Lampoon

There was another procession into Jerusalem that Spring, one that escaped the pen, but certainly not the notice, of the Gospel writers and their early readers.

As the city geared up for the festival season, its population swelling five-fold until every spare room, every nook and cranny, was filled with valuable rent-paying, weary and contented pilgrims, there was at least one person arriving among the throng who didn’t have to worry his head about where he would be laying it that evening: Pontius Pilate.

Pilate, half-way through what ultimately would be his ten-year term as Prefect, brutal enforcer of imperial Roman power, ‘our man in Judaea’ for Tiberius Caesar, had come to Jerusalem as well.  But this was no pleasure trip.  His task was as simple to describe as it was oh-so-difficult to achieve: to keep a lid on the always unpredictable public, the teeming city, as it turned its attention and desire to the apex of Jewish identity: the Passover, that centuries old celebration and remembrance of the first time the people of Israel had wrested their freedom from a brutal dictator.  Political opportunists, seizing the moment to awaken the longing for national self-determination, had made the most of the festival before, turning an already agitated crowd into a rebellious mob which Rome, in its turn, had parried more than once with overwhelming force and much bloodshed.

And so, Pilate, in the days before Passover, knowing his own head was on the block if things got out of hand, left his comfortable estate on the coast in Caesarea, and accompanied by as much of the Roman garrison as he could safely take with him, marched his way to Jerusalem, probably muttering to himself all along the way about what a massive bother this was, and praying earnestly to his gods that he might handle effectively whatever came his way.

Borg and Crossan, in their book “The Last Week”, describe for us Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem: “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city.  A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”*

Don’t think for a minute that Jesus didn’t know what he was doing when, a short time later, he entered Jerusalem from the other side, from the East and the rising sun, mounted not on a war horse equal to Pilate’s impressive steed, but on the back of a humble donkey, the people’s faithful companion in their toil of agrarian survival.

This was planned.  It was thought through.  And it was a lampoon of the empty claims of authority by the world’s leading power.

Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World, God from God, Divine, God Incarnate, Liberator and Redeemer.”  Whose titles were these?  Any first-century Roman knew.  (And it wasn’t the person you, poor mis-informed Christian, call to mind.)  The rightful owner of these titles in the Roman world was Caesar.  Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus (“the illustrious one”) had first claimed these accolades for himself, and his successors were only too happy to appropriate them.  The crowd had only to take a silver denarius out of their purses and look at it: glinting in the spring sunshine was Caesar’s bust with the words “Son of God” stamped alongside.

Jesus’ thoughtful and provocative protest made mockery of such overwrought bombast, such presumptive arrogance.  And before the week was out Rome, Pilate, would crush him for it, returning like for like with his own lampoon of Jewish aspirations for justice: “King of the Jews” was scribbled over Jesus’ violently broken body.  See what comes to those who challenge us?

On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the power of an alternative narrative.  We celebrate the audacity of humility and self sacrifice, of giving oneself up for a vision of humanity that raises the meaning of our existence above the crass machinations of ‘might makes right’ or he-who-has-the-most-marbles-wins.  Life, as it was intended at our creation and lived to its fullest, is one guided and marked by love of God and neighbour, one identified by our American friends in a rare flash of eloquence as being in society “under God, with liberty and justice for all”.

Rome, whether in history, in the scriptures, or in our hearts, stands for the antithesis to the way of God.  It is the pretender to the throne, the claimant to the authority in our lives that rightly belongs to God alone.  We would do well, like Jesus, to call it out, to mock the spurious claims, to turn from the false god and follow instead the pattern of the one who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2.8,9).

 

 

* The Last Week; What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem; Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006.

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Of Brexit, Trump and Kings of Old

Were they kings, the men who followed the star from the East to honour the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  Or were they merely a rabble of starry-eyed astrologers?  The Gospel of Matthew marks them down as ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’; obscure, yes, but with status or exotic qualities enough to win them temporary fame in all Jerusalem and an audience with the king.

