Life is at its heart a deadly thing. A little thought will reveal that its goal is to kill you.
Death is the inevitable end of living. The problem, however, is that, while we are smart enough to know that we must eventually die, we often lack the wisdom to face it with courage. We spend our lives ignoring death’s approach…trying to hide from this nonnegotiable fact with noise, busyness, and all the brick-a-brak of living. We invest our days casting seed into the earth in our desire for prosperity and security, forgetting that seed itself teaches a different lesson. St. Paul speaks pointedly in I Corinthians 15. “You foolish ass, what you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”
Welcome, fellow-traveler to the Homilies of St. Asinus—reflections of a recycled saint.
Now Christianity is a life-affirming religion precisely because it acknowledges the death inherent in living life. For anything to truly live, it must first truly die. And not just at the end of a long span of years. Christianity is a life-affirming faith because it calls us to die every day and every hour. Every summer our gardens will teach us this. Every seed upon the earth is shouting the lesson to us. Anything that desires a richer and fuller sort of life, must first submit to death.
Now of course you’ve already gathered that the death that both Paul and I are speaking of is partly literal and partly metaphorical. It’s certainly true that the future resurrection of the death to life imperishable will only come through the laying down of this perishable life—that is Paul’s actual point in I Corinthians 15. But our spiritual mothers and fathers in the faith understood that what is literally true of our physical life is also true of our spiritual lives. We are faced every day with the choice to cling to the things we perceive as necessary and nonnegotiable to life, or we are asked (sometimes forced) to lay them down and let them pass away so that some greater life can become possible.
One person struggles to lay down the life of the bottle for the greater and richer life that sobriety eventually offers. Another struggles to lay down their singleness so that the greater life of marriage can flourish, or perhaps in tragedy the opposite—that through death, divorce, or abandonment, to allow what was once a marriage or even a friendship to die in the fervent hope that some renewed life can grow on the other side. Habits, hopes, even our very selves seem eventually called upon to make a choice: Either cling in fear to the fading, withering life we presently possess, or submit these things to the death that we cannot avoid anyway, name it, and embrace in faith the belief that God really is greater than death—that God is really a God of resurrection not just crucifixion—that in a great and unexpected irony the end result of crucifixion is actually life.
Is it possible that when the scriptures speak of us having or living the “life of Christ,” that they mean is precisely this. He once laid down his life and in humility submitted to undeserved death, and only because of that was restored to life by his Father and given great glory. What in fact do we mean when we say we follow this Christ? We must mean what the writers of scripture meant—that we willingly die with and like him in order that we may live with and like him. This I think is what it means to be a Christian—a little Christ. We follow him into glory only by following him into his grave. He died for us, yes, but we are also called to die with him.
Now why have I prefaced these Homilies in such a dark fashion? Why, in a world so much more attracted to the humorous and the cynical, have I taken such a macabre approach to my subject?
I have done so, dear friend, because I don’t want you to be under any illusion as to what the Homilies are going to be. These are not light reflections on vaguely devotional topics. St. Asinus, the saintly mule, intends to say hard and dense things. He wishes to probe deep things in scripture and the history of Christian thought.
He does not wish to be polemical—The homilies are not aimed at anyone. There is no false teacher or cultural ethos he wishes to dethrone or debunk. As one of his own teachers put it long ago, “it is not the church’s job to defeat heresy, but to outlive it.”
Nor does he wish to be apologetic—the homilies are not a defense of Christianity against some attacker. We assume here the truth of the basic tenants of historic Christianity, of course recognizing that these will often need to be scrutinized to determine what they really are and in what sense they are coherent.
Nor is the saintly mule looking for “simple faith” in the sense of “don’t sweat the details”—let’s just all love Jesus. No, St Asinus’ deep desire is to examine and clarify scripture and Christian thought and determine what its implications are to the 21st century. This will require careful work and nuance. He is not interested in simple answers for the very simple reason that nothing of any value is simple. Math is simple only until you take an advanced mathematics class, Law is only simple in the pub, and Medicine is only simple on the internet. Art is not simple, ask a real artist. Music is not simple, ask a real musician. Real things are complicated. Christianity is one of these real things.
Real things are complicated. Christianity is one of these real things.
