S2E06 Constancy

Joe marvels over the constancy of nature in a post-Easter essay.

Transcript:

Among the many controversies of the early Christian church was the date of Easter. In the first centuries, many Christians celebrated it on Passover. If Easter fell on a Wednesday, so be it. But a Pope began excommunicating those who followed this approach. As the years passed, the date of Easter varied by region and bishop until the Council of Nicea in 325. The council decided that Easter should always take place on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. Simple enough. Except that because of the eventual split between the Eastern and Western churches—and how each division uses calendars—the ideal of a unified Easter celebration happens only sporadically. In 2020, for example, Western Christians (Catholics, Protestants) marked Easter a few days ago. Much of the Orthodox church will celebrate next Sunday.

In setting Easter, the church tied itself to something constant—the cycles of the moon and the crossing of the sun into the northern hemisphere. This cycle is predictable, though our attempts to mark it—in the Julian calendar or Gregorian—or in the calendars of Babylon, Islam, and Judaism—we make a mess of something simple. We sometimes struggle with aligning ourselves to constancy.

For those of us on the Western calendar, Holy Week coincided with Passover this year, mimicking the New Testament timeline of Jesus’ Passion. Thursday night—Maundy Thursday in the Christian Holy Week—happened on Passover. And yet, whatever cycle or moon or calendar we followed to mark these celebrations, none of us celebrated in the usual way. Apart from those rogue churches or synagogues doing drive-in services, Jews and Christians stayed home. Our family, for example, celebrated Passover with the YouTube feed of JewBelong. We celebrated Easter with a Portland church on Zoom. On our couch. With a dog.

The church’s pastor, one Brady Bunch square among dozens of others, noted the unusualness of a broadband Easter. This Easter without choir, hugs, or sacraments ran counter to every Easter he—or we—had known.

These peculiarities, though, helped the pastor illuminate the generally overlooked peculiarities in the Gospel of Mark. The disciples at the first Easter didn’t run out singing and proclaiming to everyone who would listen, “He is risen,” expecting an echo, “He is risen indeed.” Rather, they responded with fear, bewilderment, and trembling. They hid. They cowered in confusion and terror. In fact, it may be that our usual celebratory Easters have less in common with the first Easter than this year’s muted, anxious, sheltered one did.

This sheltering in place—in the first Easter and in this last one—brought the pastor to offer solace in something that feels somehow lacking at the moment: constancy. That God, in the resurrection, was constant. The resurrection happened regardless of whether the disciples expected it or celebrated it. Whether anyone believed it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone understood it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone rushed off evangelizing or hiding, Jesus rose. The resurrection was an act of the constancy of God, running on its own calendar and pattern, indifferent to human consent or circumstance.

This constancy, though, ran counter to the natural constancy—that, usually, dead people stay dead. The living people, then, who heard that story had to choose between which constancy to follow: the constancy of nature or the constancy of God. Humans have a unique ability to choose between such things.

During this Lenten-Plague I’ve developed more appreciation for the flexibility of humanity and the constancy of the natural order. We humans are adjusting our lives, upending our societies and customs, changing our normals, jettisoning so much of what we believed defined us. Cathedrals that have never closed are now closed. Restaurants and factories that survived the wars of the Twentieth Century are abandoned. Eons of routine and constancy have, through government policy and citizen cooperation, been interrupted. All because we, humans, are inconstant—or, to say it more affirmingly, because we can adjust to new constancies.

There is, outside my quarantine window, a Japanese maple tree, a petite tree with the distinctive leaves that resemble the leaves of every other maple. Except the leaves are small. At full span, they are roughly the diameter of a plum. For most of the last few months, the maple has been barren, even weeks after the magnolia across the street bloomed brightly in pink and white. Even now as that same magnolia has dropped most of its petals. The Japanese maple is full. By some process, some act of constancy, it has returned to the form it had when I first met it. It looks alive. But if I keep watching out this window, by October, those leaves will turn red and orange and look like flame and, finally, fall. Because this is what Japanese maples do. They are constant.

I drove my sons back to Washington on Easter Sunday, and the corridor between Portland and Biggs, Oregon was greener and bolder than it had been on the Sunday before, when I had picked them up. Multnomah Falls flowed, as it always had. Yet, with the parks closed, it seemed both beautiful and sad, like an actress performing to an empty room. Just as all the earth, in its constancy, flows and blooms and dies and comes back regardless of whether anyone watches. There are, of course, interruptions—fires and droughts and earthquakes. But these, unless through human intrusion, are often acts of constancy—the constancy of tectonic plates, the constancy of storms. And the constancy of trees compel the forests back to life.

The pastor’s idea of constancy brought to mind one of my favorite poems, “The Hound of Heaven,” by the nineteenth-century Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. In that poem, Thompson likens God to a pack of hounds pursuing a man. The man, hoping to evade the hounds, calls out to nature to hide him. He cries out to the dawn, to the evening, to the forces and creatures of nature. But they fail him because they are constant. Instead, he says to the night, the “he/his” of this passage referring to the pursuing God:

Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!

I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constancy….

Nature, whether a Japanese maple, a waterfall, or a virus, is constant in its indifference. Nature has a blind and unending loyalty—albeit a mindless one—to the god of Nature. Nature carries on in its cycles and instances, apparently unaware or uncaring about whether it has an audience. The great sequoias of California stood here long before there was a camera to film them. And, in this, they show their greatest strengths and weakness. Their constancy, their indifference, means they never squabble about calendars. It means, too, that they cannot adapt so easily to how we change their environment or introduce predators. The koalas, victims of the great fires in Australia, are also victims of their diet—they eat only eucalyptus just as pandas eat only bamboo. When the eucalyptus is wiped out or the bamboo destroyed, they will pass. They are constant, and their constancy preserves them until their constancy fails them. Though, too, as Thompson’s poem notes, nature’s constancy means it can never rebel; only humans are capable of this. Rebellion is a form of adaptation.

Before the Plague, I was invited to Pascha, the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Easter. As we got closer to the date, inevitably, news came that Pascha would not be held next weekend as planned. The church, though, had received permission to celebrate after the shutdown ends. The ceremonial aspect of Easter, apparently, was too significant to cancel; so the church suspended it. I have conflicting feelings about this re-scheduling, as I have had about most adjustments and suspensions and substitutions brought on by the Lenten-Plague. On one hand, I find this hopeful: that the church expects things to return to the old normal, which, I guess, is the essence of being Orthodox. And yet, maybe, in forcing the celebration—on moving the date—it has done a deeply inconstant thing. To me, adapting a celebration away from the method of Nicea or the constancy of the moon and the vernal equinox is the most unorthodox thing to do. Though, maybe, I get some little joy in watching the Orthodox—the people who advertise their constancy—doing something deeply human: adapting.

I wonder if, at least for now, it is best for us to adapt to the current constancy of the natural world. Typically, we fight against it. We turn forests into lumber, meadows into housing developments, mineral deposits into fuel. When the Lenten-Plague began, I thought it was our obligation to fight against hiding, to fight against governments and scientists who wanted us to close our churches. I, still, am not sure that closing so easily was the right thing. But, perhaps we are asked to do what the witnesses to the first Easter were asked to do—to accept that one constancy overrides another. In that first Easter, the constancy of God overrides the constancy of death. In this one, the constancy of nature—in the form of a virus—overrides the constancy of our economy, our habits, and our celebrations. The virus, following its structure, will spread until it can’t spread anymore. It has no other choice. It cannot choose to not be a virus. It cannot choose to show mercy or justice. It is as indifferent as Multnomah Falls or the Japanese maple.

