At Indian Town Gap National Cemetery, where my mother and father are buried, “Taps” from a single bugle will ring over the silence of the fallen. That is as it should be. No band. No orchestra. No choir. No parades. No “bombs bursting in air.” Just a single bugler breaking the silence “in the dawn’s early light.”
Other tears will fall today for those who did not die or serve in war — 98,035 and still climbing here in the U.S.A. ( ); 345,000+ and climbing worldwide. They were sent to their graves by a deadly virus that knows nothing about wars and borders between nations. You can’t shoot or bomb a virus. Calling the new coronavirus an ‘enemy’ may strike up the band to rally the troops for a crusade, but it’s easily misused to divide the living and the dead. This is a time for Taps, not “”Reveille.”
You will find me where the wounds are
The lock-down to protect ourselves from exposure to COVID-19 led me to the strange encounter between the Crucified-Risen Christ and Thomas — and for all who come to faith in future time: “Blessed are those who have not seen but believe.” The following interpretation is original and speaks for no one else.
Faith: throwing ourselves into the wounds
Caravaggio’s painting of Thomas putting his finger in the wound in the Risen Christ’s side is exquisite, but no painting can capture the strangeness of the invitation to Thomas in The Gospel of John (Jn. 20:26-29).
Translating New Testament Greek texts into English often involves a translator’s decision as to the meaning of a word. The story of Thomas is one such text. Most often βάλε in English becomes ‘place’ or ‘put — a rendering that paints a beautiful word picture of a unique moment of tenderness with Thomas. But “put your hand in my side” avoids the jarring sense of the Greek text — “Bring your hand and βάλε (thrust/throw [it] into) my side.”
The Wounds, the Marks, and the Type
“See the τυπος (marks) in my hands.” τυπος can mean ‘wound’ or ‘mark’ but it has another meaning – ‘type’. A τυπος originally meant a mark created by a blow or impression. Eventually it came to mean a mold or form into which something is shaped. Those who are being molded into the life of the Crucified-Risen Christ are called to behold the marks and throw themselves into the enduring gaping wound in Christ’s side.
The Jesus of Locked Doors
John tells the story found in no other Gospel. He tells it in the present tense, drawing the reader into the scene as it is happening. It is not an event happening only then. It is happening now. “Jesus έρχεται (is coming). Th syntax raises the question of how to render the placement of the word κεκλισμενων (‘locked’). Does the text describe the physical circumstances of an unrepeatable moment? Or does ‘locked’ modify Jesus? “Jesus of locked doors/gates έρχεταιs (is-coming) into the midst of them.” and us?
Becoming Faithful: Encountering God in the Wounds
“Do not γίνου (be becoming) faithless (ἄπιστος) but πιστός (faithful),” Jesus is saying to Thomas, and to all who will never see the historical Jesus directly, that faith and faithfulness are more than mental constructs and belief systems. To follow Christ is to throw ourselves into the gaping wound in Christ’s side all around us. He will meet us there.
The story of Thomas is the final word in the original of the most metaphorical Gospel. It is as though John is leaving us with another way of telling the Parable of the Last Judgment, turning our lives from distant observation and hiding ourselves from the wounds to throw ourselves into the place where we come to faith and faithfulness. “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was in prison and you visited me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me”. (Gospel according to Matthew 25:25-26)
The Life of Compassion
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the Christian life as an ongoing conformation into the pattern of Christ, “the Man for Others.” Writing from prison cell #6 of Tegel Prison where he awaiting state execution two days before the defeat of the German Third Reich, Bonhoeffer wrote the poem that addressed the question of where Christ is today. The three stanzas move from crying out from distress (“when we are sore bested”) to “standing with God in God’s hour of grieving” to God “hanging dead for Christians, pagans alike . . . and both alike forgiving.”
Men go to God when they are sore bestead, Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead; All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead, Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead; Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead, Feeds body and spirit with his bread; For Christians, pagan alike he hangs dead, And both alike forgiving.
There is no life inside locked doors, and if we lock them out of fear or for protection, the Jesus of the Locked Doors will find us and break us free.
Years before the coronavirus pandemic put us in lock down, Tennessee Williams observed that each of us is condemned to solitary confinement for life, and, long before Tennessee Williams the Gospel of Luke spoke of the surprising presence of the risen Christ at the breaking of the bread.
Grace and Peace,
Gordon (May 24, 2020)
Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is a public theologian, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), former Pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska; guest commentator on “All Things Considered” (MPR), MinnPost, Presbyterian Outlook, Star Tribune, Sojourners’ “Blogging with Jim Wallace and Friend” and Day1.org.
Working all week to complete a Views from the Edge autobiographical reflection on faith as I understand it, I laid it aside. This 2014 sermon on faith and patriotism is the best I can do during the the coronavirus pandemic and getting back to Americans’ favorite activity: shopping.
