Letters from Prison, XII: My Life Is Hidden with Christ in God Something More
For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. —Colossians 3:3
The Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is about life in the federal penitentiary for women at Danbury, Connecticut. In an early episode, Warden Caputo, callous from years of experience with hardened criminals, criticizes Officer Fisher, a rookie prison guard. He says to her, “Fisher, you can’t go easy on these inmates. They will take advantage of you. Fisher, you have to maintain your authority. Don’t call them by name. Just say ‘Inmate,’ as if they’re all the same to you. It reminds them that they’re not really people.”
Young Officer Fisher looks puzzled. “They ARE people,” she says. The Warden says, “You can’t think that way. They’re sheep. We feed them. We herd them from one room to the next. They’re not like you and me.”
That little exchange between Warden Caputo and Officer Fisher could serve as the terse précis for the entire series: Prison is designed to annihilate the inmate’s humanity. Everyone is a number, not a name. Shapeless, monotonous uniforms of glaring orange eliminate all style and individuality. Bars and cinder blocks constrict your existence to a pinched and narrow space. There is nothing beautiful to look at. You are completely, absolutely dependent upon the correctional system for your survival.
Prison means trampled dignity, erased humanity, demeaning powerlessness, and nerve-wracking vulnerabilities. You’re shocked if anyone treats you like a human being in such a place.
On Easter Sunday after one of these Letters from Prison sermons, someone wanted to tell me a story from 25 years ago. Back then, he’d been a young reporter for a newspaper—he didn’t even tell me which newspaper he was working for—and on Easter Sunday, his assignment was to be part of a large team of journalists who would collectively write a feature story about how Illinoisans celebrated Easter that year.
My new friend’s particular assignment was to go to a state prison somewhere in Illinois where Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, would be celebrating mass with the prisoners.
So most of the men in the prison are assembled in the Chapel when the Cardinal arrives and he enters with a flourish amidst an impressive entourage of paparazzi and deacons and vergers, resplendent in his scarlet robes and his huge, gem-studded pectoral cross and his cocky little red biretta perched on his brow, and when the men see his flashy vestments, several burst into tears, because it dawns on them that Cardinal Bernardin intends to show them the same respect at this Eucharistic table behind bars as he would if he were celebrating Mass with the Chicago aristocracy in the gothic glory of Holy Name Cathedral.
One inmate said, “I thought he’d show up in a clerical collar with a plastic chalice borrowed from the kitchen, like the rest of them do. When he came dressed as the Vicar of Christ, it was as if Jesus himself had shown up.”
So that’s the environment Paul is living in when he writes his Epistle to the Church at Colossae. Think of the kind of folk Paul was surrounded with when he writes to the Colossians; think of Paul’s cell mates. These are people who have made a mess of their lives. These are people whose lives have gone off the rails and become a pile of twisted metal and broken glass and jagged edges.
The people Paul was living with in that Roman prison were people of trampled dignity, erased humanity, demeaning helplessness, and nerve-wracking vulnerability. They all needed a second chance. They all needed someone—God, a judge, a friend—to see the latent humanity beneath the wreck they had made of their lives.
And so to the Colossians, Paul talks about another chance; Paul talks about a do-over; Paul talks about dying to an old way of life and rising again to pristine newness. “So, if you have been raised with Christ,” writes St. Paul to the Colossians, “If you have been raised with Christ…set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
At first reading; Paul’s images are a little opaque. What’s with all this talk about dying and rising with Christ and having our lives hidden with Christ in God?
Well, the craftier Bible students among you will recognize that baptismal imagery for what it is. Paul is alluding obliquely to the Colossians’ experience of baptism, which meant a dying to an old self and a rising to newness of life in Christ.
I love the way we celebrate baptism here. I love the beautiful, innocent babies and the beaming parents and the photo-snapping grandparents and the welcoming congregation, but to be honest about it, the way we celebrate baptism here disguises its original symbolism. It used to be the case, and in many corners of Christendom this is still true, that baptizands were not sprinkled, they were dunked. Not a handful of water on the forehead, but full bodily immersion, like Jesus in the River Jordan.
One Sunday morning when I was not on duty here, I took my wife to a worship service at Willow Creek Church in South Barrington to see what the competition was up to, and if you’ve been there, you know that the music is different, the preaching is different, the space is different, and the sacrament of baptism is really, really different.
When it was time for the sacrament, a large, transparent tank the size of a small swimming pool with glass sides appeared, as if from nowhere, in the middle of the chancel, or the dais, or the stage, whatever you want to call it—I have no idea where it came from—and then 120 mostly young people dressed identically in Jesus T-shirts and jeans stepped down into the pool and were dunked completely under the water by worship assistants.
It was kind of beautiful, but also there was a kind of mild violence to it. There’s a brief moment when you say to yourself, “Oh, that person is underwater; she can’t breathe.” But then of course she breaks the surface again soaking wet and laughing and joyful, and it’s a little death and a little resurrection.
So the going under means the dying of an old self, and the coming back up through the surface means a resurrection to a new life in Jesus. There is a harrowing beauty to the sacrament when it is celebrated that way.
And that’s what Paul, surrounded by people who have crashed their lives, people who need a second chance, people who need to start over, writes to his friends in Colossae. “You have died,” he says, “and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
I love that line: My life is hidden with Christ in God. That is to say, when God looks for me, all God sees is Christ. John Calvin used to say that when we stand before God, God can no longer see us as we are, but only clothed in the righteousness of Christ himself. There we stand before God in the tattered rags of our mistakes and our dissembling and our rampant self-regard and our carelessness and our unkindnesses, there we stand dressed in rags, and all God sees is the resplendence of Jesus Christ the Righteous, there we stand in the sartorial splendor of the Cardinal’s flowing scarlet robe and his gleaming pectoral cross and his cocky little biretta perched on his forehead.
