Sunday, February 28, 2021

From Desert to Mountaintop

Some Thoughts on this 2nd Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2021

Last week, we followed Jesus into the desert. For some, the desert has become the archetypal image for Lent, perhaps especially in this time of pandemic when we so frequently feel ourselves to be isolated -  in a social if not physical desert. Today however, we leave the desert behind for a while and follow Jesus up a mountain, all the way to the summit. Mountain-tops too are generally isolated places. Nowadays, experiences of religious renewal are often popularly marketed as "desert experiences." but they can also be portrayed - and sometimes are - as "mountain-top experiences" in our ongoing climb to that spiritual summit which is our lifelong goal. 

Today’s Gospel describes the quite literally mountain-top experience of Peter, James, and John on Galilee’s Mount Tabor. An ancient tradition dated the Transfiguration 40 days before the Crucifixion, which is one reason why, every year, the Transfiguration Gospel is read early in Lent.

Today’s liturgy, however, recalls not just one, but two mountain-top experiences, and it is Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) experience on Mount Moriah, recounted in today’s first reading from Genesis, that is maybe even more famous. All three religions that trace themselves to Abraham ascribe special significance and give great prominence to that event.

Judaism identifies Mount Moriah with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In synagogue, this story is read annually on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish “New Year” festival in the fall of each year.  Muslims (who believe God's command was to sacrifice Abraham’s older son Ishmael rather than Isaac) commemorate it on the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), which occurs annually during the pilgrimage (Hajj) season.

Christians have traditionally identified Mount Moriah either with the Temple Mount (as Jews do) or with the nearby site of Christ’s crucifixion. For Christians, this story foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of his Son and Jesus’ obedient submission to his Father’s will - a connection alluded to in today’s second reading, from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, in reference to God who did not spare his own Son Christ Jesus who died and was raised.

Common to all is an emphasis on Abraham’s faith in God, who, as the narrator tells us at the beginning of the story, put Abraham to the test. Of course we know how the story ends, but Abraham didn’t, and that is the point.  

Years before, God had commanded Abraham to move to a strange land, armed only with God’s promise to bless him with descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. In his very old age, Abraham had finally been blessed with the first installment of God’s promise – his son Isaac, on whom would depend Abraham’s hope for the fulfillment of the rest of God’s promises. When Isaac was eight days old, Abraham had circumcised him as a sign of God’s promise and as a link to future promised generations.

Now, however, Abraham confronted what surely must have been his worst nightmare – the extinction of his line: “Take your son Isaac whom you love and offer him up.” Abraham experienced what everyone who has ever loved anyone learns, that love always carries with it the real possibility of heartbreak.

But what choice did he have? For years, he had trusted God to deliver on his promise. To disobey God’s command now would be to deny his own past, his whole history, and thus just as surely to forfeit his future (which is what inevitably happens whenever we deny our past).

The excerpt read at Mass today skips the part of the story, where Abraham evasively answered Isaac’s question about what they were going to sacrifice. Abraham could not know that God was going to spare Isaac at the last minute. But he was convinced that somehow God would keep his promise. He understood that, whatever the future might hold, he could only have access to it by remaining faithful to his past – to God who chose him and whom Abraham had chosen in return. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it: By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol [Hebrews 11:17-19].

In most depictions of this event, Isaac tends to be portrayed as a boy. However, the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus thought Isaac was 25 and the Talmud teaches that he was 37. If Isaac was a grown man, strong enough to prevent Abraham from tying him down, then his non-resistance makes him an even more effective symbol for his greatest descendant Jesus, who would offer himself in sacrifice in fulfillment of his Father’s will.

Not for nothing does the Roman Canon call Abraham our father in faith. He didn’t know precisely what would happen when he reached the mountain-top. But he did know that a relationship with God is based on trust and that, whatever else happens, the one thing we have to keep on doing is to keep on trusting. He had, what the great 18th-century spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade called the certitude of faith tinged with hope.

