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Your Very Life Is A Sacred Text

At least one of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the Ascension is absolutely hilarious. Not accidentally hilarious, be assured. In the great preacher’s second homily on the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6 and following), Chrysostom explains why Christ, for a second time, evades the apostle’s question about when the Kingdom of Israel will be restored.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Christ teaches that, of the passing away of heaven and earth, “…not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the day and the hour. Chrysostom refuses to take the claim at face value for reasons of simple Trinitarian dogma. If the Father and the Son are one, there is no knowledge the Father withholds from the Son.

Acts opens with Christ teaching “the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” to the disciples for forty days, although St. Luke is tantalizingly silent as to what these things are. When Christ teaches the baptism of the Holy Spirit will come soon, the apostles ask, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Christ is evasive, replying, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” As the apostles listen, Christ begins ascending into the cloud. Of this passage, Chrysostom comments:

But just as when we see a child crying, and pertinaciously wishing to get something from us that is not expedient for him, we hide the thing, and show him our empty hands, and say, “See, we have it not:” the like has Christ here done with the Apostles. But as the child, even when we show him [our empty hands], persists with his crying, conscious he has been deceived, and then we leave him, and depart, saying, “Someone else calls me,” and we give him something else instead, in order to divert him from his desire, telling him it is a much finer thing than the other, and then hasten away; in like manner Christ acted.

I was in stitches the first time I read it.

Every parent of young children knows exactly what Chrysostom here describes. Every parent has been asked by a toddler for a Sharpie, a sharp knife, a cup of paint, a sip of scalding hot tea, a bite of raw jalapeno, and every parent has told this same child they cannot have such a thing, then comforted the child for a good long time whilst the child cried hysterically. Every parent has also tried the trick Chrysostom describes here, wherein the knife a child requested disappears magically, the parent is bewildered by the loss of it, but offers a magic spoon instead, then exits the room quickly saying there is laundry to fold. “…in like manner Christ acted,” claims Chrysostom. There is, perhaps, greater humor still in comparing the evasive Christ with an evasive parent “show[ing]… empty hands” to a pestering child if we assume Chrysostom had seen an icon of the Ascension, which depicts Christ extending two open, empty hands to onlookers as He rises from Mount Tabor into the clouds.

Of course, Chrysostom probably delivered no less than fifty homilies on the Ascension in his lifetime, and for all those in his congregation who never lovingly deceived a child, I am quite sure numerous other illustrations and explanations of Christ’s sidestepping of the apostle’s question were offered. However, what is striking about Chrysostom’s hermeneutic is the way he examines a sacred text with a rather mundane, domestic light. The common tasks of motherhood, and a rather small aspect of keeping a child from harm, is transformed into a commentary on Scripture; the Scripture is understood because the nuances, strategies and tactics of good mothering were understood first.

The authors of Scripture assume that the private inclinations of our hearts, the subtle realizations of our intellects, and the minutely self-reflective prejudices of a man will grant entrance into a higher knowledge of God. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? … If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask of Him!” The poetic logic at work in Christ’s homily from St. Luke’s Gospel is nothing less than the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Christ instructs fathers to consider the natural love they have for their children, and in contemplating that love, to intuit the kind of love their Heavenly Father has for all people. Elsewhere, Christ employs the natural, humane, right and good sympathy every farmer has for his animals as an interpretation of Sabbath law (“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?”). Life itself, human nature is the interpretation of Scripture, and yet Scripture is also the interpretation of human nature, life itself.

