I used to think the Old Testament was really neat, what with all the sex and warring of the rousing adventure movies I loved. And indeed, some Biblical stories were turned into the movies I saw as a kid, all about what Philip Lopate, remembering these movies, once called “the great Jewish lovers.” While the New Testament was a bummer. A sweet, innocent and apparently celibate man is calumnied, arrested, tortured and cruelly executed. Sure, he rises from the dead, but what sticks in the mind is the crucifixion, the Sign of the Cross. Many movies about this as well, including Mel Gibson’s grisly version.
Only recently, I watched a video of Franciscan friar Richard Rohr (gracias, Cristina) explaining how it was the founder of his order, Francis of Assisi — that poet, saint and high aesthete of poverty — who shifted the emphasis in Christian tradition from Easter, which includes the gory fate of Jesus, to his birth. To Christmas. Sure, he died for our sins, he rose triumphant from the grave, but what matters most is that he was born. Joy to the world.
What am I now? A lapsed Catholic? A slowly born-again one? My friend and colleague Peter Occhiogrosso included me in his book Once a Catholic: The title tells it all, Catholics never stop being Catholics. It’s not exactly in my DNA — on both sides, the generation before me was not religious and some were virulently anticlerical — but it’s in my schooling and also in some corner of the structure of my personality.
I’d say that I’d never return to the Church but perhaps the Church would return to me, knowing full well there was no chance in hell of that. Well, I’ll be damned, to stay with the Inferno conceit, if it’s not doing just that, thanks to the bishop who took the name of Francis, he who got Christmas rolling. My father, a youthful atheist and a mature practicing Catholic, was a devout Franciscan, and my home always had a number of images of the saint. It’s now my house and St. Francis is still around. So it turns out that I’m not only an evolving Catholic but a Franciscan.
I think I’m beginning to understand the New Testament, including the sweet man’s terrible fate. To Christians, the Son of God. To Muslims, a prophet. To Jews, an eccentric and possibly inconsequential rabbi. It would be an understatement to say that Christian treatment of Muslims and Jews has been and in many cases still is shoddy. Nonetheless, like all of us I inherited history. My role in it has been very minor, and I’ve tried and continue to try to act, well, Christian, in what I believe is the true sense of the Gospels. Love. And I try to be catholic in lower case: all embracing. In this season, I embrace you all.
It’s unlikely that the historical Jesus was born on December 25. It’s also hard to know what he actually said and did, since his scribes, the ones who actually wrote down the Gospels, did not know him. But though the New Testament lacks the stories of lust and war that made for thrilling action movies, it does have stories. Nuanced, enigmatic, defying common sense, coming from the lips of Jesus. A reliable narrator? Well, you got to believe a lot of impossible shit to think he’s reliable. Does that sound like modernist and postmodernist narrative? Did I need to study such narrative before I could appreciate the parables and the koan-like answers to questions? Possibly.
No matter (all spirit). I wish you all, followers of the religions of the desert, lapsed and practicing; practitioners of the spiritual arts that flowed and flow from Mother India; children of the orishas; rapturous seekers from the plains and mountains and jungles of the Americas (pásamelo, hermano); ancestor worshippers; activists and contemplatives; fundamentalists of their respective Books who could use a little less literalism and a lot more literacy; agnostics and atheists; jokers and smokers and midnight tokers: a very merry Christmas!