Saturday, June 30, 2007

One Sunday Morning

One Sunday Morning, or A Vision of the Church as Spirit and Bride

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. ~ Thrid Article of the Apostles Creed.

That Sunday I felt out of sorts. I was exhausted and spiritually depleted. I took myself to church anyway. Arriving well after the service had begun, I sat down in the back and off to the side. Feeling disconnected, I just sat and watched. I seemed to have no energy to do otherwise.

As I looked around, I noticed how people were praying, listening, singing, how each one was experiencing the service. I followed the reader who got up, walked over to a large book and read with a dry voice. I listened to a singer labor at her song. I considered how the preacher seemed to carry on a kind of conversation with the congregation and then to talk at length. Later the congregation sung a hymn in response.

At some point—I don’t know when—I began to witness another presence. All the people were like little actors through which a greater spirit was at work. It was not the reader who read but this spirit. It was not the singer who sung, but the spirit who labored within her. The spirit was manifest in the experience of each congregant. One congregant would smile while another felt the oncoming of tears. One would listen attentively while another found a kind of rest. The spirit was urgent or distant according to a higher will. The singing was humble and human, but it was also enveloped in another chorus of angels, archangels and saints. The spirit was at once the conductor, the breath, the voice, the song. This was surely true, though the ones who participated had little awareness. The spirit animated each in spite of their self-engagement, each speaking a word never learned and seldom heard.

At once I realized that there was nothing for me to do—no ministry, no effort, no necessity. The church is all spirit and all sufficiently in-fleshed. What is ministry but to witness? It is spirit. It is not unfolding. It is not becoming. It is not yet to be. It simply is. And it is whether we perceive it or not.

As people filed around the altar to receive bread and wine, I remained in my seat, a watcher at his post. I heard a melody. Not in the spirit, but played note by note on the piano. It was beautiful as it was, inviting and strangely familiar. Where had I heard this? Then I remembered with a jolt. That song had come through me. I had penned the words, “Welcome my full welcome; all my children come to me. I will make a way for you; I will make you holy.” I welled up but not for pride or a sense of accomplishment. I wept because it was beautiful just as it was—sung back to me, no doing on my part. Each sang as the spirit sang in each.

So I witness to the spirit and the bride who say, Come.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Anointed by a Woman

Who anointed God’s Anointed? In Luke’s Gospel (4:18), Jesus claims that the “Spirit of the Lord” had anointed him, but what prophet could have stood as God’s representative in anointing Jesus? What Samuel anointed this Son of David[1]? While John baptized Jesus, he claimed not to be worthy to loosen his sandals[2] and applied no ointment.

According to the four Gospels, Jesus was anointed only by a woman[3]. This woman’s identity is obscure and her action ambiguous. Like a good parable, these stories confound our pious expectations and expose our self-serving rationalizations. Luke’s variant of this story stands out as particularly incongruent with the other Gospels. Indeed, I will argue that Luke deliberately inverts the story to further his vision of Jesus as the prophet of the poor, women, and untouchables.

I will begin by setting out the basic structure of the story. In subsequent paragraphs, I will compare the content choices of Luke to the other accounts, noting in particular how and why key elements have been inverted. Finally, I will summarize the resulting impact of Luke’s retelling. The basic story is as follows. I note with emphasis where Luke departs from other Gospels.

1. Setting

a. Time – Two (Mt, Mk) or six (Jn) days before Jesus final Passover; early in Jesus ministry (Lk)

b. Location – Bethany, near Jerusalem (Mt, Mk, Jn); Galilee (Lk)

c. Host – Simon, the Leper (Mt, Mk); Simon, the Pharisee (Lk); Lazarus & Martha (Jn)

d. Jesus' posture – Reclining at table (Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn)

2. Action of woman

a. Characterization of woman – “a woman” (Mt, Mk); “woman from the city…a sinner” (Lk); Mary, sister of Martha & Lazarus (Jn)

b. The ointment – Alabaster jar of costly ointment of nard (Mt, Mk, Lk); pound of costly perfume of nard (Jn)

c. Method of anointing – Pouring on head (Mt, Mk); anointing feet and wiping with hair (Lk, Jn), also weeping and kissing feet (Lk)

