Christianity

Abraham and the Three Angels

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“Abraham Serving the Three Angels” by Rembrandt, oil on canvas, 1646. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Abram went forth with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, following his Lord’s command, into the land of Canaan. He was 75 years old. Abram’s wife was barren, therefore Lot was to Abraham as if he were the son of the old chieftain. There was a famine on the land, and for a time Abram dwelt in Egypt and became rich. Returning from Egypt, Abram and Lot separated: Abram raised his tent in the plain of Mamre in Hebron; Lot went to dwell on the plain of Jordan, next to the city of Sodom.

When Abram was 99 years old the Lord appeared to him and ratified their covenant, changing Abram’s name to Abraham, and that of his wife to Sarah.

In the desert, during the worst time of the day, heat seeps through your pores, dries up the organs of the body and distempers the rational mind creating a blur of vision, which gives way to mirages. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

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“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Jacob was journeying to the land of his father and kinsmen, he met the “angels of god” in a place called Mahanaim. When he was informed that this brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed,” for there was past enmity between Jacob and his brother. He sent his people and their retinue ahead. On the night when he passed over the ford Jabbok, he sent his wife, his servants and his eleven sons to cross over the brook and remained alone (KJ Gen., 32:2 and 7).

Then Jacob “wrestled” with a man until the “breaking of the day.” The man did not prevail against him, but touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and caused it to come out of joint. Still Jacob persisted, until at the first sight of dawn, the man asked to be released from their struggle. And Jacob said: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” (KJ Gen., 32:24-26).

The man replied: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob received the blessing from the strange man, for “he blessed him there.” Only then did he realize he had wrestled with an angel: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” He called the place Penuel, and as he passed from it “the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh” (KJ Gen., 32: 28-31).

What lessons can be learned from the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel? (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Joseph the Dreamer

Sphinx

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1880. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Catholic pantheon, the cult of Saint Joseph has three aspects: head of family, worker, and dreamer. In the gospel of Matthew, during the days of the birth of Christ, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph three, perhaps four times (KJ Matthew, chs. 1-2): (more…)

Devilish Lies

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(Credit: U.S. White House)

Lies—big and small, noble or not—are the way of the world, whether we speak of personal, social, and professional relationships or of advertising, media, and politics. Lying is normal—so it seems—yet still disturbing.

When we testify in court, we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is our oath. But as a juror, I find it difficult to determine whether the testifier’s truth telling is stretched, selective, or faked. Truth is not so transparent or objectively known as we’d like to think. Indeed, it is the jury’s job to make a judgment about what is true and what is false.

Among the factors that influence our assessment of a claim to truth, whether in the courtroom, the political arena, or elsewhere, are the credibility of the testifier, the coherence of the story told, common sense, our own experience, and perspective. Seldom, if ever, are we absolutely confident of our judgment, which can leave us feeling uneasy—a little or a lot depending on the circumstances and consequences. (more…)

An Allegory of Heroic War

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Painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984. (Credit: Klettur / Wikimedia Commons)

Halldór Laxness, Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The saga Gerpla (1952) was among the works recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Philip Roughton’s new translation of this saga of misguided glory, Wayward Heroes, was published on November 1, 2016.

Wayward Heroes is a story drawn from ancient Icelandic tales of valor in a medieval Norse world of trolls, Viking raids, skaldic lays, dueling Kings, and Christian hypocrisy. It is an allegorical critique of contemporary militarism, the senselessness of violence. Its immediate referent is the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. Its continuing relevance, by extension, is to the US colossus and its Global War on Terror.

This tragic tale of comedic critique features the oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, both obsessed with glory and sworn to avenge one another’s death, whomever dies first. Thorgeir aspired to be an intrepid hero in the service of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Stout, himself a Viking thug). Thormod was a skald, a poet determined to tell the story of heroic battles fought by his chosen king. It does not end well for any of them. (more…)

Not This Woman, But Barabbas

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Hillary Clinton on 9 February 2016. (Credit: Ted Eytan)

Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber.

KJ, John 18:40

The Mozart of baseball journalists, an exquisite writer whom I have admired for decades, has shamed me into revealing—for whatever little it’s worth—my vote in the next presidential election. To read Roger Angell’s distinctive, lucid prose is like listening to the song of a water spirit in a fresh mountain stream. At the age of a youthful 96 years, Angell has taken to the pages of the New Yorker (his long-time home) to declare his vote for Hillary Clinton.

