Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — Mary’s apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament St. Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point here is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.


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Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”


The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

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Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out.

Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 91 (1952).

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“Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 8:4.)

Few things will reduce us to inglorious paralysis like letting Eros put a halo, a mitre, or a crown on the inflated head that already bobs unstably on his pencil neck. Submission to a god who’s famously a thrall even to a moderately stiff breeze is the kernel of sundry evils – from Duke Orsino’s pathetic lovesickness in Twelfth Night to the poetry of Lord Byron to Marianne Dashwood’s brush with death in Sense and Sensibility and to scores of appalling “it’s not you, it’s me” speeches. That isn’t to say Eros is bad company. He can be delightful wearing the appropriate headwear: a jester’s hat.

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I panted after honors, wealth, marriage — and you just laughed. These ambitions gave me nothing but trouble, made more intense by your kindness in making them bitter since they were not you. Here is my heart, Lord, you who lead me to this account and testimony, let my soul adhere to you, who extricated me from the clinging muck of death.

Augustine, Confessions 117 (Garry Wills trans., Penguin 2008).

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Monday after Trinity 1

St Luke 2:21-40

My father died when I was six. I remember little from his last days. Most of what I know about those days, I learned from my grandfather (my mom’s dad, who loved my dad as dearly as his own son). He told me much about dad’s deathbed conversation — that he had no thought for himself, but only for his bride and his two young sons. I do not know — I wish I did know — more about whether hope for us prevailed over anxiety for us in his final thoughts, and whether something like a settled peace mingled with the sadness of his last days.

SimeonI mention this because today’s reading is a reading about death — the coincidence of the dawn of new life with one man’s glorious sunset. Simeon died well. He died well, in large part, because he died with no thought for himself, and a proper hope for his people and the world. He died well because he had read, marked, and inwardly digested the Word of God, and the encouragement he received from the Scriptures gave him hope(1), incorrigible hope that sustained him through long years of faithful waiting. When the thing he’d long waited for, “the consolation of Israel,” finally arrived, he departed in peace, according to the decree of the faithful God he loved. He died singing of a salvation not his own, but of

Thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the
glory of thy people Israel.

Simeon had seen Jesus, Israel’s consolation and glory. And as a faithful son of Abraham he knew what the arrival of Israel’s glory meant: light to the Gentiles, salvation going out to all people. The thing that’d been hinted at in Elijah’s mission to the widow of Zarephath, in Elisha’s cleansing of Naaman the Syrian, in Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, in the fool’s hope of a Moabitess who would not be parted from her despairing mother-in-law, was presently coming to fullness. So Simeon sang.

But not everyone loved the thing Simeon loved. Therefore Simeon died with something more than song on his lips; he had also some sharp truth, spoken with piercing deathbed clarity, for Mary:

Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

In Jesus, Simeon saw that the promised shoot had sprung from the stump of Jesse(2) — that the true Davidic King had come to a land sick with the reigns of imposters and tyrants like Herod. And Simeon rightly foresaw, when the shoot from Jesse’s stump was yet a holy infant, tender and mild, that His appearing would provoke opposition and cause division.

Whatever peace Jesus, Prince of Peace, was born to bring, it was not, as Dorothy Sayers once said, the peace of amiable indifference(3). The little bundle of joy Simeon saw in the Temple was nothing less momentous than the beginning of Heaven’s decisive invasion of the world. Not everyone would treasure Him like Mary, or hail Him like Simeon. At the Lord’s birth, Simeon had finished his course, and his part was to depart in peace — though not before preparing Mary for the harder part of bearing a mother’s deepest possible grief: seeing her son opposed, rejected, and hanged on a cross.

(1) Romans 15:4

(2) Isaiah 11:1

(3) Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? in Letters to a Diminished Church 55 (Thomas Nelson 2004).

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King Lir looked down at me. He seemed as tall as a tree right then, and he patted my head very gently with his iron glove. He said, “Little one, I have a griffin to slay. It is my job.”

* * *
[He] kept petting me with one hand and trying to put me aside with the other, but I wouldn’t let go. I think I was actually trying to pull his sword out of its sheath, to take it away from him. He said, “No, no, little one, you don’t understand. There are some monsters that only a king can kill. I have always known that — I should never, never have sent those poor men to die in my place. No one else in all the land can do this for you and your village. Most truly now, it is my job.” And he kissed my hand, the way he must have kissed the hands of so many queens . . .

Peter S. Beagle, Two Hearts, in The Line Between 37 (2006).

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