Men from the East Bearing Gifts

December 21, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Catholicism, war and violence | 2 Comments
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As I was going through stacks of  articles and reviews that I’ve published in years past, I came across this one, written soon after 9/11 and published in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. I lived in Berkeley, California at the time. I consider it one of the best things I ever wrote, and unfortunately, much of it can be applied to this Christmas as well, with different men from the East–and the West–bearing new but no less grief-laden gifts.

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One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. The next issue of one publication I write for is coming out in December, so the editor wishes I would write something about Christmas. Ho-ho-ho. But today is October 11, 2001, and everywhere I turn I find bombed skyscrapers and fear of anthrax.

In this conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a secular 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 all those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a while, 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, the writer Karen Armstrong had a conversation about Islam with NPR’s Terry Gross. At the end of the interview Gross asked 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.

……………………………….

“American Catholic” is a complex term, amalgamated from the optimism of America’s Enlightenment origins and the suffering of immigrant Catholicism. 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.

In recent years Catholic feminists have joined their Protestant sisters in struggling with the meaning of the cross for Christianity, and particularly for women. In Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker argue that the cross can be of no further use for women because it leads them to identify with victimization and self-sacrifice.

In Embracing Travail:Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects, as do Brown and Parker, 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 my own research, I find that some American Catholics, at least, 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. As an adult, I loved every minute of the decade I lived in New York, identifying with its energy—at last I was someplace where being in a hurry isn’t a failing! —and relishing the sense that everything I could want was a subway ride away. When I try to explain my perpetual homesickness to my California colleagues, they who are forever on their way to the redwoods or the Pacific, I invariably speak of my longing for skyscrapers, the ones in Philadelphia, but even more, those in Manhattan.

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 like a lot of other Americans, I didn’t pay enough attention to the first bombing of those towers in 1993. When I called the Windows on the World the following year, to see about reserving space for my wedding dinner, I got a tape announcing that due to the recent terrorist attack, the restaurant was closed.

Today when I look at photographs of what remains of the World Trade Center, it doesn’t look much like a Christmas tree at all. The shards of building that are left standing look to me a lot more like a severe, modernist crucifix with jagged ribs piercing the sky. I imagine they won’t look that way for long, though. Given the wealth and arrogance of this country, skyscrapers will probably rise again on that bombed Golgotha-like landscape. And who knows? I may even come to love them. But I will never love them as optimistically as I did their predecessors. .

Even this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, it is likely that 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 our recent history has 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 this year we will be better able than we have been in the past to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.

 

Contextualizing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Land, Contested Memory

July 19, 2014 at 10:26 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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(Apologies to the regular followers of my blog if you receive this post twice; when I published it the first time, it was mailed out to you but did not appear on my actual blog page, so I am posting it again.)

 

It is my hope that this review essay will shed some light on the current round of seemingly endless hostilities between the State of Israel and various Palestinian groups. The post is longer than usual;  I trust it will reward your perseverance.

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 Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe. By Jo Roberts. (Toronto, Ontario: Dundurn, 2013). Paper. 304 pp. $24.99. Kindle, $8.69.

As a member of the post-World War II generation, my Holocaust learning followed a fairly standard trajectory: watching The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959, Holocaust with Meryl Streep in 1978, Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985. Then, in graduate school, I read that Catholics constituted 60 percent of the Nazi army and that after the war the Vatican used “ratlines” to sneak Nazis to Latin America. I concluded that, as a Catholic, I was not entitled to an opinion about the State of Israel.

I suppose I considered my silence penance for centuries of Christian antisemitism. But as I read Jo Roberts’ stunning new book, Contested Land, Contested Memories, I began to wonder if my motives were entirely virtuous. Perhaps they included naiveté. Or romanticismhow comforting it is to believe that unambiguous good has triumphed over absolute evil! Or maybe it was sloth that underpinned my stance, sloth in the face of an unbelievably complex situation.

As its subtitleIsrael’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophesuggests, Roberts’ book includes the Holocaust frame within which I and millions of others understand contemporary Israel. But it expands that frame to include what the current million-and-a-half Palestinian Israelis, Palestinians in exile and those in the Occupied Territories call the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell them as a result of the 1948 War of Israeli Independence. Included as well are the ghosts of that catastrophewhatever memories remain after Jewish Israeli attempts to eradicate them from national consciousness, as well as the ghosts of that other catastrophe, the destruction of European Jewry. The words Shoah and Nakba both mean catastrophe.

