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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

We’ll start with the more confusing one – James. As is the case with (in English) “Mary” – there are a lot of “James” in the New Testament narratives, so sorting them out is a challenge. And perhaps not even really possible.

Today’s feast celebrates James “the Lesser” – as opposed to James the Greater, brother of John, one of the first four apostles called by Jesus, present at the Transfiguration, feast June 25, etc.

This James, son of Alphaeus, is often identified with the James who was head of the Church in Jerusalem and the author of the New Testament letter.  That’s what Pope Benedict went with in his 2007 General Audience talk: 

Thus, St James’ Letter shows us a very concrete and practical Christianity. Faith must be fulfilled in life, above all, in love of neighbour and especially in dedication to the poor. It is against this background that the famous sentence must be read: “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2: 26).

"amy welborn"

At times, this declaration by St James has been considered as opposed to the affirmations of Paul, who claims that we are justified by God not by virtue of our actions but through our faith (cf. Gal 2: 16; Rom 3: 28). However, if the two apparently contradictory sentences with their different perspectives are correctly interpreted, they actually complete each other.

St Paul is opposed to the pride of man who thinks he does not need the love of God that precedes us; he is opposed to the pride of self-justification without grace, simply given and undeserved.

St James, instead, talks about works as the normal fruit of faith: “Every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit”, the Lord says (Mt 7: 17). And St James repeats it and says it to us.

Lastly, the Letter of James urges us to abandon ourselves in the hands of God in all that we do: “If the Lord wills” (Jas 4: 15). Thus, he teaches us not to presume to plan our lives autonomously and with self interest, but to make room for the inscrutable will of God, who knows what is truly good for us.

Now, Philip. I think this GA talk really highlight’s B16’s catechetical skills. We don’t know that much about Philip, but Benedict takes what we do know, and hones it down in the most practical…pastoral way:

The Fourth Gospel recounts that after being called by Jesus, Philip meets Nathanael and tells him: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1: 45). Philip does not give way to Nathanael’s somewhat sceptical answer (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) and firmly retorts: “Come and see!” (Jn 1: 46).

In his dry but clear response, Philip displays the characteristics of a true witness: he is not satisfied with presenting the proclamation theoretically, but directly challenges the person addressing him by suggesting he have a personal experience of what he has been told.

The same two verbs are used by Jesus when two disciples of John the Baptist approach him to ask him where he is staying. Jesus answers: “Come and see” (cf. Jn 1: 38-39).

We can imagine that Philip is also addressing us with those two verbs that imply personal involvement. He is also saying to us what he said to Nathanael: “Come and see”. The Apostle engages us to become closely acquainted with Jesus.

In fact, friendship, true knowledge of the other person, needs closeness and indeed, to a certain extent, lives on it. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that according to what Mark writes, Jesus chose the Twelve primarily “to be with him” (Mk 3: 14); that is, to share in his life and learn directly from him not only the style of his behaviour, but above all who he really was.

"amy welborn"

Indeed, only in this way, taking part in his life, could they get to know him and subsequently, proclaim him.

Later, in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, one would read that what is important is to “learn Christ” (4: 20): therefore, not only and not so much to listen to his teachings and words as rather to know him in person, that is, his humanity and his divinity, his mystery and his beauty. In fact, he is not only a Teacher but a Friend, indeed, a Brother.

How will we be able to get to know him properly by being distant? Closeness, familiarity and habit make us discover the true identity of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Philip reminds us precisely of this. And thus he invites us to “come” and “see”, that is, to enter into contact by listening, responding and communion of life with Jesus, day by day.

Then, on the occasion of the multiplication of the loaves, he received a request from Jesus as precise as it was surprising: that is, where could they buy bread to satisfy the hunger of all the people who were following him (cf. Jn 6: 5). Then Philip very realistically answered: “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (Jn 6: 7).

Here one can see the practicality and realism of the Apostle who can judge the effective implications of a situation.

We then know how things went. We know that Jesus took the loaves and after giving thanks, distributed them. Thus, he brought about the multiplication of the loaves.

It is interesting, however, that it was to Philip himself that Jesus turned for some preliminary help with solving the problem: this is an obvious sign that he belonged to the close group that surrounded Jesus.

On another occasion very important for future history, before the Passion some Greeks who had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover “came to Philip… and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus” (cf. Jn 12: 20-22).

Once again, we have an indication of his special prestige within the Apostolic College. In this case, Philip acts above all as an intermediary between the request of some Greeks – he probably spoke Greek and could serve as an interpreter – and Jesus; even if he joined Andrew, the other Apostle with a Greek name, he was in any case the one whom the foreigners addressed.

This teaches us always to be ready to accept questions and requests, wherever they come from, and to direct them to the Lord, the only one who can fully satisfy them. Indeed, it is important to know that the prayers of those who approach us are not ultimately addressed to us, but to the Lord: it is to him that we must direct anyone in need. So it is that each one of us must be an open road towards him!

There is then another very particular occasion when Philip makes his entrance. During the Last Supper, after Jesus affirmed that to know him was also to know the Father (cf. Jn 14: 7), Philip quite ingenuously asks him: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (Jn 14: 8). Jesus answered with a gentle rebuke: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father: how can you say, “Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?… Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me” (Jn 14: 9-11).

These words are among the most exalted in John’s Gospel. They contain a true and proper revelation. At the end of the Prologue to his Gospel, John says: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1: 18).

Well, that declaration which is made by the Evangelist is taken up and confirmed by Jesus himself, but with a fresh nuance. In fact, whereas John’s Prologue speaks of an explanatory intervention by Jesus through the words of his teaching, in his answer to Philip Jesus refers to his own Person as such, letting it be understood that it is possible to understand him not only through his words but rather, simply through what he is.

To express ourselves in accordance with the paradox of the Incarnation we can certainly say that God gave himself a human face, the Face of Jesus, and consequently, from now on, if we truly want to know the Face of God, all we have to do is to contemplate the Face of Jesus! In his Face we truly see who God is and what he looks like!

The Evangelist does not tell us whether Philip grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ sentence. There is no doubt that he dedicated his whole life entirely to him. According to certain later accounts (Acts of Philip and others), our Apostle is said to have evangelized first Greece and then Frisia, where he is supposed to have died, in Hierapolis, by a torture described variously as crucifixion or stoning.

Let us conclude our reflection by recalling the aim to which our whole life must aspire: to encounter Jesus as Philip encountered him, seeking to perceive in him God himself, the heavenly Father. If this commitment were lacking, we would be reflected back to ourselves as in a mirror and become more and more lonely! Philip teaches us instead to let ourselves be won over by Jesus, to be with him and also to invite others to share in this indispensable company; and in seeing, finding God, to find true life.

Many years ago, I wrote a study guide for B16’s collected General Audience talks on the Apostles and other early Church figures. The study guide is available online in pdf form – so if you have a church discussion group and would like to use it, or even just for yourself  – there it is. 

Below are the pages from the unit which include St. James the Lesser. You can find the rest at the link, and feel free to use as you wish. 

Both images from St. John Lateran in Rome. 

