The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 16-20)
The end of the first Gospel provides a window into our time and its reigning uncertainty. Jesus says he has “all authority,” commands us to obedience, and says he is with us always. Then he goes away. Some who were present doubted; how much greater, in our time, the license to doubt. In what sense is Jesus with us? What is his so-called authority?
In our church we have a new tradition of collecting and publishing short daily meditations by parishioners for the fast seasons of Lent and Advent. This Lent, one young man wrote on the need to practice and seek peace in our daily tasks. Washing the dishes, paraphrasing his wife, we should imagine ourselves washing the infant Buddha, or, mutatis mutandis, the infant Jesus.
I think this is remarkable. How different the act feels if we see ourselves washing the holy Infant! How different any act feels if we look beyond it to a sacred analogue. Maybe I responded to this so personally because I remember my grandmother washing me in the kitchen sink. Heartbroken by the loss of an adult daughter (my aunt whom I never knew), my grandmother lived for her grandchildren. To her, indeed, washing one of us was an act of profound reverence. She was of French descent, and I remember her repeating the word “Minou, Minou” over and over as she sponged me in their aluminum sink.
What if God’s presence to the world really is that of a tiny, helpless infant? Yes, I know, “the kingdom, the power, and the glory.” Our received notions of God are bound up with images of majesty, judgment, awe, victory, subjection, fear, and numerous other inflections of the idea of power. This imaginative complex is embodied in our ritual and cultural practices of Christianity. Think back, however, to the beginning of the story and to the primal images of Christian piety from Orthodox icons and folk art: a newborn baby in its mother’s arms. Do we get ahead of ourselves in our notions of glory, does our fallen human culture inject too much of itself into the images and emotions surrounding Jesus and all that came to be with him? What about the baby, in itself, on its own terms?
Jesus’ life was not about glory. He had a circle of close friends and followers, through whose adoring eyes the story of his life is commonly told. He had dramatic moments: the miracles, rousting the merchants from the Temple, the entry to Jerusalem. He drew large crowds, and gave the authorities headaches (the religious authorities, anyway; had Pilate even heard of him?). On the other hand, the people willingly gave him up to death; there were no riots on account of his Crucifixion. Reports of his life outside the Christian tradition are famously scarce. His public life lasted all of three years, and could easily pass under the radar of official history.
Cut through the aura to the raw, vibrant source. I love the story told by Andrei Bitov about showing the film The Gospel According to Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964) to a group of the intelligentsiia in Soviet Moscow. Reactions to the film were split: some offered qualified praise, others were in “absolute ecstasy.” Bitov was puzzled by the dichotomy and probed deeper. It turns out that the lukewarm reactions were from those who already knew the Gosples. Those rapt with enthusiasm were those hearing the Gospel message for the first time. “But the Sermon on the Mount?” ( Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House, p. 131).
The Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
( Matthew 5:3-10)
What does this say about kingdom, power, and glory? The Beatitudes are the great, universal Critique of Hierarchy.
Here is the clip from Pasolini’s film:
If you wish to speak of a “Christian ethics,” here it is. Do not seek the good of the self or the magnification of the self. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” With all that is blathered in the media under the pretext of Christian authority and Christian values, here is what Jesus himself actually said.
As a theme of contemplation, imagine the following: in all the wide, suffering world, somewhere, there is one tiny baby, recently born, crying or perhaps asleep. Imagine that the baby is God. It is weak, dependent, incapable of any real action. The baby seems fragile and vulnerable, though we hear amazing stories of how newborn infants survive difficult ordeals. The equation is cruelly unbalanced: the tiny baby on one side, an entire raging world on the other. Yet the baby is God.
The pathos of this image may be familiar and comfortable to us from popular Christmas iconography. That pathos, however, comes from knowing the rest of the story. We know that the baby is not just a baby, that as an adult he will be Son of Man, and after his suffering will be enthroned in glory. Forget the Christmas shtick and stay with the baby.
I find this changes the entire emotional complexion of how I see the world. For entitlement, substitute responsibility and concern; for resentment, compassion; for enjoyment, work; for discourse and dispute, presence. “Be here now.” Parents know how rigorously a baby teaches us about need and dependency. The parent is the boss, but in what sense? Aren’t we really our children’s servants?
Fr. Ron Rolheiser tells us that the early church Fathers distinguished the petty heart, or pusilla anima, that is in each of us from the great heart, or magna anima, that is also in each of us. The child enflames our magna anima.
Finally, hope. The baby contains future time in ovo. This can be the stuff of tragedy, if we consider the consequences when parents do not live up to their role, or if society or circumstances fail to provide justice. (Conservative arguments about individual responsibility fall flat when applied to infants.) Yet the very unpredictability of the child’s fate gives us hope. She or he could be anything! We, our actions and attitudes, belong to a new trajectory leading into the unknown. This solemn responsibility of the parent or adult is also a sublime calling.