I continued this week my reading of different national literatures. Having spent previous weeks reflecting on the Great Hunger (the Irish famine) and the Holocaust (via Anne Frank), I spent this week on a single novel about the Armenian Genocide. Throughout the week we both heard Pope Francis acknowledge the genocide and President Obama decline to use the term. Turkey continues to officially and aggressively deny the genocide, and Turkish groups attempt reconciliation without truth. But the Armenian Genocide was the first in the twentieth century, and served as a prototype for the Holocaust of the Jews. When Hitler was asked if he was afraid that he would get caught it is recorded that he laughed and said, “Who remembers the Armenians?”
Tomorrow (April 24) is the 100th Anniversary of the Genocide. Most of the world will remember the 1.5 million lives ethnically cleansed in the name of nationalism. I will attend a local commemoration at St. Gregory’s here in White Plains, and join my friends everywhere in honoring those remembered as the Armenian martyrs.
More than a decade ago my friends Jan and Tom Kavazanjian gave me a copy of Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the novel that brought the story of the genocide to the world. Tom’s parents had given the book to them. Since then it has sat on my shelf, and for the last couple of years in a box. This week I worked my way through all 811 pages, only to learn that this English translation of the original German through which generations of Armenians were introduced to the story is an abridgement – and that a full translation was published two years ago.
Musa Dagh means Moses’ Mountain, an important site of Armenian resistance. 5000 men, women and children from seven Syrian villages, including Yoghonoluk, refused to be marched to their deaths in the desert and instead disappeared onto the mountain. For fifty-three days they held out and fought back until rescued by a French ship. The forty days of the title draws out the several layers of biblical allusion in the text.
Werfel was a German Jew with a Catholic education and wide religious interests. As such he was a colleague of Kafka, Buber, Karl Kraus and Rilke. His book was published in 1933 and drew clear connections between the Turkish treatment of the Armenians and German treatment of Jews. Werfel is also remembered as the author of The Song of Bernadette.
I spent my actual Sabbath Day today hiring a business manager at the church, climbing at the gym, enjoying beer and gumbo with a colleague, reading a novel with my coffee, having dinner with my family, playing RISK with August, and watching a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I ended my day reading several sermons of Peter Doghramji, pastor the Armenian Evangelical Church of New York, delivered over the years to commemorate Armenian Martyrs Day.
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter – Beginning of Earth Week, April 19, 2015
1 John 3:1-6
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.
With the advent of truly warm weather this week, I leapt at the chance to be outdoors. On Monday August and I took our first father-son hike of the season at Taxter Ridge above Irvington. You’ve all seen Taxter Ridge. If you are heading West on I287 toward the Tappan Zee Bridge, just at the point where the ramp for I87 rises up and turns south, that’s Taxter Ridge in front of you – 182 acres of woods, rock and stream with 2.5 miles of blazed tails and magnificent views of the River. It is one of our newer parks and has been hailed by Walkable Westchester as an example of how effective concerned citizens can be in rallying to protect open space, which is a precious commodity in southern Westchester.
It turns out that one of those concerned citizens is Dorothy Beach, our interim music director. Besides being a gifted musician with a warm and generous sense of humor, she is an environmentalist – and more than a decade ago she was instrumental in preserving this tract of land from development. I discovered this about Dorothy a few months ago when I preached a sermon about mountain hiking and Dorothy came to me afterward to share her history of organizing to preserve this land, its creatures, and habitats from being developed into ridiculously sized mansions. Dorothy herself lives right at the trailhead in a lovely little house with hand-hewn floorboards and wooden rafters and books and music everywhere. In fact, she’s hosting a party for the choir there in a couple of weeks. So on that really beautiful day at the beginning of the week, the kind of day that held the promise of summer-to-come, August and I headed up to Dorothy’s house after school and she and her dog Jamie led us into the woods and onto the ridge, August and Jamie racing ahead at their own speed, and Dorothy and I walking and talking. It amused August to no end that were hiking with “Dorothy, and her little dog too!”
