A cold day in New Jersey
February 2, 2008
It is a cold, grey day in Northern New Jersey, although not as dreary as yesterday when a continual pelting downpour produced lakes and rivulets of frigid water upon our front lawn and seepage in the basement, and made the world outside the windows of our house resemble a scene from one of the rings of Dante’s Inferno — I believe it was the hell of the gluttons, condemned forever to roll in stinking mud in recompense for swinish behavior. (I have often wondered why Hollywood has never attempted a film version of the Divine Comedy. It would seem a perfect vehicle for special effects cinematography: a flying Geryon, demonic chase scenes, vast burning panoramas, men turning into snakes, snakes turning into men, talking trees, impenitent popes in very unpleasant places, and, at the very bottom of the pit, Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot being chewed perpetually between Satan’s teeth. Of course, the sequels — Purgatory and Paradise — would generate less revenue and public interest than the initial film release, and it may be wondered whether any modern director would really be up to the task of representing virtue, let alone divinity. Still, the poem lends itself naturally to visual representation, as Gustave Doré showed in the nineteenth century. My guess is that the only real reason why Hollywood has not attempted such a thing is cultural illiteracy — like most other Americans, most screenwriters and producers have probably never read the book, and they assume that, because it is great, it must be boring.)
Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Meeting of Christ in the Temple. The feast commemorates an event recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke (Luke 2:22-40): forty days after the birth of her firstborn son, Jesus, Mary, together with her husband Joseph, went up from Bethlehem to the Temple at Jerusalem to dedicate the child to the Lord, in obedience to the Law of Moses. You may recall that, in the Book of Exodus, when God destroyed all the firstborn males of Egypt, both of man and of beast, but passed over the houses of the children of Israel, he commanded that the children of Israel thereafter devote to the Lord their own firstborn males: the firstborn males of beasts would be offered to the Lord for sacrifice (the ass, which is not a sacrificial animal, is excepted; its firstborn males could be redeemed with a lamb, Exod 13:13); firstborn human males would be redeemed, i.e., bought back, evidently by the payment of five shekels (Numbers 18:16). Luke does not mention the five shekels, but he does mention another tradition, observed by the mother after the days of her purification: they were commanded to “bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest” (Lev 12:6). The fact that Mary and Joseph bring, not a lamb and a young pigeon, but “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24) is, like their inability to afford a hotel room at Jesus’ birth, an indication that they were people of very moderate means; the law stipulates “two turtles, or two young pigeons” for those unable to afford the standard sacrifice (Lev 12:8).
St. Gregory the Theologian, in his poem On the Two Covenants, and the Appearing of Christ (poem 1.1.9, De Testamentis et Adventu Christi, PG 37, 456-464), vv. 60-71, speaks of this presentation of Christ in the Temple as a kind of payment of final tribute to the Law, which was about to go into retirement. Here is what he says:
“When he appeared, both earth and heaven shook
about the birth. The heavenly choir sent down hymns;
the star from the East led the Magi on their way,
bearing gifts in worship of the new-born King.
This is my teaching concerning Christ’s novel birth.
Nothing was shameful there, since sin alone is shameful:
therefore was nothing shameful, since the Word established it.
Neither by man’s seed did he become man, but it was from that flesh
which the Spirit had hallowed beforehand, of an unwedded, cherished mother
that he came, a self-made man; and he was purified for my sake.
For he accepted everything, even paying the law an offering of thanks,
or else giving it a send-off in its retirement, as I suppose.”
One of the things St. Gregory stresses here is that Mary, in obeying the law of purification, is actually performing a sort of supererogatory act: she had nothing in fact to be purified from, since there was no sin in her conceiving of this child. As he says in another of his poems:
“The purifying Spirit came upon a virgin
within whom the Word was formed into a man,
the total price of redemption for the total mortal man.”
(Poem 1.1.10, De Incarnatione, adversus Apollinarium, vv. 53-55; PG 37, 469.)
