Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Dad with No Name:
Humility, Obscurity, & the Laughter of Encounter with God

For liturgical Christians, today is the Feast of the Visitation. The day remembers Mary's visit to Elizabeth, while both were pregnant. John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth's womb to celebrate the Christ child's presence in Mary. Among other things, the encounter occasioned two great refrains that, for millennia, have been appropriated for use in the prayer lives of faithful Christians:

  • The first refrain is Elizabeth's loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." It is a refrain still daily cried by millions of people in the context of the Rosary prayer tradition. 
  • The second refrain, of course, is Mary's Magnificat: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God, my Savior," ff.

On the strength of these prayerful refrains, Christians today rightly reflect on themes of humility, hospitality, obedience, and joy at being found in the presence of Christ. 

While the uniqueness of these themes is beyond denying, their interdependence is equally an unmistakably true. Hospitality requires humility and obedience (listening to others); gives birth to joy.

Elizabeth says yes to Mary, who has recently said yes to the Spirit through Gabriel. Elizabeth's hospitality celebrates Mary's. Both harken back to Sarah and Abraham; Sarah's womb opened through the promise of God encountered in hospitality extended to strangersAbraham and Sarah's hospitality became an icon of the Christian church. In fact, in the long and beautiful tradition of Eastern iconography, the hospitality Abraham and Sarah extend to these strangers is recognized as the only allowable depiction of the great mystery we call the Trinity. 

In the icon, only the welcomed visitors are visible. Though Abraham's home is still visible, the welcomers have disappeared. And any host with practice recognizes the visitors' centrality as both right and deeply satisfying. No one remembers who introduces the main speaker. Thus the strong interplay that links hospitality and humility.

On that score: while it's important to say that Mary's pregnancy is most ways unique, it is also a longstanding teaching of the church that to make room in one's home for a child is an act of Christian hospitality. And for how many famous people can you also name the parents? Mary might top the shortlist, the exception who proves the rule. Annie wasn't two years old when her friends starting calling me only, "The Dad." Hospitality hanging out with humility, again.

All of which explains in part, I think, why Christian celebrities can be so hard to come by. The SFH community regularly kick around the question, "Which Anglican/Episcopalian could we - hypothetically - invite to campus and have her/him welcomed with instant name recognition and "buzz." The only one I can come up with is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

As a young acolyte - read, altar boy - I remember my training supervisor telling me and my friends that the point was not to have people notice what a good job we were doing. The point was to serve without being noticed. But, if I ever get it right, who will take notice of that??

And now, a brief intermission from the post for some real talk about humility from the poet David Budbill:
by David Budbill

I want to be 
so I can be 
about being

What good is my
when I am
in this

Of course, sometimes serving requires exactly being seen doing the thing that nobody wants to be seen doing. Standing with the least and last and lost. Speaking the prophetic challenge. Confessing one's sin and the need for forgiveness. Even there, though, we hope that our visibility to others does not define our presence and our actions. Pope Francis is a wonderful model in this regard. The visibility of his position gives his actions symbolic meaning, and yet they are the same actions he has done for decades without anyone's eyes or attention. What was a departure for the position is a continuation of his being in relationship with God, one given flesh and blood and physicality long before he took up the papal office

To be humble in obscurity requires discovery and trust of God in the mess of life. I take joy to be another word for this discovery and trust. Joy is connection to the celebration of the presence of Christ. Joy is sacramental.

Because joy is sacramental, it is joy that allows me to stand at the altar and invite the assembly to lift up their hearts without longing with even a part of me to be anywhere else, getting farther ahead, furiously ticking through my unending lists of "to do's" and deadlines. This joy opens me to the possibility of peace that passes understanding, which comes in part through the confession/admission that I daily pursue the emptiness of lots of other kinds of peace.

I vividly remember a Sunday school teacher, somewhere between second and fourth grade, who asked me and the other boys in the class if a couple of us would be willing to help her move a ladder. She had a bad back. Some of the boys looked down at their shoes. Others ran off, pretending not to have heard. Witnessing my abandonment at the hands of my brothers, I raised my head slowly and lifelessly mumbled, "I'll do it. I'll help."

Instead of celebrating a willing volunteer, my teacher scolded me through a beautiful smile. "Oh Jonathan," she beamed, "Don't be so joyful about it."

I smiled, got over myself, and ran to help my friend.

I will forever be grateful for my teacher's insistence that, having resigned myself to obscurity, it is not enough to do the job. Pretty soon, robots will do most of our jobs, anyway. Joy and wonder at the opportunity to live our baptismal covenant, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, beginning with this one, transforms the despair of our invisibility and/or obscurity into the laughter (à la Sarah) of encounter with God, which depends on the God who can be depended on to meet us.

Thanks be to God.


(1)Frequent readers of the blog will know that St. Francis House recently received a beautiful variant of this icon of icons in which Abraham and Sarah are visible. But even this icon, beloved for the picture of friendship with God it depicts, underscores the central point: Abraham and Sarah stand with God, beside God, as servants captured in a snapshot of the guests, while refilling their drinks between courses; a theological photobomb of the one who has opened her life up to God.

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