Friday, July 22, 2016

Our Big Day

Jules Joseph Lebebvre
It comes but once a year, and we so often forget to mark it.  But today, 22 July, is the feast day of our patroness, St. Mary Magdalene.  (Technically, it is a Lesser Festival for us Lutherans, which places it below a Principal Festival and above a Commemoration.  But we digress.)
After Pompeo Batoni

As we have often said, and you have often heard, she was not a prostitute, nor was she Mary of Bethany, nor was she even a "sinner" except insofar as we are all sinners.  At least Scripture does not tell us so.  Nor, by the same standard, do we have reason to believe that she retired to a cave to live out a life of penitence, whether in Britain or France or anywhere else.  Even the story of the reddening egg (alas!) is pure myth.  (Much less the Da Vinci Code balderdash.)
Robert Lenz

A pity, really.  The legends of Mary Magdalene, in their full medieval glory, compose a treasury of beautiful and exotic speculation, adorned by a vast gallery of painting and sculpture.  They are adventurous, sexy, pious and at the same time just a little subversive.  For many people, it is these legends -- these exotic speculations -- that are the Magdalene's chief attraction.  (Here's an introduction).
Gregor Erhart

Mind you, the little that we actually learn from Scripture is interesting enough.  Jesus cast "seven devils" from her, she was part of the group of women who provided for the disciples out of their own living, and of the smaller group who had been "healed of evil spirits and infirmities."  Above all, she is the one figure placed by all of the four Evangelists at the empty Easter tomb.

The significance of this is hard to overstate.  Few figures are mentioned by name in all four gospels; not the Blessed Virgin, nor her husband, nor some of the Twelve.  It leads some scholars to speculate that the Magdalene, as perhaps also John the Baptist, may have been a spiritual leader of some independent authority, whose followers (and whose story) were gradually integrated into the master-narrative of the Jesus movement.  This may well be a feminist fantasy -- but it is no less plausible than her retirement to a Provencal cavern.
AA Ivanov

What we can rely on, however, is this:  that she was a central figure in the story of the Resurrection -- the first witness, and the first to carry the story.  The Orthodox are right to identify her as one of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, but this does not go nearly far enough.  She is rightly called Apostle to the Apostles, and -- although this is rarely mentioned -- a model for preachers, for all those who share the good news of the Resurrection, for all those who proclaim a Christianity with new life at its center.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

SIlence of the Lambs

Regular readers of the Egg -- to the extent that there ever were any -- have perhaps noticed that we post a great deal less often these days.  There are many reasons, a new and rather busy parish chief among them.  But one reason in particular stands out for its sheer darkness.

America has gone mad.

Writing with a jaundiced eye about our nation has never been difficult; HL Mencken and Sinclair Lewis made their bones by picking low-hanging fruit.  Teasing booboisie and boosterism is easy, so long as you have even the least bit of critical distance from them.  For our own part, lobbing softballs at our favorite targets -- the Bush Administration, drunken bishops, Protestant groupthink and Catholic revanchism -- has always been a pretty straightforward business as well.

Here's the thing:  the sort of armchair criticism in which we have indulged depends upon a fairly thick portfolio of shared convictions, both with our readers and with our targets.  At some level, even Dick Cheney knew that torture was wrong.  Likewise, Bruce Burnside knew that drunk driving (and texting) was stupid, the UCC knows that both tradition and Scripture actually do matter, the SSPX knows that at a certain point the Pope is the Pope and they are not.  All we have had to do is remind them of these shared convictions, and invite them to behave accordingly.

But the times they are, as always, a-changin'.

Over the past year or two, it has become evident that America's police departments are terrified of the people they nominally exist to serve and protect.  So, with government collusion, they have armed themselves like military units, and declared war on ... well, anybody who looks at them funny, especially while black.  Meanwhile, America's well-armed civilians -- the Constitutional "militia" which has so powerfully resisted all efforts to regulate it -- have risen to the challenge, procuring and using their own weapons, both against the police and against their unarmed compatriots.

At the same time, our Congressional gridlock has become so exacerbated that it has spread to the Supreme Court.  The justices, divided 4-4 on a handful of major decisions, have even begun declining to hear cases they know they cannot decide.  Two branches of the federal government are now unable to function properly.

