“Purity” -March 8, 2015
The First Parish of Watertown – The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from The Fellowship of the Ring, by Tolkein
“The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw ….seemed ancient, as if it had endured for ever, yet was… fresh and …and wonderful.
Reading from Annunciation, by Stephanie Paulsell
Somehow, when we were first married, living in Italy for a year became the measure of what we wanted to accomplish before our family grew…and in our wanderings through churches and museums that year, I found myself attracted to images of the annunciation, the scene in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will have a baby.
I sought out annunciations wherever we went. I loved Botticelli’s, in which Mary holds out an arm as if to keep the angel and his news at bay. I loved Leonardo’s, in which Mary looks up from her book to listen to the angel, but marks her place with her finger as if she intends to go back to reading once he has delivered his news and flown away. I loved Filippo Lippi’s, in which Mary and the angel incline their heads towards one another …But most of all, I loved Fra Angelico’s …painted onto a wall at the top of a staircase, illuminated by a hidden source of light. The angel’s wings seem to tremble. A blush blooms on his cheek. And Mary, her hands crossed over her chest, is enormous. If she were to rise from her stool, she would tower over Gabriel, a goddess. If coming up out of the darkness of the stairwell into the light of this intimate encounter doesn’t bring you to your knees, an inscription at the bottom reminds you to join Gabriel in an Ave Maria, to bend as if bearing the weight of wings on your back.
We returned home at the end of that year with a poster of Fra Angelico’s annunciation, which we hung above the couch. Gabriel and Mary greeted one another endlessly, until finally, nine years into our marriage, that modern instrument of annunciation, the home pregnancy test, told us we were going to have a baby. It was autumn and so the first trimester of our pregnancy stretched into the season of Advent, the four weeks of preparation for Christmas. The hymns were all about waiting for babies, for birth, for life. “Love the rose is on the way,” we sang. “Love the star is on the way.”
I spent the holiday with a lap desk propped on the bump of my belly and wrote my good news on Christmas cards. And the next day, I saw that my baby was no longer on its way. Soon we walked across our frozen neighborhood, still in its cocoon of holiday quiet, to the hospital.
Later, in the middle of an empty street, my husband covered his face with the huge paws of his snow-shoveling gloves and howled. We had been married nearly ten years, and I had never heard such a sound come out of him. It was then I realized that our old life was over. We had become parents, whether we wanted to be or not. But our baby was dead.
I found myself an insomniac. I would creep out to the couch in the middle of the night, sit underneath Fra Angelico’s annunciation, and weep. Gabriel and Mary’s expressions did not change, but they were grave, and I was grateful for that.
And then, four months later, the nausea began, every morning, the moment my feet touched the floor. I’d read that women who threw up every day in their first trimester were less likely to miscarry, so I threw up extravagantly, operatically even.
By the time Advent arrived, I was no longer fearful of losing the baby.” Love the guest is on the way,” we sang, and we thought of our first baby, the guest who never arrived. Our new baby was due on January 13, but early Christmas morning, I woke in the dark….and late that night my husband and I drove through our neighborhood, wrapped once more in the stillness of the holidays, to the hospital.
When our baby finally slipped out into the world, I was crazy with relief and kept asking, what day is it? What day is it? “It’s the twenty-sixth of December,” the midwife said. “Your baby’s birthday is December 26.” “It’s exactly a year since I lost my baby! It’s the same day!” I marveled. The midwife smiled, a little confused about why I was talking about a dead baby when a live one was about to be put into my arms.
I just couldn’t get over it, though, and I kept talking about it, telling every nurse who entered the room.
At the change of shifts, a new nurse came in, wearing reindeer antlers that bobbed gently above her head as she came towards me. “You have a Christmas baby,” she said, smiling.
“My baby,” I told her, “was born exactly one year from my miscarriage. One year to the very day.”
“See?” she said, antlers trembling. “You got your baby back.”
A few years back, my sister in law stood in my living room, befuddled but not really. She knew exactly what she was doing as she said, “I don’t get it. Why would anyone think it was more important to be tidy than to be clean? “ It so happens I can’t think straight in a mess, and I am frequently called upon to find other peoples’ belongings, and so I value an organized household. If someone asks, where is the mustard, I can say, accurately “In the door of the fridge, bottom shelf, left side.” I can also say, “Your glasses are next to the computer on my desk, but yours are in the living room on the coffee table.” At the same time, I know that there is dust on top of the curtains, and the kitchen cabinets have a fine layer of cooking oil that has settled over them, and there are stray crystals of rock salt scattered all over the front hall. There is always more to clean. Sometimes I will spend an entire day cleaning, but it rarely feels like it ends up mattering. The dirt reappears. Yet knowing where to find everything, and QUICKLY, almost always matters.