Thus many assumptions we have about ourselves and the world may have to die if we desire to live as Christians. This is not so because of anything I will say. I don’t intend to say anything that has not been said before and better. It is so, because of the kind of thing Christianity is. . It demands not our attention or our interest, but our life. Christianity is not a philosophy… it is a way—a way of being human. And that way is demanding. As Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”
And so the homilies will at times interpret scripture, at times explore a theological or philosophical puzzle, and at times seek to draw connections between these things and the life you and I are called to life together in this Kingdom.
But the great question you have at this point is “who is St. Asinus to attempt such things and why should I listen?”
The first and most honest answer to this is, “He doesn’t care if you listen or not.” The homilies are not being given first because of you, dear listener. St. Asinus gives them because he simply must do so or burst. Yes, of course, he offers his homilies to the church with the hope that they will be of use to you, dear guest, but if you were not here, he would speak them anyway because he needs to hear them.
See, this man who is in some great mystery a Saint in Christ is also still very much an ass. He is a sinner, who struggles and fails. He is a man who often resists the deaths that are demanded of him. The Ass still defies the Saint more than the Saint defines the Ass. He needs the words he himself speaks, and often the best way to learn is to teach. So he is his own congregation of one. But you, dear guest, are heartily welcome to listen in on his self-schooling, and if you find something valuable, give praise to God.
But I know this is not the spirit of the question. You want to know the holy ass’s qualifications to teach. Fair enough, but it is a troubling story.
St. Asinus earned a Ph.D. and taught theology at a seminary for 15 years, he was also the preaching pastor in a church for some of that time. Then due to one part carelessness and two parts folly, he endured about 10 months of clinical depression. He trusted some really bad people and made some really destructive choices, and in the course of one month that whole life went away. He had in one blow ceased to be a pastor, a teacher, a church member, a friend, and even a respectable citizen. In short, he got a first-hand lesson in what it means to die to the life he once knew.
I am humbled that my dear wife stood with me when a lesser lady would have left, and we have been on a long journey of healing and discovering what sort of resurrection God has prepared for the second half of our life together. The loss of my career and public reputation had the blessed if somewhat inexplicable effect of snapping me out of the depression, and so I feel that, despite the many losses, I’ve been given a second chance to be myself… perhaps to let the Saint finally overrule the Ass.
I must fairly warn you then: St. Asinus is “damaged good,” what Brennan Manning called “a Ragamuffin,” and I am of necessity a subscriber to the Ragamuffin’s gospel. So I say again: the intended audience here is myself. Sometimes we must speak the truths we wish to believe in order to believe them…or as St. Anselm put it, “faith must often precede understanding.”
Sometimes we must speak the truths we wish to believe in order to believe them.
So if you wish to look elsewhere, I understand But… if you are someone who, like me, has regrets and needs to believe that God is capable of turning even our self-inflicted wounds to greater glory. If you like me have been an ass and need to find the strength to believe that the gospel also declares you a saint. If you’ve just been hungry for more for so long that you don’t care who prepares the meal. Then linger at my table, enjoy a ragamuffin’s hospitality. I was told by many in my former life that I’m a good teacher. We shall see.
Hear again the words of Paul: “You foolish ass, what you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” I am a man who has been forced to die many deaths on his way to new life. I have only just begun to understand the power of this idea, but it is this idea—that our greatest happiness and wholeness comes from an act of humble submission to another’s voice— that the Homilies will always be seeking to unpack.
The Bard’s Caesar said, “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” This is certainly true in the sense he meant it, but in the sense of I’m giving to it, the courageous person is the one who stares death in the face on a daily basis and then submits to it. Indeed, it is the valiant who die the thousand deaths, and because of it, come to know what life really is.
This is what the Homilies are about—the journey to life that leads us all through the valley of death. They are about the One who walks that journey with us. They are about what the scriptures teach us of that journey along with how that journey has been understood by the greater saints that have preceded us.
Who is St. Asinus? To make a pastiche of the words of St. John, the baptizer of Christ, “I am just a voice braying in the wilderness, trying to make straight paths within my own soul that the Lord of heaven may walk therein.”
Do not be mistaken, dear friend, the Lord Christ does not seek entrance to the desert of our souls because he is overfond of sand, but rather that where his foot falls, grass may grow and flowers bloom. Out of our dry and dusty dying, he seeks to make of us a garden in which he may dwell, in which we may commune with him. He is at heart a farmer and we his seed. That is the good news of the Christian faith. To all who mourn, there is comfort. To all who struggle under the weight of their own burdens and bad choices, there is release. To all those worn down by the steady drip, drip, dripping of life, there is peace. If you hunger, there is bread. I welcome you to my table.
See you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.