Friday, December 31, 2010

The Hidden Pharisee

These days, if you really want to insult someone, call him a Pharisee. That term seems to be a universal negative, carrying all manner of unpleasant connotations: narrow-mindedness, judgementalism, rigidity of thought, hypocrisy. Nearly every vice most condemned by modern culture is encapsulated in that single term. Someone might be willing to recognize many personal failings and shortcomings, but it would be a person of rare honesty and courage who would acknowledge himself a Pharisee. That would be beyond the pale.

And yet... there was one attribute of the Pharisees that is more common than many would recognize: they didn't like to hear that they were sinners. Of course, nobody likes to hear that he is a sinner, but some people have the self-awareness to recognize that truth about themselves.You see this in the 7th Chapter of Luke's Gospel, where Jesus is speaking about John the Baptist. John's ministry was a simple as it was disturbing: to the people of Israel he announced that their long-awaited Messiah was near, even at the door - but first they needed to purify themselves. The baptism of John drew its roots from the ritual washings of the Mosaic law, which was the final step in resolving ritual uncleanness. John offered his baptism to people who recognized their uncleanness, their unworthiness to receive a Messiah, and to those who accepted it and made the life changes that repentance implied (see Luke 3:8), the promise of cleanliness.

The most surprising people took John up on this offer. As we see in Luke 7:29, folk such as the hated Quisling collaborator tax collectors welcomed John's message and received his baptism. But it's interesting to note who didn't: the Pharisees and experts in the law (7:30). They didn't want to acknowledge that they were sinners who needed cleansing. They thought their behaviour above reproach, in fact, even commendable by God (Luke 18:10-14). Though any one of them might be willing to acknowledge his sins in the generic ("Well, of course, nobody's perfect"), when push came to shove, they didn't want to hear that they were sinners.

Does this remind you of anyone else? Like, perhaps, our entire society? Nobody wants to hear of their own sins. Most people would describe themselves with the phrase, "I'm a good person." Even the lightest hint of accusation of a specific sin typically unleashes a torrent of denial and self-justification. Even the suggestion of things like penitential seasons, or self-accusation, causes all kinds of concern about "being negative" and driving people away with a "Gospel of Gloom".

In this regard we're very Pharisaical. They didn't want to hear they were sinners; neither do we. They broke their arms patting themselves on the back about how assiduously they followed Torah; we spend a lot of time telling each other that we're basically Good People who have nothing to worry about. The Pharisees not only didn't want to hear that they had sins they needed to repent of, they were gravely offended by anyone who suggested any such thing. From what I can see, we suffer from the same problem.

So, perhaps, we're a lot closer to being Pharisees than we wish to believe. After all, if we can harbor one such significant attribute of Phariseeism, what else might mark our lives?

Monday, December 06, 2010

The pilgrimage of Advent

Celebrating Advent makes no sense to the modern Western mind. With Christmas approaching, with all the arrangements to be made and things to be done, it seems the last thing that one should do is take time to be quiet, to retire, to be still and wait. How unproductive is that? It makes no sense to our mechanistic mentality, with its focus on the bottom line and the return on investment. What's the tangible benefit of this squandering of resources, of this apparent idleness, when there's so much that could be done? Is this the most productive use of our time?

In a few days the film production of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will hit the theaters. This is a film of one of my favorite stories from the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis' classic set of tales for children of all ages. In Dawn Treader, the young King Caspian sets forth from Narnia on a voyage through the Eastern sea. His stated goal is to learn what happened to seven Narnian lords, partisans of his father's, who had been sent on a voyage by his usurping uncle Miraz to get them out of the way. But one of his crew, the valiant talking mouse Reepicheep, hopes for even more. It is his dream to travel as far east as possible, even coming to Aslan's Country beyond the edge of the world (one can do this sort of thing in Narnia.)

The voyage of the Dawn Treader is a classic pilgrimage - a journey of struggle and difficulty toward an altruistic or spiritual goal. Pilgrimages have fallen greatly out of favor these days, primarily due to their low return on investment. Pilgrims carry no cargo, nor do they do business along the way. The usefulness of pilgrimages is opaque to the economic thinker because the reason for pilgrimage is that the pilgrim be changed by the journey. To the economic thinker, the participant is always the subject, the economic agent; that upon which he acts is the object of production. The pilgrim understands himself as the object, to be changed by what he encounters along the way. While the economic agent seeks to do profitable work, the pilgrim seeks to be worked upon.

And so it proves for the voyagers aboard the Dawn Treader: they encounter many things, some of them beautiful and some quite difficult. They learn things about themselves and each other, and grow in the process. The further they travel, the more they see the hidden hand of Aslan behind their travels, and have to submit to His sometimes painful ministrations as they go. It is not a journey of conquest, or exploration for economic advantage, but of discovery for discovery's sake - which in turn implies trusting Someone greater than themselves. Terrible and tragic things could (and almost do) happen to them, yet they continue onward, trusting that they will be rewarded. And their trust proves firm, for the One in whom they trust is faithful. They end their voyage as different people than they were.

