Wednesday, January 31, 2007


When anyone is disturbed or saddened under the pretext of a good and soul-profiting matter, and is angered against his neighbor, it is evident that this is not according to God: for everything that is of God is peaceful and useful and leads a man to humility and to judging himself.” -- St. Barsanuphius the Great

“If you are praised, be silent. If you are scolded, be silent. If you incur losses, be silent. If you receive profit, be silent. If you are satiated, be silent. If you are hungry, also be silent. And do not be afraid that there will be no fruit when all dies down; there will be! Not everything will die down. Energy will appear; and what energy!” -- St. Feofil, the Fool for Christ

"So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, [son] of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs." Gospel of St. John 21:15

"10 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. 11 For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, 12 not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous.

13 Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. 15 Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

16 By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

18 My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. 19 And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. 20 For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. 22 And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. 23 And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment."
1 John 3:10-23.

I have a lot to learn.

"You're already dead"

Note: I wrote this back in November, but didn't see fit to post it until now. I post it now to 'clean out' some drafts pending some changes.

In 1944, the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division jumped into Normandy as part of the campaign to liberate Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany. "Easy" Company of the 506th, made famous by Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, jumped into Normady with 139 officers and men on June 6th. Twenty-three days later they came off the line with 65 fewer souls [if my math is correct].

In the HBO/Play Tone production of Band of Brothers [which, incidentally, IMO is the best 'war movie' made to date], there is a conversation between a feared and respected Lieutenant Ronald Spiers and a Private Blithe. Blithe is struggling with the shock and fear of combat and confesses that he hid in a ditch after the jump rather than seek out his unit and join the fight. Factually, Albert Blithe was wounded in combat during the Normandy campaign and never fully recovered from his wounds, finally dying in 1948.

Spiers: "We're all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there's still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead."

While the point of the [perhaps imagined] conversation was to give a soldier the means to overcome the fear of war and to act effectively as a soldier, the idea of 'hiding in a false hope' due to fear has some application.

As Christians we are to also accept, as St. Paul says, that we have died to self and live only in Christ. Not "I" but Christ who lives in me. The only hope we have is to accept the fact that we're already dead without Christ. In fact, in baptism we die with Christ, and our life is hid in his.

We put our hope on accepting the fact that we are already 'dead' - and we are [as St. Paul says] truly pitiable if Christ has not, in fact, risen. Then we are men bound to a false hope. But if our belief is true, there is no other hope than to accept the fact that we are already dead in sin, and only alive in Christ.

We hold to many truly false hopes. Recently, after realizing a sinful behavior, despite 'knowing better,' I was given to think as I suspect we often do: "perhaps I can yet redeem myself in the eyes of my Lord by the improvement of my behavior." If Jesus is God from God, the pre-Eternal Logos, there is little I could do to 'redeem myself' in His eyes. I realized that I was clinging to a false hope, like Private Blithe, thinking this was a way to cling to life.

I believe this is a common false hope to cling to, I think, even when we 'know better' through having been taught that no man can justify himself through his works (rather, his works are an external indicator of obedience to the commands of Christ and faith in Christ). We still want to hide in the ditch thinking there is still hope for life while remaining just where we are, hoping that at some little moment we will redeem ourselves in the eyes of our Lord - that we will be our own Savior in the eyes of our Judge, rather than really accepting, deep in our nous, our 'heart of hearts' that our Judge is our Savior, and realizing that there's nothing we can do to redeem ourselves. As we stand before him all we can do is throw ourselves upon his infinite mercy.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Nativity Story

Our New Year's Day, 8th Day of Christmastide, Feast of the Circumcision, and end of Christmas vacation celebration yesterday took the form of a little parade watching and then heading out as a family to take in the recent cinema feature entitled The Nativity Story.


I thought the movie did a fine job, better than most, of depicting the sense of semetic village life in Palestine - olive groves, small grain plots, goat hide tanners, homemade goat's cheese, etc. The last item reminded me of stories my first Arabic teacher would tell me of growing up in pre-'48 Palestine and making homemade cheeses and yogurts in her grandmother's kitchen and her particular relish of a fine chevre rolled in a light dusting of ash. The movie also did a fine job of depicting the brooding pressure of Roman/Herodian 'tax farming' necessary to support the lives of the wealthy although one may nitpick that young girls may not have been 'confiscated' for back taxes as the movie portrayed. Certainly slavery and servitude was a commonplace in the Mediterranean in the time.

