Thursday, December 24, 2015

All That Way

Christmas, 2015

he voice of the wise man speaking in T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” says,

…set down
This set down
This:  were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?...

            Christmas is about the hardest time of year to preach the gospel.  You’d think it would be about the easiest.  But nearly everyone comes to church pretty much knowing a story.  Each of us imagines that the story that we know is indeed the Christmas story.  And why not?  There it is, all over the place:  on greeting cards and magazine covers; in commercials and on television; in carols blaring at us in shopping malls and in lovely concert settings with choruses singing “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” To be sure, all of those things have something perhaps to do with the gospel, even in a clumsy way.  But the core of Christmas is well buried beneath the presents under the tree.  Eliot, wise man that he was, knew the mysterious question that lies in the manger all wrapped up in its own swaddling clothes:  birth or death?  Which is it that we celebrate?

            About the last thing on anyone’s Christmas wish list is to come to a Christmas Eve midnight mass to hear a sermon about death.  I once got myself roundly chastised by an appalled parishioner, a mother of young adult daughters, one of whom came to church on Christmas and of all things found herself in tears at a true story I told about a Santa Claus in a children’s cancer ward who stayed with a little boy during his last hours, fulfilling the kid’s wishes while inadvertently incarnating the very Presence of Jesus, which is what I thought Christmas might be about.  Christmas, she scolded, was not the time for social action sermons, least of all those that make us cry.  This is the season of joy, or unbridled merriment, of jingling bells and spicy smells and poinsettias all in a row.  And I don’t want to spoil that for you, I really don’t.  But this might be my last crack at actually saying something truthful about Christmas before I leave parish ministry after 44 years, and I hope you’ll cut me a little homiletical slack to depart ever so slightly from the conventional romantic, if not jolly, script.

            The minute Jesus was conceived, he became subject to everything that any human being has both to enjoy and to contend with simply by being a body in this world.  I have no way of knowing what Mary thought about her little infant.  I imagine she was, like most young mothers of firstborn children, maybe nervous about nursing, concerned that there be enough dry swaddling clothes, perhaps wondering about the economics of a third stomach to feed in the months and years to come.  I suspect she was not as prone as some modern parents might be to look on this tiny being, squalling in the manger, all red from the birth canal, and to compliment herself on having such a fine baby, who just might one day become President.  Living as she did in an age where children rarely survived the first few years of life, it might have passed her mind that this baby was indeed mortal, and subject to death.  She might even have prayed that he be spared early death.  There was no getting around it:  to be born was to die.  And that still is the case.  Being divine, if that is what you want to call it, was no insurance whatsoever that your mortal body was anything but mortal. 

Somebody was to jeer at him a few decades later, jeer at him pinned to his rude cross:  “If you are the Messiah, come down from the cross.”  Skip out on death.  Prove that gods and saviors don’t have to die.  And he wouldn’t of course.  He couldn’t.  He had made a pact by that time that mortal he was and mortal he would be, and thus would have to do what mortals least want to but must do eventually:  face mortality.  Die.   That is the lynchpin of this whole project of incarnation.  It is about nothing less than embracing mortality.  One of the oldest Christian hymns we have goes like this: 

            though he was in the form of God,
            he did not regard equality with God
            as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
            taking the form of a slave,
            being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross.[1]

Ironically the Church has a piece of good news here, but in my experience we rarely hear it and even more rarely believe it.  The good news is that it is a fine thing to be mortal.  It is a very wonderful thing to be a body.  Millions, billions of years have gone into the evolving human frame; and for all their aches and pains and vicissitudes, these bodies are not junk to be jettisoned on the last day, but temples of the Spirit that indwelt Jesus, warehouses of creativity, bearers of the resurrection life, the flesh that is transformed by the divine life who gives himself to us to be quite literally ingested as bread and wine.  And we get to enjoy many of the fruits and sweets of bodily life not exactly without charge, but generally without having to pay anything like what our senses, for example, are truly worth.  The kicker is that none of this means what it could mean until we fully embrace it.  And fully to embrace bodily life means that you have to get over being afraid of dying. 

            Now you think, I’m sure, that I am talking about fear of physical death.  To some extent I am.  But that is only a secondary fear, subordinate to other, more formidable, fears.  Humans are hard-wired for connection, and the truth is that nothing scares us quite so much as the prospect of being disconnected or unconnected from others, especially those on whom we are physically or emotionally dependent in some way.  And so we invest huge amounts of energy in trying to be lovable, trying to be accepted, trying to be approved, even when some of our behavior sabotages us.  We carry around loads of shame—shame that turns into cold fear that we’ll somehow be at the end of our tether some day and no one will notice or care.  Beside that, death is hardly anything to fear at all.  The dying that we most have to do is letting go—getting out of the way.  Or, to put it in the vocabulary that Jesus himself used, we can choose “to become as little children,” honest, direct, simple, playful, receptive, trusting.  That kind of outlook does not happen automatically.  Even little children sometimes have to learn to let go.  Much more so do adolescents who generally play to audiences that they hope will accept and not ostracize them.  Even more so do adults who continue to believe that our true measure is what we earn, accomplish, do, rather than how vulnerable—open—we are willing to be. 

            It is exactly at this point where Eliot’s mage’s question is most poignant—and helpful.  “Were we led all that way for birth or death?”  He goes on to say that he had seen birth and death and had thought they were very different.  This birth, though, the birth of Christ, was hard and bitter agony for him and his companions, like Death, their death.  So they returned, those wise men did, to their old kingdoms.  But no longer could they go about life quite so easily as they once had.  And that is the heart of why the Birth of Christ feels so much like Death to anyone who gets it.  All the old stuff that used to mean so much just doesn’t work so well any more.  The old dispensation, the old literalism, the old cop-outs, the refusals to give oneself over to loving passionately beginning with one’s body itself, the self-protection programs designed to make us look good under scrutiny:  all those things are like so many little household gods that are supposed to work like charms—crystals and talismans, and also orthodox ideas and sacred formulas—none of it matters once you’ve actually laid eyes on Being itself lying in a manger ready to become food at any instant.  Somewhat like the raised Lazarus in Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, once you have been dead and raised by Christ, living in the old world with those who don’t get it pushes one into feeling, well, dead to all that is untrue, and alive to all that is true.  And the worst part about it is there is no way to explain it to those who insist on a rational, predictable formula that will work for everyone the same way.  Norman O. Brown wrote in Love’s Body that incarnation is a good bit like reincarnation.[2]  It is not just Christ who is born.  It is we who are born all over again once his life touches ours.  And it is that being born all over again that feels so much like Death, because that is exactly what it is.

            If any of this frustrates the hell out of you, well, just say goodbye to the hell and let it go. There is simply no way to work this stuff out in your head so that you can come to a place of believing it and then get about the business of living it out.  It doesn’t work that way, because, you may have noticed, life itself does not work that way.  You enter life the way Jesus did, kicking, puking, muling, screaming.  Much later you start figuring out what your life is all about.  Same thing is true for the New Life that you and Eliot’s Wise Man begin when you encounter Christ’s New Birth.  You are changed.  All you can do is laisser les bons temps rouler, as they say in New Orleans.  “Let the good times roll.” 

Live!  James Broughton, poet of Big Joy, who, in my opinion grasped the dazzling beauty of the incarnation and was overjoyed with it as much as any priest or prophet, wrote in his poem, “Song of the Godbody,”

I engender all the women of men
I engender the men of all women
I love you in every man’s body
I live you in every man’s lover

Trust that I know my own business
Cherish your fact and your fettle
Respect your perpetual motion
Relish your frisky divinity

You are my ripening godling
You are my fidgety angel
You are my immortal shenanigan
You are my eroding monument

I am ever your lifelong bodyguard
I am always your marathon dancer
Let your feet itch with my glory
Dance all the way to your death[3]

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015





[1] Philippians 2:6-8.
[2] Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1966), pp. 201-202.
[3] “Song of the Godbody,” in “Mysteries of the Godbody,” Ecstasies:  Poems 1975-1983 (Mill Valley, CA:  Syzygy Press, 1983),  pp. 58-59.