But we can choose. We have choices. We can recognize when constancy is interrupted, even by a constancy. We can understand lightning igniting a forest, a volcano engulfing a stream, or a dead man leaving a tomb. And in our ability to recognize, in our ability to adapt, we show our wisdom and our greatest strength—or perhaps our greatest weakness—the thing that will either save us or destroy us: the constancy of our inconstancy.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S2E05 Frost

Joe is done with Lent and the Plague. Instead, he wants to talk Passover and Robert Frost.

Transcript:

I had drafted a long essay on a strange dream I had about cats lurking in the bottom of a pond, like the ancient floating knights in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes. These cats, beneath leaves and in jade green water, waited for unsuspecting ducks to land. The essay was not nearly so interesting as the dream. It was another ponderous entry in my ramblings about the church and Lent and the Plague. I am bored with the Plague now, just as I am bored with Lent. Also, I don’t know that the world needs any more writing about these things. There is, already gestating, countless books, memoirs, poems, and PhD dissertations waiting to be birthed in the decade to come, assuming we don’t all die. And I feel for the science fiction writers: the Plague has made reality more fantastic than Dune or I Am Legend. Just like the last presidential election made political satire nearly impossible—reality eclipsed fiction in its scope, absurdity, and destruction of norms.

The truth is that none of this feels normal. And I’m not resigned to this being normal any more than I think the current world of politics is normal. Instead, I’m more convinced that it’s all unsustainable. It’s the anomaly, not the new norm. We can live this way for a while, but, at some point, we will want adults running countries again, just as we will want—need—live sports, concerts, and high school graduations. At some point, doctors will be bored again, teachers will count the days until summer. Churches will stop trying to convince me that online communion is communion—or that a Facebook livestream is worship.

This fracturing—the way the illusion of control isn’t convincing—makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” That poem, like so many Frost poems, is easy to misunderstand or to remember sentimentally: good fences make good neighbors. But the line that calls to me is the first one: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s a subversive little idea: that the things we build are somehow undone by the ground we build them on. In the poem’s case, the wall is undermined by the ground beneath it freezing and swelling with the natural cycle of seasons—the very foundation rejecting the artifice built upon it. I wonder if there is, in me, something like this: “Something there is that doesn’t love a webcam.”

Perhaps it is the nature of being a Gen X-er, that generation with one foot in the analog, one in the digital. Computers and devices were easy to adapt, but my fingers still trust books—the textures, the weight, the way I remember where an idea is located on the page even if I can’t quite recall the idea.

To my surprise, I’ve found, lately, that my best writing flows when I apply pen to paper. Most of these essays I’m reading originate on screens. Writing with a computer and keyboard is efficient and practical. It allows me to log things, make quick corrections, and keep consistent. I can build a structure quickly and then prune and finesse it. But in a closet in the next room, I have a stack of notebooks. And each morning, I let my pen move across them and I discover things—the slowness and tactileness and unpredictability of the process—that, in using the keyboard, I do not find. Perhaps it is efficiency: that the better I get at typing, the less I hear or the less I’m surprised. I just move forward. I follow the first idea that comes to me. It forms the structure. I add or subtract ornamentation. When I handwrite, sometimes there’s room for a second or third option because it takes me longer to finish the current thought. Or maybe it’s that my right hand, when given full control, is a better and more imaginative storyteller than my two hands, delegating alternating digits, attempting to coordinate in some finger-to-finger popcorn dance.

Yesterday, after a morning of despair and turmoil, I found a glimmer of peace. Perhaps it was simply the result of a nice nap. But somehow I understood that the world would either end or it wouldn’t. And there wasn’t much to be done about it. The quarantines and distancing and economic engineering would, at some point crack. I understood, at some level, that this was either one in a long string of apocalypses or it was the final apocalypse. I am not romanticizing destruction or loss. Instead, I’m aware and awed and terrified by its scale. It awakens something primitive in me. Like in those summers on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University when the sky was free of every particle and Mount Rainier stood monstrous and omnipotent, and I hid behind trees and in buildings to avoid its view. It could have killed me on a whim. I knew it. I felt it. And anytime that I think that this current Plague can take everyone and everything from me, I tremble.

