the most and best we can desire for ourselves in a shadow of what God has planned. The trees of heaven, after all, will be green, fruitful, and life-giving to a degree that the trees of this earth can only be pale copies or shadows of. The light of heaven will be a light so bright that the sunlight we experience on earth is only a shadow of it. So it is with everything good that God intends for us. We spend so much of our time pursuing the things of this earth- food, sex, wealth, fame, beautiful things- but we forget that these things, good in themselves, derive their goodness from God, and that to pursue them to the detriment of pursuing Him is only to harm ourselves. Because the greatest good and most intense happiness we can enjoy on our own, is always less than the joy we will one day enjoy when we are in his presence, and enter into what he has prepared for us. “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34); how happy will we be when we can hear these words spoken and know that they are sure and true? Because what the Assumption of Mary tells us is that what God has prepared for us is greater than anything we can hope for, and that he has a plan for us, as he had for St. Mary, greater than any plan we could possibly make for ourselves.

Mary’s sojourn in heaven, of course, was not to be continuous. The prayer of the Abbe Perreyve invokes her thus, “Most blessed virgin, in the midst of thy days of glory, forget not the sorrows of this earth….” This prayer, devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes, was inscribed on a Marian prayer card that was given to me by an Episcopal priest of my acquaintance. This happened just before I left for Madagascar, on an adventure unlike any I could have expected, and on an experience that was to change me, as much as (I hope) I was able to bring change into the community where I worked. When I started the three years of my life in Madagascar, I was often lonely, worried about the future, unsure whether my work would bear fruit, and whether I would be welcomed, and concerned about a whole slew of tropical diseases. I would take solace, often, in looking at the prayer card, remembering the love with which it had been given to me, and praying in Abbe Perreyve’s words. I felt protected while I was in Madagascar, watched over by a guiding and protective force, and I felt that, in some sense, the Mother of God was looking out for me. I was already on my road to the Christian faith then, but my experience helped me to realize the importance that the Mother of God has to our faith, and helped to push me in the direction of those traditions, like Anglo-Catholicism, that give her due honour.

Many people have experienced the presence of St. Mary in their lives of course, and not just as a protective force as I have, but in much deeper and richer forms; through direct mystical experience. I had a friend once who, when travelling through South America, spoke with an imprisoned former drug lord; the drug dealer had had a change of heart, abandoned his life of crime, and handed himself over to the police, when he looked into the clouds and had a vision of St. Mary in all her glory. Some of these experiences are explicitly commemorated as sites of pilgrimage today, like the town of Fatima where the three children had a direct experience of the Virgin Mary and were given visions of the future, including the re-conversion of Russia to Christianity. This must have seemed impossible when it happened; Russia was then a Christian power, so it must have seemed unlikely it would turn to atheism. But the turn did come, less than a year after the three children at Fatima has their vision; and twenty years later, at the darkest hour of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, it must have seemed impossible that the words of St. Mary at Fatima would ever be fulfilled. Yet fulfilled they were. Stalin died twenty years later, possibly poisoned at the hands of his own henchmen, and gradually that long-suffering country began the slow process of dismantling his terror-state that had enforced atheism by the sword. The Soviet regime fell in 1990, which brought many evils to an end, but brought more, equal and opposite evils to replace them; yet one sign of hope amid the turmoil was that Russia began returning to its spiritual roots. Who could have imagined this, in 1928 or in 1948? Yet by that same token, which citizen of Nazareth in A.D. 12 would have imagined that the peasant mother of the precocious boy Jesus, would one day be exalted higher than the angels, ‘more glorious than the cherubim?” God always has a plan that we can see only dimly, if at all, but is better than anything we could imagine.

