From today's Office of Readings, the second reading, from the Jerusalem Catecheses:
When we were baptized into Christ and clothed ourselves in him, we were transformed into the likeness of the Son of God. Having destined us to be his adopted sons, God gave us a likeness to Christ in his glory, and living as we do in communion with Christ, God’s anointed, we ourselves are rightly called “the anointed ones.” When he said: Do not touch my anointed ones, God was speaking of us.
We became “the anointed ones” when we received the sign of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, everything took place in us by means of images, because we ourselves are images of Christ. Christ bathed in the river Jordan, imparting to its waters the fragrance of his divinity, and when he came up from them the Holy Spirit descended upon him, like resting upon like. So we also, after coming up from the sacred waters of baptism, were anointed with chrism, which signifies the Holy Spirit, by whom Christ was anointed and of whom blessed Isaiah prophesied in the name of the Lord: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor.
The bit that I have underlined is what struck me this morning.
Sometimes I wonder where Western Civilization got the idea of reading so much into everything (and, I suppose, writing so much into everything). It reminds me of English class, sometimes, sifting through a novel or a poem, looking for this or that object that serves as a symbol or a totem. I remember in an essay in a college literature class, writing something about one character playing keepaway with another's keys; a violation, I wrote, because the keys were "symbols of autonomy." I remember students teasing one of my high school teachers as she tried to squeeze a little extra meaning out of the discarded fruit rinds being carted away on the mornings after Gatsby's parties. The habit of looking for hidden meanings in the words and objects that we find in our books is one I enjoy, a bit of a game I play with an author (but be careful; some authors bite). Certain books yield up new shoots every year if we read them regularly, so we've learned.
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In any case, we have these tools of literary analysis, and we are willing to use them even on fruit rinds, so by gosh we are going to use them on the Bible too, no? So, you see, when the Israelites passed dry shod through the sea, it was a kind of foreshadowing. All that bit with the scapegoat, too. And the Ark is a type of Mary, and that bit about the snake-crushing means that Mary is to be another Eve, and...
Water. Oil. Fire. Snakes!
Is it possible that we read the Old Testament a bit too much as we would read a modern novel? Do we come to it with a habit from English class? Is that really the right tool, or is it only the tool we have and therefore we wish to use it? Or is it that the notion of symbol and hidden meaning is common to both? Or is this literary habit something we inherit from an older tradition? Why should it be so?
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Lines like the one I highlighted above, which date probably to the fourth century, reassure me a bit that we are still on track. Because I'm really confident in the idea that human beings are made "in the image of God," and that we are meant to become images of God-in-flesh-made-manifest, of Christ. God made us to look a certain way -- like an animal -- but carry something unseen and intangible, yet real -- intelligence, and will. We have meaning. Each of us looks like a thing but what each of us is, is a person.
We do not look like gods, we are not gods, but we represent the God. We can do something that is like what a Creator does, in a smaller way; we also craft artifacts that bear meaning. For instance, we can assemble a pile of vegetable matter, clay, and blackened bits into something that tells a whole story to anyone who has time to curl up with it on a lazy afternoon. And we can tell the story too, and put into it shadowy people who represent real people, and pasteboard props (like keys, or fruit rinds) that represent real virtues or vices, and in the moving-about of these characters and props, transmit secret messages. Indeed we could have saved time by merely writing out the message; but where would have been the fun in that?
And of course, when one remembers (in the middle of a blog post, say) that Jesus spoke in parables, one has another reason to have confidence in symbolic readings.
If we are made an image, then we should be able to speak the language of image.
How fun to think, reading over this, that we have such pasteboard props in our real, physical lives. We have water that looks like water, but when we put on a certain washing-up play with this water as a necessary prop, it enacts a real (though unseen) rebirth:
This baptism is no removal of physical stain, but the pledge to God of an irreproachable conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter -- today's first reading in the Office)
The same with our oil, and our wine, and our bread.
It's because we are images that we make these transitions best by means of images, say the Jerusalem Catecheses. If nothing else, the materials of the sacraments provide us with a means of feeling confident that we have done, at least in this area, what God requires of us. They are a balm against the constant fear that we are not good enough to attain God's mercy: of course we are not good enough, cannot make ourselves good enough, but we can do the things He has asked us to do as signs of our interior commitment -- as a pledge -- and we can trust in the promises He has made regarding them, not because we are good but because He is trustworthy, and he asks us to do no more than what we can do... which is to put on these little plays with intention to do His will.
I like to think that the sets and the props and the scripts were carefully designed so that the hidden messages are passed onstage exactly the way they need to be passed in the unseen reality. Baptism requires water, and (crucial if you ask me) it requires one other person who need not himself be a baptized person; it is not possible, even in the direst of emergencies, for a person to baptize himself, but any other willing person can do it; the one to be baptized can even instruct his baptizer. Somehow this sacrament -- which is the only method on earth by which we are permitted to feel sure we can enter heaven -- requires two to be gathered together, and a few drops at least of a substance we cannot live without. Somehow, maybe, that kind of life is really -- not just in the play -- propagated only from human contact.