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If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are the most pitiable people of all.

I walked to Mass tonight. It’s about 2.5 miles – definitely in walking distance (for me), but not an easy jaunt, since it involves considerable hills coming and going. So this was the first time I’d done it.

It’s not my usual parish, although it might be my actual, geographical parish – I’ve never checked the boundaries. I’ve been to Mass there a bit, though, even though my parish, by membership, is the Cathedral, where I usually attend the Saturday Vigil Mass.

But tonight, I was without a car. In the past when that’s happened, I’d just go to the 7:15 am Mass on Sunday, but the problem with that this weekend is the Mercedes Marathon – a marathon, obviously, the course of which takes over a lot of space and blocks a lot of roads between my house and the Cathedral. In fact, the course runs down a cross street to my own. I’ll start hearing the cheers around 9 am tomorrow, I’d imagine.

All that is to say, I just didn’t want to bother finding a way around all of that at 7 am tomorrow.

(Which I’d have to do because the car will be gone again with the organist soon after that.)

So, walk, it was.

And a perfect day for it. One of my older kids is in Chicago this weekend, seeing a high school friend who’s in the national tour of Hairspray, and the report is…cooooold….Not here. Tomorrow the temperature will dip, but today it was in the 60’s and gorgeous. Perfect for getting back out there and getting in a few miles.

So I walked.

At Mass, the young priest focused on the lines above from the epistle:

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.

He took one, perfectly legitimate angle, focusing on the truth of the Resurrection, and then what it means to live that here on earth, moving into the Beatitudes.

My mind went in a different direction, but a totally predictable one, for those who read me.

Once again, I thought of the many ways that we understand our faith, even our faith in Christ, Lord of the Universe, in terms of how it helps me in this life.

It’s that prosperity Gospel, but, not just for money: for all the good feelings and achievements that make us feel at home in the world.

A temptation that’s hard to resist because, after all, who doesn’t want to feel comfortable and at ease?

But then there’s that Gospel, isn’t there?

Blessed are you who are poor….hungry….weeping…people hate you….exclude and insult you….

Blessed. Are. You.

Woe to you who are rich….filled…laugh….all speak well of you…

Woe. To. You.

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ….

I walked back and forth to church, five miles total, nurturing the low-grade frustration that’s always there these days – frustration that there’s so much to say, but I can’t figure out how or where to say it.

I thought about the many people I know and read whose faith is shattered right now for various reasons.

I got to church a little late, and left a little early as is my probably unfortunate habit these days. I was surprised because the church was more full than I’d seen it ages. The music was as mediocre as always, but the preaching was good and there were no narcissistic liturgical shenanigans. A crowd of teens sat in the front, I’m thinking at the end of a Confirmation retreat. A man in the back pew smiled and graciously made room for my latecoming self. A mentally disabled man limped past me after Communion. The deacon brought the Eucharist to an elderly woman in a wheelchair, and the mother in front of me pointed to the words of the Creed in her little boy’s Magnifikid.

It is not easy to be a person, to be a human, to be a Catholic. I don’t think it ever has been, and the institution and the people help sometimes and hurt quite a bit.

I don’t know what to make of it all, and have not yet figured out how to say what I do make of it, but I think I do know that nothing begins until you open the door, take that uphill walk, find your place with the rest of the broken, no matter when you arrive, and try to listen.

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The Scriptures and prayers we hear and say during the season of Advent are not, of course, just cobbled together. It’s not a random mix of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist and, late in the game, some Mary.

In the days of the older lectionary, there was not a three-year cycle, but one. People argue about the relative merits of each, but the ancient way, it seems to me, benefits from simplicity, clarity and focus. Yes, the three-year cycle exposes us to a broader range of Scripture, but loses some of that grounding and paradoxically, can lose some richness.

(At the bottom of this post are some scans of an older Mass book I have, for comparison. More details below)

Anyway, one of the few older Catholic websites that’s still a) operating and b) useful and c) not filled with dead links is Fr. Felix Just SJ’s lectionary site. It’s very old-school in presentation, and very easy to navigate as a result. Here’s his Advent page, which is a concise source of information, including his summary of the themes of each of the Sundays of Advent.

  • First Sunday of Advent – The readings look forward to the “End Times” and the coming of the “Day of the Lord” or the “Messianic Age”; the Gospel is an excerpt from the Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus in one of the Synoptic Gospels.
  • Second Sunday of Advent – The Gospel readings focus on the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, the one who came to “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” by calling the people to turn back to God.
  • Third Sunday of Advent – The Gospel readings continue to focus on John the Baptist, who talks about the one who is to come after him, while the first and second readings convey the joy that Christians feel at the world’s salvation through the incarnation of thje Savior.
  • Fourth Sunday of Advent – The Gospels tell of the events that preceded and prepared for the birth of Jesus, including the dreams of Joseph (Year A), the Annunciation (Year B), and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Year C).

More from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories, including part of the table of contents. I keep bringing this to your attention because I think it’s so important to teach children to read Scriptures with the heart of the Church, and, conversely, to experience the liturgical year through the Scriptures. That’s how the book is organized.

First page of the entry
Last page

You can get a good preview of the book here.

(And Signs and Symbols at the same site, here)

Below are scans of some pages from Parish Mass Book and Hymnal, which was a missal for the new Mass, celebrated beginning the first Sunday of Advent, 1965. However, the revised lectionary was not promulgated until 1969, so the Scripture readings are traditional. As I said, I have a copy, and it’s a nice, compact little volume, but you can peruse the whole thing via archive.org here.

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As the calendar year draws to a close and Advent begins, it seems a proper moment for stock-taking and pondering. What do all of these disruptions, changes and challenges we’re constantly experiencing mean? What is this new world and how do we live in it?

Well, when you take time to sit with the Scriptures of Advent, you might be struck, most of all by the old news, once again, that all this supposedly unprecedented disruption, change and challenge is not new at all.

For most of human history, most people, even the wealthy, have lived on the edge of earthly existence, with very little sense of control. Life was precarious. High maternal mortality, high childhood mortality, high mortality, period. Populations subject to the vagaries of climate and natural disaster, without benefit of satellite or radar to know what’s coming. Famine, floods and pestilence always on the horizon of possibility, which meant, not that you’d have to put off a trip to the store and consider a week or month-long disruption of the supply chain, but that you, your children and maybe your whole village would  starve.  Brutal rulers, punishments and restrictions, pogroms and genocide.

And you don’t even have to reach back to the Middle Ages to find it.

In such a context, it is not difficult to remember that you yourself are not God, or even a god, that you don’t create your own destiny. With that understanding, it’s not so much of a challenge to live in the knowledge that any joy or contentment you can grab from life on earth will not – and cannot – be tied to material prosperity and peak physical health, for neither of those things will probably ever come to you at all.

For most of human history, it hasn’t been the full, satisfied college degree holder looking to scratch a vague itch of existential despair who’s been hearing the Good News. It’s been the peasant nursing constantly aching teeth, squinting to see through weakened eyes, middle-aged at thirty, working hard from dawn to dusk, remember dead children, hearing rumors of war, studying the skies, waiting and praying for rain, subject to the whims of human authorities.

If they could see us, reeling from our present-day troubles, they might well ask us, “Well…what did you expect?”

Consider one of the traditional Advent Scriptures: Isaiah 63-64. It’s an astonishing outcry of a people in exile, a wild mix of all that every person feels in time of loss and crisis: What did we do to do deserve this? Why are we suffering so? Have we done wrong? Are we suffering consequences of that wrong? God is so harsh with us! God seems to be silent, hidden and absent? But….you know what? He’s our Father. We trust him. He’s like a potter, we’re clay. Go ahead, Shape us.

The voices come to us from 2700 years ago – 2700 years – questioning, railing and ultimately trusting – and it’s as if they could be speaking today

Well, they are.

Same human race, same struggle, same veil we yearn to lift, same ache in our hearts for peace, wholeness, life and love.

Same cry for a savior.


I’ve attached this poem to another Advent post in the past, but it seemed fitting here. Written at the end of World War II, the poet says of it:

This poem, ‘Expectans Expectavi’, which is the title of a psalm, “I waited patiently for the Lord”, is about waiting, written at the end of the last war when the whole world, really, seemed to be holding its breath for the return of ordinary life, and all the soldiers from overseas, and I thought of it in the wintertime, at Christmas, with the carols and the children’s faces, recalling the refugees of the time. The poem happened to be chosen to be posted up on the underground, so although I never saw it myself, several of my friends have been surprised by it in the middle of a crowd of people standing up in the tube train.

Expectans Expectavi

The candid freezing season again:
Candle and cracker, needles of fir and frost;
Carols that through the night air pass, piercing
The glassy husk of heart and heaven;
Children’s faces white in the pane, bright in the tree-light.

And the waiting season again,
That begs a crust and suffers joy vicariously:
In bodily starvation now, in the spirit’s exile always.
O might the hilarious reign of love begin, let in
Like carols from the cold
The lost who crowd the pane, numb outcasts into welcome.

Advent is a reset, yes, but if we listen carefully to God’s Word and the lives of others beyond our own bubble of time and space, it can be a reset that anchors us more deeply in communion with the reality of the ebb, flow and crashing and burning of human experience, an experience that our privileged houses of sand manage to hide from us – those houses of sand Jesus warned us about for just that reason: they trick us, the rich man of the Gospel, into thinking we don’t need God.

That we don’t need a savior.

And so we listen to the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass and in the Church’s prayer, we listen to the saints whose words are given to us during this season, and we’re reminded that none of this is about hoping and dreaming that someday life will get “back to normal” or that this particular type of suffering and difficulty will end and then peace on earth will reign right now, in its fullness.

It’s about acknowledging the mess – the mess that’s now and the mess that came before the present mess – and lifting up that mess to God, trusting that he will take it and somehow make good come out of it, a type of rescue, if you will. It doesn’t diminish a bit of our current suffering. It simply situates it and puts us into communion with others who have suffered – which is everyone.

And then, as the weeks of Advent pass, we listen to the cries and questions asked and answered over centuries past in the context of Word, prayer, song and art – it becomes clearer and clearer: Yesterday and today, the human family speaks from the same broken, suffering heart – and yes, He hears us. And look right here in the mess, just look: here he is.

Others have found him. Keep looking. So can you.

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It’s that time of year again – tomorrow’s Gospel reading.

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted. 

I wrote this column years ago – maybe twenty or more – and it’s on my actual website, but the formatting is wonky, and I don’t feel like reviving my html skills right now to fix it. So I’ll just toss it here. Remember – at least twenty years ago, and also it was a column for newspaper – so I was limited to 700-800 words. So not quite enough room to explore the subtleties of Scriptural interpretation. And I believe this interpretation precedes Barclay and may even go back to Enlightenment-era thinking. So it’s by no means comprehensive or in-depth. It’s just a column, so calm down. I added a bit from a 2008 post I wrote riffing off it, as well.

Also – this used to be a very common way of preaching on this Gospel narrative. I don’t think it’s heard so frequently any more, but in case you do….


An acquaintance of mine recently wrote to share an unpleasant Mass-going experience.

The priest in his small hometown parish was preaching on the Gospel, this week, the account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from Matthew. His interpretation of the event was not exactly comforting to this acquaintance, for the priest suggested that perhaps what really happened had nothing to do with miracles as we know them. Perhaps Jesus so moved his listeners that they took out the food they had hidden in their cloaks and shared it with those around them.

The miracle, therefore, is not any magical multiplication, but the miracle of the previously selfish being moved to generosity.

Who knows how the rest of the congregation received this interesting news, but one of them (my correspondent) couldn’t just walk away without questioning the priest. After Mass, he asked him to clarify. The priest explained that no, he wasn’t denying the miracle, but that the miracle was yes the generosity of the people. He said he didn’t have time to go into it further.

The teller of this tale was justifiably appalled by what he’d heard. But, as I wrote back, as disappointing as it was, I couldn’t be surprised.

For I’d heard it myself, a couple of times from different pulpits. I suspected it was a fairly common interpretation, so I checked around and found that I was right.

Numerous folks who contacted me about this said that they’d heard it too in both Catholic and Protestant churches in exactly the same words. I couldn’t help but wonder where all of these preachers were picking this up, and it didn’t take me long to find out.

It’s in one of the most venerable Scripture commentaries out there – those written by Scottish scholar William Barclay in the 1950’s. Most people who’ve studied religion at the college level have been exposed to Barclay, and many own sets of his commentaries. He’s generally very middle-of-the road and moderate in his views. But in his commentary on this story, he offers an interpretation, which he doesn’t says is his own, but is held ‘by “some.”

Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But was it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And no one would produce what he had, lest he have to share it and leave himself without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all. If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ.

So there you have it, neatly packaged for the lazy preacher who will use it to sound clever, no matter how many problems the explanation holds:

If everyone brought some food, who, exactly, was left to be hungry?

This interpretation also implies that these first-century Jews were naturally averse to sharing, which is not only offensive, but historically and culturally inaccurate. It may be a miracle for 21st century Americans to share, but sharing and hospitality were sacred obligations for Jesus’ listeners.

Yes, there are layers of meaning to this event. It is of little use as a bare fact as it is as a fabrication. Miracles are offered as complex signs of God’s presence and activity among us, working through and even with us at times, open to rich interpretation in infinite application. Generosity and plenty of course is at the core of the narrative, but it’s God’s generosity which will reach its summit in the Eucharist.

The Barclayian interpretation is illogical,  and frankly – not surprising given the era and the emphasis of Biblical studies of the late 19th and early 20th century, which, for example, saw the most “authentic” elements of the Jesus story as those that were the least Jewish  – tinged with more than a bit of anti-Semitism. Think about stereotypes. Once I did – I couldn’t not see that in Barclay’s interpretation, perhaps unfairly.

So to presume that the Gospel writers couldn’t have meant what they wrote implies that they were either stupid or dishonest. The Scripture is a collection of diverse works, meant to be understood within the specific literary forms God used to communicate truth. But as the Gospel writers themselves make clear, they are not about anything but historical truth about an historical figure named Jesus. Anything less wouldn’t have been worth their time.

Or their lives.

Or ours, come to think of it, don’t you think?

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As I mentioned yesterday, this week, in anticipation of the July 22 feast,  I’ll be posting excerpts from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, published by OSV a few years ago under another title, but now available, published by moi, via Amazon Kindle for .99.

Chapter 1

Chapter 3

Chapter 2:

‘WHY ARE YOU WEEPING?’

Luke is the only evangelist to mention Mary Magdalene before the Passion narratives, but once those events are set in motion, Mary is a constant presence in all of the Gospels, without exception. For the first few centuries of Christian life, it is her role in these narratives that inspired the most interest and produced the earliest ways of describing Mary Magdalene: “Myrrh-bearer” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

At the Cross

In both Matthew (27:55) and Mark (15:40-41), Mary Magdalene is named first in the list of women watching Jesus’ execution.

Luke doesn’t name the women at the cross, but he does identify them as those who had “followed him from Galilee.” John also mentions her presence (19:25), but his account highlights the presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ words commending her to John’s care.

After Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross, Mary and the other women are still there. Matthew (27:61) and Mark (15:47) both specifically mention her as seeing where Jesus’ body was laid, and Luke again refers to the “women . . . from Galilee” (23:55), whose identity we are expected to understand from Luke’s early mention of their names in chapter 8.

Finally, as the Sabbath passes and the first day of the week dawns, the women still remain, and the Twelve are still nowhere in sight. Matthew describes Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (not the mother of Jesus, but probably the Mary, mother of James and Joseph, whom he had mentioned in 27:56) coming to “see” the tomb. Mark and Luke get more specific, saying that the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. John, interestingly enough, in chapter 20, ignores any other women, and focuses on Mary Magdalene. She comes to see the tomb, finds the stone moved and the tomb empty, and runs to tell Peter.

At least one early critic of Christianity seized on Mary Magdalene’s witness as discrediting. As quoted by the Christian writer Origen,the second-century philosopher Celsus called her a “half-frantic woman” (Contra Celsus, Book II: 59), thereby calling into doubt the truth of her testimony of the empty tomb.

What is striking about John’s account is that even though Peter and others do indeed run to the tomb at Mary’s news and see it empty, that is all they see. They return, and after they have gone away, Mary remains, alone at the tomb, weeping. It is at this point that, finally, the risen Jesus appears.

Of course, Jesus appears to Mary and other women in the Synoptic Gospels as well. In Matthew (chapter 28), an angel first gives them the news that Jesus has risen from the dead. The women then depart to tell the Twelve, and on the way they meet Jesus, they worship him, and he instructs them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.

In Mark (chapter 16), they meet the angel first as well, and receive the same message as Matthew describes, and are, unlike the joy described by Matthew, “afraid.” (Fear and lack of understanding on the part of disciples is a strong theme in Mark’s Gospel, by the way.)

Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen

Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen Jesus described. Manuscripts of a century later do contain the rest of the Gospel as we know it, continuing the story, emphasizing Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, and identifying her as the one from whom he had exorcised seven demons. She sees him, she reports to the others, and they don’t believe it. Jesus then appears to “two of them” (perhaps an allusion to the encounter on the road to Emmaus we read about in Luke 24) who then, again, report the news to the Twelve who, again, do not believe it. Finally, Jesus appears to the disciples when they are at table, and as is normal in the Gospel of Mark, their faithlessness is remarked upon.

Some modern scholars suggest that Mark 16:8 is the “real” ending of this Gospel, which would mean that it contains no Resurrection account. Others, including the Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, a preeminent scholar of the New Testament, argue that when one looks at Mark as a whole, it is obviously building up to the Resurrection,including prophecies from Jesus himself. Wright theorizes that the original ending was perhaps lost (the ends of scrolls were particularly susceptible to damage), and that what we have now is an attempt by a later editor to patch up that lost ending, but not in a way inconsistent with Mark’s intentions.

The theme of disbelief also runs through Luke. Interestingly enough, this Gospel doesn’t recount an encounter between the women (who are finally again specifically identified) and Jesus, but only the appearance of “two men” in “dazzling apparel,” who remind them of Jesus’ prophecies of his death and resurrection. The women, no longer afraid, go to the apostles, who, of course, dismiss their tale as idle chatter.

What’s clear in these Synoptic Gospels is, first, the strong sense of historical truth about the accounts. Rationalist skeptics would like to dismiss the Resurrection as a fabrication, but if it is, then the storytellers did a terrible job, didn’t they?

After all, if you were creating a myth that would be the origins of your new religion, would you write something in which the central characters — the first leaders of this same religion — were so filled with fear and doubt that they appeared weak?

If you were making up the story of the Resurrection from scratch, you would, as a person living in the first century, in the Roman Empire, and presumably as a Jew, only be able to think about this resurrection business in the terms and concepts available to you. And, as N. T. Wright has so ably demonstrated in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003), even the first-century Jewish world, which did believe in a resurrection of the body, saw it in completely different terms — that it would eventually happen to everyone, at once, at the end of time (Wright, pp. 200-206).

And in general, when you read over the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels, you are immersed in an account in which people are afraid, confused, in awe, and eventually profoundly overjoyed. There is a veil drawn over the core event — the Resurrection itself is never described because, of course, none of the witnesses saw it.

They saw the empty tomb, and they saw the risen Jesus. A clever fabricator and mythmaker would not have woven his account with such nuance, and would probably have offered a direct account of the event itself, perhaps even with a clear explanation of what it all meant. But that’s not what we read, and somehow, ironically, all of the confusion and human frailty is powerful evidence for the truth of the account.

Most importantly for us, a first-century mythmaker would not have featured women as the initial witnesses of these formative events. It is inaccurate to say that first-century Jews did not accept women as reliable witnesses at all. There was, of course, no unified system of law within Judaism, and what was practiced was dependent upon which rabbi’s interpretation of the Law was used. Some rabbis did, indeed, hold the opinion that women were not reliable witnesses, but others disagreed and counted a woman’s witness equal to a man’s.

However, the fact that a woman’s reliability as a witness was disputed, unclear, and not consistently accepted, would, it seems, discourage a fabricator from using women as his source of information that the tomb was indeed empty. It certainly wouldn’t be the first choice to come to mind if your aim was to present a story that was easily credible, would it?

“[And] so that the apostles [the women] did not doubt the angels,Christ himself appeared to them,so that the women are Christ’s apostles and compensate through their obedience for the sin of the first Eve. . . . Eve has become apostle. . . . So that the women did not appear liars but bringers of truth, Christ appeared to the [male] apostles and said to them: It is truly I who appeared to these women and who desired to send them to you as apostles.” (Hippolytus, third century, quoted in Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, by Susan Haskins [Berkley, 1997], pp. 62-63)

496px-noli_me_tangere_-_poussin_-_museo_del_prado

Noli Me Tangere

John’s account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance to Mary in chapter 20 adds more detail than the Synoptics. She comes to the tomb while it is still dark — recall how John’s Gospel begins, with the wonderful hymn describing the Word bringing light into the darkness — and she sees that it is empty, and then runs to get the disciples. Peter and another disciple come to the tomb, see it for themselves, but leave, since, as John says, they didn’t yet understand “the scripture” — perhaps the Hebrew Scriptures as they would be later understood by Christians.