Dorothy has embodied the GreenFaith Pledge you can find in your bulletin today: “I pledge to make my life a blessing for the earth.” Thank you Dorothy.
The author of first John says See what love the Father has for us that might be called children of God, and calls us to embody this love in our lives in such a way that our lives may be of service to those we love (John 15:13). We are all God’s children now; though what we will be has not yet been revealed. Who knows what paths such love might lead us down, and how we might be transformed in the process. But wouldn’t you like to find out? Wouldn’t you like to see what love can do and dare when it is God’s love at work in us?
It is important that we distinguish what the author of 1st John is telling us from other notions of being God’s children.
The ancient Greek poet Cleanthes praises the god Zeus as the father of humanity; and Plato had described Zeus as the generative father of human beings. This language is echoed in Philo’s discussion of God as the creator of humanity. God is “the husband and father of the universe, supplying, as He does, the germs of life.”
The stoics believed that prior to distinctions of country, class or culture, we share a common humanity because shared origin is divine. But John doesn’t call us children of God in order to encourage us with some notion of universal divine parenthood or shared humanity. Rather, for the author of 1st John, we become children of God through purification of our lives, abiding in (and identifying with) Christ, practicing justice in our relationships and loving others in practical, tangible, visible ways. If we are not doing this, we are not children of God. Period. We are known as Christ’s people because we are in the process of becoming Christ-like; we are adopted as children of God because we are striving to be more God-like. It is a very specific relationship that shapes us in a particular way: What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will be like Christ.
I’ve thought a lot about this notion of adoption and where our identity comes from this week. My sister gave me a book a few weeks ago called Orphan Train that has been on the New York Times bestseller list now for 86 weeks. She gave it to me because I have been doing work on our family genealogy and struggling with a wall in my research. I can trace almost all of my family lines back to the point of immigration; all but the one I am most interested in right now – my Geary lineage. I have submitted my DNA to ancestry.com, written to numerous county clerks and historical societies, and even contacted fourth cousins through the Internet searching for clues, but so far to no avail: I can go back no further than 1850 when my great great great grandfather Robert Geary was an 11 year old farmhand working for a family in Shelby County, Indiana.
My sister recommended the book because she thought the little known history of orphan trains might hold a clue to where Robert came from. You see, in 1850, the first year Robert appears in the census, there were an estimated 30,000 abandoned children, mostly Irish catholic, living on the streets of New York, making their way anyway they could. The Rev. Charles Loring Brace, a thirty year old congregational minister, believed that “hard work, education, and compassionate Christian childrearing – not to mention Midwestern Christian family values – were the only way to save these children,” and so he created the Children’s Aid Society to transfer them to new homes out west. Between 1854 and 1929 so-called orphan trains transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children from the East Coast to the Midwest. At best, the result was “adoption” into good Christian homes, albeit Protestant ones. At its worst, it meant indentured servitude.
My three times great Irish grandfather Robert claimed to have been born in Ohio, and his position on an Indiana farm in 1850 makes him too early to have been part of the orphan trains; nevertheless it set me thinking about my own family in a new way.
Robert Geary was exactly the kind of kid that was being shipped east on the orphan trains: young and strong; an orphan at least in the sense that he did much of his growing up without parents to care for him. Typical for a kid away from home, he caused trouble and was briefly jailed at the age of 15 for possession of an unlawful firearm, though he was later acquitted. He then moved to another farm nearly 30 miles away, whether by choice or not we don’t know, where he was again recorded in the census. In 1861 he volunteered to fight in the Civil War on the side of the North with the 27th Indiana Infantry, known as the “giants” because these Midwest-bred farm boys were the tallest regiment in the war. (Yes, including my ancestor). Robert lost an arm after the Battle of Antietam, but he survived and returned home to marry Catherine Scripture and have five children.