The binding power of any relationship is measured by its sacrificial seriousness, the depth of one’s commitment and of one’s willingness to answer, like Abraham, “Here, I am.”  We are able to do that, not just because of Abraham and Isaac’s example, but because we have come to know and have experienced the ultimate keeper of God’s promise - Abraham and Isaac’s greatest descendant, Jesus, who said “Here, I am” to his Father and so was called the beloved Son, the one and only Savior of the world, to whom we (with Peter, James, and John, and all the Church - past, present, and future - here and everywhere) are now being commanded to listen.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Golden Statues - Then and Now

(New York Magazine Photo: Gold Statue of Donald Trump at CPAC, designed by  California artist Tommy Zegan)

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” [Daniel 3:1-6]

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Third Kennedy - Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975

By the time of his death in 2009, "Ted" the last of the Kennedy brothers had served in the Senate for 47 years and was widely regarded as a senatorial star, someone much more committed to the Senate and more effective as a senator than either of his two older brothers had been and whose name was associated with major landmark legislation, including the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (“perhaps the single most nation-changing measure of the era),” and finally as the leading advocate for universal health care. None of that was inevitable. None of that would have been predicted when, at the age of 30, he was first elected to the Senate in 1962, a position for which he was widely seen as completely unqualified. Then, he was just President Kennedy's baby brother and yet one more example of the unbridled ambition of an arrogant, ambitious, overly rich, and overly privileged Kennedy dynasty.

How a career that began so inauspiciously in 1962 became something so unexpectedly admirable is the story which Neal Gabler tells in this first volume - Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975 - of what promises to be a very ambitious and comprehensive biography. 

For anyone of my generation, the basic outline of the Ted Kennedy story is familiar, as is so much of the triumph-and-tragedy associated with that problematic late 20th-century substitute for an authentic American royal family. Gabler retells the familiar story through the lens of Edward Kennedy's marginal status within the family itself - the youngest child, from whom little was expected in comparison with his star-quality brothers, but who unlike them developed precisely those personal empathetic qualities which enabled him to connect naturally and effectively with people and in the end made him a better and more effective politician than his higher stature brothers.

Gabler highlights the contrast throughout. He stresses the family's obsession that the "children be the very models of social, cultural, and physical perfection, that they stand straight, dress well, be clean, well spoken, well mannered, presentable—in short, the personification of the wealthy aristocrats the Kennedys so detested and so envied." As a child, Teddy was chubby, but "Kennedys were not supposed to be fat." When he famously got caught cheating and was expelled from Harvard, he was horrified that he had gotten caught, "which fit the amorality in which he had been raised." Famously, Joe Kennedy had big plans for his sons. But, Gabler stresses, "there was no morality in those plans, no civic mission or public good." This was the legacy Senator Kennedy would struggle to transcend. Indeed, Gabler calls "Teddy, the most empathetic of the Kennedys, in part because he was the most disrespected of the Kennedys."

Gabler highlights how this may have helped Kennedy find a productive place in the 20th-century Senate - almost as dysfunctional then as now but in a very different way. "Ted Kennedy’s advantage was that he had grown up in a family where he was the youngest, the least, the one who was forced to entertain and appease his siblings and parents, which he did—'a ninth-child talent'—and that talent would be instrumental in entertaining and appeasing the elders in his new family, his Senate family. So if Ted Kennedy was made to be a politician, he was also made to be a senator in an institution run by old bulls, an institution in which the sort of deference he had always displayed and the sort of comity he had always exuded could go a very long way.  As Milton Gwirtzman put it, 'He knew how a young person should deal with the old people'.”

Gabler takes the reader through the familiar territory of the more positive influence of his maternal grandfather Honey Fitz and Ted's initiation into the family business of politics (and the family hobby of womanizing). But he also examines the changing times against which  Kennedy's senate career enfolded. Thus, in contrast to what we see now and what was already happening later in Ted's career, back when John Kennedy was president "the institutions were all functioning and working. You had belief in the presidency and what they were going to do.” And, just as the times changed, so did Ted's sense of purpose. Thus, Gabler describes his speech on the Senate floor during the debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act: "But he had never delivered remarks like these, never a full address, never an address so obviously crafted for the occasion ... would, and, perhaps above all, never one that seemed to recognize the salience of moral authority in liberal politics as this address did. Ted Kennedy had not been a moral leader; he had been too junior to be one. Now he assumed that role."

