The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Sunday school lessons...really

As I sat half-listening to the lector[1] at Mass on Sunday morning—my mother and the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church insist that I go to at least one Mass every year unrelated to someone getting married or dropping dead—it stuck me how much of the Christian Bible, that portion the bitter clingers refer to as the New Testament, is actually mail, twenty-one pieces of first class mail, in fact. I thought this a bit odd at the time. The Buddha found the path to enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree, Moses got the Good Word from a bush that burned without burning, thereby causing and preventing forest fires in one fell swoop, and the archangel Gabriel had to tell Muhammad to recite three times before the Prophet finally got the point and started reciting. But Christianity? Christianity comes to us via the faith of the Apostles, the sacrifice of the martyrs, and the exertions of the Roman post office.

Such a reliance on the post office, however, creates a number of problems for the serious student of Christian theology and early church history. Take, for example, Saint Paul’s understanding of the Trinity. We would understand his view of this key Christian concept much better if the post office hadn’t delivered his umpteenth letter to the Ephesians to an Athenian potter named Aristophanes, who intended to return the letter to the post office, he really did, but he unintentionally dropped it on the floor of the Registry Room at Ellis Island while on his way to his uncle’s diner in Chicago and a new career in dish washing. Miss Bridget McGuire of Ballinalee, County Longford, Ireland, found the letter on the floor a few hours later next to an Armenian newspaper and a half eaten falafel and dropped the letter into the nearest mailbox. St. Paul’s umpteenth letter to the Ephesians wound up in the dead letter file at the James A. Farley Main Post Office in midtown Manhattan where it rests to this day next to the letters to Santa Claus. The poor service did not go unnoticed; St. Paul called the post office to complain as soon as he got to Corinth; the Corinthians had a working payphone in the agora; and the answering machine he got promptly put him on hold. He was the 117th caller in the queue, but prayer and divine intervention moved him up to third, behind a gladiator salesman and an actor phoning in his performance of Oedipus Rex. He finally got an operator, who took his complaint and, as soon as the call was over, threw the complaint into the wastepaper basket. Sometimes having the Almighty on your side just isn’t enough.

And then there is the question of what books did or did not make it into the New Testament. I speak here of the Gnostic Gospels, which may not have made into the biblical canon solely because someone thought that they were junk mail and threw them into the trash. There were few moments in ancient Roman life more annoying than going out to your mailbox in anticipation of seeing this month’s Playboy’s Girls of Pompeii issue with the Caledonian redhead with the admirable assets in the centerfold that you’ve heard so much about and coming away with a dense theological tract you didn’t ask for in the first place. The early Church Fathers, on the other hand, did not much care much for the Caledonian colleen or her assets, no matter how admirable they were, and the Fathers determined that, as soon as they had their doctrines worked out and ready to go, they would go forth in a spirit of love and charity and convert the Caledonians to the True Faith, the better to make sure that shameless tart put some clothes on.

The Gnostic Gospels were themselves a cause of many complaints; the Gnostics mailed so many Gospels that they were clogging landfills throughout the Middle East. People simply weren’t interested in what the Gnostics had to say and chucked out their gospels along with yesterday’s newspapers and the other junk mail. The officials at the recycling station at Nag Hammadi announced that they weren’t going to take the Gnostics’ gospels anymore; they didn’t have the room for them, and they asked the post office to stop delivering them. The post office agreed and the outraged Gnostics immediately sued, saying that the post office was infringing on their civil liberties. The Gnostics might have won the case–they had a strong case and a very good lawyer–if the Roman Empire hadn’t fallen while they were waiting for the judge to set a court date. Timing, as they say, is all.

The barbarian hordes who replaced the Romans had no use for literacy or Christian theology and hence had no use for post offices, regarding all three things as vaguely effeminate Roman notions that no good barbarian would care to indulge in. When a barbarian wanted to send a message, he would go to the person he wanted to talk to and talk to them, or, if the message was sufficiently serious, he would cleave the other person’s skull open with an axe. Skull cleaving was a much more effective way of getting one’s point across than writing a letter and trying to remember if I and J were still the same letter or were they different now, and why hadn’t Thomas Edison invented the W yet? It didn’t really matter in the long run, as the barbarian hordes were, as mentioned, illiterate, and probably dyslexic as well, so the destruction of the Roman post office was a cost effective way to solve the problem: in a world where there is nothing to read, then the literate, the illiterate, and the dyslexic are all one and the same, and if they are all one and the same, then there’s no point having a post office to remind them that they aren’t. Barbarian hordes are more than vaguely socialistic that way, I think.

Of course, the end of the Roman post office was a boon for the Church. With no one to deliver their epistles denouncing each other as fools, louts, mountebanks, and ignorant calumniators stuffed with Irish porridge[2], the bishops had to hit the highways that still remained--not very many, all in all, as most good barbarians didn't believe in wasting good money on infrastructure--and go to ecclesiastical councils all over Europe in order to clarify what it was they believed. The people of the Mediterranean basin joked about the endless procession of bishops going hither and yon to councils, racking up frequent donkey miles at the Church’s expense in the process. The bishops would smile when they heard the joke, and they would bless the peasants telling it, before having them all flogged to within an inch of their lives for their insolence. Didn’t these poor schmoes understand that an unlimited expense account and the prospect of years and years of Club Med vacations was a powerful inducement for young men to enter the priesthood, especially those young men who found crusading in the Holy Land a bit of a chore? There’s only so much hacking and slashing of Saracens you can do before it all becomes routine and you want to do something more interesting with your free time. There were a lot of those guys back in the day; the lengths some people would take to stay away from Vietnam were truly astonishing.

[1] The lector, in case you’re interested in such mundane stuff, is the guy (or gal) who gives the first and second readings from the Bible during the Roman Catholic Mass. The order is: first reading from the Old Testament, then a Psalm, in which he (or she) reads a part of the Psalm of the day and the congregation answers with a line from the same Psalm, and then the second reading from any part of the New Testament that isn’t the Gospels. Only the priest reads from the Gospels, followed immediately by the priest’s homily for the day. Catholic homilies are usually much shorter than Protestant sermons, largely because the whole point of Mass is the stylized re-enactment of the Last Supper that follows the homily and is not, as it seems to be the case with our separated brethren, an opportunity to listen to some overweight man in an ill-fitting polyester suit giving you his opinion about what the day’s reading meant at the top of his lungs. Nobody is interested in what the priest thinks about the Gospel reading; we want him to get on with Mass so that we can beat the traffic to Wal-Mart.

[2] An actual quote from Saint Jerome about the heresiarch Pelagius, for whom Jerome clearly had no use.

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