Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Phoenix and Ash (Wednesday)

The phoenix comes from ancient Egyptian mythology: a sacred bird with beautiful gold and red plumage. At the end of its life-cycle the phoenix builds itself a nest that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes. But from the piles of ash, a new, young phoenix rises. The crane-like bird was also said to regenerate when hurt or wounded by a foe, thus being almost immortal and invincible — a symbol fire and divinity. It’s a song is said to be beautiful, filled with life. And finally, tears from a phoenix were said to heal wounds.

The story of the phoenix was not limited to the mythology of the Egyptians. The phoenix is the mystical firebird that was the chariot of Hindu God Vishnu. Its reference can be found in Hindu epic Ramayana.

The Greeks adapted the myth for themselves. They and the Romans pictured the bird more like a peacock or an eagle. According to the Greeks, the phoenix lived in Arabia next to a well. At dawn, it bathed in the water of the well, and the Greek sun god Apollo stopped his chariot (the sun) in order to listen to its song.

In Russian folklore, the phoenix appears as the firebird, the subject of many stories, perhaps none more famous than Igor Stravinsky's 1910 ballet score.

Jewish folklore tells the story that the phoenix was the only animal not to join Adam and Eve in their banishment from the Garden of Eden.

And although descriptions vary, the phoenix became popular in early Christian art, literature and Christian symbolism, further representing the resurrection, immortality, and the life-after-death of Jesus Christ.

(Most of my Phoenix history comes verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on phoenix mythology.)

It is interesting to note that the phoenix in modern days appears on the city flags and seals of Atlanta, Georgia...San Francisco...Lawrence, Kansas...Portland, Maine, and of course, Phoenix, Arizona. Do you know why? Atlanta was rebuilt after being torched in the American Civil War, San Francisco was rebuilt after being destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906, Lawrence, Kansas was rebuilt after being burnt by Confederate raiders, and poor Portland, Maine has four times been destroyed by fire, only to be rebuilt again.

The city of Phoenix, Arizona sits atop the ruins of the city of Hohokam, a site believed abandoned around 1450.

(Again, my facts come from Wikipedia's entries on the various cities)

The phoenix is used as a symbol of rebuilding. Out of ashes…sometimes literally…something is rebuilt.

The phoenix is found in countless works of literature. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is about the fall of an over complacent and abusive society. The firemen that burn the books of their society to "keep it safe" use a phoenix as their emblem.

In contrast is the character Granger, the leader of a group of wandering intellectual exiles, who memorize books so their content will be saved.

Granger gives voice to some hope for the future that is found in the legend of the phoenix. In a great commentary of the nature of human societies, Granger says:

"There was a silly (darn) bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again" (p. 163).

It is a clear nod towards the character of Bradbury’s book that the smartest, most well-read student of Harry Potter’s class is Hermione Granger. Hermione is not, however, J.K. Rowling’s only similarity to Fahrenheit 451. For prominently found in the pages of the series is an important character: Fawkes, the Phoenix.

Harry Potter first meets Fawkes while in Professor Dumbledore’s office in the book, Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Harry notices “a decrepit-looking bird that resembled a half-plucked turkey.” Harry is astonished when the pathetic looking bird bursts into flames, leaving only a pile of ash. Dumbledore explains:

“Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes. Watch him…”

Harry looked down in time to see a tiny, wrinkled, newborn bird poke its head out of the ashes. It was quite as ugly as the old one.

“It’s a shame you had to see him on a Burning Day,” said Dumbledore, seating himself behind his desk. “He’s really very handsome most of the time, wonderful red and gold plumage. Fascinating creatures, phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have healing powers, and they make highly faithful pets.” (J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p. 207)

The word faithful is italicized, and the reason why is only made clear at the conclusion of the book. When Harry confronts the evil Voldemort, he speaks of the greatness of Dumbledore, who is powerful, yet kind and selfless. It is moments later that Fawkes flies in to assist Harry. It is Fawkes’ song that fills Harry’s heart with hope. It is Fawkes’ tears that heal Harry’s wounds, and it is Fawkes’ surprising strength that carries Harry and his friends to safety out of the Chamber of Secrets. According to Dumbledore, Fawkes the phoenix comes to Harry’s rescue because of the real loyalty that Harry displays towards Dumbledore.

