Thursday, February 24, 2011

Crack the Code

I was sick this week, and terrified of the children that could at any moment puke on or near me. So, I did what any good mother would do. I told Austin I was going upstairs for a bath.
I love baths, but I'm going to admit that it is really a cover-up to read a good book without being disturbed. Even when I want to hug the toilet and cry for Phenergen, I still have to read whilst soaking in a tub of scalding hot water.
I had already read my library books (secretly grossing out that I never know who was sick and touching the library books right before I had them) and I seriously cannot get in the tub without a book. I might read five pages and then continue to wallow like a mini-hippopotamus. But I have to have a book, magazine, cereal box or SOMETHING within reach.
I didn't want to go back downstairs where the boxes of books live. We are still trying to afford/find/purchase/repaint some bookshelves. Until then, we have plastic buckets that line the walls. Pottery Barn would be ashamed, but they didn't let me win their contest so they can stuff it into a bucket.
I found a stack of books lining the wall by my bed. They don't have a bucket because we used it to 'clean up' before some friends came over. The clean up bucket is where things go to die. We'll never ever clean it out. But in this case, our laziness and lack of shelving came in handy. I quickly found a book without having to redress and walk my sick self downstairs for reading material.
"Mysteries of the Middle Ages" by Thomas Cahill was my choice. Austin bought it a few months ago, and I've been meaning to read it. I don't usually like non-fiction, and don't get all snooty about that admission. There is so much wisdom to be had in fiction, and usually the talent goes in that direction. Non-fiction writers tend to get caught up in their own ability to discover and explain, and so limit both their experience and the readers'. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of good writers in the non-fiction categories, but they are usually writers of history, and what is history if not a story? Additionally, I find that most of the non-fiction writers I admire for their turn of phrase and grasp of human experience are actually writers of both fiction and non. Now that we've settled my superior opinions, we'll move on.
Thomas Cahill is that wonderful kind of writer that makes you want to quit your day job (or lack thereof) and wander through historic sites touching ancient stones. He is descriptive without excess, knowledgeable without snobbery, convicted without isolation. He embodies the type of writer I'd like to be, once upon a tomorrow.
Cahill is writing his way through a series that he calls 'The Hinges of History'. He focuses on those very small, seemingly insignificant times in world history that have otherwise gone unnoticed. These 'hinges' are the moments when the course of things could have gone drastically one way or another, and we are all very different because of the way the door hinged. He describes it ever so much better in his books, but there's the gist.
I was enjoying the read as expected, and also enjoying the layout of the book. I don't usually care what font is used or if pictures are included. However, "Mysteries of the Middle Ages" is a particularly beautiful book, especially as it is a relatively inexpensive soft-cover book. One picture caught my eye, and I turned to find the credit at the back of the book.
While I was looking for the credit, I saw a page in which Cahill explains what he means with the word 'mysteries'. I decided that this page might be worth a read, and indeed I wondered why it was to be found at the back of the book if the title of the book contained a word that needed further clarification.

Cahill says that the 'mysteries' he writes of are not the detective kind. We aren't talking about Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew or how Medicare works. No, Cahill says that to the mind of one living in the Middle Ages, this word would have been more akin to our word, 'sacrament'.
It is at this point that we are going to drive far away from Cahill's lovely book, because it was at this point in my reading that I stopped. The idea of mystery=sacrament had given me a nagging thought, and I put the book down in an attempt to catch the runaway fragment.
My thoughts went to the sacrament of Holy Communion, in which the phrase is used:

"Therefore we proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
I've always stumbled over the word 'mystery' used in that sentence. I mean, of course the whole process of Communion is mysterious, and none of us fully understand what happens. But of all the things to call a mystery, why would the church fathers choose this? I find the concept of a Trinity much more mysterious than the fact that Christ died.
As my bath water turned cold, my thoughts began to assemble information. Do these words and ideas really flow into one another? Could Thomas Cahill have given me the answer to a church-related query?
What is a sacrament, anyways? The answers differ a bit, depending on which flavor and color your church is. The one I like best is from Augustine of Hippo. He said that a sacrament is "a visible sign of an invisible reality."

If these words do collide, it isn't any wonder that 'mystery' would contain as part of its definition, 'something that cannot be explained'. Still, I'm not any closer at grasping why that word would be used at what is supposed to be a rather rapturous moment in Holy Communion.

Are those things indeed mysteries of the Christian faith?

I'm going to try to find out, starting with the first.

1. Christ has died.
I don't find this to be mysterious. Christ did indeed die, and even those not of the Christian faith or any faith at all believe that a man named Jesus lived and died. Very few will hold to the idea that he was a grand hoax created by desperate people. There is enough evidence even for the skepticalist skeptic to believe that Jesus died.

What can be concluded from this information?
In order to die, one necessarily must have been alive. This necessitates that the life must have been given by a mother and father and that the life was sustained through food and water and breath. Jesus lived as you and I live, we can claim with assurance. His looks and feelings, his favorite foods aren't known to us. We cannot tell anything else from this sentence but that Christ had a body of a heart and brain, mitochondria and spleen, and that one day those functions ceased to work. Christ died.
2. Christ is risen.

Two things: Hello, we are claiming that someone who died was able to come back to life. That's kind of a biggie. Also, the word 'is'.

