Parable of the Two Sons

Our reading at Holy Mass today from the prophet Zephaniah refers to the ‘remnant of Israel,’ a people ‘humble and lowly,’ who ‘take refuge in the name of the Lord’ and ‘do no wrong and speak no lies.’

As we know, beginning with Abraham, the Lord had established an alliance with His chosen people, according to which they could purify themselves of selfishness and worldliness and await the coming of the Messiah in peace. But the leaders of ancient Israel let themselves get distracted by other, relatively trivial things, just like pagans. So only the quiet, prayerful ‘remnant’ persevered in the alliance: Israelites who, no matter what happened, always come back to the Lord in prayer.

Lord Jesus’ little parable about the vintner with two sons draws us into the heart of the question: who exactly counts as a true Israelite? Spoken words and other exterior signs do not, in and of themselves, indicate anything. As one of the Fathers of the Church put it, in explaining this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is not in words but in deeds.”

darth_vader
Rogue One? If Darth Vader is involved, count me in.

The picture the Lord paints in the Parable of the Two Sons is exceedingly homey, utterly middle-class. The sons of big-time vineyard owners could work or not work, as it suited their whims. But the salt of the earth, small-time vintners needed the labor of their children in order to keep the operation viable.

The parable gets even more homey once the action starts. What parent hasn’t had this experience? “Dear child of mine, would you please work in my vineyard today/clean up your room this afternoon/pick up your little sister on your way home from basketball practice/[fill in any other perfectly reasonable request aimed at keeping the household going]?” only to be met with a petulant, irrational, “No! Can’t you see I’m an adolescent in a bad mood! Don’t talk to me about your chores when I am desperately trying to figure out the meaning of life by stewing in my own immature juices!”

But then: this same fleetingly difficult child actually does wind up picking up his or her little sister, because he/she figured out that honest co-operation leads to greater happiness than endless self-centered brooding does.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, little Mr. or Mrs. Perfect Goodytwoshoes says all the right things and yet remains trapped inside his or her little perfectionist narcissistic world.

Now, we Christians enjoy the great benefit of knowing precisely Who the Messiah is, what He is like, what work He willed to accomplish while on earth, and how all His teachings can help us live right. This gives us a huge advantage over even the holiest of the ancient Israelites, all of whom had to live in a state of uncertainty on these matters.

We know that humbly co-operating with Jesus Christ in the work of helping souls attain salvation—we know that this offers the greatest happiness available to us mortals in this life. So let’s get over all of our petulant little moody fits, so that we can spend the time we have on earth laboring in Christ’s good vineyard.

I promised a superior translation of Boris Pasternak’s “Mary Magdalene.” I present those parts of the poem that benefit from a better rendition in English…

As soon as night falls, my tempter is beside me
He is the debt I pay to my past
Memories of debauchery
Come and suck at my feet
Memories of myself, a salve to men’s whims,
A fool, out of my mind,
To whom the street was shelter.

A few moments remain,
Then comes the silence of the tomb.
Having reached the end of the world
I break my life before you
Like an alabaster box.

Oh, where would I be now,
My teacher and my savior,
If eternity did not await me
At the table, at night,
Like a new client
Caught in the net of my craft?

But, tell me, what is the meaning of sin,
Of death, hell, fire and brimstone,
When before the eyes of all
I have grown one with you in my boundless sorrow
As the graft grows one with the tree?

And perhaps, Jesus, holding your feet on my knees,
I am learning to embrace
The square shaft of the cross,
Losing consciousness as I strain your body to me
Preparing you for burial.

 

The columns of the guards will re-form
And the horsemen will ride away.
Like a windspout in a storm, the cross above my head
Will strain towards the sky.

And I will fall at its feet,
Silent and dazed, biting my lips.
Your arms will spread out to the ends of the cross
To embrace too many.

For whom in all the world
Is your embrace so wide,
For whom so much torment,
So much power?

In all the world
Are there so many souls?
So many lives?
So many villages, rivers and woods?

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Barges Floating Towards Christ

The one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will gather his wheat into his barn and burn the chaff. (Matthew 3:11-12)

In ancient times, our forefathers awaited the Messiah. God had promised to send a Savior, a holy prophet, a king, a high priest of all creation, Who would overcome the Fall of Man.

boris-pasternak-painted-by-his-father
Boris Pasternak, painted by his father

Justice shall be the band around his waist, faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” He shall judge. With justice. He will eliminate evil from the life of the world. And cows, bears, babies, and cobras will become frolicking friends. No harm, no ruin will then beset the glorious dwelling of the Christ.

The faithful souls of old patiently, earnestly awaited the fulfillment of these prophecies. They awaited the resolution of all history, the end of evil.

St. John the Baptist encountered the Christ while both of them still inhabited their mothers’ wombs. When John grew up, he awaited the Lord Jesus’ manifestation of His glory. Christ showed Himself the Messiah at His baptism in the River Jordan. Again Jesus showed Himself to be the divine Messiah when He glowed with transfigured light on Mt. Tabor. But, above all, Christ showed Himself the priest, prophet, and king of creation on the Cross.

If I might, I would like to share with you a couple stanzas of Boris Pasternak’s poem “Gethsemane.”

The field tailed off
Into the Milky Way.
Grey-haired olive trees tried to walk the air
Into the distance.

Unresisting he renounced
Like borrowed things
Omnipotence and the power to work miracles;
Now he was mortal like ourselves.

The night was a kingdom of annihilation…
The whole world seemed uninhabited…
He gazed into the black abyss…
Sweating blood, he prayed to his father.

Then the poem moves into Christ’s words to His disciples after He wakes them from sleep:

‘The book of life has reached the page
Which is the most precious of all holy things…

‘You see, the passage of the centuries is like a parable
And catches fire on its way.
In the name of its terrible majesty
I shall go freely, through torment, down to the grave.’

Whoa, Father. Heavy. Plus: You’re giving us a poem about the Garden of Gethsemane during Advent. Did you forget what month this is?

St. John declared that the Messiah will baptize with Spirit and fire, and He will separate the wheat from the chaff. St. John and all our holy ancestors lived their lives awaiting the true Judge, who would, by separating evil from good, fulfill the picture Isaiah painted: the paradise that God wills for us. That paradise stands outside time as we know it. It stands on the other side of a holy death.

Pasternak’s poem concludes with the Lord Jesus finishing His words to His disciples: ‘I shall go freely, through torment, down to the grave.

‘And on the third day I shall rise again.
Like rafts down a river, like a convoy of barges,
The centuries will float to me out of the darkness.
And I shall judge them.’

Our ancestors studied the books of Moses and the other prophets; they meditated endlessly on God fashioning the heavens and the earth out of nothing. They stilled their souls to such a silence that they could perceive God communicating as the rising sun began to distinguish the surrounding hillsides from the sky.

Today God may bring all of history to its fulfillment. Today God may show the fullness of His glory. And all yearning, striving, straining, and hoping will end.

Time floats toward Christ with terrible majesty, like barges on the river. But not towards a falls, over which everything topples into oblivion. No. Jesus stands there, at the end of the river, to judge. Life conquers death. And the picnic on the holy mountain begins, with frolicking cows, bears, babies, and cobras. And, please God, us.

St. Andrew, Pasternak’s Magdalene, Lara and Zhivago

St Andrew

Saint Andrew watches over many Christian institutions. These include: our beloved parish here in Roanoke, Virginia, and the nation of Russia, among many others. Today we keep the saint’s feast.

dr-zhivago-boris-pasternakAt the beginning of his letter closing the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invokes the memory of St. Mary Magdalene. Actually, the pope recalls two women: the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who bathed the feet of Christ with her hair. But, according to tradition, and according to the great 20th-century Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, those women are one woman, namely Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalen by Boris Pasternak (translation by his sister Lydia Pasternak Slater)

I

As soon as night descends, we meet.
Remorse my memories releases.
The demons of the past compete,
And draw and tear my heart to pieces,
Sin, vice and madness and deceit,
When I was slave of men’s caprices
And when my dwelling was the street.