At the same time, perhaps I am a Romantic—it’s all about the sublimity and scale. I am, at some level, excited to be part of a human story, one that connects me to old stories—like the ones that become epic movies. Like the book of Revelation or the story of Passover.

Speaking of Passover, my wife is, in the enviable flexibility of the word, Jewish. We will keep Passover this year, our second together. Last year, was my first non-Christian Passover, by which I mean that I had participated in Passovers, hosted by Christians, pointing to Jesus in them. Christians do to Passover what we do to everything else—look for the secret message and, like me typing rather than handwriting, move so efficiently that we miss what is begging to be discovered.

That first Passover, Hope and I were invited to a family gathering in North Portland. Everyone, except me and Hope, knew one another. The hosts’ parents flew in from Pittsburg to lead the Seder. The food was entirely vegan. It was everything I hoped Portland would be when I got here: perfectly strange and inviting and vulnerable. I drank homebrew kombucha rather than wine. And they invited me, an omnivore Christian, to read along in a story I thought I already knew, but had never quite heard.

This year, Hope and I will take part in Passover through a remote meeting. My boys are here, three Christians among the four of us. Despite that, and the virtual nature, we are going decidedly traditional foodwise: matzah, wine, a lamb shank scheduled for delivery. And I’ve been listening to rabbis lately, talking about apocalypses. How they come and go. How the plagues in Moses’s Egypt are coinciding, in 2020, with the Torah readings—the locusts in Africa, the hiding as if the day had become black as night.

In some strange way, I’m over my disappointment that Easter won’t happen and am embracing Passover. Not that I am rejecting Christianity or Christianizing Judaism. Only, I am accepting that the world ends, which is not exactly the message of Easter, nor is it the tone of Lent. The world ends. Some people know and remember that better than others. It is, of course, good and wise to act in a way that stops the world’s end—or that minimizes the severity and violence of its ending. But when the world wants to end, it ends. If it wants us to stop polluting it, it knows how to shut down our factories and to make oil a burden. It would, of course, be wiser for us to moderate our production, moderate our lives, moderate our ambitions before we have to be reminded that we are not larger than the world, that we are not immune to apocalypses. But, in the end, the world is bigger than us. Just like it is in Frost’s poem, in Creation’s quiet but insistent dismantling of our structures.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The world ends. Then we work to build a new world. Over and over. We build our wall, the ground dismantles it, then we build again. Each time, perhaps we learn to become better builders. Or maybe we find a way to allow the ground to swell and breathe without it needing to topple us. Maybe the world we build, this time, when the ending ends, will be a little better than the one we are being told to leave behind.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S2E03 Apocalypse

In this episode, an actual third episode of Season 2, Joe writes about how he misses thinking that the world might end today.

Transcript:

American Christianity has always been eschatological. It has always viewed life with an expectation of an imminent end, where we are moments away from our personal finality or a step from the Day of Judgment. Consider Jonathan Edwards or Michael Wigglesworth’s poem, “The Day of Doom: Or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment.” We are always a moment away from the return of Jesus.

Depending on the particular strain of theology, this return can come slowly, after a thousand years of peace. Or it can come instantly, before I finish this sentence. It’s this latter form—the “thief in the night,” the “twinkling of an eye“—that I have lived longest with. It is this ongoing sense that we are living in a unique age, that when things get bad enough—or too organized, such as a peaceable and efficient union of nations—Jesus will come for us. He will call us home.

My mom believes in this—the Rapture—and for several years, I did. I think her life is more religiously rich for believing still, as I, having read too much theology and history and recognizing that the hopeful whisking away of us Christians into the clouds is a recent idea. It is, best I can tell, not at all likely. Though, to borrow from one of my favorite preachers, if I’m wrong about that, please grab me on the way up.

