Shana Tova

Because my daughter attends a Jewish preschool, I am a little more in tune with the Jewish calendar than the average Christian.  This morning, when my daughter asked if she were going to school today, I told her, “No – it’s Rosh Hashanah.”

“But I didn’t get to hear the rabbi play the shofar!” she wailed.

After some questioning, it became clear that the rabbi had come to demonstrate the shofar at last Friday’s Kabbalat Shabbat celebration, but Hannah had decided that that did not count, because she was supposed to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  “Do you want to go to the synagogue?” I ventured.  I knew that they would be having services today, but I also knew I was gambling on the shofar blowing – that could just as well have happened last night, since the day begins at sundown.

But no, she was not interested in that, either.  Like the mercurial four year old that she is, she changed tacks, “But I thought that I would hear the shofar all the way over here, in my house!”

The shofar sounds to signify the commemoration of the creation of the world – Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the world’s birthday – so it is the New Year in the most literal, non-arbitrary way imaginable.  My daughter’s desire to hear the shofar even in our kitchen gave me a wonderful opening to talk about the New New Year – the sounding of the shofar that Jews and Christians alike look forward to – the shofar that signifies the re-birth of the world, when the Messiah arrives (Judaism) / returns (Christianity.)

“When Jesus comes back, the shofar will be heard by every person everywhere!”

“Even in [San] Francisco?… Even in Alaska?… Even in the desert?…” she asked, naming the farthest away places she could think of.

“Yes… yes… yes!” I answered, “The shofar will be heard everywhere, and when we hear it, we will know that Jesus has returned to make the world new, and it will be a new creation, a new birthday for the world and for everyone!”

It was a beautiful sunny day today, just the perfect temperature for a walk to the park to push Hannah on the swings.  It was my first day since getting the shingles that I have felt well – well enough to drive and to spend the whole day with my little girl, well enough to jog beside her bike.  I was so thankful for the sun and the clouds and the leaves and everything.  I was overflowing – it felt like the world’s birthday, and I was filled with praise for the Creator and all creation.

And yet… today was also the day of the funeral for a woman at our church whose life was taken by cancer.  A woman younger than my mother.  A woman who herself was a wife and mother.  This new year will be a year without her in it, without my father in it, without so many in it that have died all over the world since last Rosh Hashanah.  As thankful as I am for all that is, I continue to long for that which is not yet – for the day when the shofar will sound in every kitchen and every prison cell and every graveyard and everywhere – the day when our tears will be wiped away, and the world is made new.  And so, even as my Jewish friends did today in worship, I too hold the two in tension: a celebration of life and creation and all that is – Shana Tova! – and a desire for the round of years to come to – not so much an end as a new beginning.  As a Christian, that hope for me is summed up in the prayer recorded by John of Patmos: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

So I invite my Christian friends to join me in a Rosh Hashanah tradition – eating apples with honey as an embodied prayer for a sweet new year – for the sweetest possible new year of all.

Shana Tova! / Happy New Year  -and-   Maranatha / Our Lord Come

First, the good news

For a bedtime story tonight, I suggested that we read Corduroy.  My “too tired” daughter brightened at the thought of reading the book “I like that story!” she exclaimed, “It is a good story, I very like the back [end] when he gets the button!” Which then prompted her to make her own suggestion – that we read the story backwards.

We have been reading stories backwards for some time.  I had thought that it was just that she thought it was funny, or was experimenting to see what happened if she broke the rule of reading front to back.  And maybe it was.  But tonight I got my first inkling that sometimes, she wants to read the story from back to front because she “very like the back” – because the end of the story is her favorite part, and makes the rest of the story worth reading.

It makes a difference how a story ends.  The way I read Corduroy tonight was not terribly different from the way the movie Memento unfolds – but a grisly ending makes all that comes before that much more horrifying.  Whereas Corduroy’s resolution – a home, a friend, a hug – the acceptance of “I like you the way you are, but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened…” all these things make Corduroy’s hapless attempt to find his own button neither pitiful, nor scary, but endearing.  The ending makes the difference – what if Corduroy’s failure to procure his own button ended in his never finding a home, in his ultimately being consigned to a scrap heap?

Happy endings are not well thought of in movies.  They are seen often as contrived, as bourgeois – ultimately, as unrealistic.  Reality is ugly, messy – happy endings are escapist, and only satisfying to the intellectually weak.  Which might be part of why Christianity is seen as not a religion for thoughtful people – anyone who is telling you that life has a happy ending has been drinking their own Kool-Aid.

But I would suggest that grace is “the better story.”  (If I may crib for a moment off Yann Martel.)  Would you rather live in a world where you are brought home into the loving arms of one who loves you the way you are?  Or in a world where love is untrustworthy, home is fleeting, and no one even knows who you are?  A world where “atonement” can only be had in one’s imagination, and amends cannot be made, but only gestured towards.  A world without grace.

There is nothing banal about the happiest ending.  The problem with movies is that their endings are not endings, and their happiness is at best misinformed – or even misleading.  These romances have nothing on the remaking of all creation, of a redemption so thorough that Isaiah envisions vegetarian lions, and Gregory of Nyssa proposes even Satan will be mended and transformed.

“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store.  Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.”  What are we waiting for?