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I’m not a big fan of “faith-based movies,” although my full-time work is in religion, but we did watch a movie in that category, because the star was John Ratzenberger. Like most folks, we know Ratzenberger from his eleven-year run as Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman and barfly on the television series Cheers. Ratzenberger has had an extensive career; among other things, he has made a specialty of providing voices for Pixar films — all Pixar films. He has also been active in Republican politics, and he is a published author, a business entrepreneur, an advocate for training in skilled trades, and a member of the boards of directors at two universities.

DAKOTA DAULBY

DAKOTA DAULBY

Ratzenberger plays the title role in The Woodcarver, a Canadian film that concerns Matthew Stevenson (Dakota Daulby), a teenager who is troubled because his parents, Jack and Rita (Woody Jeffreys and Nicole Oliver) are involved in an acrimonious breakup. The fallout, especially in the form of Jack’s angry outbursts, often lands on Matthew. The boy acts out his frustration by vandalizing the Baptist church that his family attends. In the process, he destroys ornamental work that was done by Ernest Otto, a local craftsman who has been reclusive since the death of his wife.

The pastor of the church reaches an accommodation with the Stevensons in which Matthew won’t be prosecuted if he helps repair the damage he did. The pastor also prevails on a reluctant Ernest to replace the hand-carved planks that had decorated the church. This job puts Ernest in direct competition with Jack’s boss and potential partner, who is in the lumber supply business.

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Matthew does some repairs at the church, but he eventually takes an interest in Ernest and starts working in Ernest’s shop, learning the woodcarving trade. Although Jack objects to this arrangement, it continues and even goes a step further as Matthew leaves home and temporarily moves in with Ernest. In their conversations, Ernest teaches Matthew to judge his actions by asking himself, “WWJD – What would Jesus do?” It’s not so much a religious lesson as it is an ethical one; in fact, Ernest doesn’t discuss religion at all. The boy may not know his theology, but he knows the broad outlines of the kind of life Jesus led, so he has no trouble understanding Ernest’s meaning.

There’s much more to the plot than that and, “faith-based” or not, the movie held our interest to the end. Besides the story line, that’s attributable to good acting on the part of all the principles, including Ratzenberger in a much more understated role than his signature character.
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A homily for Good Friday

March 29, 2013

Judas 2 The last time I served on a criminal jury, the defendant was a corrections officer, a sergeant, from the women’s prison in Clinton.

He was accused — and we found him guilty — of taking sexual advantage of two of the inmates — women whose everyday lives in that institution could be directly affected by decisions he made.

The defense attorney tried to establish that the behavior this officer was accused of would have been out of character. To help make that argument, the attorney called as witnesses two elderly Baptist ministers from a church in Trenton. And these men, who were very solemn and very dignified, testified that they had known the officer for many years, and that he was an active member of the congregation. Among other things, he led a Bible study class during the same period in which he was intimidating and degrading these two women.

I have served on criminal juries several times, and I have always had the same reaction: I don’t want this, this crime, this awful thing, to be all there is to this human being.

Not that I don’t want to find the defendant guilty — because a juror takes an oath to do impartial justice — but rather that I want someone — the attorney, the witnesses, someone — to show me that there is more to the person on trial than this.
I wanted that officer to take responsibility for what he had done, but I also wanted to have some hope for him.

The gospel readings this week — the parts about Judas — reminded me of my experiences as a juror. And this is why:

In 2009, National Geographic published a report about a Coptic manuscript, dating perhaps from the second century and probably translated from an even earlier Greek source. This document — which has been identified as a “Gospel of Judas” — was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. It is one of many apocryphal or false gospels that have surfaced over the past 20 centuries. It changed hands until 2000, when a Swiss dealer turned it over to an art foundation to be restored.

The restored manuscript paints a very different picture of Judas than the one we are accustomed to. It describes him as the best friend of Jesus and says that Jesus asked Judas to turn him over to the authorities in order to begin the process by which Jesus would leave behind his human form and be raised to glory.

The publication of this “gospel” set off a wave of speculation among experts and amateurs about the reliability of the biblical characterization of Judas.

In a way, this speculation was nothing new. The Coptic text just added more impetus to an historic desire among many people, Christian and otherwise, to rehabilitate Judas, to somehow put his bad behavior in the context of a better man, to free him from a level of condemnation and revulsion that society has reserved for very few people, to deny that Judas is hopeless, to show him mercy.

