The issue that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands was not the Pharisees’ concern about the spread of germs. This is about ritual purity. The Mosaic Law defined certain kinds of uncleanness which required a kind of ritual washing to make oneself again worthy. The Pharisees believed that Moses received other commandments from God communicated privately to the Pharisees down through the generations.
Many, many people were labeled unclean – because of their birthright (being a Samaritan, for example); because of their vocation (being a shepherd or a tax collector, for example); because of their poverty (because they could not afford to purchase a clean animal or bird for temple sacrifice to atone for their sins); because of their sickness (because they could not afford to see a doctor); or simply because of their humanity (for example, a woman who had given birth to a child). All these people, and many other types, were unclean. Whenever a Pharisee came from the marketplace or public gathering, hand-washing was required to ritually cleanse oneself, if only because of having accidentally touched an unclean person. Before and after every meal, a ritual hand-washing was required according to certain ceremonial practices. All cups, pots, brazen vessels, and sitting places also had to be ritually cleansed.
You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
There is something which stirs under the weight of words like “vow,” “obedience,” “poverty,” “repentance.” To the contemporary Western imagination, the thing which stirs—the family of obscure reminders about our nature as creatures—elicits a quiet shrug: “we already know what these words mean, and those are postures we’ve outgrown, have we not? The mature, modern person has no need of these archaic patterns, for the self-made man or woman is vowed to no one but themselves; one need only obey the agreed upon social conventions (even if our conscience may quiver from time to time); poverty is, as a matter of categorical necessity, a social ill to be triumphed over, escaped, conquered; it has nothing to do with our essential nature; and to repent? well, let’s not deny our dominion over ourselves—our bodies are, after all, our own.”
Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know and can’t know, especially what will happen. Fearing uncertainty, we often focus on what knowledge we have as something to grasp.
Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are. We know what is possible and impossible. No one can do the signs you are doing apart from God, so we know that you are a teacher from God.”
Jesus replies, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “Can one enter the womb again?”
Jesus says, “One must be born of water and spirit, must be born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. Now he clearly doesn’t understand.
Jesus is neither direct nor clear. There are still many ideas for what “of water and spirit” means. Perhaps the language confuses Nicodemus. Perhaps it’s the radical reversal. Nicodemus was born in the established, assumed way, from a Jewish mother. Part of his trouble may be from being an insider. That others can enter God’s family from outside is bewildering.[i]
Nicodemus comes confident in his knowledge, thinks he knows who Jesus is, what is possible, what makes sense, therefore what must be true. Nicodemus comes at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, that he does not know.
Such certainty traps. Holding so tight to tradition and reason restricts hearing God. The Spirit moves like wind, blowing where it will. We cannot predict nor contain. When we think we’ve grasped God, we are overly confident in our knowledge. God is always more. As religious people we can be too certain about our religious knowledge and not hear the news, good and often disturbing news of Jesus.
What do we not see or know because of containers we’ve constructed? It’s may not be new yet we have forgotten. As descendants of Abraham, we are blessed so that allpeople may be blessed. Reading the Gospel of John, we hear from chapter one Jesus comes expanding God’s family to all people: “To all who received him, who called on his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[ii]No matter lineage or background, all can be born of the Spirit. Everyone is invited to be children of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We also heard it in the Letter to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
To those already inside, this may be disturbing that others will join. To those on the margins, this is especially good news of welcome and belonging. Insiders may not realize their own position, their own need. Everyone is welcome, at home, belonging as God’s children.
As adults, we may be uncomfortable hearing ourselves called children. We still have much to learn. Perhaps “born from above” is Jesus’ invitation to “not knowing,” to taking a childlike perspective.[iii]Countering serious adults who strive for certainty, Jesus invites a childlike playfulness, a way of becoming. Grownups get trapped in reasoning, in quests for certainty, right and wrong, and social acceptance. Like Nicodemus, we think we know. If we’re not sure, we may ask in secret to not be seen by others.
A childlike perspective is playful. Open to questions. Exploring possibilities widely. To play is to gaze in wonder. To do something simply because it delights. Act with freedom and inhibition, unconcerned about what others may think. Get down low and get up close to look. Try it out. Take risks. Be vulnerable.
A playful perspective faces the unknown with courage to discover, with risk to behold. In play, we let down our guard. We need play in our relationships to show up as we are. There is more to relating than behaviors in which we feel familiar and confident. Risking the new takes us further. A childlike playfulness ushers in becoming more.
A childlike prayerfulness opens us to more. Pray as you can, as you already do. And take a risk, try something new. There are endless ways to pray. In the face of anxiety and uncertainty, play with your prayer, going beyond seeming proficiency. Try a medium with which you’re not familiar and discover what unfolds.