But Catherine died within a year of giving birth to their youngest child, and Robert followed her to the grave two years later. My great great grandfather William David, the oldest, was only 10 when his mother died, and 12 when he and his siblings were orphaned. The five children were appointed a guardian, but that didn’t work out and the children were subsequently separated and disbursed to different families. Some were never seen again. All had to learn to make do and make their own way.
In an NPR interview about her book, Christina Baker Kline notes that as they grew up orphan-train riders were typically determined to forget their past; they embraced a typically protestant work-ethic and sought to distinguished themselves through achievement and with uncanny consistency adopted what she calls “redemption narratives” in which the hardships of their lives were redeemed, if possible, by finding the love of their life and establishing new, strong families, all of which would not have been possible but for their circumstances and the trains.
My two-times great grandfather William moved north to Jasper County, Indiana, and in one of those moves that makes me love my ancestors, married a woman whose husband had abandoned her – and William adopted her newborn son. It seems Sarah Cooper’s first husband had been accused by neighbors of horse theft; and it appears he was guilty because he left.
I wonder sometimes about where our impulses for compassion come from. And while the answer to that question is no doubt large and complex, I know at least part of it arises from our own stories and experiences. I think of William, an orphan and possibly the son of an orphan, adopting infant and embracing his mother, and I say, “but of course.”
[left: William and Sarah, with Ray (standing), Clarence and Beulah]
William and Sarah had five children together, two boys and three girls, my great-grandfather Clarence being the oldest. In 1914 Clarence married the love of his life, Lily May, and they had one child: my grandfather, Albert. But Lily died in the 1918 flu pandemic which swept the country in the last year of the war and killed 500 million worldwide. Clarence’s singular grief unhinged him and he began a downward spiral into alcohol. Before long he moved away, never to return; he cleaned himself up and later remarried. But he abandoned my grandfather, leaving him behind during his formative years to be raised by his grandparents, William and Sarah, but mostly and by his three aunts and his uncle August (known as Gus). I told you a few weeks ago about the kind of husband Albert grew up to be when I described to you his determination to marry my one-armed grandmother despite the strong objections of his family who were convinced he would ruin his life by marrying a “needy person.”
Albert died when my dad was just 32. My own dad died when I was 35. Too soon.
[I am the infant in the arms of my father Alan, who is standing beside his father Albert, who is standing beside his father Clarence – the year before he died. Though Clarence would not attend his son’s wedding, the two later reconciled.]
I thought about all of these stories this week as I meditated on becoming a child of God.
- I thought about the six generations of abandonment, early loss, and grief that run through just this one line of my own story.
- I thought about the generations of orphan-train riders who despite their own loss were determined to make an awful experience into a blessing by nurturing new families of their own.
- I thought of the community to which the author of 1st John wrote for whom becoming children of God was so important that they defined love as putting one’s life at the disposal of those one loves (John 15:13).
- I thought about the very different and complicated forms all our families take as we try to make our way in this world.
The families and communities of which we are a part, whether by inheritance or choice, shape who we are, and they are worth exploring. They give rise to our hopes and fears, our dreams and deepest desires, for good or ill. But the author of 1st John reminds us that at least part of our identity is divine, and that we may participate in what he calls the word of life, the light of the world, a divine family with siblings everywhere, by striving to love one another. Out of the many and varied stories that shape our lives, we are summoned to nothing less than a divine way of life in the world, to being the children of God by loving God and loving our neighbor and loving the earth itself; to pledge our lives to being a blessing for others and the earth itself. What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will have become like Christ.
* * * * * * *
© 2015, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
White Plains Presbyterian Church
 Allen Dwight Callahan, A Love Supreme: A History of the Johannine Tradition. (Fortress Press, 2015). My reflections on 1st John during this Easter season have been inspired by Prof. Callahan’s entirely convincing reconstruction of the early Johannine community. Callahan is Visiting Professor of Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of New Testament at Seminário Theológico Batista do Nordeste (Brazil).