The Mother of God is not merely passively enthroned in heaven, but continues to try to help us, and to seek our good, in heaven and on earth. St. John, at the culmination of his brilliant vision of heaven, tells us that ‘the Spirit and the Bride say, Come……and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely’ (Revelation 22:17). The image of the “Bride” is often taken to represent the church, but that can’t be the case here, for just previous to this John makes it clear that he is speaking to the church, not speaking of it: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches” (Revelation 22:16). I think that the Bride here represents St. Mary, the Spouse of the Spirit, as described by Prudentius, "The unwed Virgin espoused the Spirit", and figuratively spoken of in the Song of Solomon. St. Mary, always full of pity and solicitude for the human race, cares for us with perfect human love, just as her Son cares for us with perfect Divine love. She pleads for us, at the gates of heaven, just as her prototype, Queen Esther, pled for her people in the court of the Persian King. To those outside the gates of heaven, she says, along with the Spirit, “Come!” None of us can be good on our own, we can do so only with each other’s support and help, and one of the most precious supporters and helpers we have is the Mother of God, who in her charity and love cares and prays for each of us from her throne. And we can be sure that her Son hears and honours her requests and prayers, just as he did at Cana. Her cry, “Come” at the end of St. John’s Revelation is a reminder to us not only of what she does for us, but of what we can do, and must do, for each other.

This week following the Assumption, let’s remember the power and love of God, that brings glory out of humility, strength out of weakness, and splendour out of poverty and oppression, and let’s remember too, how much we need St. Mary, and how much we need each other; and that whatever God has planned for us will be as far beyond anything we could hope for, as His plans for St. Mary were beyond her meek and humble prayer.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A reflection on the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the dawn of the Nuclear Age

This Friday, August 6th, is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This is the day on which Christians commemorate the appearance of Our Lord to his disciples, on the holy mountain, in dazzling white clothes, infused with light and splendor. This is the day upon which Peter, John, and James saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, and on which they knew with a certainty- with no need for testing, for doubt, for skepticism, or for proof- that the carpenter whom they followed was truly the Second Person of God, the Word made flesh. I had the opportunity to go to a beautiful cathedral in Pittsburgh this Friday, for a short weekday Eucharist, and heard a great homily. The priest emphasized that the Transfiguration can’t be taken as a myth or a metaphor, or a pretty story. It was a miracle, but it was also a piece of literal history, a moment when heaven literally, for a moment, opened up and allowed three of the Apostles to see a glimpse of the world beyond this one. St. Peter mentions that he personally witnessed it: “And this voice we heard brought from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mount” (2 Peter 1:18) and his recollection probably found its way into the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well. If we are to accept that he wasn’t lying, or crazy, then we pretty much need to accept that the story happened as he described it.

Here’s St. Luke’s description of the event.
“And it came to pass about eight days after these sayings, He took Peter and John and James, and went up onto a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening.
And behold, there talked with Him two men, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep. And when they were awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. And it came to pass as they departed from Him, Peter said unto Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- not knowing what he was saying.

While he thus spoke, there came a cloud and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, "This is my beloved son; hear him!" And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.”
It would be nice to focus on this miraculous, strange, and mysterious event on the feast day dedicated to it, and to meditate on the vision of the transfigured Christ that the apostles were privileged to see. But of course, August 6th, especially this year, has another resonance for people in the modern era, a darker and more morbid one that nevertheless has strange echoes of the Transfiguration. On August 6th, exactly 65 years ago, the United States used nuclear weapons- alone of any country in human history- upon the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Just a week later, we repeated that act, using them upon Nagasaki, the ancient port city of Japan and its gateway to the West, and in doing so won the war for good. We bought peace, security, and an end to the bloodiest war in human history, at the cost of some two hundred thousand civilian lives. This date, as much as the Feast of the Transfiguration, is also run through with theological meaning. As the early church lived in the shadow of the Transfiguration, our own age lives in the shadow of Hiroshima. What happened on that morning of August 6th, 1945, changed our world forever. Our thoughts, fears, dreams, worries, the language of our moral discourse and of our political debates, has been shaped permanently by the fact that we live in the world of total war and the atom bomb. For good or for ill, we live haunted with the knowledge of how to make and use nuclear weapons, and with the legacy of actually having used them, and with the fear that they may be used again in the future. This is, in truth, the age of Hiroshima. And so it’s worth stopping a minute, and thinking about the strange connection of these two events.

The Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, in a radio talk that I heard while driving back from Pittsburgh, and also in a piece released the same day on the Huffington Post, draws some interesting parallels. He isn’t the first, of course- people have been drawing these connections since the bomb was dropped 65 years ago- but his piece was a powerful and compelling one, and I’m indebted to it for my own thoughts. He points out, first of all, that there are some strange similarities and parallels in the imagery of the two occasions. On August 6th, 1945, the world saw a blinding light, more brilliant and fiery than any light the hand of man had ever been able to create. On that day, a cloud enveloped the city of Hiroshima and rose up to the heavens, as it did on the day of the transfiguration. On that day, the world was struck with fear and trepidation, as we contemplated the reality that we had just entered into a new and unpredictable age, with many more questions than answers. And on it, we knew for the first time that we held in our hands an unfathomable power, that we weren’t really sure what to make of, just as the Apostles on the holy mountain got some vague and dim sense of the divine power that was inherent in their Master.

In the transfiguration of Christ, we see the City of God plant a small outpost on this earth, and we see, through the eyes of Peter and Luke, a glimpse of what that city will look like: a city in which the dead are raised, in which our clothes are washed to a pure and glistening white, and in which we are illuminated by the light of Christ himself, whom the Nicene Creed calls “Lumen de lumine”, Light of Light. And in the destruction of Hiroshima, and in the deliberate killing of two hundred thousand civilians- women, babies, the aged, the sick, schoolchildren, farmers and industrial labourers who had never done anything to any one of us- we saw, in the vivid halo of the burning city, and in the light of that fire that burned to death tens of thousands of people in unspeakable agony, a vision of the ultimate opposite of the City of God. We saw, in all its peacock-bright glory, the City of Man.

St. Augustine gives us a good definition of these two cities. “Thus two cities are formed by two loves: the city of God by the love of God to the contempt of the self, the city of man by the love of self to the contempt of God.” The city of man is, he goes on to say, that city formed when we see ourselves as masters of our own fates, entitled to choose and to make our own good, rather than cleaving to the true Good which comes from God. We see the difference between these two cities in vivid detail, when we consider the image of Christ talking with Moses and Elijah. We don’t know exactly why Christ chose to have this conversation, but one part of it might be to show that, as he did with Lazarus, he had the power to call the souls of the dead out of the shadowy afterlife. In this scene he showed that his Father- and by extention, he himself- had power over life and death, and in particular, the power to conquer death and to bring life and renewal back to the dead. Christ brought life out of death, just as we, on that dark day of August 6th, chose to bring death out of life.

The morality of what we did then is a controversial issue in America today. But it shouldn’t be a controversial issue for those of us who believe either in a natural-law moral framework, or in Judeo-Christian morality. (Most Christian churches, including mine, also believe in natural law, so the distinction is somewhat vague. As Pope Benedict said at the Regensburg address some years ago, our God is a God characterized by reason. God doesn’t forbid things because He likes to forbid; He forbids them because they are inherently wrong, contrary to our good, to our natures, and to our ultimate purpose). One could argue the morality of the nuclear attacks back and forth, and people have done so for six decades, spilling reams of ink: but my position is simple and straightforward, and I’ll make no bones about it. It was a war crime, a violation of the laws of God and man, against natural law and against sacred tradition, a spilling of the blood of innocent civilians on a grand scale, and can’t be plausibly defended within any just-war moral framework.

Defenses of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki generally revolve around the idea that 1) it was necessary for our safety and survival, 2) the Japanese were far worse than we were, and have no grounds to complain, and 3) it saved lives in the long run. All may well be true, but they’re also irrelevant. For a variety of reasons, Christians, and other people who believe in natural law moral reasoning, tend not to judge actions solely by their consequences (I’d argue that consequentialism, judging solely by consequences, is ultimately an insupportable and self defeating way to think about morality, but that’s a separate argument for another time). But before I get into just why Hiroshima was so wrong, let me deal with these three points.

