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Our Universal Recipient: The Blood Type of Jesus

18 May

“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be His own Blood, from which He causes our blood to flow.”
~ St. Irenaeus

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God’s Digit

6 May

“This is the finger of God” (Ex 8.19). 

Last week, my teenage daughter and I went to see Avengers: Infinity War, and, lo and behold, there was Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), reprising the obscene gesture he featured in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Then, just last night, my kids and I watched the old X-Men (2000) origins flick, and we saw Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) raise a metallic middle blade in defiance of Cyclops, his rival. Cyclops just laughed it off and turned away.

Increasingly, we’re all just laughing off the middle finger wherever it turns up (and it’s turning up plenty), which means that “giving the finger” doesn’t quite pack the same punch it once did. This was clearly evident when I brought my middle-schoolers to see Black Panther a month or so ago. On the way home, we were talking about our favorite characters, our favorite scenes. “My favorite was Shuri,” said Katharine from the back seat, referring to Wakanda’s young princess. “Especially when she was walking away from the king and she raised her finger up – funny.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but do you know what that means?”

“Well, I know it means something bad,” she replied. “Very bad.”

True enough, and it’s been bad a long time. The ancient Romans knew it well, and they even had a name for it: digitus impudicus. It’s always been considered an extremely rude gesture (look it up), and pretty much everybody knows that today – even if they don’t know exactly why it’s so rude (like my young ones, thank heavens). But, like so much else these days, what used to be universally shunned is now commonplace – and tame. “Because it’s so prevalent,” said sportsmanship educator John McCarthy of the middle finger, “the shock value has gone from it.” No longer can one count on a single digit to communicate absolute defiance. Rebels and radicals have to rely on other tokens of insubordination. Flipping people off is so ho-hum nowadays.

On the other hand (pun alert), we have God’s finger, which Scripture highlights as something particularly pointed (pun again) and powerful – and without any trace of lewd associations. This contrast between today’s ubiquitous indecent gesticulation and the comparable Biblical deific sign came to mind at daily Mass shortly after I saw Black Panther. “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute,” Luke tells us, “and when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke and the crowds were amazed.” However, some in those crowds were unwilling to attribute the miracle to benevolent forces, and they accused the Lord of partnering with Beelzebub, “the prince of demons,” in order to exorcise and heal.

Jesus countered that it could be just as easily be posited that anyone who drove out demons was in league with Beelzebub. What’s more, it didn’t make sense that the Prince of Demons would be driving out his own minions. “But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,” Jesus finally challenged his detractors, “then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk 11.20).

The implication here is that Jesus has more power in his little finger than anything Satan could send his way – or ours for that matter. This is literally true, since Jesus, the incarnate Word, shares in his human fingers the very same potency in operation on Mt. Sinai during the Exodus, when Moses received “the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex 31.18).

The Gospel reading from Luke concludes with Jesus’ admonition that “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” This is the opposite of the modern single-finger sign, which is meant to scatter and drive away. The finger of the God-man, in contrast, bespeaks wholeness and restoration. And there’s no shame in that at all. In fact, it’s a sure sign of hope.
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Hopefully Not Coming to a Theater Near You

12 Mar

“The secret can’t be told. Telling it ruins it.”
~ Walker Percy

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Keeping the Showman Great: Of P.T. Barnum, Vows, and Fatherhood

9 Feb

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“The father-son paradigm is ageless….
This is truly the key for interpreting reality.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Of Blade Runner, Barchester, and Father Brown

22 Jan

“He’s simply a good man, without guile, believing humbly in the religion he has striven to teach, and guided by the precepts he has striven to learn.”
~ Dr. Theophilus Grantly

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Jonesing for a Belly Laugh: Of Rimshots and Resets

31 Dec

What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile.
 ~ The Doobie Brothers

Oh my gosh, it’s been a harrowing year – you, too? How about a little levity to round it out.

So, René Descartes is sitting in a café. A waiter approaches and asks, “More coffee, Mr. Descartes?”

After a moment, the philosopher replies, “I think not.”

*Poof!* (Insert rimshot and cymbal splash here.)

Yeah, it’s a groaner, but it’s a good one – one of my favorites. It’s short, it’s clever, and it pokes fun at philosophy – who wouldn’t love a joke like that? My kids have heard it a million times. In fact, around my house, you can simply say, “I think not – poof” and you’ll probably get at least a snort if not an actual pity-laugh.

Regardless, shared laughter is almost always a good thing. It elevates the spirit, distracts us from our travails, and lightens our mutual loads. It buoys courage and restores hope – and it’s contagious, thank God. Someone giving way to a serious fit of giggles will inevitably create ripples of mirth among those nearby, even if they have no idea what got it started. Like that Descartes joke. My littler kids, who know nothing of philosophy, grew up laughing at it along with the older kids just because they were laughing (the first dozen times at least).

Sure, there are times when laughs are inappropriate, but humorous resets are frequently desired and desirable. St. Francis de Sales alludes to this idea in his Introduction to the Devout Life. He writes of eutrapelia, the Greek virtue of jesting and taking “friendly, virtuous enjoyment in the amusing situations human imperfections provide us.” While warning us off anything that approaches scorn or contempt, De Sales makes it clear that goofiness is not only a good thing, but often preferred to its alternative.