The Rapture, when I believed in it, game me hope that I have lost along the way. For one thing, it served as a bond with other evangelicals. We read the news differently, saw every moment differently. And a war, a rumor of war, was followed by a wordless knowing, a quiet and aware glance, a speechless recognition that this could be it. This could be the fulfillment of a prophecy that makes the clock—the Doomsday wristwatch that only God the Father wears—click one more minute to midnight.

Living in the world with the expectation of the imminent end gave life a steady dose of adrenaline. Rather than being frightened by the news, we could find comfort in it. We had, of course, no concept of history, no way of reconciling the many signs that have already come and gone—the ways that people, including Christians, had already lived through—or were violently killed by—plagues, wars, pestilence, ecological disasters. The Rapture eschatology knew only those histories that include Israel or advanced the world toward a unified global government. It did not have a way of fully comprehending how ravaging life had already been for most of humanity. Or how the churches named or existing when the Book of Revelation was penned may have experienced all—and worse—of what the book seemed to depict. Or, as Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who described the Nazi occupation of Holland and her imprisonment in a concentration camp, noted, that much of the church, at the time Christians in America were talking of Rapture and escape from persecution, were experiencing horrors that made Revelation read like a nursery rhyme.

These flaws aside, the Rapture gave me an expectancy that was both absurd and envigorating—like a feverish crush that, in hindsight, leads to both a “what was I thinking?” feeling of foolishness and a tinge of sadness that he or she “wasn’t the one.” It is a little like that adage (which I have grown more suspicious of): “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” It was, I think, better to have believed in a life that was always self-consciously expectant than to live always rationally and mundanely—a life that was almost certain to conclude in a hospital bed.

1970, the year before my birth, produce Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold 28 million copies in its first twenty years and led to a movie narrated by Orson Welles. That book encapsulated—or triggered—all that was right and wrong about the form of evangelicalism I grew connected to. The book and its adherents scoured the news for government movements, connecting existing nations to Old Testament prophecies. The description of Gog and Magog in the book of Ezekiel became a twentieth-century code for a war with the Soviet Union. The Bible was, page by page, a revealing message, like lemon juice scribbles on paper held over a heat lamp. It talked incessantly of 1948—or 1967—the establishment and expansion of the nation of Israel, the undeniably divine coincidences that birthed a country, the unseen hand that defended and expanded it. From that book and the movement it spoke to, the Bible was alive and constantly calling Christians to think and prepare, like restless horses in the moments before an earthquake.

I am, now, saddened that all of this fell apart — that 1988 (marking the forty years after the establishment of Israel) came and went with nothing except the election of another Republic president. No rise of an anti-Christ, no trumpet or shofar from heaven. (I was, during the first Gulf War, convinced I, a soldier, was living in the book of Isaiah, chapter 13, where Iraq equaled Babylon and the coalition of nations under President George H.W. Bush was the coalition in scripture. Instead, the war came and went and, in consolation, gave way to the eventual release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I remain disappointed that the calendar’s turn from 1999 to 2000 was as uneventful, cosmically, as every turn of year before it. The world went on as regularly scheduled. No earthquake or series of earthquakes were enough to bring about the end Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24. No matter how much I turned my eyes to see or my ears to hear, I was blind, I was deaf, the world stopped speaking.

The loss of this expectancy cannot be overstated. Though I can point to the problems of a Rapture theology, I have no deep need or interest in taking it away from people who still hold it. As arrogant as it sounds — and as arrogant as it surely is —when I hear a Christian talk about a new American policy toward Israel—naming Jerusalem as the capital, for example—and watch the excitement of the Rapture people, I am tempted to dispel it all. Like how I told my, then-five-year-old daughter, while she went on about the dress she would wear for a middle-school boy at the baptist church we attended, “Elaina, you’re not going to marry James.” And my girl—daddy’s favorite—refused to speak to me for 36 hours after. I had thrown a cold and hopeless form of reality over her expectancy and possibility. And, to be honest, knowing what I know about James, I would have been quite pleased if a world existed in which my daughter wanted and was with a person of his qualities. I can, fourteen years later, transport back to the Safeway parking lot in Yakima and slap the younger, orthodox, reasonable me and whisper to him, “Shut up, you know-it-all, and just ask her what she and James will name their children.”