Most people, at some point, have a line that they won’t cross, for any reason whatsoever, including their own survival. I’d hope, and suspect, that most of us would decide that there are certain things we would never do, even if our lives- or the lives of those we love, or of our countrymen- was at stake. As Elizabeth Anscombe put it eloquently in her essay on Hiroshima, would you boil a baby alive to save your own life? If you wouldn’t, then you’ve conceded that some things are wrong even if our survival or that of our country or loved ones depends on it. Now all we have to decide is whether Hiroshima fits on the far or near side of the line. I’d point out that this isn’t a bad thing- it’s indeed, exactly what makes us human. Quite a few animals are driven by the goal of survival, and do whatever they need to ensure their own survival (though not all- there are many examples of animals sacrificing themselves for their kin, which should give us pause). One of the evidences that we are rational, moral, human creatures with a mind and a soul, is the fact that we can choose to obey drives beyond just physical survival. If we didn’t, then we would be no higher and no different, ultimately, than a wolf or a sea slug. But we can so choose, and we do, all the time. Christians and Jews alike, for example, honour the memory of the Maccabean martyrs, killed under the regime of Antiochus Epiphanes, king of the Seleucids. These seven brothers chose to be boiled alive rather than eat pork: “For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our forefathers” (2 Maccabees 7:2).. If this is true- and we have no reason to doubt the story, for many people throughout history have chosen such sacrifices- then how much more must we believe they would have chosen to die rather than commit murder? These seven brothers preferred to die rather than ignore a minor dietary law, how much more would they have preferred to die rather than transgress one of the greatest laws of all, the command that the Israelites were given to “Choose life?”

Necessity, then, can’t excuse _everything_, unless you’re willing to swallow Anscombe’s gambit and boil the baby alive. Which we did, at Hiroshima, deliberately targeting what we knew was a civilian city, full of noncombatants including many, many children. Most of us agree that a line exists. I hold that what we did to end World War II- deliberate destruction of a whole city- was well on the far side of that line, and violated the laws of war, of nature, of morality, and of God.

If necessity can’t excuse it, neither can the greater good. It’s said that the bombing saved lives, American and Japanese, in the long run. Maybe so. But the distinction is that those lives that would have been lost, during a hypothetical invasion, would have been the fault of the Japanese military, not ours. They could have stopped it at any moment, and who knows, God willing, they might have. Such deaths would have been foreseeable, but not _intended_. Our intent- impossible as it might have been- would have been a quick surrender following an armed military invasion. The Japanese would probably have resisted, and there would have been many deaths, but those deaths, again, would have been _side effects_ of our decision to invade, not the direct _means_ or _end_ of the invasion. In that little distinction, what the moral theologicans call the doctrine of double effect comes into play. It’s sometimes permissible to do things you know will have terrible side effects, as long as you don’t intend those terrible things either as a means or an end. It’s _not_ permissible to use the killing of children or other innocent noncombatants as the direct means of achieving a military goal. In the destruction of Hiroshima, those 200,000 deaths were the direct means- not a side effect, but the whole intended purpose of dropping the bomb. It was done to terrorize the Japanese into submission, and it achieved its goal admirably: those 200,000 deaths were the means of achieving it. Had only a dozen people died at Hiroshima, our whole effort would have been in vain, which tells you right away that there was something immoral about the whole enterprise.

And neither, of course, can the horrible acts of the Japanese military excuse it. That our enemies behaved abominably doesn’t excuse us from following the moral law. It’s said, by Our Lord himself, “Repay not evil for evil”. Our Lord overturned (in the main) the law of Moses, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood, stripe for stripe, life for life”, but even the Law of the Talion, eye for eye, is incomparably superior to the ‘law’ that we followed when we bombed civilian cities. The ‘law’ of World War II would be something like, ‘If you pluck out my eye, I’ll pluck out, not yours, but your baby daughter’s.” For those people that we destroyed at Hiroshima weren’t predominantly the soldiers or (much less) the military, political and economic elites who had waged war on us and had spread death, torture, and oppression across Asia and the Pacific. They were innocent civilians- labourers, industrial workers, farmers, teachers, doctors, librarians, priests- going about their daily lives, who shared nothing in common with Tojo and his armies besides a nationality. (And not even always that- a seventh of all the people killed at Hiroshima weren’t even Japanese, they were imported slave labourers from Korea. Wonder how we would have explained that to their families.)

