I’ve written quite a bit about Flannery over the years. As far as I’m concerned she’s a saint and maybe even a doctor of the church, to really ramp up the hyperbole. When I feel befuddled and know some clarity is in order, I head in one of two directions: Flannery and Ratzinger. Sometimes both.
I watched The Chosen Christmas special episode this past Sunday. Although I could have done without the long musical intro, and setting aside evangelical vs. Catholic understandings of Mary’s experiences of the virgin birth (for a Catholic perspective, see here), I wanted to note something I really love that this series does in this episode, as well as in the first episode of season 2: the writers try to imagine not only the experiences of the first followers of Jesus when they met him and followed him during his ministry; they also try to imagine what it might have looked like for these disciples after the death, resurrection, and ascension, as they began translating their experiences of Jesus into written accounts that later would be gathered into the New Testament Scriptures. It’s something that we do not consider enough.
For me, the best part of the Christmas episode was the way in which the writers imagined how details of the Christmas story came down to us. There is a beautiful focus on the Magnificat (Lk: 1:46-55) and Mary and Joseph’s encounters with the “messengers” (Lk: 1:26-48; Mt: 1:18-24) and the fact that Jesus, like a spotless lamb set aside by shepherds for sacrifice in the Temple, was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” by his mother (Lk: 2:7). These are details which, if we believe them to be accurate in any meaningful sense, must have been reported to the evangelist Luke ultimately by Mary herself.
The Chosen writers have Mary Magdalene come to visit the mother of the Lord shortly before she dies to be given the privilege of carefully writing down the words of the Magnificat and delivering them to Luke on Our Lady’s behalf.
Obviously, we have no way of knowing if this is how the information was transmitted to Luke, and perhaps this scenario is not very likely, but there is nevertheless something very beautiful about the show emphasizing Mary Magdalene’s role as “apostle to the apostles” even years after the resurrection and her initial announcement to them of the good news (cf. Mark 16:9-11, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:10-11, John 20:1-18).
It is clear to me, regardless, that there must have been a special relationship between Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene — as they were profoundly united together by witnessing the suffering of Jesus and standing beneath his cross as he died (John 19:25). In the episode, Mary Magdalene movingly calls Mary “Mother,” and the mother of Jesus says that Mary Magdalene has always been “like a daughter” to her. Mary Magdalene’s role as one of the very first witnesses of the resurrection would also, no doubt, have united her in a special way to Mother Mary, who accompanied the apostles “and some women” in prayer in the Upper Room as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:13-14).
Unfortunately, much of the scholarship on these questions since the 19th century (and a disheartening view into a lot of Catholic seminary formation) is well summarized by Father Casey Cole, OFM on his Youtube video here. He critiques the show because it imagines the apostles John and Matthew taking notes on their experiences with Jesus: “[the creators] treat the Gospels as if they were eye-witness accounts, written down as they were happening,” he says, disapprovingly. Such an approach, he contends, causes scripture “to be treated as nothing more than a literal, entirely straightforward account of events.” Clearly, he is thinking about sola scriptura and un-nuanced views of the inerrancy of scripture here. But he also proffers the common view that the Gospel writers were primarily “theologians”, not historians, interested in portraying Jesus according to the needs of their “faith communities”—and not very interested with factual accuracy at all.
I’m always puzzled by this thesis, as if people 2,000 years ago were so unlike people today that they were mysteriously un-curious about facts. What the Chosen series does well is to help us imagine these people as if they were real human beings, and consider how they might respond to the amazing events they experienced.
The evangelist Luke himself, at the beginning of his Gospel, actually claims to be transmitting the accounts of eyewitnesses and seems rather intent on accuracy:
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)
Anglican priest and theologian Richard Bauckham, in his brilliant and well-researched work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, offers a corrective view on the origin of the Gospels. Here’s a taste, but if you’re interested in this topic I highly recommend diving into the whole work:
The full reality of Jesus as he historically was is not, of course, accessible to us. The world itself could not contain the books that would be needed to record even all that was empirically observable about Jesus, as the closing verse of the Gospel of John puts it. Like any other part of history, the Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine is knowable only through the evidence that has survived. We could therefore use the phrase “the historical Jesus” to mean, not all that Jesus was, but Jesus insofar as his historical reality is accessible to us. But here we reach the crucial methodological problem. For Christian faith this Jesus, the earthly Jesus as we can know him, is the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, Jesus as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John recount and portray him. There are difficulties, of course, in the fact that these four accounts of Jesus differ, but there is no doubt that the Jesus of the church’s faith through the centuries has been a Jesus found in these Gospels. That means that Christian faith has trusted these texts. Christian faith has trusted that in these texts we encounter the real Jesus, and it is hard to see how Christian faith and theology can work with a radically distrusting attitude to the Gospels.