So Paul’s message is for anyone who has made a mess of things and needs a do-over. Good news: Your life is hidden with Christ in God. When God tries to find you, all God sees is Jesus Christ the Righteous.
One last thing and then I’ll quit. Everybody knows what’s special about this coming Saturday, right, April 23, 2016? It’s the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. That’s why the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera and Chicago Shakespeare Theater are doing all these wonderful performances this year. Everybody knows that.
But did you know that Miguel de Cervantes also died in 1616, within days of Shakespeare, perhaps on April 22? It’s the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death too.
OK, maybe not as big a deal as Shakespeare for English speakers like us. On the other hand, by common consent his magnum opus Don Quixote is on every list of the greatest books ever written, probably Top Ten of All Time.
Some scholars call Don Quixote the Mother of the Modern Novel. The modern Spanish language owes so much to Miguel de Cervantes that Spanish is sometimes called la lengua de Cervantes—the language of Cervantes. Sigmund Freud learned Spanish just so he could read Don Quixote. Cervantes is to Spanish what Shakespeare is to English, and they died within days of each other, 400 years ago this week.
Cervantes was a soldier in the Spanish Army, and as a young man, he was abducted by Barbary Coast pirates and spent five years as a slave in Algiers before his parents ransomed him and he came home. The idea for Don Quixote came to Cervantes while he was in captivity, so Don Quixote too is a letter from prison.
It’s about a crazy old gentleman on the wrong side of 50 who reads so many romance novels that it fries his brain, and he fancies himself a Knight Errant whose mission it is to right all the wrongs in the world.
And famously, in the course of his adventures, he tilts at windmills, thinking them to be giants; and pursues a barber’s washbasin as if it were the holy grail itself, the Golden Helmet of Mambrino. He mistakes a shabby tavern for an imposing castle, where he meets…His Lady, the most beautiful creature in the world.
And this is the zenith of Quixote’s delusion, because in reality his lady is a kitchen maid named Aldonza, one of the ugliest names in literature. She carries a dirty washrag wherever she goes, and wears the peasant dress of the poor; her face and arms are always covered with a thin film of sweat and grime. Not to put too fine a point on it, she is a slut. Her words, not mine.
My first encounter with Don Quixote was through Dale Wasserman’s retelling of the story in the 1965 play Man of La Mancha. Do you know it? “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe.”
It was 30 years ago. I was 20-something, a rookie minister, serving my first church outside Philadelphia. A member of my youth group was playing Aldonza in her high school’s production of Man of La Mancha. She was 16, a junior in high school, so talented, just loved the spotlight; she’d been in my confirmation class three years earlier when she was 13.
So Kathy and I just had to see our friend Wendy as Aldonza. We went. If you know the play, you know that there is a brutal and vivid rape scene; the director had very artfully toned down the graphic violence of the original for a high school cast, but there was still some modest bodice-ripping, and we squirmed in our seats to see these high school boys playing tavern ne’er-do-wells pawing at our 16-year-old friend. We couldn’t watch; it was just like when we went to see Jaws for the first time; we had to cover our eyes.
It was a high school play, with modest staging and costumes and average voices and high school production values, but it was the most stunning experience I’ve ever had at the theater. No, it wasn’t even a theatrical experience; it was more like a religious experience. By the end of the evening, I was just completely drained. My wife was embarrassed for me, I was such a wreck.
Because you see, I’m a preacher, and I am always on the hunt for Gospel-shaped stories, and Man of La Mancha is one of the finest parables about God’s grace I know anything about.
So, you know how the delusional Quixote wanders into this shabby tavern and thinks it’s an imposing castle. He takes one look at the kitchen maid Aldonza, and he is utterly smitten. He is so overcome; he cannot look at her further. He says, “Sweet lady, fair virgin, I dare not gaze full upon thy countenance lest I be blinded by beauty.” Quixote talks like that because he’s read too many bad romance novels.
She thinks he is a madman, and of course he is. Quixote asks her name. She tells him, “Aldonza!” She practically spits it out. Quixote says, “Surely thou jest, my Lady. From now on, your name shall be Dulcinea.” Phonetically, Dulcinea is the opposite of Aldonza. Dulcinea is as mellifluous as one of Vivaldi’s dulcet harpsichord tunes. Quixote sings:
I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea,
Thy name like a prayer an angel whispers.
Now I’ve found thee
and the world shall know thy glory.
She finds him delusional and contemptible.
I am not your lady.
I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me
there naked and cold and too hungry to cry.
I never blamed her;
I’m sure she left me there
hoping I’d have the good sense to die.
So of course I became as befitted my delicate birth–
the most casual bride
of the mangiest scum of the earth.
But Quixote still says,
And still thou art my lady.
How shall I be a lady?
Won’t you look at me, look at me,
God! won’t you look at me.
Look at the kitchen slut reeking of sweat.
Born on a dung heap to die on dung heap,
a strumpet men use and forget…
Take the clouds from your eyes
and just once see me as I really am.
I am only Aldonza. I’m no one. I’m nothing at all.
And still he says,
Now and forevermore, thou art my lady, Dulcinea.
By the end of the story, of course, Aldonza finally surrenders to Quixote’s relentless delusions and lives up to and into her new name. She becomes, in truth, and for all time, Dulcinea, loved and lovely in every way.
And I guess I was so moved by the story because it was just a retelling of the Gospel story. It’s for everyone who’s made a wreck of life and needs a new start. It’s about God’s deluded and relentless love for us. There we stand in the rags of our errant humanity, and all God sees is the splendid raiment of Jesus Christ the Righteous. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, and this is such great glad Good News, because greatly loved, we can greatly love, and greatly live.