Sacrifices Remade

In his big little book, Fruit of Lips or Why Four Gospels, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy made a late-in-life-and-career statement about the four Gospels.  He spoke about Matthew’s impolite (so Official Israel took him to be) emphasis on blood sacrifice and salvation.   The sacrifice Who dared to speak spoke and died as a demonstration of the Way of the Cross for all who were to follow Him.  Most Christians miss the point, though, in practice.  So, Rosenstock-Huessy writes (p. 71):

The whole expression of a Body of Christ,

With the head in heaven,

Meant exactly this,

That we who would crucify the Lord every day,

In our rage and envy and indifference,

Now, with our eyes opened once

For what we have done and are doing,

Declare solemnly:

We, now, together with our Head,

Step on the side of the silent victims

And offer ourselves to our Maker

So that he can remake the sacrifice

As he pleases.

How else could ever a new inspiration

Befall us as a people

Unless we offer ourselves

As the body for this inspiration?

Time and again, man has to be ripped open

By the ploughshare of suffering

And open himself

Like a dry and desiccated earth

To dew and rain.

And ever since one man did this

Manifestly all alone by himself,

His congregations relieve the members

Of the total pressure of absolute loneliness.

In every generation, the group

Which may be remodeled,

May increase, until the whole of mankind

Will be allowed to fall silent

And to cleanse themselves

From the chatter and clatter of the day,

And to listen to the spirit,


Table fellowship, the sharing of a meal together, gained a new depth of meaning and purpose, far beyond what men had practiced from the beginnings of society.  E-H explains this more fully in his meditations on the Gospel according to Matthew.



Forty-five years ago I sat to learn and read German under Mark Walton, the son of a Hungarian Jewess and Austrian Catholic.  An Anschluss refugee to the United States, Herr Walton got teaching certification at USC, translated for the Army and the German prisoners-of-war in the Northwest, and afterward gave generations of Californians a solid grounding in German, French and Latin.  He even dated Ida Lupino’s sister once or twice.  Through all that he remained an exotic, European immigrant-come-citizen, with Austrian accent beneficial for modeling Hochdeutsch – “high German” and mannerisms deeply traditional to his homeland.  He remains among many dozens perhaps the best teacher I ever had; how many of the others gave me so thoroughly another language, another culture?

In the third and fourth years we read Goethe, Schiller, Fichte and others; I still possess a slim novel by Adalbert Stifter, a gift of my teacher. This much I carried away from Goethe then as we read  Faust and learned one could not possess the world except to one’s own peril.  I did not know then that our reading method meant “thinking translation” that emphasized connotative, intuitive comprehension as much as accuracy to the meanings of words and idioms.  That training has paid dividends over the years in master’s and doctoral studies, and I enjoy employing it all I can in looking at Rosenzweig, Rosenstock-Huessy, and now again Goethe [try a light, guttural “Grrr-tuh’].

Here, I encounter Wilhelm Meister and his lifelong education while I read Matthew del Nevo about pentecostalism in relation to Rosenzweig’s Johannine Third Age, marvel at the new syntheses that appear among those who grapple with “the new thinking” (which is Bible-old, I tell you), and see how it connects with such varied truth conduits as Newman, Bonhoeffer and Soloveitchik.  I am compelled to reexamine, perhaps genuinely to understand, Goethe for the first time in ways not possible forty-five years ago.  I think Herr Walton knew that; I regret not to have looked more deeply than I did over the years, though I am grateful for the seeds planted at that time.


Blackbird Artistry

To Laura, age 5 1/2:

I saw a wonderful thing this morning! Just as the sun came up, I was walking on the meadow path by the creek. It is down the hill from my and Mimi’s house. A hundred blackbirds ate their breakfast in the meadow grass. As I walked toward them, the birds closer to me flew up and settled on the other side of the flock. They did so continuously. They were a rising and falling wave of black birds against the green-brown field.

At once they decided—all together, as if they had the same mind—to fly to a tree. They rose in a wavery but true sphere of black bodies and wings toward a tree. It is winter, still, and the tree has bare branches. The tree has a teardrop shape, rounder at bottom, narrower toward the top that ends in a point. How marvelous!

As the ball of birds flew upward it took the shape of the tree, but larger at first, and then shrank to the size of the actual tree as the birds lighted on its branches. It was wonderful to watch this happen with the grey sky in the background. The tree seemed to have black leaves, too, but just for a minute.

So, blackbirds are artists in a flock! This morning they also reminded me that God is an artist. He makes art together with his creatures. Now, how wonderful is that? What a beautiful thing I saw this morning! I thought of my granddaughters, right then and there. I wanted you to know about it too. — Papa

Update, May 25, 2011.

David Lyle Jeffrey remarks on the poetry of Richard Wilbur in the June/July 2011 issue of First Things and mentions a poem on the birds.  Of course Wilbur’s observation recalled what I saw and reported to Laura.  He wrote,

As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,

A landscapeful of small black birds, intent

On the far south, convene at some command

At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone

With headlong and unanimous consent

From the pale trees and fields they settled on.

After a paragraph or two of Jeffrey’s comment, another stanza from Wilbur reads,

Delighted with myself and with the birds,

I set them down and give them leave to be.

It is by words and the defeat of words,

Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,

That for a flying moment one may see

By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.

Epiphany 2011

My neighbors and correspondents may not buy my argument that we should celebrate the holy days all the way through the 12th Day of Christmas (yesterday, January 5).  Yet even my Baptist family would say it is good to make each day of the year a celebration of Christ.  But I am late with the Christmas greetings this year to many friends, too, so you discern one of my motives for writing as I do this morning.

Well, TODAY the Magi have come to honor the baby, the king, at Bethlehem, to resolve their questions about that Star of the East, and we can do the same.  Today is Epiphany in the traditional calendar of Western Christianity.  Christ is revealed, Truth is known, Insight and Light are ours.  How we need that for today and for this year!  May I recommend an MP3 program?  It’s for anyone, at BBC Radio 4 Podcasts: along with other downloads.  The one I’m recommending directly is “The Magi.”  Actually, it’s well balanced and thought-provoking.  Let me know what you think.

Harvest Unbidden

Downhill from the house, in the creek bottom next to the walking trail, the wild persimmon lives from ground level upward, trunk-to-trunk with the oak.  Their branches and leaves intermingle.  The hard persimmons on the tree’s north side hold tightly to their stems, waiting for their process from tannic tartness to fruity sweetness.  Softer, most of the fruit on the south side have almost arrived.  A few have released their hold and made twilight snacks for returning coyotes and deer whose signature tracks remain.  The deer–and at least one human passerby–have also plucked the sweeter, low-hanging fruit.  It is the season of waiting, ripening, and the harvest’s first-fruits.  By mid-November persimmons throughout East Texas will lie rotting among fallen leaves, their sugary, alcoholic aroma proof of abundance, more than deer, coyotes, and others need.  Yet that is no waste, but evidence of a superabundant, normal order of providence beyond mere reason.  What intoxicating extravagance!

The Wing-Beat

I have read lovely phrases recently; e.g., in Franz Rosenzweig’s writings on the “literary and human aspect of the Scriptures” and on translating the Scriptures (he collaborated with Martin Buber on a new OT translation in the 1920s); first, his reference to the painters’ depiction of St. Francis’ halo (Latin nimbus) as an “aureole of light”, second, his metaphor about the deep spirit of translation.  After noting the “history of translation” starting with the translator’s attempt to achieve the essential meaning of the text despite its spirit being lost in the process, he wrote,

 “Then, one day, a miracle happens and the spirits of the two languages mate.  This does not strike like a bolt out of the blue.  The time for such a hieros gamos, for such a Holy Wedding, is not ripe until a receptive people reaches out toward the wing-beat of an alien masterpiece with its own yearning and its own utterance, and when its receptiveness is not longer based on curiosity, interest, desire for education, or even aesthetic pleasure, but has become an integral part of the people’s historical development. . . .”

[Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought, 3rd ed., presented by Nahum N. Glatzer (Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1998), 257, 259.]  Emphasis mine.

I do still need to compare the passage with the original German, when I find a copy.  I wonder, did you think “oriole” when you saw the word aureole as I did?  Yes, they are related (aureolus=golden).  The passage above suggests far more than words, including Rosenzweig’s reverence for the Jewish Scriptures, what he called the “Only Testament.”  When I reflect on his conviction the Scriptures used words-beyond-words to reveal the proper relationship between God, Man, and World, I find his passage and its translation into English to have been inspired.

Wing-Beat, Wingborne . . .

Some loved ones create delight by keeping their bird feeders stocked (with the avian-approved, “good stuff”) and waiting for the delight.  Hours of it come in flashes of cardinals, blue jays, orioles, finches, variegated blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, mourning dove, sparrows, and the seasonal many others.  They are delight on the wing, “wingborne” snatches of a common grace present in the general environment but focused at the feeders.  Yes, there are the fat squirrels and the after-dusk racoons, interlopers in something not intended for them, but who are they to turn down a good deal in that extension of common grace?  All are distinctive, and all take part in what is offered.

That wingborne delight comes from the givers’ provision.  The “good stuff” is not cheap, nor is it second-rate, the kind some birds turn away from–they understand stingy giving and simply choose something else.  The givers give for the sake of present and anticipated joy, liberally, and they get to share in grace redoubled.  It all comes from a life-attitude, not a singular, selfish desire just to enjoy the local wildlife, but to show they share somehow in a common life borne of a common provision.  It is so with the birds and is potentially true for all their relationships!  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. 

The Father provides, and so do his children.  Grace is a gift received and given.  Providence is divine, but people pass it on to others.  It is not only spiritual or only material, mostly these are inseparable in the gift.  Either way or together, through the Spirit there is provision and there is delight.  It is the wingborne foundation for a life of joy. 

Our international culture lore and our use of domesticated birds abounds with the birds and the “wing-beat” of their work and significance:  storks bring children to parents; the hummingbirds–Mayan divinities incarnate–do they not sip the gods’ nectar?  The gospel dove descending upon the Son of Man (or in gospel songs on people as the Great Speckled Bird or the Snow White Dove); the swallows heralding spring at San Juan Capistrano; the American Bald Eagle, bird of peace first, then war; the albatross of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; the California Sespe condors–a weak flock though they are outsized fowl.  The pampered peafowl of India.  Moving closer to our hearts, and table habits, the Thanksgiving Turkey (the wild turkey does indeed fly, yes, Sir, Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia and the Pilgrims of Plymouth!), and, just as with the chicken-domesticators of the Indus Valley, 6,000 b.c.e., do we not all (well, most of us) partake of the yardbird, aided these days by the Arkansas Tysons and the Texas Pilgrims?  And eggs, too. 

About the wing-beat, in another entry.

The Chinese Dream

Ah!–the sinuous path of pragmatism on the way to the “Chinese Dream.” Unique? Oh, no. Actually sounds American. We did, after all, build an interstate highway system that allows us in our powered conveyances to conquer the heights and hollows that Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, Jedediah Smith, and many others — not to mention the American aboriginals — took centuries to “discover” and to name. So, China wants to build a highway to the base camp on Mt. Everest. (By the way, one may ask, isn’t Everest in Tibet? Oh, no, not that Tibet, but the one now located within Greater China.) Tourists will benefit, they say. They deserve to see it. I imagine the pique of world-class mountaineers on hearing such a statement, climbers who trained for years for a shot at Everest, took their opportunity, and were lucky to come down alive. Knowing the life-and-death risks involved in climbing earth’s highest peak, elite adventurers have marveled at the presumptuousness of others less well prepared who seemed to take Everest too lightly and who all-too-readily paid for their misjudgment with their lives.
At least now adventurers will be able to conserve energy by taking the road to the base camp located at 17,000-plus feet (so said the spokesman quoted in the AP report). To possible altitude sickness they would add carsickness!
But in 2008 the Olympic torch will be taken to the summit of Everest! That’s an astonishing goal–possible surely, but the tortuous drama of it, and with no guarantee of success, makes it seem so improbable. Could that be just the point, though? Back to the dream, then . . . . In the world’s largest country, with the longest “Great Wall,” with the largest dam–the Three Gorges, and there are myriad other superlatives, one might be excused for being audacious. Having been named the host country for the 2008 Olympics after a long wait (actually twice, their 2000 bid having been denied), China will put on the world’s greatest show in Beijing and other venues. In fact, China itself will be the great venue, and China will be proudly, resplendently on display, and the world will be impressed. Guaranteed. The arrival of the Olympic torch in the hand of a climber will punctuate China’s grand statement that the Chinese have indeed stood up (Mao Zedong) and in a spectacular way (yes, in yet another way) long prepared for, long dreamed of, indeed, long anticipated.

What, you say, about the ways China has not and will not have arrived by August 2008? Yes, there will be many ways, but they will be less visible. On this point China warrants credit, even if not every Chinese has an equal slice of the dream, or even knows anything about it. Suffice to say for now that more Chinese will become acutely aware of the world beyond the borders of the Middle Kingdom — Zhongguo — and their thinking; their dreams will respond to the pull both of their own land and the recognition coming from lands beyond. At no time in human history will the world have paid more attention to China — no, not even at the time of Liberation in 1949, nor even during the height of Chairman Mao’s power in the Cultural Revolution, nor even during the Tiananmen Incident. No, the Olympics will be the height of exposure, and accomplishment, to date. You will know it when the climber and the torch reach the Everest summit.

How would you like to be on the media crew?