Saturday, October 29, 2016

"It's a Ghost"

One of the pleasures of reading the Gospels in particular are those moments when, following the sequence from one day to another, one notices things which remain obscure as long as one’s exposure is limited to weekly or even daily Mass.  One reads slightly larger chunks, one reads them in order without omission, but also at a slow enough pace—unlike those marathon Lenten do-the-whole-Bible-in-forty-days sessions—

Which are helpful in their own way.

—that one is able to actually absorb the connections between the various scenes.  Last night’s portion, for example, involved the following ghost story (just in time for Halloween!).  At the end of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has just concluded a series of parables about the nature of the kingdom of heaven with an encounter with his dubious neighbors in Galilee:

they were scandalized in his regard. But Jesus said to them: A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.  And he wrought not many miracles there, because of their unbelief. (Matt. 13:57-8)

Chapter 14 opens relating how Herod hears of Jesus, and how he reacts:

At the time Herod the Tetrarch heard the fame of Jesus. And he said to his servants: This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works shew forth themselves in him.  (Matt. 14:1-2)

Notice the rich irony here.  Jesus’s own former neighbors have just finished “wondering” at (i.e., doubting) him (“How came this man by this wisdom and miracles?  Is not this the carpenter’s son?”, 13:54-5); he can work few miracles in Nazareth because they doubt the report of his miracles elsewhere, because they know who he is—though not the full truth of who he is.  Herod, on the other hand, does not know who Jesus is—indeed, completely misidentifies him—because of his belief in the reports of the miracles.  The superstitious king has in an odd way more “faith” than the presumably religious neighbors.

Thus far the parallel is merely ironic.  But as chapter 14 continues, the parallels grow richer.  For the entire chapter turns out to be a flashback to the time of John’s death.  Having noted Herod’s fear, Matthew continues:

For Herod had apprehended John and bound him, and put him into prison, because of Herodias, his brother’s wife.  For John said to him: It is not lawful for thee to have her.  And having a mind to put him to death, he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet. (14:3-5)

Here begins the whole sad story of John’s eventual beheading at the hands of Herodias, using her daughter Salome (14:6-11).  At the conclusion,

[John’s] disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus.  Which when Jesus had heard, he retired from thence by boat, into a desert place apart, and the multitudes having heard of it, followed him on foot out of the cities.  And he coming forth saw a great multitude, and had compassion on them, and healed their sick. (14:12-14)

Humanly speaking, this is not a good day for Jesus.  I am not trying to be humorous: his cousin has just died; we know their mothers were close, and presumably the boys were close as well, although John’s reaction to Jesus at his baptism can tend to obscure that probability.

 Close, no?

Jesus does what anyone would do at such a moment: he “retires,” goes “apart,” to process what has happened (again, speaking on the human level), and undoubtedly to pray.  But “the multitudes … heard of it,” and follow him even in this time of mourning.  So as must often have happened with Jesus (think now of every such person in a ministerial position, from Mother Teresa to your humble parish priest), he has to turn around and extend compassion to others, when feeling most in need of it himself.

Since Jesus has tried to “retir[e] … apart,” he and his disciples have inadvertently led the multitudes into “a desert place”; evening falls, and the disciples urge him to “send away the multitudes, that going into the towns, they may buy themselves victuals” (14:15).  This is the cue for Jesus’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves and the fish, a corporeal extension of the compassion he has been showing to the multitudes all day, since he heard of his cousin’s death.

Only once the meal is over does Jesus dismiss the crowds—AND his disciples—and “[go] into a mountain alone to pray.  And when it was evening, he was there alone” (14:23).  At this particular moment—I hope it’s not too impious—I think of my own mother, and every other mom I’ve heard, talking about that moment when ALL THE CHILDREN ARE FINALLY IN BED.  “He was there ALONE.”  Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, the poor disciples—like so many children with nightmares and coughs?—are having a bad night of it: “the boat in the midst of the sea was tossed with the waves: for the wind was contrary” (14:24).  So Jesus, like any good mom or dad, eventually comes to check up on them: “in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking upon the sea” (14:25).