Yet everything changes when historians suspect that these texts may be hiding the real Jesus from us, at best because they give us the historical Jesus filtered through the spectacles of early Christian faith, at worst because much of what they tell us is a Jesus constructed by the needs and interests of various groups in the early church. Then that phrase “the historical Jesus” comes to mean, not the Jesus of the Gospels, but the allegedly real Jesus behind the Gospels, the Jesus the historian must reconstruct by subjecting the Gospels to ruthlessly objective (so it is claimed) scrutiny. It is essential to realize that this is not just treating the Gospels as historical evidence. It is the application of a methodological skepticism that must test every aspect of the evidence so that what the historian establishes is not believable because the Gospels tell us it is, but because the historian has independently verified it. The result of such work is inevitably not one historical Jesus, but many.
All history — meaning all that historians write, all historiography — is an inextricable combination of fact and interpretation, the empirically observable and the intuited or constructed meaning. […]
I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified. There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting. Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony. Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus. It is true that a powerful trend in the modern development of critical historical philosophy and method finds trusting testimony a stumbling-block in the way of the historian’s autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently. But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony. In the case of some kinds of historical event this is especially true, indeed obvious. In the last chapter we shall consider a remarkable modern instance, the Holocaust, where testimony is indispensable for adequate historical access to the events. We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality.
from Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Chapter 1
Why does our view of the Gospels as transmission of eyewitness testimony matter? It matters for much the same reason that going to specific places in the Holy Land does. The reason the ancient Church preserved these places and wrote these Gospels is because it was convinced that something utterly unthinkable actually happened. Christianity is not a literary story, or vague theological reflection cobbled together by the needs of various “faith communities.” It is a testimony about real events, or it is nothing. To appropriate Flannery O’Connor’s famous quip on the Eucharist, “if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.”
I appreciate that The Chosen show takes the historicity of the Gospels seriously, and as a work of art helps us enter imaginatively into the lives of these people. It seems to really embody St. Ignatius’ teaching on imaginative prayer. We are human, so abstract ideas are not enough to nourish faith. God himself, having made us, knew this and took on flesh and bones to meet us in our poverty. We need to set aside abstracting the Gospel stories into oblivion in order to meet him in his.
In the Holy Land, the Roman Catholic churches have a wonderful obsession with the word hic or “here” in Latin. (In truly Western fashion, I suppose, we like to be exact.) In several, you will find a specific spot underneath an altar with such an inscription. “The Word was made flesh here.” “He was obedient to them here.” “John, the precursor of the Lord, was born here.”
The same motif appears in the liturgies. At the various churches on the holy sites, you don’t celebrate the Mass of the day; rather, you celebrate the Mass of the place. In the church over St. Peter’s house in Capernaum, next to the synagogue where Jesus first taught about the Eucharist, we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi. In the chapel in the cave of the shepherds, we celebrated Christmas. In the chapel on Calvary in the Holy Sepulchre, we celebrated the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. And of course, in the tomb of Christ, we celebrated Easter.
Even in the Gospel readings for these liturgies, the Church reiterates the idea of “here” by inserting little points of emphasis: “in this place,” “on this mountain,” “outside this tomb.”
Some of these locations may be more exact than others, of course. One of my favorite places, and one that is about as accurate as you can find, was this rubble staircase:
These are first-century stone steps that Jesus climbed up from the Kidron valley on his way to Caiaphas’ residence, where he was tried, mocked, and imprisoned. You can see the mount of Olives on the left, in the distance. I imagine these stones cannot have forgotten the touch of his feet.
This pilgrimage reminded me how concrete and tangible the Christian faith is. It isn’t a vague, “spiritual” abstraction, or moral philosophy, a set of timeless principles that can apply anywhere, anytime. Christianity is rather stubbornly factual, historical, concrete. It is news, not literature or ethics. It insists on particular people in particular places at particular moments. It happened: here, here, and here. We don’t begin the story with a poetic “once upon a time” — rather, with mundane, journalistic precision: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” (Luke 3:1-2). As Bishop Barron observed in a recent homily, it would be like saying, “In the first year of the presidency of Joseph Biden, during the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, when Kathleen Hochul had been governor of New York for fourth months and Francis the Pope for eight years…”
It’s bracing, because visiting these places, where things happened, where Mary said yes and Joseph sought shelter and the man stretched out his withered hand and the people ate their fill of the loaves and Peter walked on water, challenges me to consider how I have responded concretely in my own life. Faith, to be real, needs to take on flesh somehow. Where? Here.
I was talking to a friend who went on the pilgrimage, who said that originally she felt no strong desire to go because of her faith in the Eucharist. “Jesus is present in every tabernacle, in every Church around the world,” she told me — and she is right. She felt no need to go to specific places in the Holy Land. She said she had even been willing to sponsor someone else going in her stead. And yet somehow, the priest leading our pilgrimage convinced her to go.
Her perspective changed the moment she laid eyes on the sea of Galilee. It meant so much for her to be there.
True, God is present everywhere, and, for the ancient Churches East and West we know he is present in a particular, dare I say, localized way in the Eucharist. And I think that gift flows directly from God’s fondness for what some people call “the scandal of particularity.” C. S. Lewis explains it best:
To be quite frank, we do not at all like the idea of a “chosen people.” Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search for God, or even that all religions are equally true. It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view. It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about Man. And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree. After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.
(From Miracles, Chapter 14)
Most people will not be given the opportunity to travel to the particular places in the Holy Land, and God in his mercy comes to us wherever we are. But whether one can go or not, it matters that he was conceived there, born there, grew up there, lived there, taught there, healed there, died there, and rose there. In some strange way, the omnipresent, omnipotent Lord makes himself close to us by embracing the limits of space and time. The one “whom heaven and earth could not contain” is hidden for nine months under the heart of a young girl from Nazareth, and then held in her arms.
I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from November 26 to December 5. Going in the midst of a pandemic was a strange experience—Israel shut its borders the day after we arrived—and the sites that usually are swarmed by long lines of pilgrims were almost empty. It was a huge gift to be in those sacred places with space and time to sit and to be.
A few people have asked me, “What was it like to be there?” I’m still trying to answer that question. But something that comes to mind is an experience I think many of us have had in our every day lives. Remember what it was like to make a new friend, who became a good friend? Perhaps it was your roommate in college. You spend lots of time with that person, you have wonderful conversations, you go to class together and stay up late writing papers and studying for exams, and after a while you get the sense that “yes, I know her really well!” But then, your friend invites you to her house for a holiday. You meet her parents, talk with her siblings. You see where she grew up. You walk around her neighborhood. You see old photos on the walls, or childhood drawings. You see whole other sides to her personality emerge while she is around her family. She is still the friend you know, but you suddenly realize how much more there is to her that you did not know.
That is what it was like to be in the Holy Land. I felt this in Galilee especially, but also in Jerusalem. Of course, in some ways, I was already familiar with Jesus. I grew up Catholic. I studied theology in college. I have even spent a lot of time reading and rereading the Gospels. One of my favorite hobbies is to look up research on archeological excavations about biblical places. I pray. But to wake up in Magdala itself, right next to a first century synagogue where Jesus very likely preached, to watch the sun rise over the sea of Galilee where he calmed storms and upon which he walked (and where Peter walked, too, for a few brave moments!), to hear the soft waves on the shore and hear the birds calling overhead, to walk through Capernaum and glimpse the ruins of Peter’s house where four intrepid locals once let down their paralyzed friend on a mat through the roof, and stand on the site of the synagogue where Jesus shocked everyone with talk of gnawing on flesh and drinking blood (John 6), to see the rubble of Chorazin on the lonely hill (“woe to you…” Mt 11:21), to look down from Mount Tabor where Jesus climbed up with Peter, James, and John, to gain a real sense of the distances between places, how long it took him to walk from town to town, to take in the landscape and the hills, to hear the voices of the people speaking Arabic and Hebrew, to see the ancient olive trees in Gethsemane, a sycamore in Jericho like the one Zacchaeus climbed… all of this seemed to make Jesus seem both more real and more mysterious to me. It’s hard to explain, but I do think it is rather like the experience we sometimes have with our good friends. We think we know them well, even if on a vague, abstract level we accept the fact that there are whole parts of them and their history we don’t have the slightest inkling about. But then if we see them suddenly in some new context, strange to us but integral to them, in which a wry humor or fiery temper or local accent suddenly appears that we had never known in them before, we at once experience a deeper understanding of and a greater unfamiliarity with them, a new closeness as well as a greater distance.