Now, why have I spend so much time talking about phoenixes?

It is my understanding that the tradition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is more like the phoenix than many of us realize. Ashes have life and death properties that must not be separated from each other.

Ash is a sign of our mortality; it is what our bodies return to: when we die and once again become the dust of the earth

But like the phoenix, our life cycle does not end with death…new life rises out of ashes…out of death comes new life with God. It is the Christian understanding that after this precious human life is over, comes a new chapter, a new journey where we no longer feel any separation from God or each other.

There are other ways that we mirror the phoenix. We have many of these life cycles throughout our mortal life. If ashes are the sign of our sins…the hurtful things that we do and the needed things we fail to do...they are also the symbol of the new life that awaits us: the opportunity to learn and grow with wisdom, the ability to choose new paths and possibilities.

Marcus Borg says that “the path of death and resurrection, of radical centering in God, may mean for some of us that we need to die to specific things in our lives—perhaps to a behavior or a pattern of behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional; perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad; perhaps to an unresolved grief that needs to be let go of; perhaps to a career or job that has either been taken from us or that no longer nourishes us; or perhaps even we need to die to a deadness in our lives.”

Borg continues by saying that “we can even die to deadness, and this dying is also often times a daily rhythm in our lives—that daily occurrence that happens to some of us as we remind ourselves of the reality of God in our relationship to God; that reminder that can take us out of ourselves, lift us out of our confinement, and that can take away our feeling of being burdened and weighed down.” (Marcus Borg's Taking Jesus Seriously)

Think again of the image of Harry’s first encounter with Fawkes: the phoenix is ugly, weak, decrepit, and lacks any ability to heal himself or anyone else. The phoenix bursts into flames, ending that life and starting again. But he’s not instantly strong, beautiful, or able care for anyone. But what is evident is a change…the start of something new. The promise is that once again this life will be made whole and beautiful, with great opportunity to heal self and others.

Lent invites us to take notice of our many life cycles. We all reach moments of despair, when we think we’re ugly and incapable of anything, when we feel empty and alone. When new life emerges out of those ashes, it’s not instantly wonderful. Our struggles do not magically disappear. But there is a change in focus away from where we are, to what can be. It is to this new life that Jesus invites us all...and asks us to care for each other along the way.

Like the phoenix, our tears really can heal not only ourselves but each other. Like the phoenix, our songs fill the world with hope. Like the phoenix, we have great strengths that are not apparent. And, like the phoenix, we all reach points along our journey where we must be reborn to a new life.

One final, important thing…the church goes through this same life cycle. The church has periods where it can shoulder great loads and radiate great beauty, while being blessed with the ability to lift peoples’ spirits with song and heal peoples’ wounds with tears. The church also has times of being old and weak, tired and withered, obsessed with its own self. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the church has moments of being reborn: fragile and uncertain, but with great hope and promise that reflects God’s love for all creation. It remains to be seen as to what point the Episcopal Church is at in this life cycle. But you can be certain that, like each of us, the church has a great deal in common with the mythical phoenix…and that God’s love and justice for all creation will once again burn brightly in the church.

(This was originally published February 2009)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Up the mountain we go...