In the absence of very much real knowledge about Judas, all of this discussion leads to no new conclusions. But it does raise the question of why there has been this compulsion to salvage this man.

For sure, some folks are motivated by the fact that the image of Judas in the canonical gospels, the ones included in our Bible, has been used as an excuse to persecute the Jewish people as though they had some historic responsibility for the suffering and death of Jesus. The Church has rejected that idea in no uncertain terms, teaching us that the Jewish people carry no burden because of what Judas or anyone else may have done in the first century.

A more common reason may be a sense of optimism about human nature, a desire to think the best about another human being before accepting the worst. Maybe we don’t want Judas to be hopeless — just as I didn’t want that corrections officer to be hopeless — because Judas and we share the same human nature, and we want to think of human nature as inclined to good, not to evil.

Unfortunately, the evangelists don’t help us with that, because they don’t try to psychoanalyze Judas, or rationalize his behavior, they simply tell us what he did at a certain point in his life — stealing from the apostles common money bag, betraying Jesus — and it isn’t pretty. But that doesn’t mean that we should despair over human nature in Judas or in anyone else.

Pope Francis emphasized this shortly after his election. In his first Angelus, the pope said the following:

“This is Jesus’ message: mercy. On my part, I say it with humility; this is the Lord’s strongest message: mercy.
“The Lord never tires of forgiving us, never! We are the ones who get tired of asking forgiveness.’’

So this pope, who celebrates Holy Thursday liturgy in a prison, seems to be telling us not to engage in wishful thinking about the past — our own past or someone else’s — which we can’t change anyway, but rather to trust that God is merciful no matter what happened in the past.

While we constantly try to be the human being that Jesus was, we are likely to journey toward that goal in fits and starts.
As we do, Pope Francis said, God will be merciful again and again and again so long as we are honest with God and with ourselves, again and again and again.

And, with God’s own mercy as our model, we are challenged to be merciful, to forgive each other, no matter what.

We have a certain reaction, don’t we, when we hear the name “Judas.” But we might profit by remembering that he wasn’t a villain in a fairy tale or a Bruce Willis movie but a real man with hopes and aspirations, a man with talents and skills, with shortcomings and failings – that if he was different from us in some ways, he was like us in at least as many ways.

We don’t know anything about his interior life, but we do know that if there was in him any spark of goodness, he is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

We can’t reconstruct Judas Iscariot’s past, we can’t know what was going on in his mind, but we can pray for his redemption, just as we can pray for other people who have done outrageous things, and just as we can pray for ourselves and for each other when we fall short of being images of Christ in this world.

We know God’s mercy is inexhaustible. If we want it for ourselves, we can ask it for Judas, who is, after all, our brother.

Judas 1

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

This was my homily for Christmas Day:

Flags at half staff.

Moments of silence.

Tolling church bells.

Internet blackouts.

These are things that have contributed to the atmosphere of the past 12 days.

And there was another: Christmas lights gone dark for a night.

Maybe many of us feel a little awkward, a little guilty even, about celebrating the holiday at all

And yet, in a way, nothing could be more appropriate.

Nothing could be more fitting at this moment in our lives together in America than to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and to remember what that birth means.

Some events — and surely an event that took place this month — may contribute to a certain pessimism about our human condition.

It’s the 21st century, we might say to ourselves in one way or another.

It’s the 21st century, and how far have we come if this is the best we can do?

What’s wrong with all of us, if some of us are capable of this, if none of us can prevent such things?

There are some philosophies — both religious and secular — that would answer those questions by saying, “What do you expect?”

“Human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures, and sooner or later they’re going to act on their worst instincts.”

But Christmas says otherwise.

What we celebrate today is that the child born in the manger was, in one person, both a human being and God himself.

We sometimes hear this expressed in negative terms.

We sometimes hear that God lowered himself, to take on the nature of miserable humankind.

But while we recognize that God is greater than any one of us, greater than all of us put together, we don’t have to look on the birth of Jesus — in fact, I suggest that we should not look on the birth of Jesus — as an act of condescension.

On the contrary, the birth of Jesus is an act of love.

