Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Richard Hays, and Linda Loving
Passover and Easter
Richard Hays is George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School.
Linda Loving Pastor at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota
April 8, 2004
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Why is this night different from all other nights?
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Passover begins in a Jewish home with preparations for the Seder, a meal which recalls the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Before the meal, the youngest child present is invited to ask four established questions.The questions set a tone of inquiry and wonderment at the Passover story.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Why is it that all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzah but on this night we eat only matzah?
MS. TIPPETT: Because of its dramatic detail, complete with a great hero in Moses and a great villain in the Egyptian pharaoh, the Exodus has been interpreted by Disney and Cecil B. DeMille. But the actual text, the biblical story, is less a hero story and more a tale of human nature. It is also full of religious complexity that defies an easy reading. It contains one miracle after the other, from the burning bush where Moses first encounters God to no less than 10 plagues which God exacts on the Egyptians — plagues of gnats, boils, frogs and finally death.
READER: In the middle of the night, the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon and all the firstborn of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians because there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was no house where there was not someone dead.
MS. TIPPETT: The word `Passover’ refers specifically to this 10th and final plague after which Pharaoh gave in to Moses’ repeated demand to, `Let my people go.’ On that night, after each Israelite household ate a sacrificial lamb and smeared some blood of that lamb on the lintels of their doors, they were passed over by the angel of death sent by God.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?
MS. TIPPETT: When Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was a child celebrating Passover at her Orthodox grandmother’s home, she wondered why she was never invited to ask the four questions? The answer was quite simply that she was a girl, not a boy. Yet the world changed in her lifetime, and in 1974, Sandy Sasso became the second woman in history to be ordained a rabbi. She has written a number of books inviting both children and adults inside the stories of the Hebrew Bible. She has a special interest in the women who play critical roles in these stories, and she stresses that in Jewish tradition, storytelling is a creative and essential part of spiritual journey, and this is true of no story more than the Exodus. I asked Rabbi Sandy Sasso how she experiences this ancient and mysterious event as a defining moment in the lives of Jews today.
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: It’s not just an ancient story. It’s also our story. We too were in Egypt, and we too were freed. The whole story of the Exodus forms the basis of most moral legislation in Judaism. We are told to care for the stranger. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We’re supposed to be concerned for the oppressed. Why? Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Constantly, references to caring for the stranger and the oppressed are throughout our tradition, and it’s all based upon the fact that we once experienced what it meant to be oppressed.
MS. TIPPETT: And — and I just — you know, I just want to draw this out because I think there is a very particular sense of time, not just that this happened to your ancestors but that it happened to you.
RABBI SASSO: Absolutely. What happened once upon a time happens all the time and, in fact, the Exodus story has always served as a key for other people’s ability to move from slavery to freedom. It’s very interesting. The most striking thing, I think, about the Exodus story is that it imagines another way of looking at reality. I mean, one could assume that the world is so structured that there is master and slave, that there is oppressed and an oppressor. And that’s just the way it is. I mean, why should it be anything different? But the Exodus says, `No, that’s not the way it is.’
MS. TIPPETT: So let’s get into this story, the biblical story. I mean, within that Exodus story, there is also the revelation of God’s name. There are miracles, and there’s — there’s a very active God, active nature of God. Talk to me about what is important to you there.
RABBI SASSO: Well, here is a God who acts in history and acts intimately with the people. In fact, when we begin our Ten Commandments, what do we say: I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. We don’t say I am the Lord, your God, who created the heavens and earth, which, you know, in — we would imagine is even more spectacular. But we speak of God in a very intimate sense. `Here, I took you out of slavery. Now you come here and listen to me.’ So God acts in history. God is a power which makes for freedom. God is on the side of the suffering and the slave and the downtrodden.
MS. TIPPETT: You know what? I’m struck, also, in that story and also in, for example, the writing that you’ve done for children, of biblical stories: This God is a God who laughs and grieves. As you say, there’s a lot of intimacy, even emotion and certainly relationship.
