Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reflections on the season of Christmas...and the faith that undergirds the celebrations

This season, allegedly celebrating the birth of a man/God, is so replete with mercantile consumerism, filled malls and parking lots and hollow questions like, Have you finished your shopping yet?"
The churches will undoubtedly be filled at least on December 24, with people who rarely, if ever, dawn the doors of those same buildings on any other day of the year. The clergy will deliver homilies about peace and love to all, and the papers and media outlets will detail stories of heart-warming personal stories of compassion, healing and generosity, as if to say that "we really have caught the spirit of the season.
Nevertheless, the conflicts among and between faith communities will witness more deaths and more injuries and more refugees, even while the celebrations of the birth of Jesus, and the convergence of the Winter solstice are observed.
From our best angels to our worst nightmares, the divide between the stories that really do inspire us to reach out and to love one another, as the Pope did this week, in sharing his 77th birthday with homeless men from the streets of Rome, and those that make us cringe with shame, guilt and loathing for the heinous acts against human beings, most of them innocent, will make us wonder how to achieve a better balance of more love and less hatred and fear.
Individually and collectively, we have a history and a tradition that bears the scars of too much "Christian judgement and fear" and too little love and forgiveness. We also bear the imprint of too much literalism in our faith observances and too little poetry. It is as if too many 'Christian' expressions are ones of pointing the self-righteous finger of judgement against those near who do not comply with our pictures of saintliness. And, if this is not a time to address that dynamic, then which time of year would be that time?
Many people were exposed to bible lessons that stressed the memorization of the words of the Decalogue, or the Lord's Prayer, or even some of the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount, without  being offered a comprehensive, coherent and even revolutionary sense of the meaning of those words and those stories. And the church has only itself to thank for such indoctrination and brain-washing.
One courageous man, a English scholar who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, Jay Parini, has taken up the task of re-introducing Jesus to a twenty-first century reading audience, in a new book entitled, "Jesus: the Face of God" in which he excoriates the literal readings of scripture and exhorts his readers to step into the mind/heart and footsteps of the man from Galilee, whose "go and sin no more" to the woman scorned by the Saducees for her harlotry would bring cries of "too soft" and "too liberal" from today's right-wing conservative branch of Christian conservatives.
Speaking on the Fresh Air program from WHYY with Terry Gross, former Boston University Catholic chaplain James Carroll has an article in the latest edition of The New Yorker in which he writes:
"Who am I to judge?" With those five words, Pope Francis "stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralizing typical of popes and bishops," writes columnist James Carroll. Francis made that statement in July, in response to a reporter's question about the status of gay priests in the Church. In a new article about Francis in The New Yorker, Carroll describes the pope as having "unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world."

Read James Carroll's Article In The New Yorker:

Carroll was a seminarian and a priest during another great period of change — Vatican II, which, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, led to reforms that modernized the church. As a priest from 1969 to 1974, he served as Boston University's Catholic chaplain. He left the priesthood in part over his disagreements with the leadership after the death of Pope John and the beginning of what Carroll describes as a counterrevolution. He's now an author and a columnist for The Boston Globe. His New Yorker article is called "Who Am I to Judge? A Radical Pope's First Year." (From the Fresh Air website, December 17, 2013)
"Who am I to judge?" in reference to the Pope's response to a question about gays and lesbians, has made the Pope the 'man of the year' for The Advocate, a gay rights magazine, apparently for the potential to change attitudes the Pope has brought to the current culture.
And who is the church, as an institution or as its hierarchy, to judge?
It was the man/God whose life, in however small and fragmented snippets we have been given through the writers of the four gospels, all of them written at least a half century after his life on earth, whose birth allegedly comprises the core reason for the celebrations that we witness today in our malls, box stores, on-line shopping outlets and in television Christmas "specials" attempting to evoke the traditions of carols and joyous entertainment of bygone programs.
And yet, it is, as Parini sees it, his revolutionary yet pragmatic teachings that we have so disdained and so corrupted, in the name of the institution (and not the gathering) that attempts to bear witness to his gospel.
We need far less literalism in our reading of scripture and far less judgementalism in our practice of our faith, especially inside the Christian faith communities and between those communities and the communities of other faiths...and we will not find that less literalism and less judgementalism through our compulsive, obsessive parade through the malls and the box stores in search of the gift that we believe we give  hope and love to those we cherish.
We will find a new expression of the birth of love and forgiveness through the practice of our courage and our compassion and our willingness to "walk a mile in our enemies' shoes"....and especially our enemies. It is so easy and facile to walk a mile in our family's or our friends' shoes...the real test is to embrace the spirit, the tragedies and the hopelessness of our enemy, of the ones who have found us the target of their sniping and their contempt and their loathing.
And to forgive both their acts and their persons for those acts, as Jesus does with the adultress, is neither easy nor conventional. It is both demanding and unconventional....both qualities exhibited by Jesus himself in his own life.
Excommunication, and all of the churchs' acts of alienation must be completely atoned, through personal, professional and institutional acknowledgements and a process of seeking forgiveness. One Canadian example that reached the public consciousness this week saw a man, a victim of the abuse suffered in the religious schools, who, upon receipt of some $40,000 of reparations for his pain and suffering, donated the money to charity in his own community, even though his own state was one of poverty. Now that is a sign of Christian charity, whether the man attends or is even a member of a Christian church community....

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