The deathly silence is not far;
A few more moments only matter,
Which the Inevitable bar.
But at the edge, before they scatter,
In front of Thee my life I shatter,
As though an alabaster jar.

O what might not have been my fate
By now, my Teacher and my Savior,
Did not eternity await
Me at the table, as a late
New victim of my past behavior!

But what can sin now mean to me,
And death, and hell, and sulphur burning,
When, like a graft onto a tree,
I have-for everyone to see-
Grown into being part of Thee
In my immeasurable yearning?

When pressed against my knees I place
Thy precious feet, and weep, despairing,
Perhaps I’m learning to embrace
The cross’s rough four-sided face;
And, fainting, all my being sways
Towards Thee, Thy burial preparing.

II

People clean their homes before the feast.
Stepping from the bustle of the street
I go down before Thee on my knees
And anoint with myrrh Thy holy feet.

Groping round, I cannot find the shoes
For the tears that well up with my sighs.
My impatient tresses, breaking loose,
Like a pall hang thick before my eyes.

I take up Thy feet onto my lap,
Wash them clean with hot tears from my eyes,
In my hair Thy precious feet I wrap,
And my string of pearls around them tie.

I now see the future in detail,
As if it were stopped in flight by Thee.
Like a raving sibyl, I could tell
What will happen, how it will all be.

In the temple, veils will fall tomorrow,
We shall form a frightened group apart,
And the earth will shake-perhaps from sorrow
And from pity for my tortured heart.

Troops will then reform and march away
To the thud of hoofs and heavy tread,
And the cross will reach towards the sky
Like a water-spout above our heads.

By the cross, I’ll fall down on the ground,
I shall bite my lips till I draw blood.
On the cross, your arms will be spread out–
Wide enough to hug the whole wide world.

Who’s this for, this glory and this strife?
Who’s this for, this torment and this might?
Are there enough souls on earth, and lives?
Are there enough cities, dales and heights?

But three days–such days and nights will pass–
They will fill me with such crushing dread
That I’ll see the joyous truth, at last:
I shall know Christ will rise from the dead.

Mary Magdalene is one of Pasternak’s “Zhivago Poems,” that is, the poem is included in the novel as the work of the fictional hero.

I read Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago because Thomas Merton thoroughly recommends it in his book Disputed Questions. Many people love the picturesque movie version of Dr. Zhivago, with Omar Sharif. If you want to continue to love the movie, don’t read the novel. The movie becomes laughable once you’ve read the six hundred pages of prose-poetry that Hollywood managed to turn into a lugubrious comic book.

Prose poetry like Lara’s description of the love she shared with her Yura (the doctor of the title), as she reflects after his death:

They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet. Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the wide expanses they saw on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, took more delight in their love than they themselves did.

Ah, that was just what had united them and had made them so akin! Never, never, even in their moments of richest and wildest happiness, were they unaware of a sublime joy in the total design of the universe, a feeling that they themselves were a part of that whole, an element in the beauty of the cosmos.

This unity with the whole was the breath of life to them. And the elevation of man above the rest of nature, the modern coddling and worshiping of man, never appealed to them. A social system based on such a false premise, as well as its political application, struck them as pathetically amateurish and made no sense to them.

Much more to come re: Pasternak and Zhivago, dear reader. In fact, I want to offer you a different translation of Mary Magdalene, which I can’t dig up just now, but which I think is actually better than his sister’s translation–which, to my mind, sacrifices too much for the sake of retaining the rhyme scheme. Just wanted to share this much with you in honor of our parish’s patron today.

