My hooves slipped on the palms and mantles that lined the streets. I did my best not to stumble, to bear up under the unfamiliar weight. He clutched my mane, digging in his fingers, and gripped my sides with his heels.
A reflection on Mark 11:1-11, on Palm Sunday, for San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Lenten devotionals series. Leerlo en español después de la pausa..
I don’t know what Hosanna means. They said it was a blessing, as I was chosen from obscurity. I don’t know what blessing means. Hosanna, we are saved! The crowd shouted, waved, clamored. I couldn’t see him, of course, really just his hem and feet if I looked back. I curled my long ears back, straining to hear, to know something of this burden I bore. He didn’t say anything then, or if he did, I couldn’t hear for the Hosanna. I heard he had said, come, follow me. I heard he said, blessed are the poor, the obscure, the persecuted. I don’t know what persecuted means.
His followers, the ones to whom I owe this great supposed honor, told me then that I would be returned. That all would be returned. That the kingdom would return. I don’t know what kingdom means. I know that my hooves slipped on the palms and mantles that lined the streets. I did my best not to stumble, to bear up under the unfamiliar weight. He clutched my mane, digging in his fingers, and gripped my sides with his heels. That helped.
After the parade, I was indeed returned. Instead of a man, the next day, I carried firewood, and the day after, a hundred flat loaves of bread. I know what burden means, now. I heard later that the man said, “Remember me.” I was returned to normal, but not normal, and I don’t know how to remember. The tether chafes, now that I know the feeling of his heels, his hands. Which is the blessing? I smelled the iron, the blood, the smoke – heard the clamor and crowds, farther away. Whenever I hear the rustle of a palm, now, I also strain for his voice. Though I never actually heard it, I listen, through the clamor, trying to remember.
Over the past ten years in Honduras, Berta Cáceres successfully organized her indigenous Lenca people’s community against a World Bank- and private business-funded dam project that was implemented with little or no input from local inhabitants of the Guadalcarque River. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, as the dam project was stalled, and investors fled. In 2016, Cáceres was shot to death in her home, in a town called La Esperanza, which cooincidentally in Spanish means “hope.” Eight men have been arrested, but the murderers have not been brought to justice. Many murderers in Honduras are not.
I imagine that Berta’s heart cries out. But with joy? With hope? Hope for what? She hopes for what she never will see.
The violence menaces still. Honduras is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, for environmental and political activists, for community organizers, for women. Dozens of activists are killed each year, hundreds of women, with impunity. In three weeks leading up to the national election on Nov. 26, at least four political activists, from various parties, were attacked and killed. At least one protester, a 19-year-old woman, has been killed in the weeks since the election.
I work for the church, a U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker, partnering with the Honduran Presbyterian church. I do not know what I ought to pray for. Is it enough, surrounded by such menace, to say that we care for our congregants’ souls, and we leave “politics” out on the church steps?
As She—Mary, Berta, Spirit—intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, we do not know what we ought to pray for. We hope against hope, though we die. The world is about to turn, the hymn says. Until the world turns, creation groans, the earth groans, our very bodies groan, and the body of Christ groans for the redemption that has been promised today, not tomorrow, not after death, but now, in the turning of the world.
Originally written as a Lenten devotional for San Francisco Theological Seminary, a reflection on Ephesians 3:14-21:
Right away I cringe at this text. “I bow my knees before the Father,” the writer says, and my third-wave feminist mind conjures images of submission, passivity, and docility. This is not the posture of a woman who makes sure she always has a seat at the conference table during meetings, who changes the lyrics of hymns to call God “mother,” who crochets pussyhats for the Women’s March on Washington. My image of serving Christ is usually more like standing up and shouting before “She-Who-Is.” This is an image I’ve worked hard to integrate into my being, working against societal norms of polite silence for women.
At a yoga class during this Lent, I tried a pose that was new to me. The teacher called it “rabbit” pose or sasakasana. I was on my knees, with my head to the floor, and my hands reaching behind me to grab my heels. This passage from Ephesians flashed through my mind, and it occurred to me that there is no more possible bowing my body could do. I was completely doubled over. The instructor encouraged us to breathe in and out, and as we breathed, to deepen our bends, and to feel the grounding of our bodies. “Thank your body for getting out of your own way,” she said.
I’m not so sure my chubby body was really doing such a good job of getting out of my way as I lay there with my knees pressing my bosom and my sweaty face stuck to my yoga mat. Nevertheless, I thanked my body, my imperfect female body, for bowing its knees, for taking in breath, for helping me to be me.
I thought of all the other kinds of bowing I have done during this Lent: kneeling on the floor to play with a coworker’s 5-year-old son, bending to whisper prayers for a hospice patient who is journeying towards death, kneeling beside the bereaved during a funeral rosary. This rabbit pose and numerous others during my yoga class.