In the weeks following the birth of my first child, I sometimes stayed up late into the night, while my wife slept, so that I could rock Camilla to sleep if she woke. More than once, rocking her to sleep did not work, or it did not work quickly, and so I held a screaming child for an hour, which was maddening. My own anger and vexation rose sharply at times, so sharply that I recalled those injunctives (from a birthing class my wife and I had taken) to “just walk away” from a screaming child “if you must.” I found my own anger subsided, though, when I spoke to myself as though I were Camilla, who could not yet speak. And so I held a screaming child and said aloud, “I don’t know why I am crying. Please be patient with me. Don’t be angry. I’m sorry I can’t stop screaming. I don’t know what’s wrong. Be merciful,” and often found myself weeping pitifully, too heartbroken to be angry. The whole experience began unfolding for me, at least a little bit, what was at stake when the Son said to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For years, Christ’s question baffled me, because it seemed to violate any number of Trinitarian dogmas. But I was a grown man who spoke to myself on behalf of a senseless child, and so it seemed, on the cross, very God spoke to very God on behalf of senseless men.

I find that “life” interprets Scripture more often when “life” is common, marginal. The blockbuster moments of life (heartbreak, the wedding night, the birth of a child, the death of a child, the great crime, the great sacrifice, the earthquake, the fire) yield grand realizations of the divine far less often than we might expect. The still, small moments, though, often yield lingering, fractaling, Cicada-dormant, yeast-like revelations which unfurl through the inner galaxies of a human soul for decades. The first time you ever get on your knees to pray, the indeterminate reality between waking and sleeping, a petty and passing desire to die, the bizarre sensation of saying exactly what you mean, the first time you use obscene language in front your parents, accidentally running over a cat… I once heard someone say something so stupid, I nearly fainted. My body went slack (fortunately I was sitting) and the upper register of my vision became white. After a few moments I regained my faculties and laughed for a very long time. That particular experience has unlocked for me certain Scriptural claims about angels and visions and prophecy.

Of course, it is often difficult for high school teachers to employ the Commentaries of Common Life in a sympathetic fashion during class because our students are so young, and have not passed through many of these kind of experiences. To see the divine unlocked in your own nature, in your own inclinations and sudden, unfeigned reflexes requires a certain maturity of self-reflection, as well, and not every high school freshman is there, yet. At the same time, at fourteen or fifteen, we have already begun experiencing the life of God in ways which will haunt us, sublimate us, and feed our imaginations until we die. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, features several rather remarkable depictions of macro-evolutionary leaps into self-awareness typical of young teenage life. The story opens with the people of Irkutsk complaining to the gods that they can no longer stand the libido of King Gilgamesh, a serial rapist who bars the door of wedding chapels until he can claim droit du seigneur. The gods fashion Enkidu, a violent helpmeet, and after Gilgamesh has been subdued, Enkidu encourages the king to undertake a manly, properly aristocratic adventure, and go with him to kill a demon. Gilgamesh immediately consents, and goes off to tell the elders of the city his plan, and then finds his mother to inform her, as well. In covering these passages, I often ask my sophomores to reflect on that moment when they realized that toys were toys, and so no longer wanted them, but wanted a baseball mitt or a pocket knife or to join Boy Scouts— or simply wanted to bring near to themselves anything significant of age. The desire to let anyone and everyone the world over know that you have graduated from the banalities of youth into the splendor of sophistication is overwhelming, and so the performance begins. “I don’t play with toys anymore,” a child of ten proudly declares to all his friends the morning after. “Toys are for kids. I’m not a kid.” In like manner, Gilgamesh glimpses the next level up, and directly wants the whole city (and his mama) to know, “I’m not into that whole jus primae noctis thing, anymore. Now I hunt demons for the glory of the city. Like a king.” The story is not appreciable outside the self-reflection of the reader who has, at least once, been suddenly embarrassed by their own lack of self-awareness.

That we ought to see our lives as a sacred text is, perhaps, part and parcel of the outlandish claims of classic, Christian metaphysics. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann suggests in For the Life of the World, the Incarnation heralds the end of the sacred and the end of the religion, for the God Who is “everywhere present” tears the temple curtain Himself. The sacred thing is no longer that thing which is set apart from common things. The sacred thing is that which reveals that all things are sacred.

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