Wednesday, November 29, 2017

offer it up

That point came for me one Saturday afternoon when I overheard my daughter (you know, because I was three feet away) telling Tom that "dads do the fun stuff, and moms do the boring stuff." Because for all of my soaring speeches about how girls can do anything and the future is female, what she saw was her mother constantly putting herself last. Doing the boring stuff. As James Baldwin wrote, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." —Jancee Dunn

In her Christ the Key, Kathryn Tanner articulates an incarnational positing of the atonement, which she demonstrates, is sympathetic to feminist theological concerns. In order to weave through the tangled nexus circling the central image of redemption, Tanner examines our contemporary conception of sacrifice over and against an ancient, cultic image.

In thinking of sacrifice, we tend to imagine a moral sacrifice: "a sorrowful act in which what is sacrificed is not offered to anyone but is considered simply a necessary cost to oneself of doing what is right." Thus, self-sacrifice takes on a moral weight, a mark of intense dedication, a sign that one is disinterestedly invested in sincere efforts towards another's good.

Conversely, ancient cultic sacrifices from Israel and Greek cultures, which provide the typological images for Christ's passion (e.g., the passover lamb, the lamb of God), are not about self-abnegation for the sake of the other, a moral isolation caused by extreme self-denial, but rather "celebrate joyful communion." The animal is offered up is a sign, not of any loss or lack on the part of the worshipper, but rather "a return to God of what is already God's." Thus, this act of gratitude, by which the believer acknowledges that the first fruit of his harvest are not "lost" to him by being immolated, because they were never his in the first place, is not beneficial because it deprives the worshipper. It is beneficial because it restores right relationship. The cultic sacrifices related in the Hebrew scriptures (Ex 24, Lev 23:19) instantiate relationship, they are a joyful restoring of communion and community between ruptured parties (God and the human, the human and her neighbor).

Rowan Williams warns against any utopian ideas of an ideal self that eliminates difficulty. We somehow are aware that our ideal image of ourself that never encounters any stressors is in fact utopian—there is no place for it in reality.

But there is a difference between growth in virtue and moral character, and this idea of enduring lack of flourishing as somehow a conducive path to holiness.

Life certainly brings suffering, there's no way around it. But there's a difference between an embrace of the pain of life as part of life's beauty, an inescapable drama of the narrative, and a suffering that is proscribed as one's lot and portion by a power structure that is not of God, which abuses the image of sacrifice as it commands you: offer it up.

I found Dunn's essay compelling, especially as I thought of everyone's favorite active-contemplative pair of sisters: Mary and Martha (the subject of so many pointed homilies and the apotheosizing of the Introvert). The point which I think Dunn is trying to make is that being busy, Martha-like, with the many concerns of caring for others, running a household, filling in the gritty details of Christian hospitality, is not a sustainable way of life for a soul.

A soul needs, like Mary at the foot of Christ, time to refresh herself. Time to focus on the one thing that is needful. And this is not the privilege of contemplatives, priests, or Carmelites. This is the fundamental vocation and necessary posture of each Christian: to sit at the feet of Christ, to receive the gaze of the Other who gives himself to us in love, and gives our own self back to us as well.

I write these reflections from the privileged and naive place of pre-childbirth, so I imagine that my understandings of this would be transformed in a new way by such an event.

But, I hope and believe I would never relinquish the idea that one of the greatest gifts I could give my future children is modeling for them what it means to live life fully and deeply, drinking it all to the dregs; finding lots of joy; pursuing wisdom, beauty, and God first and foremost, and inviting them into that quest for joy. Our vocation to be human, an imitation of Christ, is the ultimate vocation of our lives, and any vocation to be a mother, I assume, springs out of and is subservient to that, rather than the other way around. This does not, I think, diminish the utter gift of self of motherhood, but rather elevates it. A mother is not sacrificing her own well-being for her child, but rather welcoming that new person into this life of grace she pursues.

And that any and all sacrifices I make, however uncomfortable or difficult I find them will, ultimately, lead me not into isolation, but into community, into right relationship with God and with neighbor, and to the abundant joy that comes from sharing in abundant life.

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