This Gospel story comes to us from the synagogue period of Christian history when followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus were, in the provinces of Palestine at least, primarily Jews.  These Jewish Christians, still members of their local non-Christian congregations, began to see the scriptures with new eyes, discerning in them a presumed meta-narrative, one that transcended the multiple authors, genres, and eras of the various manuscripts, a plot line which tied the canon of scripture together as one.  Hidden in the texts they found hints and fleeting glimpses of a figure whom they recognized as having been personified in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the story of the Magi they heard echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60.1-6).  Solomon too had predicted, “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts; all kings shall fall down before him , all nations shall do him service.  For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper.  He shall have pity on the weak and the poor” (Psalm 72.10-13).

The meta-narrative, the over arching story that bound together their heritage and their new-found faith in Christ continued its development in the later writings of the new testament, most especially in the visions of Paul and John and, as they understood it, went something like this: From one man, Adam, God created a family of diverse peoples among whom a Chosen People – a nation primus inter pares – whose history and society was meant to reveal the character and purposes of God; now – in a new age – through one man, Jesus Christ, God was gathering the complex identities of humanity together into a new society, a community of peoples whose diversity was fitted together like a multi-faceted jewel, the individual shape and angle of each facet adding to the brilliance of the whole.  On offer was an attractive alternative, an opposing vision to the Pax Romana, the world as they knew it, united by the blunt instruments of military conquest and unrelenting suppression.

And so, the Twelve Days of Christmas find their conclusion at the Feast of the Epiphany when the Church remembers the journey of the Three Kings and celebrates the manifestation, in baby Jesus, of the Christ, the long-awaited saviour for a world rent by division and lost in despair.  In the Christ child we look for the fulfillment of the ancient oracles.  We may quibble about whether the accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life are historically accurate or rather, on the other hand, the Gospels contain not only the parables of Jesus but also parables about him, but either way his central role in the story remains.

St Paul writes to the churches: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles) have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise…so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3.9-10). And in the very last pages of our scriptures we find St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, of which he says, “The nations (lit. ‘ethnicities’) will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21.24,26).

So here we are, two thousand years removed from the proclamation of the new age of Christ.  Our forebears, those who have gone before us in the faith, have not always succeeded in making this glorious vision a reality.  The Way of Jesus became Christianity and soon enough Christendom; what began as a counter-cultural movement of inclusion quickly morphed into the mainstream and gathered to itself both the selectivity and accoutrements of political power.  Converts, if one can call them that, came at times by the threat of the sword, entire peoples subjugated or colonized under the banner of Christian dominion, forced to give up the gifts their people had to bring to our new community, cultures lost forever on account of the false supposition that “to make disciples” meant to form them in our own image, not necessarily that of Christ.

Maria Pascua, an aboriginal of the Makah people who inhabit the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States writes: “I am a Christian; I am not sorry the missionaries came.  But I wish they had known how to let their news change peoples’ lives from the inside, without imposing their culture over our ways.  We have lost so much.”  (Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491; National Geographic Magazine, October 1991).

Not in all places, but in many, we find that the vision was lost of a Church composed of the beautiful diversity of humanity.

Which brings us to Anno Domini 2016; to Brexit, Trump and the year gone by.

Much has been made of the “protest vote” aspect of these surprising poll results.  Whether we can rightly attribute them to protest or not, the result is that many of the liberalizing policies of the last few decennia have suddenly and broadly been called to a halt.  Roger Cohen, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times concludes: “It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance [as delivered by Brexit and the US elections] cannot be met by more of the same.”

Thankfully the path of Christ allows for great liberty in the way we order our lives, both individually and in society; a genuine Christian faith can be lived at most points across the political spectrum.  What it does not allow is for us to abandon humility, compassion and sacrificial love for our neighbours, no matter what the colour of their skin or the language they speak at home. To be proud of our own people, to seek to protect our livelihoods and cultural heritage, insofar as these things bring honour to God, is good and right; the uniqueness of our people too is a blessing from God’s hand.  But to raise our own interests so high as to exclude those of others, to make love of nation the sole guiding light for our actions, ignoring the yet purer light of the Gospel – which is to love God first and to love our neighbours as ourselves – this is not the Way of Christ.

We, and all peoples, are equally invited to bring our gifts – the glory and honour of all nations – and bow our knee in worship before the Christ.

 

Gaudete in Domino semper

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

From time to time, if we are able to see through the aura of accumulated holiness hanging thick around the heroes of the Bible, the saints and the prophets, we find in them a remarkable ignorance.  They so often have no clue about how the circumstances of their lives actually fit into the movement of God in their time.  John the Baptist, for example, seems so average here.  It’s as if he is conscious of being carried along by a stream, but is not entirely sure of where the stream is going.