The Body and the Rowan Tree

rowan-tree

In Part XII of the novel Dr. Zhivago, the title character finds himself encamped in the Siberian wilderness with a detachment of troops.  The winter is coming on fast.  He observes this:

At the way out of the clearing and the forest, which was autumnally bare and could be seen through, as if the gates had been thrown open upon its emptiness, there grew a solitary, beautiful, rust-red-leafed rowan tree, the only one of the trees to keep its foliage. It grew on a mound above a low, hummocky bog, and reached right up into the sky, into the dark lead of the prewinter inclemency, the flatly widening corycombs of its head, brightly glowing berries.  Small winter birds, bullfinches and tomtits, with plumage bright as frosty dawns, settled on the rowan tree, slowly and selectively pecked the larger berries, and, thrusting up their little heads and stretching their necks, swallowed them with effort.

Some living intimacy was established between the birds and the tree. As if the rowan saw it all, resisted for a long time, then surrendered, taking pity on the little birds, yielded, unbuttoned herself, and gave them the breast, like a nurse to a baby.  ‘Well, what can I do with you? Go on, eat me, eat me. Feed yourselves.’ And she smiled.

Mother Earth, coursing with vigor and life, even in the Siberian winter.

What are we human beings made of?  It is in fact impossible for us to imagine ourselves, to conceive of ourselves at all, without including our earthen bodies in the picture.

Ephesians 6 offers a perfect case in point.  St. Paul is talking about purely spiritual matters. Fighting the devil, truth, righteousness, peace, faith.  And yet he cannot do so without painting an image of the human body, “armored” from head to toe.

The Apostolic See of Rome rarely intervenes to lay down laws regarding Christian burial. The last time the Vatican made a ruling in this area was over fifty years ago.  But the See of Peter has spoken definitively to us this month, to remind us of this crucial fact:

We believe in the resurrection of the body.  We believe that Mother Earth will give up her dead on the last day, and the bodies of the saints will stride forth with the fullness of life. God pours forth life to these earthen bodies of ours as surely as the rowan tree in Dr. Zhivago fed the winter birds.

We must bury our dead with this fact in the forefront of our minds.  As the instruction puts it: Burying the bodies of the deceased shows greater esteem for them than does cremation.

Or course God will raise the bodies of the dead who have been cremated, or whose bodies have been lost–He’s omnipotent; He can manage it.

But this is about us.  This is about us expressing what we believe about our bodies.  Our bodies are not instruments; they are not prisons; they are not husks or shells for our souls.  We are who we are: body and soul.  That’s why we lovingly lay the bodies of our beloved dead into the ground.  And patiently wait for the resurrection.

Merton Alaska-Talks Catena

Man does not die in a ditch like a dog–but at home in history, while the work toward the conquest of death is in full swing; he dies sharing in this work.  –Boris Pasternak, quoted in Merton, Disputed Questions

 

thomas merton

During the month before he traveled to Asia (and encountered untimely death), Father Thomas Merton gave some talks to priests and nuns in Alaska.  I thought that some passages from these talks from September 1968 might encourage us, so I made this little catena of quotes…

“God asks us to be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is enough, God is sufficient.  That is the root of peace.  We have that peace when God is all we seek.  When we start seeking something besides Him, we lose it.  That is His call to us–simply to be people who are content to live close to Him.

…We have made an agreement with God, an agreement to trust His promise.  That is what the covenant is, as God said to Abraham.  He called Abraham out of his land:  leave your people, leave your father’s house, and come to the land I will show you…The covenant consists in listening to the call and believing the promise, and always listening and always believing…We have not covenanted to do any great work.  We have simply promised that we will listen and that we will believe His promise.”

 

icon“We have to know Christ and respond personally to Him as the one in Whom all the promises of the Father are fulfilled.”

