Life on Mars? (Part Two)

mars2“Is there life on Mars?”, asks the late David Bowie. Bowie’s question isn’t about the prospects of extraterrestrial life on the fourth planet from the sun. Bowie’s question can be rephrased in this way: “Is there rational, meaningful life on Earth?” Many of Bowie’s songs were about those who were misfits, the disaffected, and the lonely, wandering outcasts of the greater, “normal” society around them. We have this before us in the first verse of “Life on Mars?”, 

It’s a god-awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair,
But her mummy is yelling, “No!” And her daddy has told her to go.
But her friend is nowhere to be seen.
Now she walks through her sunken dream to the seat with the clearest view.
And she’s hooked to the silver screen.
But the film is a saddening bore, for she’s lived it ten times or more.
She could spit in the eyes of fools as they ask her to focus on
Sailors fighting in the dance hall. Oh man!

Embed from Getty Images

“Life on Mars?” observes the absurdities of contemporary life. So, the song’s question, “Is there life on Mars?”, is asked in hope that the Red Planet will provide an alternative to the confusion found on earth where no home can be found.

Those who are “normal” find the “aliens” and their behaviors to be odd, unnerving, and unwelcome. We see both imposed exile, and self-imposed exile of the “alien” all around us. In either case, the black sheep leaves for the company of fellow black sheep.

In the Gospels we read of Jesus seeking out the lost sheep, the outcasts of ancient Palestinian, Jewish society. He calls the loathed tax collector. He allows the despised harlot to come to him to bathe his feet with her tears. He heals the feared lepers and restores them to family and community. Jesus had harsh words for the religious leaders who keep the lost sheep lost, and to the hypocrite who can only pretend to be holy and pure.

St. Peter reminds his flock of this fact, “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles…” (1 Peter 2: 11). His statement instructs us that Christians are among the ranks of outcasts and the disaffected of the world system around them. This fact holds up both in the ancient roman world, and our own post-modern, anti-Christian, and highly secular western culture.

Reminding ourselves of our status as aliens and exiles, we come together in a new community and culture: the Church. The Church in her liturgies gathers together around Christ who is present in her midst. In turn, the Church is to extend the life and light of Christ to those who seek belonging and relationship in its company, community, and culture. Thus, the community and the culture of the Church (the community and culture of aliens and exiles) is to offer a profound alternative to the “normal” world system.

Given this, I think it is in quite good order to no longer think of conversion simply as an intellectual assent to a set of religious/faith propositions (I do NOT deny the importance of creed and dogma). Rather, in this twenty-first century, conversion needs to be viewed as movement into a new culture. One converts to a radically different culture with its own unique ways, ethics, expectations, and cosmology.

Jesus Christ is the source of this culture. The culture is founded by a Person with whom we have a relationship. This relationship is nurtured, but not exclusively, by the cultus of her liturgies, Scriptures, prayers, and hymns. Within this cultus we find and form our identity as a people. Here we have our (here’s a dangerous word) mythology — our reason for being. (Mythology is not the same as a fairy tale’s make believe. Mythology tells a people who they are, and their source and purpose for existence.)

To speak to the person who is experiencing life in the “normal” culture as alien and exile, I offer the “mythology” of the Church in terms of Recapitulation. Recapitulation is a theology of atonement. It is summarized briefly in this way. In the Fall of humanity all is scattered abroad from the Garden by the rebellion of humanity. All is lost. All is in darkness. All is in sin, alienation, and death. All is prey for the Serpent. But with the Incarnation, God the Son (God the Word) becomes fully human: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1: 14). God enters fully into our condition to liberate us and redeem us to himself. St. Paul writes of Recapitulation in Ephesians 1: 7 – 10:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

The key phrase that holds out for us this Gospel message is highlighted above: to gather up all things in him.  The key word is the Greek word anakephalaiosasthai, “to bring everything together in terms of some unifying principle or person.”[1] As all was lost, scattered, and alienated by Adam, all, including today’s disaffected, are reclaimed by Jesus Christ. In Christ, and in his Church, the disaffected, the outcast, and the alien all have relationship, belonging, and community.

The Church has put forward such a welcome in the past throughout the world, and even in our present age. But not always. Does the struggling outcast and alien who is struggling hear such a welcoming invitation? Or, is exclusion and judgment the only message heard?

What should the Church’s attitude be to faithfully articulate the message of welcome and inclusion to the outsider without compromise? The Scriptures give us the answer. We read of Jesus’ words to those who presented an adulterous woman to him, and then to her:

Now the Scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery and stood her in their midst. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery! Now, the law of Moses commands that such as these are to be stoned. Therefore, what do you say?” They said this testing him, in order that they might bring charges against him. But Jesus bent down to write with his finger in the dirt. And while they were continuing to question him, he stood up and said to them, “The one of you without sin, let him throw the first stone at her!” And again he bent down to write in the dirt. But after hearing this, beginning with the eldest, they began to leave, one by one. Then Jesus was alone with the woman before him. “Woman, where are they? No one condemns you?” And she said, “No one, Lord.” Then Jesus said, “Nor do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more” (John 8: 3 – 11).

adultrouswomanThe only sinless one — the only one who could pick up a stone and throw it — shows mercy and gives her another chance with that one certain qualifier: “Go, and sin no more.”

Yes, the alien, and the disaffected are to be welcomed. But there is the understanding that change is required — a change to correspond to the personal, relational union with Christ, and to the culture of his Church. Thus, the world is NOT to dictate their terms to Christ’s Church, just as a high school French student isn’t to dictate to a Parisian how to speak French. No, the Parisian instructs the student how to speak French while in Paris!

Is there life on Mars? If the Church is filled with “martians” (aliens to the world), then, “Yes!” And, the welcome of a “martian” priest is extended to all wandering “martians.”

In conclusion, I’ll bring us full circle with one last mention of the “The Thin White Duke”. Here is a video of a live performance of David Bowie singing, “Life on Mars?”

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus

[1] Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Johannes P. Lowe and Eugene Nida eds., vol 1 “Introduction and Domains,” (New York:  United Bible Societies, 1988, 1989), 614.

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