Mary stays, though, weeping ( John 20:11). She peers into the tomb (the level of detail in this account is fascinating) and sees two “angels in white” who ask her why she is crying. She says, sadly, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” ( John 20:13). She then turns and sees another figure; we are told it’s Jesus, but she doesn’t know until he speaks her name ( John 20:16)

One of the more well-known moments in this account comes in John 20:17, when Jesus says to Mary, in the famous Latin rendering of the words, “Noli me tangere,” which has commonly been translated, “Do not touch me.”This, however, is not the most accurate translation — either in Latin or English — of the Greek, which really means something like, “Do not cling to me” or “Do not retain me.”

So, no, Jesus is not engaging in misogynistic behavior here. Nor is he (as some modern commentators suggest) alluding to a supposed former intimate relationship between him and Mary. This is not about touching; it is about understanding who Jesus is and what his mission is. After all, Thomas is invited to touch the wounds of Jesus in John 20:27. No, Jesus tells Mary to let go of him, to look beyond the moment, to the future. After all, his very next words direct her to go to the apostles and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” ( John 20:17). Knowing Jesus for who he is, we cannot stand still. We have to move, get out, and share the marvelous news that in Jesus the barriers between humanity and God are dissolved.

Which, of course, Mary Magdalene does. All of the evangelists agree that she was the first to announce this Good News to the apostles, who, more often than not, responded with skepticism.

But such is the way it has always been. God always chooses the least in the world’s eyes, the unexpected and the despised, to do his most important work. To see this event only through the prism of politics, and to be inspired by it to think only about gender roles and such, is to be willfully blinded to the greater reality: Jesus lives, Jesus saves, and as we are touched by this truth, we are, at the same time, called to go out and share it.

Mary of the Bible

Mary Magdalene’s future in Christian spirituality and iconography is rich, evocative, and even confusing, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters. But it all begins here, with powerful simplicity and themes that will resonate through the centuries.

Mary Magdalene, healed of possession, responds to Jesus with a life of faithful discipleship. As spiritual writers and theologians will point out, she’s like the Bride in the Song of Songs. She’s like the Church itself, called by Christ out of bondage to the evils that pervade our world, giving ourselves over to him in gratitude, waiting with hope by the tomb, even when all seems lost, and rewarded, in a small, grace-filled moment, when, in the midst of darkness, we hear him call our name.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What does Mary’s desire to hold on to Jesus symbolize to you? How do you experience this in your own life?
  2. Why is Mary referred to as “Apostle to the Apostles?”
  3. What can Mary’s fidelity teach you about your own relationship to Jesus?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school!

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In a week to few weeks, most Catholic parishes will be reopening for regular Sunday Mass. It’s already begun in some places. There will be much reflection about What This Has All Meant and How We Have Been Changed.

I’m going to do something I generally try very hard not to do – which is to make suggestions about what other people should do. Sharing information and trying to make connections is more what I’m about. Hell, I don’t even see myself in the business of encouraging and inspiring you.  But I am feeling, as we say, a burden on my heart, so here goes – from someone who just sits in the pews and listens. And is sort of dreading it.

Speaking of burdens, it will be a heavy burden and responsibility to get up in front of a congregation – deacons, priests, bishops – and preach for the first time after months of empty churches. There is a great deal to unpack. But here’s my simple suggestion as a way to begin thinking about an approach:

Don’t assume that everyone has had the same experience of this time. 

Just start there.

And for sure..

Don’t assume that everyone shares your experiences and opinions of this time. 

Let’s survey the range you might find in a typical congregation:

  • Those who have suffered from Covid-19 personally. Those who have been ill. Those who have known individuals who have been ill and cared for them. Those who have known individuals who have died from Covid-19.
  • Those who have seen their businesses skate to the edge because of shutdowns, those who have lost their businesses.
  • Those who have lost their jobs.
  • Those who have have been sent home from school, who have missed milestones like graduation.
  • Those who have been negatively impacted by the shutdowns and are sanguine about it.
  • Those who have been negatively impacted by the shutdowns and are confused, angry and resentful.
  • Those who haven’t known anyone personally impacted.
  • Those who have kept working during this time, who’ve not lost time or money.
  • Those worried about the stock market, not because they are fat cats, but because there goes their retirement income.
  • Those who have welcomed this as an opportunity for change and growth.
  • Those who have resented the experience and are angry. Outraged, even.
  • Those who are impacted in a negative way by the constant flow of news and speculation.
  • Those who are at peace with it all.
  • Those who are totally on board with restrictions.
  • Those who are restriction-skeptics.
  • Those who are afraid of being infected.
  • Those who aren’t afraid – those who don’t think that they are at risk, or those who are accepting of whatever comes.
  • Those who started wearing a mask on March 1.
  • Those who pull their shirt collar up over their nose for a mask and resent that. 
  • Those whose family lives have been deepened and enhanced by the time in quarantine
  • Those for whom the quarantine and extended time with family has exacerbated tensions and made problems more obvious
  • Those who think this is a Very Big Deal
  • Those who think this is Not Such a Big Deal
  • Those who have experienced this as a call to change.
  • Those who just want things to go back to the way they were.
  • Those who have, for the first time in their lives, thought seriously about questions of life and death. And are maybe coming back to the church for the first time, or for the first time in a long time because of it.
  • Those who are rethinking their priorities and choices as a consequence of the shutdown and the mystery and possibility of serious illness

You may not find every permutations of this variety in your pews, but I think you’ll find a lot of it. Don’t be fooled by the echo chamber of news, reporting and discussion that most of us fall into that confirms our own biases. Some of those perspectives might drive you crazy and strike you as so very wrong, but well…there are as many different experiences and opinions of this time as there are human beings. That’s just the way it is.

My point?

I am dreading a slew of homilies that do little more than echo the endless drumbeating of We’re All In This Together PSAs with a particular modern Catholic flourish of We’re an Easter People, everything will be all right!  Nice to see you again!

So how can a preacher, teacher or speaker communicated in this moment without assuming too much, but then, as a consequence, simply falling into platitudes and pious generalizations?

I don’t know. There! That solves it!

Well, perhaps part of the answer might come from Bishop Robert Barron, whose homily we watched yesterday.

(We have, as I mentioned, been attending Mass at the parish where my son is employed as an organist. But a week ago, he had a bike accident, lacerated his elbow, and is still on the mend, so we stayed home this weekend. He’ll be back on the bench this coming weekend.)

 

 

Here’s the recording.The point Bishop Barron makes, in his words mostly addressed to other preachers, but applicable to all of us, since all of us are called to give witness, is to look to Peter’s approach, as described in the first reading from Acts:

Focus on Jesus, not yourself, your own doubts, your own experience, your own ideas. And pray, not that your words give superficial comfort, but that they cut to the heart. 