Thanks for dropping by Views from the Edge: To See More Clearly. Grace and peace to you, Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), writing from home in Chaska, Minnesota.
During this strange time, I’d been engaged with Psalm 31. Before posting the reflection on Psalm 31, I checked to see what Walter Brueggemann might have written about it. This sermon from the pulpit of Duke University Chapel fits our experience in 2020 as much as it did in 2009. Here are the opening words:
The young woman who sits across from me at Church is there every Sunday. She sits in a wheelchair close to the pulpit. She cannot control the movement of her legs, and mostly not her arms either. She groans and occasionally shrieks. My priest tells me she is fed only with a feeding tube. One of her parents must sleep on the floor of her room every night. She takes a fragment of the Eucharist every Sunday. Her mother said, reported my priest, “Do you think I am bad person if sometimes I wish this were all over?” The priest answered, “You would be a pitiful person if you did not think that sometimes.”
I do not know what the young woman is thinking when she communes. But I have thought, perhaps, that she is reciting Psalm 31 . . . ,a complaint to God about the experience of unbearable suffering and a sense of social isolation . . . .
Walter Brueggemann, Sermon "Continuing through the Disruptive Conjunctive" - Duke University Chapel, Palm/Passion Sunday, 2009.
About Walter Brueggemann & most recently published Books
The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. Click HERE for more information on the official website of Walter Brueggemann, or click the following titles titles for his latest publications.
Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood.
Aldous Huxley, Ninth Philosopher’s Song, 1920
When Aldous Huxley turned the adage “blood is thicker than water” on its head there was no Earth Day. No COVID-19. No economy stuck in idle at the brink of the cliff. No orders or guidelines to stay home and wash your hands. But he had been the flu pandemic of 1918.
Blood Brothers — Teddy Bonsall and I
“Blood is thicker than water” is about family ties, or becoming ‘blood-brothers’ the way Teddy Bonsall and I did when we drew blood with our pen-knives, and put our cut fingers together to mix our five year old blood. Maybe something in our little minds knew that ‘blood’ described the bond between soldiers in battle. Blood-brothers — soldiers who risked their lives, as our fathers had in World War II — were closer than brothers and sisters born of the same womb. The world was a war zone. Teddy and I would go down together, whatever new war might come along. We were blood brothers.
A virus doesn’t know about ‘blood-brothers’
The day after Earth Day 2020 tests the way we frame who and what we humans are and will, or will not, be on a planet on its way to boiling both blood and water. We are not blood brothers or blood sisters. We can no longer frame ourselves as warriors in wars between our nation and their nation(s) without committing species suicide. No more blaming the Spanish for the 1918 flu pandemic or China for the new coronavirus. There will be no great America without a green planet. Everyone is a child of water — the amniotic fluid of every mother’s womb, and the water that is wider than blood (the oceans, rivers, and water tables) that keep the ‘pale blue dot’ blue and green.
The Daily Briefings
Most afternoons I tune in to the president’s coronavirus pandemic team’s daily updates, but I can’t do it anymore. I’ve run out of Maalox, and I refuse to fill a glass or two from the liquor cabinet. This is no time to self-medicate. I’ve watched the climate-change-denying president and his ‘oleaginous’ vice president and administration re-frame COVID-19 as a foreign invasion — the ‘Chinese’ flu — to be ‘defeated’ by an army of American blood brothers. The updates are not COVID-19 updates. They are 2020 presidential campaign rallies with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx thrown in to provide cover for the medical disinformation no doctor or scientist can support. Day by day, the conflict between the president and the medical professionals becomes increasingly apparent in the faces of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx barely able to conceal their professional and moral in the face of a kind of medical malpractice they once could not imagine.
While the members of the coronavirus team stand shoulder to shoulder without masks, members of the White House press corps practice the social distancing guidelines the people with the microphone do not. Spaced six feet apart, the correspondents ask the questions that publicly trap the president in his own lies and contradictions. The medical professionals become more outspoken, less likely to say what the president expects them to say.
The White House press corps occasionally rises to the expectations of the First Amendment, offering slivers of hope that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will go away before the Earth is left to the viruses.
The Voice that cannot be silenced
I imagine Aldous Huxley in the last row of the White House correspondents section. He’s the only one in the room who brings wisdom from the “Spanish Flu” pandemic a hundred years ago.
He’s had his hand up for 20 minutes. No one will call on him.
Finally, in exasperation, he whispers in hopes someone watching might remember the greater threat to Earth itself:
“Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood!”
Home-schooled in misery — Oh, for the wisdom of Aeschylus
“I, schooled in misery, know many purifying rites, and I know where speech is proper and where silence.”
Aeschylus, Greek playwright known as the Father of Tragedy (c. 525/524 – c. 456/455 BCE)
In the school of misery, we know to wash our hands. Knowing when and where to speak one’s minds or hold one’s tongue is harder. In Aeschylus’ time, it required the wisdom of the gods or the wisdom of Solomon.