RABBI SASSO: Absolutely. You know, there’s the sense that God suffers with the people who are suffering. And in some way, you’ll fi — you find later on that God also regrets the suffering of the Egyptians. We might not recognize that first in the story because, of course, there are all these plagues and the Israelites are freed and — and walk through the sea to freedom and the Egyptians are drowned. But there is a wonderful rabbinic midrash which tells us that the angels were about to sing when the Israelites crossed the sea to freedom, and God stops them and says, `But my people are also drowning and this is not the time to sing.’ And there is a wonderful tradition in the Seder that when we name the plagues, we diminish the wine in our cup because even though we celebrate our freedom, we regret that that was dependent upon the suffering of others. So we cannot be fully joyful. Our cup cannot be totally full.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And that is the hardness. The word `Passover,’ I believe, literally signifies what happened in the 10th plague, that the children of Israel were passed over. While at the same time, there was a death in every house in Egypt, and that is a very bloody and violent story and I’m curious when I think about how children always cut to the heart of the matter. Do children ask a question about the hardness of this pivotal part of this story? And do you ask questions of it?
RABBI SASSO: Well, I certainly ask questions of it. I think young children are quite fascinated with the drama of all this. It’s an exquisite piece of drama, and it’s people who have been downtrodden who finally are victorious, and they cross a sea and there’s just some spectacular ritual and narrative here. And I think they pay less attention to what happens to — to the bad guys in the story.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
RABBI SASSO: I mean, it’s kind of good — the good guys and the bad buys and the good guys win and it’s quite spectacular. But I think if we look at the story a — as we get older — I mean, there are both elevating pieces of it and disturbing pieces. I mean, the elevating pieces are God is not distant. God stands with the powerless, stands for freedom. Pharaoh is defied and not deified. I mean, there’s some really powerful moments there, and yet it’s disturbing that the freedom of one people seems to depend upon the death and the terror of another people…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And…
RABBI SASSO: …and in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I just want to recall, you know, there’s a series of awful plagues, of gnats and boils and frogs, leading up to the death of children. But I think there is this theme all the way through that it is God — or that the text says it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
RABBI SASSO: Well, that’s what the text says.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
RABBI SASSO: How we understand the text can move us in a somewhat different direction. I mean, that’s how our ancestors wrote about what happened. But we can ju — imagine — th — the first five plagues, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened by himself. It says, `Pharaoh hardens his own heart.’
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, OK.
RABBI SASSO: It’s only later does it say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Now if we think about our own habits — you know, we’re biting our nails or we’re eating more than we should, and we say, `Oh, well, we could stop anytime we want.’ And then after a while, we realize we can’t stop anytime we want. There seems to be a power outside of ourselves that is controlling our habits. And that’s how I would understand God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. It appears that he’s in control, but after a while, because he habitually hardens his heart against the slaves, he no longer has control.
MS. TIPPETT: In — in some ways, it’s sort of a psychology of evil.
RABBI SASSO: In many ways, because I — I could not believe in a God who forces another human being to do bad…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
RABBI SASSO: …to harden their heart. I mean, my understanding of God is the God who softens the heart, you know, who believes in repentance and forgiveness, and — and that’s pretty much where the tradition goes with an understanding of God. So I am more inclined to understand the hardening of the heart from Pharaoh’s own stubbornness and loss of ability to any more control where he’s going.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith, with a program for Passover and Easter: Stories Behind the Story. You’re listening to a conversation with Rabbi Sandy Sasso on how she lives with the Exodus story of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This central narrative of the Jewish people is commemorated in eight days of Passover. The Exodus story is also an occasion for the Jewish practice of midrash, an intellectually lively and creative approach to searching for new and deeper meanings in biblical texts. Sandy Sasso was one of the first women in history to be ordained a rabbi, and she has done midrash for children and adults around the women in the Bible. In fact, it was in reading her midrash that I was struck for the first time with the irony that in the Exodus story it is a woman and member of Pharaoh’s own household — Pharaoh’s daughter — who rescues Moses from the Nile as a baby and sets in motion the chain of events which makes the liberation of the Jewish people possible.
RABBI SASSO: Yes, it’s so striking that women play such a powerful role in this. But you know, it’s very interesting that even later in the Torah — I mean, it seems here in the story of the Exodus that we don’t particularly like Egyptians — Right? — because they enslaved us. But later in the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy, it says, `Do not abhor an Egyptian.’ So the text itself does not want us to hold grudges. We were liberated, but that does not mean we should be embittered by the experience and so hate Egyptians for all time. Actually, we’re told not to.