I’ve always felt that the great strength of Catholic liturgy – of any high liturgical tradition – is to give space. It all seems, from the outside, very full  – but all of the proscribed words, gestures and symbols function, in the end, as a space of freedom. Your worship is not about an individual standing up in front of you telling you how to feel in a certain moment or how to respond to God right now.

Within the space of a highly structured, rich liturgy, there’s room for everyone to feel whatever they are bringing with them – joy, sorrow, confusion, doubt – and to sit with it, pray with it, present it to God, and respond to him freely. And it does so in whatever context it’s happening, in a place of privilege or poverty, comfort or insecurity.

It’s a space in which, when we are open, no matter who we are, or where we’re coming from, there is the chance that we might be cut to the heart. 

Powerful preaching, it seems to me, should fit that paradigm. Proposing the Gospel, presenting it in all its fullness, pointing to Jesus, clearly and joyfully – but without manipulation, respecting the wild variety of hearers, respecting God’s power to redeem and save, offering the Gospel that the Church has always preached, forcefully, clearly and humbly – and then stepping back. Letting the Spirit do its work.

So where do we start? Where we always do.

With the liturgical season, with the liturgy, the Scriptures that we’ve been given. It’s Easter Season. Maybe your parish will be gathering for the first time on Pentecost, or Trinity Sunday or Corpus Christi. That’s where we begin.

And I do think, no matter how different the experiences of each of us have been, it’s possible to draw connections without platitudes or incorrect generalizations.

For what have we all experienced?

The cold hard fact that the “control” each of us have over our lives is limited.

My life on earth is transitory. Ephemeral.

I don’t walk on earth as an isolated individual. I’m impacted by things I can identify, and many which I can’t, and are unpredictable and mysterious. It may not have felt like it over the past weeks, but I am in deep communion with every other person on earth. I affect them, they affect me.

Suffering and death are real. Unintended consequences are real.

Human beings stumble as they attempt to solve problems.

Life surprises us. Maybe I don’t know as much as I thought I did – about my own life, my family, about how the world works and why.

Maybe I need to change.

A yearning for permanence, health, security, normality, life – but a realization that none of that can be promised to me on earth. But still I yearn for it. Why? Is it perhaps because I’m created to yearn for this Good, and it is, indeed promised? Promised to me in an eternal way, to feed my eternal yearning?

 

Traditionally, Catholic spirituality is intensely centered on the Incarnate presence of Jesus in this broken world, in our broken hearts. It’s about reassuring us that yes, indeed, he’s present, that he loves us and that his Risen Life can be ours as well.

And it’s about helping each of us – no matter where we are or who we are – recognize that Presence and that Voice.

Essentially:

Where is God present in this weird, unpredictable life we lead?

and

What is God teaching me right now? 

Posing the question isn’t the same as answering it. The crucial thing is to propose that ancient truth that every moment of life on earth, no matter who we are,  provides an opportunity to do the most important thing: to know Him. To hear these words that we’ll hear in next Sunday’s Gospel and understand that they are true – right now. 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.

And no matter who we are, and where we’ve been over the past weeks, no matter what our opinions or experiences are – that’s what we all have in common. We need Him. Every experience we have can, if we are open, alert us more deeply to that reality – that right here, right now, we need Him – our only Way, our only Truth, our only Life.

 

 

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Who are you?

How did you become that person?

Did you have a choice?

Better Call Saul JMM Review – /Film

 

****

Well, now, Better Call Saul. That was a neat hat trick.

We were all fixated on the the moment and…that’s when Jimmy became Saul… 

…when all along we should have been looking for…that’s when Kim became…

well, not Saul, because she’s her own person. But…someone. 

SPOILERS. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled. Although it was almost two weeks ago, and if you wanted to watch it, you’d have done so by now.

It wasn’t a shock though. Whether or not the creators had an end game in mind since the beginning, to their credit,  the seeds have been there: Kim might have been an ethical rock in Jimmy’s life, but face it – she was also Giselle, and she was very, very turned on by that particular game.

There’s no reason for me to do a complete run-down and analysis here. You can get that elsewhere –like here. I also won’t spend much time weighing in on the is it better than Breaking Bad question. At this point, I’d say no. They are very different shows, and BCS is fantastic, but I still think there is a thrill-ride edginess to Breaking Bad that makes it all the more delectable. BCS is more of a slow burn and careful character study, and it’s great, but I think, at this point, BB still wins in my book. We’ll see, though. One more season to go. Sadly.

This has been an interesting season because, at least on the surface, Jimmy’s major foil is no longer a part of the picture – Chuck, his brother. Even last season, when Chuck was dead, his presence loomed large. I think for that reason, the dynamic is a little looser, less tightly focused this season, and therefore, Kim’s change edges onto center stage.

I love this show for what it is, but I’m also fascinated by it from a creative perspective. The creators of this had a “problem” – not in a bad sense, just in terms of a situation. We know Saul Goodman (we think) from Breaking Bad. We know what he’s like in that world, we know what happens to him by the end of that timeline. The question BCS explored was – how did he get that way? Where did Saul Goodman come from? They could have approached it from a million different directions, but they went with this particular storyline of character origin and transformation, and it’s just been fascinating to watch. And no, we’re not there yet. The Jimmy/Saul we now know at the end of season 5 of BCS is still not the Saul Goodman who casually suggests to Walt and Jesse…why not just kill Badger? And, furthermore, hits on…Francesca. I confess, of all the distinctions in the character between shows…that is the one that strikes me as the knottiest. Will they just ignore it? Or will they come up with some ingenious explanation? I’m betting on the latter.

Which brings me back to Kim. All along – really, from the beginning, up until the second-to-the last episode of this season, I’ve been one with most of the rest of you viewers, dreading Kim’s fate. Something terrible must happen to her we said – it’s the only explanation for how Jimmy became Saul. 

Er…well…maybe not?

A completely different scenario flashed through my head during that confrontation with Lalo in the penultimate episode. What if…I wondered…during the Breaking Bad timeline…Kim’s not dead or in witness protection…or left Jimmy in disgust…what if she’s actually become some super-successful attorney working for some part of the cartel? And what Jimmy/Saul is doing is…related to her work, a cover for it or even in reaction to it? 

The possibilities are endless, and intriguing, and, from the perspective of creativity and art, quite suggestive.

And note a theme – the theme that dominates both shows. Both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul focus us on broken, hurting human beings who might, indeed, have reason to blame their troubles on external factors – sickness, other people, family dynamics, threats – and who make a choice, ultimately, to go with that blame and let it control their decisions. Pride drives Walter White, and to some extent, Jimmy McGill. Jimmy’s trajectory is all the more painful because he really does mean well, and he really does try – while Walter White is pretty terrible from the beginning (something viewers tend to forget). But Jimmy is ultimately driven just as much by pride as Walt is.

Further, both shows are also about how that original sin, as it were, spreads. It’s like Genesis 1-11 brought to life in New Mexico, but with lawyers, drugs and money instead of forbidden fruit, grain sacrifices and ziggurats.