 Callahan, A Love Supreme. p. 30.
 Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train. (William Morrow, 2013). There is a brief history of the movement included at the back of this book.
With the advent of truly spring-like weather, this week saw the return of outdoor activity. On Monday August and I took our first father-son hike of the season: Taxter Ridge in Irvington. It turns out that the interim music director at the church I serve was instrumental in preserving this tract of land from development about a decade ago. August and I joined “Dorothy, and her little dog too” for a short walk in the woods. Here is August racing up the ridge.
My sabbath day proper began this morning with a visit to The Cliffs in Valhalla for the first time in months. Neither my fingers nor my toes were ready for rock climbing, so I took it easy over the first hour and decided that was enough. I did not want to be too sore going into this weekend. I spent some time walking, and reading, and drinking coffee through the early afternoon, and then after school took August and one of his friends for a three hour hike at Cranberry Lake Preserve. (Notice the tucked in pant legs on account of the deer ticks that are also enjoying the warmer weather).
Continuing my weekly trek through reading national literatures, this week I focused on THE NETHERLANDS because my wife is traveling in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and visiting the Hague. I started with the obvious: practitioners of the devotio moderna of the late fourteenth century. I stuck primarily to selections from Master Geert Groote (d. 1379), Jan Van Ruysbroeck (d. 1381), and Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471), whose The Imitation of Christ was the single most influential devotional book in the history of western Christianity.
However, the bulk of my week was spent with The Diary of Anne Frank, which I had not read in many years. I picked up the more recent “definitive edition” which interweaves Anne’s own editorial comments with her original writing. I decided early on to try reading selections to my eight year old son, although I thought the sustained experience of fear throughout might be too much to push through in a week. He took Anne’s reports of German treatment of Jews rather matter of factly, and without much comment or question. He was neither surprised (he already knew some of this history) nor affected (because of his age and not being Jewish?) by the reports. But he found Anne herself very engaging, very funny, and a good writer. He laughed and laughed when Peter dropped the fifty pound bag of beans down the ladder; Anne’s descriptions of classmates at school sounded just like his school; her playing pranks on Mr. Dussell elicited sympathy and co-conspiracy; and Anne’s comment that “it is not pleasant to pet a rat, especially when it takes a chunk out of your arm” made him suggest editing a small volume called The Wisdom of Anne Frank.
This week of reading was all the more poignant as it culminated today with Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. At the urging of my own Christian denomination, August and I lit candles tonight
“in memory of those who were killed during the Holocaust. We remembered the six million Jews. We remembered Poles, people with disabilities, Slavs, gays, lesbians, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, religious dissidents, and the others who were killed during this time. We remembered those who resisted and those who offered refuge and provided rescue [particularly those who aided Anne and her family]. As we lit these candles, we acknowledged our responsibility for one another. We committed that we would build on this earth a world that has no room for hatred, no place for violence. Together, we asked God to grant us strength that we might fulfill that commitment.” [thank you Mark Koenig for posting this litany, which I have paraphrased].
In 2015 I am using my Sabbath Day as the center around which will organize a week of reading different national literatures. This post will serve as a constantly updated index of my progress. Dates in parenthesis represent the year an author received the Nobel Prize in Literature, unless otherwise noted.
- FRANCE: Jean Paul Sartre (who refused the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963).
- FRANCE: André Gide (1947); Albert Camus (1957); Victor Hugo and Simone de Beauvoir.
- RUSSIA: including Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Ivan Turgenev.
- IRELAND: Yeats (1923); Shaw (1925); Samuel Beckett (1969); Seamus Heaney (1995).
- ANCIENT IRELAND: The Taín; and an anthology of Irish myths and Celtic Spirituality.
- ROMAN REPUBLIC: Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.
