Making Strange

st-francis-kneeling-zuberanA homily for Thursday offered in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ. The appointed Gospel is Mark 3:7-12.

As we looked at the San Damiano Cross yesterday, we noticed that Mary Magdalen has her hand to her chin.  We talked about how some theologians and iconographers suggest this symbolizes her carrying a secret:  The secret that Jesus is risen from the tomb.

We encounter another secret in today’s Gospel, a part of what some have referred to in Mark as the Messianic Secret.  This has to do with the way in which Jesus seems to caution people to keep quiet about his being the Messiah and not publicize his miracles.  In today’s reading, the demons or unclean spirits spot him and name him as the Son of God, “But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.”

This idea that Jesus might not want everyone to know the full truth about him until a certain time might strike us as odd in an age when we spend so much of our energy trying to be transparent and open. We want to be up front, direct and obvious.  When it comes to the person of Jesus Christ, most of the discussions I hear in the church have to do with ways we can present Jesus more directly, more clearly, and with more immediacy.  The failure of religion to captivate, critics say, is our reticence and reserve.

And yet, here is Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, showing the ultimate “reserve”—reserving his power and reserving his identity.

In the 1800s, some of those theologians in the Church of England known as the Tractarians wrote about “reserve.” They described reserve as a sort of disposition, especially of early Christians, who in times of persecution and misunderstanding, were reluctant to say exactly what they believed.  In the mid-19th century, this idea caused a huge uproar, especially among the more Protestant expressions of the Church.  But listen to a section of Tract 80, as Isaac Williams explains what he means.

As our Saviour pointed to His works, instead of declaring Himself, after the same manner, when, in the times of Origen, the secret discipline was practised in the Church, which seems to correspond to our Saviour’s concealing Himself, he pointed to the lives of Christians, i.e. to the works of Christ shown in them, as the strongest evidence which he could offer to the world. The truth must ever be propagated by some way of this kind, and not by argument.  (Isaac Williams, Tract 80, c. 1837)

Critics used the Tracts of the Times as evidence that this movement was really a secret work of the Pope, or the devil, or some combination of the two.

But Williams’ point that the “truth must be propagated in some way other than argument” resonates with me. The old religious vocabulary does not always translate. Our patterns and practices—even when simplified and explained—aren’t very convincing.

Someone who thinks a lot about how we talk about faith, how we present it, and how we interact with society is the Rev. Dr. Alison Milbank at the University of Nottingham, England.   She’s a literature professor who specializes in religion and culture, and writes about using the imagination in apologetics, or using the imagination to argue for Jesus Christ.  She writes

For me, the whole enterprise of presenting the faith convincingly is aimed at opening [a] desire in others, rather than offering pre-packaged answers … Our use of Scripture similarly can no longer be that of earlier modes of apologetics, in which the miracles were presented as forms of evidence in themselves.  Miracles even in the Gospels do not convince alone, but as signs of the divine at work.  We can, however, point to the texts as mysteries … And we can convince people, paradoxically, by pointing to the mystery of Christ as something attractive and convincing … For if Christ is the reality that takes us upward, we see through him, by means of him, with him.  And in trying to convince others of his divinity, we should return, perhaps, to the Tractarian reserve of the early Oxford Movement in communicating religious truth.  Christ is beautiful, especially when he is most disfigured, and if we are to convince others to follow him, we need to guard and gradually reveal that beauty.  (“Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange” in Imaginative Apologetics, ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM, 2010), 44-45.)

“Revealing beauty” is something we often do well in the Episcopal Church.  In fact, “the beauty of holiness” is something we pray about and practice, but do we celebrate it as much as we might?  Both St. Clare and St. Francis understood beauty as a means of knowing God and for both, and we’ve talked about how for them, the principle lens was poverty.  They didn’t romanticize the poor.  They became poor, and from that point of view could see all creation in its true beauty.  They seemed compellingly strange in their day, and they still do.

Alison Milbank suggests that we “make strange” the Gospel, that we claim the strange things we do, such as going to church on Sundays, committing ourselves to a life of prayer and compassion, standing in solidarity with the poor.  We veil the Gospel in story, mystery, and fairy tale, because as C.S. Lewis suggested, fairy tales are just the thing to help us “steal past the watchful dragons.”

Our culture’s wild appetite for virtual reality games, stories and movies of the supernatural, all point to a hunger for “the other.”  How do we, as bodies of Christ and the Body of Christ begin to reflect God’s beauty in a way that might entice, or allure, or woo?  Jesus knew how to not give away a punch line and how to lead people into mystery.  How might we follow him with a touch of “reserve?”

For starters, I think we keep telling stories, and try to make them really good ones. We keep celebrating the sacraments with as much passion and poetry as possible.  We keep on being religious in a secular society, riding bicycles in habits and pushing grocery carts through Times Square, and doing all that we do.  We keep being a little mysterious and odd.  And we keep being strange, for Christ’s sake.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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