Sunday, December 27, 2015

It Takes a Village

Last week I was talking to a woman about how fractured and isolated the world is now. My grandparents had the same set of friends from the 1940s. These friends lived next door to one another, shared meals and holidays, raised children together, vacationed together, retired together. They had weekly gatherings, and their kids wandered through each other’s homes. Today, that sort of friendship is almost impossible to manage. Friends live in separate neighborhoods; neighbors barely know one another. Kids aren’t allowed to play outside on their own, exploring the neighborhood. Families often move cities and states. More often, families split up; divorce is so rampant that it is an accepted, common fact of American life. We claim to be more independent, but really, we’re just more isolated. 

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The Gospel reading is the story of Mary and Joseph losing Jesus and finding him in the Temple. They didn’t realize he was missing right away because they were in a caravan and assumed he was with the group. Today, this story would be an example of neglect; they should have had their eyes on him at all times. CPS should be called. Yet at that time, it was perfectly obvious that the whole caravan was responsible for all of the children. And Jesus thought it was obvious that he belonged in the Temple. The Holy Family was indeed holy, and strong, but there was a larger family raising Jesus. He had relatives like Elizabeth, John, and James, and he had his community of Nazareth, his rabbis at the Temple, his disciples during his ministry. 

It takes a strong community to properly form a person. And a lack of community will also form a person, to society's detriment. Community means more love, more support, more resources. It gives a person a broader sense of self and a stable place in the world. It makes home more than a house or immediate family. It teaches how to live in harmony with different people. It passes on time-tested lessons, values, and traditions. Each family need not reinvent the wheel; each person need not navigate the world alone. Community bears our burdens; it stops us from falling into our individual errors. 

In efforts to be free and liberated, we as a society have torn apart community. We create communities for ourselves, but they are self-selected groups of like-minded or like-aged people, and we reserve the right to leave at any time. There is desire for community, but no one wants to commit. Family is spread out, divided, broken, transient. Instead of a caravan, we are lone rangers. Isolation breeds confusion, depression, error. We need to expand and solidify family. We need to strengthen our bonds and responsibilities to our relatives, our neighborhoods, and our church families. Communities are always easy or helpful; they can be demanding, frustrating, exhausting. But the work of the whole is stronger than the work of the one. It is not good for man to be alone.

Friday, December 18, 2015

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 108)

1. The new Star Wars movie is out. While I'm not the biggest Star Wars fan, the franchise does contain one of the best movie spoilers of all time, so I'm trying to avoid spoilers until I see the film later this weekend. It's like a Harry Potter book release all over again.

2. I'm not alone in my fears.

3. Star Wars mania is really getting out of control.

4. Now, everyone has their favorite character: Hans, R2D2, Chewy. But I'm a dork who always liked Luke best. This has caused some worrying since he is suspiciously absent from the promos. So let me just say this: there has been growing fan theories that the Empire was right, that they were a stable force trying to stop religiously-trained terrorists. While it's a far-stretched theory, if Luke turns out to be evil, I'll be all aboard the Empire train.

5. There is also the theory that Jar Jar is actually a mastermind with jedi powers that uses a facade of ignorance to worm his way into Senate power. It's a pretty far-stretched, yet awesome theory as well.

6. But as I said, I'm not that big of a Star Wars fan, much more a Trek girl. So I'm having mixed emotions about the next Star Trek movie. Simon Pegg is my only hope. 

7. VII!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Iced-Coffee Advent

Most of the country has been experiencing unusually warm weather for the past week, a result of El Nino.Or as one friend sang it, “It’s beginning to feel a lot like April.” Or as a columnist said, it’s “an iced coffee Advent.” College girls have traded their uniforms of Ugg boots and Northface jackets for sandals and T-shirts. Ugly Christmas sweater parties are not just ugly, but uncomfortable. Dreams of a white Christmas are fading, and Jack Frost isn’t close to anyone’s nose. 

People are appreciating the unexpectedly beautiful weather, pouring outside on the weekends, soaking up the sun, and admiring the confused, blooming flowers. But there is appreciation too. The leaves already fell, the coats already pulled from storage. Where is the crisp December air? Where is the winter drizzle? Where is the chance of snow causing school kids to press their faces against the window? However good this weather is, it feels wrong.

