On the Interpretation of Holy Scripture

A sermon on Paul’s letter to Philemon, for Proper 18, Year C.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Amen.

……………

“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” Have y’all ever heard anyone say that before? There seems to be an epidemic going around these days, an epidemic of confidence in our ability to interpret the Bible literally. Christians across the spectrum of beliefs proclaim with certainty that the words on the page mean exactly what they say, and if we question their actions (these Christians’ actions, that is), then we must be questioning the Bible, and therefore must be questioning God Himself.

I’d like to challenge that notion a bit. So this morning I want to look at a short reading that is a textbook example of what can go wrong when we are just certain we know how to interpret the Bible perfectly. Paul’s letter to Philemon, which we heard in its entirety this morning, is the shortest of Paul’s letters. It’s also the only one of the seven that virtually all scholars agree is genuinely Pauline which is written to an individual. Paul is in prison, probably in Ephesus, and he writes to Philemon who is a member of the church Paul founded in Colossae. Philemon appears to be wealthy. Paul describes the church as being “In your house”, which implies that Philemon is the primary patron for the community. So Paul, consummate church planter, would have reason to flatter Philemon in this letter. He certainly wouldn’t want Philemon to be affronted, and to take his pledge away in a huff. That might make an end of the Colossian community.

So Paul is in a pickle when Philemon’s slave Onesimus comes to him in prison. Some scholars have claimed that Onesimus is running away. This would be a dangerous move, for which he could be punished with crucifixion. Others have suggested that Onesimus would be crazy to run to someone who knew his master, so he came to Paul seeking his mediation with a cruel master. Certainly, slaves in Roman times could seek out secondary patrons, men of status, as Paul was, being a Roman citizen, to make entreaty with their masters on their behalf. Paul’s letter to Philemon appears to be that entreaty.

Now, during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Transatlantic slave trade was booming throughout North America, the Caribbean, and Europe, Christians instead tended to interpret this letter as a straightforward proscription. Slaves must be returned to their masters. Indeed, any entreaty to be made to slaveowners must be an appeal on the basis of love, not a moral command. Paul’s letter to Philemon was used to justify the practice of slavery for hundreds of years. Its readers, faithful Christians all, were confident in their ability to interpret the Bible literally. But let’s take a closer look at the text, and see if we come to a different conclusion.

Paul begins with warm greetings for Philemon. He thanks God for him, and shares what he prays that God might do for Philemon. He goes on: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” Paul has the authority to command Philemon. Indeed, as Philemon’s baptizer, he was considered to be Philemon’s father, with all of the paterfamilias authority that provided in Roman times. Paul has now become the father of Onesimus as well, by baptizing him a Christian while in prison in Ephesus. Onesimus and Philemon, then, are brothers. Furthermore, the word in Greek Paul keeps using is doulos. In modern translations we usually translate it as servant, but doulos means slave. There’s another word for servant entirety. Paul considers himself a doulos of Christ. He says that all over his letters. Paul is setting up a kinship relationship here, in which all of these men are brothers of one Father, God, and slaves of one master, Christ. In doing so, he sets up a set of obligations, reciprocal responsibility of fathers and sons, rather than the oppression of slavery. Slavery, for Paul, is 100% voluntary, and should only be to Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on, making a pun on Onesimus’s name, which means useful. Paul calls Onesimus his own heart. Can Philemon abuse, punish, command, own his father’s own heart? Paul continues, beginning to lay on the guilt a little thick, “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel.” Philemon ought to be here, at the prison, visiting Paul who is imprisoned for the sake of the gospel. You see, in those days, there was no prison system, no cafeteria, no food available for prisoners whatsoever. Prisoners needed friends and family members to bring them any supplies they could, or they would starve to death. When Jesus tells his followers to visit the imprisoned, this is what he means. Philemon is failing in his duty to care for Paul while he is in prison, so Paul suggests that perhaps they all pretend he sent Onesimus in his place, to fulfill his responsibilities.

Paul concludes, really driving home his point now: “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” If you consider me your partner ….. If Philemon responds violently, is he saying he does not consider Paul to be his partner? Paul swears to pay anything to Philemon that Onesimus owes, but adds this zinger, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” In this letter, Paul boxes Philemon in, leaving him no choice but to accept Onesimus, “No longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”

Now let me be clear: the apostle Paul is no liberator. He does not advocate for abolition of the horrendous practice of slavery. He is working within the sinful system that exists, rather than seeking to turn the world upside down. He’s going to leave that to Jesus. But can you, honestly, interpret this total guilt trip of a letter in such a way that supports the enslavement of human beings? Can you read this letter and think, “Gosh, what’s really important here is respecting the property rights of slave owners.” Of course not! Of course not. But the church read this letter that way for generations. This Scripture was used and abused so that those who sought their own financial gain could use and abuse the people they owned.

Knowing this history, how dare we stand with such confidence that our interpretation of Scripture is 100% correct, absolutely the right way, handed down from God on high? How dare we be sure that our motives are pure, and that we are untainted by our own desire to interpret Scripture in such a way that benefits us? We must take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. We know its history. A history in which unscrupulous people have used God’s holy word to justify violent dehumanization of millions of people. Rather than claiming we just helplessly adhere to the words on the page, we must recognize that ultimately Scripture is a tool. It is a lens that allows us to see God. The purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to exist and be honored, but to show us God. And when we treat the Bible as holier than God, and holier than people made in the image of God, well, we have gotten to a bad place.

We must also recognize that we do not look at Scripture in a vacuum. I say nothing about the fact that we are reading it in translation, and that all translation is itself interpretation. Episcopalians talk about the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. My theology professor taught us that it’s actually more like a telescope. We look at God through Scripture. We look at Scripture through Tradition, through Church consensus, over thousands of years and across the globe. But as we’ve seen this morning, even that can lead us astray. So we also use the lens of Reason: we use our experiences, our knowledge, what science tells us, and what we hear from those on the margins of society, and we gather that into our interpretation before we act.

“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” has led to a lot of pain and oppression. That cannot be our attitude. Instead, let us take the advice of St. Augustine, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” Let us approach the Scriptures humbly, seeking to hear of God’s mercy for ourselves and others, rather than using them to confidently denounce those whom we have a vested interest in sending away.

 

 

 

Hope for the Future

More ethics than theology this week, so let’s consider our actions as we get to the fifth episode of season two, ‘Untimely Resurrection!’

Previously: Annalise! Sandringham! The Prince! Mary Hawkins! Jack Randall! La Dame Blanche! The gens d’armes!

Title card: A gorgeous horse being brushed down and wrapped in a royally-stamped blanket. Is this a metaphor for the way Jamie and Claire brush and groom themselves for the public but Get Real with each other, or are we just using title cards to give away what happens now?

Gorgeous opening tracking shot of the servants cleaning up after the wreck of last week’s party. Claire draws our attention to the noise of the clock, which rings in her ears to remind her that Jamie’s not home. It’s a nice intro to an episode that will be mostly about time travel, and the ethics of changing the past.

