Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year 2019: What Happens Next?

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s autobiograph-ical musical, “In the Heights,” there is a poignant scene in the second act. The characters have just survived a night of looting in the midst of a Fourth of July blackout. Usnavi, the main character, has lost his bodega because of vandalism, but his main concern in the sweltering heat is the health and safety of the aging Abuela Claudia.


Are you okay?

Paciencia y fe!
Paciencia y fe!

So we survived the night, what happens today?

What happens today? The question crosses all our minds, but there is no answer. We can’t predict the future. It would be futile to try.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money,’” writes the Apostle James. “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

In the musical, much happens after Usnavi asks the question, “What happens today?” The musical is no longer on Broadway, but it is on tour, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t like spoilers. Before the day is over, Abuela will split her lottery winnings of $96,000 with Usnavi and his cousin, Sonny. Before the day is over, Abuela will die of heart failure in her bedroom. Before the day is over, Usnavi will make plans return to the Dominican Republic, the home of his parents. But before the day is over Sonny will arrange a special tribute to Abuela Claudia that convinces Usnavi to stay in the Heights. None of these events were likely when Usnavi began the day with the question, “So we survived the night. What happens today?”

Our lives unroll uncertainly before us. Maybe today will be much like yesterday, and perhaps yesterday was much like the day before. On the other hand, no one can suppose there will not be catastrophic changes in the soothing routine. 

We tell ourselves that tomorrow is promised to no one but, in fact, nothing is promised to us. My Sociology Professor Tony Campolo – who, when I was in his classes, did not know that in a few tomorrows he would become an evangelical superstar – used to say how scared he was by evangelists who sought to frighten you into salvation with familiar taunts: “You don’t have to come forward to be saved now, you can put it off until tomorrow or the next day. You can walk away tonight with hell fires crackling around your ankles and wait until some other time to be saved. But – But! – what if you walk out that door tonight and get hit by a bus?” We’d ask Tony, the existential sociologist, if the sermon made him afraid of hell fires, and he’d reply, “No! It made me afraid of buses!”

As we look around us today, at those we love, at familiar surroundings, common items we hold in our hands every day, are we missing invisible signs that might shed light on what happens next?

Some historians have said that one of the eeriest images of the television age took place on the morning of November 22, 1963, as cameras captured the crisp, full-color images of President and Mrs. Kennedy descending the mobile stairway from Air Force One. Mrs. Kennedy beams as brightly as the Dallas sun as she models her pink suit and trademark pillbox hat, and a Dallas newsman who has never seen JFK in person marvels at the charismatic young chief. “He’s taller than I thought,” he reports, “he’s tanned and lean in a well tailored suit and a light green shirt. He’s the prince of America.” In this glistening moment, the future seems secure, God appears to dote on the United States, and the unwary President bares his teeth in a grin of grace and domestic tranquility.

But as we know so well a half century later, these happy moments are fleeting. Within minutes of the grinning descent from Air Force One, as the motorcade heads into downtown Dallas, the President will be dead.

Blown away.
What else do I have to say?

I’m inclined to think it would be terrible if we knew how our lives will evolve, if OuiJa Boards and botanicas provided spoilers of what lies ahead.

Who needs it? My maternal grandmother got it into her head that she would die on February 6, and all her life she would greet each new year with dread anticipation that this would be the fatal year. She passed so many years safely – more than 80 of them – that the rest of the family lost patience with her morbid annual observance. Then she died, on February 6. Perhaps Grandma had some divination of the day, if not the year, of her death. But what good did it do besides making her miserable every January and February?

As I write this, I’m flashing back to an old Mutt and Jeff cartoon I saw decades ago in the Syracuse Herald-Journal:

Jeff:  I Wish I knew where I was going to die.
Mutt: Why? What good would that do you?
Jeff: I’d never go near the durn place.

All of this prognostication gives power, perhaps, to the story of the ancient woman and man encountered in the temple by Mary, Joseph and Jesus when they went there to designate their first born male as “holy to the Lord,” and for Mary’s purification as a woman who had recently given birth. (Luke 2:18-40)

Simeon and Anna had gifts of divine discernment, and when the young couple and new baby boy came to the temple, the old ones knew exactly who they were.  They also knew what the future held for them, and it was not all good news.