As for the Executive Branch -- well, goodness!  As the November elections approach, the two principal political parties have both nominated candidates who are strikingly, intensely, passionately unlikeable.  This is a bold move, but also a stupid one. While Richard Nixon proved that it is possible for a person with poor social skills and a paranoid (or grandiose) personality disorder to win the nation's highest office, this remains an exception.  The rule favors candidates whom people actually like.  However much we may disagree on matters of policy with a Reagan, a G.W. Bush, or a Bill Clinton, they were all the sort of person you might enjoy eating lunch with, or taking in a ball game, or sharing a few beers at the office picnic.  They could kiss a baby without frightening the parents.

The presidential campaign, which would be comical if the apparent madness of Donald Trump did not raise the stakes quite so high, is frankly terrifying.  But it is just one symptom of our society's seeming rush to the bottom.  Racial and ethnic hatred, explosive violence, an unreliable justice system, and a national government that is unable to govern (and don't let's get started on the states):  these are just a few of the profound challenges facing America at this moment.

Worst of all, we are plagued by the sense that we no longer share a set of common values, not only with the people running for president but with many of the people preparing to vote for them.  What kind of country could create, not to say tolerate and even in some corners celebrate, Cliven Bundy and his family?  In what world is the answer to gun violence a wider dissemination of guns?  When did Joel Osteen become a public representative of the Christian tradition?  It is madness; and indeed, our Facebook news feed offers a daily glimpse into the Abyss.

It is hard to write about current events.  To make jokes seems callow, while to say what one really thinks sounds alarmist or even unhinged.  So we at the Egg have found ourselves paralyzed, unable to say what we think -- and often unwilling even to think it.  More and more we take refuge in a careful exploration of antique rubrics, or considering the best punctuation of seventeenth-century sermons (literally; these have been our chief leisure pursuits lately).  We are, in short, hiding from the world, because the world is a frightening place.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

John Donne: Can the Heathen Be Saved?

One of the questions that pesters Christian consciences every now and then is whether or not God has made any arrangements for the salvation of those who live and die outside the communion of the Church.

On one hand, it seems reasonable that a just and loving God would make such arrangements.  Why should a virtuous pagan be excluded from Heaven, when so many miserable wretches are allowed in simply by virtue of a little water splashed on their head?  On the other hand, what are we to do with Acts 4:12, and the proposition that "there is no other name by which we must be saved"?

The disagreement is by no means a creation of our globally-connected generation.  St. Cyprian laid down the glove by declaring that extra eccesiam nulla salus, a remark which remains a rallying cry for some and a target of attack for others.  But many of the Church Fathers admired the spiritual wisdom of this or that pagan philosopher, and argued for the salvation of a Plato or a Socrates, claiming that they grasped by reason those truths which most of us can only apprehend by revelation.  This latter argument was restated in modern times by a variety of missionary-minded Jesuits, notably Karl Rahner, who rather than "righteous pagans" spoke of "anonymous Christians."

John Donne, characteristically, offers a thoughtful and broad-minded answer to the question.

On Easter Day of 1622, he took to the pulpit of St. Paul's to deliver a variation on his customary Easter theme of the two resurrections, spiritual and bodily, to which a Christian might look forward. In the midst of that sermon, he laid out for his listeners the question of whether those who did not know Christ could still be saved, discussed the different theories floated by various theologians, and then offered his own position:
To me, to whom God hath revealed his Son in a Gospel by a Church, there can be no way of salvation but by applying that Son of God by that Gospel in that Church; nor is there any other foundation for any, nor other name by which any can be saved but the name of Jesus.   
But how this foundation is presented and how this name of Jesus is notified to them amongst whom there is no Gospel preached, no Church established, 1 am not curious in inquiring. I know God can be as merciful as those tender Fathers present him to be, and I would be as charitable as they are. And therefore humbly embracing that manifestation of his Son which he hath afforded me, I leave God to his unsearchable ways of working upon others without further inquisition.
This is an approach to warm a Lutheran's heart. It is personal and local -- pro me, pro nobis -- but also humble. It takes into account both Scripture and tradition. It refuses to claim knowledge it does not have about the inner workings of God's mind, and makes allowance for the possibility that God's mercy -- Donne speaks of "liberality" -- is greater than we know.