Jesus for the World


Sermon for Christmas 2012

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not:  for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

            It could be that I have gotten one every year, though I don’t think so.  I opened an envelope last week containing a beautiful card picturing three Persian wise men visiting and bringing gifts to Holy Mary for the birth of Jesus.  “Congratulations on the birth of Jesus, the messiah and wishing you peace and blessing this New Year!”  All of that, plus some Arabic script which I could not read, were on the front of the card.  Inside, The Islamic Education Center had written that the Quran has only one chapter named after a woman, Chapter 19 entitled, “Mary,” or “Maryam” in Arabic.  They continue, “While Muslims don’t partake in Christmas celebrations, we believe in the awesome and miraculous birth of Jesus, in the miracles he performed by God’s Grace, and in the message of love and peace Jesus brought to the world.”

            None of this was news to me.  Although I consider myself as knowing very little about Islam, despite my efforts to learn more in recent years, I am fully aware of everything that the card told me.  Still I was impressed at this very laudable public relations effort on the part of the Islamic Education Center.  In a day when many Christians seem to be nearly hysterical about a supposed War on Christmas, and very eager to make distinctions between true Christianity and other faiths that seem to be either in competition with or antagonistic to Jesus, here is a group of Muslims obviously articulating some common ground they share with us.  Before you discount their card or deem me naïve for thinking that it was a lovely gesture (or think that I don’t realize that Muslim evangelism is just as self-serving as Christian evangelism, no more and no less so), take the message at face value.  Jesus, it says, is not the property of Christians only.  Jesus is for the world.

            And that, I do believe, is in the Bible.  “For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.”  It’s a bit odd, don’t you think, that a popular distillation of the Good News of Jesus Christ is that he died on the cross to save you from your sins, and that all of the benefits of his precious death are yours provided that you accept him as your personal savior.  I have nothing to say against any of that, except that like most distillations of the complex, it leaves a great deal to be desired.  But the thing so odd about it is that the accent falls so clearly on what you and I as individuals do with Jesus.  There is little notion that Jesus is the universal savior, let alone the cosmic Christ, reigning from before time and to the ages of ages.  The “personal” Jesus crowds all that out.  It is odd only because, for most of Christian history, up to and including the modern period, Jesus was seen to be the Savior of the world, not just the savior of a subset of individuals in the world.  To the extent that it doesn’t seem odd to us, we bear witness to just how pervasive the “personal Jesus” is.

            Rather than get on the defensive about Jesus and about how much I know he loves you and me because we adore him and follow him, I am in the mood tonight to celebrate.  Maybe you are too, because I doubt that you came to church on Christmas Eve wanting to do high-test theology.  What better a thing to celebrate than the truth that this birth, this messianic arrival, is something so unimaginably grand that we could not conceivably cheapen it by imagining that we somehow own it.  It makes no more sense to try to own Jesus than it makes sense to claim that we own the sun or the moon or the stars.  The salvation which was for all people, born that day in the City of David, was not then, is not now, nor ever shall be parochial event meant only for the initiated or the qualified.  For, long before Jesus was born, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying about the people of Israel, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” [Isaiah 49:6]  A light to the nations!  That is what Israel was created for and re-created for! And that is what, through Jesus, Israel became:  a means through which God’s salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.

            No one would have supposed that night in Bethlehem that the birth of this child would be of cosmic significance, or even of much interest.  In Luke’s story, Mary had known even before conception that the baby she would bear would be holy, Son of God Most High; that he would be great; that he would rule from the throne of his ancestor David a kingdom that would have no end.  Well, Luke may have understood the meaning of those words, but you may be sure that his character, the little virgin of Nazareth, had no idea what the angel Gabriel meant when he spoke them to her.   And certainly a bunch of shepherds in the middle of the night had no earthly idea of what the heavenly host meant by singing “Glory to God in the highest” or what these good tidings of great joy might mean to all people.  But this is just the point, in a way.  The way the salvation of Christ gets to be for the entire world—to all people, and even to all things animate and inanimate in the universe—is that little by little, beginning in Bethlehem, people tell each other about what has happened.  Just like those shepherds who (some say) started broadcasting what they had seen and heard, people tell each other the news about this special birth, and about their own birth to a new life through him.  A story begins to develop, and a community begins to tell it as its own.  Jesus calls people—at first a few fisher folk, then a few more—and first news you know, he has a community gathered around him, including women.  He dies and is raised from the dead and within a few years, not only women and Jews, but Gentiles and foreigners, Ethiopians and Greeks, slaves and freedmen, rich and poor, intellectuals and illiterate people, city dwellers and country folk, are a part something bigger even than a community, a movement in fact.  So the good news first told to the shepherds gets to be truly good tidings of great joy for all people.