Here, I have to tell a story of my own.  My father used to have—they are, alas, long passed from this world—a pair of red pajamas.  We also kept a nightlight burning, either in our bedroom or the hall or both, for many of the years when I was young.  One night, I remember distinctly my father appearing, unexpectedly, in those red pajamas and illuminated by the light.  This was where my brain went:

My mother used to make the most wonderful 
deviled ham biscuits around Easter time ...

And I shrieked.  Yes, my poor parents.  Anyway, keep that moment in mind; because the disciples’ reaction is similar …

And they seeing him walk upon the sea, were troubled, saying: It is an apparition. (14:26)

Douay Rheims, you don’t usually fail me: the word in the Vulgate is phantasma: apparition, spectre, phantom … But the real chill of the moment is better captured if we use the word we would employ colloquially today: It’s a ghost.

Does this sound familiar?  It should.  Remember the beginning of the chapter:

Herod: “This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead …”
Disciples: “It’s a ghost.”

We’ve come full circle.

And they cried out for fear.  And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying: Be of good heart: it is I, fear ye not.  And Peter making answer, said: Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee upon the waters.  And he said: Come. And Peter going down out of the boat, walked upon the water to come to Jesus.  But seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying: Lord, save me.   And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?  And when they were come up into the boat, the wind ceased.  And they that were in the boat came and adored him, saying: Indeed thou art the Son of God.  And having passed the water, they came into the country of Genesar.  And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent into all that country, and brought to him all that were diseased.  And they besought him that they might touch but the hem of his garment. And as many as touched, were made whole.  (14:26-36)

Thus the chapter concludes, and we come full circle to the sort of miracles of which Herod hears and cries out “This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead.”  And those words of Herod’s lend a further clue to the whole chapter.  It is not only a beautifully-crafted self-contained story (speaking as a human writer) but, like so many moments in the Old Testament and the Gospels, a foreshadowing of the Passion narrative as well.  Here in chapter 14, Jesus, heavy in heart at John’s death, feeds multitudes miraculously, goes up to the mountain alone to commune with his Father, and comes back when his troubled disciples least expect it, only have to disabuse them of the notion that he is a ghost; Peter’s leap of faith follows.

By comparison, in the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel—chapter 28, perhaps not coincidentally the double of chapter 14?—we find a similar conclusion to a similar story.  The Passion has been led up to by a similar series of parables as led up to chapter 14; while the parables in 13 focused on the kingdom of God, inevitably concluding with the Last Judgment, the account of the Judgment in chapter 25 is more explicit and threatening .  Chapters 26 and 27 contain a history of the Passion.  Here, once again, Jesus, heavy in heart—now at the knowledge of his own impending death—feeds his disciples miraculously, with a yet greater miracle; goes up the Mount of Olives and eventually Mount Calvary alone to commune with his Father, and comes back when his troubled disciples least expect it …

It is only fair to add that the full account of Jesus’s appearance to his disciples through closed doors, and Peter’s second leap of faith, does not appear in Matthew, or for that matter in Mark.  It is only in Luke that we get the conclusion of the story, in which Jesus must disabuse the apostles of the notion that he is a ghost:

Jesus stood in the midst of them, and saith to them: Peace be to you; it is I, fear not.  But they being troubled and frightened, supposed that they saw a spirit [spiritum].  And he said to them: Why are you troubled, and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?  See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle, and see: for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as you see me to have.  And when he had said this, he shewed them his hands and feet. (Luke 24:36-40)

And it is only in final chapter of John that the parallel is fully complete:

After this, Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. … they went forth, and entered into the ship: and that night they caught nothing.  But when the morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore: yet the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Jesus therefore said to them: Children, have you any meat? They answered him: No.  He saith to them: Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore; and now they were not able to draw it, for the multitude of fishes.  That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord.  (John 21:1, 3-7)

Not “it is a ghost”—they’ve moved past that point now—but “‘It is the Lord’ … And none of them who were at meat, durst ask him: Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord” (21:7, 12).  Like Herod, but also much unlike him in his superstition, they now know: this is not a ghost, but a man who has risen from the dead.  And Simon Peter takes his second, more successful, leap of faith, followed by a meal of bread and fish, reminiscent of the multiplication in Matthew 14.