MS. TIPPETT: So as you say, it really does shatter this way that we want to divide the world up between the good guys and the bad guys and the oppressors and the — and the oppressed?
RABBI SASSO: I think so. Actually, the — the story — the telling of the story of — in the Haggadah begins in a wonderful way. `This is the bread of affliction, the matzah, the unleavened bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come and celebrate Pesach.’ So this is a — a tremendous statement of hospitality and openness to the stranger, and a recognition that the world is still not redeemed. I mean, we’re celebrating our liberation, but we know world’s still broken in some ways and we have to keep moving and — to a — a fuller liberation for all people.
MS. TIPPETT: And — and Israel today is a troubled land where many eat the bread of affliction. How do you reflect on, you know, very current events in light of this story, which, as you describe, is — is present for you?
RABBI SASSO: Well, I reflect on it in the following way, that here is a story that imagines the world doesn’t have to be this way. I think many of our conflicts are a failure of imagination. It’s interesting that at the end of the Seder we say, `Next year in Jerusalem.’ But in the modern — in many modern Haggadahs, we also say, `Next year in Jerusalem, in the city of peace for all its inhabitants.’ So the end of the Seder expresses a great deal of hope. It’s not satisfied with the present situation. And, in fact, there’s — at the end of the Seder, there’s another wonderful ritual, and I — I think that will respond to your question of how we look at the world today and — and what we do about it. There is a tradition that there is a cup, or a goblet, of wine that is filled and set aside for Elijah, who is the prophet, who is to announce the coming of redemption and the Messiah. And at the end of the Seder, we open the door for Elijah and we welcome him into our homes and we hope he drinks from the cup. And as a child, I used to stare at that cup hoping that, of course, it would diminish. And I was very distressed when I discovered it was poured down the kitchen sink afterwards. It meant that, well, redemption was not coming that year. But we have a new custom that we do at our Seders, and many people do at theirs. It’s based on…
MS. TIPPETT: In — in your family?
RABBI SASSO: In my family…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
RABBI SASSO: …and, actually, in my congregation. And it’s based on a Hasidic custom of not having a full cup for Elijah, but having an empty cup. And each person at the Seder adds something of his or her wine into that cup, because we recognize that it’s the effort of each and every one of us that is going to bring about a world redeemed. So it’s not just a prayer and it’s not just a hope that somehow there’s going to be an intervention and the world will be saved. But it’s each and every one of our efforts that is going to make a difference. And just as we’ve named each plague and we diminish the wine in our cup when we recite the plagues, so at the end of the Seder, we add wine to a cup and we name those acts that are going to bring about a world that is less violent and more free for all people.
Unidentified Man: `Then Moses held out his arm over the sea, and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground; the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen. At the morning watch, the Lord looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He locked the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty, and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” `Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the sea that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.” Moses held out his arm over the sea and at daybreak, the sea returned to its normal state and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But the Lord hurled the Egyptians into the sea. The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen. Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.’
MS. TIPPETT: You know, the whole notion of miracle is difficult for modern people, and there’s lots of miracle in the Exodus story that is recounted and commemorated and sort of relived during Passover. Now as you’re talking about what it means to you, it — it has a very practical relevance. But how do you think about and describe the line between myth and truth and miracle and reality?
RABBI SASSO: Well, I think sometimes we get lost in the literalness of the text and we’re looking for the little truths of: `Is this — did it really happen this way? Did the sea really split? Were there really these plagues?’ And we look for scientific explanations of how a sea could split and was there a wind, and we lose the profound truth that underlies the story. We don’t have to take the text literally in order to take it seriously. I take the text seriously. It has a very profound truth to teach us. The miracle of the Exodus is not in the contradiction of physical nature, but really in the refashioning of human nature. I mean, once I conducted a woman’s Seder with an Afro-American Episcopal priest, and we did a black Jewish women’s Seder. And that was very powerful because what we were doing is taking these two stories of slavery and oppression and — and liberation and — and melding them together, and we each learned something about the other that we would not have known before. So we had stories of black slavery and we had stories of the Exodus side by side, and we had Passover songs and we had Negro spirituals, and it was a very powerful experience for us.
MS. TIPPETT: Something astonishing about — about this tradition, as you describe it, is its malleability, that you are not threatened — that Judaism is not threatened by reading imaginatively into this story and applying it in new ways and seeing it in new ways and even changing the words and changing the stories in some sense.