Before she met Simeon and Anna, Mary’s knowledge of her prospects was that they were spectacular. The angel said she was with child by the Holy Spirit, and the shepherds tramped down from the fields to tell her what the angels said about the birth of the messiah, the Christ child. And “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

But while Mary was treasuring the future in her heart, a harsher reality awaited her and her family, and the old folks knew it. Because the messianic franchise is not all bliss and glory.

Both Simeon and Anna had taken up residence in the Temple, and both of them knew for whom they were waiting. When she saw the baby, Anna “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Simeon discerned God’s promise that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and he, too, recognized the baby immediately. He held the child tenderly in his arms, and praised God:
“Master, now you aredismissing your servant in peace,according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation,which you have prepared inthe presence of allpeoples,a light for revelation to theGentilesand for glory to yourpeople Israel.”
But it was to Mary that Simeon turned on a more somber note.

“This child,” he said, “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”

And then:  “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

This is a spoiler about events to come that had yet to be revealed to Mary, the teen-age mother who was still pondering the glory of being the mother of God’s son. God, who had kept this information from her until now, called upon a kindly old man in the temple to tell the whole truth: blessed are you among women; but an anguish of spirit akin to a sword in your soul is your fate as well.

The agony that ameliorates the ecstasy follows shortly afterwards, when Joseph, Mary and the boy Jesus are forced to leave behind everything they know in order to escape the death sentence imposed on all newborn boys by the murderous King Herod. There are few hints, in canonical scripture, what it may have been like to raise an adolescent Messiah, but the attitude of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple is suggestive. Jesus had gone missing amid the Passover crowds in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph searched frantically for him. “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Mary demanded. “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Clearly an apology is in order, but the boy’s response is slightly arrogant, or would have been if he had been your kid: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must have been in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49). 

A few verses later, Luke reports that Jesus “was obedient to them,” but perhaps this only meant he was turning over a new messianic leaf. Disappearing from one’s parents is not an act of obedience.

At this point, the future still held many incidents of soul-piercing intensity, including the adult Jesus’ departure from Mary’s home, the sermons that convinced Jesus’ own siblings and friends that he was nuts, the angry crowd that followed him with the intent of throwing him off a cliff, the hostility of the religious authorities who felt threatened by his authority, and, ultimately, the arrest, flagellation, and crucifixion. Mary, who had once pondered God’s goodness and her son’s glory in her heart, ultimately sat at the foot of a Roman cross and watched her son die a slow, excruciating death by asphyxiation. The only pain that could have equaled that was the figurative sword thrust so cruelly in her soul.

On that day so long ago, when Mary took her infant son into the temple for his dedication to God, would she have been better off if there had been no Simeon to warn her about the future?

Perhaps not. She would have discovered the truths about life soon enough. She was still a teenager when she gave birth to Jesus, but as a young girl in a family oppressed by a malicious foreign rule, she must already have known life has equal portions of joy and pain. As she grew older and experienced more of life, this reality would have become more certain.

But Mary was also witness to the fact that there is more to life than joy and pain and the finality of death. She also played a major role in the decision of the Creator of the Universe to experience the misery and agony of human life in such a way that pain might be forever expunged from the soul’s eternal essence. Because Jesus suffered on the cross, the sword that pierced Mary’s soul – the swords that pierce all our souls – are forever removed.

It is always tempting, as we live out our lives, to want to know when the inevitable pains of living will come, or when death’s sting will come to us, or where. Some of us would welcome the spoilers, the mystical predictions, which will lay it all out before us. And others will be just as glad to go through life never knowing when that belligerent bus will put a quick end to all we know.

But none of that really matters. It’s enough to know that pain and death will come, whether we know how or when.

But just as certain, as made clear to Mary by Simeon and Anna, the ancients of the temple, is that God has a plan to take away our pain, and the day will surely come when we can praise God for a long-promised blessed release,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,which you have prepared inthe presence of allpeoples,a light for revelation to theGentilesand for glory to yourpeople Israel.

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