(Interestingly, John omits the ghost line from the upper room scene—see John 20:19-23—so you really do need a harmony of the Gospels to get the full story.  BUT John’s version of the upper room scene IS the one where Jesus bestows the Holy Ghost.  So, there is still a “ghost” in the room … Alright, I’m done now.  But how much cooler can the Holy Spirit’s work get?  C’mon, even the gospels’ order—the ghost business starts in Matthew, and concludes in John?  I only wish my novels showed that much attention to structure …)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Open Letters to the Insurance Salesman

I know not what it is about moving and changes in one’s state in life, but they always seem to trigger additional calls from salesmen hoping to provide me with things that I already have—usually, with some form of insurance.  By whatever curious breach of privacy (I suspect some doctor’s office is the innocent culprit in this case) I have become the target of a particularly persistent and obnoxious specimen, who by the current count has called my twice and texted me three times (good heavens man, do you not know this costs some people money?) within the past thirty-six hours or so.

Given the particularly sleazy nature of his tactics, I have been resisting the temptation all morning to reply.  Here, for the record, are his missives to date:

First text: [My first name], Youve caught me off hours.  My hours are M-F 9AM-7PM EST.  Is there a good time during those hours I can schedule a call for you?  [Received 6:06 a.m.]

Reader, I have no clue who this person is, and emphatically did NOT get in touch with him prior to receiving the above text.  Oh, also—6:06 a.m.?  Dude: that IS off hours.  I was asleep (or trying to be).  It’s a good thing that I turn the phone off, or you probably would have gotten an earful.

Second text: Good morning [my first name], I just tried calling you to follow up about your inquiry for your free health ins quote.  Can you call me now to get your results?  [Received 9:41 a.m.]

For the record, I was still asleep at this point.  (What?  The night before last was a rough one.)  Also, I had and have submitted no such inquiry.  Moving right along …

Third text: [My first name], you didn’t answer when I called earlier, is there a better time to call you?  [Received 11:19 a.m.]

The unmitigated gall.  It’s probably a terrible idea to respond.  But the real reason I’m not replying is that there are so many irresistible ways to do so that I can’t decide which one would be best.

The grammarian: As of last Friday, I have determined to no longer associate or do business with those who use incorrect capitalization, lazy abbreviations, and comma splices in their text messages.  Only the Queen’s best English for me!  Better luck with your next victim.

The Miss Manners: Dear sir: As we have not been introduced, do you not think it would be better to address me as Mrs. [surname]?  Sincerely yours, a Well-Wisher.

The lawyer’s daughter:  Since your first communication, I have been in contact with my attorney.  He informs me that you are in violation of statutory law, Florida code §1027(b)(4)(C), and 30 U.S.C. §401(c)(1)(D)(xiii) (2012).  I recommend consulting your own legal advice, as we are preparing to file harassment charges in state and federal court.  Try 1-(800)-773-0888, or visit

The biblical one-liner: What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world, but to lose his soul?

The frank and heartfelt scolding: This is possibly one of the most disgusting attempts to get me to buy something that I don’t need that I have encountered in my life.  Who do you think I am, some poor befuddled Floridian grandmother with early onset Alzheimer’s?  Is that the sort of person you prey on, in order to make your living?  Because they might actually think they HAD called you, and become confused, and call you back?  Bloodsucking jerkface.

The phishing-back-at-yah response: Dear Hubert, I do apologize for missing your call!  Could we perhaps try again at a quarter past three?  My phone refuses to ring except when the atmospheric conditions and the prevailing winds permit (cf. The World of Pooh).  Also, NASA’s recent realignment of the zodiac has presented some difficulties in communication since my formerly BFF device was cursed during my visit to New Orleans, and I discovered that we were created under incompatible signs.  It is turning against me.  Have you tried the insurance market in New Orleans?  I’m sure it is booming in the wake of the recent hurricanes.  You will need to use the following code to get through to me: After the tone, refer to Thomas Starkey’s Dialogue between Pole and Lupset (1989 edition only!!!), page 42, first word of the first line, using a 5x5 grid alphabet substitution method.  Read your message slowly and distinctly one letter at a time.  Only then will Siri preserve your important message.  I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible!!!!  Dosvidanya, and gospodarstvo do movve.