All of this bowing, letting my body get out of my own way, helped me realize that in Christ, and in my bowing, I can also be “rooted and grounded in love.”
Last week I retreated with my master’s of divinity class, one year after our graduation. The theme of our retreat was “thriving through transition.” I stood in the middle of a labyrinth where, six years ago, I first changed my answer to the question: “Will you change careers, drop what you’re doing now, go to graduate school, and become a pastor?” I said “yes” for the first time in the middle of that labyrinth. Then a little over a year later, I was laid off from my job as a news reporter and forced out of a career that I had loved for nearly half my life.
The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has researched a concept called “grit” that is making rounds lately in podcasts and media think-pieces. Here she discusses grit and how to learn it: “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint….(Growth mindset is) the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
During the retreat, led by Carolyn Foster, we heard this poem, which funnily enough hearkened back to my days as a Kentucky journalist:
By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.
Even though I had said already said “yes” to a career change, I still felt like a failure and tasted the bitterness of the layoff for months, even years afterward. But as I stood in that labyrinth last week, I rewrote my story of failure. I remembered that I had said “yes” to change many months before being forced to change. I reminded myself that I have agency and power, and that as long as I’m alive, my story is not yet finished. I will keep on changing.
Our pastoral identity should be grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and obedient above all else to Jesus. We should live as whole persons — not bifurcated — saying and living what we believe the gospel requires of us.
The priest who says Mass at the hospital where I work, on Our Lady of Lourdes day, preached on the humanity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is a venerated woman, a saint with iterations in many cultures. She approaches divinity in the minds and hearts of many faithful Christians. However, the priest said, we must beware of prioritizing her divinity such that we forget she is a woman, a human creature, whom we can relate to.
The next week, the priest said Mass on Ash Wednesday, which is the day after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday is a day when Christians often give up things they have binged on during Mardi Gras. We give up pleasures and indulgences in order to remind ourselves to be penitent and mindful during the 40 days and nights Jesus spent wandering in the desert, enduring temptations, at the start of his ministry. This 40 day period culminates in Holy Week, when the Last Supper, trial, Crucifixion, death and Easter Resurrection occur. Then we feast again.
Many people give up alcohol, or meat, or chocolate during the time of Lent. But Father Bob, the priest at the hospital, suggested instead of giving something up, we add to the goodness of the world. Instead of giving something up, increasing the dreariness, suffering, and drudgery of the world, why not make the world better? What good can you do for other people; what good habit can you cultivate that will make you more whole? Instead of the “via negativa” or negative way, can we practice the “via positiva”?
I saw recently a play, Testament, by Irish playwright Colm Tóibín, in which Mary is portrayed as a very human mother of a just-Crucified Jesus. She is being guarded and interviewed and watched by Jesus’ disciples in Ephesus, where according to legend, Mary lived out her life after Jesus’ death. She describes the wedding at Cana, considered the site of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine, in very human terms. She interacts with her son at this family wedding and realizes that he is becoming more distant and larger-than-life, that the folks at the wedding are attributing to him a miracle, when she knows him as her son, a rabble-rousing delinquent who was always bringing his gang of friends to the house.
The Mary of Testament is incensed that her interviewers think that Jesus’ father is God. Jesus had a father, Mary said, and Mary misses him dearly. (The play doesn’t explain what exactly happened to the father.) Mary understands Jesus to be nothing more or less than her son. The aspirations of being God’s Son are ridiculous to her.
Did this mother give up anything to bring her son into the world? Maybe. Many human mothers make sacrifices. But I know very few mothers who would give up more if their child were more special, or more powerful, or more divine.
My feminist sensibilities don’t sit well with the idea that a Godly love can be evident in self-emptying or pouring out. God’s love is filling and life-giving. Turning water to wine, the fullness of pleasure in giving a feast to your children, taking joy in their goodness and happiness, knowing that their goodness and happiness does not take away from your own, but adds to it, indeed is your reason for being.
But there is always a via negativa. There is always a path to holiness that involves sacrifice. Does a mother feeding her children with her own food, and not from a bounty, diminish the holiness of her gift? Does a child’s prison sentence diminish the holiness of the mother’s tears, or her willingness to sacrifice for her child’s comfort and well-being?
These two ways, the positive and negative ways, of devotion, of love, they are not mutually exclusive. They are always in all of us. We are created to hold both, in the image of God.
The Mary of Testament has a very human, and very powerful, motherly love of her son that is made no more or less powerful by the idea that Jesus might be divine. The love of this mother knows nothing of achievement or divinity or titles or worth.