There is, in the creeds, an expectancy that aligns nicely to a theology of a sudden and definitive end. The rational, informed, sophisticated Sadducee in me has come to accept the language as so abstract and distant that it might as well be poetry: “I believe he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” It is the creed recited by Christians throughout the centuries, generation after generation—expectant and attending to the world with a belief—at least the possibility—that today could be the day. And the delay of that day has, among many of us, reduced that element of the creed to a formality and a tradition. Do we—except in the acknowledgment that any one of us is mortal and could die and could therefore on this day come face to face with God—really believe that this day might be unlike every other day in human history since some blessed moment in the first century?

I have long given up on the idea, even as I defend the virgin birth, the death and resurrection. But those historical statements are no different than the eschatological: they are as sure to happen as those things that have already happened. The creed—and the Christian conviction—sees the end as concrete and settled as the beginning. The world is part of a story both written and unfolding, both planned and spontaneous. That in every moment, there is room and reason for fear and assurance. We are letters and commas and periods waiting in the ink of a pen.

This morning, I’m bored of the world. As I’ve been bored of it for more years than I can count. It is, for me, stuck in the aimless cycle of Ecclesiastes. And as I grow older and more disappointed, I have come to think like that writer. I have even come to celebrate his or her wisdom, the way that living each day under the sun has shown the pleasure and meaninglessness— or “vanity” and “smoke”—of life: that we are all, at once, pathetic and fortunate. That every day always mundane and miraculous.

Ecclesiastes is a respectable book, one that even English profs can introduce into a lit course without apology, teaching its poetry, its wisdom, its insight into life under the sun. And we can expect a philosophy major to gravitate toward it, relate it back to the great Greek movements, revolving between Stoicism and Epicureanism. A perspective holding in tension the extremes of despair and expectation, all in a form and brevity that merits re-reading and meditation.

How different this is than showing the end of Matthew’s gospel as Jesus responds to the question of when will the end come and what will be the sign of its coming. Or of Revelation, its obscurity and scale—a long-winded and archaic vision of beasts and dragons and scrolls and an abyss—cryptic and superstitious, the fodder for horror movies. And we, I, am quick to note that Jesus is speaking of a moment that has come and gone: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (careful to say “C.E.” and not “A.D.”). Or that Revelation is part of a literary tradition that encodes political messages—that for a reader in the late first century, these images would all be evident. Think of how in a thousand years people will read Harry Potter and assume the world believes in Hogwarts and wizards, or they’ll find our endless archives of Star Wars references and make strange interpretations of our belief in “The Force” and Jedi. All of this—the scrolls, the silence in heaven—has already come and gone.

Yet that leaves me sad and bored. We, living in this moment, have been left out of the story. The book has been assembled and canonized with no part for us to play but to continue on unto our individual immanent deaths, each of us witnesses to a private apocalypse—some by stroke, some by cancer, some by accident. Each little apocalypse, both unique and generic, small and immense. But no great cosmic event, no coming in the clouds, no trumpet blast reverberating through every human ear. Only the sequence established, barring accident or untreatable disease: my grandparents will die (as their parents did) in hospice or hospital. Then my parents. Then in some sequence, me and my siblings. Then it will be my children’s job to be accepting and wise, to read Ecclesiastes and see the machine running on schedule: days pass, lives pass, better is a living dog than a dead lion. Elaina will not marry James. Israel will not renew the temple sacrifice. I will work until I can afford to retire. I will read through the latter pages of the gospel of Matthew, and my pulse will stay steady.