Rural folk pay attention to the weather. The leaves foretell when rain is coming. The berries foretwell a harsh winter. Joints ache and noses itch when the pressure about to change. As I headed to work in the 70-degree weather this morning, I had that foreboding sense: it’s too warm, too calm. Usually that means the pressure will change by the afternoon; a big rain will rush in and cool it all down. It felt like the cusp of the storm. Except it wasn’t. There is no storm coming, not in the five-day forecast anyway. Just this uncomfortable, out-of-place, nice weather. So I wear my summer dresses and hope that next week, the rain will come.

For people in Florida or Arizona or Hawaii, maybe a palm tree Christmas feels normal. But for Midwesterners and Yankees and Appalachians, it ain’t right. We want to complain about the cold and worry about the ice. It’s the season to do so. This just feels…off.

But then I realized that Advent is the perfect time to feel uncomfortable. We should feel the unease of an overdue storm. Advent means coming, not just of a Christ Child, but of a King’s Return. We await not just The Kid, but El Nino. We are to be preparing for the Second Coming as much as the Incarnation. Storm, calamity, a world of unease. There is an ache in the bones that this world though appearing ok on its own at timesis really…off, far from where it should be. There is the expectation of a storm to set it all right. It’s different from our typical Christmas picture, but it’s perfectly Advent.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Castilian Rose on a Mexican Hill

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Since my devotion to Mary is… tenuous… I honestly don’t pay much attention to this day. But there is something beautiful in the story and the flowers and the titles. I saw this title used for the first time yesterday, and it just struck me as almost fairytale-like: the Virgin who Danced on the Moon.

Legend says that in 1531, Mary appeared to Mexican peasant Juan Diego several times. She appeared on a hill, a sacred spot in the local culture, and spoke to him in his native tongue. When Juan Diego told the bishop of Mexico City, the bishop asked for proof. Juan Diego’s uncle was ill, and on Dec. 11, he was busy taking care of his uncle, and failed to meet Mary on the hill as he had agreed. Ashamed for missing her, he tried to go around the hill a different way, but she appeared again and asked him, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” She told him that his uncle was healed. She then instructed him to take flowers from the hill, lay them in his cloak, and take them to the bishop. When Juan Diego presented his cloak to the bishop, the flowers fell to the ground, revealing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

While Our Lady of Guadalupe is huge in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, it is said that during her apparitions to Juan Diego, they spoke the native Aztec language, Nahuati. This has caused scholars to doubt that her name is Guadalupe, but rather a Nahuati word that the Spanish interpreted as Guadalupe. A Spanish scholar in the seventeenth century proposed tecuatlanopeuh, which translates as “she whose origins were in the rocky summit,” or tecuantlaxopeuh, “she who banishes those who devoured us.” Both make sense when attributed to Mary; she appeared to Juan Diego on a hill and she is a saintly figure. Others offered up the term coatlaxopeuh, “the one who crushes the serpent.” This too, can clearly relate to Mary, who is often depicted crushing the serpent who tempted Eve. Furthermore, the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl is a feathered serpent. At this point in Mexican history, the Spanish were destroying Aztec shrines and building Christian churches on sacred spots. The Christian faith was conquering the local traditions. 

However, Juan Diego would have been familiar with Spanish, and all the early records record the name of Guadalupe, not an Aztec name. The name Guadalupe was already associated with Mary at this point—back in Spain. In Extremadura, Castile, a monastery holds a shrine with a cedar sculpture of Mary holding the Christ Child. The legend of this Lady is that the statue was carved by Luke the Evangelist, handed down until it reached Pope Gregory I when he was bishop of Seville. When Seville was conquered by the Moors in 712, some priests fled to Extremadura and buried the statue in order to save it. In the 1300s, Mary appeared to a local rancher and asked him to have priests dig up a particular piece of land, where they found the statue. The chapel built around the statue attributed the Spanish conquest of the Moors to Mary’s intercession. 

Later, Isabel and Ferdinand signed the documents authorizing Columbus’ 1492 voyage at the monastery there. Several of the conquistadors to Mexico were from Extremadura, including Hernan Cortes, who overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521. Going back to the story of Juan Diego: when he was told to gather flowers on the hill, this was a hill that was usually barren. Yet on that December day, it was full of Castilian roses.