Jamie gets home from the Bastille, and he and Claire demonstrate a strong affinity for parenting in the way they comfort Fergus. He tells her what happened and how he got out, and she shares details of the attack in the alley that there weren’t time for the night before. It turns out that Jamie’s the one who put about the rumor that Claire is La Dame Blanche. She’s pissed, given that she can still smell the smoke from the fires at Cranesmuir, though it did work in her favor, this time.

Murtagh and Jamie talk St. Germain at the most gorgeous wine warehouse ever built. I want to go to there. Murtagh is distraught at his failure to protect the women, just as in the book, and swears vengeance “or be damned.” It’s a much less formal oath than Murtagh of the book, and helps to put Jamie and Murtagh on a more equal level, rather than emphasizing Jamie’s position as laird. Same effect, though.

Claire goes to visit Mary Hawkins, whose horrible family has locked her away while she recovers from her ordeal. Mary is obviously shaken, but her focus on proving Alex Randall’s innocence demonstrates a core of steel within her. She may be shy, but she is not fragile. Claire comforts Mary, who feels ashamed and transformed by the rape, but Claire assures her that it was not her fault. The show puts the proper weight on Mary’s feelings, and lets her, as the survivor, define the experience. A+

Less good is Claire’s agonized VO and temptation to burn Mary’s letter to safeguard a future where Mary marries as she ought, and bears Frank’s ancestor. Here we get in the weeds a bit on the time travel stuff. Can the future be changed? Claire and Jamie’s mission depends on that being true. But if so, what are the defining moments? Which choices matter? Claire has already affected Mary’s future – she dragged her through that back alley late at night, and now she’s definitely not going to marry the Vicomte. But does it follow that Claire must hasten to prevent a marriage with Alexander Randall? And even if Claire could be sure that this was necessary to ensure Frank’s future existence, is it just? What right does she have to decide Mary’s life, just for the possibility of a six-times great grandson in the 20th century?

Bonnie Prince Charlie joins Jamie at the beautiful wine warehouse and lays forth his plan to get £10,000: partner with le Comte to bring in a shipment of wine. BPC calls his quest “holy” as he points to the sky like a basketball player. This is terrible theology. Again. Jamie points out that le Comte is associated with “heretical circles,” but BPC insists that these are mere rumors, no more substantiated than those of La Dame Blanche. I can’t help but notice that Charles’s insistence that his cause is holy as he runs roughshod over the lives of thousands mirrors Claire’s, as she dissuades Alex from marrying Mary. Both Charlie and Claire are sure of their course – BPC that it’s God’s will, Claire that it’s from the future. For both of them, the ends justify the means. I’m sort of astonished that Claire, who worried last week that she and Jamie were bad people justifying bad actions, can’t see that.

Jamie and le Comte have a tense conversation in Maison Elise about the history of their enmity and the value of long memories. At home, Claire and Jamie scheme to prevent the success of this venture, and Jamie gives Claire a set of Apostles’ Spoons. I’ve heard of being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but I had never heard of this tradition. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen an Apostle’s Spoon. During the live tweet, some suggested it was a European thing, and some quick research shows that they were indeed popular in Britain at this time. But I can find no evidence of any theological meaning behind it. Does it symbolize the adoption of the newly baptized into the apostles’ teaching and fellowship? If anyone knows an Apostles’ Spoons theological rationale, even if it’s obviously after-the-fact, I’d love to hear it.

The next day, Jamie is helping the Duke of Sandringham pick out a horse, when Annalise shows up to troll Claire. Seriously, I’m not at all sure why she wants to walk in the garden with Claire. To brag(?) about how Jamie used to be more impulsive? It makes no sense. But nobody cares, because we’ve arrived at the untimely resurrection from the title: Black Jack Randall has returned. It takes some time for him to come into focus, and his first word is simply, “Claire,” evoking shades of Frank. It’s beautifully done. As Claire introduces him to Annalise, he can’t keep a smirk off his face. She recognizes the danger, and sends Annalise away.

Randall corners Claire, wondering that “the fates are toying with us now.” The camera circles them as she seeks an escape from his grasp. Claire is ultimately foiled by King Louis, whose minions mock Randall’s French. When Jamie arrives, he also uses his words and not his sword to beat down Randall, who eventually ends up on his knees before the king. It’s obvious that Claire fears a shift in strategy at any moment, as Jamie’s hand never strays from his sword hilt. But it is only once they have retired from the king’s presence that Jamie formally challenges Randall to a duel, and is accepted. I don’t expect that this dispute dies and no one shoots. [Hamilton reference #1]

Both Jamie and Murtagh have spoken of vengeance this episode. And it’s easy to understand how they feel. I cannot imagine having to meet with my rapist in such a setting. But Scripture is very clear that true vengeance belongs to God (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19) and not us, who see only dimly. And let us be clear: vengeance is not justice. Vengeance is about making sure someone else gets hurt as badly as you have been hurt. But justice is about accountability. It’s about refusing to allow harm to continue at all. I’m not at all certain what justice for Black Jack Randall would look like, but I’m pretty sure that a duel isn’t it.

Claire agrees, though for her own reasons, and runs off to the Bastille to make sure Jack Randall gets locked up as her attempted rapist. When she returns, it’s time for the most magnificent fight in the history of marital fights. Jamie claims the gift Claire gave him; she insists that Frank is innocent. He declares that he has his own weakness to bear; she begs for a delay. He demands she kill him, for he cannot live while Randall does. She plays her last card: “you owe me a life,” she says, for she has saved his more than once. The man of honor cannot deny this claim, and vows on his blade to wait a year. But all is not well.

Next time: Jamie and Claire make some dangerous plans. At least they get back on the same page?

 

The Lady in White

The best paced and most fascinating episode yet! I’ll spoil my review – I loved it! Let’s get to it, shall we?

Previously: Black Jack Randall is still alive, Bonnie Prince Charlie is on his way to getting all of Scotland killed, Claire looks great in yellow but that’s not enticing Jamie to her bed, bitter cascara probably isn’t foreshadowing in any way, and: Sandringham!

Title card: Ominous pan up over an ominous knife lying next to an ominously cloaked person with an ominously obvious birthmark ominously removing the axle pin (??? I don’t know things about wheels) from a carriage.

We open on Claire watching Jamie and Duvernay playing chess. I’m very glad to see them together, though I confess to some surprise. I thought they were still more distanced than that. Some light banter about baby names, then le Comte St. Germain shows up to mince about snobbily in French and proclaim how boring everything is. Is he a proto-hipster?

Claire wanders away to “avoid distracting” Jamie (I can only imagine she’s as bored as le Comte) but literally as soon as she takes a sip of wine, you can see distress written all over her face. She starts to cough and goes down, as le Comte stares ominously at her. Come on, dude! A little stealth mode never hurt anyone. Jamie rushes to her side and carries her out. Is le Comte’s sword out? This is the strangest scene.

