Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reflection for June 26, 2011

Inebriates of Christ

The Book of Daniel opens with a story about four Jewish youths who are supposed to have lived back around 580 B.C. They were exiles, whom the Babylonians transported to Shinar (Iraq) after destroying Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Now these four young men were chosen by the Babylonian king to learn the language of their captors and serve in the king’s palace. It wasn’t uncommon for a conqueror to take young captives and assimilate them into their culture to fill various bureaucratic jobs. The Egyptians did that with young Moses. And I think of our own country’s “Indian Schools” like the one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Native American boys were required to wear trousers, boots, shirts, ties, jackets and caps and sit row upon row in classrooms whence they were supposed to emerge indistinguishable from their Euro-American counterparts in everything but complexion. Jim Thorpe, the All American athlete, was a Carlisle product. As selected aliens, these Jewish lads were privileged to dine on the very food and wine served at the king’s table. But they abstained from what to them was non-kosher fare. This worried their Babylonian mentor who said, “If you don’t eat, you’ll lose your ruddy complexions and weight and the king will have my head!” “Don’t worry,” said Daniel, one of the four. “Just serve us vegetables and water and we’ll be fine.” And in fact, after ten days, “they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youth who ate the king’s rich food.”

This story was written around 167 B.C. to encourage Jewish youth then living under Greek oppression to emulate ancient Daniel and his friends. On the face of it, it encourages Jewish youth to abide by kosher food laws. But on a deeper level it says, “Don’t become consumers of Greek culture; don’t accept the stuff your conquerors dish out to you. Eat their cuisine and you’ll soon be consuming their ideas, their polytheism, their purely rational philosophy.”

There’s a German saying: “Man ist was er isst.” - a man is what he eats. Consume the junk food served up to you on every channel of television or radio (the commercials; a comic’s cynicism and scapegoating; the “philosophy” inherent in the pop lyrics; the celebrity cult; the paranoia of the news and talk shows; the vindictiveness of politics) and, far from your being the consumer, it is you who will be consumed, swallowed up by a culture that can chew you up and spit you out as it does all the natural resources of the world around you. Assimilate whatever a marketplace of shallow taste and ideas feeds you and ultimately it is you who will be assimilated. Christianity supports the position taken by Daniel: “I will not be assimilated; I will not be enticed to give up my identity, my tradition, my faith in God and the sacredness of nature and the worth and creative potential of every human soul. I will not be used and manipulated; I will not be taken for granted, reduced to a statistic or commodity.”

But won’t we starve if we ignore modern culture’s vast display case? No, because like Daniel, we have an alternative diet to insure our spiritual (and physical) well being. We dine at the table of Christ. Every Sunday we first assimilate his Word, served up to us by our lector and homilist and then partake of a special bread and wine which in a mysterious way contains Christ’s very Being. In the process we who assimilate Christ and his mentality are assimilated by him. We begin to share his vision of reality. We become his Body, his poetic Presence in the world, ruddy, potent, a manifestation of what a free, divinely radiant humanity must be. Emily Dickinson, intoxicated by Nature, boasted: “I taste a liquor never brewed - / From Tankards scooped in Pearl - ”. And so say we, inebriates of Christ.