RABBI SASSO: It’s set up that way. It’s set up that here are — here are the basic questions, but you can ask more. This is just to get you started. And here’s the basic story, but we want you to keep talking way past midnight. We want you to talk about the whole issues of — of freedom and redemption. So it’s — it is an open kind of — of ritual in that respect as long as we follow the structure that has been given us, the expectation of a certain order of the ritual that we would include.
MS. TIPPETT: And, I — I mean, are there people who are threatened by that? Does that feel dangerous? Does it feel dangerous to you ever as a rabbi — in some sense, a keeper of this tradition — that — that people could take it too far?
RABBI SASSO: Well, you know, I think that the tradition remains alive and vital because we keep reading ourselves into the story, and when we read ourselves into the story, we are adding another layer to bequeath to another generation. And it’s not like you just throw everything out.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
RABBI SASSO: I mean, you have a — a deep respect for the tradition and you take that tradition very seriously because after all, it is the product of our ancestors’ search for God, so you revere that tradition. But at the same time, you too are on a search for God and you too are created in God’s image. So should you not breathe your own breath and your own soul into that tradition to keep it alive and — and vital? So I think you sort of balance the two. You — you revere the past and you hold it gently as a sacred vessel, but at the same time, you pour your own breath and breathe your own breath into that vessel.
MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso leads a congregation together with her husband in Indianapolis. Her most recent children’s book is Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace.
And here is an excerpt from a commentary from the Haggadah, the order of service at the Passover Seder, written by Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel. Wiesel reflects on his own struggle to reconcile the meaning of the Exodus story with life’s realities. `I love Passover,’ he writes, `because for me, it is a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.’ The following passage is read by Alan Fractmen. It begins with Wiesel’s recounting of a midrash on the Red Sea crossing where the waters open to make way for the fleeing Israelites and then closed upon the pursuing Egyptian soldiers, drowning them all.
MR. ALAN FRACTMEN: [Reading] `The children of Israel are saved at the last moment, while their oppressors drown before their eyes. It is a moment of grace so extraordinary that the angels themselves begin to sing. But God interrupts and scolds them and says, “What has come over you? My creatures are drowning in the sea and you are singing. How can you praise me with your hymns at a time when human beings are dying?” `Compassion for the enemies of one’s people. Who has the right to advance such a proposition? It may be an option for God and angels, but humans? Then why this story to prompt us to question? If God demands compassion, then it is our responsibility to take a stand, even if it is to say, “No, not yet, but later perhaps.”‘
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith, with Stories Behind the Story, a special program for Passover and Easter. After a short break, you’ll hear New Testament scholar Richard Hays and the poetry of Wendell Berry on practicing resurrection. Also, Presbyterian minister and actor Linda Loving on Julian of Norwich, who sought to mystically experience the crucifixion of Jesus. Julian’s 14th century revelations are re-enacted in a one-woman play that offers surprising resonance today, seven centuries later. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith. It is the season of Passover and of Easter. Each of these sacred holidays is based on a key biblical story of suffering and deliverance. But what can ancient narratives of violence and miracle have to say to modern people? The Jewish Passover is the foundational story of the Christian Easter. While the English word `Easter’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon rite of spring, in the original Greek and Latin it is Pascha. According to the New Testament, Jesus’ last supper with his disciples was a Passover meal. And traditional Christian liturgy around Easter, as well as the bread and wine of Communion, includes reference to Passover. Easter is the principal festival of the Christian Church year. In Holy Week, services and rituals narrate the biblical stories of the days leading to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day after his crucifixion, though in recent years, some prominent Christians have publicized their difficulty believing in a story of physical resurrection from death.
RICHARD HAYS: People in the first century found it incredible, as well, so this is not merely a recent problem that we have.
MS. TIPPETT: Richard Hays is a professor of New Testament at Duke University. He has exhaustively studied all of the biblical stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection and taken their consistencies and discrepancies into account. He believes that were it not for an actual physical resurrection, the New Testament Gospel would never have been written and Christianity would not have survived. But Richard Hays does not suggest that this is an easy truth to live with. He insists that taking this event seriously also means imagining how the earliest Christians experienced it.
READER: And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome brought spices so that they might go and anoint him. Very early on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back, for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side dressed in a white robe, and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.
