For Lent, both a via negativa and a via positiva

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.

It is a perfectly human love.

Mother Mary's perfectly human love.
Mother Mary’s perfectly human love.
Advertisements

The authority of love

From a sermon preached Feb. 8, 2015, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Calif.

Romans 13:1-10

A little over two weeks ago, I was having dinner in a shelter for migrants in Agua Prieta, Mexico. A man I was talking to had been deported from the United States about four months prior and was contemplating trying to cross the formidable border again, to go back to the taco cart he pushed in Salt Lake City, and the $700 he had hidden under the battery of the car he had left at a neighbor’s house. “I got here, and crossing is much more dangerous than it was the first time,” he told me. “I’m not sure I will try it.” He asked me how long I would be in Mexico. I was traveling with a group of Presbyterians, studying Central American migration issues. “We are traveling from Tucson, Arizona, south through Mexico, through Guatemala, to El Salvador,” I told my dinner partner. “We are doing the migration in reverse.”

“Ah, the difference is,” said Miguelito, “They aren’t going to try to kill you.”

We looked at each other for a few seconds, over our chicken legs and rice.

“That’s true,” I said.

My trip had started on the U.S.-Mexico border, with a visit to the desert, to the fence, with Border Patrol agents who speak of migrants they are trying to catch as “bodies” or “arrests” or “aliens” or “bad guys”—never as people—and the trip ended at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, with a presentation about the billions of dollars the U.S. has poured into El Salvador in order to make it safe for trade of U.S. goods and multi-national corporate interests, not of people.

In Arizona we heard from Presbyterian pastors whose churches were illegally infiltrated by U.S. government operatives in the 1980s, while they harbored refugees from the Cold War military enterprises in Central America. We read about just how dangerous crossing the border in the Arizona desert is: Hundreds have died, and as the border fence grows higher and longer, arrests drop, and deaths increase. In Guatemala, we learned about the dire consequences for overstaying a visa in the United States (felony charges, deportation, permanent exclusion), compared with the consequences of a U.S. passport carrier accidentally overstaying a visa in Guatemala: a fine of about $20 and fixing the paperwork. To apply for a visa to come to the United States costs $160 for every application, every time, win or lose. I didn’t even have to buy a visa to enter Guatemala, or visit a consulate. The power of a U.S. passport.

As Christians, in a country where power and privilege is becoming more and more unbalanced, and where assistance to our neighbors is based not on humanitarian needs but economic interests, how shall we understand the apostle Paul here: “Be subject to the governing authorities. … for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants.”

The strange thing is that Paul was writing to Christians in Rome shortly after Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews (and presumably Jewish Christians) from Rome. And Paul writes shortly before a time when Emperor Nero would pin the blame for Rome’s burning on Christians and have them killed and burned right and left.

Paul would not have been blind to this. I want to offer the possibility that Paul was writing this bit of Romans ironically.*

Watch how many times he subtly subverts the governmental authority to God’s law: authority rests on God, God appointed, it is God’s servant, does not bear the sword in vain, servant of God, be subject because of conscience, the authorities are God’s servants.

Owe no one anything except love. For love is the fulfilling of the law.

Love is the fulfilling of the law.

During this reverse migration, Miguelito was right, and no one tried to kill me, not at the embassies or government offices, not at the borders, not in the gang-run neighborhoods of San Salvador. We visited not only “the authorities” but also with church women, with shelters, with migrants themselves, with people who had been kidnapped and maimed on the route to the border, and with people who had returned from the U.S. in order to create more opportunities and relationships in their homeland. We met families who had been torn apart. We met families who vowed not to be torn apart again.

The issue of migration is extremely complex. Most of the people on our seminar trip started with the goal of finding a “root cause” of migration, as if migration is a problem to be solved rather than part of the human condition. We are concerned for the thousands of unaccompanied children, young mothers, babies, poor people crossing our borders and seeking asylum from violence and poverty in their homes.

Most of the “authorities” in the migration system, most of the power, most of the money, most of the voices, are on the side of the governments, particularly the U.S. government, which so far is doing little to facilitate a just and safe migration, but is doing everything to stop migration.

Where is God in this extremely complex system? Is the U.S. government, the fence, the border patrol, the embassy, the economic aid, the detention centers, the immigration courts: Are they subject to God’s authority? Where was God on this 2,300 mile journey? Where is God for the migrants who are still on the 2,300 mile journey?

God’s authority is love. I saw love on this journey. Sometimes it was more visible than others. I saw it in the face of a mother who is raising the baby who is the product of rape by kidnappers. I saw it in the face of Miguelito, a hardscrabble taco-vendor deportee who talked with me candidly about the dangers he knows he’s facing. I saw God in the faces of amputees who had been maimed by the “Beast” train that carries migrants through Mexico. I saw love in the face of a young man who founded a café, and an education center, and an art gallery for youth, so he could reconnect with the Guatemalan identity that the Mayan God of light and hope birthed him into. I saw love in the face of a pastor who was willing to become a felon in order to do the right thing and protect a Central American family.

I saw love too in the face of the Border Patrol agent who quit his job as a teacher because he thought he could save more children faster in law enforcement. I saw love in the face of the Salvadoran government agent who is trying her very best to make sure the 50,000 migrants who will be deported back to her streets know that El Salvador hasn’t forgotten them, and cares enough to help them get on their feet. I saw love in the face of the U.S. AID worker who believes in making Central America safer and more prosperous.

The systems and processes that we have built are extremely complex. Too complex even to find God in them. We had to look really hard to find the authority of love. But we found it. And that is where Paul points us to when he tells us to obey the authorities. In order to do that, we must look really hard. We must find where the love is. That is where God is.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authority. The governing authority that is love.

* Carter, Timothy L. 2004. “The irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum 46, no. 3: 209-228. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 9, 2015).