Claire and Jamie are back home and she could tell by the taste it was bitter cascara. She’s had Jamie brew up for her some marshmallow leaf tea. Two quick things: first, I looked it up and it turns out that marshmallows can also be herbs! They’re not just for s’mores. It does have healing properties, as Claire says, both for inflamed throats and for digestive issues (which, in the book, are the primary symptom of bitter cascara ingestion). Secondly, I love that Claire is letting Jamie care for her, rather than relying on the servants. They are connecting again.

Jamie outlines the latest plan in their plot to stop the Rising, but he can tell that Claire is troubled (there’s that glass face again!), and she confesses that she knows Black Jack is alive. Jamie is …. thrilled? Color me surprised! The prospect of vengeance animates Jamie as he tells her that this “gives [him] something to look forward to.” Lani Diane Rich puts it well: it takes a brave man to imply to his very pregnant wife that prior to now he had nothing to look forward to. I’m still kind of shocked that Claire kisses him instead of giving him a swift knee in his soft places.

The next morning, sassy Claire sasses Murtagh then heads off to Maitre Raymond’s in the most glorious outfit yet. The sass continues as she upbraids Maitre Raymond, the presumed source of the bitter cascara. They pass into a back room where he does a little magic, reads Frank’s fortune by casting knucklebones. Telling the future in this way has a long and illustrious history in many religions and cultures. In the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, they are less often used to tell the future (which is frowned upon), and more often to make a choice – to reveal God’s will. Joshua used them to divide the Promised Land among the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Jos 14:1), soldiers gambled for Jesus’s tunic with them (Matt 27:35), and the Eleven used lots to determine which of two men God had chosen to complete the Twelve Apostles after Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and death (Acts 1:26). Raymond’s prediction that Claire will see Frank again, however, is not exactly a classical example of biblical lot casting, for all Rev. Wakefield’s opining about God’s will in the first episode.

He gives her a magic stone for detecting poison and sends her off to Louise’s, where she learns that her friend is pregnant – and it’s not her husband’s child. At first it seems that Louise has summoned Claire to procure an abortion. The options Claire presents for proceeding with such a choice do not sound very safe. Ultimately, Louise realizes that it’s not just a lack of access to safe healthcare preventing her from deciding to end her pregnancy; of course she wants the baby, she says, moving from describing it as “her lover’s” to “it’s mine.” Claire convinces her to try to trick her husband into believing it could be his. I miss Jamie’s opining on this decision from the book – “it’s a filthy trick to play on a man, but what’s the poor bloody woman to do otherwise?” (Dragonfly in Amber, p. 247)

Speaking of Jamie, he’s home from Madame Elise’s and just plain shocked that his wife is not as excited as he is that he got turned on watching the prostitutes there. They are gearing up for a first class Jamie & Claire fight when Jamie launches into what every book reader knows as “The Lean-to Speech.” His inner fortress, deep inside himself, his selfness, was blown up, exposed, naked. He stalks off as Claire clutches her belly protectively. She knows what it’s like to have her inner fortress exploded, too. Later, she finds the cupboard he’s been sleeping in, bathed in a deep blue moonlight. Blue, like the Virgin’s cloak. Blue, like her and Raymond’s aura. And wrapped in that light, Jamie and Claire find their way back to one another.

In their waking, Jamie tells her that she’s built him a lean-to, “and a roof to keep out the rain.” The rain is definitely coming down hard, but there’s a pounding that can’t be explained simply by the rushing water. Bonnie Prince Charlie jumps down on Jamie through a window, meets Claire for the first time wearing only a robe, and starts demanding stuff again. I’m not sure I would enjoy a relationship with royalty. Charles reveals that he is the father of Louise’s child, and I’m so glad she got to the place where she thinks of it as hers, because I’m not sure that Charles is worth it.

This information plays into Jamie and Claire’s plan to make Charles play the fool in front of M. Duvernay. When Claire wonders if their work makes them bad people, Jamie replies, “We’re doing a bad thing, for a good reason.” She responds, more despondently than tartly, “Isn’t that what all bad people say?” Good, Claire! That is exactly the kind of ethical thinking we all should be engaging in. A little humility when it comes to the morality we practice wouldn’t come amiss. Though perhaps they should’ve thought through exactly which means would be justified by the ends they are pursuing, and which wouldn’t, prior to beginning this project.

On the day of the dinner, Claire rushes off to L’hôpital des Anges to care for those hurt in an explosion at the Armory. There’s lots of screaming, but unlike Game of Thrones, the camera holds on adorable Bouton. Wise choice. Mother Hildegarde shows up just long enough to affirm Claire’s considerable healing skill in a way that only a tough, old nun can.

Once Claire finishes at L’hôpital, our characters discover what the title card has already told us: the axle pin has been removed from their carriage, and they’ll have to walk home. This turns out to be a mistake; they are attacked by masked brigands on the way home who rape Mary Hawkins. The distinctively birthmarked man from the title card attempts to rape Claire, too, but stops once he gets a look at her face. The rapists rush off, shouting “La Dame Blanche!” I was thinking that this scene makes no sense – they knew whose carriage they were disabling, surely? – but then I realized that it makes little sense in the book either. While there’s no carriage or axle pin, we do find out (much) later that the attackers were sent specifically to Claire. So why were they frightened off by her? If you can figure it out, let me know.

They stash Mary in a guest room with Alex Randall and head out to the dinner party. The Duke of Sandringham, unwisely, pokes some gentle fun at the Pope, which earns him an icy response from Prince Charles. The Bonnie Prince drones on some more about God’s will for his kingship. Louise says what we’re all thinking: it’s dreary. I mean, can you imagine someone whose only conversation consists of dramatic pronouncements about what God has commanded him to do?

Fortunately for dramatic purposes, though at cross-purposes with Claire and Jamie, Mary Hawkins chooses this moment to wake up and run screaming down the stairs. At which point, this episode turns into a French farce. A general grabs a sword from the weapon-check and starts swinging it about. Jamie clocks him with a vase. Sandringham makes witty observations from the hall. Murtagh and Jamie garrote someone. Le Comte and Prince Charles wander off together. Fergus sits down to eat the abandoned dinner. It’s all very strange, and I didn’t like it at all on first viewing. The second time, however, it …. kind of grew on me? It’s still absurd, but now I feel it’s rather gloriously so? I don’t understand myself, dear readers: what did you think?

Useful Nonsense

Let’s be real, you guys. A lot of church stuff is nonsense. The fancy church word for this is “adiaphora” which comes from the Greek for zzzzzzz…….

Seriously, though. I am a church geek through and through, and yet I recognize that a lot of stuff I get fired up about is nonsense. The proper vestments for celebrating the Eucharist. The proper words, in the proper order, to be prayed for a person who needs healing. God hears. God knows our hearts, our intentions. This is adiaphora for a people whose only essential is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the Good News of Christ’s salvation for all people.

So the question “is it nonsense?” is, I think, not a terribly relevant question. The answer will be, 99 times out of 100, yes. The question instead ought to be, “is it useful nonsense?” That is, does this thing, this practice, this vestment, this wording, this icon, this statue draw us closer to the love of God and the love of neighbor? There, I think, the answer will be, 99 times out of 100, yes. The Church has, over its long history, developed good and true practices that deepen our understanding of God. They are not necessary. They are not required. But they are useful.

Consider the seasons of the Church year. It is of course true that Christ is risen, alleluia, at all times. But there is value to putting away our alleluias for a time. Our frail human nature struggles to comprehend complete penitence and sorrow at the same time as surpassing joy. So we have set in place seasons that help us to more deeply enter specific aspects at specific times.

But sometimes we make an idol of our nonsense. We criticize those whose taste doesn’t match ours, we denigrate churches without the resources to “worship properly”, we ignore the practices of other cultures. And then we get mean. I’ve heard this most often expressed about some of our less practical vestments, but it’s true for lots of things. Many of these originally had a practical use – the maniple began as a fancy handkerchief for the wiping of sweat and tears, the torches at the Gospel procession literally lit the Gospel for the reader prior to the introduction of electricity – that no longer makes sense. So we have given them symbolic meaning. The maniple represents tears of penance, the burden of sin. The torches embody the Light of Christ. All of this can be useful. Our forebears used symbolism for many purposes and we would be wise to continue that practice. It’s only when we insist on our own way – when we insist that our way is the right or even the only way to properly worship God, that we into the sin of idolatry.

So enjoy your useful nonsense. Wash your hands in innocence, that you may go in procession ’round God’s altar (Psalm 26:6). Deck not only your soul with gladness (The Hymnal 1982,  339) but your body with the prettiest vestments in town. Just don’t insist that everybody else find useful that which you find useful. And for mercy’s sake, keep in mind that at its root, all of this is nonsense.

Nuns & Shifts

Plot shifts, that is! Last week we started setting the pieces in place, and this week they really start to move. Plus, Mother Hildegarde!

Previously: Jamie has PTSD. Claire made enemies and friends – and Mary Hawkinses. God wanted Charles to sit on the English throne. Jenny found Sawny. And Alex Randall revealed that Jack Randall isn’t dead after all.

Title card: We pan over chess pieces, featuring a toppled king. Nice touch.

Claire is rudely awakened by the sound of Jamie’s carriage arriving home. It’s clearly morning, but pre-dawn. Unlike book-Claire, show-Claire is unfazed by Jamie’s having spent an entire night at a brothel. I like this shift in their marriage. Trusting is a good look for Claire. Though she does refuse a kiss, given the aura of smoke and cheap perfume floating around Jamie. Jamie discovers that Sawny, an emotionally valuable wooden snake, is missing, but fails to notice Claire’s distinct unhappiness at being relegated to tea and gossip with the ladies.

For someone so miserable, she does clean up well! That saffron gown she’s wearing to play cards with Louise & Mary – WANT. Mary blurts out, apropos of nothing, that she can’t possibly marry a Frenchman, because he’ll want to have sex with her. This gives Louise the giggles, and even Claire struggles to keep her composure. We are only 7 minutes in, people, and we’ve already got to have a little talk with Mary.

This little talk reveals that Mary Hawkins is the Mary Hawkins. Mary Hawkins who marries Jack Randall and bears Frank’s ancestor. Claire flees the scene, distressed to learn that Jack (whom she had previously thought already dead?), needs to live another year if Frank is to ever exist. But she wasn’t distressed before about this? Lani and Alastair of The Scot and the Sassenach podcast (which you should all be listening to) have speculated that show-Claire always knew, subconsciously, that Jack Randall was alive. I have to say I find that convincing.

Claire arrives home to find her lady’s maid, Suzette (the one so anxious to make Claire’s bed last week), in bed with Murtagh. Murtagh doesn’t get any action whatsoever in the books, so this is an interesting change. I really like that the show deepens the relationship between Claire and Murtagh. They don’t only relate through Jamie. There’s a non-romantic intimacy there that is really refreshing to see depicted. This intimacy allows Claire to reveal that she knows Randall is alive, and for Murtagh to agree that they really shouldn’t tell Jamie. I also love that Murtagh’s favorite swear is just a Bible verse: “Jesus wept.” Yes, He did, Murtagh. I’ll be using that in future.

Jamie and M. Duvernay play chess at Versailles. Every bit of it is dull, except Jamie’s adorable facial expressions.

Claire, still wearing that amazing saffron dress, now with cape and hood, goes to Master Raymond’s to procure birth control (Murtagh: birth …. control?) for Suzette. She dramatically runs into the Comte St. Germain, whose villainy has been somewhat eclipsed in the last week by Jack Randall. This scene is delightful, but mostly expositionary. We learn about bitter cascara, we’re reminded of the threat posed by the Comte, and Claire confesses her feelings of uselessness. Master Raymond recommends that she put her medical talents to use, and we’re off to L’hôpital des Anges.

Nuns! We get an adorable (and tiny!!!!!) Soeur Angelique, who shows Claire around and tells her about all the other medical volunteers. We catch a glimpse of Bouton, and greet Mère Hildegarde. This entire sequence takes place in French, which delights me to no end. Mother Hildegarde observes Claire as she uncomplainingly deals with the visceral elements of illness, and is impressed as she successfully diagnoses diabetes via tasting(!) a patient’s urine.

While Claire is helping the needy, Jamie is listening to Charles exaggerate the state of his funding to M. Duvernay. The latter is only half paying attention, as he is distracted by some of the …… employees of Madam Elise’s. Jamie is shocked and horrified by this development – especially since M. Duvernay appears entirely enticed by Charles’s offer of an alliance once he ascends the British throne.

Jamie rushes home to share his worries with Claire, but she’s nowhere to be found. I’m not totally clear on the timeline here. Is it supposed to be dawn? Evening? There’s a montage of Jamie working, and worrying, and the clock shows a time of around 8:45. AM? PM? How worried is Jamie? How justified are his fears? The fight which follows depends on such details, and they are not given.

In the absence of much theology this week, I’d like to take a look at the portrait of marriage we get. Jamie and Claire are both struggling, individually, and together. Claire’s absence prevents her from being “to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy” for Jamie, as the Prayerbook prays for those being married. Jamie’s PTSD and disappointment makes him bitter, and separate from her. She rushes to forgive him, but he seems intent to hold a grudge. They need some help for “unity to overcome estrangement” – again from the Prayerbook – and Suzette reveals that unity isn’t happening in the bedroom either. Poor Jamie. Poor Claire! This fight is such a real married people fight: neither one is totally wrong, they both have a point, but they are just going to decide work together and not apart if their marriage is going to survive.

Jamie runs back to the brothel, which seems like a *great* idea, but there we finally get to meet FERGUS! Jamie catches him stealing from the other customers at Madame Elise’s and we get an awesome chase sequence through the back alleys of Paris, until Jamie catches up with him and offers him a job.