- SCANDINAVIA: Henrik Ibsen; Tomas Tranströmer (2011); Dag Hammerskjold (Peace Prize 1961).
- THE NETHERLANDS: Devotio Moderna; Thomas à Kempis, The Diary of Anne Frank.
- ARMENIA: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel; Sermons on Armenian Martyrs
- to be continued…
For six weeks now I have let my Sabbath Day function as the center around which I have organized a week of reading different national literatures.
- FRANCE: Jean Paul Sartre (who refused the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963).
- FRANCE: André Gide (Nobel Prize in 1947); Albert Camus (Nobel Prize in 1957); as well as Victor Hugo and Simone de Beauvoir.
- RUSSIA: including Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Turgenev.
- IRELAND: Seamus Heaney (Nobel Prize in 1995); William Butler Yeats (Nobel Prize in 1923); George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize in 1925); Samuel Beckett (Nobel Prize in 1969); and others.
- ANCIENT IRELAND: The Taín, Celtic Spirituality, St. Brenden.
- LATE ROMAN REPUBLIC: Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War
This past week I was drawn to SCANDINAVIA by a volume of the Complete Major Prose Plays by the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, which I found on my shelf (translated and introduced by Rolf Fjelde). By the time I finished with it this week, the book was held together by duct tape and immensely more precious to me – filled with new notes, highlights, and underlines. I had read and enjoyed a handful of these before: Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is one of my favorite plays of all time. Yet the back cover of this tattered paperback quotes the author himself as saying
Only by grasping and comprehending my entire production as a continuous and coherent whole will the reader be able to receive the precise impression I sought to convey in the individual parts … I therefore appeal to the reader that he [sic] not put any play aside, and not skip anything, but that he absorb the plays … in the order in which I wrote them.”
So I set out to read them all, in order. Though the last seven days encompassed the culmination of Holy Week and Easter, I carried this volume with me everywhere. I read in morning before the sun came up, late at night after everyone was asleep; it was the first book I have read on our apartment balcony and the first to greet the return of warm weather and sidewalk cafés. I was so surrounded by Ibsen’s prose that I dreamt in dialogue, seeing the characters blend in and out of one another’s dramas, conjuring alternative or extended endings for each story. And I managed all twelve of the prose plays, in order, with out skipping any:
- The Pillars of Society (1877)
- A Dolls House (1879)
- Ghosts (1881)
- An Enemy of the People (1882)
- The Wild Duck (1884)
- Rosmersholm (1886)
- The Lady from the Sea (1888)
- Hedda Gabler (1890)
- The Master Builder (1892)
- Little Eyolf (1894)
- John Gabriel Borkman (1896)
- When the Dead Awaken (1899)
My head is swimming with Ibsen’s social criticism, psychological exploration, individual struggle, and the pain of so many characters; the yearning for freedom, happiness, unbounded “life, life, life” – as well as the reality of limits, the presence of death, the working out of grief and guilt, and the complexity of relationships (especially marriages). Ibsen is widely considered the best playwright since Shakespeare, and he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is a mark against the Nobel Prize, which has disproportionately been given to a Scandinavian, that Ibsen never received one!
As a bonus, I found that many of the plays are available on youtube, as performed for a BBC television series Play of the Month. Anthony Hopkins and Diana Rigg made me weep with their portrayal of grief in Little Eyolf. Wallace Shawn wrote a screen play for The Master Builder, released on film last year (2014), which absolutely tore me apart emotionally. Lisa Joyce‘s portray of Hilda terrified me.
* * * * *
As I settled on Scandanavia, I pulled from my shelf a volume of collected poems by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011 for his “condensed, translucent images that give us fresh access to reality.” He writes with “a sense of mystery and wonder underlying the routine of everyday life, a quality which often gives his poems a religious dimension.” The title of this post, everyday astonishment, is his.
