Saturday, December 25, 2010

Murder in the Manger, Wink, Wink

Recently we enjoyed the third episode of the Isaiah House Theater Company. The Company is our initial attempt to accomplish the first part of an enormous task – to ask everyone in Orange County to see the homeless as people, and to see all people as beloved creatures of God.

You see, even my police friends are starting to talk about “rehabilitating” the homeless. One in particular has lately become very unfamiliar to me. He sounds nothing like the tough, take-no-prisoners cop I’m used to, talking now like a Social Worker about hidden mental illness, the scourge of micro-malnutrition, and the importance of counseling for helping the homeless face their fears. He’s now thinking they’re patients in need of a program!

He’s not wrong, exactly, he’s just forty years too late.

When I was in college just four short decades ago I worked at County Mental Health in San Diego. Back then, CMH was really just a bus station for people on their way to Patton State Hospital, and even though people had different diagnoses, there was really only one main reason people were sent away: grave disability. Back then, doctors and police and social workers would actually assess whether or not a person might become homeless. Those likely to fail at supporting themselves were deemed too ill to continue in society and were bussed north to be cared for by experts. State hospitals were the experts in curing the homeless.

The problem now is that Orange County has begun to become officially “therapeutic” toward the homeless. (I mean “therapeutic” in the sense of a something really expensive which has nothing to do with either food or lodging!) Now that the state hospitals have gone the way of the dodo, it turns out they’re the one thing we really needed all along. Not having any, we can all feel much better about abandoning the poor who are really beyond our help in any case. Why start treating someone who needs something we don’t have and couldn’t begin to afford anyway?

Now this is exactly the problem our theater company is confronting, and it’s precisely why we need your help to make everything better. You are exactly the people God created to do this job, and an acting exercise we do every Sunday proves it.

Most weeks we do a lesson called “Wink Murder” and once I explain it you’ll see why it illuminates the very thing God ordered for His own gift this holiday season, and why we Catholics are just the people to give it to him.

Wink Murder is an ensemble-building task with three elements: a murderer, a detective and a crowd. The two stars of this bit are really the least important people in the whole thing, so it’s fair that they’re given very little acting to do. The crowd is where all the real work is done. It’s their job to be the ornate frame around a simple sketch, to create an atmosphere where the simplest of dramas is played out and writ large upon the heart of the audience:

A detective tries to guess the identity of a disguised criminal who kills with a stagey wink, and the crowd elevates this guessing and winking to dramatic art by being the element that creates the tension from which the drama springs forth. Winking at a person to “cue” their death scene seems like nursery school stuff, and it would be, if not for the crowd. It’s their job to make the simple act of getting winked at first, a mystery, and second, a discovery of the greatest importance.

While the behavior of the crowd transforms a wink into a nod, each homeless actor in our talented company is simultaneously living out their existential insistence that they are not helpless incurables in need of an outmoded and unavailable cure. Similarly, we Catholics are called this and every Christmas to remind everyone that we were once in exactly the same boat, and every year it’s our job to get that ship out of dry-dock and sail once more into the battle for the World.

Now that Christmas has become a soul killing celebration of buying the least objectionable gift we can afford for people who really don’t need anything so cheap, it might be time for us to help show everyone how to behave as if Christ changed everything the moment He arrived.

You see, in the days before Christ we fell before sin like undefended nursery school children in the blink of an eye. With no one to help us, to show us the way, we were defeated that quickly. And then, into the world came our tiny Savior. Bringing nothing more lasting than insight as a solution for the mystery of sin, our play began. In the light of His life, and with the help of His body, we began to discover what was wrong. And in exactly the same way that the crowd is the very most important job in the exercise of Wink Murder, we are again being offered the most important role available in the annual recreation of each Christmas. We, the crowd, have the job of making this the Christmas where we discover what is wrong and how we can heal. Especially when it seems like years since the hospital’s been open or the wrapped boxes we tear apart have been filled with anything of lasting value.

In the same way our little theater company is going to make people re-member the forgotten humanity of the homeless crowd, we Catholics must together make the world again see the possibility of regaining our own humanity through the miracle of that ancient transformation.

The Christmas story, written as it was by Christ’s disciples, necessarily focuses upon Him, and His mother and father, upon their harrowing journey and His dangerous birth in a manger and His even more dangerous identification as the intended victim of Herod’s murderous fear. This year, as in every year, those roles are filled. This year, as in every subsequent year, the only role left to us is the crowd. Thank God it’s the role we born to play, and it’s the role wherein God, in His life-giving humility, depends upon us for the meaning of the Season to become revealed.

To become detected.

A videotape of the Virgin Birth could not have shown the terrible importance of that singular, and yet ostensibly ordinary event. A baby is born to a poor family in impoverished surroundings. We wonder why God chose such humble surroundings for such an important birth. It was not just the Infant, but the entire world in that manger, born anew each Christmas by our willingness to heed it’s meaning. Our willingness to act as if the World, and every single person in it, is saved.

Neither we, nor our homeless thespians, nor their brothers and sisters in the street are beyond His reach. Through us, in our role as members of the crowd, we can re-member this Christmas those people our government has blasphemously deemed beyond saving. All we need to do is bear witness to the terrible and similar state we ourselves were in before His birth; to bear witness that no person is beyond His reach or beneath His concern. All we need is to remember that the earliest meaning of the word sin was “debt” to illuminate our ongoing need for Christ to fill the current chasm in our hearts, and for us solve the mystery of the murderers afoot in the world.

All we need to do is throw away the terrible and deadly script we’re annually given by society, and act instead as if, by being invited together to detect and display the holy hidden meaning of this, His world, we’re saved.

This Christmas, if you’d like to play a central role in the care and serving of our brothers and sisters in Christ, give us a call. It’s a killer role you’ll die for.

How Perfect is that?

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