The Intelligence Test
“COVID-9 is not just a disease. It’s an intelligence test,” wrote sportswriter Jim Souhan in response to Major League Baseball’s idea of bringing all 32 MLB teams to Phoenix where they could play out the 2020 season. The teams would be quarantined at night in area hotels; the stadium seats would be empty to keep the players safe. “COVID-19 is not just a disease. It’s an intelligence test.”
Easy speech is not only pointless in 2020. It is dangerous. But so is silence. In the school of misery more than one kind of intelligence is required. Maintaining emotional balance in a time of plague is a test of courage and compassion. Albert Camus’s The Plague, whose heroic character is not the priest, but the doctor serving among the sick and the dying, comes quickly to mind. So does the crucified-resurrected Jesus’s strange encounter with Thomas.
The Courage of Compassion Test
Caravaggio paints what readers unschooled in misery are not likely to see in the text –the continuing presence and voice of the crucified-risen Christ in the Gospel of John 20:27: “Thereafter he is saying to Thomas . . . .”
Known for his gritty realism, Caravaggio has Jesus grasping the hand of the apostle Thomas and thrusting it deep within the wound at his side, powerfully aligning Jesus’ and St. Thomas’ hands to form a lance. St. Thomas’ face expresses profound surprise as his finger thrusts deep into Jesus’ wound. Perhaps, the surprise has to do with his unbelief. It could also be surprise at the realization that he, too, is pierced. Indeed, St. Thomas appears to clutch his side as if he becomes aware of a wound at his side as well. And we who wince at this gritty depiction feel a wound at our side as well.” — Edwin David Aponte, Handbook of Latina/o Theologies, Chalice Press, 2007.
“I will meet you there — wherever the wounds are.” “My Lord, and my God!”
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, April 21, 2020.
This is not your usual Views from the Edge commentary. I’ve found myself unable to write anything that might be worth passing on to others. But inspiration arrives from the most unlikely sources, like last Sunday’s painful visit to the Emergency Room. The CT scan revealed the kidney stone that became the inspiration for this quirkier-than-usual Views from the Edge piece. The doctor assured me the stone was small. It would pass with time. The nurse gave me a little bottle to save the stone when it passes.
Who cares if you pass a kidney stone?
Let’s say you’re a writer. Okay, a blogger. You’ve struggled for weeks to write a piece on the daily assault of propaganda coming into our living rooms every weekday afternoon, but it hasn’t come. It just sits there, like a kidney stone that doesn’t pass. You’re sure it will never get out, and that, even if it does, no one will care. Why should they? What you want to say is not unique. A kidney stone’s a kidney stone. You’re also bored.
You don’t believe in horoscopes, but they’re a way to pass the time. You’re a Leo.
It’s like you’re trying to move a couch into a room with a small door. Once inside, everything will work out nicely. But getting through this tight squeeze will take some doing. What needs to be released in order to move forward?
Horoscope by Holiday Mathis, StarTribune, April 17, 2020.
You’re excited! Permission has to write has been granted. What needs to be released is your fear. Squeeze your ego through that small door! Just take it outside. Forget who cares. Just do it! Put it out there! You sit down to write. Returning to the newspaper for the exact quote, you realize you had read the wrong horoscope, the one for a Libra. Your reading disability has tricked you again. You saw the ‘L’ and assumed it was for you. It wasn’t. it was for a Libra.
You go back to the paper to read the right horoscope — the one for you, the Leo.
“There was a time when you didn’t believe you could actually change your circumstances by merely observing them differently. Now you believe it, and you do it on a daily basis. Today brings proof.”
You wonder whether the people who write this stuff know something you don’t. Don’t they know that not even a Leo can change some circumstances by observing them differently?
When you pass a kidney stone, you put it in a little bottle and take it to your doctor who sends it to the lab. You never see your kidney stone again. But there are exceptions. Some folks keep their kidney stones next to the computer keyboard. What’s the use of passing a kidney stone if you can’t be proud of passing it or experience the joy of sharing it virtually?
You’re curious what else is in the Horoscope section. If you’re a Taurus, “you are mysterious, and all the more attractive for your secrets.” You like that. But by the end, you wonder whether you’re really a Pisces.
Just because something goes unspoken doesn’t mean it’s unspeakable . . . .
Who knows? The piece you can’t pass today may pass tomorrow. If it turns out to be unspeakable, put it in the bottle, send it to the lab, or throw it away. If what has gone unspoken seems speakable, ask yourself, “Who else cares if you pass a kidney stone?”
Tony Schwartz knows Donald Trump in a way no one else does. Ten (10) days before the 2016 election, he shared his experience at an Oxford University public forum preserved on YouTube.
Click HERE to listen in on what you knew and didn’t know before listening to the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal, the book that put a 38 year-old real estate developer on the NYT Best Sellers list and onto the world stage.