I once heard Ruben Berríos, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, say that a US presidential election was always a choice between “Mr. Hamburger and Mr. Hot Dog.” The customary spectacle in our time of two unfortunate male clowns lunging for the presidential chair has been—to say the very least—disheartening. But there is a never-before-seen wrinkle in this year’s election: it is a choice between Mr. Hot Dog and a Woman. Hillary Clinton may yet turn out to be another fool in our endless parade of presidential clowns, but there is no doubt that Donald Trump will be a vulgar buffoon.

I have taken my responsibilities as a democratic voter seriously in this election. At the risk of my sanity, I have heard most of the primary debates, followed the news assiduously in print and social media, and have taken the time—seeking surcease of sorrow—to review the history, speeches and debates of the greatest of presidents, Abraham Lincoln. At the end of this self-imposed Way of the Cross, through which I sought revelation in penance, I make mine Roger Angell’s words: “I will cast my own vote for Hillary Clinton with alacrity and confidence.” And let me clarify: I am not voting for Clinton because I think Trump is a punk (although I do). Trump, to my mind, was the very best of the stable of presidential candidates Republicans offered US voters in the primaries; I will vote for Clinton because I trust (I do) that as president she will walk on paths that I think best for this great country. (more…)

Myths and the Empire

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“Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond,” oil on canvas, by Gus Nall, 1963. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Traditionally myths are considered stories about the gods. But more accurately, myths are stories from the gods. Perhaps it is more comfortable to consider them, according to the less beautiful terminology of our times, stories from the unconscious. In Jungian terms, myths are archetypal manifestations that take the form of narratives.

Ritual is the enactment of a myth (this is Joseph Campbell’s definition). Ritual performance brings myths into our reality, and according to Black Elk, spread their sacred power among the tribe, thus making the world “greener and happier.”

An angel can turn into a devil before our eyes: Lucifer becomes Satan. The reverse can also be true: Joan of Arc, burned as a witch, becomes saint. A myth can be perceived as containing a hero (George Armstrong Custer) engaged in mortal struggle with an antagonist (Sitting Bull), and a moral that legitimizes Custer as representing the forces of good and Sitting Bull as an evil avatar. But then times change, our hopes and fears transform, and reason—ever a servant to our formulations—re-casts Sitting Bull as a patriot warrior and Custer as a fool. (more…)

Three Kings

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Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: “The Three Wise Men.” (Credit: Nina Aldin Thune)

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You’d wake up in the morning wondering if they were still there but you did not want to meet them, afraid of the magic of their passage which still infused the lighted Christmas tree that you could see in the living room down the hall from your vantage point at the doorway of your bedroom.

Xmas toys were small tokens that fulfilled the date peremptorily, almost a duty since you went to an American school in which instruction occurred in English. (Both Cuban and US holidays were celebrated and they had told you about Santa Claus coming to your house with toys on Christmas Eve.) We had no problem accepting gifts from Santa Claus, but the important toys—bicycles, Lone Ranger costumes, Tonto action figures, Zorro’s secret hideout (a miniature, plastic mountain)—were brought by the Kings on January 6. Train sets were also delivered, which you were not old enough to fix, but which delighted you by running round and around on their own power and on a single track.

(more…)

Land of the Dollar

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf," oil on canvas, by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1634. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Adoration of the Golden Calf,” oil on canvas, by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1634. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he saw the people of Israel dancing and worshipping the golden calf. “Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” (Exodus 32:9) During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)

And yet in the land of the free we have created the “Land of the Dollar,” and we worship Mammon and build temples to the Golden Calf. (more…)

The Devil’s Dictionary

"The Hell," mosaic by  Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Hell,” mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In times of trouble, I do not consult the Bible. I visit the astonishing and still very relevant Devil’s Dictionary by the bewildering Ambrose Bierce. Its word definitions—compiled during the last half of the nineteenth century—are cleansing, illuminating, and especially joyful during times when our minds are full of signs (indeed the certainty) that the prophesied and long-awaited Apocalypse is upon us.

Observe, for example, its sober definition of ABSURDITY = A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion. Take heed, all those who labor in “new” universities and houses of learning, of the dictionary’s stern proclamation of the decadence of such institutions: ACADEMY = A modern school where football is taught. (more…)