It was the great, overarching theme of Breaking Bad and while less dominant here in Better Call Saul, it still plays a part, especially, we now see, in the dynamic between Kim (magnificently played by Rhea Seehorn, perhaps one of the best female characters on any television show, ever) and Jimmy/Saul.

Who is Kim? We don’t know all about her, but we do know that she has worked very, very hard – to a fault. She is driven and meticulous with a ethical core – that is, however, sorely tempted and tried by the satisfaction of being Giselle, and all that means.  She can also justify the scams and deceit up to a point, since sometimes what she gets into is for the sake of a greater good. Ends justifies the means, and all that.

It’s about the difficulty of doing the right thing and the pull of doing the wrong thing.

So how do we become who we are? And who are we, anyway? Internal, external forces, innate factors, genetics, circumstances, emotions, reactions. Whoever we are at any given moment emerges from all of that muck – just as these characters and who they are emerge from the the muck of their fictional lives and the muck of the creative process.

It’s messy. But here’s the thing:  in the end, someone has to make a choice.

(From season 3)

Kim: I could have killed someone, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Yeah, yourself.

Kim: I worked most of last week on maybe six hours of sleep and then I crossed three lanes of traffic and I don’t remember any of it.

Jimmy: Look, you were just doing what you thought you had to do because of me.

Kim: You didn’t make me get in that car. It was all me. I’m an adult. I made a choice.

 

Yes, Jimmy McGill had an overbearing jerk of a brother.  Yes, he’s got a skill for manipulation and an attraction to showmanship. Yes, Kim Wexler (apparently) had an insecure childhood and is attracted to the power of dramatic exaggeration herself. Yes, Mike and his son, Nacho and his dad.  Yes, Walter White got lung cancer and was ripped off by his former friends and partners.

But I think what’s clear from both Better Call Saul is the persistent power of the reality and value of free will. We really do believe in it. And we believe that there are right and wrong uses of that free will. It’s why we watch shows and read books like this with such engagement and, at times, anxiety. That engagement shows that no, we really don’t believe everything is relative or all choices are equally valid and your truth is as good as my truth. We can be amused at the highjinks and gasp in dread and admiration and at the audacious moves, but most of us, despite the entertainment value of all that, stick with it because we really do want these pretend people to figure out how to use their pretend powers for good and stop, you know, helping the other pretend people get away with murder.

And we’re into it because we’re in it. Rising from muck ourselves every day, we’re pushed and pulled too. We’ve got our skills and our gifts and tragedies, our opportunities, our curses and we’ve got something else that the pretend people have, but ours are too real because this is real life:

Choices. 

 

Better Call Saul Season 5 Finale: Peter Gould Interview

Am I bad for you?

 

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Some related images from my books.

 

More on the root of Jesse here. 

More on the books here. 

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He’s dead, she’s dead, they’re dead, so now what?

I’ve experienced some loss and grief, and so have you. This past year Netflix has brought us a couple of high-profile short series that, you might have noticed, have death and its aftermath at the center: the unlikely-friends-comedy-mystery Dead to Me and the Ricky Gervais comedy After Life.

I’ve watched them both – Dead to Me when it came out in the spring, and After Life just Related imagethis past weekend. Neither was entirely satisfying, and I’ll say that Dead to Me was especially disappointing considering the cast and that I was predisposed to dislike After Life anyway.

This won’t be a full-scale review, but more of a (brief) reflection on what interested me in both shows: the particular aspects of grief and loss they evoked.

Dead to Me stars Christina Applegate as Jen, a woman whose husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident while out jogging. At a grief retreat, she’s befriended by Judy, played by the wonderful Linda Cardellini (you may know her from Mad Men). There are all kinds of plot twists and the show lurches between dark comedy and more than one mystery – not only who killed Jen’s husband, but who exactly Judy is and why she’s latched on to Jen. I eventually lost interest in the plot machinations. Less convolution would have served the story well.

But there was a truth at the core of Dead to Me that went beyond female bonding.

What gets everything going is Jen’s obsessive, driving need to know what happened. How did her husband die? Why was in that place at that time? Who did this? What could she have done differently? Was she herself at all responsible?

It’s a natural series of questions for this character, given the very real mystery and crime that caused her husband’s death. Nonetheless, it highlights, rather effectively, similar questions that any less dramatic death tends to raise in the hearts of the living: How did this happen? Whose fault is it? Could we have done anything differently?

And whether the death in question was sudden or expected, accidental, natural or criminal, whether our initial reaction is acceptance, relief or shock, eventually the questions and doubts hit, and depending on the specifics and who we are, we might spend some time wondering about it all and even obsessing about our own mysteries. We run scenarios in our head, we ponder the chain of choices that got the dead to the point at which death found them and wonder if there could have been different choices made that would have cleared a different path.

And – as Jen discovers – sometimes the answers we uncover can make us, at the very least, uncomfortable, or even rock our world. When death irrupts into life, the living suddenly find themselves with access to the dead’s secrets – as we go through our parents’ houses and papers, our spouses’ and friends’ records and letters. Some questions are answered, but more will probably be raised – with no one around to answer them any more. We thought we knew them, we thought we understood, we were confident that past events told one story, but in fact the real story might have been something quite different all along.

The thing is, this is true all the time, even apart from death. How well do we know others? Not very well. We live in a narrative that’s only a sliver of reality. That doesn’t make it unreal, necessarily – although then again, it might be.  Death has the power to force the question – what really happened here? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? Did I understand anything at all?

That’s the real, essential question of Dead to Me, and I just wish that it had more of a place in the show than wacky hijinks and mystery for its own sake.

After Life is also dark, also a comedy, none of that unexpected as it comes from the mind and pen of Ricky Gervais. I’m not a huge fan of Gervais, especially in his self-important Professional Atheist guise, although I did like The Office and Extras and very much – very much –  appreciate his firm dismissal of transgender activism and other aspects of Cancel Culture. He’s one of the few consistent public figures out there on this score: Yes, I have the right to express my views, no matter how noxious they’re judged to be – and that means others do as well.

Gervais plays Tony, a man whose wife died of cancer some months before we get rolling. They were together for twenty-five years, and childless. Tony works at a small-town newspaper and spends his days having foul-tempered run-ins with various townspeople and co-workers. Episodes are peppered with Tony watching videos left by his wife when she was in the hospital, as well as videos he made of their life together.

The bottom line of the plot here is: Tony has lost his world, and doesn’t see a reason to Image result for after life gervaiskeep existing. Suicide is continually on his mind, even when he chooses against it – that choice gives him, as he puts it, a “superpower” – to keep on living life exactly as he pleases, saying and doing what he wants, knowing that at any point he can just end it.

After a few episodes of this jerk behavior, we have a shift – a decision Tony makes results in a tragedy (although he never really takes ownership of it), which results in him rethinking things – along with a few other encounters, he comes to understand that, yes, he has a “superpower”  – to impact the lives of others for good.

So…(again, spoiler alert) – the last episode gives us the equivalent of a Hallmark/Lifetime movie or It’s a Wonderful Life as Tony opens up to life again, finally realizes that he’s not the only person in the world who’s suffering and sprinkles the fairy dust of good deeds over his surroundings. It’s almost shockingly sentimental.