To illustrate, he tells a brief anecdote about King St. Louis of France: “When a religious wanted to speak to St. Louis after dinner about certain lofty subjects, the king told those present: ‘This is not the time to quote texts, but to regale ourselves with jokes and puns.’” Even kings need a break now and then – tell him the one about René Descartes (ba-bum, splash!).

And what’s true for kings is true for the rest of us, a perspective brought to life on the screen by director Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). It’s a movie about moviemaking, but much more than that. It’s also a movie about why people generally go to movies in the first place: To forget their troubles, to escape and retreat, and, more often than not, to laugh.

I discovered Travels by accident. It’s mentioned in another film, Grand Canyon (1991), which I’ve actually never seen all the way through. But some glorious serendipity brought me in touch with a particular Canyon clip in which Steve Martin’s character, a movie producer, lectures Mack (Kevin Kline) about filmmaking:

Mack, did you ever see a movie called Sullivan’s Travels? That’s part of your problem, you know, you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. It’s a story about a man who loses his way – he’s a filmmaker like me – and he forgets for a moment just what he was set on earth to do. Fortunately, he finds his way back. It can happen, Mack. Check it out.

All life’s riddles being answered in the movies was a huge stretch, I admit, but I was intrigued by the “finding his way back” theme of Travels. I tracked it down.

What a find.

John L. Sullivan is a successful director of screwball comedies who decides he wants to make a serious film about serious stuff (over the objections of his studio bosses). Accordingly, he chooses a serious book, O Brother Where Art Thou (yes, there’s a Coen brothers connection here) about social justice and the “common man,” and he hits the road as a hobo to get some firsthand experience of the common man’s lot.

The director discovers more than he bargains for, and when his plans to alleviate the misery of the poor by personalist wealth redistribution goes awry, he finds himself among their number – not as an observer, but as a fully vested participant. Injured, jailed, and isolated, Sullivan is indignant, but his dire circumstances lead to a revelation: Yes, suffering demands alleviation and injustice demands redress, but in the meantime, a bit of humor goes a long way. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” Sullivan says in the end, as he puts aside his plans for a serious movie. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

The killer is that our cockeyed caravan is chock full of laugh-bait these days, but so much of it is dead center in the scorn and contempt arena that De Sales cautioned us about. The stuff we gravitate to – in the movies, on the internet and TV – tends to galvanize ill will rather than dissipating it. It accentuates division instead of drawing us together.

No thanks.

For me, I prefer the tried and true when it comes to lighthearted fare – stuff I can count on to make me laugh out loud, over and over again, and without a lot of political or ideological overhead. When I’m overwhelmed or down, I turn to Dave Barry’s writings, like his annual “Year in Review” in the Miami Herald, and archived NPR “Car Talk” gold from Ray and Tom Magliozzi. Plus, there are plenty vintage screwball comedies out there to be enjoyed – the kind that John L. Sullivan would’ve made. Classics like Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and It Happened One Night, for example, plus anything from the Marx Brothers and the entire Thin Man collection starring Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles – wise-cracking sleuths who mix mayhem with their murder mysteries.

But, let’s face it, the undisputed master when it comes to evoking hilarity is P.G. Wodehouse, and it seems like I end up back on his doorstep round about this time every year. Winter has settled in for a couple months, a new semester of teaching looms, and I’m getting regular email reminders from TurboTax about my annual financial slog. Bleah. That’s the cue to go hunting for a Jeeves and Wooster volume or two to carry  me through to the other side.

Now here’s the beauty of being acclimated to Wodehouse’s whimsical genius is that it simply doesn’t matter where you dip in. You’re practically guaranteed to hit a jackpot of jollity every single time. Here, let’s try an experiment. I just went into our home library and plucked down the first Wodehouse volume I laid eyes on: A tattered paperback of Thank You, Jeeves (1933). Open it up in the middle (p. 81), and here we go:

“Will you keep quiet!”

“Of course, of course.”

“You keep shoving your oar in….”

“Sorry, sorry. Shan’t occur again.”

And so on – already hooks me in, I tell you. Clearly, some kind of ruckus is underway and Bertie Wooster is in the thick of it. It’s like I’m already present in the scene and I can hear the voices and I start to relax. It’s a tonic, almost magic.

It was also a magical tonic to those who read it the first time back in 1933 – right when the Great Depression was in full swing. The world needed lots of laughs back then, and Wodehouse supplied them. It’s noteworthy that the Great Depression was also the incubator for many of those Sullivanesque comedies we keep mentioning. The more challenging the times, it appears, the greater market there is for sweet release in gales of glee.

So happy new yearhopefully a better one than the last. May your troubles be few, but when they come (and they will), brace yourself, have courage, and arm yourself with Wodehouse and companions. No need to go it alone.
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Of Casablanca, Cinema, and Coming of Age

29 Nov

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“But now we have a new art, luminous, vivid, simple, stirring, persuasive, direct, universal, illimitable – the animated picture.”
~ Myles Connolly

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