 In the birth of Jesus, God shows his love for us — not only because he was willing to obscure his divine nature with the physical appearance of humanity, but because he placed such a value on human nature that he wanted to show that the men and women and children he created were fit to live in his company, fit to coexist in the same person — in the child born in Bethlehem.

God is anything but pessimistic about human beings.

Jesus demonstrated that over and over again — with Matthew, with Zaccheus, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with the woman accused of adultery, with Peter, with the thief dying alongside him on a cross, and with Paul.

He told us about it in those parables that resound through the ages: the father and his two sons, the Good Samaritan, the one lost sheep from the ninety-nine.

Jesus, who looked on human beings with such optimism, encountered in his lifetime Herod and his sons, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and people whose jealousy or paranoia inspired them to criticize him, attack him, ostracize him, eventually kill him.

But even at that extremity, the last thing he said about such people was, “Father, forgive them.”

And while we may not be able to look as deeply into those souls as Jesus did, we take him at his word.

Every now and then, someone — for reasons that we really do not understand — commits an act that might make us ask us just how low human nature can descend.

But we don’t have to look far — and we didn’t have to look far this month — to find far more people, including people sitting in this church, whose heroism and generosity help us to see just how high human nature can soar.

The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are essentially good.

 Christmas — and perhaps this Christmas especially — is a good time to recall that and to celebrate it in the words of the hymn.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”

        

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

In a post last December, I mentioned in passing the widely held fiction that when Christopher Columbus set off on his first voyage, many if not most Europeans thought he would sail his ship off the edge of a flat earth and into oblivion. I was taught this in elementary school, and I have spoken to many people my age who remember being taught the same thing. More recently, I questioned my college students about this, and many of them said they had the same impression about Columbus.

The fact is that it was common knowledge among Columbus’ contemporaries in Europe that the world was round — a point that Nancy Marie Brown makes in her book, The Abacus and the Cross.

This book is not about Columbus; it’s about Gerbert of Aurillac, a French monk who lived in the 10th century. Gerbert had a thirst for knowledge and he became thoroughly schooled in the humanities and in the sciences.

GERBERT of AURILLAC

His scholarship carried him to Spain, where he came in contact with a thriving Arab Muslim culture which had preserved enormous amounts of philosophical and scientific knowledge that had been lost to Europe. Gerbert seems to have had both the curiosity and the capacity of a Leonardo or Michelangelo, and he devoured as much learning as he could. He was engrossed in both mathematics and in music, for example, and in the relationship between the two disciplines. He scrutinized the properties of organ pipes, and he eventually designed a built a prototypical organ that was not driven by water — the common technique of his time — but by forced air.

He didn’t only strive to satisfy his own curiosity. He was an influential teacher whose students included royalty. In the process of carrying out this vocation he introduced Europe to the place system of arithmetic — vertical rows for the ones, tens, hundreds, and so forth — which was much more efficient than the clumsy Roman system and which the western world has been using ever since. In this connection, he also carried back from Spain numerals that had originated in India and that had been adapted by the Muslims — the forerunners of the so-called Arabic numbers we use today. As the title of the book suggests, he learned in Spain to use an abacus board to calculate, and he later designed his own versions and taught others how to use them.

AN ASTROLABE

Also among Gerbert’s interests was astronomy. He learned all about astrolabes, overlaid disks that were used to trace the positions of the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets — and tell time — and about celestial globes, which were three dimensional representations of the apparent paths of the heavenly bodies. He made his own models of these instruments, too, sometimes taking as much as a year to finish one.

As Brown points out, it is clear not only that Gerber, in the 10th century, knew that the world was round, but that Pythagoras determined that around 530 BC, and Erastosthenes figured out how to calculate the circumference of the globe by 240 BC. Some flat-earthers persisted, but by the time of Columbus the point was moot in western Europe. Columbus knew the world was round; his mistake was in underestimating the circumference.

Being a churchman in that era, and one who enjoyed consorting with powerful people, Gerbert inevitably got drawn into the constant political turmoil in Europe, and his fortunes rose and fell along with those of his patrons.

He almost ended on a high note when he was elected Pope Sylvester II in 999 AD.

SYLVESTER on FRENCH STAMP

Even that didn’t turn out so well, because he had to flee Rome for a while along with his patron of the moment, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Sylvester died in 1003.