Claire is rudely “awakened” (as though she were asleep) again, as at the beginning, by Fergus coming in and acting like he owns the place. I think I like confident Fergus more than the slightly cowed boy we see in the books. What follows is the most exquisitely staged shot I’ve ever seen. Jamie and Claire discuss Fergus’s employ, divided by a wall with strategic doorways throughout. They are separated physically as well as emotionally, with occasional points of connection. Jamie shares his plan – which is a good one, as Claire acknowledges. That acknowledgment doesn’t do much to thaw the ice between them, however.

Jamie and Murtagh take up the letter de-coding trade, facilitated by Fergus’s pickpocketing, when they are flummoxed by the music enclosed in one of King James’s letters. Murtagh knows someone who might be able to read it, but Jamie won’t like it ……

We cut to Claire and Mother Hildegarde practicing an unusual type of medicine, featuring Bouton sniffing out a patient’s secondary infection. Focus on the cute dog, guys, not the gross medical stuff. Jamie arrives, because guess who isn’t just a Mother Superior, basically a doctor, and the best dog trainer in France? That’s right: Mother Hildegarde is also an accomplished musician, and a correspondent of Bach’s. Nuns are so cool, you guys.

Jamie and Claire are united at last as they work together on a mutual goal. I can’t recommend this method of marital reconnection enough, y’all, though I can’t endorse stealing letters and spy tactics. They immediately figure out that the ‘S’ at the end means Sandringham, which is awfully quick work, and it destroys the temporary unity they’ve found. Claire and Murtagh, you see, realize they’re going to have to tell Jamie now about Black Jack Randall. Jamie toasts to Mother Hildegarde, and to Claire, “who’s always there when I need her.” Claire chickens out of telling him, which totally won’t come back to bite her later on, and we fade to black.

Not much theology this week, guys, but a nice portrayal of the trials inherent in Christian marriage and a badass nun. Not too shabby!

Next week: A dinner party gangs agley.

Not at the Abbey Anymore

Well. I must say I did not expect the bulk of the theology we heard tonight to come from Prince Charles Stuart. And such very wrong theology indeed, though one doesn’t expect much from the theology one hears in a brothel. More brothels than abbeys this week, as we encounter episode 202, “Not in Scotland Anymore!”

Previously: Claire sets Jamie’s hand, Claire makes an enemy of le Comte St. Germain, Randall burns Jamie’s pardon, Claire exposits at extraordinary length, Jared helps, Jamie makes an oath.

Credits. The title card this week is of a woman (we don’t see her face yet, but [spoiler for this actual episode which I assume you have watched in full] it’s Louise) being exquisitely dressed in a floral gown by her lady’s maid. Terry Dresbach’s amazing costume design is on full display this episode and so what else could the title card have been? Besides, the metaphor of putting on new identities and roles as costumes ripples throughout (I mean: Jamie’s. Breeks. Not just pretty but also indicative of a different world.) and it’s smart to highlight that right up front.

We pan up on Claire and Jamie’s entwined legs, to the sound of enjoyably labored breathing. The camera lingers on Jamie’s face in this scene, which I first thought was a nice invocation of the female gaze, but as the music changes to cue us that something has gone seriously agley, it pans back down to reveal not Claire but Randall. Jamie draws his dirk and goes all Psycho on us, complete with horrific stabbing noises and Carrie-levels of blood. No lie, my husband walked in at *precisely* this moment in the episode and asked what the hell I thought I was watching. He hasn’t stopped calling the show “Murderlander” since. Jamie wakes, wide-eyed, and flinches as Claire reaches to comfort him. She assures Jamie that Randall is dead, but he replies that he’s alive “in my head.” Jamie gets up, wrapped in his plaid, declaring that he’ll get no more sleep tonight. When Claire emphatically declaims, again, that Randall is dead, he tells her he knows, but he closes that door behind him like he surely does not know that. And well he might [spoilers again, I guess, but seriously: you have seen to the end of the episode right?].

The sumptuous bedroom cuts to a gorgeous exterior shot that captures Claire through an open, un-paned this week, window as she walks with purpose to catch her carriage, trailed by an anxious maid. Let’s linger a minute on that gorgeous outfit, shall we? That rich cream and black! Those buttons! That cute little hat! I know nothing at all about fashion, but I want that outfit. It may be 1744, but Claire has completely captured boss bitch style.

Claire muses a bit on the differences between 1945 and 1744 Paris, notes for those viewers with a loose grasp on history that the French Revolution is 40 years away, and shares that the Eiffel Tower won’t be shown this season, as it won’t exist for another 100 or so. Thanks for that Sitz Im Leiben, Claire! She passes through a market that she’s dressed far too finely for, and finds her way to Master Raymond’s shop. Book fans will note the prominent placement of the crocodile, and fans of not-another-entirely-white-television-show will note our first character of color in the Outlanderverse in Master Raymond’s black shop assistant. She confidently corrects Claire that it is Maitre Raymond, not Monsieur, and the frog-like man himself appears as though he’s popped out of hiding. Claire shows off her mad smelling skills, and he offers her something to help Jamie sleep. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, in an enemy of my enemy sort of way.

Jamie and Murtagh, meanwhile, are practicing their swordplay and rehabbing Jamie’s hand in an extremely public park, which seems unwise. Sharp weapons were not made for broad daylight. Though y’all. Jamie’s. Breeks. I say again. I do like seeing Murtagh in his kilt, though. He waxes eloquent on the subject of Scottish mud, and admits to missing Rupert & Angus (me too!!!!!). We get the important info that dueling is outlawed in Paris, and some more exposition about why the Plan is the plan and not a different plan. I’m sorry, I’m just watching Jamie’s breeks right now.

Jamie’s invited to meet Prince Charles at last, and so he and Murtagh head to a brothel. Claire’s raised eyebrows (get used to them in that position) see them off. We spend an inordinate amount of time setting this scene, but the prostitutes of 1745 Paris are wearing rather more than those of King’s Landing, so it feels somewhat less exploitative. And it does introduce us to Prince Charles as a remarkably silly, vulgar, selfish man.