MS. TIPPETT: This is the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, which is believed to be the oldest Gospel. It is marked by a tone of astonishment and even fear that runs throughout the resurrection stories of the New Testament. Again, Richard Hays.
DR. HAYS: We’re often inoculated against that by familiarity. But the notion of a person who has been brutally executed publicly suddenly gone and the tomb being empty and then, in the other accounts, where he appears to them, you can imagine that’s a — a terrifying thing. In the Lucan account, it raises the question of whether this is a ghost, and Jesus says to them, `Look, I’m not a ghost. I have flesh and bones.’ And he eats fish and so on to — to prove it to them. You know, the power of God is a terrifying thing. The fact that in this event God has broken in to the history we know to transform it is a terrifying thing.
MS. TIPPETT: For Richard Hays, the truth of this central Christian story has practical implications. He believes that Christians are meant to find countercultural ways to practice resurrection well beyond attendance at church on Easter Sunday or any other Sunday.
DR. HAYS: Of course, for me the phrase `practice resurrection’ is something that I’ve picked up from the final line of a — a wonderful poem by Wendell Berry, who speaks about the practice of resurrection as something that disrupts and overturns the predictable world of business and military affairs and so on and — and causes people who are part of a movement of Jesus’ followers to act in ways that are strange and unpredictable. And, certainly, that’s — that’s one of the implications of this; that if we’re dealing with a God who raises the dead, we can’t be locked into a world that’s strictly predictable. We’re dealing with a God whose gracious power is going to break forth in all kinds of ways and call us to do all kinds of odd things.
MS. TIPPETT: Like what?
DR. HAYS: To love our enemies, for example, is one of the practices that’s closely linked with the resurrection. The early accounts in the Book of Acts speak of the community as sharing their possessions with one another in such a way that there was no poor person among them. Those are the kinds of responses that the — the community had to this act of resurrection, that they — they saw themselves as called into a community whose life together was to bear witness to the resurrection power.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, one thing that strikes me when I go back to these texts thatare at the heart of Easter is how sobering they are and, as we said, fear and amazement and terror and disbelief and, as you say, a sense of sort of dislocation, like all the rules have changed.
DR. HAYS: The — the church I grew up in, there was a tendency to make Easter into a kind of sweet, sunny, cheerful, happy holiday, where it’s focused on the — the coming of spring and the blossoming of the flowers and…
MS. TIPPETT: Wearing new dresses.
DR. HAYS: …wearing — yeah, right. And, you know, we have the hunts for Easter eggs and all those sorts of things. And clearly all of that is at quite a considerable remove from anything that the New Testament depicts in relation to these events. I was really struck one year when I had the opportunity to be in Jerusalem at the time of Easter. The whole focus of the celebration is on the — the Easter vigil, and there really isn’t even a — any kind of a major celebration on the Sunday morning at all.
MS. TIPPETT: And the Easter vigil begins in darkness.
DR. HAYS: It begins in darkness, so people have candles that they’re given. The light is distributed out. It’s a much more vivid picture one receives of the light overcoming the darkness.
MS. TIPPETT: Richard Hays is George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at the Duke University Divinity School. Here’s an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
READER: So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts. Go with your love to the fields. Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap. Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts. As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. And this is Speaking of Faith with Stories Behind the Story, a special program for Easter and Passover.
As a young woman living in war- and disease-ridden 14th century England, Julian of Norwich decided that to understand the story at the heart of Christianity, she needed to practice the crucifixion, the passion of Christ which is commemorated in the Holy Week of Easter. Julian prayed to experience the passion with all of her senses. And at the age of 30, she reported that her prayer was answered. As she lay stricken with a near fatal illness in the year 1373, she underwent 16 visions or showings. In her classic mystical work, she described a remarkable series of images and exchanges with God and a startling interpretation of religious truths.
LINDA LOVING: Like many people, I’d never heard of Julian of Norwich. And in the mid-’80s I saw a drama, and it is the drama I currently perform written by J. Janda, a Jesuit priest. And it’s a one-woman show about Julian of Norwich. And it was my first introduction to her, and I was — I was totally taken with the spirit of her theology and her compassion and her presence and her wisdom and — and her feminist thinking, which is an anachronism, of course, because she’s from the 14th century.