During his lifetime and for a long time after his death he was the subject of rumors that he consorted with the devil or engaged in sorcery. Ironically, this was because of his pursuit of knowledge in astronomy and mathematics, which in some ignorant minds were associated with the occult.

THEA BOWMAN

The literary scholar and Catholic nun Thea Bowman recalled in the video “Almost Home” that the old folks she knew when she was growing up in Mississippi were steeped in Holy Writ. “I was reared around a lot of old people,” she said. “They knew Scripture. I knew people who could not read or write, but they could quote you a Scripture with the chapter and verse. They would use Scripture when they were tired and a Scripture when they were frustrated, a Scripture to challenge us . . . a Scripture to threaten you, a Scripture to reward you or to praise you or to teach you; I grew up in that kind of world.’’

But these folks, Bowman said in the album “Songs of My People,” didn’t concern themselves with whether or not Jonah and the big fish that swallowed him were real. What these folks were interested in was the truth that was communicated by that story — a truth that had to do with life today — namely, the imperative of accepting the will of God.

For my money, that was an enlightened point of view, a sensible way of approaching the Bible. Everyone doesn’t agree. There are Christians who believe that the Bible means what it says — period.

If there are two contradictory accounts of the creation of human beings, two differing accounts of the death of Judas, four accounts of Easter morning at the empty tomb, and three accounts of the conversion of St. Paul — well, this is the infallible word of God, so they say.

This is one of the issues that is explored in The Rise and Fall of the Bible (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an engaging little book by Timothy Beal, who is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Beal writes a great deal in this book about the Bible-publishing business, which he thinks is on the wane — likely to decline if not disappear in the digital revolution. Even at that, he argues, although there are lots of Bibles being published and sold — in a dizzying variety of formats — the number of people who are actually reading the sacred texts is another matter.

In fact, Beal maintains, some versions of the Bible — loaded with sidebars and commentaries and graphics that tend to push the Chapters and Verses into the background — are not calculated to get people directly engaged with Moses and Isaiah and Mark and Matthew and the rest of that crowd. In many cases, he thinks, the design is to get the reader to accept a particular interpretation of the Biblical content and to overlook — or remain unaware of — the ambiguities and contradictions that are in the very nature of the Bible. These are Beal’s own words:

The icon of the Bible as God’s textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty. Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement.

Beal maintains that the iconic view of the Bible as the single source of religious truth ignores the history of the Bible, which did not exist as a single entity until hundreds of years into the Christian era — and still appears in more than one configuration. Beal predicts that Bible reading — like most other reading — will eventually become a digital experience, and he welcomes that prospect. He sees a healthy similarity between the generations of transmission of the traditions and texts that eventually became the Bible — a process that involved, and still involves, constant re-reading and re-translating and re-interpreting — and the generations to come in which the Scriptures will be subject to the kind of discourse that is already going on in other fields of study on, of all things, the Internet.

Beal points out that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t take the Hebrew Scriptures to have one literal meaning, but engaged in interpretation of a kind that still goes on among Jewish scholars — a process I have listened to with fascination at no less revered a venue than the Western Wall. The author doesn’t see religious faith as a science of certainties but as a struggle that has its intermittent moments of enlightenment and elation and doubt and discouragement. His viewpoint reminded me of an observation made by Albino Luciani — Pope John Paul I — that even the angels ascending to heaven on Jacob’s ladder were taking only one step at a time.

This is Beal’s conclusion:

In kindred spirit, what if we were to think of the Word of God not as bound between two covers of a book but as that endless noise of interpretation, an inconclusive process that we are invited to join? What if that cacophonous hymn, rising up across time and space from digital networks, living rooms, lunchrooms, churches, and bus stops is the living Word of God? An endless, inarticulate din of talking, arguing, reading, and rereading in the library of questions. The Word as we don’t know it. The Word as we live it. Word without end.

The land of the free

September 8, 2010

I started walking into my editor’s office one morning about 35 years ago, but stopped after two or three steps past the door. This man was usually red-faced and loud; he usually would greet me with an obscenity and a coarse reference to my ethnicity — just to let me know he still loved me.

On this morning, I could see that there would be none of that, because he sat behind his desk, ashen-faced, with a New York City newspaper spread out in front of him and, when he was aware of my intrusion, only muttered something that I could not hear.

Nazi youth burning books

Eventually, I learned that he had just read a story about a group of students at a New York college who had reacted to some beef they had with the school administration by burning copies of the campus newspaper. While I didn’t need my editor to explain to me the principle that was at issue, seeing this brash man nearly made physically ill by the very idea of Americans burning a publication brought the weight of it down on me as nothing has before or since.

A great deal has been written and said about the plan to burn copies of the Qur’an at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. It is born of the ignorant idea that there is something inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American — and idea John Adams debunked in the 18th century. John Adams — one of the “founding fathers” we hear so much about these days.

University of Alabama students burn desegregation literature in 1956.

There is nothing inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American, but there is something inherently incompatible about calling ones self an American and burning books. And I wouldn’t be too quick — as some have been — to dismiss the Gainesville congregation as a fringe group. American “values” are being evoked these days by a lot of people who are not associated with that church but whose idea of American values is no less distorted. For every one willing to burn a book, there are plenty who would stifle any viewpoint other than their own. Anyone who hasn’t heard that in the rhetoric of the past two years hasn’t been listening hard enough.

Meanwhile, what comes after burning the Qur’an? Detention camps?

Sometimes we meet people in unexpected ways. For example, I met Lew Brown, who died 52 years ago, while I was struggling to write a sermon yesterday. We homilists are supposed to base our message on the readings of the day, and today’s readings have a consistent theme: Don’t neglect your spiritual well-being while you’re absorbed in accumulating possessions and other forms of material wealth. The first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes (“For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?”); St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Colossae (“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth”); and the Gospel according to Luke (“Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions”).

It’s a message we hear often. In other words: Been there, done that.

And so I thrashed around for several hours, trying to find a way into this homily. I looked back at hooks I had used the last few times these readings came up in the three-year cycle, but they seemed contrived and heavy-handed — as my writing often seems to me after some time has passed. Then, as we like to say in the church, the Holy Spirit put a song in my head: “Life is just a bowl of cherries / Don’t take it serious / Life’s too delirious / You live, you love, you worry so / but you can’t take your dough / when you go, go, go.”

Lyricist Harold Arlen, left, and Lew Brown visit with Eddie Cantor on the set of "Baby Face."

The lyric was a pop iteration of the central theme of today’s readings and, because the tune is still familiar, I decided to use it. When I set out to find out who wrote the lyrics, I found several web sites that attributed it to George Gershwin who, of course, was not a lyricist. I also found it attributed to Ira Gershwin, who was. That didn’t sound right to me, so I persisted, and I found out that the lyric was written by Lew Brown for the Broadway review “George White’s Scandals of 1931.” (Pay attention, boys and girls. You can’t trust internet sources.)

When the song is performed now, it usually seems to recommend a carefree life, but Brown wrote it at the onset of the Great Depression when it had a different connotation. As is frequently the case with popular lyrics, these at least touch on pretty serious ideas: “The sweet things in life / to you are just loaned / so how can you lose / what you’ve never owned?”

RAY HENDERSON

Like Irving Berlin, Lew Brown was born in the latter 19th century in tsarist Russia, and like Berlin, his family brought him to New York City when he was child. Brown began writing songs when he was still attending Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and by 1912, when he was 19 years old, he had his first hit, “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town,” and he had another in 1916, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World (and I Was the Only Boy)”. The scores for both were written by Albert von Tilzner, with whom Brown collaborated on several other tunes. “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” became an American standard, and it would be only one of many for which Brown — either solo or as a collaborator — provided the words. He teamed up for a long time with composer Ray Henderson, and together they wrote the song that prompted this blog and one of my favorites, “The Thrill is Gone,” which was also written for the “George White Scandals.” Other songs he had a hand in were “The Beer Barrel Polka,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),” “Sonny Boy,” “It All Depends on You,” “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.”

Lew Brown — who was born Louis Brownstein — died in 1958, never expecting to help a tin-horn deacon preach the gospel. Thanks, Lew . . . for everything.