How do we learn to live with some kinds of dirt, and yet recoil at other types? When it is tears that are leaking out of our children, we may kiss them away, but other things that drip are not regarded in the same way at all. Start with noses and work your way down. Yuk! What is pure, and what is taboo? And why? In Western traditions, most of our ideas about pollutants are about the body. Intellectually, many of us know that urine is almost certainly cleaner than the water in the Charles River, but it is the kind of knowledge that doesn’t sit easily. We don’t respond by getting a glass. For us, it is the physical world, not ideas, that seems to contaminate, and the leap goes from there to the spirit. It was normal to ban married women from the classroom. No longer pure, they could not be around children – which is an idea that only gets weirder the longer you think about it. So with the annunciation, it is crucial to keep bodies out of the story. Everything is achieved with angel whispers and mysterious actions on God’s part.
The annunciation is the very first recorded scene in Mary’s life. We know nothing of her before this moment, when an angel appears to tell her that she will bear the child of God. We hear no more until the trip to Bethlehem, and then, forty days after the child is born, Mary brings her son to the temple. Although many of us may know this story from the Gospel of Luke, the Quran tells the same tale – and in fact Mary has her own chapter in that holy book. It tells how Maryam brings Isa to the temple, and the men there taunt her, questioning her right to bring the child to a holy place. She simply points to her son, and he begins speaking, which is how everyone knows that he is a true prophet. In the Christian version, a man named Simeon meets Mary and Joseph, and offers a blessing. He says ‘This child 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 a sword will pierce your own soul too.” These are odd and discomforting stories. Walking into the temple with your baby and being taunted; being told you will be devastated; that your child will cause many people to fall, and among them will be you. What kind of blessing is that? And if Mary is pure; not really of this earth, why is she not protected from this kind of pain?
In our tradition, all children are welcomed; named and celebrated and recognized as sources of wonder and hope. But that is really not what bringing Jesus to the temple was about. That family was following a command to set aside the oldest son; to keep him pure. You might wonder about this. I know I did. Why just the first? Wouldn’t you ask that all children be brought up right? But this law was really more about parents; about the initiation into a role of responsibility and caring for the future. It was not about innocence or new life; it was a call to the children of Israel, who had straggled out of captivity in Persia and needed to reassemble themselves. They were trying to find their way back to the promised land. In Babylon, the priests had not been able to preserve the faith, and the people adapted to the lifestyle of the captors. They started to assimilate, and now that they were free, they needed to figure out how to regain a strong Jewish identity. Replacing the priestly tribe with all the oldest sons was a way to keep every family personally involved in the faith. By embedding Judaism in the home, the chosen people could be reconstituted, and made pure. The whole association with Persians and Arabs could be washed away. The Biblical imagery is severe – refineries, burning things down to the essentials. It sounds hellish, but it is meant to get us to a holy place. I have thought of this often in the past two weeks, as the Tsarnaev trial unfolds with a defense that revolves around the firstborn son and the role he played in the family and the faith, and ISIS has been bent on purifying Islamic culture to match its ideas of holiness. They are making infernos from books, toppling statues and attacking ancient stones with hatchets, proud to reduce the past to rubble in the name of faith. The goal is to cleanse the world of idolatry… and it is heartrending. And it can’t work. We won’t really see all that history erased, even if the artifacts are gone. It’s just that the destruction of antiquities in Iraq will become part of the story.
I remember a William James essay in which he says something like, “It’s all well and good to appear pure, but it is the opposite of cleanliness to hide dirt in garments that look clean.” James was talking about the Puritans, but it is a theme that runs throughout our world, and is, in a way, what my sister-in-law was saying to me: It is fundamentally dishonest to be tidy unless you are actually clean. But what if being pure is not really about clean or unclean, so much as it is about being able to see clearly, through all the layers?
There is a difference between a purity that nurtures and connects and encourages us to have faith even when we don’t fully grasp what is happening, or why; and the kind of purity that is fundamentally about control. Underlying many demands for purity seems to be a fear of loss; of being threatened with extinction, or absorption in to a larger culture. It is an impulse to exalt that somehow becomes a force of isolation instead. We cannot remove every trace of the past just because we do not like it. This is one of the reasons why Stephanie Paulsell’s essay this morning resonated so deeply – not just the very physical journey she describes, and the layering of advent on the annunciation. It is also the idea that she and Kevin became parents for the first time through grief, and that their living child honored that loss, rather than negating it.
There is a novel called Pure in which the king calls for a corner of 18th century Paris to be cleaned up. The bodies buried in the churchyard are polluting the ground and the air, so an engineer is brought in. He is to give the people light, and eradicate the stench, and so the plan calls for all the graves to be dug up, and the bodies burned, and for the sooty stone building to be dismantled. Then everyone will be able to breathe freely. But the people rebel. They don’t want that kind of cleanliness. Without the relics in the churchyard, the people felt robbed of their own future. Those were souls that had journeyed toward God, and they reminded the living of a path. The decay was leading somewhere, but the clean air the engineer offered was empty. Purity for them was not about sunshine and fresh air or good health and a new start. It was about being connected to a spirit that held the past, and carried it into the future.
My first memory dates to January of 1965, when I was three years old, and had chicken pox. I was at my grandmother’s house, and I remember the cotton balls bright pink with calamine lotion; the cold white and black tile in the bathroom. We were all contagious, and I can still clearly see the view from the top of the staircase where I clung to the wall, itching. At the bottom, my mother was standing, one bundled baby in each arm. The twins were part of a family grand finale — My mother’s sister had a baby a few weeks earlier, and within the next month each of her other siblings would have one, too. They were like fireworks that closed out that generation.