I find it helpful returning to crayons or trying pastels or paints or clay—something hands on. Coloring in a way we long haven’t, even doing so down on the floor, helps prompt a childlike perspective. Put color on the page and play. Be simple and gentle with yourself. Rather than seeking to know, just be. Surprisingly, it’s then that we see.
Playfulness goes beyond knowledge, beyond definitions or grasping. A playful perspective is open to mystery. Today we celebrate the Trinity, one God in three persons. The divine nature as a community of persons is not logical, not to be grasped. Rather than knowing, join our brothers and sisters, all the children of the world, playfully praying with God who is mystery.
[i]Frances Taylor Gench (2007) Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p21.
[iii]Jean Vanier (2004) Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. New York: Paulist Press, p75.
Today is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Fasting and ashes seem opposite of feasting and chocolate. Some celebrated yesterday, love with Mardi Gras.
Recently I visited two of my best friends. The past couple months had been very intense and hard for them. Amid a more chaotic house, we sat sharing stories of disaster and trouble. Each time I visit we go deep quickly being vulnerable about our lives. We bear witness to each other’s wounds and wonders. Our love is palpable. We are humble and truthful in sharing our questions, limits, losses, and desires.
Lent is about love, a clearing season to be deeply honest with God. We kneel to confess first hearing: “Dear friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy.”[i] We acknowledge our mortality, our frailty, failure, and limitation. Love humbly speaks raw, unvarnished truth, and love listens: love with ashes.
Who is more important? We compare power and privilege, background, connection, skill and status. Earlier in the chapter for today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples asked: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”[i] What’s the top which then defines the whole, including us? We wrestle for rank and worry about worth.
Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[ii] Become like children. Change your perspective. Rather than seeking power, skill, and status, acknowledge your need. Ask for help. Let yourself be helped and held. Relish wonder and love without embarrassment. Experiment, imagine, and playfully discover new ways of being. Gaze, dance, build, and fly. Become like children.
Who is more important? Each one. “Welcome one such child in my name, and you welcome me,” says Jesus. Woe to any who would “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus warns. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.”[iii]
In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Which betokeneth concorde.[i]
The poet T. S. Eliot once paid a visit to the little English village of East Coker, the home of his distant ancestors. It was a kind of pilgrimage, and in an open field with the remains of an ancient stone circle, he imagined a simple, peasant wedding, and a bride and groom long since dead dancing around a fire,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.[ii]
Here Jesus is speaking about following him by becoming a servant, being a slave. It would have been very difficult to hear this teaching in his own day, It is even more difficult for us, here in this culture. We know how Jesus’ teaching and also St. Paul’s writing about servanthood and slavery were twisted in the most appalling ways to justify the most cruel, ignominious practice of slavery of African peoples in our own land. And then there is the subsequent, unconscionable residue of discrimination that has carried into this very day. Hearing Jesus talk about becoming a servant, being a slave-for-Jesus, is very difficult to hear, and should be, given our own history.
‘At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…’
Who are “the wise and intelligent” to whom Jesus is referring? Any one of three groups who held power. One, the scribes and Pharisees who were the educated, Jewish elite. Second, the Greeks, whose intellectual prowess was recognized even by Rome. And thirdly, Rome, which was the occupying and controlling force in Palestine. To a Roman ear, when Jesus, the peasant, prays aloud to the God whom he calls “Father,” – Papa – I thank you, Papa, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things – his revelation – from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants – Jesus is an idiot to the Greeks[i], blasphemous to the Jews, and treasonous to the Romans because Caesar, only Caesar Augustus, was called “God from God.”[ii]
I was away recently on my annual personal retreat. Initially I slept a lot. I slowed down, tried doing one thing at a time. I gazed at beauty. I was more aware of being with God as my best friend. Jesus and I went on walks together . We wrote our initials (JC + LD) on a sandy beach and in snow-covered woods. We sat quietly, enjoying hot chocolate by the fireplace. Then Jesus gently asked a question. I said: “Oh, please, I don’t want to go there. We’ve been having such a nice time. I don’t want to talk about that.” I pushed back and ran.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” – Luke 2:8-14
When I was a child, I could hardly wait for Christmas. It was the best! My cousins and I, with our families, would gather at the home of my Swedish grandmother, Anna Marie. She was widowed and lived in an enormous mansion with her two sisters, my Great Aunt Gerda (also a widow), and another Great Aunt, Ingeborg – the Selander sisters. They had arrived as young children on the American shores year 1900. The three Swedish sisters were a kind of triumvirate of love. At Christmas, on our arrival, they would greet us in their front parlor, so beautifully decorated, and teeming with the most wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen.