Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 2) transports me to Nicomedia, modern day Turkey, in the beginning years of the 4th century. The Roman Emperor Diocletian is there to pay homage to Ceres, the rustic Roman goddess of farm life. Just as the Emperor is making sacrifice to this rural goddess, one of the soldiers breaks out in the giggles. He can’t help it; something about this ritual strikes him funny and he can’t stop himself from laughing. Perhaps it is because he is a Christian, and this pagan ritual sacrifice seems utterly ridiculous. Whatever the reason, it was to be his last laugh, for it caught the attention of Diocletian, who flew into a rage and demanded justice. Zeno was immediately seized, had his jaws broken and his teeth knocked out, and summarily beheaded.
Today is St. Zeno’s Feast Day in the Catholic world. It is an appropriate story to consider today, with the Psalm giving us another connection between laughter and rage and the countryside. The Empires rage and conspire against the covenant community, and this gives God the giggles. It reminds me of Monty Python’s reading from the Holy Book of Armaments, Chapter 2, verses 9-21, which brother Maynard reads after a prayer for God to blow Thine enemies to bits: And the LORD did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats. . .
We can skip on a bit brother and connect the dots between God, Diocletian, Zeno and the Christmas story here in the passage for today. The Psalmist doesn’t tell us what causes the empires to rage, or why God laughs, but after the nations get mad and God guffaws, the poet foretells Christmas, announcing that God begets a Son: Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee, and then in a surprise gesture, what does God give the begotten Son for an inheritance? The heathen. Heathen is a word that literally means country people, farm people (people of the heath, of the land), people who would have paid special homage to the goddess Ceres back in the day. So God is here pictured incorporating country folk into the kingdom, their being the prized inheritance for the only begotten Son, born to be a King. This is worth noting, since established religion is generally an urban dynamic, concerned with civic affairs and city life. Country folk are generally dismissed as backward and inferior, hence the religious association of heathen with unbelief. That’s how the Psalmist must have pictured them, since he went on to envision the begotten Son consulting the book of armaments and coming up with a rod of iron, breaking them to bits. But this vision was not fulfilled when the begotten Son Jesus finally did show up on the scene, born as he was to peasant people of the land. Jesus seemed to always have a special connection to the heathen, the country folk, the Hebrew ’am ha-aretz (people of the land). With all the urban angst floating around our atmosphere, it is likely the mad farmers, the heathen, who Jesus would relate to most. During this Advent season I am drawn again to Wendell Berry’s mad farmer poems, especially these lines: laugh, for laughter is immeasurable, and be joyful, though you have considered all the facts. These are words the heathen can understand. These are words the begotten son who inherited the heathen can understand. They are words of country wisdom we can live by in this mad world.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome