John McAndrew

Well, I’ll Be Damned: I’m a Believer

In Uncategorized on October 11, 2011 at 10:35 PM

In the Schleswig Munster, in north Schleswig-Holstein, almost all the way to Denmark, is a triptych of the life of Mary. I was struck by its simplicity and universality. It spoke to me of a Christianity I could believe in, which will surprise those who know me. I took pictures so I could share.

Here Mary gets news from an angel: she will give birth to a child destined to be the Messiah. In Catholicism this is called the Annunciation. Mary is alone, except for the angel, the light dawning on her and radiating from her. She seems to be collapsing. In her lap appears, to me, the suggestion of the shape of a dove. On her face is no joy or rapture; confusion, perhaps, or surprise. Her left hand seems receptive and accepting, while her right seems to be warding off, or maybe greeting.

The child is born. He has not done a thing yet, but everyone is thrilled. Or are they? The three men on the left are split: one is worshipful, but the other two seem gravely concerned, even sick. Perhaps one of them is Joseph. On the right the three men are reverent. In the center of this triptych within the triptych, Mary is alone with her child. Her radiance endures, but there are clouds behind everyone.

A long time passes before the third panel of the triptych. Mundane and wonderful things happen out of our view, but we know the story. The child wakes up his parents in the night, crying to be fed. He goes to Schul and, of course, excels, though he is a problem student: he has issues with authority. He learns his father’s trade. He wanders, and comes home. He makes friends and enemies. He develops his own mind and purpose. Like his mother before him, he has a revelation of his life’s mission. But the artist chooses to depict none of this.

It all goes horribly, incomprehensibly wrong. The natural order is broken: the child dies before his mother. No, worse: the child is murdered in front of his mother, by some who should have welcomed him as their savior, in collusion with the authorities who are oppressing them all. Where is God? Where is that angel who predicted great things? Mary continues to glow, but her face is concealed and the clouds behind her and her dead son are dark as the end of the world.

She is alone. More alone than mere isolation can make you: can you feel anything but utterly annihilated by holding the body of your murdered child? The corporeal, actual death of his dreams and yours? Not just any dreams and hopes: they were announced by an angel, confirmed by the wise and the common people, the hopes and dreams of a whole people. The boy worked miracles.

How Could This Happen?

What Does This Mean?

This is what it means to me.

It isn’t about Mary being special and unique. It’s about her and her son (who plays second fiddle in the triptych) being like us. It’s mythic, meaning it is a story that conveys truth about ALL of our lives.

The world as we experience it is a terrible place in some ways. We feel alien in a place that needs saving. People are mean to each other. Those who have power often use it against those who are a hated minority, or who try to make things better. As against Jewish people in 1st century Palestine. Or Jewish people in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Like Muslim people today in America and Europe. Like gay people. Like women. This is a nearly universal experience of the world. Even some wealthy white American male protestant heterosexuals experience the world this way. Many American Christian fundamentalists express a sense of being oppressed – and if they feel oppressed, who wouldn’t?

Some of us seek a mission or purpose. Maybe we don’t seek to save the world, but to live a meaningful life. Sometimes the revelation of our purpose comes to us like a bolt, as from an angel. We suddenly have hope and direction. We hear our Call to Adventure, to borrow Joseph Campbell’s phrase (Hero With A Thousand Faces). It is as if order were created in the middle of chaos. We will be . . . a doctor. A teacher. A mother or father. An artist. That distant goal is our magnetic north, the logic behind all our subsequent actions. What a relief, to know what we have to offer. We know that our goal will draw us into challenges and resistance, but those things are bearable, even welcome, when we know where we are going.

And so we set out, pregnant with potential, if I may belabor the metaphor. Later, our dream becomes real. We are in school for law or medicine. We are apprentices. Or we have our child in arms. We are on the long path that defines our lives. Yes, there are doubts, questions, challenges and affronts, but every step is real, and there may be sages, friends and acquaintances who confirm the correctness of our direction.

Then there is our long parenthood/internship/ or whatever. We invest our entire lives and spirits in this goal.

And sometimes we end up like Archbishop Oscar Romero. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Anne Frank. Steve Biko or Sophie and Hans Scholl. Like Jesus, or like Mary. Sometimes, the bad guys win, and we or our loved ones are murdered. Not metaphorically. Really. It happens.