THOMAS AQUINAS

“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

Thus spake the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas was a master of the syllogism, and his idea of scientific scrutiny was that conclusions had to be based on premises which themselves were either self evident or had been objectively demonstrated. I thought of Aquinas when I wrote a post yesterday about Albert Einstein, who was in the business of putting together premises and conclusions. In a sense, Aquinas and Einstein came at the question of the origins of the universe from opposite directions. Aquinas was a man of faith, but he believed — and sought to demonstrate in his “Summa Theologica” — that a person could arrive at the existence of a First Cause — God — through reason alone.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Einstein didn’t believe in God in the sense that Jews and Christians and Muslims do. In that sense, he didn’t believe in a god at all, no matter how hard religious folks try to hear him saying otherwise. However, Einstein’s  lifetime of inquiry into the physical laws that govern the universe did lead him to speculate — forgive me if I don’t express this precisely — that somewhere beyond the seemingly endless questions about the universe must lie some force that governs it.

I recently discussed all this — Aquinas, Einstein, God, the origin of the universe — with, of all people, the actress Sandy Duncan.

SANDY DUNCAN

By “of all people,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything surprising about Sandy Duncan discussing such things. In fact, I gathered she gives such things quite a bit of thought and has had provocative conversations about them with her two adult sons. I only meant that I would be unlikely to talk to Sandy Duncan at all, except that she was scheduled to appear in a new play that examines the outfall that can occur when science and religion collide head-on. The actress was to play the title role in “Creating Claire” by Joe DiPietro, but she took ill, withdrew from the cast, and was replaced by another talented performer, Barbara Walsh.

JOE DiPIETRO

DiPietro’s play begins previews tomorrow night at the cradle of new theatrical works, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The title character, Claire Buchanan, is a teacher but now works as a docent at the Museum of Earth and Sky in upstate New York. She leads visitors on the Origins of Life Tour, reciting a script that focuses on the evolution of species. The script is the brainchild of Victoria Halstead, museum director and friend of Claire – in that order, as things work out. Victoria encourages a docent to “personalize” the presentation as long as the glosses are innocuous, but Claire is no automaton, especially when a reference in the script to “random mutation” complicates her attempt to understand a fact of her own life. Claire and her husband, Reggie, have an autistic 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, and Claire has been considering how the process described by Charles Darwin could result in an individual such as Abigail. Eventually, Claire’s contemplation creeps into her talks at the museum as she suggests to visitors that the processes of nature may have been – gasp! – designed. Once that genie is on the loose, there is hell to pay, as it were.

LYNN COHEN

Victoria — to be played by Lynn Cohen — puts her own belief in science and her vision for the museum ahead of friendship when she learns about Claire’s transgression. Reggie – a high school teacher who has considered his bond to Claire a “mixed marriage” only to the extent that he is an atheist and she is an agnostic — is stunned by this change of Claire’s train of thought. Disagreements over Abigail’s status have already revealed strains in the couple’s relationship; Claire’s public speculation about a “designer” pushes those strains to the breaking point.

This play, however, is not a death struggle between science and religion so much as an examination of intellectual openness and honesty. Claire is willing to at least entertain an idea that had been anathema to her but does not insist that others accept that idea. Victoria and Reggie opt to defend their “rightness,” as Duncan called it, regardless of the professional or personal consequences. The implications for contemporary political discourse may be painfully obvious.

Believe in God or not, but in the end it is Claire, and not the more “scientific” Victoria and Reggie, who seems to have heeded Einstein: “Only daring speculation can lead us further, and not accumulation of facts.”

I am usually a proponent of the separation of church and state, agreeing wholeheartedly that both government and organized religions are better off if they keep their entanglements to a minimum.  I do like some common sense with my coffee, however, and I don’t find any in the case of Donna Kay Busch, the Pennsylvania woman who was barred from reading five verses from the 118th Psalm to her son’s kindergarten class.

Getty Images

These are the verses, from the King James Version, that Mrs. Busch proposed to read:

O, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: because his mercy endureth forever. / Let Israel now say that his mercy endureth forever. / Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth forever. / Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth forever. / Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth foever. / … The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.

Mrs. Busch – an Evangelical Christian – said she chose these verses because they made no reference to Christianity. Here’s the explanation from the Christian Science Monitor:

The reading was to be part of an in-class assignment in which the children were invited to present important aspects of their lives to their classmates. As part of this “All About Me” week-long assignment, Busch’s son, Wesley, made a poster displaying photographs of himself, his hamster, his brothers, his parents, his best friend, and a construction-paper likeness of his church.

One part of the “All About Me” curriculum included inviting parents to “share a talent, short game, small craft, or story” with the class that would highlight something about their child. Busch said her son asked her to read the Bible to the class, an activity she and her son shared together at home.

