Christmas on Molokai

What are saints for? They are first of all meant, often in their extremity, to challenge the domestication of our faith: in this they are in the line of John the Baptist. In the Hawaiian islands of 1873, to minister on Molokai, the colony of lepers, was a death sentence. And this was not all. That place of despair was subject to lawlessness, licentiousness, and cruelty. The head of the Jesuit order asked the assembled members if anyone was willing to serve there: every one raised his hand in the room. The one chosen was the short, bespectacled, intense priest named Damien.

The second thing saints do is to show us something, not about themselves but about Jesus Christ: here too John comes to mind! It is in this regard that we may visualize his arrival. The ship put down anchor some distance from the shore, lest the contagion come near them. The priest waded ashore. There on the beach one could see them, missing a leg, an arm, hands, parts of their faces, watching impassively as this man approached them. The first months were hard, mutinous, as Damien tried to exercise oversight and authority over the community. And then, a year-in, came the decisive moment. It was, I believe Easter morning. Damien stood up and began his sermon with the words “we lepers.”

It may have been Easter, but it should have been Christmas. For it was the mystery of the incarnation toward which his life had become a sign. Jesus Christ, though without sin, took on our mortal condition. And he also took on the consequence of our sin, Paul going so far as to say, “he became sin who knew no sin…” Damien doctrine is not some theory, but lived out in the bone. He, like Christ, loved them to the end. In this season, we recall that Jesus Christ became a leper among us lepers. The incarnation as his coming down low is the most beautiful thing that could be, and so shows us the beauty intended in our creation by God.

Christmastide is the feast day fullest with popular expressions of all sorts, from all cultures. And this is as it should be, for He entered our condition, our culture, our misery and our glory. And it is in this light that we can see, with the help of someone like Damien, how simple, deep, hard, beautiful, all of our ministries truly are.


Apocalypse Now?

Unfortunately Advent 1 is, in our day, more and more compelling. A year ago, I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the crisis in Western society in the 15th century, and it had a familiar ring. An unexpected plague, the threat of radical Islam, eco-degradation, intellectual drift: all these factors combined to create a kind of apocalyptic foreboding. Is it any wonder our culture flocks to movies with this end-time edge? They are reminiscent of the darkened sun of this Sunday.

There are of course also reasons to be wary. Historical criticism can identify the cultural threats and worries of the time of the prophets being cited, as well as Jesus’ own time, not to mention those of the eras of Christian history that followed. We are hardly first to feel ourselves the last of humans. And yet this does not remove the cogency or the urgency of such a reading of Mark 13 or Luke 21. How then are we to read such passages as we balance passion and restraint?

Sometimes we as readers of the Bible lurch between two extremes. On the one hand, we suppose that the bible can mean whatever it subjectively and emotively says to each reader. Open season! Or on the other hand, we suppose it has one right reading that can be investigated and stated. It is more fecund than this. We do well to recall the more powerful interpretation of the Middle Ages. Bible passages spoke with multiple senses at one time, since reality itself is multi-layered, but not in a random or arbitrary way. A passage of the Bible first required us to understand its original setting, and so its historical meaning. At the same time each passage looked ahead or back to Jesus Christ, the center and standard of all historical meaning. It had the power to apply His meaning to our personal lives (in what was called the moral, or tropological meaning). Finally the Bible always looked forward to the end point and finale of history, to the eschaton, in what was called the ‘anagogical’ sense. Passages were as rich as truth itself, meaning all these at once.

What then of the sun being darkened and the moon turned to blood? The passage echoes the situation and attendant fears of the time of Jesus. It points to His own death, which is indeed the end of all things (and their new beginning) for humankind. It speaks of the apocalypse coming for each of us, when we shall come to an end and find ourselves before the judgment seat of God. And finally, it does, as ‘through a glass darkly,’ tell us something of what lies before the world on that real but mysterious last day. Apocalypse turns out to be then, his, ours, not yet now, each real, all together what we mean by ‘the end of all things.’



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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.