            Imagine what would happen if instead of trying to possess Jesus in stained glass and on dashboards, Christians on a huge scale determined to look for Jesus in all the unlikely places and people.  Imagine what might happen if we began to see Jesus not only in the Quran but also, as the Church Fathers did, in the Hebrew scriptures.  Suppose we made the leap, if we haven’t already, from seeing Jesus as a particular baby lying in a particular manger in a particular story, and began to see his footprints all over creation, his spirit in stories of gods and heroes of other faiths and cultures, his beauty in the music and art that knows nothing of the historical Jesus as such, his truth in patterns of living that express his teachings even unawares.  You will recognize, of course, that none of this is particularly radical, because Christian missionaries at their best have been doing all these things for centuries.  They have been recognizing the reality of Jesus implicit in cultures and beliefs that have not known him.  They have named Christ when they have seen him appear in places that have had no name for him, much as Paul did in the Book of Acts when encountering a shrine on the Athenian acropolis inscribed “To an Unknown God.”  Suppose our job were simply to make Christ known by acknowledging that in many cases he is already known if not named, present if not worshiped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.

            God is not about to lose the universe, not to evil, not to ignorance, and not to hate.  God is Truth, and that Truth will outlast the most stubborn and virulent of its opponents.  God does not need armies, either political or rhetorical, to defend God’s cause.  But God does need Marys who will say, “Be it unto me according to your word.”  God does need Josephs who will make the long trek from wherever they are to Bethlehem.  God does need shepherds, apparently, who are minding their own business but who have time to behold the heavens opened and a stunning intrusion of glory into an ordinary night of watching.  God seems to rejoice and applaud when people get up and go searching for the thing they have been told has happened that will bring unutterable joy to the world.   And God, who by definition should need nothing, needs a community of people who will adopt as their own the ways of the Christ who continually sees enemies as those to be loved and who says of potential competitors, “if they are not against us, they are for us.”

            So, Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice.  The Good News that Christ is for the world is better than anything we could have imagined.  All people have tasted or can taste the Bread of his life and the Wine of his joy.  And it won’t stop until all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Shepherds and Shepherd

Christmas Eve, 2000

“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

I grew up in the Low Country of South Carolina. That is hog country. Daddy raised hogs. Breeding Durocs. Big hogs. And because I had to feed and water them, and see them slaughtered, and get to know them all over again as ham and bacon and pork chops, I know something about hogs. I know, for example, that hogs are fairly smart.  Daddy tells a story about how he had a litter of pigs one time that figured out how to climb on top of each other and make a sort of cheerleaders’ pyramid so that they could eat his grapes off the vines.

One Saturday when I was in high school I went with Daddy to an auction barn not far from our farm. While Daddy was looking at hogs to buy, I meandered around the back side of the pens. I smelt this very strange odor. When I looked over into the pen I saw a sheep. I was surprised to see a sheep, because in all my life I don’t think I had ever met a sheep, or even met a person who owned one. Perhaps it did not even occur to me until that very moment that for some reason, nobody that I knew raised sheep in the Low Country. I don’t know why.  Maybe sheep are too vulnerable to the local bobcats. But the smell was strange to me, and so was the sheep. Until that occasion, most of what I knew about sheep I knew from the Bible and from pictures. But neither Bible nor art generally has a scratch-and-sniff dimension. So I never knew about this sheep odor. (Incidentally, I say with sincere apologies to you vegetarians in the house, I had to overcome my initial aversion to this characteristic odor in order to fall in love, simply in love, with leg of lamb: one of the only things that stands between me and devoted vegetarianism today.)

 Nor did I know that sheep, unlike hogs, are not very smart. One of the reasons for having shepherds is that sheep need some guidance. While there are such positions as swineherds, their job is not to guide hogs, but to slop them, and keep them with adequate water in hot weather to cool off. The trouble with both sheep and shepherds for most of you is that, as for me, they are symbols and images lifted out of real life and put in places like Christmas cards and creches where you can’t fully experience them. In other words, there is no stink involved. And the sheep look so cute. Likewise, shepherds rarely look like the people at the bottom of the social heap that they had become by the time Caesar Augustus decided to tax the world. For us they look much like the boys and girls that trooped down the aisle earlier this afternoon in the Christmas pageant. No stink there! Or they look much like the shepherds in the 1920’s version of a creche used in one of my former parishes: blond, blue-eyed, rather preppy looking fellows that might have been on the wrestling team at Yale.

