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Easter – Drama Is Reborn

Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus

Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus

Easter, which for Christians marks the resurrection of Jesus, also resurrected theatrical drama. The fall and fragmentation of the Roman empire brought Roman stage plays, and their Greek predecessors, to an end. Theatrical production ceased, fell out of memory, and there were no stage dramas as Europe entered the Middle Ages. There was pageantry, yes, but not theatrical dramas and plays  as we know them today. Much of the Medieval Christian Mass was — in addition to its sacred ritual — an occasion of  pageantry, and the church knew the uses of such displays.

Quem Quaeritis

Quem Quaeritis – Bodleian Library

Sometime in the 10th century, certain Easter services began to incorporate a bit of drama.The plot was simple:On the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, the three Marys go to the tomb in search of the body of Jesus and find there an angel who asks who they are looking for. (You can see them in the Medieval illustration at the top of this post.) They say they’re looking for Jesus Christ who was crucified. The angel replies that Jesus has risen, as he had foretold he would. Go an announce that he has risen from the grave.

Here in Latin and English are the alternating questions and answers by the angel and the three Marys. The angel speaks first, asking the Marys who they are looking for:

 Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? Whom do you seek in the grave, o followers of Christ?
Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o heavenly one.
Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.  He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go out and   announce that he has risen from the grave.

No one can say whether it began by having a single speaker, a priest or cantor, ask the question “Who do you seek?” and other speaker, or singer, replying, or whether it was a whole chorus. In any case, the little exchange became more elaborate and other crucial turns in the life of Jesus were dramatized. Soon these little plays, or skits, were performed outside the church and eventually scenes from the old testament were added. The dramas were originally intended as lessons from the Bible, but they soon became enjoyable plays that were mounted on wheeled platforms — carts that could be taken from town to town and arranged in a circle so the spectators could move easily from one skit to another. Eventually, the playhouse was born, drama as we know it today was born. It all began at Easter.

Easter

Easter eggsThese Easter eggs were made a generation ago. Delicate little things, real egg shells painted by hand, and the kids who made them have kids of their own now. These lovely ornaments spend most of the year in boxes stored under the eves in the attic, then come into the light for a brief time once a year.There’s no question that for Christians such hollow decorated egg shells came to symbolize the empty tomb of the risen Christ, but precisely when and where the symbol got its start is a vexed piece of history. No matter. Humans have been decorating eggs for thousands of years and for sure a lot of life starts with an egg. For Romans of Christ’s time, all life comes from an egg or, as they say, omne vivum ex ovo.  We too came from an egg and without kids all life would cease. So there they are, bowls of real hollowed egg shells painted by children. There’s resurrection for you!

Preaching In My Yes Dress

Preaching In MY Yes Dress cover imageJo Page, a friend who has contributed occasional posts to Critical Pages, has now written a lively and engaging book, Preaching in My Yes Dress. Ms. Page is a Lutheran pastor and this publication is partly a memoir and partly a personal report of what it’s like to deal with the bright and dark moments of pastoral work.

The story begins with friendly simplicity — “As Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story, luminescent Audrey Hepburn makes convent life masochistically chic – all that pious obedience and semi-sexual mortification of the flesh. As a little girl, I wanted to be Sister Luke.” The movie made a deep impression on the girl who, when she was nine years old, sensed a cause-and-effect relationship between her own sinfulness and the death of her father. Jo Page moves deftly back and forth between the troubled inner life of that little girl and the zig-zag plot of the movie, keeping the tone precise and light. That same deftness comes into play throughout the book as the author moves from tragic to comic events in her childhood, or from wanting to “get on God’s good side” as a youngster to enrolling in a seminary as an adult with a husband and two children.

The author avoids solemnity, but doesn’t hide or dodge serious problems when they arise in the course of her story. The full title of this memoir is Preaching in My Yes Dress: Confessions of a Reluctant Pastor. And that means Pastor Page is startlingly honest in depicting her doubts and the questions that arise, no matter her role – “Who can really tell what God’s will for us is anyway? Or if there really is such a thing as God’s will? Is it the will of God that we suffer? I just don’t believe that. But we do suffer. Sometimes it seems as though God is strangely distant, strangely silent. That’s when we end up making excuses for God for allowing the world to be as it truly is.”

Preaching in My Yes Dress is thoughtful, refreshingly candid and provocative. And though it touches on subjects such as the rise of the religious right, the patriarchal nature of scripture and church organization, it’s never heavy or belligerent. You can’t tell a book by it’s cover, but the the title of this one is a pretty good giveaway as to what’s inside. Actually, the cover is damned good, too.

You can visit Jo Page at her blog.

David Brooks & Secularism

David Brooks, the conservative columnist at the New York

David Brooks

David Brooks

times, recently wrote a provocative piece about secularists. Ordinarily, his

focus is politics; he’s well connected in Washington, he’s reasonable and he writes well. Brooks occasionally comments on society and culture, and there his conservative vision can lead him astray. His column on secularists sprang from his reading a book, Living the Secular Life, by the sociologist Phil Zuckerman. Brooks didn’t review the book, but used it as a jumping off point for his own views on “secular individuals” and “secular people.”