3. Reaction of indignant critic

a. Identification of the critic – “some were indignant” (Mk); some indignant disciples (Mt); the host Simon, the Pharisee (Lk); Judas Iscariot (Jn)

b. Object of indignation – The woman (Mt, Mk, Jn); Jesus (Lk)

c. Rationalization – Extravagant use of costly resource better spent on the poor (Mt, Mk, Jn); Impropriety of prophet who allows himself to be touched by a sinner (Lk)

4. Jesus’ response to criticism

a. Defense of woman’s action – A beautiful gesture, preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (Mt, Mk, Jn); woman’s hospitality contrasted with the inhospitality of host/critic (Lk)

b. Rebuke of critic – Critic does not really care about the poor (Mk, Jn); parable of forgiveness leads critic to judge against himself (Lk)

c. Wisdom teaching – “You will always have that poor, but you will not always have me.” (Mt, Mk, Jn); “The one who is forgiven much, loves much.” (Lk)

d. Vindication of woman – Gospel will be proclaimed “in remembrance of her” (Mt, Mk); woman’s sins forgiven by her faith expressed in great love (Lk); Jesus follows Mary’s example by washing disciples feet (Jn 15:1-17)

The setting in Luke is clearly inverted. The other accounts place this story in Bethany near Jerusalem just days before Jesus’ final Passover[4]. Luke places the story near the Sermon on the Plain (6:20-49) at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not at the end. Given Luke’s geographical sequence, this places Jesus in Galilee before he sets “his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). This is not the time or place for Jesus to be honored as the Messiah, thus Luke is merely establishing Jesus as a prophet among the people, especially the Galileans.

Curiously “Simon” is the host’s name in the three synoptics, but Luke characterizes him as a Pharisee, not a leper[5]. Luke contrasts the piety of Simon with the sinfulness of the woman and sets up the listener for the reversal at the end wherein the woman is justified, but Simon is condemned. Had Luke followed Matthew and Mark in calling Simon a leper, the reversal would not be possible. A leper would have been untouchable, just as a sinful woman would have no place touching a holy prophet[6]. Furthermore, setting Simon as a Pharisee aligns him with all the “righteous” ones who hear Jesus, but ultimately do not receive him or heed him as a true prophet. Jesus’ identity as a prophet is at stake in Luke’s characterization of Simon.

The synoptics concur on particular details of the “alabaster jar of ointment.”[7] I take such agreement to suggest that Luke was consciously adapting the story in Mark and Matthew. Moreover, Luke does not place his version in Bethany at Jesus’ final Passover[8]. The lack of such a “doublet” suggests that Luke is deliberately inverting this story and not simply including a different, though similar story.

Luke clearly inverts the method of anointing in Matthew and Mark. Here not the head, but the feet are anointed[9]. Anointing the head may be seen as a prophetic or priestly act, potentially placing the woman in a high spiritual status. The ambiguity of this act is the basis for the disciples’ reaction against the presumption of the woman. Such ambiguity also gives the story some of the force of a parable. It is subversive to assert that Jesus’ messianic anointing on earth was consecrated by a woman of no particular authority.

Luke would have been sensitive to this telling of the story as a parable, and perhaps this is what gave him license to recast it as a different sort of parable. Indeed, Luke inserts a parable on forgiveness within the story. The act of the “sinful” woman exemplifies her contrition, humble love and ultimately her justification. She anoints his feet, not only with ointment, but with her own tears, touching his feet with her hands, her hair and her lips. The intimacy of her act is also ambiguous. Is this the display of a prostitute seeking to corrupt Jesus? Or does this speak to the sublime intimacy of those who have been received into the kingdom, a spiritual awakening of which the self-righteous know nothing? To dwell on the sinfulness of this woman is to miss the point. Luke’s reference (8:1-3) falling on the heels of the anointing story underscores the point: the women who followed and supported Jesus in his ministry were those “who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.”

John’s Gospel (12:3) names her as Mary of Bethany, the devoted disciple of Jesus who anointed his feet. This seems to integrate the spiritual intimacy interpretation of Luke’s account with the high prophetic or priestly act of Matthew and Mark’s versions. The subsequent story in John 15:1-17 of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet carries the same paradox of lowly service and high spiritual status. Perhaps the Johanine community had come to see that there is no distinction, that the two are inextricably bound together.