MS. TIPPETT: Linda Loving worked in theater and business before becoming a Presbyterian pastor. Today she leads one of the largest Presbyterian churches of any female pastor in the United States, the House of Hope in St. Paul. And she travels widely to perform the one-woman play about Julian of Norwich. She says that the play is a masterful weaving of Julian’s words with the playwright’s contemporary reflections. Linda Loving spoke with me about how the process of imagining her way as an actress inside the thought of Julian of Norwich has transformed her personal experience of Christian belief.
REV. LOVING: Now Julian was an anchoress, and most people don’t know what that is. I didn’t either. She lived attached to the church in a room in a cell, and it was actually a liturgical procedure that it was a burial rite that a bishop would brick — brick a person into this room. They were…
MS. TIPPETT: It’s sort of an extreme form of being a hermit. Right?
REV. LOVING: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
REV. LOVING: But what was different about Julian and some of the others is that they lived in the heart of the city. So Julian’s cell was right on the main street of Norwich, and she had this window on the world. And people came to her window for spiritual counsel or ghostly advice, as they called it. In a way, she was a medieval psychotherapist. Sh — they would come, they would pour out their hearts and souls, and she would listen. Now the other part of her availability is — Consider this — she was the first woman who wrote in Middle English, at least whose work survives. She was a contemporary of Chaucer, and here she is writing in the common language. This was so radical. And she was bringing religious concepts to people in their own terms and using very concrete images.
MS. TIPPETT: And she had a particular fixation, we might call it, on the passion and on wanting to get inside that and really get inside it…
REV. LOVING: Really.
MS. TIPPETT: …not just read about it…
REV. LOVING: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: …and have it as part of her theology…
REV. LOVING: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: …but be part of it.
REV. LOVING: Yes. This concept of wanting to be one with Christ’s suffering, it’s so foreign. It’s so foreign to all of us. We — we do whatever we can to avoid and escape pain. And her goal was to be `oned’ — was the terminology. `The seed was faith. The root, a desire for understanding. The shoot, compassion. The blossom, to understand, to stand under his pain, to know his love as did his good mother, as did the Magdalene and John, his true lovers who stood by him at the cross. I would be oned with them in their sorrow and grief, in their pain and contrition. I would be oned with them, to be there with them before my dying Maker, to see with mine own eyes his pain that I might understand his love.’ Once she has this vision of Christ suffering on the cross and lives through this near-death experience, she lives completely wrapped in love and confidence in God.
MS. TIPPETT: So I hear those words you’re speaking and they are good theology. But, you know, how have they opened up for you as you’ve tried to — as you’ve acted this person in this play?
REV. LOVING: Well, it’s a good point because initially I really stayed in my head. I had the words, I knew them cold. And there’s an extended time in the script, in the play, where she’s reliving the vision of Christ dying, and she describes very graphically, you know, ripped skin, bleeding wounds. And I kind of went through that in my head, and it’s only been over time that I’ve really been able to engage my gut as well. Maybe it’s partly the Protestant in me, you know. We kind of leaped to Easter Sunday, you know…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
REV. LOVING: …and — and in our culture, everyone wants to leap to Easter Sunday. People don’t want to make that journey day by day through Holy Week, and they do not want to linger on Good Friday.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. I’m in conversation with Linda Loving, a Presbyterian minister and actor. She’s speaking about a one-woman play which she performs on the life of the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian’s revelations came after she prayed her way inside the Gospel stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
REV. LOVING: There’s a line in the play where she says, `Those who know the deepest pain taste the deepest joy if they choose to love, not hate, if they choose to live, to forgive the suffering Christ hidden in all.’ And her gift after this vision is that she becomes a healer for other people. Having been oned with Christ in the agony, she understands how loved we are. And I think she has a very good point. We talk a lot about self-actualization and loving ourselves and loving our neighbors, and I would say so much of the time most of us do not understand how beloved we are to God. And that’s where we keeping missing the boat. I think we would make different choices day by day if we could really embrace that. And that’s the truth that she brings. I mean, think about the church in the Middle Ages: very into guilt, punishment, doing things exactly by the book; sin — very big topic. And Julian basically is saying, `Sin isn’t all that important. We’re going to sin. The love is so much greater you can’t believe it. You simply can’t believe it.’ She loved Mother Church, as she called it. Mother Church. She walked a very tricky line on that because she — she bordered on being heretical much of the time. And the cell that she lived in would have been just up the hill from a pit where they were burning heretics. So it wasn’t just a casual thing to — to bring a new voice to the life of the church in her day.