Not so, these shepherds that Luke tells us about. If they were typical shepherds of the first century, or for that matter, typical of middle eastern shepherds today, they were not a pretty sight. And I am sure that they smelt like sheep. Don’t let that mess up your notion of Christmas. Because, despite the deodorized version of the hillside outside Bethlehem that we have in our minds, it is exactly this point that Luke is making by telling us about the shepherds. It was not to kings, nor to sages, nor to the wealthy, nor to the rabbis and scribes and religious establishment that the heavenly host appeared to announce Messiah’s birth. It was the opposite. It was to unsuspecting, low class, illiterate, and doubtless sleepy shepherds, possibly—possibly—whiling the night away by nipping a little bit of wine, and quite possibly huddled around a fire telling stories and jokes if they had any energy left. It was as if, say, a cosmically important announcement were to be made in Lynchburg. Instead of being made on Monument Terrace, or in St. John’s Church on Boston Avenue, or at Thomas Road Baptist Church, or to some people gathered in a mansion on Rivermont Avenue or in Boonsboro, this impressive event were to take place among some bums that were hanging about in the middle of the night somewhere on Wise Street or halfway up Grace Street. You get the picture.

That is the nature of the Good News. When the angel said that the Good News of great joy was available to all people, that angel was singing Luke’s song: no one will be an outcast in the Kingdom of God. The only people in danger of losing the Kingdom are those who think they have it and become obstacles for others’ entrance in. And woe to them! It is the nature of this baby, cradled in a manger, to throw open the doors to all people; to smash the boundaries that separate Jew and Gentile; to restore to life the only son of a widow; to offer paradise to a penitent thief hanging on a neighboring cross; to celebrate the giving nature of outcast Samaritans; to call a hated tax collector out of a sycamore tree and invite himself to dine with him. And all who would enter his Kingdom must go and do likewise.

But there is even more to the shepherds than this sociological case statement that their place in the birth story makes. Shepherds may have been shiftless and smelly and eager to graze their flocks on just any old body’s property in the Augustan age. But theirs was a job that even the great Moses had done at one time. He had been shepherding a flock of sheep when he wandered off in the Sinai Wilderness and was arrested by the sight of a burning bush. To that shepherd, the angel of the Lord had announced frighteningly Good News that the Lord was about to deliver his people from their Egyptian taskmasters. And David, Israel’s model monarch, had been keeping sheep when, called from the field, he was anointed king. Could it be that Luke’s story is telling us that these rural shepherds outside Bethlehem, like Moses, have been surprised by the Glory of the Lord, and called as David was, perhaps from that very field, to a destiny that they had not dreamed? Could it be that he is saying that you and I too, keeping sheep in our own time and way, are apt to be thus surprised and thus called? And in the middle of our darkness, yet!

Fear not, shepherds. Because something awaits you that is greater than you can imagine. On the one hand, a common baby. On the other hand, a Shepherd of sorts, like yourselves. Come to Bethlehem and see this one who will redeem you, and your shepherding job as well. For he, who lies like you among the animals, will one day feed his flock, including you, like a shepherd.  He will carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. He will see himself as the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. He will talk about himself as the door of the Sheepfold, as the shepherd who will bring home the sheep, no matter of what fold. He will see himself as the Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock. And Israel will be the whole world.

 Go now even to Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass. For after you do, millions upon millions of other shepherds, people of low degree and high, will be giving new meaning to what you have known for ages: “The Lord,” they will say, “the Lord is my shepherd.”

 © Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015          

A New Human Might be the Answer

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2006

John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in the middle of the 19th century a hymn which, while not a Christmas carol, is not a little about our celebration tonight:
Praise to the holiest in the height
And in the depth be praise,
In all his words most wonderful,
Most sure in all his ways!