(Based on a sermon for the final Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, preached at All Saints' Littleton 2/19/2012)

This morning brings us to our final story of Epiphany.  After weeks of reading sequentially from the Gospel of Mark, we fast forward to past the middle of the Gospel.
Jesus and his closest companions, in the tradition of ancient Hebrew accounts as well as others, journey up to the top of a mountain to encounter God.
As we happen to be surrounded by mountains here in the North Country, it is worth wondering what qualifies as a similar journey today.  Does any climbing of a mountain count?  Does it have to be at least a 4000 footer?  
Well, no.  In fact, you don’t really need a mountain.  The key component to a “mountain top” experience is physical journey that brings someone closer to God (by which I mean one is more open to sensing God in that setting).  Some of the common characteristics of such a journey is that it takes some getting to the place.  It is an intentional journey, not a chance encounter, and it is marked by openness to what and whom is around a person.
So a journey up a mountain here in New Hampshire can be a similar experience, but so can a retreat, or a particular type of travel to a destination where one is likely to be more open to encountering God.  Having this story here, right as Epiphany ends, is the Church’s attempt to see Lent itself as a journey towards a new openness to God.
This leads us to Mark’s version this morning (9:2-9).  Mark crafts this story in a rather particular way, with specific details that leads his readers to certain scripture memories as well as particular conclusions.  That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t go up a mountain with his closest companions to encounter God.  Everything I know about Jesus points to his taking such a journey.  But the details recorded here are Mark’s.  
For example, verse two of Mark’s Gospel actually begins:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  (Mk. 9:2)
The “six days” part gets cut off by the lectionary, which then misses the parallel with the Book of Exodus:
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.  (24:15-16)
Clouds on mountains mean revelation, and the presence of God.  
Moses' skin on his face shown bright after talking with God.  Those who saw him were afraid to come near him.  This is shared in Jesus clothes becoming dazzling white, and the disciples being terrified.  And of course, there is the obvious:  the disciples see Jesus with Moses, connecting in mystical encounter with God.
There is more here as well:  the presence of Elijah.  We heard this morning's first reading about Elijah’s going up heaven at the end of his life (2 Kings 2:1-12).  It was expected that Elijah would come at the climax of history (perhaps from Malachi 4:5-6, and referred to in Mk. 9:12-13 and Mt. 17:10-13). This is a vision of a future of hope.  The cross references with Elijah and Jesus continue throughout Mark’s Gospel, reminding the readers that Jesus is not just about encountering God, but the hope that we will actually, one day, live as God’s vision desires.  
We also have a Peter moment in this story, when he offers to make three booths. It is his attempt to preserve the moment:  make it about the event rather than about what it points to.
Then comes the voice from the cloud:
This is my son, the Beloved.  
This is slightly different from earlier in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus comes out of the baptismal waters, he hears "You are my son, the Beloved."  This first message was for Jesus.  “YOU are my son.   This time, it’s for his disciples (and the readers)  THIS is my son, the Beloved.  And follows the essential message:  "Listen to him!", which echoes Jesus' familiar "Let anyone with ears to hear listen."
This morning’s Gospel also cuts off the ending.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. (Mk. 9:9-10)
The disciples still do not understand...
But for us who are about to journey into Lent, the path forward is perhaps more clear, even if it is still unknown.  We are to attempt to make ourselves more available to God and our human companions, as we...with eyes wide open...begin the sacred walk towards Holy week; towards death and resurrection.
Up the mountain we go...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Back off Madonna

I watched the Super Bowl Sunday (well, until Downton Abbey came on), and saw Madonna’s halftime show.
Now, I know plenty of people who do not like Madonna or her music.  Fine:  so be it.  But I have had enough of the nastiness, as people continue to post snide derogatory remarks about Madonna’s age.
Are you kidding me?  
First off, she looks GREAT for her age.  Period.  Only Tina Turner might have looked better at 53.  
Second, it was a very good performance.  It wasn’t quite on the level of U2’s powerful performance after September 11th, 2001, or Prince’s awesomeness in 2003, but it was a very good show.
I’ll give you that the new number was the weakest of the set, and I’ll acknowledge that some of the vocals may have gone off a bit (although remember how bad the sound was with The Black Eyed Peas last year?), but the show as a whole was visually stunning and definitely entertaining.  Madonna and her choreographers wisely featured her in a way to get through the demanding set, and “Like a Prayer”, with Cee Lo and the Gospel choir, was a great ending.
Finally, and most important, the negative reaction about her age is due to her being a woman.  