I am not a pacifist, to say the least. I believe most rules have exceptions, and the general rule against killing has exceptions, too. It’s permissible to kill soldiers in war, as long as the war is a just one. It’s permissible, I think (though this is more controversial) to kill tyrants and the elites (military, political, economic) who are carrying out direct acts of oppression in such a tyrannical regime. In context of a just revolution, killing government officials, soldiers, and police of a fiercely oppressive regime can be justified. You can push this a little- though you start getting into morally murky territory- by executing collaborators, spies, enemy agents, and the like. Execution of people responsible for the worst crimes- think the Saddam Husseins, John Gottis, Jeffrey Dahmers- can, I think, be justified too. Abortion is the great ‘life’ issue being debated in our time, but even there, though I’m generally pro-life, I’d recognize exceptions on the ground of self defence, when the baby is a serious threat to the health of the mother. But all of those, with the exception of the last, involve people who are actively doing harm to others, or who have committed grave acts of harm in the past, and by their crimes have placed themselves liable to judgment. This is the difference, in other words, between using violence against the guilty and using it against the innocent. As the Mosaic law said, again, “The just and innocent man ye shall not put to death” (Exodus 23:7).

Why do Judeo-Christian morality, and natural law, make such a distinction between the guilty and the innocent? It would take a while to explain, but in part, it stems from the fact that it’s implicit in our nature to be rational moral agents, to make free choices to do good or evil, and to treat us in a way reflective of our human dignity means that the treatment we receive should in some way be reflective of the consequences of our choices and our actions. This is why we don’t sentence insane criminals to prison, because we recognize that a person can’t be held responsible for something they didn’t choose to do. In order for our choices to have meaning they must have consequences, and that means that the treatment we should expect when we do something wrong, or harm others, is different from the treatment we should expect when we have done nothing wrong. When we harm another person unjustly, they have a right to resist us by force, because we have merited that by our actions. But when someone else has harmed them, we’ve merited no ill treatment whatsoever, and to harm us would be an injustice by itself. It’s been said that you should never use violence against someone unless you can give them a good explanation of why. Some explanations work- they would be convincing to me, if my opponent were right on the facts. “You’re an enemy soldier, actively trying to kill me.” “You’re a tyrant who has murdered your opponents and stood by while your subjects starved and died of poverty and neglect.” “You grew rich off directing murderous gangs.” In all these cases, these explanations are plausible because they refer back to something the person has chosen to do, and show that the use of force is justified because of their own actions. But some such explanations are completely unworkable. “You must die because you’re Japanese”, or “You must die because you live in this city”. Would anyone find that a plausible reason they should die? Being Japanese, or living in Hiroshima, are incidental, accidental facts about a person, they’re not _essential_ to who they are in the same way that their moral choices are essential, and that’s part of the reason why, if we take natural law seriously, killing the innocent and those actively doing (or having done) serious harmful or unjust things, are two very separate enterprises. No one would want to suffer for something that they personally didn’t do, or weren’t responsible for. And if we wouldn’t want to be killed for something that wasn’t our doing, how can we decide that we should do this to other people?

It’s worth thinking back to the Transfiguration, and to remembering who was speaking with Christ: one of the two, of course, was Moses. Moses was, among other things, a war leader as well as a lawgiver, and was at the same time a deeply flawed man, and one through whom God chose (in some sense, maybe in a fairly attenuated and indirect one) to work. He was a controversial figure in early Christianity, and remains one today, not least because of his status as a war leader. (Some of those wars, and his guidelines for conducting a war, are rather hair-raising; I’m not up on my Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but I don’t think they quite match up to either the modern or the medieval ideas about conducting war in a just and moral fashion. To say the least, though I’m not about to start quote mining Deuteronomy. Spare me.). Quite a few of the early Christian heresies threw out the Old Testament entirely. The Marcionites and the Manichaeans were among them, and they pointed out, reasonably enough, that all the business about killing the men and male children of hostile tribes, and taking the women as wives, were incompatible with the law of Christ. And that’s quite true (Judaism, just like Christianity, evolved over time, and to judge the whole religion by some of its earliest and murkiest writings would be quite unfair). The broad Christian tradition, though they did accept the Old Testament as scripture, never saw Moses as a perfect man, or his writings as a perfect record of morality (Christianity didn’t agree with the Mosaic law on divorce, for example, and neither Christians nor later Jews followed its views on the conduct of war). Revelation is a gradual process, and moral progress happened between the time of Moses and that of St. Augustine.

We see this in what the Christian tradition tells us about Moses himself. We are told that the devil argued with the Archangel Michael over Moses after he died: “Yet Michael the Archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed over the body of Moses, durst not bring a railing accusation….” (Jude 1:9). This is apparently a reference to some Jewish apocryphal texts which I haven’t read; I should though because they sound interesting. The apocryphal tradition is that the devil claimed Moses’ body, on the grounds that he was a murderer. Now the Enemy is a liar, but he is also a smart cookie, and doesn’t claim things unless he has a hope of getting them. Implied in this passage is that the Enemy had a hint of a legitimate claim, in that Moses, as great as he was, had some serious flaws and limitations, and one of those moral flaws was an overly sanguine approach to war and to the ethics of war. Moses wasn’t welcomed into heaven because he was a perfect man, or because his moral code was perfect, or a perfect reflection of God’s commands; on the contrary, his flaws ran deep, just as his virtues did, and he was welcomed into heaven because of divine grace (as with us all), not because of his righteousness. He wasn’t a perfect moral authority any more than we are, as the story of the Enemy’s claim to his body makes clear, and that means that we need to look for where he was wrong as well as where he was right. And tradition tells us that the most questionable thing about him was his approach to war. The story of Jesus conversing with Moses on the holy mountain is a perfect reflection of how the new ethic of just and limited war overcame and superseded the old ethic of total war, Assyrian style.

Of course, Jude didn’t know, nor did Peter, that total war was gone but not forgotten. And that it would come back, on a grand scale, starting in the nineteenth century and reaching unheard of abysses of destruction in the twentieth, and would come close to drowning civilization in blood. St. John, another witness to the Transfiguration, gave us a hint of the terrible future, when he suggests that the powers of evil in this world would use the powers of nature to do strange and terrible wonders, and to envelop the world in flame. “And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men” (Revelation 13:13). As we reflect on the horrors that we wrought 65 years ago, this quotation seems particularly prophetic and chilling. When the world heard the radio broadcasts on that August day, it must have seemed to many that indeed, at last, fire had been made by human hands to come down from heaven on a greater scale than ever before. And they must have wondered whether, as St. John had foretold, this new age would be one in which the Enemy would have found a great new tool to work in the hearts of men to bring about hatred, evil, and destruction.

The nuclear age, unfortunately, is the age that we live in. Lamenting the destruction of Hiroshima is something we ought to do, but it isn’t enough. It happened 65 years ago, and most of the people involved have left this earthly coil; I hope all of them, Americans and Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, British and French, Russians and Australians, have been able to make their peace with God, and that the people on both sides who did evil that good might come of it, have repented and found forgiveness in the light of God and His peace. What’s left for us is to strive for a world in which that kind of horror never happens again. I’m glad that President Obama is striving for a world without nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, but that will never happen without great and massive popular pressure. All of us- not just Jews and Christians but all of us- should be striving to ensure a world free of the weapons that could destroy all life on this planet several times over. And all of us should hope and pray that our military men and women are safe, healthy, and preserved not just from physical danger but from moral danger, and that the United States Government does not ask of them to break the laws of war, to deliberately target civilians and innocent noncombatants, and to do evil that good may come of it. Let’s hope and pray that there will be no more deliberate killings of the innocent in the name of the United States government, not now and not ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.