O loving wisdom of our God! 
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight,
And to the rescue came.
 Certainly not all, but by far the majority of Christians who gather tonight and tomorrow to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth believe that his life was qualitatively different from that of the average human being.  It took the church several hundred years to figure out exactly how it was going to talk about this difference that it saw and experienced in Jesus.  Along the way we made some stupendous blunders.  We said on occasion that there was nothing really human about Jesus, that he only appeared to be so.  And we said on other occasions that Jesus was just a human like the rest of us, except for one part or another—sometimes soul, sometimes mind, sometimes will—that an analogous divine part trumped and took over. 
            In truth, all of the history of Christian thought, in some ways, can be said to be an attempt to answer this bedeviling question, “Who is Jesus?” and to articulate the response in such a way that he is credibly the answer to the world’s dilemma.  Or, more strongly put, we keep trying to answer that question in a way that Jesus will clearly simultaneously answer the world’s deepest hungers and needs.  People who ride around with bumper stickers saying, “Jesus is the Answer” are part of a long tradition, despite the sad truth that we sometimes don’t know what the question is any longer.
            And yet, we do know what the question is.  In a word, it is “How can we get out of the fix we are in?”  Every religious tradition starts with an assumption that we humans are in a predicament.  Some think it is something that we have brought upon ourselves.  Some think that it is not so simple as that.  Each tradition offers a way out, a way beyond.
Not by any means the only story we as Christians tell, but clearly one of the most significant, is that, as the New England Primer put it in the 17th century, “In Adam’s Fall we sinned all.”  I am not particularly a fan of the doctrine of original sin.  In fact, I do not find it biblical at all.  But I do find something compelling about the Adam story.  (And I want to leave Eve out of this for a moment, not the least reason for which is that I think she often gets blamed unfairly for a whole mess of things.  “Adam” means, roughly, “earthling,” and is intended to be a generic name for human beings, both male and female.)  The Story that we tell is that it all began back in the beginning.  Earlier today, when King’s College Cambridge celebrated its world famous Lessons and Carols, the very first reading is exactly this story, the story of what took place in the Garden of Eden.  It is a story about how the earthlings were given a vocation to tend to their world, which was a peaceable kingdom.  They were given nearly blanket permission to do whatever they liked.  There was present in the system, however, a dynamic of grasping, written right into the fabric of things.  And while limitations were clearly placed upon the inhabitants of the Garden, those limits were unable to match the power of grasping.  So when the earthlings quickly found something that was pretty to look at, good to eat, and desired to make them wise, they grasped.  They forgot both vocation and limitation, as well as the nearly unfettered permission they held.  They grasped for what was not theirs. 
            What the story is trying to say is that that is the human dilemma.  The story is timeless and the story is true.  It is timeless because it did not happen once upon a time.  It happens all the time.  It is true not because it is in the Bible but it is in the Bible because it is true.  The problem with being human is the same as the gift of being human.  Written into our deepest genetic code is the proclivity to push the envelope, to exceed set limitations, to forge beyond the parameters of the known and safe and to risk everything to achieve or acquire or attain something hitherto beyond the fringe.  It is the human dilemma because we cannot stop it.  The only way we could stop it would be to cease being human.   Take away the thrust that leads us to grasp what is not ours and at the same time you take away the thrust that leads us to new discoveries and accomplishments.  It is this dilemma, indeed this mystery, that led one of the Church Fathers to refer to Adam’s fall as the felix culpa, the fortunate fall. 
            But let us be clear about it.  We do have a dilemma.  Because we are not very good at abiding by limits, we have created quite a stinking mess of things.  We want and we do not have, so we elbow and push our way to get what we want.  Our thirst for oil sometimes leads us to manipulate whole nations, go to war, and despoil the environment.  Our grasping for power often leads us to ignore those without power, or worse, to trample upon them.  Look at any list of human problems on this planet and see the dilemma in unmistakable terms.  And, what is more, the human problem is not just grasping for what we do not have; it is holding on with a vengeance to what we are afraid of losing.
            You can judge whether this is an accurate picture of the human dilemma or not.  But was Cardinal Newman right in saying that “all was sin and shame”?  I think, frankly, that that might be going a little over the top.  But there is some reason to think that a good deal of it is sin and shame.  It is sin because, to the extent that humans grasp what does not belong to us or what we are afraid of losing, we transgress the very nature of the One in whose image we are created, namely giving:  giving liberally, lavishly, prodigally.  It is shame because we frequently become ashamed of who we are as ordinary human beings, and try to make up for it by inflating ourselves or by denying and repressing the mortal flesh that is ours to live in. 
            And this is the point at which Jesus enters the fray.  He comes as a “Second Adam.”  He is the New Earthling, and he is the model of what we can be.  I can guarantee you that when Mary brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, she was not thinking of Adam, let alone a Second Adam.  But we have taken her baby, and made him our Man, seeing in his life and teaching and death and resurrection what human beings are really like underneath the makeup that we have piled on since the unfortunate incident in the Garden.  We look into that manger, and we see another chance, another crack at being human, a Second Adam.  Cardinal Newman sang,
                                                O wisest love!  That flesh and blood,
                                                Which did in Adam fail,
                                                Should strive afresh against the foe,
                                                Should strive, and should prevail;….