I wrote another piece for America Magazine (with the help of my friend St. Thomas Aquinas). Check it out below!
“”In these ambiguous cases, we often feel paralyzed because, though we know we are not consciously choosing something sinful, we nevertheless see the range of possibilities and wonder whether there is a perfect option that we could be missing. But I have come to realize that the idea of the perfect is a deception from ‘the evil spirit,’ as St. Ignatius would say, trying to hinder us from choosing at all.”
In this series of posts during Holy Week, I want to share how much I love St. Edith Stein– or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. These posts are adopted from a paper I wrote my senior year at UD while taking an amazing class on the theology of spirituality with Father Roch Kereszty, O. Cist.
The “Dignity and Vocation of Woman” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein
“A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be… We are trying to attain insight into the innermost recesses of our being… Our being, our becoming does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself. However, all of our being and…
I haven’t written here in a while, although I’ve thought about it a lot. I think the people who read this include mostly friends, friends of friends, former students, parents of former students–folks interested in education. A lot of them Catholic or Christian. Whenever I write, I write with those folks in mind.
The horrifying events in our country in the last few weeks have provoked a lot of thought and reflection in me, and I am still working through how to respond.
One thing I do know is that I have a lot to learn about the injustice and suffering people of color have experienced. So I have been doing a lot of listening. And reading. And praying.
But I’ve realized that saying nothing at all is problematic. I don’t want silent activities to excuse me from speaking the truth.
And yet I want to be aware, to the degree I can, of what I do not know, and to avoid pontificating on experiences I have so much to learn about. I want to learn.
So a good amount of my “social media” posting these days (I mostly just use Facebook) has been sharing helpful voices who have been teaching me a lot.
Here’s what I will say here.
I had a conversation a few years ago with a dear friend about the art of listening. About how good listening does not actually mean just remaining silent while someone else speaks, but that good listening involves responsiveness. In conversations, that good listening can look like making gentle and intentional eye-contact, nodding, and most importantly setting aside the ideas swirling around in your own head, and resisting the urge to use the time the other person is speaking to formulate an answer rather than to receive their communication with open-ness and love. After the other person has finished speaking, good listening can involve gently putting what the other person has said into your own words and submitting your interpretation to her, to see if you have really understood.
In that spirit, I’d like to share with you some voices I have been listening to, who are teaching me a lot. For now I’m not going to do any interpreting or rephrasing, but I will include excerpts. Please do take the time to go read and listen.
“Some Thoughts for those who want to listen” from a black Catholic:
There are many correct responses to our current situation, so you’ll have to pray about that. I know some of you are freaking out about whether or not to post, make art, be silent, reach out, etc. I can’t really answer that for you, but I can offer a small suggestion. One thing you can do is to make an effort not to say any of the above things in a discussion about race, and pray for the Holy Spirit to open your heart and mind. If a BIPOC sister in Christ is opening up to you, she may very well feel terrified while doing so. She may be bracing herself for dismissive comments. Strive to honor her vulnerability.
2. We know you know that racism is evil. What we’re unsure about is whether you believe it really exists, exists to the degree that people say it does, can spot it in yourself and others, and are willing to actively work against it.
3. As a fairly traditional Catholic, I don’t want to have to cite rogue Jesuits or questionably Catholic sources. I cringe at them, too. But many of my admired Trad priests are silent right now. Honestly, that is heartbreaking. It makes me feel emotionally and spiritually orphaned by those I’ve made an effort to revere as Father. I’ve experienced the deep love of Christ in the Eucharist, and God my Father, and at the end of the day, their love is more than enough. At the same time, it helps to know that those who stand in Persona Christi are able to recognize the realities I face and take action. That those who are often willing to “afflict the comfortable” over other matters of morality are willing to take a stand in this one, too.
We each like to think we’re not unduly influenced by our immediate environment and culture. That’s a phenomenon that affects other people, we believe. I’m the kind of person who has carefully considered both sides and has arrived at my positions through the force of reason and logic. Sure, I’ve got biases, but that only matters at the edges. The core of my beliefs are rooted in reason, conviction, and faith.
Maybe that describes you, but I now realize it didn’t describe me. I freely confess that to some extent where I stood on American racial issues was dictated by where I sat my entire life. I always deplored racism—those values were instilled in me from birth—but I was also someone who recoiled at words like “systemic racism.” I looked at the strides we’d made since slavery and Jim Crow and said, “Look how far we’ve come.” I was less apt to say, “and look how much farther we have to go.”
The length of my journey makes me inclined to be more patient with others in this process, as it’s taken me this much time to wake up. We should all be reasonably patient with one another, but I would encourage individuals to not be patient with themselves and to treat these issues with the urgency they deserve. The anger on display over the past week should exhibit the need for change.
I honestly think racism is demonic. I think it’s something we’ve never bothered to contend with seriously in this country. We haven’t done it on a spiritual level. We haven’t done it in terms of our policies to really try to effect change. We’ve done things like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which are good, but I think we still have far to go.
There is this attitude of, “Why aren’t you satisfied, Black people? It’s better than what it was.” That is an unfair question. Why should we be satisfied with anything less than being considered sons and daughters of the King and treated with that same dignity and respect that we deserve? To be satisfied with anything less than that is to be satisfied with anything less than the Gospel, and that’s not what we want.
I’ve tried to apply the biblical principle of being “slow to speak” (James 1:19), but I’ve been convicted recently about joining a particular thread of the (inter)national conversation taking place among those who share my faith in Jesus Christ and want to support truth and justice without compromising on principles peculiar and integral to our faith—principles that they are afraid might be stealthily replaced by rhetoric from other, incompatible frameworks of thinking.
If you believe in original sin (Genesis 3, Romans 5), you have to admit that any sin originates in the human heart. Sin might be aggravated by circumstances, but circumstances don’t cause sin. However, the conclusion that the solution to racism is for people’s hearts to change is true but incomplete. If people are born in sin and people build a society, that society will be structured in ways that reinforce whatever sins dominate the hearts of those who build it. Therefore, even if many people’s hearts change a few generations later, those structures might still perpetuate the problems associated with that society’s “original sins.”
We sometimes think of our literary heroes as springing fully formed onto the landscape, miraculously endowed with talent and genius and grace. But they, like us, were on a journey and often relied on the help of others in the unfolding of their vocations. It was a surprise to me to discover that much of O’Connor’s thought on the nature of fiction and how to write it was in turn shaped by another, rather more obscure literary figure: Caroline Gordon.
In The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, the editor Christine Flanagan gathers an admirable collection that traces the fascinating relationship between two women committed to both their Catholic faith and the craft of fiction. Yet unlike much of O’Connor’s correspondence with others, this one stands out as a kind of student-teacher relationship in which O’Connor, at least in the beginning, is the gifted student and Gordon the seasoned, exacting teacher.
Sometimes during the days leading up to and including Holy Week, I like to imagine what was happening on each day two-thousand years ago in the life of Jesus.
So what happened today, Saturday?
According to John’s Gospel, “six days before Passover” (12:1) and the day before Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the donkey (cf. 12:12-15), Jesus came to Bethany and had a dinner with his disciples, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (whom he had very recently raised from the dead, as told in John 11). At this dinner, Mary “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (12:3).
It’s such a beautiful moment. Mark and Matthew also mention this episode, but seem to place it on Tuesday of Holy Week (more on the chronology here). They identify the dinner as taking place “at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper” (Mk 14:3, Mt 26:6) — perhaps the leper he cleansed earlier as recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels? — and neither Mark nor Matthew identify the woman’s name. Although, ironically, in both their Gospels, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Which it has.
A similar episode of anointing by an unnamed woman occurs in Luke 7:36-50, but not in the context of Holy Week. Rather, this anointing takes place much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, and it is quite different from the anointing in Mark, Matthew, and John. An unnamed “sinful” woman approaches Jesus in the house of a Pharisee and anoints his feet with her tears. When the Pharisee (also, interestingly, named Simon) objects, Jesus tells a parable about two men who owed money to a moneylender, who forgives them both. The one who was forgiven the greater debt loves the moneylender “more,” as Simon begrudgingly admits. Jesus says to him,
“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
There’s a lot of controversy in biblical circles about how–or whether–these different accounts can be reconciled. Eleonore Stump, in her marvelous work on suffering Wandering in Darkness, suggests that perhaps the woman in both accounts is Mary of Bethany. Her first encounter with Jesus occurs in Luke’s story, where she hears about Jesus and, uninvited, boldly approaches him with tears of love and repentance. Her life is changed forever. She becomes a disciple, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.
