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Agnes of God

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (I Peter 2:2-25) transports me to the Canadian convent of John Pielmeier’s play and movie, Agnes of God, where a nun, Sister Agnes, has mysteriously given birth to a child who later is found strangled to death. Maybe all the news this week about Casey Anthony’s release from prison, after all the hoopla of her trial in the death of her daughter, reminded me of this earlier story of infanticide, which was based on a real life event. In the movie, Meg Tilley’s character Agnes, a simple minded victim of childhood molestation herself, remembers nothing of being pregnant or giving birth. Given the nun’s cloistered state there in the nunnery, without a man available to bear the blame, the audience is led to believe she has experienced a miraculous virgin birth, only to strangle the life out of the miracle child. The movie is disturbing and leaves us with many unresolved questions, about miracles, innocent suffering, faith, and God’s purposes.

The sacred drama Peter writes could have been titled Agnes of God, or more properly, Agnus Dei, Latin for Lamb of God. His depiction of the cross and its theological significance is so central to the Christian faith, so embedded in our cultural DNA, that we sometimes forget just how disturbing this dramatic script is, and how many unresolved questions it leaves us with. We tend to shine up the gold cross and sing catchy songs about it in four part harmony and paint the slain lamb onto stained glass window panes, with a Sister Agnes-like amnesia about the kind of hard questions the faith story births for us. The Christian story is at its core a story of the divine and miraculous birth of a baby destined for horrible abuse and suffering, all according to the Father’s plan. It is a story of evil getting a stranglehold on goodness, and goodness willingly surrendering to the fate, all according to plan as a way to ultimately create a pathway to salvation. And as Peter tells us, this is the story that provides us with the example for how to live our lives. Follow in the steps of this lamb who was slain, he tells his readers. Embrace a life of innocent suffering. When you are reviled, don’t revile back. When you suffer, don’t threaten your persecutor. When you are faced with guile, do not return guile.

In a mixture of metaphors and mysteries equal to those in John Pielmeier’s play, Peter describes the human condition as that of sheep gone astray, saved by this innocent lamb that was slain, who has now become our shepherd. Where is it the sheep are likely to stray? If the call of this passage is any clue, then we can say we are prone to stray into the rocky wilderness of reviling those who revile us, and threatening payback on those who threaten us. It is the world of dog eat dog, or sheep eat sheep, and Peter seems to recognize that even in our religious attempts to cloister ourselves away from the world, the church is prone to stray into these places where we strangle the life out of the radically innocent love of God. Perhaps we need Agnes of God’s Jane Fonda to come in and play the psychiatrist for us, to hypnotize us into remembering who we are. Or maybe we can just read passages like I Peter, and follow in the footsteps of the lamb who was slain, as we return to the great shepherd. It is a highly problematic and disturbing story, this faith story we live in, at least as far as our human nature and the world’s values of standing up to evil and fighting fire with fire and exacting vengeance on our enemies goes. Being stigmatized in a willing surrender to the reviling voices and to the violent threats that come when you walk in the Way of total and unconditional love for everyone, leads to some unresolved questions. But isn’t that what a life of faith is all about? It is life with a haunting soundtrack, with Latin lyrics chanting of a lamb who takes away all the sins of the world (even the sins of someone like Casey Anthony). Agnus dei, agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi.

How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith?

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