Serendipity of choice for my reading each week continues to operate. As it turns out, Tranströmer died two weeks ago, on March 26th, at the age of 83. In the lead-up to Holy Week I missed the obituary. Here is his poem, After a Death:
Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.
* * * * *
And finally, I quietly perused my paperback copy of Dag Hammarskjold’s posthumously published Markings. I received this book the year I was confirmed and it inspired my new-forming faith:
“In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”
Hammarskjold, a Swedish diplomat and economist, served as the Second Secretary-General of the United Nations (a position he held from 1953-1961) and was the only one to die in office. (He was also an avid hiker and lover of nature). Hammarskjold was killed in a plane crash on his way cease-fire negotiations in Congo in 1961 (quite possibly shot down by mining interests who profited from the conflict). He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, having been nominated before his death.
Markings documents the inner spiritual life of a public man of action, drawing heavily on mystics like Meister Eckhart and Jan van Ruysbroeck. The markings were entries in a diary Hammarskjold began keeping when in this twenties and continued to fill until his death. They were his compass in difficult times. The introduction to my paperback copy, written by W.H. Auden, cites a radio interview Hammarskjold once gave in which he said:
But the explanation of how man should live a life of active social service in full harmony with himself as a member of the community of spirit, I found in the writings of those great medieval mystics for whom ‘self-surrender’ had been the way to self-realization, and who in ‘singleness of mind’ and ‘inwardness’ had found strength to say yes to every demand which the needs of their neighbors made them face, and to say yes also to every fate life had in store for them when they followed the call of duty as they understood it.
This has been a very rich reading week.
May your sabbath be as rich when you find it.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for the Resurrection of Our Lord / Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015
Isaiah 25:6-9 Mark 16:1-8
They were determined, these three women who made their way in the early morning light toward Jesus’ tomb. Unlike the male disciples, they didn’t desert Jesus. These women were there during his crucifixion. Mark’s gospel says they watched Jesus’ crucifixion from a distance, together with the “many other women who had come up with Jesus to Jerusalem.”
After petitioning successfully for Jesus’ body, Joseph of Arimathea removed him from the cross, wrapped him in a linen cloth and placed his body in a tomb that had been hewn out of a rock. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where Jesus’ body was laid. They watched as Joseph rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.
Early the next morning three of those many women who had followed Jesus from his early days in Galilee – that poor, northern province that had been victimized by Rome’s scorched earth military campaigns that burned whole towns and enslaved thousands – these many women, who grew up in the shadow of that violence, many of whose fathers may have been dragged of to Sepphoris as slaves to build monuments to Caesar’s victory – these women, who grew up with little hope but much fire in their belly, these women who refused to submit to Rome’s domination, continued to refuse as they forged their way in the early morning light toward that tomb. They had brought the proper spices for burial. They would not allow their friend, their compatriot, to be simply tucked away and forgotten. These three women were determined. They would not abandon him.
So when they utter the question “who will roll away the stone?”
- we dare not hear this question as one of helplessness; for these were industrious women;
- we dare not hear this question as one of pessimism; for these were determined women;
- we dare not hear this question as one of weakness; for these were strong women.
When they ask “who will roll away the stone?” they are posing the problem before them in a very practical way. They are setting out for consideration the obstacle before them. They don’t let the fact that they haven’t solved this problem keep them from moving toward their goal. They ask this question while they are walking. This question does not cause them to stop, nor to turn back. In fact the question seems, like their footsteps, to propel them forward.
I want us to think about this for a moment. Jesus has just been crucified by the Romans, as thousands of upstart threats to Rome had been crucified. But Jesus has stirred a following that has Rome and certain of their Jewish collaborators concerned. Squash the man, squash the movement, was their reasoning. But these women weren’t about to be squashed. They plunged ahead in the early morning light knowing full well the risks that they might be seen by someone and identified to the authorities. There might be a guard at the tomb who could arrest them. They too could lose their lives. But they do not turn back.