David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity writes:

The Principle of Delayed Understanding…states that you cannot understand what is going on while it is going on….consciousness always lags behind reality. Here is proof: How many of you are still trying to figure out things that happened in your childhood, twenty, forty years ago? The best you can hope for is to minimize the length of time it takes to catch on….When you think you understand what is going on while it is going on, you are most likely delusional. This is simply a statement of reality and frees us from the need to pretend, to beat ourselves up for not knowing the right words or actions. Don’t worry about not knowing the answer immediately. Don’t confuse yourself with Google.

Half the battle of being a person of faith is learning to live with ambiguity, of accepting uncertainty; the other half is learning how to live with it, of not allowing our ignorance to paralyze us with anxiety or diminish our hope.

Consider the rabbinical story, found in various tellings, commonly known as Elijah and the Cow:

Rabbi Jachanan went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and when evening came they arrived at the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. This poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, greeting the strangers and welcoming them in for the night.  They offered them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in their humble circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were given plenty of the cow’s milk, and butter, yoghurt and cheeses.  Satisfied, they were put to sleep in the only bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire.

But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.  The Rabbi looked at Elijah, but he was silent.

Again, they walked all the next day, and came in the evening to the house of an extremely wealthy man. This man, however, was cold hearted and inhospitable, and all that he would do for Elijah and the Rabbi was to lodge them in his cowshed and feed them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for his hospitality, and – noting that one of the walls in the shed was falling down – sent for a man to repair it, paying the bill himself.  Finally, Elijah and the Rabbi were on their way again.

Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, exasperated with Elijah, begged the holy man to explain himself and the way he had treated the two hosts. 

‘In regard to the poor man and his wife who received us so hospitably,’ replied Elijah, ‘it was decreed that the wife was to die that night.  However, knowing how much the man loves his wife, I pleaded with the angel of death – who never leaves empty handed – that he should take the cow instead.’

‘And with regard to the inhospitable rich man, I repaired his wall because I noticed a jar of gold coins concealed in it, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure, something for which he is not worthy.  So, say not to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’

Perhaps you remember how someone else once famously put it: “There are things we know we know; things we know we don’t know; and things we don’t know we don’t know.”  Personally I prefer the sentiment as expressed by the American rock band 4 Non Blondes, in their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?‘:

And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs:
What’s going on?!

It’s Gaudete Sunday this week, the Sunday that takes its name from the first word of the introit to the Mass: Rejoice!   On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we are invited to lighten up, to Rejoice in the Lord always, to raise our heads and look for the dawning of a new age marked by the promise of healing and restoration.

This is that half of faith that says: even if I don’t understand, I will trust.  The half that led the disciples up the mountainside where “they worshipped him, even though they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

Faith is never going to make perfect sense; that’s why it’s called faith.  Thank goodness.  Because in order for faith to make perfect sense it would have to be constrained by a world where everything can be measured and explained and knowable, a world without mystery or profound beauty or unbounded hope.

It is not, and neither are we.

Adversity and Authenticity

Wandering through IKEA recently I came across a display. There, in a plexiglass box, was a living room chair accompanied by a robotic machine that was submitting the chair, over and over again, to the rigors of being sat upon. By the time I saw it, the machine had “sat down” in the chair more than 10,000 times. The point of the demonstration, of course, was to impress upon customers how well the chair was made, and to give an indication of how long it would last.

The IKEA chair display points to an important life principle: Adversity is a test of Authenticity.

In Luke chapter 4 we read of Jesus, recently baptized and anointed for ministry, being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he is first tested by an extended period of solitude and fasting, and then tempted by the devil. When he emerges tried and tested, he is ready for public ministry.

This lesson from the Gospel is not merely a retelling of what happened to Jesus. In these events we see a pattern for our own experience with regard to almost any calling or commitment: first comes an Affirmation, followed by a test of Authenticity, and finally the process is completed by the exercise of Authority.

This being the First Sunday of Lent, our focus is on the second part of Jesus’ call to ministry, where he is led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days (biblical language for “an absurd amount of time, until the job is completed”).