The foe is none other than that whisper in our ears that we can be safe, we can be secure, we can have it all if we only forget our vocation, our permission, and our limitations, and act as if we were our own gods, with no accountability to anyone. 
            The irony of Jesus is that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes grew up and claimed his humanity.  He claimed his freedom.  He did not play along with or into the systems, including religious systems, that make a habit of controlling or limiting people our of fear that, left to their own devices, their grasp would ever exceed their proper reach.  No, he came among us acting like a totally New Adam, healing when it was forbidden, feeding when it had never been done, and teaching us to reach across the boundaries that separate us into haves and have-nots, saints and sinners.  But most of all, he lived this flesh-and-blood life not grasping, but giving.  As St. Paul put it to the Philippians, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but instead emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and giving himself up to death, even death on a cross.
And that was, in Cardinal Newman’s words, the real marvel:  “…that the highest gift of grace should flesh and blood refine:  God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine.”
            Indeed the downward movement of salvation is just this:  that the New Human, Jesus, joins us in the fray, and demonstrates exactly what we can be when, like him, we accept our humanity as genuine, our flesh as a blessing, and the norm of giving ourselves away as the gateway to Life and Truth.  I once saw what it looked like in a moment that totally amazes me still.  It was half the year away from Christmas Eve.  It was the day when the Church remembers the winning of the fray, when on Good Friday, the Second Adam strove afresh against the foe, strove and prevailed.  We had in one of my parishes the custom of a children’s service on Good Friday.  And, because in Connecticut Good Friday is a school holiday, sometimes many children came.  I had developed a simple service based on the Stations of the Cross.  Instead of moving around the church, however, I would verbally paint the scene of each station and then invite children from the congregation to come and take their places in a tableau.  Then I would offer a few comments on the scene before we moved to the next tableau.
            The time came for the scene in which Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross.  I called for a volunteer to be Simon, and shy little Andrew Cruz let me take him by the hand and place him in the tableau.  It happened that the acolyte was my daughter, Sarah Marsh.  The role of the acolyte was to be Jesus, and so far, the acolyte was carrying the wooden processional cross made of an oak sapling and hung with a crown of unmistakably sharp thorns.  I took Andrew Cruz and placed him in the tableau, taking the cross from Sarah Marsh and letting him hold it, standing behind her.  I proceeded with my little homily on how it is that we are called upon sometimes against our will to do something very difficult, and possibly very special.  Andrew began bawling.  As I turned and looked, I saw “Jesus,” my teenage babysitter, turn around, kneel down, and put her arm around Andrew Cruz, whose mom was already on her way to lead him back to his seat.  And we all sat wide-eyed at the spectacle of Jesus taking back his cross from Simon, and carrying what Simon could not do by himself. 
            We are caught in a world where, if not all, much is, or turns to, sin and shame.  It is scary.  Our knees tremble, our hearts break.  And often, unlike Andrew, we don’t in fact let go and cry, we grit our teeth and soldier on, unable to admit human weakness and equally unable to claim human strength.  If we could solve our dilemma by ourselves we would never need to hear that unto us is born a Savior.  And if you believe that we just might be able to solve our dilemma on our own, then look carefully at first your own life and secondly at human history, not to mention current events.  No, we need a Second Chance, a Second Adam.  And unto us is born this day a Savior who is just that.  The New Human, the Second Adam, comes to us, and shows us how simple flesh and blood, fully human and unashamed, can stoop down to give rather than reach up to grasp, and can thereby heal the world. 
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2006.