There’s truth about grief and loss in After Life. Dead to Me brings out the questions a death can prompt. After Life centers on the wrenching world-shifting of loss, the question of what is the world now if my world as I knew and loved it is gone? As well as the possible answer of – it’s whatever and it doesn’t matter and so what.

Probably the truest statement in After Life is Tony’s account of his feelings – he’s an atheist remember – that  “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her.” As I’ve written before, one of the flashes of empathy I experienced in the aftermath of my husband’s death was just that kind of feeling – being drawn to where ever the deceased was. I wasn’t tempted myself – honestly, I wasn’t – but I understood, in a way that I never had before, how someone, completely lost and thrown out of their world by this kind of loss, could attempt to follow.

The other very true big thing in After Life is the role of others in pulling us out of a loss-centered existence back into life. For Tony, it’s his dog – every time he’s seriously tempted to kill himself, the presence and needs of the dog pulls him back.

The dog plays another interesting role that I’ve not seen commented on – perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

Tony is a person with some warmth, but he’s also got (not surprisingly) that Gervais cruel humor thing going on, even with those he loves. Besides the videos left by his wife, Tony watches old videos that he’d made of moments with her – and up to a point, most of these moments involve him surprising her in a borderline cruel way – dumping water on her, and so on. But then, as events start to turn and some light begins to dawn to break through Tony’s nihilism, the clip he watches has a different tone – it’s the moment when he awakens his wife, not with a loud noise or water, but with this brand new puppy, a ribbon tied around its neck. A sign of the goodness of which he’s capable – a reminder.

Back to the bigger truth – it’s what I found over and over again. In the face of loss, I had to ask a question, and the question centered around my kids. How do I want them to live? They lost their dad at a young age. Devasting. Life-changing. Potentially disastrous. How do I want them to live with that? If I choose to live my life defined by loss and who’s not there any more, that’s one thing – bad enough – but to raise kids to be centered on the hole, the shadow, the absence – instead of on the joy that life promises – well, that’s just cruel and even a little sick, isn’t it?

And what follows from that?

If I want this for my kids – why not want it for myself as well?  If it’s good enough for them – to move on and embrace reality, which includes joy as well as pain – it’s good enough for me, too. Live the way you hope those you love will live.

So there’s the truth bombs of After Life: Death rips your world apart, and healing happens when you recognize that you’re not the center of the world.

Life goes on is one way to say it – but in a bigger, more generous sense: Life goes on, and life is full of hurting people – and despite your pain and loss – or maybe even because of it – you can do something to help.

That’s the superpower of loss, when we are honest about it and ourselves – empathy.

There are a few more things to like about After Life and some that turned me off.

  • The vulgarity is that off-the-charts British mode which makes frequent use of a word that starts with c that even I can’t stand to hear. Hate. It.
  • Gervais is, of course, an argumentative, proud atheist, and gives his characters a couple of opportunities to show off against weak theist strawmen. These are boring. The show is Gervais’ and comes from his worldview, fine. But what makes it less interesting in the end, is the underlying assumption that the theist’s answer to loss and grief is of course simplistic and easy and less “realistic” than the atheist’s. Because no believers ever grapple with mystery and shadow and questions,
  • What’s ironic about this is that the conclusion of After Life is certainly heartwarming, but also…simplistic.
  • I’m not big on demanding things of a piece of art – saying, for example, that a character shouldn’t have done something or said something. But I’m going to go ahead an violate that rule here. Gervais’ character is, indeed a selfish, self-centered jerk, but I still found his reaction to his wife’s death wanting – even in that context. He doesn’t, for example, articulate any resentment or questions about her suffering. I mean – she had cancer. So I guess she suffered? And she certainly suffered in the mental and emotional challenge of confronting death. Most people would bring this into their expressions of loss, atheists and theists both.
  • Nor do we have any sense at all of who she – Lisa – was as a person. The “loss” is all about Tony – about his life and his loss and the hole in his world. Yes, it fits in a way, and simplifies the dramatic trajectory, but it’s almost too simplistic. A big part of recovery in loss, I discovered, is being able to live with the dead in a healthy way – not as ghosts, not as dead and buried, but as a presence whose existence had – and has – meaning. You know you are turning the corner when “thank you that this person existed” begins to outweigh “dammit, this person’s gone” in your thinking.
  • And that’s a thought that’s echoed in a broader context by another character in the series – a woman that Tony encounters in the cemetery. He goes to visit his wife’s grave, she’s there visiting her husband’s of 49 years: I wouldn’t change anything. If I went back and changed one thing I didn’t take, I might lose something that that bad thing eventually took me to. You shouldn’t regret anything or think: “Well, if I went back, I might do this or I might do that”

 

All fine. But in the end After Life falls way short because, ironically, the atheist worldview that critiques Christianity for being all simplistic-pie-in-the-sky-easy-answers offers…easy answers. Why? Because mystery and meaning essentially have no place. Tony learns to live better and move on because he finally listens to the people who are constantly telling him he’s good and funny and “lovely.” And his dog needs him. That’s really….it.

This Baptist blogger puts it very well, I think: 

 Far from portraying grief in grey or gritty terms, the series’ world is permanently sun-lit and serene. Tony lives in a fictional town which is lightly populated, he works a dead-end job but is obviously affluent, giving the whole sequence of events a dream-like, heavenly feel. This is undoubtedly intentional, but one has to question the creative ambition behind this. Are we being consoled that grieving without God and without future hope is hard but ultimately enlightened? Are we really probing the pain of personal loss by using utopia as a backdrop?

The conclusions of the drama are as sunny as the summer bleached pavements on which it unfolds. At the opening of After Life Tony is at war with the world, standing up to opportunist thieves, feeling irked by other people’s eating habits, threatening a school bully with being bludgeoned to death with a hammer, starkly rejecting a date, showing impatience with his elderly father, and knowingly helping someone else to commit suicide. So far, so fearless. But the gradual turn around in Tony’s life is hard to quantify against these earlier behaviours, his empathy for others seeming to be restored through conversations with an elderly widow and a feckless psychotherapist. The resolution to the drama is vacuously redemptive with Tony’s goodness turning around the lives of all who are in his orbit. He resolves to treat others well as a means of grace, reserving his ire only for those who deserve to be handled with contempt.

This is all too easy. It is such a shame that a programme which purports to probe grief, which interrogates God, which heralds humanism, is so lacking in self-awareness and auto-critique. Gervais writes as though Beckett never had, as though existential angst is a thing of the past, as though creation simply awaits its redemption through human good. This is desperately naive, and utterly insufficient to face the true realities of living in the rough stuff of a broken world. Gervais does not want God but he longs for good, he does not want absolutes but he does want altruism, he wants to talk about grief but only as a vehicle for humanistic grace. There are depths to loss which are not plumbed here, there are anxieties and contradictions and cross-pressures which plague our existence as human beings, there are deep wounds which cannot be healed lightly, and After Life does little to address or grapple with any of this.

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