Men from the East Bearing Gifts

December 25, 2012 at 11:42 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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The following is the revision of an article I published in a Catholic feminist newsletter in early 2002, soon after the bombing of the World Trade Center. In light of the deaths of twenty children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut just before Christmas this year, it is perhaps even more to the point in 2012 than it was in 2002.


One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time.  Back in 2001, the editor of a newsletter asked me to do an article about Christmas. Ho-ho-ho. But the request came on October 11, 2001, when my mind was filled with bombed skyscrapers and fear of anthrax.

In such a conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a consumerist construct. Fundamental to the Christian tradition is the understanding that Christmas and Easter are different manifestations of the same mystery. Jesus himself may have escaped Herod, but those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a few days, but ultimately, there’s no separating life and death.

Even the kings themselves, those wise men from the East, are implicated in this part-ho-ho, part-horror story.  In Matthew’s rendering of it we learn not only that these men brought gifts with them but what those gifts were: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.  Gold and frankincense fit nicely with the spirit of the season, thank you very much, but myrrh is another matter.  John the Evangelist makes the connection clear when he writes of Jesus’ burial: “So (Joseph of Arimathea) came and took away his body.  Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight”  (19:38-39).

A week or so after the September 11 attacks, at the end of an interview, NPR’s Terry Gross asked the writer Karen Armstrong if she had any last thoughts to leave with the audience.  Armstrong replied that although people might not appreciate her approach immediately, eventually she hoped they would come to think of the bombings as a revelation.  If we consider the suicide bombers to be our own version of men from the East bearing gifts, what the nature of that revelation might be becomes clearer.  We are more interested in the gold and the incense, but the myrrh is under the tree too.

Years ago Thomas Berry, the cosmological prophet, remarked in a lecture at Grailville, in Loveland, Ohio, that Christianity had become preoccupied with the crucifixion in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one European out of every three.  I took him to mean that this preoccupation was some sort of distortion; only years later did I realize that the need of many of us 70s liberal Catholics to distance ourselves from the morbidity of the cross was another form of distortion, or rather, another moment in the centuries-long Christian oscillation between resisting the cross and embracing it.

During the heyday of the women’s movement, Catholic feminists joined their Protestant sisters in struggling with the meaning of the cross. In Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects the Anselmian argument that God, like an offended medieval warlord, required the death of Jesus as retribution for sin.  But she argues that this is not the only possible interpretation of the cross.  For Crysdale, “embracing travail” means struggling, along with Jesus, against the evil that is part of human existence, not from a desire to sacrifice our selves, but to heal and free those very selves.  In mr book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, I explore the writings of four post-war American Catholics who know very well that there is no escaping loss, even if our financial resources exceed those of our immigrant forebears.  Embracing the death of Jesus is one way to work through those losses to new hope and understanding.

In many respects, I am a New Yorker.  My parents began taking me from Philadelphia to Manhattan as a small child, sharing with me their modernist passion for the bright lights and the big city.  I love every minute of the fourteen years I have lived in New York, identifying with its energy and relishing the sense that everything I want is a subway ride away.  During our decade in Berkeley, when I tried I try to explain my homesickness to my California colleagues, I invariably spoke of my longing for skyscrapers.

The World Trade Center was like a Christmas tree, a tall, glittering fantasy of promise and possibility.  I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life there, at The Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of World Trade Tower #1, celebrating my graduation from seminary with my family, my future husband, and some of my closest friends.

But after 9/11, the World Trade Center didn’t look like a Christmas tree any more.  The shards of building that were left standing looked more like a severe, modernist crucifix with its jagged ribs piercing the sky. Of course, another skyscraper will soon be completed near the place where the Golgotha-like remains of the previous towers once stood. And who knows?  I may even come to love it.  But I will never love it as optimistically as I did its predecessors.  .

Again this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, a huge Christmas tree is glowing in Rockefeller Plaza, and people like me are looking up at it, singing carols.  Together these men and women will recreate an image of peace and harmony, of new birth, and the promise of salvation.  But if they get as far as Balthazar’s verse of “We Three Kings,” they will remember something else, something 9/11 taught us all too well:

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume/ Breathes a life of gathering gloom./Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,/ Sealed in a stone cold tomb.”

Perhaps 9/11 has made us better able than we once were to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.


Grieving the Loss of Children II

December 17, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Bill Quigley, law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, makes the point of my previous post in much more detail than I do; see  “Remember All the Children, Mr. President,” on the Common Dreams webpage.

Grieving the Loss of Children

December 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Like you, I have been taken up with Friday’s massacre of twenty children and six adults in a school in Newtown, CT., by a mentally ill young man using automatic weapons. The pictures of those dead six-year olds is enough to break your heart. Clearly, this event has devastated that town and our whole nation.

It sounds, too, as if this one (as distinguished from the previous three gun massacres Barack Obama has presided over) may result in some kind of gun control legislation. Dianne Feinstein, my senator when I lived in California, has stepped up, and even some gun rights advocates, like West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin, seem to be advocating more protections. I certainly hope they make headway. Legislation extending gun rights in many states in recent years has been truly scary; if the Federal government can use the Connecticut tragedy to pass  laws to reverse some of this madness, maybe there will be one good outcome from this awful event.

Furthermore, the conversation about the needs of the mentally ill seems to be advancing as a result of the deaths in Newton. All to the good.

I have to say, though, that there are people around the world– families in Pakistan, for example–who could be excused for thinking that people in the United States care a whole lot more about some children than others. As Chris Williams reports in an article on the webpage of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US unmanned drone strikes, the vast majority of them during the Obama presidency, have killed 176 Pakistani children since such attacks started in 2004. If you have a moment, take a look at the pictures of the dead Pakistani kids on that webpage after you’re done looking at the dead six-year-olds from Newton. And then consider this: unlike the tragedy in Connecticut, these deaths are unlikely to result in drone-control legislation.

I know, I know. Comparisons are odious. Why bring this up now when we are mourning the deaths of our own beloved innocents?

The only answer that comes to mind is this:  when else are we likely to think about it, about the nearly nine times as many Pakistani children whose deaths our taxes have funded since 2004, if not when we are grieving for twenty kids just like them much closer to home?

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