And selfish he is indeed. He’s offended by Jamie’s characterization of the Scottish clans as anything less than 100% on board with his mission to retake Scotland and England for his father by force. Jamie and Murtagh continually bring forth the perspectives of the Scottish people, but Charles is only interested in one perspective: God’s. Or, to be more accurate, his. Charles is convinced that God demands that a Catholic king sit on the throne of England. There’s quite a bit to tease out of that statement, so in no particular order:

  1. Charles’s ancestor James VI of Scotland (and later I of England, the successor to Queen Elizabeth and sponsor of the King James Bible) really was an ardent supporter of the divine right of kings. So it makes some historical sense that Charles would have had that belief passed down through his family.
  2. However, on the whole, Protestants were rather more likely than Catholics to support the doctrine of the divine right of kingship. After all, they were the ones saying that kings represented the authority of God in their nation, not the Pope.
  3. That said, certainly the Roman Catholic Church felt strongly that God’s will did demand the return of England to the fold of Holy Mother Church, and while God might not extend divine rights to a monarch, a Catholic king was certainly preferable to a Protestant one.
  4. Regardless, this belief is an utterly silly one anyway. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was executed by the representative of an emperor, could not possibly care less who is sitting on any throne (or in any-shaped office, Americans) at any given moment. God’s will is less about who our leaders will be, and more about what our leaders will do. Charles’s rejection of Murtagh’s defense of the cottars he seeks to rule is a rejection of God’s will that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. [steps off soapbox]

Claire continues to advance the Plan in the face of this news that the would-be King is a blockhead. She introduces us to not one, but two important characters this season: Louise de la Tour, and Mary Hawkins. And since it’s premium cable, the introductions take place during Louise’s waxing session. Not sure that’s a spectator sport, but hey, Game of Thrones can’t have all the sexposition, I guess.

Claire introduces Jamie to the results of a day spent with Louise, and suffice it to say that he is equally startled, though much more sanguine than book-Jamie at the prospect. What follows is not sexy, but touching, as the married couple seeks reconnection but finds themselves still dealing with the lingering effects of Jamie’s rape. The fade to black was so long that I thought the episode was over – a bookend to the opening scene. But when morning comes, all is well and we finally get to see the Red Dress. And it is every bit as stunning as I’d imagined. And those shoes! Perfection. Excuse me while I confess the sin of covetousness. I’ll be right back.

I’m back! And we’re at Versailles. Y’all. Outlander needs a bigger budget. That establishing shot was not its finest hour. Louise is introducing them around, so I expected that we’d dispense with the character of Annalise, but there she is! Claire’s eyebrows achieve stunning new heights as she contemplates her husband’s former …. conquest, and we are treated to my favorite exchange of the episode: Mean Girls, Paris-style. When Annalise offers to introduce Jamie to the king, Claire knows she must let him go, but she sends Murtagh after the pair, just in case. I love Claire bossing Murtagh around, and I love Murtagh being bossed by Claire.

More theology in unexpected places, as somebody is entreating the king to quell heretical practices as he sits on his …… throne. Despite my delight at this introduction, it’s no surprise that this is my least favorite scene in the ep. And it is So. Long. Do we really need multiple attempts to be included? No. Let’s skip ahead, shall we?

In Jamie’s absence, Claire’s made the acquaintance of a number of bawdy ladies. When she leaves their talk behind, Louise sends the Finance Minister (important!!!!) after her with assurances that Claire is excited to meet him. He rushes out to bury his face in her cleavage, only to be pushed backward into Jamie – who unceremoniously dumps him into a fountain. Monsieur Duvernay, said Finance Minister, is improbably unperturbed at this turn of events, and becomes their best friend. Je n’y crois, I’m afraid.

Murtagh’s distracted by this fast friendship by the presence of the Duke of Sandringham at the party. Breathing threats and nearly drawing a weapon in the presence of the king is terrible politics, though barely worse than the astonishingly direct threats Claire makes once she sends the men away. Don’t you know that shade is more effective when you send it sideways, Claire? But no time for that, as she meets Alexander Randall in rather less dramatic fashion than in the book. This whole section is full of dramatic revelations, delivered much less dramatically than their book-counterparts. Here’s Alex Randall! He looks like, but not exactly like, Claire’s past-future-husband and also his pervert sadist brother! Said pervert sadist isn’t dead! Claire has to decide whether to tell her still-recovering-survivor husband this horrific news! I don’t know; it’s hard to criticize the show for choosing the less soap opera-y path, but still.

Next week: Mother Hildegarde! Fergus! The clef! And some chess, I suppose. See you then.

 

 

But Then We Will See Face to Face

Outlander is back! In a big way. And what luck for me that my very first official recap has such rich theological content to mine! It’s almost like it’s God’s plan, Reverend Wakefield, almost.

In the featurette following the episode, Ron Moore says that the title of the episode, “Through a Glass, Darkly” comes from Diana Gabaldon’s name for Part One of the novel. That’s not exactly right; she titled it “Through a Looking Glass, Darkly.” While Diana’s title also calls to mind Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to describe what has happened to Claire in her fall through time, both titles reference 1 Corinthians 13:12. After waxing eloquent in his most famous passage on the qualities of Love, the Apostle Paul declares that all things except love shall end. “For we know only in part and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” (This is the NRSV translation, some translations do literally have ‘through a glass, darkly’ in them.) Not only does this reference the veil between Claire and the past as she looks back on it, it testifies to the enduring power of love. And it looks forward to the day when Jamie and Claire shall, God willing, see one another face to face.

Look at that, almost 300 words and just on the title. Onward!

We open with Claire at the stones of Craig na Dun after previouslies set entirely in the last 2 episodes of the first season. To the reader, it is immediately obvious that she is back in the 20th century – but I’m not so sure whether it is to TV only fans. What say you?  After some frantic searching in the grass, she finds a ring with a massive gemstone missing from it. But what ring is this? She is still wearing both Frank’s and Jamie’s wedding rings, that gold and silver pair set in such beautiful opposition last season. It has obvious significance to her, and I suspect to most book readers as well. But we’ll leave that to another time.

Claire finds her way to a paved road, finally clueing absolutely everybody into the fact that she has gone back to the future. She asks a helpful local driver what year it is, and when he kindly obliges, she throws him up against his car and screams at him until he tells her who won the Battle of Culloden. Thank goodness she ran into someone with a decent knowledge of history! When he tells her the British won (shouldn’t it be the English? Aren’t Scots also British, in a sense?), she collapses into sobs.

New credits! Not only new images, but a more courtly orchestration featuring a gorgeous cello line, and some of the lyrics in French. I like it quite a bit, and am excited to see these future images in their proper place.

The title card features young Roger, a nice nod to the way the framing device went down in the books. I have to say, I’m a big fan of this change. It gives us the same sense of foreboding we had in the book, watching Jamie and Claire work to thwart the Rising, all while knowing it is ultimately doomed to failure. It disorients the viewer just as the framing device in the book did, but allows them to show, not tell, what happened to Claire when she first meets Frank. Not to mention giving Tobias Menzes a chance to show us, once again, what an incredible actor he is.

Speaking of Frank, welcome back, Frank! We see him reflected in the window, darkly, as Claire looks out on the noisy, modern world. He seems genuinely moved and grateful at her return, but as he approaches the bed, Claire flashes to Captain Jack Randall and flinches away. Her PTSD is as potent as Jamie’s, it seems. Another flash, as a photographer sneaks in and captures her blinking face. It seems prudent to remove to the Reverend Wakefield’s, where she won’t be bothered by such intruders.