He makes a number of observations which we can agree with, or debate, or think are plain silly. Here they are in his own words:

•“Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries.”
•“Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice.”
•“Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.” It’s hard to believe but, yes, he’s serious here.
•“Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. Religious people are motivated by their love of God and their fervent desire to please Him.”

As you can see, secular people have a very hard life, having to build their own philosophies, communities and rituals, having to make choices, needing to decide when to reflect on life, and having to create their own moral motivations. On the other hand, religious people have it, oh — so easy.

Brooks comes to the point of his piece, beginning with a couple of things that it is not:

“The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.”

So that’s the point,  that life is really, really really hard for secular people, even if they don’t know it — like when they’re bored with their lives and aren’t even conscious of their boredom and go around thinking that they’re not bored.

In his conclusion, Brooks offers some suggestions to secular people.

“It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”

Of course, secularism isn’t a religion and it doesn’t have a creed the way religions have creeds and one wonders how a religious person, like David Brooks, would respond to a secularist’s suggestions for ways to improve religion. Because Brooks is religious, he knows what he’s talking about when he speaks about a certain kind of spiritual inspiration and feeling. But he doesn’t understand the secular temperament and his his characterization of the secular person is a clownish caricature. And although his lines about Christianity and Judaism speak powerfully, he strangely portrays religious people as passive sheep.

Christianity and Judaism impose the same ethical “burden” on their faithful as is imposed on the secular person. Though religious and secular people may phrase the process differently, they both, at times, have  difficulty in distinguishing the right moral choice and both recognize their self-deception and folly.

Yes, being part of a religious group does give meaning to the lives of many people, but it’s witless to think it gives meaning to all of them. Furthermore, many secular minded people find meaning in their family, in their love for their husband or wife, their children, in their daily work for their daily bread, in their pursuit of justice and social good – there are numberless ways in which people find meaning in life  without being affiliated with a church.

Brooks concludes by saying “The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.”

Only David Brooks knows what an “enchanted secularism” is. Maybe there is in each of us a spiritual urge, a drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification. But in the context of his essay those words have specific religious meanings and a secularist wouldn’t use those words that way. The secularism and the sanctification he’s been defining throughout his piece are clearly incompatible.

David Brooks isn’t a dummy. Liberals read Brooks and generally can follow his reasoning even when they disagree with views.  So it may be that a newspaper column isn’t large enough to allow a well reasoned exploration of secularism and religion.  But one thing’s sure, on this subject his writing — though serious and well intended — is a confused and confusing muddle.

Christmas

Adoration of the MagiOne of the curses or blessings of contemporary life is that we get news instantaneously from all over the world, and a lot of days it’s truly depressing news. Whether or not you believe in angels singing over a stable in Bethlehem, whether or not you credit the tale of shepherds startled in their fields, and magi who traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts, magi who got there by following a star — surely the news of that event would be better than what we’re getting these days. So enjoy this event, this balm for the soul. Use your imagination.

The painting is a detail from a much larger work, The Adoration of the Magi, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio,the Italian Renaissance painter. Along with two brothers and a brother-in-law, he managed a studio workshop that turned out a number of paintings, a sort of “school of Ghirlandaio.” His most famous student-apprentice was Michelangelo. Those angels, or ones resembling them, appear in some other of the works to come out of that workshop, not quite mass production, but not unique either, and, indeed, how much was done by Domenico and how much by someone else is unknowable. The music that the Angels are singing is largely unknowable and quite inaudible. Do use your imagination.

Easter Renewed

Easter eggs AWe were unable to reach the web the past few days, so we arrive here at Easter out of breath and unprepared. We do have those eggs we’ve colored over the years  (well, actually, the children did most of the work) and we’ve taken  them from the little egg boxes that we keep beside the cartons filled with Christmas decorations.  We haven’t anything new to say about Easter eggs, so we’re reposting our sentiments from last year.  The photos are fresh.  You’ll notice they’re the same decorated eggs, but rearranged — we couldn’t get the same arrangement even if we tried.Easter eggs BSociety finds it easier to give up religious belief, than to abandon the traditions and symbols of religion. Eggs have symbolized fertility, birth and rebirth, for a long, long time. And, as you probably know, you can find eggs used symbolically that way in a number of religious traditions.  Here and now we’re celebrating Easter and what we have here are Easter eggs.  Much of Christian lay society makes a greater celebration and display at Christmas, Christ’s birthday, but clearly in the sacred drama of Jesus’ life his rising from the dead on Easter morning is far, far more significant than his birth.

If you wish, the egg represents the stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb to seal it and was found rolled aside on the third day after his death. Or, if you wish, the egg being empty — and all those painted eggs are first punctured and drained — symbolizes the empty tomb of Christ on Easter day. But for many people, contemporary Easter eggs, as bright and colorful as flowers, simply call to mind springtime, fertility and that awakening we feel when we have come through another dark winter and are looking forward to more light and warmth.Easter eggs C

 

Big Bang Getting Bigger Faster

Whether God is an old man with a white beard, as portrayed by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or whether, on the contrary, God is a badly organized committee just blundering along, are theological questions beyond the scope of this web site. Consequently, when it comes to Creation, we’ll stick to the scientific news we read in the New York Times and witness on BBC TV.