The first thing we notice is that this isn’t a matter of happenstance in Jesus’ life.  He didn’t just lose his map and wander off into the wilderness. The scriptures make it clear that the Spirit compelled him to this action.

Does it seem a dreadful thing to you that God’s Spirit would purposefully send us into a place in life where our energies flag, where we are alone, where we are tempted, where we are surrounded by wild beasts….and then leave us there for a long time?

But you know as well as I do that this really does happen. Figuratively speaking it happens to all of us at some point in life. One day everything seems to be going along just fine and then suddenly and unexpectedly we end up in a barren place, a place that is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and frightening. How we wish we could escape! How we long to prove ourselves and have things go back to the way they were before! Will I ever make it out of this space, or must I endure it to the end?

Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes, “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

Adversity is a test of authenticity. Have you declared your love for someone? That will be tested. Have you signed a contract or made a commitment? Trying days are ahead for you. Have you pledged your services to the community? Be wary of rejection. Have you made a 10-year plan for the next phase of your life? Good luck with that.

It is not that those things are immature, wrong or delusional. They are all very good things to do. But the Spirit of God is interested in something far more fundamental than our goals and objectives; the Spirit is concerned that we become mature, well-rounded individuals. Our projects we leave behind; our souls are eternal.

To follow the Spirit into the wilderness means opening ourselves to life’s challenges; to those difficulties that will leave us either bitter or better. We choose. The story of Jesus in the wilderness is a reminder that all of us, even the greatest among us, can expect to have the authenticity of our callings tested by adversity.

Ash Wednesday*

I like the notion of travel more than I actually like traveling.

If my mood is right and I have nothing pressing to do I can easily spend an hour exploring the world of online maps, photo essays, travel journals and the like. Just this morning, while surveying the earth using a well-known computer application, I spotted a tiny island off the northern coast of Syria, at first no larger than a few pixels on my screen. I zoomed in to see this rocky outcrop, only to discover that the entire island is covered with houses. I wondered about the people there, what their lives must be like, and I guessed by the number of small boats in the harbor that their economy is largely dependent on fishing. I zoomed in and out repeatedly, all the way out to see the island disappear into nothing, and then in again to see it fill the screen, just as it must fill the entirety of life for any child who lives there.

“I’d love to go there,” I said out loud.

Would I really?

Probably not. To actually make the journey to such a place would require a good deal of planning, money, energy and – inevitably somewhere along the way – discomfort. And even if I did manage to get into Syria and make my way to that little island, I don’t think I would want to stay long. What would I gain, other than a few photos and, hopefully, some friendly encounters with the locals? Would the trip be worth it?

I have a similar feeling about Lent. I quite like the idea of it: an annual journey, a spiritual pilgrimage to confront anew my frailty and weakness, and some of those confounding dammit-why-am-I-like-this limits to my goodness. From afar it seems like a useful and worthy exercise; I’ll be a better person for it. I joke with friends about what I will “give up for Lent this year”, which symbolic comfort will I do without on my pilgrimage? Liturgically, is it an “A” year, or a “B” year? Alcohol or Booze? No, it’s a “C”: so Caffeine or Chocolate; which is easier?

Then Lent begins. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I hear as I kneel on Ash Wednesday, my forehead submitting to the smear of an ashen cross. It’s all so solemn and serious, so pre-Easter. Where’s the satisfaction in this?

And I know that in a day or two I will be desperate for a real cup of coffee and eyeing those chocolate bars at the checkout in Safeway, which I never do otherwise but now that they are forbidden fruit they seem especially appealing.

When we read the Old Testament prophets we often have almost no context by which to understand their message. Their words hang before us like a giant mobile; heavy, disconnected, slowly shifting as we try to comprehend what exactly it was that inspired the artist to leave us this creation, the prophet to issue the proclamation.

And although it isn’t always clear how the people of God got into the mess they are in, most of the prophets are fairly clear about the way out of it: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful…” (Joel 2.12,13).

Return to the Lord. This resonates deeply with something in our human psyche. The Olympics , World Cup football, or Downton Abbey (if you must) may reach millions of television viewers, but year after year the communal human events that draw far more actual participants than any other on our planet are those involving spiritual pilgrimage. Whether it be to Jerusalem, Mecca, the Ganges, or Santiago de Compostela – wherever it is that pilgrims go – hundreds of millions give heed to their spirits telling them that to find their place with God they must get up and move.