In Luke’s version, Jesus’ critic is not a disciple, but the host Simon the Pharisee. In the other versions, the disciples are indignant to the woman and criticize the waste or extravagance of her gesture[10]. Simon the Pharisee is indignant of Jesus for allowing a sinful woman to touch him. This brings Jesus’ legitimacy as a prophet into question while casting derision on the woman. Jesus responds to his critical host by engaging him in a parable about one who had been forgiven little and another forgiven much. As when the prophet Nathan confronted David with a parable regarding Bathsheba so Jesus sets Simon up to rule against himself[11]. Simon is the one who had loved little and would be forgiven even less, while the “sinful” woman who had expressed greater hospitality, faithfulness and love is forgiven of all. If, in fact, this woman is already forgiven, then Simon’s criticism is unfounded. Jesus is not being touched by a sinful woman, but is anointed by one who is already present in the kingdom. Simon does not at first perceive this apocalyptic reality.

Luke presents a prophet who brings the high to self-judgment and vindicates the lowly. Luke’s recasting of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus functions as a parable to subvert our expectation of who is holy and who is sinful. The Son of Man who eats and drinks with sinners[12] reveals a moment wherein the untouchable touch, healing and anointing each other.

Please leave a comment or send an email to let me know you have read this far. God bless, James

[1] C.f. 1Sam 10:1; 16:3
[2] Lk 3:16
[3] Lk 7:36-50, Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Jn 12:1-9
[4] Mt 26:2,6; Mk 14:1,3; Jn 12:1
[5] Lk 7:39-40, Mt 26:2, Mk 14:3
[6] “A strict reading of Lev. 5:1-5 indicates a risk of defilement upon even touching (or being touched by) a sinner.” Commentary on Luke 7.39 in HarperCollins Study Bible, p. 1777.
[7] Mt 26:7, Mk 14:3, Lk 7:37
[8] Only references to Bethany in Luke are 19:29 and 24:50.
[9] Mt 26:7, Mk 14:3, Lk 7:38
[10] Mt 26:8, Mk 14:4, Lk 7:39
[11] 2Sam 12:1-14; Lk 7:40-46
[12] Lk 7:34

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Measure of our Enlightenment

Cleaning up emails in my inbox, I found some old correspondence worth sharing.

In 2003, my friend Martha gave me a link to a very interesting link to the an article titled "Dark Night of Mother Teresa." This was written in advance of Mother Teresa's beatification on Oct. 19, 2003 in Rome.

The article discusses some hidden aspects of the life of Mother Teresa. What was reveled by Mother Teresa's spiritual director, only after her death, was that she had been experiencing spiritual darkness for all the time she was in India. Prior to her mission she was content as a contemplative nun, and she had been receiving visitations by Jesus in visions and other mystical experiences. But all this ended once she committed herself to a mission in Calcutta, as Jesus had asked of her in a vision. She entered, what St. John of the Cross had called, the dark night of the spirit. In this dark night, the soul is bereft of all spiritual consolation, but only experiences a profound sense of emptiness, dryness, even abandonment by God.

I found it compelling that this woman, in whom so many could see the bright light of Christ, experienced only darkness within her own soul, an acute awareness of separation from God. This stark revelation motivated me to write the following email response to Martha.


Thanks for the article.

One of my new friends here in Atlanta had worked with Mother Teresa for several years. Just last night Isaac was telling my about how Mother Teresa would give people a slight touch and fill the person with love, peace and joy. Isaac had also been a Brother at Taize for ten years. He told me that Br. Roger has a similar touch. Now Isaac is a refugee from his home country of Bangladesh where he was a human rights activist and publisher. We meet weekly for conversation and prayer, wondering how the Spirit may be leading us.

About Mother Teresa's dark night, I am reminded of the Bhakti Sutra that says that the ultimate degree of Bhakti, a Sanskrit word for the yoga of devotional love, is the cherishing of supreme separation. This comes after the more blissful stages of divine courtship leading to union. After union it is the love that flows out from us (Beloved-and-I) that matters.

By analogy, we can only see the light that comes toward us. The light that flows out from us we cannot see, nor do we need to. Only sometimes, we may see small reflections of that light as it reflects back to us though the eyes of those that Love is loving through us.

The measure of one's enlightenment is not the light that one sees, but the light that others see shining from the One. When Mother Teresa touches us, we are filled with love, joy and peace. This is the light that shines out of darkness, emptiness, abandon.

We should not be concerned when we no longer feel the sweet consolations of the Spirit. If we are doing the will of God, that is enough.

Nice to hear from you again. I hope to visit Durham sometime soon. Let's stay in touch.

In Christ,