Underlying Roberts’ analysis is a scholarly conversation about collective memory, initiated by the sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late nineteenth century and continued by his student, Maurice Halbwachs. Collective memory is a memory or memories shared by a group that contributes significantly to the group’s identity. Halbwachs expanded the concept with a second notion, that of “instrumental presentism.” In this case, groups not only remember, but their leaders choose which past events should be remembered and which forgotten in order to make the past useful to the needs of the present. By the late twentieth century, scholars such as Peter Novick were applying collective memory directly to the Holocaust, a fitting use since Halbwachs himself died in Buchenwald in 1945.

Initially, Roberts uses collective memory to explore the ways Jewish and Palestinian Israelis have understood 1948. For the Palestinians, the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war meant the expulsion of most Palestinian Arabs from the new State of Israel; for those who remained, it meant the destruction of their society, their culture, entire villages, the land itself. For Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, 1948 meant that David had triumphed over Goliath, the vastly stronger Arab League.

Because the Palestinian Arabs lost the 1948 war (and several thereafter), Jewish Israelis had the upper hand in the political reconstruction of the collective memory of 1948. In the decades that followed, Israeli textbooks presented the Israeli defense forces as having had nothing to do with the seven hundred thousand plus refugees who poured out of what became the State ofIsrael during and after the war; the Palestinians simply chose to flee. And in those same years, Israel eradicated as many traces of Palestinian culture as they could, bulldozing towns and villages and mosques, constructing high-rises over cemeteries, replacing Arabic geographical names with Hebrew ones.

Yet the Nakba was not the only catastrophe rewritten in the years after 1948. For me, as a Christian, one of the most stunning sections of Contested Land, Contested Memory is Roberts’ narrative of David Ben-Gurion’s using the 1961 Eichmann trial to make the Holocaust the center of a new, unified Israeli identity. Who knew that Zionists, before 1961, stereotyped Holocaust survivors as victims or Nazi collaborators? Who knew that Sabra (socialist) Zionists looked down on Mizrahi (Arab) Jews for their Arabness and their excessive religiousness? Yet after the Eichmann trial, Mizrahis felt more at home in Israel and Zionists and Holocaust survivors came together around the Holocaust as the foundation of the State of Israel. In the 1960s, victimhood became central to Jewish Israeli identity and extermination by Palestinians and other Arabs a constant threat. As the Zionists had argued, Jews are safe only in a Jewish state.

Roberts makes clear that such transference of collective trauma is by no means limited to Israelis. Throughout history traumatized peoples have attempted to reconstruct their identity by obliterating the collective memory of the Other; the Shoah and two millennia of Christian anti-semitism led to the attempted obliteration of the collective memory of the Nakba. But the ghosts of collective trauma refuse to be obliterated; they live on, in this case, in Arab Holocaust denial, guerilla attacks, and suicide bombings. One catastrophe begets another.

Writers besides Roberts have used the discourse of collective memory to understand the transmission of catastrophe. In The Shadow of a Year (2013), a book of particular interest to me as a descendent of Irish Catholic immigrants, John Gibney traces massive misrepresentations of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 for Irish Protestant as well as Irish Catholic political purposes from just after the rebellion to the Northern Ireland Troubles of the last sixty years. Irish Protestant convictions that Catholics had massacred hundreds of thousands of their forebears in 1641 contributed directly to the catastrophe of an Gorta Mór, the GreatPotato Famine of the 1840s. And who knows what shadows—ghosts—of ostensible Irish Catholic barbarism hovered around the May arrest and questioning of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams for a purported political assassination in 1972?

Yet Contested Land, Contested Memory distinguishes itself from other studies of collective memory on several counts. To begin with, Roberts’ fine writing makes the discourse of collective memory accessible in ways that scholarly studies often fail to do. And because the catastrophes that concern her happened fairly recently, Roberts is able to use the memories of actual Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to frame her subject matter. Stories of Jewish Israelis discovering with horror that their home or vacation cottage stands on the site of an obliterated Arab dwelling, or of Palestinians’ attempting, often without success, to return to a beloved village or mosque, bring the ghosts of the Nakba to life.

For Roberts, as the book’s title suggests, the land itself is central to her story. The prolific vines overgrowing an abandoned and deteriorating Arab structure on the book’s cover and spine alert the reader to this from the outset. Narratives of the destruction of towns andvillages (and sometimes the murder of their inhabitants) during the 1948 war are sobering enough, but to read of continuing efforts to remove all traces of Palestinian material culture throughout the more than a half century of Israel’s existence is genuinely shocking.