As I write this, the news is all redundant. The virus has entered the world—as viruses always have—and every story or post includes a set of numbers. Every story judges how leaders moved faster or more decisively—those numbers could be lower—as if those numbers weren’t going to be counted sooner or later, as if we are actually stopping something that can be stopped. I wonder if they have even read Ecclesiastes. Don’t they know that there is nothing new under the sun. They have, already, stopped calling the virus “novel”—the “novel coronavirus,” the new coronavirus. It no longer feels new. It feels as old as Gog and Magog. It’s always been here. It will always be here. World without end.

We are, I think, stuck here. Israel is in the news again. It is always in the news. The nation is quarantining, testing, treating the Palestinians the way King David treated the Philistines. But, so far, it has not announced plans to demolish the Dome of the Rock so it can rebuild the temple and re-instate ritual sacrifice, as the Rapture news and the Late Great Planet Earth people told us would happen. That is the news I’m waiting for: that the world, today—or even tomorrow—will do something new.

But, still, I have this vestigial hope, a strange sense of expectancy. Not that this plague is the plague of Revelation, destroying countless lives. But that the world is capable of newness, of remembering to be in wonder. And, this word echoes in me, like an old prayer or a TV theme song: from the very end of the book of Revelation, maranatha.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S202 Third Sunday of Lenten-Plague

In this episode, a surprise continuation of Season 2, Joe writes more about the wrongness of presence in the time of plague.

Transcript:

It is the first full Sunday of the Lenten-Plague. The churches, one by one, resolve to do their part in the collective self-quarantine, and with each notice of closures, I think two contradictory thoughts: I am, at once, torn between pride that Christians—as have those of other faiths—joined in solidarity with all humanity, and I am disappointed that the gathering is something suddenly optional.

As far as this first thought, I know that the closures are signs of leadership. Whatever else Christians may be backwards or forwards on, they are aligned with culture on quarantine. They are showing moral leadership. And some of my Pagan friends have made sure to say how they are both surprised and delighted that the Christians aren’t causing some silly squabble. They are showing ascent to science. Even the baptists. Even the churches with the word “Bible” in their names.

It is, as far as I know, the greatest ecumenical action of my lifetime. Bishop after bishop announces that their diocese will not meet. The United Methodists voted to spit their church this summer, but they can agree on this: it is part of Christian charity—a sign of love for neighbor—to close doors until Holy Week. A Lutheran church I was planning on attending noted that this was a fortuitous alignment, a true sense of Lent. The Episcopalian church, whose vicar I adore, sent out a touching letter on how this is the right and good Christian step.

Perhaps they are right. The last strongholds—an Anglican church that interests me and another Lutheran church I wanted to check out—announced on Saturday that they would not be meeting. They would continue in prayer, in communication. But there would be no Sunday morning worship, no gathering of the community to mark the resurrection of Jesus.

I am sure that there have been other periods in time when the universal Christian church agreed on something. I don’t remember them. For some reason, this is the thing that the church of the twenty-first century aligned on. In that, I should accept that wisdom and delight in the approval among my non-religious friends that, for once, Christians have not made things worse.

But it is the contrarian in me. Something pushes back. It may be the news article I read this morning about musicians who refuse to cancel their tours. The Reverend Horton Heat (not that kind of reverend) continues to tour, noting, “They can’t stop rock and roll!” He, of course, was met with outrage, even some of his fans contending that he was irresponsible and dumb. Yet, I admired it. The punk ethos. The sense that rock and roll means something that, yes, is irresponsible and dumb. Wattie Buchanan, the frontman for Exploited, using words I am not rock and roll enough to include in an essay, says, “I have had five heart attacks a quad heart bypass and a heart pacemaker fitted. Cancel gigs for a virus?” I’ve never turned to Exploited or the Reverend for wisdom before. And I’m not doing that now. Still….

The Archdiocese of Portland announced that it would be curtailing many services, cutting down on unnecessary exposure and risk. It, however, parting ways from several other dioceses, did not cancel masses or confession. Yes, the archbishop gave a dispensation for the faithful who would not attend mass, and he deterred many populations. He suggested other solutions for keeping within Oregon’s Governor’s restrictions on assemblies of 250 or more people.