Who will roll away the stone, they wonder among themselves as they place one foot in front of the other, walking in the thick of a terrorized city, toward the tomb of the troublemaker who inspired loyalty to God above loyalty to Rome.
I want us to keep that image of the courageous women before us – that pre-Easter, Easter moment,
- before we know that the stone is rolled away,
- before the women plunge forward into the tomb,
- before we hear that God has acted,
- before we hear the promise that Jesus will meet them in Galilee,
- before the women flee in terror and amazement,
- before they keep their silence,
- before Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene,
- before the disciples refuse to believe that Mary has seen him and so belittle her,
- before he appeared to two of the male disciples on the road to Emmaus,
- before the rest of the disciples refuse to believe them,
- before Jesus himself finally appears to the eleven and upbraids them for their lack of faith…
Before all this … were these women … walking that terrifying path toward the tomb in the early morning light. Afraid but undeterred. Uncertain but determined. With things yet to be all figured out but with a willingness to keep moving in the right direction.
As we depart this sanctuary, this safe haven, and re-enter our world, a world that is wracked with as much suffering as it is joy, a world that wrestles with hatred and with love, a world in which the powerful keep crucifying the vulnerable,
- May we be like these three women, courageous, steadfast, and bold;
- May we, like them, allow for fear to be a part of the real journey of faith, but also like them, to not let our fear hold us back.
- May we, like them, allow for uncertainty to be a part of the real journey of faith, but also like them, to not view uncertainty as a reason to stop moving forward but as an opportunity to wonder and plan together.
- May we, like these three women who ran headlong into the tomb seeking Jesus, allow our love for others to propel us deeper into uncharted territory.
(May we? … Mais Oui!)
[The embedded image above is “Who will roll away the stone…” by the late Hanna Cheriyan Varghese of Malaysia. Based on Mark 16:3.]
For over a month now I have let my Sabbath Day function as the center around which I have organized a week of reading different national literatures. I spent two week reading French Modernists, and a week with nineteenth century Russians. I then spent a week reading 19th and 20th century Irish writing, and a week immersed in early Irish myths, legends and the formation of Celtic Christianity.
So far I have let whimsy organize these reading weeks, and will continue to as long as it lasts.
Last week my son brought home from school a copy of Who Was Julius Caesar by Nico Medina, illustrated by Tim Foley. (The Who Was… series is great for elementary school kids). I was struck by the irony, as we headed into Holy Week, of reading about the dictator-for-life who oversaw the death of the Late Roman Republic; yet as my son and I talked about the several dozen pirates Caesar crucified after he was kidnapped and ransomed, and the six thousand he had crucified after quelling the slave rebellion led by Spartacus, I warmed to it. I pulled off my own shelf Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian and read several chapters on the Late Republic to supplement my conversations with my son, and my sabbath topic was chosen.
Since primary sources are always the name of the game, we read aloud as bedtime stories this week selections from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, particularly passages on the conquest of Gaul and his nemesis Vercingetorix. Caesar was quite a writer, and some of these passages were riveting. (It was, after all, P.R. for his public back in Rome). The strategy was admirable. The accomplishments impressive. All of which made Holy Week more poignant, as we contemplated the death of but one among many, many, many thousands crucified by Rome.
As an aside, my son has started to study Latin, so it was extra fun to read a writer who thought, spoke, and thought in Latin. Someday we will translate these same passages.
To lighten things up a bit, I threw in a selection of poems by Catullus (c. 84 – c. 54 BC), including these lines (out of context) which seem apt for Easter:
What more can life offer
than the longed for unlooked for event when it happens…
Last observation: as I was reading about Gaius Julius Caesar this week I realized that I had in mind Karl Urban’s portrayal of Caesar in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess. His portrayal of self-centered charismatic arrogance perfectly captures for me this period in time.
Until next week, for those who are observant: a blessed Holy Week, Passover, or Easter. To all: sabbath rest in some form at some time.