Equally unforgettable is Roberts’ documentation of the Jewish Israeli remaking of the land itself, not merely the structures on it, in the interest of obliterating Arab traces. After Independence, we learn, Palestine’s traditional rural landscape was transformed into a socialist-modernist one: tens of thousands of olive trees, the signature tree of the Arab-Palestinian culture and the source of its two primary exports, were uprooted, even as whole forests of other trees were planted tomake the land look more European.

In her close attention to the land, Roberts actually expands John Gibney’s historiographic portrait of the shadows of Irish catastrophe. Two decades before the Potato Famine, as they were mapping Ireland, the British Ordnance Survey transliterated the names of geographical locations across Ireland from Gaelic to English, a language many of the Irish did not even speak, never mind read. This is what colonizers do, Roberts observes.

Some of the conclusions Roberts draws in Contested Land, Contested Memory are discouraging. The State of Israel has moved steadily to the right politically since the election of Menachim Begin’s Likud party in the 1970s. The identification of Mizrahi Jews with Likud because of previous discrimination they had suffered and the arrival of a million Jewish Russians in the 1990s has contributed to an increasingly racialized society. In 2012, 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, a group whose numbers have exploded in recent years, supported barring Palestinian Israelis from voting, while 71 percent supported their forced “transfer” (explusion) from Israel. Today, more and more, as Roberts observes, “Palestinian Israelis are the intruding stranger in the Jewish homeland,” the Other who maintains the margins of Jewish Israeli identity. Connections with the most recent outbreak of hostilities are obvious.

Nonetheless, Roberts finds reason for hope. Already in the 1980s, Jewish Israeli scholars known as “the New Historians” had begun heroically documenting the other origin of the State of Israel, the Nakba. Since then, groups such as the Jewish Israeli NGO Zochrot (Hebrew for “remembering”) have formed to bring forward the hidden history of the Nakba. For Zochrot, a major effort is leading Jewish Israelis on tours of villages and urban neighborhoods that had Arab populations sixty years ago. Scholars and journalists also continue to write about these unacknowledged ghosts. For Roberts, the very nature of these efforts “allows for a glimmer of hope, the potential for…’multiple narratives with multiple beginnings’ to tell the history of this land.” Reconciliation is possible only when the ghosts of both catastrophes are acknowledged and a new history constructed from them.

 

Two events occurred as I was reading Contested Land, Contested Memory. One was the visit of Pope Francis to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. The pope’s decision to go from Jordan straight to Bethlehem, his references to the “State of Palestine,” and his unscheduled stop at the barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, while making him unpopular with some, hint at a shift in the global view of Israel and Palestine. A reference to “competing narratives” in a New York Times article about the pope’s visit also suggests that long-buried memories are resurfacing.

But even as Pope Francis was visiting Israel, the 9/11 Museum opened at the World Trade Center Site in Lower Manhattan. Certain aspects of the museum are contentiousthe presence of a gift shop, and the location of the remains of unidentified victims below ground, for example. But overall, the museum stands as the representation of yet another unambiguous narrative, the barbaric terrorist attack on innocent Americans of September 11, 2001.

Yet perhaps because of my reading of Roberts, it came to me that I had virtually no knowledge of why the terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers. When I asked others about this, nobody knew. They were just terrorists, my friends replied; it’s what terrorists do.

But with a little effort, I learned that al-Qaeda had, indeed, stated its reasons for the attack. Already in 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a fatwa to “kill the Americans and their allies…in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca) from their grip…” And in a 2002 letter, bin Laden described the U.S. support of Israel as the motivation for 9/11. Later he claimed that the idea of destroying the towers had first occurred to him when he witnessed Israel’s bombardment of high-rise apartment buildings during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war.

The mass killing of civilians can never be justified, and other motives besides the ones mentioned here doubtless contributed to the 9/11 attack. But as Jo Roberts articulates powerfully in Contested Land, Contested Memory, catastrophe begets catastrophe. Only when communities face their ghosts and reconcile with one another can they prevent the next catastrophe, the one that is otherwise surely on its way.

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.

Men from the East Bearing Gifts

December 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is the revision of an article I wrote just after the bombing of the World Trade Center. I offer it in honor of the recent tenth anniversary of that bombing, and of the feast of the Holy Innocents which is celebrated today.

One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. Back in 2001, an editor asked me to write an article about Christmas: ho, ho, ho. But the request came on October 11, 2001, when my mind was filled with bombed skyscrapers and the 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 heydays of the women’s movement, Christian feminists struggled 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 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 fifteen 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.

A longer version of this article appeared in the December 2001-February 2002 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeast Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

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