So, where’s the so-called Good News, you may ask.

What do you mean? This IS the good news. Not that people win. But that people know the world, how hard it is, and we still try.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

The important part of that passage is the word “rarely.” What hope it offers is slim. This passage, and the triptych, offer a hard view of life. The triptych, ending, as it does, with death, and not with resurrection, is the antithesis of today’s Christian fundamentalism with its emphasis on triumphalism, wealth and power. While we have a chance at winning, most times our dreams and love will lie shattered in our laps. The artist doesn’t talk about our reward in the hereafter. So far as the triptych tells us, it ends. Badly. Even for the Son of God. Jesus’ story did not end well: why do you insist that victory be assured before you begin your mission? The inspiration is not found in victory, but in courage and determination. The victory is in the willingness to serve, not the success of our mission.

Life does not accommodate you; it shatters you. Every seed destroys its container, or else there would be no fruition. – Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days

Thankfully, someone is willing to tell the truth, rather than sell us the snake oil of false hope. Why preach a gospel of love, tell stories about the despised helping the downtrodden, unless the underlying truth is that this life is hard and needs such courage? We aren’t supposed to love each other because, if we do, we will be rich, beautiful and famous and go to heaven. We’re supposed to love each other because we have the capacity to give what is needed in a hard world, and we should.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s where the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Hopelessness, it seems to me, is a result of being sold a bill of goods, and realizing that we’ve been had. It’s not a result of knowing how hard the world can be, or how hard our work can be. We know that. No one does us a favor by telling us it’s all about to get better, that the Age of Aquarius is upon us.

If Christianity is all about prayer in public schools, abortion, and rejecting gays, immigrants and liberals, okay: there are always political groups with various axes to grind. Choose one and best of luck. A shame, though, to make such limited use of such hard-won truth.

If, on the other hand, this bare bones story is what the artist of this triptych intended to convey – then call me a believer. It has the ring of truth about it. It doesn’t ask me to send money, become a member, or subscribe to a set of doctrines. It doesn’t even ask me to believe that the story itself is literally true: only that it is a true view of the world. Like a friend willing to tell me the hard truths, it asks me to see the world as it is, and to be courageous with eyes wide open. Rumi said that a true human is someone who is willing to have their heart broken 10,000 times. The artist of this triptych would, I think, agree.

It’s a hard world. The good news is, we are needed here. And whatever happens, it is our courageous willingness to serve, not our success, that makes us glow.

  1. Thought provoking. I have never looked at the story this way. If you are saying that you can be invested in this narrative as a myth that speaks to you, ala Joseph Campbell’s interpretations of a thousand myths with a similar hero, my curiosity is piqued. (And you invoked Leonard Cohen, who is more of a prophet to me than anyone.) What I don’t understand, fundamentally, is how this myth should speak to me any more than any other. Certainly any story of Christ, even a novel interpretation, is more ‘normal’ to me than stories I did not grow up with. It’s easy to slip into, like a pair of well-worn woolen socks that I can pull on for warmth as the days grow colder.

    If, on the other hand, you are saying that the tryptic gives you faith, calls you to courage in spite of the odds against success, you have lost me. We *do* know the story, and it’s one of divine intervention and guaranteed resurrection; in fact, as I was so often told by those ministering to me, above all we must love Jesus for his sacrifice – he died for our sins. Except he didn’t, since he was already God. After all, wasn’t everyone in the story given divine instruction, and offered everlasting life?

    To me, it’s the understanding that there is no promise of everlasting life that makes it more of a challenge. This is all we get and then we die. And still we struggle… and most often we’ll lose. There’s something so futile, and yet romantic, in that story. But then I guess Romeo And Juliet spoke to me more clearly than the bible ever did.

    • It is definitely more a Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces kind of thing. As such, it is decidedly NOT, for me, a story of the uniqueness of Jesus or Mary, but of their common (in both senses: shared and unexceptional) humanity. I especially don’t buy the “died for our sins” bit, because it implies so many problematic things, including a god who sets up his son to be murdered, in order to get over his long grudge against people. (“You ate that apple, and it really pissed me off for the last few thousand years. But if you murder my son, we’ll call it even.” HUH?)

      I see your Romeo and Juliet, and raise you King Arthur.

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