We call that sexism.
Forbes magazine’s Liz W. Garcia was right to notice the reactions of people:
(she called it "ageist", but still is focused on her gender)
But the talk DURING the halftime performance was all about Madonna being old, a trend I find disturbing and lame given that on any other year, it’d be Tom Petty or Garth Brooks, or a middle-aged male musician whose appearance would not elicit ageist remarks. But in spite of the fact that Madonna is 53 years-old and lept from a kneeling position to standing, over and over whilst wearing spike heels (go ahead, try it, and when you’re done icing your knees, read on) and keeping pace with her twenty-something backup dancers, the focus was on her age. 
We live in a world where Fox makes an “amusing” commercial from clips of 63-year-old musician Steven Tyler flirting with American Idol contestants, who, because of the contest’s age restriction, we can deduce are younger than 30. In one, after a particularly spirited and sexy audition, he says ‘You must be crazy… (falters, catches himself) on the dance floor.’ Oh yeah, real hilarious.... And it’s a world where we cut down an uber-successful female entertainer because she dares to entertain at the age of 53. It’s a world where every darn TV pilot season, I read the same words “our female lead, (Name), age 28.” Twenty-eight. Were you solving crime, busting terrorists or performing heart surgery at 28? I sure wasn’t. But women on TV have to be young. Women romancing our leading men in the movies have to be young....
What does any of this matter, apart from the icky burst of mean-spiritedness? It matters because your wives and daughters and sisters and mothers are gonna get older, too, y’all, and they’ll take those kind of cracks seriously. It matters because this ageist mentality translates to the images we send out into the wide world in TV and film, and where we disproportionately prioritize youth we send the message to our young women that they are relevant only briefly and superficially, like shooting stars. Or like pop stars.
So I'll say it again:  Back off Madonna...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Bowl Distractions

My friend Rosalind, from Trinity Cathedral Cleveland, was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood two weeks ago.  She’s originally from England, but I still think she was joking when she posted this on Facebook last night: 

“My fellow American preachers: Is it written in law that one must mention the Superbowl tomorrow?”
A lot of people responded to her query.  Most of the clergy who responded scoffed at the idea:  I think some were actually serious. Others attempted to be witty with comments like ”The Super Bowl’s tomorrow?”
One priest said “The only sport worthy of sermon references is the church of baseball.”  

(I had some appreciation for that comment...)
It was the lay people who had the best responses.  To the question if one must mention the Super Bowl, Adam, my former colleague wrote:  

Dear Rosalind, in a word, yes.  (Then in a second post, he amended):  But only if you're saying, "Go Giants!"
Robert, a New Testament scholar, wrote the most nuanced response:  
What could be more sacred than the High Holy Day of American popular culture? At the end of the game, the golden calf, er, ah, Lombardi Trophy is given to the victorious team. And so on.
I happened to comment after him, so I quipped:  
It’s not required, but as Robert just pointed out, not without potential!
Rosalind then concluded:  
Ok - but just out of curiosity, who else is playing?
As I said:  I think she was joking.  It still led to her daughter Freya commenting:
“Thinking about it, they could probably rescind your citizenship for that question, mom.”