So in many ways, it seems like the Lady of Guadalupe (in Mexico) is a Spanish legend updated for the New World. The Spanish defeated the Moors, and now they will defeat the Aztecs. The serpent god is crushed under the foot of the Mother of God. The Lady of Guadalupe is a political statement as much as a religious one. Does that diminish her? To me, it always feels a little tainted when my faith brushes too close to politics. But life isn’t divided into nicely compartmentalized boxes. God doesn’t fit into a box anyway. I want to condemn the atrocities committed by European colonizers, and I want to praise the growth of Christianity in the New World. I hesitate to make statements on the accuracy of religious apparitions. I leave that to the Church officials who have the skill and tools for making discernment on that front. What is clear to me is that the story is more complex than it appears. It is not just a Mexican peasant with a personal experience. It’s the crumbling of empires, the clash of civilizations, buried treasure, miracle roses, and a virgin who danced on the moon.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Open Doors and Closed Borders

This week marked the beginning of the Jubilee of Mercy in the Church. With that, Holy Doors around the world have been opened. Until last week, my only knowledge of Holy Doors came from the movie Dogma. Holy Doors, opened only during jubilees, symbolize Jesus, the gate. Entering a Holy Door is entering into mercy itself. It is transition; it is passage. One can receive an indulgence for entering a Holy Door (after going to confession and entering with that intent). One takes on a pilgrimage to visit a Holy Door, making the process more than a small step through a threshold. A Holy Door is a very blatant symbol that says, “Come in and be saved.”

This week has also been inundated with refugee talk. While the refugee crisis in the Middle East has been going on for years now, it only erupted in Europe this summer, and it’s starting to hit the U.S. After the massacre in San Bernardino by a radicalized Muslim and his wife (who was on a K1 visa), the push to reject Syrian refugees only intensified. Demagogue Donald Trump then suggested banning all Muslims from entering the country. This would include any nationality and immigrant status (no Muslim British doctors or Muslim Indonesian students or Muslim Australian tourists). And while he’s received lots of backlash, he’s also received lots of support.

1938 poster from Episcopal Church
The U.S. has a tricky history with immigration. The nation was settled by Europeans immigrating and pushing the native population out. And then it was shaped by waves of other immigrants, including African slaves forced here. Each new wave of immigration brought fear that the immigrants would overrun the status quo and ruin the nation. It’s quite true that immigrants do not shuck their cultures. There is the uncomfortable period of adjustment on both sides. While the late nineteenth century promised an immigrant-welcome country, asking for “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” there was massive outcry against foreigners. In the 1850s, the Know Nothing Party arose on the platform on severely curtailing Catholic immigration. (And today, another party’s leading candidate is also running on the single platform of stopping Hispanic and Muslim immigration.) The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882. Various quota systems favored Protestant Europeans throughout the first half of the twentieth century. There were the fears that Chinese workers lowered wages in the west, that Catholic hierarchy was incompatible to democracy, that Slavs brought diseases.

These fears had elements of truth: each claim could find evidence to support it in some way. Large groups of people do change a place. And I think there are legitimate concerns about whether those changes will inflict political, social, or religious unrest. The truth is, I am uneasy about allowing large groups of Syrian refugees in the country. I look to Europe and doubt their screening processes (look at the radicalized terrorists in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva). I wonder what the culture of Germany will look like in 20 years. I look at a Western world that is either secularizing or Islamizing and frankly don’t like either. Part of me does want to shut down the wave of immigration and hold on to a culture I know.

But at the same time, I look back on how that’s played out in the past. German-Americans were interred during WWI, and the German language (at the time, the second most-spoken language in the U.S.) practically eliminated from the country. Japanese-Americans were interred during WWII, even third and fourth generation Americans, even Asian children adopted by white parents. Boats of Jewish refugees were sent back to Nazi Germany. Anytime swathes of people have been grouped and excluded, it doesn’t look good on the U.S. And of course, it’s not about looking good, but doing good.

It is dehumanizing to group people based on one factor, be it ethnicity or nationality or religion. People are complex. Trying to simplify who someone is strips them of an element of human dignity. It’s scary and uncomfortable and hard work to accept refugees. But the doors have to remain open. Radicalized terrorists might get in. Poverty might increase. The culture might shift to reflect more Islamic values. But we have to keep the doors open anyway. Because it is moral to do so. Because it is merciful to do so. Because Christ commands us to love our neighbors, the ones in need and the ones who mean us harm. If we go down, we go down loving, not fighting.