Senator Kennedy's "heightened sense of purpose" developed against the background of two dramas. The first, of course, consisted of a series of personal and familial tragedies, which Gabler describes in detail - John Kennedy's assassination, Ted's 1964 plane crash, and Robert Kennedy's assassination. There was also Ted's deteriorating marriage with Joan. "Ted Kennedy had no empathy for his wife, no feeling for her suffering or appreciation for what she was going through or any recognition of what he had done to worsen it." There was also their son's bone cancer and leg amputation, which also added to his appreciation of the calamitous cost of health care for ordinary Americans. And, of course, there was Chappaquiddick. 

The second was the transformation of the political landscape from the highpoint of liberalism in the mid-1960s to liberalism's gradual exhaustion in the 1970s, by which time Nixon had "legitimized resentments by removing the moral opprobrium against those resentments," and "The majority of Americans had grown tired of the effort and sacrifice required to be good."

Gabler interprets the end of the liberal era in primarily moral terms, which adds to the poignancy of the early-mid 1970s (the point at which this volume concludes). Especially in the aftermath of Chappquiddick, he notes "To the extent that Ted Kennedy had become the face and the voice of modern liberalism, the liberals’ shadow president and the only figure in the party with the Kennedy inheritance, it was liberalism’s loss as well—a devastating loss—the loss of its moral authority." 

And, closely connected with the loss of liberalism's moral authority, would be the loss of a traditional constituency, illustrated so well in the account of the politically and personally bruising Boston battle over school busing. "Perhaps more than any other issue, busing had come to symbolize not only the imposition of liberal elitism on ordinary folks who had never had any great affinity for African Americans to begin with but also the end of liberalism’s moral authority among the working class, who had once been the backbone of American liberalism."

Yet Kennedy would persevere and in time become the proverbial last one standing as a representative of New Deal and Great Society liberalism. Gabler probes why and finds one answer in religion: "in the Catholicism that Rose Kennedy, whose life spun around the poles of materialism and piety, took so seriously and that she enforced upon her children, even as the aesthetics of religion seemed to her as important, if not more important, as the spiritualism. ... But it was precisely because Ted Kennedy seemed so self-indulgent, at least when it came to drink and women, that his religion came to matter so much to him as a counterweight and a guide to redemption."

There was also, of course, the Kennedy obsession with Irish grievance. But there was also something more: "there was an answer for the least of the Kennedys in what he learned from the least fortunate of the Kennedys. If, on his Sunday visits with his grandson, Honey Fitz introduced Ted to the working people of Boston, Ted’s sister Rosemary introduced him to the afflicted and challenged. The Kennedys did not coddle Rosemary. Anything but. They tried to disguise her disability, pass her off as perfectly normal. But even as she tried so hard to conform—indeed, because she tried so hard to conform—she informed the lives of her brothers and sisters. Ted often cited her as one of the most important influences in his life both personally (“Rosemary enriched the humanity of all of us,” he would write in his memoir) and politically, listing her alongside Honey Fitz and his father and his brothers."

Inescapably, Ted was trapped by the pursuit of the presidency. Gabler chronicles how he simultaneously sought but didn't actually run for the presidency in 1972 and 1976, when many thought he would run and many thought he should run. It will be interesting to read how he recounts what happened when Ted finally did run in 1980, the defeat which, I think, finally seemed to liberate him to be what he would be best at in the end.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Leadership Then and Now

Ages ago, when I was growing up, February 22 was (as it should still be today) a holiday, George Washington's Birthday, which was widely observed with the ritual eating of cherry pie. That peculiar custom, of course, invoked the legend of young George Washington (1732-1799, President 1789-1797) admitting to having chopped down a cherry tree, because he could not tell a lie. As with all such myths, the point was not historical but moral. The point was not what might or might not have happened to some 18th-century Virginia cherry tree but the honesty and exemplary moral probity of the "Father of our Country."