Christians and non obviously take different paths at this sentence. Whether or not Christ rose is really the central part of our faith. If he did, all is to be gained. If not, all is lost regardless of belief. There is plenty to argue on both sides of the fence. It is preposterous, of course. Most religious essentials are, but that's also what makes them refreshing and essential to the soul. The physical world is full of facts and 90 degree angles and gravity. Faith doesn't make sense when held against gravity and pushed to an angle. But it isn't made primarily for that world. Rather, the world was made for faith.
I'm reminded of a decoder screen, which is rather useless. If you hold the encoded information alone, you know that you have a code you cannot solve. If you place the decoder screen on top of the code, you have an answer. If you only use the decoding screen, however, you only have empty red plastic. The decoder was made to unlock mysteries. Without it, the mysteries still exist. Alone, it has no purpose.
I'm hoping that you don't need a decoder screen to keep reading. Sorry for my being obscure, you can blame that on my exposure to philosophy at the age of 6.
This blog isn't to convince you if Christ rose or not, but it will continue under the assumption that he did, as that is my belief.
I said that the word 'is' is important, and it really IS. We could say that Lazarus died and Lazarus was raised, and this would be true. But we don't say that Lazarus is raised, because we believe that he died another death one day, and remained in a tomb.

However, we say that Christ IS risen, and it makes all the difference. If Christ IS risen, it means that he rose at one time and IS STILL risen. This indicates a permanency, a everlasting lifeness, a forever and all time kind of thing. If he IS risen, then we know that he isn't subject to the physical constraints of time and death. One might even simplify and say that He IS.

3. Christ will come again.
I hate the Left Behind series and all the craziness they have brought into the world. To each their own, absolutely. Very intelligent and well-meaning people wrote the books, and I'm not going to say that They Are Wrong. (Though I do believe they are)
They have created a sense of fear that shouldn't exist regarding the coming of Christ. I have heard all manner of teachings regarding the 'end of time'. DOOOOOM!!!! NAKED PEOPLE!!!! MONSTERS UNLEASHED TO FEAST ON THE ENTRAILS OF SINNNNNERSSSSS!!!!
I know that there are many unknowns. But I also know that, beginning with the apostles, each generation thinks that they are in the 'last days'. One generation will be correct, while the others are just regarding the sinful world in which they life and are unable to believe that more evil could exist. If I had lived during the time of Hitler or Nero or Andrew Jackson, I would have certainly believed that Christ would appear at any moment.
He hasn't yet, and we don't know why. But above all, we need to create within our own community of faith the embracing of such a time. What does it say to the secular people of the world that the Christians are afraid of the return of the Savior they serve? It sounds backwards to me, and I'm part of the group!

If we believe that Christ is love, that he is the hope for the hopeless and the creator of our very existence, then we shouldn't live in fear of his return.
I believe that we fear ourselves. We think that Christ will appear in the clouds and we'll be driving to work and the TRUMPET BLAST will scare the PISS out of us, we'll lose control of our car, and the other cars that are unmanned will be causing accidents and all those naked people will be floating through the air while we scream to Jesus to please remember us because we thought we were good enough and could we please please please go to Heaven and escape the mark of the beast and those crazy winged terrors that are going to come through the air and does God remember that the sun is going to turn into blood and fire and the world is going to burn?!?!
We fear for the future as we do for the present: we fear that Christ really can't take care of everything. We think that maybe, just maybe, he'll forget little old me and I'll be left to live in caves because Christians won't be allowed to buy food. I'll be surrounded by the clothes of my loved ones who made it because Jesus remembered them because they were better than me.
He either IS or he isn't. If he has figured out how to raise the dead and live outside of time, I'm going to assume that the bloody sun and the clothing and the cars without drivers aren't going to be an issue. In the end, it isn't about you or me. It IS about Christ.
We are afraid that we aren't good enough to go to Heaven. The funny thing is that we aren't. We never ever are. Billy Graham isn't. Mother Theresa wasn't. I sure as hell don't have chance. But as we figured out already, it isn't about us.
Well. If you are still with me, BRAVA/O! It has been a bumpy road, walking over landmines in my mind. We have almost arrived at our destination, so please keep your seat belt buckled for a few more minutes.
I think that a sacrament is somewhat like a code. We don't always know what the code says. Sometimes we have a decoding screen that lets us feel for a few seconds what is being conveyed. The code isn't a secret, however, as an agnostic would believe. It isn't secret for the purpose of being unknowable. It is a mystery because it comes from and exists outside of our physical world.

Are mysteries and sacraments somewhat the same? I think that maybe they can be. A sacrament is often unknowable, which would make it a mystery. If it is, as Augustine said, a visible sign of an invisible reality, it doesn't really matter if we crack the code and hear angels sing. Sometimes we just need to know that the invisible is still a reality.

It IS.


palmahome said...


Jack said...

Cahill does make you want to quit your day job. I've definitely felt that before :) as usual, perfectly penned.

frfreddy said...

What a most excellent post! Thank you, Beatrice :), for your incisive and insightful musings. I have been a lurking fan of your blog for a while and just had to comment here. A similar definition of sacrament that I like is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality." Just as you describe, Christ takes the everyday, common matter of water and bread and wine and does something transformative and eternally spiritual in us. Please keep up the good work -- there is something quite sacramental in your writing!