Our Lenten pilgrimage, to have any meaning, must be more than a mere notion, a hat-tip to humility or a seven-week dietary adjustment. We make our Lenten journey so that our hearts will find a new place, a better place. As with the prophets, we may not be able to identify all that contributed to our malaise, but still we know that if we make the journey, return to God with all our hearts, we too will find grace.

“Loving God, as far as you and me are concerned, I know it would be better for me to get up and move to a new place. But that requires purpose and energy, and I’m pretty low on both of those right now; a big part of me would really rather just sit and watch the others as they go on their way. And anyway, Easter, with all its hope and triumph and happiness, seems like a far country where people speak a foreign language, words my heart can’t comprehend at the moment.

But yes, I know I need to move. Help me find the direction you have for me, and help me take that first step. Today. Amen.”

 

*This was submitted and printed as an op-ed piece for the Diocese of New Westminster monthly newspaper, the Topic, February 2016.

I resolve…

Two thousand years ago a man appeared on the human stage whose titles included Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World, God from God, Divine, God Incarnate, Liberator and Redeemer.

His name was Caesar Augustus.

Augustus (“the illustrious one”) was worshipped as a deity and promoted a form of world peace, a Pax Romana as it was known, achieved through overwhelming military might, cultural domination, violence and power.

Near the end of his reign, another man appeared, lived his life in relative obscurity, finally submitting himself to an undeserved death as a non-violent revolutionary. Soon, his followers – inspired by his manner of life and death – began to lay claim for him to all the titles of Caesar.

Jesus Christ (“the anointed one”) also believed in world peace; he described it as the Reign of God, achieved not through violence and aggression, but realized through one’s love of God and neighbour, demonstrated through self-sacrifice and unflinching justice.

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere many cultures, including our own, celebrate the turning point away from the darkest days and longest nights; our festivities and new year coincide with the return of the sun, the promise of a new beginning. Christianity too, in our Christmas season, appropriates the imagery of light appearing in darkness, hope being born in a time of desolation. At this time of year we join with all who long for the opportunity of a new way of seeing and a new way of being.

But will we truly embrace the light when it comes? Will we turn away from our old ways and take on the new? Will we continue to secure peace in our lives through force, dominating others, manhandling our daily schedules and responsibilities? Or engage instead a new paradigm, finding peace through establishing justice for ourselves and our society? The choice is ours: to live less by the rule of Caesar and more by the rule of Christ.

Today, as we turn the page on a new year, I resolve…

To seek justice for myself. I will not let myself be hurried or harried by things beyond my control; I will give myself the space and time needed to maintain balance and contentment, to attend to my mental health. I will sleep. I will not eat more or less than my body demands for its just maintenance. If I feast, I shall also fast. I will not consume what I know to be harmful to my body. I will take joy in walking and running, in using my strength, in being alert and making the most of my memory, reason and skill. I will not let my opinion be left unheard, my voice drowned out. I purpose to delight fully in listening, seeing, hearing, tasting and touching.

To seek justice for my neighbour. I will not coerce or manipulate others to achieve my desires; I will make my request, respectfully, and accept the autonomy of the other. I will not raise my hand, nor use an instrument, to strike another. If I must resist to protect myself or my neighbour, I will not purpose to destroy or bring lasting harm. I will not use my authority to intimidate or badger another. I will not speak evil of another, or whisper things I would not be willing to say to them directly. I will not profit from my neighbour’s misfortune, nor yearn for my neighbour’s possessions. I will do for my neighbour what I would wish my neighbour to do for me.

To seek justice for other peoples and cultures. I will respect the vast diversity of God’s creation in humanity, which display the multi-faceted wisdom of God. I will not denigrate or malign, through word or deed, communities that are different than my own. I will not begrudge them their triumphs nor make jest of their failures. I will not contribute to war-making. I will not promote my own people and our aspirations at the expense of harm to others; if I have gained status or wealth from the wrongdoing of my forefathers I will acknowledge it and seek to redress their failures. I will give thanks for my own identity, take pride in it even, and rejoice in the uniqueness of others.

To seek justice for the animals. They are my older siblings in Creation; I will respect them. I will not demean or objectify them, reducing them to mere cuddly playthings or inexpensive protein. The animals given into my care, or whose products I use, will be treated with steady devotion and genuine concern for their well being.

To seek justice for the earth. For the earth and everything in it belongs to God. I will not disrespect or abuse things that belong to the divine. I will leave the earth, the part given to my sustenance and enjoyment, in better condition than when I found it. In lifestyle choices I will not take the easy way, if taking the easy way brings harm to creation; I would rather be inconvenienced than leave an indelible stain in creation. I will live as if this world is my home, the one I have been given to steward; he who is faithful in little will be given much.

This year I resolve to live by the pattern of Christ, to reject the ways of power and violence and pursue instead the pathways of justice.

What condition my condition is in.

There’s a weight scale in my bathroom with the exotic name of Atlantis with whom I have a nearly daily conversation.  It’s one of those modern scales with a tempered glass platform and a digital readout.  When I bought it some years ago I at first hesitated to stand on the glass having never stood on glass before and always been told not to, but within a few days I was used to it.

Then during one of our household moves a tiny little sensor on one of the four plastic feet broke off.  I carefully duct-taped it back on.  (Have you ever seen “carefully” and “duct-tape” together in the same sentence before?  I doubt it.)

But now I don’t trust the scale anymore, and with good reason.  Here’s how our daily conversations go:

Atlantis: “97.7; no wait, 97.9.”

Me: “That’s ridiculous.  That’s not even remotely possible.  There’s absolutely no way I gained more than 2 kilos of weight since yesterday morning.  I haven’t even consumed 2 kilos worth of food and beverage since yesterday!  And anyway, make up your mind.”

I get off the scale and try again.

Atlantis: “95.8, no 95.7, almost there, 95.6….”

Me: “Go on, can you give me 95.5?” I ask, getting off and getting back on again.

Atlantis: “…95.5; I’m done.”

Me: “Yes!” I exclaim, contented, “I haven’t gained a thing since yesterday!”

My scale, given enough encouragement and opportunity, is always very accommodating; amiable even.  It’s the nicest scale I’ve ever had.

But then every now and again I go to visit my mother, across the border down in the USA.  The border crossing and drive take a couple of hours and by the time I get to my mom’s place I invariably have to pee.

These initial visits to my mom’s washroom take longer than usual.  I suspect she thinks I have some kind of problem that needs looking into.  Later, over sandwiches at lunch, she’ll tell me stories of how my dad had a medical procedure to fix his plumbing.

What she doesn’t know is that I’m in her washroom having an encounter with Truth.

My mom’s scale is a chrome and green enamel art-deco styled thing, one of those old-fashioned behemoths with a stiff dial under a large fish-eye lens.  She’s had it for ages.  Our dog, Hamish, once wandered into the washroom on a visit and wouldn’t stop barking and growling at it, sure as he was that it was alive and threatening him with its cold myopic stare.

So after taking a pee I quickly undress to my skivvies and socks, and step onto my mom’s scale.  I am silent. There’s no conversation here, no bargaining, pleading or complaining.  I know that I will humbly accept, as I have done since my youth, the exacting judgement of this noble instrument.  I will know the truth and not quibble. There will be no second guessing about what condition my condition is in.

To me, Advent, along with her bigger brother, Lent, are the liturgical siblings of my mom’s scale.  All year long I can fluff around with my spirituality, fudging it here and there, bargaining, letting things slide, making excuses.  And then Advent starts and all that is gone.

“…he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”    

“…(and John) went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, -as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…”

These, and the many scripture readings like it which belong to the Advent season, teach us the importance of having periods to conduct a properly measured examination of our faith.  Our personal scales may be a bit wonky, but there is One whose scale is true.

This may seem a frightening thing, but it need not be.  The reason for knowing our true condition is not that we should be condemned by it, but that we might be made more complete human beings through the purposed effort to address our shortcomings.  Our lives are better when we are better.

Recently I watched a film online, Night Train to Lisbon, based on the philosophical book of the same title by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.  I can recommend it.  The script has many memorable quotes and intriguing thoughts, but the words that come back to me today are these:  “Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us — what happens with the rest?”

I like to think that those missing parts of us, of who we can be when we are made whole, are somewhere to be found in the divine.  Advent is a time to explore and confess our deficiencies, waiting in hopeful expectation of participating in a new move of God, of entering a new era.  By meeting God more fully we become more fully who we were intended to be.