Happy Windsday, mon frères.

Update, Thursday:

Fourth text: Good morning, Sophia, I couldn't get a hold of you yesterday?  Can you call now so I can explain your health insurance quote options?  [Received 9:05 a.m.]

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

I Liked Fall before It Was Hip

When we arose for Mass and clambered into the car early Sunday morning (early, I say! it was all of five minutes till eight!), the thermometer informed us that it was a balmy seventy-five degrees.  Seventy-five!  With humidity somewhere closer to the normal non-swampy range and a light breeze to stir the still very green leaves every now and then.  What amazing weather! the natives marveled with us.  Why, sometimes it doesn’t get like this until December!  You’re so lucky you arrived this year.

My mental translation: This is as good as it gets!  Shudder.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be this way, but one of the hardest things about being in Florida is the climate.  Exotic birds, alligators, and armadillos are all very nice in their way; daily skyscapes featuring huge mounds of puffy cumulus that clearly signal the marshmallow fluff to go big or go home; evenings when the whole air turns orange, as if we were bathed in the light of some stranger sun on an alien planet; nearly full moons that hover just at the end of the street, inviting you to walk up and into them like a child in a Pixar film; enormous rainbows every couple of weeks … It’s all great.  In June.

But this is October.  And while some of those features are appropriate to the season (see: moon and clouds) the temperatures are definitely not.  I want COLD.  More specifically, I want it to be cold outside so I can enjoy being warm.  For the past month I’ve been feeling an urge to buy a plaid shirt, never mind the fact that this is the worst time of the year to buy plaid (wait until after Thanksgiving when the markdowns start).  I suddenly want to watch Charlie Brown and the Giant Pumpkin, or whatever that movie it was that I only saw twice as a kid and didn’t really care for either time.  Or maybe Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.  I mean, baby is still in utero, but it would be like booming Little Mozart tapes at him, no?

I’ve made pumpkin bread once, and it was pretty good, but it was NOT the same.  I bought some apples, and they’re pretty cheap now—cheaper even I think than most of the citrus—but somehow baking an apple pie doesn’t feel right either.  I found that marshmallow fluff for the fudge recipe, but … I just don’t have the heart.  It would feel like a violation of some unwritten contract between myself and Mother Nature.

I want to see piles of leaves in front of the neighbors’ doorsteps.  They don’t even need to be pretty leaves, the sort that people drive to see (people are weird) and take scrapbook photographs of (very weird)—the dull brown varietals will do.  (Do the leaves even fall in Florida?  They’ve got to at some point—those ARE deciduous trees that I spy across the swamp.  Right?  Right?)

We got the carseat a few weeks ago, but it still hasn’t been installed in the car.  Every time I think about wrestling with it in the balmy seventy-five degree weather, I recoil back to my air-conditioned chair and suck some more ice cubes.  (Great practice for those ice chips during labor, I’m sure.)

I shudder to think what Halloween will be like.  As kids we always put our costumes over our clothes because you had to in order to stay warm.  The grownups who followed behind wore coats or jackets, depending on the year.  You had to eat candy, just to keep your body heat.  (OK, maybe I’m making that part up—it’s not like we lived in Connecticut or Maine.  But the idea of eating sweet sticky substances on the go while clad in a hot polyester garment … ugh.  Chocolate is supposed to melt in your mouth, not your hands.   Maybe I’m just not a kid anymore?

I think the real problem here is that the weather is getting to be what everyone calls “nice” just at the time when I want it to be getting “nasty”.  Hostile weather is actually something I enjoy; the part of Fall that warms the cockles of my heart because the basement is now Too Cold to Play in (What is this mythical “basement”? the Floridians ask; How do any of them survive with children? is my reply) and the wood stove is about to be fired up, and maybe if we’re really careful Mama will let us heat cocoa or cider on top.  Probably just cider, because we have too many apples on our trees, and it’s homemade and will go bad; and anyway everyone knows that you can’t have cocoa until it’s actually snowing outside.

Snow.  *sniff*

Maybe I am still a kid.

P.S. I thought about putting up a picture of fall or peasants carousing at a harvest feast, but decided it would be too heartbreaking.