This is another example of why I love Facebook...
Now that I’ve done my part to mention the Super Bowl, I wanted to mention that there are other distractions concerning our focus on this morning’s Gospel.
Jesus returns from the public synagogue after healing a man with an unclean spirit.  He enters a house belonging to brothers Simon Peter and Andrew.  There he finds Peter’s mother-in-law, who is sick with fever.  The proper thing for Jesus to do is to leave the house.  Jesus does the completely unthinkable thing of touching her hand:  this breaks all of the customs of the time.  The fever then leaves her, and she gets up and serves them.
Now, there are two things that distract us from proper consideration of this scene.  First off...Peter’s mother-in-law???  Peter’s married?  Is his wife there?  Did she die, leaving Peter free to follow Jesus?  Perhaps he left her, or maybe she is following Jesus as well!  
This distracts because it leads us to many unanswerable questions concerning the family relations of Jesus’ disciples, and for that matter, Jesus himself.  In truth, the Gospel of Mark keeps us on a need-to-know basis, revealing relationships only when they matter to the story.  So when we get a glimmer of a greater family picture:  like Peter’s mother-in-law, or Jesus’ brothers and sisters, we can acknowledge it (to perhaps challenge our preconceived picture of Jesus and the disciples as a group of unmarried, unattached men), and then we are to move on.
The other distraction is what comes through to the modern reader like as a major male chauvinist picture:  does a man heal a woman so that she can fix dinner???  My first reaction is one of anger towards the Gospel writer for presenting Jesus and the woman in this way.
However, without dismissing that feeling of anger, I realize that there may me more here that meets the eye.  The Greek verb that we translate “to serve” might be better translated as “to minister,” and it is used elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel.  When Jesus finishes being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, we are told that “the angels minister to him.”  (Mk. 1:13)  
Perhaps even more important, Jesus later says that he has come “not to be served, but to serve.”  (Mk. 10:49)   
Perhaps the Gospel writer has some sense after all.  For it seems to me that Peter’s mother-in-law is in solidarity not only with the angels, but with Jesus himself.  
It is the angels that are sent by God to minister to Jesus, and thus make him able to begin his mission of proclaiming the loving presence of God and his caring and healing of the sick.  
It is the woman, after she is healed, that ministers to Jesus just as the angels do:  refreshing him so he can continue his ministry by healing the crowds of people that came that evening. 
And it is Jesus by ministering to us, that enables us to serve one another.
And that’s why it is so important for Jesus, after he prays in solitude to God and is refreshed, to press on to the next town and the next village.  The disciples can’t understand why he wants to move on…they have a crowd assembled, and there are people to be healed...but Jesus has finished his work in this town.  Jesus has shown the people what they are to do.  They are to care for each other.  Jesus knows…Jesus understands that it is his mission to spread the message of God’s presence and healing and then move on.  
I believe in this message for the world:  we are to be committed to each other.  We are all called to serve.  That’s what it means when we say that Jesus is the way:  he has led by example, and left it to us to care for one another.
Then after we serve, we in turn must be refreshed by being ministered to:  not just by taking care of ourselves, but by allowing others to care for us, and by reconnecting with God.
What is offered to us is a holy process of communal life:  one that reflects the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

UPDATE: President Obama on Prayer

(Turns out I made a mistake:  this post's original quotes and link was on last year's National Prayer Breakfast!  At today's breakfast, the President said:

"We know that part of living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can't dictate our response to every challenge we face. But in my moments of prayer, I'm reminded that faith and values play an enormous role in motivating us to solve some of our most urgent problems, in keeping us going when we suffer setbacks, and opening our minds and our hearts to the needs of others."

I like it, but I like last year's even better!!!  So I'm leaving it up as well!)  

Keeping with tradition (going back to President Eisenhower), President Obama attended the National Prayer Breakfast.  CNN posted his remarks, which featured a lighthearted moment particular to a parent:
As I travel across the country folks often ask me what is it that I pray for. And like most of you, my prayers sometimes are general: Lord, give me the strength to meet the challenges of my office. Sometimes they’re specific: Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance - (laughter) - where there will be boys. (Laughter.) Lord, have that skirt get longer as she travels to that dance. (Laughter.)
Just after this, the President gets serious in a rather profound way:
But while I petition God for a whole range of things, there are a few common themes that do recur. The first category of prayer comes out of the urgency of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel itself. I pray for my ability to help those who are struggling. Christian tradition teaches that one day the world will be turned right side up and everything will return as it should be. But until that day, we're called to work on behalf of a God that chose justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable.

(I posted this first on Episcopal Cafe)