dimanche, avril 09, 2006

Idol Thinking in Holy Week

On February 14, I was finishing dinner grace when my daughter, still dressed in a dark red shirt and plaid skirt, her school uniform, murmured "St. Valentine, pray for us." After doing a double-take, I bit back a smile, and let the moment pass without serious discussion. She attends a parochial school, where prayers to the saints are a daily fact of life. Why not ask St. Valentine, or the saints named Valentine (apparently there may have been at least three martyrs named Valentine) to remember us before God? In our family, we'll take every bit of prayer we can get. But when do our cultural habits, our rituals and observances become idolatrous? When do we stop welcoming outsiders and insist that they meet a certain set of criteria if they are to fellowship with godly people like us? When do we abandon faithfulness to the God of mystery for the safety of our congregation's good opinion, or so we can avoid picking a fight, or so that we "fit in?"
People of faith can be so prissy and prone to cattiness on matters that, at least to me, are outside the scope of the essential. You don't have to be squishy on the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, to believe that Christians of good will can disagree on (and here I'm going to get myself into big trouble) such matters as to whether it's ok to pray to the saints, or whether you believe in salvation by faith alone.

Centuries of blood have been spilled on such matters, which are generally outside the scope of our earthly knowledge, and where has it gotten us?

We tend to forget that at the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith is profound mystery. God reaches out to His creation, but does not stop being God, in his inescapable Otherness. Those who tried to domesticate God, both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, often came to sad ends.

What a joy to read the words of retired Northwestern history professor Garry Wills as he warns the Democrats not to do what the Republicans have done with such misplaced audacity. In an article in the Sunday New York Times entitled "Christ Among the Partisans", Wills minces no words.

"There is no such thing as a 'Christian politics.' If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian."

As Christians, we may act on the basis of our beliefs, argues Wills. But we cannot expect to remake the state in the image of those beliefs. Jesus had no political aspirations. Nor did he preach a conventional morality. To make Jesus a humanitarian figure who teaches us how to behave is to fundamentally misunderstand Him.

"The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding" writes Wills. "It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer."

As we walk through Holy Week, it might be well to remember how the crowds greeted Jesus. They treated his entrance as though it was an edition of "Jerusalem Idol," Roman era. Perhaps it seemed as though He was going to meet their expectations, that of a Messiah come to challenge the Roman authorities. Jesus suffered horribly at the hands of those who had their expectations thwarted.

Human nature hasn't changed that much in 2000 years. We too have the same need for order and predictability and battlements to keep out the barbarians. In Western countries we tend not to martyr others for contradicting our notions of orthodox belief. I suppose that may be progress.

No, God is not a Republican or a Democrat, a Catholic or Lutheran, a champion of personal responsibility or an advocate for more state funding for the poor. God calls us to worship Him in the mystery of His choices, not ours. He is the one who said to Moses "I will be who I will be." We cannot predict His actions or box him in with our ideologies.

We need all the grace He can give us to follow such a God. And what is grace, after all, but the gift of new vision, new life? May this Holy Week become a little more dangerous, and a little more grace-filled for those who seek to turn their back on idols, and worship the living God.

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