Advent can be a pilgrimage, for even if we don't travel anywhere, we can surrender our time to Him, and "travel" in prayer and solitude toward Bethlehem. We can be downright profligate with our precious time, and squander our attention and our effort, to bring ourselves to the side of the Manger. We can be still, and give the Infant permission to change us to be like Him in humility and trust. We have to be ready to accept that change, to permit ourselves to be made into different people.

For in the end, Advent is about trust. We humans with our economic outlook geared toward optimizing the use of scarce resources have to entrust ourselves to Someone whose resources are infinite. We have to give our time to Him, to sacrifice our urgings to Do Something while we wait for Him to do what He will in us. We probably won't see the resources He brings to bear. We aren't comfortable the idea that He's as likely to do something to us as through us, for while we may acknowledge at the intellectual level our need to change, we don't like those great Hands descending to reshape us. It hurts our pride at least, and probably much more. We resist being changed. If there is reinventing to be done, we want to be the ones do to it to ourselves - with all angles examined and all ramifications considered. But with the most critical changes we need, we have no more power to change ourselves than we have to lift ourselves by our own hair - or the boy Eustace had to remove his own dragon skin in Dawn Treader.

For those familiar with the story, that is an excellent image for Advent. We need to be un-dragoned, to have our sinful dragonish nature ripped off us by Aslan's claws. We may try a few times on our own, but the result will always be futility. We may be able to scrape off a few externals, but we'll still be dragons beneath. We can't rip ourselves as deeply as we need for the surgery to succeed. We need to stop trying, lie down, and let Him do what He wishes.

The question is: will we have the courage to do that? Or will we find something else to distract us? After all, Christmas is coming...

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Light of the World

We moderns routinely hear Biblical metaphors like “Light of the World” and “True Light of every man”. While we might appreciate their poetic value, I think much of their meaning is lost to us because in our day, light is cheap. The introduction of widespread artificial lighting through the 20th century marked a significant change in human civilization. Certainly there have always been some forms of artificial light, but they were cumbersome, relatively expensive, and nowhere near as efficient as electrical light. Thanks to electricity, we weren't bound by darkness any more – with the flick of a switch, we could have all the light we needed. This in turn “freed” us from the natural timetable of the days and seasons, and even nature herself. No longer were our working hours set by light from the sun. Even our architecture has come to reflect this independence from natural – and hence dependence upon artificial – lighting.

Because we take light for granted, admonitions like St. Peter's in 2 Peter 1:19 (“and you will be right to pay attention to [the message] as to a lamp for lighting a way through the dark, until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds”) lose some of their impact. A people who have never walked in great darkness cannot appreciate the importance of a great light. We might apprehend it intellectually, and perhaps appreciate it poetically. But the instinctive import, the gut-level impact, will not reach a people who have all the light they wish literally at their fingertips.

But even artificial light has value in this framework. As the natural light is a metaphor for the truth of God's Revelation shedding light into the darkness of our sin and rebellion, artificial light could be understood as man trying to self-illuminate our condition by our own wisdom and efforts. For what have the last several centuries of Western civilization been but our attempts to determine our own destinies by theories and principles that we invented according to our own wisdom? We would turn from the natural moral “light” of Revelation so we can have “light” of our own making.

Why do this? Well, one reason might be something that man-made morality shares with man-made light: it functions at our discretion. Artificial light burns when, where, and to the degree we wish. If there's something we don't wish to look upon, we don't illuminate it; if there's something we wish to accentuate, we illuminate it more. In like manner, the morality of man can be very selective. We might decry treatment of a preferred minority, such as the residents of Darfur or AIDS victims, but inconvenient minorities such as the unborn or severely handicapped are tucked away in a dark corner.

Sunlight is indiscriminate – it illuminates everything, the pleasant and unpleasant alike. “Nothing is hidden from its burning heat” (Ps 19:6) There's no ignoring things illuminated by sunlight. I got a little lesson in this just today. I'm currently alone in the house, and since tidying up after the Thanksgiving weekend, the place seems fairly clean – or so it appeared just this morning by light of all the lamps. But when the morning sunlight shone through the east window, it starkly illuminated the dust and dirt on what had seemed to be a clean floor. What by artificial light had seemed acceptable, even laudable, was shown by natural light to be woefully inadequate.

Darkness is one of the themes of Advent. We need to be reminded of our selfishness and pride. While the world would have us raising toasts and celebrating bonhomie and good will, the Church urges us to confront the darkness of sin in the world and in our hearts. Let's dwell here a while. Let's resist the urge to turn on the “artificial light” of self-reassurance and self-consolation. Let's acknowledge what is wrong with us, that we too often allow darkness in our lives by only illuminating that which we wish to see. Let's face this darkness squarely, that we might will to accept the Light when He comes.

In the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on High shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78,79)