Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reflection for 4 February 2009

Anyone else notice that in the gospel for today, the people in Nazareth “took offense” at Jesus when he goes home? It isn’t “how dare he claim to be mighty or wise,” because they don’t deny that the deeds are mighty or that the words are wise, but that they can’t accept something new where all they expect is the ordinary – he’s just a carpenter, he’s just Mary’s kid or Judas’ brother. They have a hard time tolerating the fact that the ordinary can be the place of encounter with the extraordinary. We do the same thing with people that we want to not be challenged by, so we domesticate them (think Martin Luther King, once “the most dangerous man in America,” and now, for one day a year, the darling of business luncheons and 24-hour news coverage across the nation.) We also do the same thing with space and time – it’s hard to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, so we keep looking around for special times and places – the retreat coming up later in the semester, the trip to the Vatican or on a spring break mission, hearing a speech from a famous theologian.

It's ordinary time in the liturgical calendar, of course, and the danger of ordinary time is that it can be reduced to being, well…ordinary. We look ahead to the next big season, say, Lent, or to some big feast day, like last week’s feast of Thomas Aquinas. Today is the feast of people I never heard of, like Saint John de Britto and Saint Rembert of Torhout. I only saw those names because I literally Googled February 4th in hopes of finding some big event that happened on this day in history, some major feast day, something to give me a big topic to bounce my ideas off. Well, there aren’t any. But there are. Any of you ever Google or Wikipedia a date and just see all the stuff that happened on that day? It’s the birthday of Johann Ludwig Bach, second cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach (how’s that for living in someone else’s shadow), and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rosa Parks, but mostly of people I never heard of. It’s the 5th anniversary of the founding of Facebook, the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, and so on. But far and away the stuff that happened, the deaths and births that Wikipedia lists for February 4, are things I never heard of. Even then, of course, 99½ percent of the stuff that happens in our world won’t show up on Wikipedia or Google or anywhere else, but those places, events, people are precisely our points of encounter with the divine - the grandfather who will never be famous, the wedding anniversary, the family's favorite picnic spot.

Do we just look to go from one big event or feast to the next, one major saint to the next? Is “ordinary time” just a holding pattern between Christmas and Lent? That seems to me like a recipe for not being here now, not paying attention to the normal, quotidian, uninteresting bits of our lives which is where most of us in fact live most of our lives. Simone Weil puts it this way: “Absolutely unmixed attentiveness is prayer.” However, most of us live in various grades of unattentiveness, whether because of the noise of all the pacifiers we have in our lives, the expectation that only big things have anything good to offer us, or whatever. The Incarnation, the sacramental nature of our lives, means that it is exactly in the ordinary that we encounter the extraordinary – history can’t be split into a history of the sacred and the profane. There is no place, no time, where we can’t encounter the divine reality. In the Zen tradition, it goes this way: "After enlightenment, the dishes." True enlightenment puts us in contact with the real world, rather than letting us escape the real world.

We make a big deal about sacred places to remind us that every place is sacred. We highlight sacred times to recall that all time is sacred time. We hold up sacred people as symbols for us that all people are sacred, no life is trivial, no person can be swept under the carpet. Unfortunately we tend to miss most of those chances to see it, often enough because we pay so much attention to the “special” that we miss what it is pointing out to us, like the old Zen adage: “When the wise man points at the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger.”

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