Lazarus later dies, and both sisters are devastated. Jesus arrives on the scene late. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both tell him. Mary, in particular, seems withdrawn in this story–she does not go out to meet Jesus, but only comes when Martha tells her quietly that the Master is asking for her (Jn 11:20, 28-29). Jesus weeps. And then he raises Lazarus after the man has been dead four days, prompting the amazement and adulation of the people and their willingness to sing “Hosannah” the next day on his entry to Jerusalem—and prompting also the Pharisees and religious leaders’ final determination to kill him.
It is in this context that the Saturday before Holy Week dawns, the day before his entry into Jerusalem (just two miles away). And Mary of Bethany at this dinner with Jesus and her brother, newly restored to her, anoints Jesus (once again). Eleonore Stump comments on this passage in a beautiful meditation you should slow down to read:
The wildness in Mary’s actions on the first occasion of her anointing him, in Simon’s house, is still there in this second anointing, after the raising of Lazarus; but it has a new form now. On this second occasion, Mary’s actions are not scandalous. Rather, they express her understanding of Jesus’ plan, her recognition of his love for her, and her love of him in return; and they are set in the context of her ongoing history of relationship with Jesus. Those who know her story, and that must be virtually all those present on this second occasion of anointing, will understand her action as a re-enactment of her first anointing. Her repeating of her original anointing is, therefore, a recommitment to Jesus, and in a deeper way. Mary picks this way of expressing her reaction to his raising of Lazarus because the as-it-were liturgy of the repetition gives weight to her act. The unrestrained abandon she showed in her original anointing had its loveliness, but it had an out-of-control character about it as well. In the second anointing, because she is choosing in quiet to recreate her earlier action, there is not only control but also power behind the unrestrained character of what she does. (366)
I love the solemnity and power that Professor Stump perceives in this second anointing, and her insight that Mary’s act is liturgical. And isn’t that what we do too, during Holy Week? Solemnly and lovingly re-enact those events so dear to the Church’s memory?
Some biblical scholars have also pointed out that this moment is the anointing of Jesus as Messiah (which, as you know, means “Anointed One”), a title he has often resisted to adopt openly up until the moment when the crowds hail him as son of David and king of Israel. His anointing as Messiah is the same as his anointing “for burial”, as Jesus says to Judas and the others to who object to Mary’s prophetic act.
It is hard to imagine [Mary] being double-minded or uncertain about [Jesus’] love of her after this. […] The surrender of love of her action has an authority about it, as we can recognize by considering how very different the reactions of the onlookers must be this time. The first time Mary anointed Jesus, the other guests must have been a bit afraid of her, wondering what else this crazy woman was likely to do. This time the onlookers will be a little in awe of her. The courage behind her action this time is not desperate; it has strength and discipline in it now. This time the story does not say that she wept when she anointed him. (Ibid)
How beautiful, and how fascinating and human. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus a second time, just days before his death, in act of gratitude and love and dignity. How moved he must have been. She takes him, and everyone in the room, back to an occasion of profound vulnerability for her, in order to re-enact the most precious moment of her life, in celebration of the miraculous resurrection of her brother and in mysterious anticipation of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
In this anointing, then, Mary manifests the glory Jesus planned for her, in both senses of glory. Her standing in her community is here the mirror image of what it was when she anointed his feet the first time. And there is now something luminous and great about her. She is very different now from the frightened but fierce, shamed and shameless person she was when she anointed Jesus the first time. Now she is both powerful and lovely. (Ibid)
I would like to think that in modestly attempting to re-enact or at least remember the specific events of these last days in the earthly life of Jesus, we can join Mary of Bethany in honoring him with trust and gratitude and awe.
So many of my friends who are teachers are trying to find ways to teach their students well through unfamiliar online platforms, and are rather nervous about doing so. Different schools have different expectations about how you need to manage your time online with students. Some students may not even have internet access at home, or devices that work well with remote learning. And I do not want to be yet another voice pontificating on what you should or should not do–so please take or leave these thoughts as you will.