Now, the cosmological news this season comes from astronomers at the South Pole who believe they’ve found evidence that in the trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Moment of Creation, or Big Bang, the universe expanded at a truly terrific rate and took on the smooth shape it appears to have today. They also believe they’ve found evidence of gravity waves – and no one has ever done that before.

Inflation of the cosmos - Polarization Pattern in Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

The image above shows the polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation, and those twists and turns were presumably produced during the period of terrific expansion, or inflation, which occurred very shortly after the Big Bang went bang! We don’t think the image is a suitable substitute for Michelangelo’s painting of God creating the sun and moon and planets, but what it portrays is evidence that our universe did undergo rapid expansion.  Of course, the evidence will be queried and tested by other cosmologists before it gains complete acceptance.

Calling the Moment of Creation the Big Bang really shrinks it down rather a lot, and reduces it to an almost trivial phenomenon. Even so, it’s a difficult moment to envision. Most people – and this includes physicists, too, especially when they draw on the blackboard or make cinematic dramatizations of the event – imagine a vast volume of empty blackness and then a tiny white speck that explodes and is the BIG BANG. The problem with that vision is that prior to the event there’s nothing there, and by nothing we mean nothing at all – no big empty volume of blackness. Remember, prior to the Big Bang there’s no space. No, not even empty space.

Below is one of Michelangelo’s images from the Sistine Chapel showing God creating the sun and moon and other astronomical bodies. He looks rather angry, but maybe that’s because creating the cosmos is hard work, even for God — or maybe that’s just Michelangelo’s personal irritation coming out as he’s trying to paint while lying on his back on scaffolding way up close to the ceiling, with drops of paint spattering him.God creating sun & moon & planets

March 25th is International Waffle Day

Or maybe it’s simply Waffle Day in Sweden.

Here’s the story, take it as you will. In the liturgical calendar March 25 – exactly nine calendar months prior the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus – is the Feast of the Annunciation. The Annunciation, you recall, is the occasion when the angel Gabriel surprised Mary, telling her that she had been chosen to become the mother of the son of God, to be named Jesus. And Mary assented to God’s plan. That day, in Swedish, is called Vårfrudagen (Our Lady’s Day – the Lady being Mary, mother of God.) But Vårfrudagen sounds enough like Våffeldagen (waffle day) to easily conflate the two, hence the overlap of Waffle Day and Our Lady’s Day in Sweden.

(You can look up the story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke, and you can find the confusion over Våffeldagen and Vårfrudagen in Wikipedia under Waffle Day.)

In the United States, Waffle Day is celebrated on August 24, memorializing that day in August of 1869 when Cornelius Swartwout was awarded the first waffle-iron patent granted by the U.S. Patent Office. If we’re not otherwise occupied, we’ll write a post about waffles when August 24 rolls around.

We’re not going to post an image of a waffle. Annunciation by Botticelli

But we do like this image of the Annunciation as envisioned by Sandro Botticelli.  We like the ballet-like relationship between the angel and Mary, and the delicate space between their hands. We like the way the angel’s gossamer cloak, still billowing, is just settling down under the effect of earthly gravity. In this scene which links heaven and earth, we like the solidity of the red tile floor and the sense of spatial volume induced by those lines of perspective, and we like that distant scene in the deep background.

Horizontal line 460pxIs the best art always beautiful, or does ugliness itself have a place in it? It art best when it’s purely for the sake of art itself, or is morality a component of great art?  Here’s an excerpt from an essay by the critic Timothy Cahill, a man  deeply interested in these questions:

I don’t swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of “Is It Art?” was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was self-evident that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.

                                      —The excerpt is from Timothy Cahill’s blog, Art & DocumentHorizontal line 460px

Easter Eggs

Easter EggsSociety finds it easier to give up religious belief, than to abandon the traditions and symbols of religion. Eggs have symbolized fertility, birth and rebirth, for a long, long time. And, as you probably know, you can find eggs used symbolically that way in a number of religious traditions.  Here and now we’re celebrating Easter and what we have here are Easter eggs.  Much of Christian lay society makes a greater celebration and display at Christmas, Christ’s birthday, but clearly in the sacred drama of Jesus’ life his rising from the dead on Easter morning is far, far more significant than his birth.

If you wish, the egg represents the stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb to seal it and was found rolled aside on the third day after his death. Or, if you wish, the egg being empty — and all those painted eggs are first punctured and drained — symbolizes the empty tomb of Christ on Easter day. But for many people, contemporary Easter eggs, as bright and colorful as flowers, simply call to mind springtime, fertility and that awakening we feel when we have come through another dark winter and are looking forward to more light and warmth.Easter Eggs

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.