Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 2:13-23) transports me 69 years back to December, 1941, where the Ritz Theater in Newburgh, NY showcased a young movie star making her live stage debut. Lucille Ball and her new husband, Desi Arnez, delighted the crowd with vaudeville, music, and slapstick. It was just 10 days after Pearl Harbor, and less than a week after Adolph Hitler met with his chancellery to make explicit his orders for a complete genocide of Jewish people. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary entry of December 13: “In respect of the Jewish question, the Fuhrer has decided to make a clean sweep. The world war is here, the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary result.” The failure of the planned annihilation meant, among many other things, that the Baptist-born Lucille Ball would be able to marry a Jewish husband, Gary Morton, after her divorce from Desi.
Lucy’s Ritz humor did little, though, in those December days, to alleviate the absolute horror blowing in the winds of war on the world stage. The European holocaust recalls earlier Hitler-esque acts recorded in history and holy writ, such as the one in our passage today, when Herod made the call for a final solution in Bethlehem to deal with the threat of a competing boy-king on the rise. The Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis based his novel of the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ, largely on the imagined psychological effects Herod’s murderous actions had on Jesus, and how the young boy’s sense of survivor’s guilt motivated his ensuing revolutionary ministry. And Herod’s actions hearkened back to an even earlier period of devastation, as Jeremiah pictured the figurative mother Rachel weeping in Ramah over her lost children.
History is replete with the competing effects of horrendous and heroic actions; murder and ministry often co-exist on the same stage of human history. A demon drives Herod while an angel warns wise men. Innocents are slaughtered while Joseph helps Innocence escape. And in one of those same ironic twists of fate, on the very same December 13 day that Joseph Goebbels recorded Hitler’s words in his diary entry, a young man named Thomas Merton wrote in his diary about his first day as a postulant in the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton would become the most famous and influential of the Gesthemani monks, authoring many books of poetry, theology, the contemplative life, peace and justice. His life in the hermitage did not isolate him from the suffering of the world; he was in tune to the cries of Rachel more than most who lived among those suffering mothers and martyrs. He understood the interplay between light and dark in our world. I’m grateful to my friend Joyce Hollyday for introducing me to one of Merton’s poems that speaks to this interplay – An Invocation to St. Lucy. Incidentally, today – the anniversary of Goebbel’s diary entry and Merton’s entry into Gethsemani – is also the traditional Feast Day for the beloved St. Lucy, observed by Christians around the world, particularly in Scandinavian countries. Lucy was the victim of one of those genocidal reigns of terror the early church experienced. Before she died, though, she became the stuff of legend, as story after story circulated of her heroism in the face of hellish violence. Her sense of defiance was illustrated in the legend of her refusal to be married, saying that she was going to remain chaste and married to Christ. The rejected groom betrayed her Christianity to the governing pagan authorities, who came to arrest her and cart her off to a brothel for a life of forced prostitution. She reportedly responded: You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me. And when the guards tried to take her away, they they found her to be as stiff and heavy as a mountain; they could not budge her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. She proceeded to prophesy against her persecutors, and continued preaching even after they implanted a dagger through her throat. Now that’s what I call defiance! I love Thomas Merton’s poetic tribute to this lucid Saint. His lines have special meaning on December days like today when the snow is blowing and the wind chill is in the single digits:
Lucy, whose day is in our darkest season,
(Although your name is full of light,)
We walkers in the murk and rain and flesh and sense,
Lost in the midnight of our dead world’s winter solstice
Look for the fogs to open on your friendly star.
We have long since cut down the summer of our history;
Our cheerful towns have all gone out like fireflies in October.
The fields are flooded and the vines are bare:
How have our long days dwindled, and now the world is frozen!
Locked in the cold jails of our stubborn will,
Oh, hear the shovels growling in the gravel.
This is the way they’ll make our beds forever,
Ours, whose Decembers have put out the sun:
Doors of whose souls are shut against the summertime!
Martyr, whose short day sees our winter and our Calvary,
Show us some light, who seem forsaken by the sky;
We have so dwelt in darkness that our eyes are screened
And all but blinded by the weakest ray.
Hallow the vespers and December of our life, O
Console our solstice with your friendly day.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.