The Reverend Wakefield’s manse looks quite grand indeed. I had always pictured it as large, but not so Gothic-looking, nor quite so remote. The Rev. and Frank watch Claire, again, through a window, as she pores through every book they have on the Jacobite Rising. Frank has sent off the clothing Claire was wearing to a fellow historian, who authenticates it as genuinely ancient. Frank presses her petticoat to his nose (ew, Frank!), I guess to smell the ancient smells she would’ve encountered? Can you really tell that by smell? Wouldn’t the modern-day smells have overtaken the ancient by now?

It’s not clear what Claire has told Frank and the Reverend at this point, but she’s definitely  told Mrs. Graham the truth. Does she believe it? The dancer in the stones, the woman who calls down the sun, surely she knows something of the power of Craig na Dun. And yet, when she speaks of Claire’s “extraordinary adventure”, it sounds a little patronizing, like she’s humoring Claire. But at least Claire has someone to talk to about Jamie. She struggles with speaking of him in the past tense, as one recently widowed – because she is recently widowed. It may be two centuries ago for us, but for her it’s been just a week. Mrs. Graham encourages her to tuck Jamie away in a special place in her heart, rather than chasing a ghost, and to turn to Frank, a “flesh and blood man” who loves her still. More significant glances through a window! Gee, I wonder if windows are important in this episode?

That night, Claire invites Frank into her room to talk. She tells him the whole story, it seems, which takes all night long. He professes to believe her, a remarkable show of trust that matches Jamie’s leap of faith from last season. I like that Claire’s husbands trust her with this outlandish story. I always say that our faith in Christ’s resurrection doesn’t arise from intellectual assent, but trust in the people who told us the story. This story is no less wild, and yet just as Jamie believed her immediately, so does Frank. And yet, his belief manifests, somehow, as anger. Anger at those who had told her she had run off, anger at Jamie, and finally, white-hot rage at the news of her pregnancy. The strings support the rising tension as he finally lunges at her but manages to restrain himself, barely, from striking her. He rushes out, down the stairs, out to the garage, and immediately starts breaking the Reverend’s crockery. Not cool, dude! But also: what are all these random breakables doing out there?

Frank spills the truth to Reverend Wakefield as part of his apology for breaking all his pottery. He describes his joy at the first news of Claire’s pregnancy as “almost hallucinatory in its potency,” a joy which immediately evaporated upon his learning that the child couldn’t be his. The Rev., bless his heart, immediately jumps to the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. While perhaps analogous, I’m not sure that’s the most pastorally helpful comment in this situation. Not to mention that Frank is right: the father, while JAMMF, is not God Almighty. Fortunately, an illustration much closer to home comes into the room in the form of young Roger. The Reverend Wakefield is not Roger’s father, but Roger calls him so, for he stands in the place of father for him. Frank immediately recognizes the connections and begs the Reverend not to speak of “God’s plan.”Wisely ignoring him, the Reverend replies, “A child without a father and a man without a child have been given this chance to find one other. And yes, I would call that part of God’s eternal plan.”

I’m wary of the phrase “God’s plan,” too, Frank. So much grief and sadness, so much sin and pain exist in the world. Are they part of God’s plan? Other children without fathers are never given the chance to find someone to parent them. And yet, if not a plan, exactly, this does seem a gift. A gift not unlike Jamie’s gift to offer Claire, in marriage, not only an escape from the machinations of Captain Randall, but a love that endures as all other things pass away. The love that Frank will give to this child is a gift that will also endure.

Claire and Frank agree to continue their marriage and raise their child together. Frank’s gotten a job at Harvard, so they’re moving to Boston. She watches him burn her clothes through the window(!!!!), but he, with rather less graciousness than Jamie had, tells her to keep Jamie’s wedding ring. That window turns into a plane window as they arrive in Boston for a new life. Claire looks *gorgeous* in her hat and flying suit, and as she reaches forward to take Frank’s hand, we fall through the looking glass and find that it is Jamie’s hand she’s taking.

We’re back in 1745, now in Le Havre, on the coast of France. They have successfully fled the redcoats, but the torments of last season are clearly still with them. Jamie’s bandaged hand obviously pains him, and the awkward movements of this graceful man betray other wounds as well. He’s tortured not just by his still-healing body, or even the memory of Randall’s rape and torture, but his soul is also tormented by the mission they have set themselves to fulfill. Jamie is fundamentally a man of integrity. Spying and deceit are not to be found on his moral compass. But Claire’s practical assertion that they’re saving hundreds of thousands of lives wins the day, even as he fears for their souls. He vows to complete their mission in the same words as marriage vows.

Jamie’s integrity also requires them to tell Murtagh (yay! Murtagh!) what they’re up to, but it also means that Murtagh trusts them when he says they can’t tell him the reason until the proper time. I have to say, if you’re going to be a saboteur, living a life of utmost honor and integrity beforehand seems the way to go. No one will suspect you in the least. Claire and Jamie convince Jamie’s cousin Jared to lend them his house while they work “for the cause” with nearly as much ease, though it does mean we have to look at Jamie’s scarred back again.

Claire goes for a walk to ease the waves of nausea coming from her (still very early) pregnancy, and immediately finds a poxed ship. Great, Claire, now *I’m* nauseous.  She displays an impressive command of French as she pushes through to comfort an ailing man. Le Comte St. Germain shows up to request that the Harbour Master handle it quietly, but the news is already all over the docks. The ship, and all its cargo, must be burned. Claire, seeing through a glass darkly, has once again allowed herself to be put in danger by her defiance of local politics and customs in order to do what is right by the sick. The Comte vents his rage at Claire, turning the book’s subtext into text. I’ll be interested to see this rivalry going forward – will they “reparé” as the Comte threatens?

We close on Jamie and Claire watching the ship burn in a really cool shot. A new world, a new mission, a new enemy – all set up in the very first episode.

I really enjoyed this ep. We’ve already got rich themes portrayed consistently across timelines, stellar acting, and luscious sets and costumes. The pacing did feel a little bit off. It was a little slow, perhaps, given that they only have 13 episodes to tell this very full story. Though I’m not sure what they could have added without overloading us. All in all, a great start to the season – almost a prologue. They set the pieces in place, and next week we can move into the story proper. If this is seeing through a glass, darkly, I can’t wait to see face to face.

A Christian Recaps Outlander

I’ve been an Outlander fan since I was 16 years old. I’d been begging my mom to let me read them since around age 12, and she finally relented by sophomore year in high school. I tore through the first four books in the series (all that had been published by then), desperately in love with Jamie and with a deep desire to grow up to be more like Claire – tough, smart, breathtakingly competent in a crisis, with a satisfying marriage to boot.

Outlander-1991_1st_Edition_cover

I own this edition. Very ’90s romance-chic, no? Not like the new, blue covers.

Most people’s love of Outlander has little to do with God. These books are exciting and dramatic, filled with adventure and racy sex. Back when I started reading them, they were still more reliably found in the romance section of the bookstore (though author Diana Gabaldon’s success has enabled her publishers to lobby to put them, properly, in regular fiction by now). But these characters are deeply faithful. Jamie is profoundly Catholic, with a rich view of the Divine that permeates the natural world around him. Even Claire, who begins the series as a nominal Catholic, finds the rhythm of Catholic ritual helpful in time of need.