In the midst of all this – my grandmother clucking about her daughters and grandchildren and the explosion of five new chicks -– came the call to Selma. When people of my persuasion – liberal, white, Northern, multi-generational Unitarian Universalists – talk about Selma and civil rights, there is a sense of pride and meaning; having been on the right side. Last month, when we took the youth group to see the movie version of Selma, Mark and I pestered the kids periodically, making sure they knew that guy was not a priest, he was UU minister; and that unnamed woman was one of us, too. But I do not remember pride as a kid. I remember fear.
My uncle Charles was in his second year with his new church. His youngest child was three weeks old; the four older ones ranged from age two to nine. My cousin Clark was in his second year at his first church. He had a three year old daughter and a wife who had lived in this country for less than two years. She had no other family here. Martin Luther King called our UUA president, saying that supporters were needed for the march, and in response, about twenty percent of all UU clergy in the country, including both Charles and Clark, went to Selma. Many parishioners raised funds to send their ministers. But what I remember was my family being frustrated and scared and conflicted. They thought it was irresponsible for the men to leave their families and take this huge risk. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black Baptist civil rights activist from Marion Alabama, had already been killed, shot by a state trooper as he tried to protect his mother from being beaten. Then, every two weeks, just like the babies, came another death. First was James Reeb, a UU minister; then Viola Liuzza, a layperson from Detroit. Clark happened to be with James Reeb when he was attacked, and when he died, and this confirmed what the women in the family had felt. It was foolish to have answered that call.
For a generation, no one in my family talked about this. And I don’t think it was just my family. In the wake of Selma, the church I grew up in started to solidify around civil rights, and justice building, but then it all fell apart. People talked about peace, but they fought about things like whether or not to take the pews out of the sanctuary. Instead of being mobilized or infused with meaning, we dwindled. Yet now we look to that era as a moment of purity in our past; the time we got it right. It is because of Clark’s daughter Marika that Selma became a topic again in our family. She had been working at CNN, and was learning to be a producer. She needed a project. Eyes on the Prize had just come out, and she suggested to her father that they visit Selma, and that he walk her through it. Clark said that before this, all Selma was to him was an emotional stew, mixed up with anger, pain, sadness, and wonder that a simple accident of history had place him in this position. He had never been back, and never found any meaning in it. Mostly what it stood for was terror. But when he walked the streets with his daughter, he had to do something besides cry. He had to learn to tell the story in a way that conveyed meaning.
It seems that as a religious institution sending people to Selma, we did not have a particularly acute consciousness of the risk. The women were more attuned to that dangling sword, ready to pierce the soul. Why did we go? What was the purpose? No one could have believed that the march was going to convert the segregationists, and the legal objectives had already been met – gaining permission to march. It was as if our presence was symbolic, or ceremonial, and no one was prepared to end up devastated – and further devastated that our losses had an impact, while the innumerable losses in the black community never had. Selma forces us to get out of our heads; out of pageantry and ideas, and into the dirt. This was a march out of the church to the statehouse; out of a holy refuge and into a world, claiming earthly powers. The reason Selma has a hold on us is precisely because its meaning was not clear. It was a convoluted, dirty, and very human mess, and we are still being changed by it. It is a reminder that what lasts and matters most often comes through suffering and disagreements and a strange blend of naivete and determination.
Earlier this year, when we saw the list of Oscar nominees for best film, it was striking that all of the movies except one were about white men. This is not to say that they were not interesting, worthwhile, weird and great – Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, the boy in Boyhood, Birdman – they were. But Selma is different for reasons besides the color of its hero, and that is the movie is not really about an individual. It isn’t about King. It is about a movement. There are so many intensely smart people, and yet none of them thinks exactly the same way. All of them are leaders. The fight to tame egos, to choose to work together, to strategize and to compromise is messy, and hard. We can feel how scared different factions are of giving up control, and how destabilizing it is to make a decision to unite. Malcolm X is not much more than a voice through a telephone wire, but we can see him asking to become part of the strategy, and King deciding to accept that. Faced with a system that is designed to keep us apart; that pretends that power is the same thing as right, it is radical to work together to extract justice from this world. The anger and resentments that get passed around are complex, and sometimes personal. It is a struggle to set that aside when we live in a culture of heroes. But changing the world is not something that can be done alone. Selma is a historical piece that feels more contemporary than anything else we saw.
My favorite scene in the movie was where all these different guys keep piling in to a house and eat and eat and eat. They are quick and funny and seem full of joy, bouncing comments and laughter off each other. It is an intimate encounter; a glimpse into how ALIVE these people are. And it brings us to our knees, too, because they are making real sacrifices. They are fragile. They do break. But together they create something that cannot be broken. So may it be with us.
Closing Words – from Helen Keller, Optimism
Deep, solemn optimism, it seems to me, should spring from this firm belief in the presence of God in the individual; not a remote, unapproachable governor of the universe, but a God who is very near every one of us, who is present not only in earth, sea and sky, but also in every pure and noble impulse of our hearts.