MS. TIPPETT: To bring a new voice that at one point speaks of Jesus as a mother.
REV. LOVING: As mother, yes. I mean, we…
MS. TIPPETT: In 1373.
REV. LOVING: Yeah, I know. Oh, I had one furious, furious man after a performance come up and — and say, you know, `How could you be calling God Mother and Jesus Mother, and what does that have to do with Julian?’ And I said, `Oh, those were exact quotes from Julian that she wrote in the 14th century. I didn’t make that up. That’s not from the playwright. That’s an actual quote.’ `We are God’s children. God said to the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother leave her baby at the breast? Can she throw her child out of her heart? Even if she could, I will never forsake you.” And Jesus said, “My people, my people, if only you would let me gather you under my wings as a hen does her chicks.” That is Jesus speaking, Jesus our mother. As truly as we receive our flesh and blood from our mother, as truly as we are made of our mother’s body, as truly as her body is earth and shall return to earth, so truly has the Earth been made by God who is in every sense our mother. That is the reasoning I used with a visiting theologian — a very learned man. I will not tell his name. “Dame Julian,” said he, “how can ye call the Christ our mother?” And so I had to show him how God spoke as mother in Holy Writ. “It is but a woman’s way,” I said. He that is so tender and loveth us so much — is not this the mother’s part? And he that hath made both man and woman, doth he not possess the qualities of each? It is but an image, for how else may we speak? How else put what is inside, outside?’
MS. TIPPETT: This is a — a wild and strange mystical text, and yet it was taken seriously at the time and has been taken seriously through centuries. I mean, why is that?
REV. LOVING: I think the fact that it survived at all had to — had to depend a bit on who she was as a person. There’s very little known about her because she wanted everything to point to God’s glory. And yet I think she was known far and wide. There — the records that they do have about her are people who remembered her in their wills. So I think the people that immediately experienced her — there was a transformation in her presence, and that takes. And then the words that she writes carry meaning, and — although they did sit on a shelf for a long time, a long time. And it’s really been in the last 30, 40 years that people have been devouring these texts and writing dissertations left and right. And she suddenly has been rediscovered.
REV. LOVING: Now let’s think about the time she lived in. And she lived through three rounds of the plague. Half of Norwich was wiped out. So, you know, there were people dropping dead all around her — whole families taken. It was the peasants’ revolt and all the chaos that went with that. There was — the cattle were suffering from awful diseases, and there wasn’t enough food to go around. The Hun — did I mention the Hundred Years’ War was going on? I mean, you know, everything was going on. And I think that’s part of why her play works today. You know, when you think about AIDS and the international crises and the economic upheaval…
MS. TIPPETT: Threat of bioterrorism.
REV. LOVING: Mm-hmm, exactly. And so it’s out of all that turmoil that she then says the words that she’s so well known for: `And all shall be well.’ And she says that after going through hell, and you believe it.
MS. TIPPETT: I — I’ve wondered about that — I mean, that phrase of hers, `And — and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ It — it is so comforting, and yet it — it makes no sense. It’s too simple, but it somehow works. And you think it’s because it has the weight of real suffering behind it…
REV. LOVING: Yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: …that even those words are transformed?
REV. LOVING: Yes. And I believe that it’s the simplicity that’s on the other side of complexity. You know, this is from a woman who saw it all, including Christ’s death, and said, `All shall be well.’ `Life is a precious thing to me and a little thing. My life is a little thing. When it will end here is God’s secret. And the world is a little thing, like a hazelnut in his/her hand. But it is in God’s ever-keeping, it is in God’s ever-loving, it is in God’s ever-making. How should anything be amiss? Yes, all shall be well, and all will be well. And thou shalt see thyself that all manner of thing shall be well.’
MS. TIPPETT: Linda Loving is pastor of the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.
Earlier in this hour you heard New Testament scholar Richard Hays and rabbi and author Sandy Sasso.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s program. Please send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s M as in Minnesota: mpr.org. You can also contact us through our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. While you’re there you can listen to this program again as well as our previous programs, and you’ll find books and music lists and other resources. You could also call Minnesota Public Radio at 1 (800) 228-7123.
I’m Krista Tippett.