Both as a soldier and as a statesman, George Washington was obviously a man of enormous talent and corresponding ambition. A man of his time. however, he was constrained by 18th-century norms to camouflage his ambition. Sadly we no longer inhabit such a society, and instead we reward and honor narcissism and self-promotion in our prominent persons, including our political leaders. Likewise, Washington as Commander-in-Chief and later as President embodied a kind of quasi-kingly restraint in his personal and official behavior - a style that has long-since given way in American political culture to a Caesarist populism, with correspondingly predictable consequences, most dramatically evident in the Trump personality cult that has so completely corrupted American political culture.

In this context, the founding myth of Washington's honesty provides an important contrast with the popular (and "populist") Trump cult's ubiquitous falsehoods, its both big and small lies. As Machiavelli wrote in an earlier era of moral and cultural breakdown, "one who deceives will always find those who will allow themselves to be deceived" (The Prince, 18).

Meanwhile, the U.S. pandemic death toll has now reached 500,000, more than in any other country. We have experienced nothing like this in at least a century. More Americans have died from this pandemic than were killed in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined! Admittedly, while there are aspects of this tragedy that were always beyond human prediction or control, can anyone doubt that a culture of leadership which valued honesty, humility, and Washington's quasi-kingly personal restraint would have handled this calamity better, beginning with the virus' first appearance a year ago? The same applies to more immediate, seemingly short-term crises like the failure of governance in Republican-run southern states that has so recently totally disrupted life this winter. Imagine if, instead of irrelevant fantasies (for example, about blaming renewable energy), the real energy failures and the real governing culprits in Texas had been called to account!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Time of Fulfillment

Some Thoughts on this 1st Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2021.

Back when Lent really was exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the three following days got added on), Lent began on this Sunday (as it still does, incidentally, in Milan, Italy, where to this day there is still no Ash Wednesday), and the 40 days are in fact still counted beginning with today. Of course, for. many it feels like Lent has been ongoing for almost a year, a contemporary commonplace that says something about how we have experienced this terrible time of pandemic, even while mischaracterizing Lent.

That said, this year as every year on this day, we are invited to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life and mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert. The desert is the epitome of how most of us imagine a harsh and somewhat forbidding place – hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent and where he invites us (symbolically at least) to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desert leads us to spend these 40 days with him among the wild beasts that threaten and challenge us to choose what to make of our lives.

According to the biblical account of human origins, Adam had originally lived peacefully among those same wild beasts – his food provided, according to Jewish legend, by angels. Jesus’ sojourn among the wild beasts with angels ministering to him, tells us that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of whatever obstacles we put in his way. That’s the point of the story of Noah. Despite all the obstacles people put in God’s way, in his mercy God patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved. God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his just anger, to guarantee the continuance of life on earth. That is the symbolism fo the rainbow - an archer's bow in the clouds, its archer, God, mercifully restraining his righteous wrath as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth

In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sinfulness, descending into the prison of death to free its victims. Jesus’ descent among the dead, among the spirits in prison, anticipates the final fulfillment of his life-giving mission, addressed to us in an especially intense way in this Lenten season: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

That’s what Lent is all about, because that’s what life is ultimately all about. Our perennial temptation is to imagine Lent in individualistic terms - as I once overheard someone explaining Lent (in a somewhat New Age way) as “a time to get connected with ourselves.” Lent is indeed a time to renew ourselves, a task each one of us is responsible to undertake. But we do that by focusing not on ourselves, but on the bigger picture, and where we want to be in that picture. Lent is our special time to connect with Christ – Christ tempted in the desert and victorious on the cross, Christ descended among the dead and risen at the right hand of his Father – and to allow that experience, his experience, to make a real difference in our lives, because, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the kingdom of God really is at hand.