Many of the actors hie from a Middle Eastern background, with some, like the great actress Hiam Abbas (playing the role of St. Anna; see also her superb performance in The Syrian Bride). Ms. Abbas actually being a Palestinian of Israeli nationality who speaks both Arabic and Hebrew, provided an authenticity to the film rare in 'Bible movies.' I am reminded that those we call and who call themselves 'Arab' in much of the Levant today may often have as much or more ancient Jewish/early Christian ancestry as actual Arabian desert Islamic Bedu ancestry. Because of politics, admitting or suggesting such ancestry may be offensive, but it seems the moniker 'Palestinian' or 'Syrian' or 'Lebanese' or 'Egyptian' may have more meaning, or at least equal ancestral meaning, as 'Arab' except as that term means 'Arabic speaking.' I digress, but the point of the digression is that we can yet see that the ways of life in parts of the Middle East now are in not much entirely different than in the First Century, because the people are not really that much different in culture.

As I watched the movie, I thought about reviews that said the whole thing was plain dull boring. Nothing new to see here, they proclaimed. Predictable. Read the story in the Bible. I did not see it so. Perhaps I am a sap, but I was nearly moved to tears at moments, such as the scene when St. Mary comes to St. Elizabeth's house and St. Elizabeth greets the mother of her Lord. Perhaps some would think the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel and the angelic visitation to Zechariah as he offered incense in the Temple so tepid and lackluster to be 'unbelievabile.'

It seems that we are reduced to this now, in our age of Bruckheimer, Spielberg, Lucas, the Matrix and the like, that unless the miraculous is embued with far-out special effects it is, well, not miraculous.

I rather liked that in the movie there was little of the stunning effect. St. Zechariah sees his angel, but not cowering in the corner as the angel comes in a blast of light and pulsating THX surround sound. No, it is a small voice, and vision of flame amidst the smoke of incense.

Mary encounters Gabriel, but it is a quiet, private moment. St. Elizabeth knows it is the mother of her Lord, but it is still a simple scene of two mothers with babes in their wombs. She does not have a 'flash' of blinding light or some other effects-based moment of wonder. In short, the miraculous is seemingly presented as requiring less fanfare because the people are more clearly aware of the possibility and existence of the miraculous. They don't require being flattened by supernatural light and sound. Moreover, the simplicity of the miracle moments actually challenges my belief. Would I recognize such a visitation, or am I as deaf and blind as all the rest (you know the answer - the latter).

This portrayal in the movie comports with my experience of many Arabic speaking peoples I have met - this sensitivity to the possibility of the miraculous - and it seems to be something we lose in our society with each new mega-effects blockbuster. I wonder whether my children will, as the years go on, be able to be in touch with the possibility of miracle in simple ways.

Moving on, I wondered what effect playing St. Mary had on the star, Keisha Castle-Hughes. The newspaper said she was pregnant at/by the end of the movie, being 16, perhaps about the age St. Mary was found with child by the Holy Spirit. Did this movie touch her in some way? How does it make her feel about her own impending motherhood?

Some have criticized that the movie takes away from the majesty of the Church's traditional story because it takes away from the poetic and theological virtue of the story as it is taught through our liturgy and prayer. Moreover, some have criticized that Joseph needed to be older, or maybe Mary isn't quite 'holy' enough in portrayal.

Again, I may be a sap, but the movie used a 30-something actor for Joseph, with the 16 year old Castle-Hughes as Mary. They do not play out the widower piece with Joseph's other children (which is a loss to the story), but a 30-year old in Palestine would have been a not unsuitable age for Joseph to have been married and lost his first wife and be left with children. So the ages are OK and believable even if one could also imagine him older. If there is a nit, it is with Joachim and Anna, in that there is no portrayal of their preparation of Mary by sending her to the Temple (as per tradition). One could envision that the screenwriter could have used the hopes for her purity as the vehicle for their great disappointment in finding her pregnant rather than simply the ordinary concern of pious parents about the grave possibility that their daughter could be taken out and stoned. Nevertheless, the film's portrayal was real enough, and touching enough.

And for those with an eye to traditional imagery, there was plenty to be seen if one is attentive. First, the use of a cave-stable with a hole where the light of the star passes into the cave and on the holy family reminds one of the typical Orthodox nativity icon. The soldier stooping to look into the cave and finding the empty manger with a swaddling cloth both reminds one of impending Resurrection and the empty tomb, as well as the icons of Nativity where the child's swaddling cloths look like a burial wrap.

Second, as Mary and Joseph cross the stream (Jordan?), a small 'adventure moment' in the movie, a serpent gets in the water and causes the donkey to throw Mary into the drink. Again, in the icons of Jesus baptism in the Jordan, we see the serpents in the water. The connection also with the enmity of Mary (the new Eve) and the serpent is hinted at, as well as, perhaps, a foreshadowing of the fall from the triumph of Palm Sunday (riding the donkey towards Jerusalem) to the descent into the baptism of suffering of Holy Friday.

There are other examples of this, but enough to say that I found the film likeable enough and meaningful enough that it will find a place next to the 'Passion of the Christ' and 'Jesus of Nazareth' on my film collection rack. Let the detractors want super special light and sound or a new twist on the old story of great wonder. This movie rings close in my heart to the reality of God in our lives - the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.