Mrs. Busch told the kindergarten teacher in advance what she proposed to read, and the building principal objected to it on the grounds that reading a religious text to public-school children who were required to be present would amount to state-sponsored endorsement (“establishment”?) of one religion over others.

A federal judge and then a federal appeals court upheld the principal’s decision, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has, in effect, done the same by refusing to hear Mrs. Busch’s appeal.

I like a dissenting opinion from one of the appeals court judges who argued that the school had invited students and their families to participate in a program by expressing what they thought was important in their lives. Barring members of this family from expressing this particular aspect of their lives seems unfair, hypocritical, and overzealous. I wonder exactly what the school system and the courts thought would be the result if Mrs. Busch had read those verses to the kids? Which does more damage – reading a few verses of Hebrew scripture to children, perhaps with an explanation that Judaism and Christianity are two of many religions in the world, or pretending that a curriculum is preparing children to live in the wider world without educating them to the fact that religious expression is a major factor out there?

You can read the Monitor’s story on this case by clicking HERE.

My homily for Christmas 2009

December 24, 2009

"The Manger" by American photographer Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934).

The following is my homily for Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 2009. The theme was prompted by Tania Mann’s article, “A Heart of Flesh,” in her on-line journal “This Very Life.”

The other night I watched an episode of the TV series “Dragnet” that was originally broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1953.

“Dragnet” was one of the first police shows on television, and it based all of its stories on cases in the files of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In this episode, two detectives investigate the disappearance of a statue of the infant Jesus from the manger scene in a church in a largely Mexican neighborhood.

The pastor of the church tells the detectives that the statue had almost no monetary value, and that he could replace it.

But it had been in the manger every Christmas for decades, and the people of this poor parish would find a new figure hard to accept.

The statue was returned in time for Christmas Day, and many Christians probably appreciate how important that was to the congregation.

Many families, like those parishioners, consider their manger scene a part of their tradition, and no matter how chipped or faded the figures may become, they are unpacked every year and put in their accustomed place.

Tradition plays a part in many Christmas observances, but this desire for continuity in the portrayal of the nativity is especially fitting.

Because the practice of erecting a manger scene as we know it, is itself 786 years old.

It was introduced by Francis of Assisi for a mass to be celebrated in Greccio, a hill town in Central Italy, at midnight on Christmas of the year 1223.

Francis used living figures, including animals, but his tableaux was the model from which the manger scenes of today have evolved.

He got permission from Pope Honorius III to create that display because he wanted to focus attention – including his own, he said – on the circumstances in which God entered the world in the form of the infant Jesus.

He wanted to be able to visualize – and help other people visualize – the humility with which God, in the person of Jesus, began the journey that would lead to the salvation of the world.

As a matter of faith, Francis and other Christians knew that God had put aside his divine nature – had covered it up, so to speak – and had taken on not only the appearance but the nature of a human being.

Francis and other Christians knew intellectually that that was an astounding act of love.

But Francis wanted to see for himself, and to show others, the full depth of that love that God had for his people – God, who did not come to save his people by overwhelming them or terrifying them, but by embracing them.

Francis wanted to experience that love – wanted others to experience that love – on more than the level of theology and philosophy.

And so he wanted to contemplate that improbable scene in which the Creator of the Universe, the source and cause of all that is, makes himself present not only in the form of a human being, but in the form of a poor, helpless infant – no wealthier, no stronger than the least of his own creatures.

That child, when he had grown to manhood, would say that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends, and Francis knew that act of love began in the manger where God first gave himself – literally – to mankind.

Pope Benedict recently blessed hundreds of images of the infant Jesus that were brought to St. Peter’s Square by families preparing for Christmas.

And as he gave the blessing, the pope recalled the inspiration of St. Francis.

“The crib is a school of life,’’ the holy father said, “where we can learn the secret of true joy. This does not consist in having so many things, but in feeling loved by the Lord, (and ourselves) becoming a gift for others ….”

It is said that a teacher never knows where his influence ends, and St Francis, more than 700 years ago, cannot have known what he started.

But he taught his lesson well. It reverberates in our own time, as it did in the words of the late Cardinal Basil Hume:

“The birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered.

“If I want to look on the face of utter love – if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved – I … look on the image of the child lying in the manger.”