Although St. Gregory regards the story of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple as a kind of honorary send-off of the Law, when I read St. Luke’s account of this event I am struck by how much emphasis Luke, a Gentile, places in this passage upon the hope of Israel, a hope which, under the circumstances, must have been at least partly a political one. The nation was under the heel of a foreign, imperial government, the latest and perhaps most brutal in a series of foreign overlords. Simeon and Anna are old, devout Jews who spend most of their time praying at the Temple; they are not political revolutionaries. But the way Luke describes them certainly suggests that they were very much concerned about the unhappy political state of their own country; Simeon, Luke says, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (2:25), while Anna spoke about Jesus “to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (v. 38). I find it difficult to believe that these notions of “consolation” and “redemption” had no political aspect. These old, pious people were waiting for the Messiah, and their understanding of the Messiah was that he would free Israel. That is, primarily, the meaning “consolation” and “redemption” had for them.
That seems also to have been the primary expectation people had of Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey in the event Christians celebrate on Palm Sunday. Perhaps it will be said that this expectation — that Jesus was a political Messiah — was a serious misunderstanding of who Jesus was and who he claimed to be; in the event, people became seriously disappointed with Jesus when he did not deliver the expected political goods. Some people think that it was this disillusionment that caused Judas to betray him; the theory goes that Judas wanted to force Jesus’ hand; if he were captured, then he would be forced to destroy his enemies.
Peter evidently thought something like this, too, when Jesus began to tell the disciples that “he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21). Peter’s response to this was to tell Jesus that he needed to take a break, stop being so hard on himself: “Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord, this shall not be unto thee” (v. 22). Although Peter has just confessed Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16), and Jesus has conferred the keys of the kingdom of heaven upon him (v. 19), yet it appears that he so completely misunderstands what Jesus is about that Jesus calls him Satan: “But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (v. 23). This is one of the most dreadful statements in the New Testament. I can only think that Jesus says this because Peter has made really a fundamental mistake, and is even succumbing to a kind of demonic temptation; as the Father in heaven inspired Peter to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, so the devil in hell inspired him to think that Jesus’ Messiahship was just another political power trip.
I still do not know if Jesus had a political philosophy, or if this is even a legitimate question to be asking about him. The text of Luke 2:22-40, the gospel for the Meeting in the Temple, suggests that people had a political expectation of him, both at his birth and at the time of his death. Yet virtually everything about Jesus indicates that political expectations are not to be trusted as delivering the final meaning of Jesus’ life, or perhaps, indeed, about anybody’s life. If something does deliver a final, definitive meaning about Jesus’ life, it has to be the resurrection. Christianity without the resurrection, as St. Paul says, is worse than nonsense (1 Cor 15).
If anyone asks me why I am an Orthodox Christian, not merely on account of an accident of birth and upbringing, but on account of internal conviction, I will tell them that it is because the church in which I was baptized believes in Christ’s resurrection, celebrates that resurrection with joy, and holds that resurrection to be the one thing that matters in life. When I was a child, I would sing the Easter hymn, Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, Christ is risen from the dead. I was a child, I could not understand Greek, and, as such, I had no idea what the words I was singing meant. Now I am 48 years old, I can understand Greek, I can translate the words. Yet, in some true sense, the song means exactly the same thing to me now as it did when I was a child. That is a gift I would not sell for any gold.
I would like to see Christians living at peace with one another; I believe it is Jesus’ will for me to seek that. I think this blog testifies amply to that concern. But some of the disagreements between Christians seem to me to be essentially at a political level, questions essentially about power. The Greeks still bear a grudge for what the West did to Constantinople; the Roman Church is offended if anyone questions its view of church order. The Protestants have their own political axes to grind, liberal or conservative. I do not want to minimize the seriousness of some of these differences. But it does seem to me that the great tragedy of these divisions is that they obscure, and in some cases pervert, the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. They turn the joy of the resurrection into a sectarian triumph, a victory of us over them, something, I think, Christ never promised us, although he promises those who follow him a victory over the powers of hell.
What if the bishops, prelates, pontiffs, and pastors of the world were to read what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount and take seriously what he says there? “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23 f.). What would happen if people actually took that seriously?