Wise Women

At a neighborhood holiday gathering the topic of a local living nativity came up. This year they need some wise men (don’t we all!) and some of the women mentioned that wise men should have beards. As the wearer of an old growth facial forest, I became the subject of a couple of queries—could you be a wise man? I replied that I wasn’t smart enough, but in the back of my mind I was attending the last church nativity play I’d been in. It was at the Church of the Advent, Boston’s high Episcopal establishment. I was cast as a centurion and was directed to deliver my lines woodenly. Being who I am, I did as I was told. I was invited to the cast party on Beacon Hill anyway. It was one of my few brushes with society folk in Boston.

Like many boys raised in church, I’d been cast in such plays before. One of three boys each born just one year apart, I was assigned the role of wise man along with my brothers. Far too young to grow a beard, I wore a costume made by my mother and carried a jar from a science experiment as a gift for baby Jesus. Being poor, we had no gold—or even frankincense or myrrh—lying around. In school we’d done this science project where a solution grew crystals up the inside of an ordinary coffee jar and out over the top. Stain it with food coloring and you have a gift fit for a king. So the illusion went.

The Christmas we celebrate today isn’t based too much on fact, but it is a prime occasion for plays. It’s a dramatic story, although the New Testament has to be bent and twisted to make it all fit into the comprehensive narrative of proselytizing playwrights. The king nobody recognizes being born in a barn. The creator of the universe being rejected by the very world for which he (the baby was always a boy) was responsible. The story is as timeless as Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and it’s enacted thousands of times each year in churches large and small across the country. Is there any reason that, as long as we’re straying into realms of imagination, the wise visitors shouldn’t be female? The ability to grow facial hair has little to do with any kind of intelligence. In fact, we’d be much better off right now with a woman in charge.


God Discount

God is great, despite what Christopher Hitchens wrote, at least, that is, if you want to save 15% without having to talk to a gecko. According to Mulder’s World—I want to believe that what I find on this site is true, but often I find myself feeling more like Scully—Mary’ Gourmet diner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina gives a grace discount. Well, perhaps this is believable. Praying in public has a long pedigree. This past Corpus Christi as I was driving back into town after a day out, I saw a procession walking down the street a few blocks from the local Catholic Church. Vested and carrying a monstrance with a humeral veil, the priest led the faithful out in public for a little recognized festival many suppose to be named after a city in Texas. Actually, I was an acolyte for Corpus Christi one year at the Church of the Advent in Boston. The well-heeled of Beacon Hill, however, knew to expect us out on the genteel streets. Private prayer in public, however, is something quite different.

As a very religious teen, I often went to United Methodist Youth events with the other faithful young. We would stop into restaurants on our long drives and make a show of praying amid the heathen. Some of us (not me, I assure you) even left Chick tracts instead of tips. If we’d ever ventured into Dixie, we might have had a discount. The problem with offering a praying in public discount is that it is impossible to tell if such shows are sincere. I have sat through many such episodes, wondering about Jesus’ statement “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Well, that was only the Sermon on the Mount. Here we’re talking fifteen percent! “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This gecko winks.

IMG_1502Public displays of piety are not uncommon. I spent yesterday at the local County 4-H Fair on a rare day off of work. The Gideons, as always, were there handing out New Testaments. Let your light so shine—they are bright orange. Religious freedom ensures that prayer in public is kosher, as is agnosticism in public. Who is harmed by a public prayer? In that diner, who is made uncomfortable? Sometimes the innocuous act of kindness is a sign of mature morality. How many times—isn’t it nearly always?—does that car cutting you off in traffic have a Jesus fish plastered to the back? “I drive my car,” Daniel Amos sings, “it is a witness.” What you truly believe shows up when you’re behind the wheel more than when you’re behind the napkin. The truth may be out there after all. In the meanwhile, my tip’s on the table.


Scary Monstrances

I can’t help myself. I’ve always found monsters fascinating. Now that I’m mostly grown up and am expected to have a modicum of respectability, I try to read academic books on monsters so that I can legitimate what would otherwise be puerile juvenility. David D. Gilmore’s Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors was my latest foray into the forest. As I have come to expect, just pages into the book the first reference to religion emerged. This connection between monsters and religion is not Gilmore’s central theme, but it does recur at several points in the book. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Spain’s Pentecostal dragon. The Tarasque, named after its host town, is a medieval dragon that is still feted to this day in some locations. Considered to be symbolic of the sins of humankind, it accompanies either the holy day of Pentecost or of Corpus Christi. This connection between the church and monsters took me back to my first experience of Corpus Christi.

Raised as solid a protester as a Protestant can be, I had a difficult transition to some aspects of Anglicanism. The ceremonial was great, but some of the popish blandishments I could never quite accept. When a member of Boston’s famed Church of the Advent, the rector asked me to be a torch bearer on Corpus Christi. This involved processing outdoors onto Beacon Hill in full drag (or cassock and surplice, as I’m sure the parsimonious will correct me) to accompany the holy sacrament, carried as it turns out, in a monstrance. The idea that looking at a piece of wafer-thin bread on public display could somehow mediate a divine blessing, I never understood. It felt as much a fairy tale as the dragons of Spain. Monster or monstrance?

Gilmore concludes that monsters are people’s projections of their deepest unresolved issues. He may be right. One of his observations, however, struck me. He suggests monsters predate even gods in the human imagination. I tend to think they entered that gray space at the same time. Our minds have always told us that there were creatures out there to fear. Some of them, we hope, are good. Others are clearly evil. Monsters are difficult to explain in a world created by a benevolent deity. It is perhaps no mistake that Zoroastrians conceived of Angra Mainyu as monstrous. Divinity and diabolism could be fused into one being. There is a profound lesson here, for those able to read. Monsters are among the earliest projections of human imagination. And they remain forever with us.

Angra Mainyu; god or monster?