Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Annunciation – Wednesday, March 25 2015
Annunciation – Wednesday, March 25 2015
|Michelangelo's Pietà in the Vatican's Pavillion |
at the New York World's Fair 1964-1965
But not far from the Vatican Pavilion was the the Mormon Pavilion, and being even then a religion junkie, I couldn't resist. The building was impressive, at least from the outside, modeled on the facade of the Salt Lake City Temple with a golden Angel Moroni atop blowing his horn. And inside I found dioramas, bad art, handsome and eager young people, and brochures, which I took and read from cover to cover.
I have to say that I was rather struck by their theology. It was, first of all, a great story—lost tribes of Israel, wars in prehistoric Americas, Jesus in the Southwest. It was also tremendously optimistic. As I recall it, according to Mormon teaching we all lived in a previous sphere of life and chose to come to earth to grow and perfect ourselves. And if we played our cards right, we would become gods ourselves, masters of our own planets along with our spouse(s) and our spirit children, who would then repeat the cycle.
What struck me then is what I would now call the meta-narrative or Big Picture that this theology provides. All religions seek to provide a Big Picture, some way to fit in and make sense of our own individual stories, to place them in a larger, more encompassing, indeed an all-encompassing framework of meaning and lending them legitimacy and importance.
I thought of all this again because, as many of you know, I was in Salt Lake City last week for the very first time and got to visit Temple Square and see dioramas and handsome and eager young people very much like those I saw fifty years ago in Queens. And of course the facade—but only the facade—of the real LDS Temple. But more about that later.
Today's feast of the Annunciation invites us to reflect on the story of Jesus and, by extension, on our own stories. And it raises (at least for me) a fascinating question: where do you begin the story, whether it is the story of Jesus or of some other historical character, or our own life narrative?
We see St. Mark in his Gospel beginning with an adult Jesus being baptized by John. And that's a perfectly good way to begin a story: you dive right into the thick of things, right in the middle. And as the story is told, more details are revealed and more connections made, until a network of meaning emerges.
St. Luke in today's Gospel, pushes the story of Jesus back some decades to the achingly beautiful event of the Annunciation—of God's invitation to Mary through the angel Gabriel. We know it so well and love it so much and recall it daily as we pray the Angelus. But as if that were not quite adequate, Luke pushes the story back even further, tracing in Chapter 3 the genealogy of Jesus all the way to Adam, the “son of God.” In this he outdoes even Matthew, who takes the genealogy back—albeit for different reasons—only as far as our father Abraham.
And of course all three Synoptic Gospel writers pale in comparison to John's Gospel, which draws the story of Jesus right back to creation, indeed, back before time itself: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
So where does the story of Jesus begin? Well, it begins beyond the mists of time and creation and history. It begins from all eternity, in the endless, timeless, loving engendering of the Son out of the Father's heart, out of the very inner nature of the Godhead, who always was and always shall be. And let's face it, as stories of beginnings go, that's a dramatic sweep that's hard to beat. As meta-narrative, it doesn't get any better than this.
But what about us? I want to suggest that while we may not be able to accept the Mormon narrative that we all preexisted and chose to be here—though I'm not sure it contradicts any Christian beliefs—we still have a claim on a grand story that spans history and creation and extends beyond the ages. And that because we are all made in God's image and likeness and through our baptismal transformation are fully identified with Christ—albeit in ways almost totally surpassing our understanding and feeling. So it is that we are now, in some sense, no longer simply identified with Christ but identical with Christ. As St. Paul says, his life has become our life. Or more accurately, our lives have become his. And so in some mysterious but profound way, you and I and, I'd venture to say, all God's people share in the great drama of eternity that is Jesus Christ. What is his is now also ours. As even some of our own theologians and teachers in the faith have been so bold to claim: “Christ became human so that we humans might become divine.” It is what theologians call theosis, the divinizing transformation of the created order. So maybe Joseph Smith wasn't too far off the mark after all.
But does this help any of us? I know it helps me. When someone asks me about my story, my life history, perhaps at the refectory table or in conversation with family or friends, or in therapy, or as I question myself in the middle of those nights when I can't sleep...I tend to have certain tapes or messages [memes] that I play about myself. Maybe it's Robert the good. Or Robert the holy. Or Robert the son of the working poor. Or Robert the scholar. Robert the administrator. Or perhaps even Robert the forgiven sinner. Or Robert the betrayed. Or Robert the betrayer. Robert the victim. Robert the helpless. (Though seldom, I might add, Robert the artist or creator or thrill seeker or adventurer.)
You know these stories, these memes, these tapes. We all have them. They are the tales we have created about ourselves, based on and spun out of the events of our lives, real and imagined. And they have some usefulness, as far as they go. We use them to define who we are. But we also misuse them to limit ourselves. To protect ourselves. To separate ourselves from others. Sometimes even to separate ourselves from our own real life possibilities, or to avoid new life, changed life, converted life. Our stories, even when they bear the marks of truth, are almost always too small, too safe, too domesticated and way too edited.
And here our faith challenges us. Because it tells us through Scripture and myth and symbol and ritual and community that we are each of us created in God's image and incorporated into Christ and thus we share in an eternal destiny, even if at the moment it may appear quite hidden to us. Our story is also always bigger than we imagine.
One week from tomorrow we will gather to begin the annual sacred Three Days, celebrating the Paschal mystery of Christ's dying and rising. It will begin with a reading from the Gospel of St. John where Christ, at the Last Supper, begins to wash his disciples' feet. And he does this, says the Gospel writer, because he knows that he had come from the Father and was going to the Father. (John 12:3) That's Jesus' meta-narrative, his Big Story. And, my friends, that is your story and my story as well. That is the universal Christian meta-narrative, the container, the discourse that frames and makes sense of all our personal stories and memes and tapes and narratives that we repeat to ourselves and each other about ourselves, sometimes ad nauseam. The deepest truth about us is that, like Jesus, we—you and I—come from the Father and are going to the Father. And if we know this, and act on this, we will be blessed.
The young woman Mary knew this full well, and because she did, she was able to say Yes: yes to God's invitation, yes to the joys and pains and glories that were uniquely hers. It is this Yes that we celebrate today.
Pray that we too may also know it and with her say Yes to all that God is doing now in our world and in our communities and in our lives and in our own hearts.
“Mary said: Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”