 

“If our life loses this sense that God has promised everything to us and that His promise cannot fail, then we are disturbed or upset, running from pillar to post.  But God has said that if we will be quiet and will trust in Him and live in peace and not in turmoil and not get too involved in anything that takes us too far away from Him, then He will do the rest.  He will be close to us, and He will work through us and save souls through us.  We need not worry about it–He is going to do it, and once again this returns us to an atmosphere of peace…Think what it means to be called to this specific kind of peace–in a world in which there is so such peace–in a world in which peace is almost impossible…’Why did He pick us out?’  Well, He did; that’s all.  And we are called to keep alive a little flame of peace and awareness and love in a world where it is very difficult for it to be kept alive.”

 

“The basic principle of education is to teach people to speak to God as their Father and to bow down to no one but God.”

 

pentecost_with_mary“It isn’t that the world is necessarily evil, but built into it are certain processes which tend to stamp out the life of God and the light of God and the Word of God.  So we have to face the fact that to preserve our own peace we have to know how to fight.  We are in the middle, called to peace and love and simplicity, called by the spirit of freedom which we learn to experience in a life of prayer.  Somehow we have to learn to be guided by the Holy Spirit towards this freedom which can hardly be defined.  And at the same time we are surrounded by conflict and criticism.”

 

“How does God run His household?  This is what is revealed in the Bible…  The Bible explains what God does with us, His promises to us; how, in fact, He runs His household.  This economy, the plan of God is centered on the fact that man is the image of God, and that God comes down to earth and empties Himself to save man, and the restoration of man is the work of the Holy Spirit.  So the reality of the Christian mystery is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit…the Holy Spirit given as a fruit of the Resurrection, as a result of the Resurrection, and the Holy Spirit is here transforming us, overcoming death in us, and communicating to us the incorruptibility and the risen life of the new creation, which is the Risen Christ…victory over death…

“You may say, ‘There are a lot of people following their consciences and making a lot of noise about it.’  I think the reason they make so much noise about it is that they are insecure.  If a person is securely following his own conscience, he doesn’t have to challenge the whole world about it.  If in order to justify following my conscience, I have to break down the doors of the Synod or set fire to the White House, there is something the matter with my conscience, and I am probably a pretty insecure person…If you think you are following the Holy Spirit and are hitting somebody over the head, then you have a pretty good indication that what you are following is not the Holy Spirit…See authority [in the Church] not as an abstraction but as embodied in superiors who have feelings.”

 

“The real Christian conscience is way down in the depth where one feels at the same time a complete personal conviction–it is my conviction, it is personally mine.  I am free, and it is my freedom that is saying this, and at the same time I know that I am basically united with all that  the saints and the Church have ever thought.  You can have this and still disagree…People who love one another very well and know each other very well can disagree and even fight like cats and dogs, but yet on a deeper level they are in agreement because of their love and their knowledge of one another…We are all really one in a certitude which is maintained not by anybody being right but by the Holy Spirit holding everybody together in a love and in Christ…And of course the place where this is experienced above all is the liturgy.”

 

“Too often instead of announcing Christ we are apologizing for Christ.  This is one of the sad facts about the turmoil in contemporary Christianity.  All of a sudden we say such things as ‘You know it’s not all that serious when we present Christ.  Christ is only trying to help us solve our sociological problems,’ and so on and so on.  We try to get around the seriousness of Christ, the seriousness of the Cross, and we transform them into dimensions which suit the secular world, the press, and so forth.

“This is not right:  this we cannot do.  We don’t apologize for Christ, we simply announce Him as a fact.  This has happened; the Lord has come.  His kingdom has been established, this is it and we are a part of it, and we’re living as Risen and Redeemed people in Christ.

“We can be fooled into thinking that we can take care of ourselves with all our modern know-how, and then just go to God on Sundays only.  The more our technological know-how grows and the more equipment is available, the more God is pushed to the periphery these days.

“But this is not the issue.  God is not there just to solve problems, problems or no problems.  God is the center of everything, and Christ is the center of everything.”