As he finished saying these words, a certain Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein according to the king’s order. When Mattathias saw him, he was filled with zeal; his heart was moved and his just fury was aroused; he sprang forward and killed him upon the altar. At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he showed his zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did with Zimri, son of Salu.1 Maccabees 2:23-26
And as he approached, he saw the city. He wept over it. He said, “If you—even you—had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Because days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up ramparts around you. They will encircle you and press on you from every side. They will throw down you and the children within you. They will not leave a stone upon a stone within you—because you did not recognize the time of your being visited.”Luke 19:41-44
When I was a boy, one of the earliest lessons my mother attempted to teach me was that if you were good to others, they would be good to you. In light of the tension between congeniality and compatibility we have been reflecting on these past days, her formative directive to me was “get along to go along.” As an adult, and especially in my later years, I have come to recognize that my mother had a deep anxiety that somehow I would have difficulty in life “getting along” and being accepted. Now this interpretation may not be true at all, for she may have merely been communicating to me her own anxiety, that of the first generation immigrant whose earliest life formation really was about learning to blend in and become unrecognizable as different. One of her repeated stories was about how much she appreciated and even loved my paternal grandmother who so welcomed and accepted this “Italian American” into the family. For my mother, this was represented by the fact that every time she ate at my grandmother’s table there would be a dish of olives (a rather foreign food at my grandmother’s house) at her place, for my grandmother knew how much my mother liked them.
Adrian van Kaam would always point out that our word encounter includes both in-being and counter-being. Human encounter is always both about sameness and difference. When it is merely one or the other, it is not a true encounter. For it is in otherness, in difference, that the Mystery comes to us. It is in the tension, in the pulls of union and separation, in the open space between us, that we are openness to the Mystery, to transcendence and spirit. “Where two or three gather in my name, I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). At the level of instinct we are drawn to who and what is like us. We come together to protect our own kind from the other, potentially hostile, tribes. We recognize those who are like us as human beings, but not those who are markedly different. In this we recognize the difference between relationships of flesh and those of spirit.
As we read these days from Maccabees, we are very much confronted with the truth of “counter-being.” In our time, these stories, like today’s of Mattathias and his sons, can seem more than a bit extreme to us. What is this about Mattathias leaping up and killing a fellow Jew who is about to sacrifice to the god of the King? How does one reconcile such violence? And what is the scripture teaching us about how and when to fight the world? Today we who claim to be children of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus witness our population sacrificing daily on the altar of capitalism and consumerism. We witness some of our religious leaders worshipping at the altar of power and clericalism. We experience ourselves far too often ceding our devotion to the call of the gospel to our own comfort and complaisance. In all of these cases, what is the appropriate response?
A teacher of ours used to speak often of a central symbol from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: Don Quixote’s insistence that the washbasin on his head was a knight’s helmet. He would then tell us that we, as human beings, have a distinctive ability “to put together things that don’t belong together.” In the reaction of Mattathias, and much more subtly in the tears of Jesus in today’s gospel, we see the recognition that there are things that inherently cannot be put together. In Deuteronomy 6:4 we read, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” It is impossible to believe this and also to sacrifice to other gods. So, Mattathias must not only refuse to sacrifice to the king’s god himself, he must not allow such apostasy and degradation in others. In the gospel from Luke we see Jesus weeping over the destruction that will befall Jerusalem because the people could not recognize “the things that make for peace,” which his arrival and entrance manifested. And, by not recognizing what makes for peace, they shall be left to violence and destruction.
Those teachings we receive in our earliest life are always somehow with us and continuing to form us. The limits and partiality of those early deep directives will come to be known, understood, and reformed in us only with great struggle and difficulty. Having spent most of my life dutifully trying to be agreeable and conforming, even at the cost of what may have been true about my own feelings that were counter to others, I had become fearful of the presence of aggression in me. If encounter is both in-being and counter-being, however, then we must reckon with the aggression in us. It is required for true relationship with others and to fulfill our role, as believers, in the “spiritualization” of our culture.
At the present moment, to speak of the need to appropriate our aggressive tendencies may seem oddly untimely. For, it seems that at least in the United States almost everyone is angry. As I reflect even on my personal and communal life, I can’t help but be amazed at how the forces of the culture, which indicate that there are only 2 points of view about everything and that set all of us at odds against each other as one of two groups, influence every dimension of our relations to each other. We seem in large part to have appropriated that any given person is either on our side or not, with us or against us.
Yet, this is not the appropriation and integration of aggression of which we are speaking. Today’s gospel reminds us that, spiritually speaking, underneath anger and aggression is sadness. Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem’s loss of devotion and commitment to the One Lord and God is prayer. It is a measure of how much the people of Jerusalem have lost themselves that they refuse to recognize and ultimately will kill the one who is God’s visitation to them. And, this denial of the truth will bring destruction upon them. This recognition, however much its truth pains him, does not deter Jesus from making his fateful entrance into Jerusalem.
For us as believers, there is no humanization without divinization. But, because we, as Don Quixote, possess incredible capacities for self-illusion and for putting things together that don’t belong together, we are quite able to assert our commitment to the God who is One and to the gods of our cultures and societies. There can only be the scandal of inequality and militarization in our country because we allow it to be. There can only be the blasphemy that is often American Christianity because we Christians want to be successful in and part of “the mainstream.” Our condition is not the life or death choice of Mattathias. Perhaps it is closer to that of the residents of Jerusalem, as Jesus at the city gates awaits to be welcomed. Jesus knows that given its refusal of him Jerusalem will be destroyed. He is not opting, as Mattathias did, to kill the apostates, but he resolutely enters the city knowing not only what it means for his fate but for theirs.
After a while and so many compromises, we don’t even recognize them anymore. Our culture is based on the commodification of life, including the lives of persons. We who claim to be believers are, in large part, fully accommodated to such “I-it” relations. We are not the first to do so. The people of Jerusalem, in large part, had been compromised enough to be unable to recognize the visitation of the God for which they had been longing. As we approach the beginning of Advent in just over a week, it might be well for us to check our vision and our hearing. Are we clear about what we seek and what we most deeply want? Is it the One God or the gods of our culture whose pervasive appeal has drawn us into making ourselves compatible with them? In these questions, we may discover a “holy anger and aggression” that contains direction for a renewed encounter with each other and with our society.
No, the one who returns into the It-world, carrying the spark, does not feel oppressed by causal necessity. And in healthy ages, confidence flows to all the people from the persons of the spirit; to all of them, even the most obtuse, the encounter, the presence has happened somehow, if only in the dimension of nature, impulse, and twilight; all of them have somewhere felt the You; and now the spirit interprets this guarantee to them.Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann, pp. 102-3
But in sick ages it happens that the It-world, no longer irrigated and fertilized by the living currents of the You-world, severed and stagnant, becomes a gigantic swamp phantom and overpowers humanity. As the one accommodates oneself to a world of objects that no longer achieve any presence for him or her, he or she succumbs to it. Then common causality grows into an oppressive and crushing doom.