I was a Methodist when I first started reading, and the wild, quasi-pagan Celtic Catholicism Jamie and his family practice was exotic and foreign. I had never even seen a rosary, nor even heard of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Acts of Contrition in French seemed way cooler than General Confessions on Communion Sundays once a month. It’s no wonder that when I became Anglican, and a particularly (small-‘c’) catholic kind of Anglican, I began to incorporate some of what I had learned from Diana Gabaldon into my practice.

The Starz series, of course, does not incorporate nearly the religious imagery and character faith that the books do. For one thing, they haven’t got the time Gabaldon does in the regularly 800+ page tomes. For another, it’s a new show that they’re hoping will appeal to a wide audience. But I was astonished to read one review of the first season that claimed Outlander Slams Christianity.” A close read of these characters reveals nothing could be further from the truth.

So I’m joining the recap community. I know there are literally dozens of recaps to read after each episode, because I read most of them too. But I’ll be looking at show with a particular eye on faith as practiced by these characters, a faith with room for just a bit of magic and time travel as well. I won’t downplay the sexiness – that’s a key part of the story too, and they are married for heavens’ sake! This isn’t “A Prude’s Look at Outlander“. Nor will I strive to counteract the explicit feminism in the text. I’m a feminist too.

In looking at the show, I’ll be sure to pull in aspects of the books as well, when appropriate, but I will strive to avoid spoilers for future seasons. Not least because reviews for Season 2 already indicate some changes from the books, and it’s entirely possible that even having read every published work of Gabaldon’s doesn’t mean I know what’s ahead. As a priest, the Saturday night airdate schedule is a bit rough for me, but I’m excited to see what’s ahead.

Looking forward to sharing a new season of Outlander with you!

Watch

It is Maundy Thursday. The Triduum Sacrum (the Three Sacred Days) has begun. We remember the night before Jesus died, the day of his death, and his day in the tomb (leading into the celebration of his resurrection) with great solemnity and devotion.

My favorite of these acts of devotion is the Watch, which we observe tonight at the conclusion of the last Eucharist before the Proclamation of Easter. Extra bread and wine are consecrated for communion on Good Friday, and placed (often with great ceremony) at an Altar of Repose, away from the main church. Volunteers “watch one hour” with Jesus, present in the bread and wine. This waiting and watching is something the disciples couldn’t do in the actual Garden of Gethsemane, poor lambs, because they were just too sleepy.

The Watch is not everyone’s cup of tea. Monstrances make some low church folk grumpy, and others will argue that the consecrated bread is for eating, not adoring. But something …. magical happens when we wait, and watch, with Jesus on this holy night. No, the story of Jesus is not a fairy tale, but it contains some supernatural elements nonetheless, and if you’ve ever sat Watch, you know what I mean.

adoration-Corpus-Christi-monstrance

This is a monstrance that doesn’t looks monstrous.

In Outlander, Diana Gabaldon explains it this way. The protagonists, Claire and Jamie, have escaped dreadful torment and certain death to an abbey, where Jamie is recovering from the torture he’s endured. Claire, a nominal Catholic but skeptic’s skeptic, fails to find comfort in the rituals of the abbey, until she meets Brother Anselm. Brother Anselm explains the practice of Perpetual Adoration to her:

“For me, in that moment …” He paused. “It’s as though time has stopped. All the humors of the body, all the blood and bile and vapors that make a man; it’s as though just at once all of them are working in perfect harmony.”

….

“But just then, for that fraction of time, it seems as though all things are possible. You can look across the limitations of your own life, and see that they are really nothing. In that moment when time stops, it is as though you know you could undertake any venture, complete it and come back to yourself, to find the world unchanged, and everything just as you left it a moment before. And it’s as though …” He hesitated for a moment, carefully choosing words. “As though, knowing that everything is possible, suddenly nothing is necessary.”

“But … do you actually do anything?” [Claire] asked. “Er, pray, I mean?”

“I? Well,” he said slowly, “I sit, and I look at Him.” A wide smile stretched the fine-drawn lips. “And He looks at me.”

— pp. 781-782 in Outlander

I read this story long before I became Episcopalian, long before I was introduced to the practice of the Watch. So when I first learned that I, too, could participate in this ancient meditation, I was thrilled. And so each Maundy Thursday, I take some time to sit, and to look at Him. And every Maundy Thursday, He looks at me.

It is a powerful thing, to be looked at by God. This Triduum, I invite you to enter into this practice of the Watch. Just sit, and simply be. Nothing is necessary. No way is the “right way” to Watch. Just look at Jesus Christ, given for you, and let Him look at you, His beloved, in return.

The Oil of Gladness

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.

See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;

before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Holy Week has begun. We have followed Jesus’s triumphal procession into the City, and we have already started to notice the ways in which Jesus portrays triumph a little … differently than secular rulers do. Jesus processes in on a humble donkey, not a magnificent warhorse. He receives palms (which indicate martyrdom) and not olive wreaths, as would Olympic victors. Every action Jesus will take this week is highly symbolic. Each day is rich and fertile with meaning, such that you can live your whole life a Christian and still discover something new about these Holy Week liturgies.

That happened to me this morning. As I read the Scriptures appointed for today (the above is a portion of the Isaiah reading), I began to be aware of the newness of what God is doing in the person of Jesus Christ. And I began to be aware of the effect of that new thing on Mary of Bethany, the woman who breaks open a jar of pure nard, worth 300 denarii, and anoints Jesus’s feet with her hair, whose story we hear in John 12. Mary of Bethany, that woman who claimed a spot at Jesus’s feet. Mary of Bethany, who refused to be shamed out of that spot by her sister or anyone else. Mary of Bethany, who gave a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages (at least one blogger estimates $20k) to worship Jesus.

Because Mary knew what had value. Not the quality of her family’s hospitality, not the observance of gender roles, not the expensive oil she owned. What Mary valued was Jesus. And Jesus returned that value. Jesus told Martha to let her stay. Jesus told Judas and the disciples to leave Mary alone, as she was the only one who had figured out that he was fixin’ to be killed by the authorities. And what I discovered for the first time today (with the help of many wise women in my social media circles) is that as Mary wiped Jesus’s feet with her hair, some of the oil she had used to anoint him got on her. As she anointed his feet, he anointed her head. Mary of Bethany, his faithful, fervent follower, now becomes his anointed servant, a precursor of the priesthood.

As a priest who is a woman, this struck me powerfully. I am well aware of the traditions that lift up Prisca and Phoebe and Chloe as leaders in the early church. I have seen photos of the Roman catacomb paintings that show women in priestly poses. While in seminary, I discovered the tradition of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the first priest, bringing forth from her body the Body and Blood of Christ before any priest did so in the Eucharist. But Jesus anointing this woman, in the last week of his life, hit me hard. God is doing a new thing, indeed.

What new thing have you discovered God doing this Holy Week?