My background is in high school English literature, so a lot of these thoughts are coming from that experience.
There’s nothing like a crisis to get you to focus on what is essential and what is not. A couple of years ago I was asked to help co-teach an Algebra 1 class in March, since sixteen or so of the twenty-four students were failing. We really had to sit down and think about what really matters. What do they need to know in order to have a solid grasp of algebra before the end of the year? What do we need to let go of?
In the time of the coronavirus, this question is all the more poignant. What do kids need to know? What, in your subject, and in an age-appropriate manner, can speak into the abrupt changes in their lives? What wisdom, what love, can you offer?
And what do you have to let go this year? There will be a lot of that.
If you are a science teacher, what things could you be investigating with students that renew and deepen their appreciation of what doctors and medical workers do? In history, what are examples of human beings coming together in remarkable ways to help one another in movements of solidarity and courage?
I’m not saying that you need to bend over backwards in inauthentic ways to make content “relevant”… but, think about how your specific subject area can speak into your students’ lives in this time. I mean, that should always be a question teachers are asking, but the current coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for deeper revelation.
As Flannery O’Connor observed when asked why her characters have to undergo such violent and intense experiences, “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.”
2. No busy work
Maybe this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. The temptation all teachers have at certain times, especially when trying to manage a tricky class situation, is to “keep the kids busy.” There is some merit to this idea (“get to work!” thank you, Harry Wong) … but not much.
The goal is not to lower your standards, but to consider how your assignments are inviting students to spend their time. Are you assigning a project that requires a lot of online research and scrolling? If so, is that the best thing to do right now, when all of your students’ classes are currently conducted online and many people are spending far too much time on the internet scrolling through New York Times articles in order to have a sense of control over an unpredictable and scary situation? (I’m guilty of this, by the way.)
Assigning practice problems (esp. for Math and similar subjects) is often very necessary — we learn by practicing! — but consider how many problems are really needed here.
Really ask yourself: is this just busy work? Will my kids see it as busy work? If I think it’s meaningful and worth doing, how do I help them see that, to the extent that I can?
3. Assignments that lead students away from the computer and towards the people and world around them (with appropriate 6 feet distances!)
As an English teacher, I would be thinking if I were teaching right now, “How could I get my kids to interview their parents or grandparents on pivotal moments in history in their time? How could I encourage them to have meaningful, truth-seeking, and frank discussions that enlarge and deepen their understanding of the past to give them some context and wisdom for the present?”
Maybe, instead of having them type up these interviews, have them do an audio recording of them to minimize screen time.
If they need to do a writing assignment for you, does it HAVE to be typed? Could they write some (shorter) assignments by hand, take a picture of it, and upload it that way? (If their family has only one computer at home but several kids in school, this might be really helpful).
Are there assignments they can do by going outside for walks in their neighborhoods with their family, taking pictures of beautiful things they see?
I’m thinking about those Italians singing out their windows to encourage one another. What are ways my students could make art to add more beauty to the world right now? Could they write music? Poetry? Draw? How might they share their art with you and one another?
How can your class become a place where engagement with the truly and deeply human things is encouraged?
4. Checking in with smaller groups
As a for-credit assignment, make a sign up sheet for them to choose a time to do a short video chat with you once a week (30m or less) in small groups. Depending on how many students you have, a good idea would be to make these smaller chats with 10 students or less, if possible. (When I had 120 students, this would mean 12 different chats a week… that’s a lot. Do what you can.)
These video chats (via Google hangouts or Zoom or whatever) could be opportunities for them to share assignments with you, discuss readings of course… but more importantly it is time for them to see your face, to see that you care for them, that you are involved and engaged.
If your school is trying to have you record lectures and teach that way, talk frankly with your principal about alternatives. Real learning happens in the context of relationships, of real-time interaction. How might you facilitate that with your kids?
5. Be flexible and gentle
Be flexible and gentle– especially with yourself! Just as you would be patient with a student learning something for the very first time, be patient with yourself as you navigate online teaching.
Be honest with your kids — “Hey guys, this is new for me too. We are in this together to see what works and what doesn’t.”
More thoughts to come.
If you are a teacher, what have you been trying? What’s been working well? What hasn’t? Or, if you are a parent, what have you seen your children doing with assignments?
And for all of you who are teachers, trying your best, making mistakes, spending time trying to teach your kids in new and challenging ways, God bless you.