So, this morning, I was in mass at St. Michael the Archangel’s, the parish I visit often, though I can’t take the Eucharist. I would if it were offered me. But I am not Catholic, and, second, if I were, I would be forbidden from the Eucharist because I am remarried and considered to be in a constant state of adultery, according to the Church’s teaching. About 50 people were there. I heard one person sneeze.

I won’t attempt to defend the Archbishop, St. Michael’s, my participation, or the participation of those parishioners who were sprinkled out in mass this morning. Nor will I bother describing the beauty of it all, what changes were made to the liturgy, or how closely people sat to one another. That knowledge—and the impression of it—was for those of us who gathered. It is something that cannot be passed on or photographed or recorded. The assembly of the faithful, as ludicrous and irresponsible and dumb as it may be in time of plague—or in any other time—is not a thing served well by narrative or rhetoric. It is, instead, an experience in the ongoing gathering that has taken place in time of famine and feast, in time of plague and health, and in time of war and peace. Someone, I’m sure, is thinking of historical precedent as I say this, noting how in some place and some time the church did the wise and responsible thing and postponed its meetings. I’m sure this has happened and will happen again.

Portland was oddly beautiful and empty, the way cities are beautiful and empty on Christmas morning. On Saturday, we had snow. Most of it, though, has burned away in the sun. And I am reminded of the indifference of nature: how viruses have no morality and how the sun is constant when we are turned toward it: blocked only by those exceptional moments in which the moon passes between it and the earth or when enough clouds accumulate. The sun is never really gone. This morning, in some way, it was wasted. Today should have been an overcast, drizzly day, and then the sunshine could have held out until a more fitting time, when people are free to congregate and move about and touch one another. But that is not how the sun operates.

Next week, I may not go to church. For all I know, the Archdiocese may change its direction. Or I may simply decide, as an individual, that I am wiser than this, that it is truly more loving for me to give up my rights to assemble so that others can have lower risk of infection. Or, perhaps, I just don’t have enough rock and roll in me.

On the way home, I stopped for donuts. My wife has a favorite, an apple fritter from Coco’s Donuts, and with parking being uniquely easy—and for her being uniquely understanding of my own need to be in mass this morning—it seemed an obvious idea. Pick one up for her. It brings her, a simple pleasure. Besides, if we stop buying donuts during the plague, there may not be donut shops when the plague ends—assuming that another plague doesn’t simply follow in its place. There is, perhaps, subconsciously, this other reason for getting donuts, something I didn’t consider until I arrived home. That, maybe, I was protecting the church: that if I did get sick, and brought sickness to my loved ones, there was no way of knowing, with certainty, whether the virus came from mass or from the donut shop.

One of my best friends runs a college. She has been scrambling, madly, working with teacher unions, staff, student services, and all the special interests who are generally not responsive to college administrations. Somehow she managed to enter the weekend with a sophisticated plan that moved all operations into the plague-ending practice of self-quarantine. Added to this, she also has a chronic respiratory illness, and I am deeply frightened about what might happen if the virus got to her. I can’t, to her or to others, justify the need to be in church this morning. I am, as I think about her, probably wrong.

And yet, I feel aligned with Reverend Horton Heat or with the couple sitting on the sidewalk on Broadway, eating glazed originals, or the sun, or the three people—each in a separate car—riding in the Metro as it passed before me on the way. We all had reasons, indefensible or understandable, perhaps, that made us go out into the world and be among other people. We, being the minorities, are certainly wrong—or mostly wrong. And yet, I cannot forget how penetrating and focusing and transcendently vital was the moment when the priest raised the bread and the bell rang three times and, if you believe things the way I do, Christ was present among us. In that rock and roll church. In the time of plague. In a reckless and irresponsible act of presence.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com