[Homily: Baptism of the Lord, Jan 12-13, 2012)
There is a wonderful movie that is currently showing in our theaters. Its title is, “The Life of Pi,” starring Suraj Karma and directed by Ang Lee, the genius behind the very successful Chinese Film, “Crouching Tiger.” Even if you go to this movie – already nominated for Academy Awards – for its sheer cinematographic spectacle, its breathtaking photography of wildlife and nature, its genial combination of human acting and state-of-the-art animation, your time and your money shall have been well spent.
But there are depths to this film that you may also wish to explore: it may be appreciated as a dialogue – or, if you will, as a confrontation – between realism and fantasy, or between the profane and the sacred, or between reason and religion, or between sober prose and awesome poetry, or between human survival and natural destructiveness, or between the callous caprice of chance and the gentle compassion of divine Providence. The film is based on a book with the same title by Yann Martel in which this dialogue or confrontation is intended, and whose reader is left with a difficult choice: both/and? Or: either/or?
I cannot now recall the exact words of how the movie begins: “This is a story which will convince you of the existence of God.” But it is a story which itself provides an alternative to belief. It is a story about a boy named Piscine Patek after a French swimming pool, “The Piscine Molitor,” who, fed up with the taunting of his classmates, who bullied him with the name, “Pissing Patek, changed his name to the mathematical constant, “pi,” that is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. As a youth of 12 years, Pi could not see any contradiction between being raised Hindu and practicing Catholicism and Islam at the same time. “I only want to love God” he said. After his parents decide to emigrate from India to Canada with their entire zoo, the boat they were on sails into a perfect killer storm, which shipwrecks the boat, killing all the humans and animals on the boat – except for Pi and his unlikely companions. He has survived only because of a reckless fascination with the flashing lightning and roaring thunder that called him forth from the warmth of his bedroom to the cold and wet deck of a floundering ship, buffeted, then overcome, by mighty winds and waves. He ends up on a lifeboat accompanied by a wounded zebra, a grieving orangutan, a ravenous spotted hyena and a Bengali tiger named “Mr. Parker.” What happens on that boat you will have to see for yourself, if you see the movie.
Allow me merely to say that survival over 227 tortuous days was possible only because of a series of “manifestations” that for Yann Martel convinced him of the existence of God. After reading the book, Barack Obama, now the President of the United States, wrote Martel to say that The Life of Pi is “an elegant proof of God and the power of storytelling” (Wikipedia, “Life of Pi”). Those of you who in this university have gone through classes in Philosophy of Religion or in Fundamental Theology know the difficulties in “proving” the existence of God. God “proves” that he is around not by a logical syllogism similar to Anselm’s, “God is that than which none greater can be conceived. An existing God is greater than a non-existing God. Therefore, God exists!” but simply by “being present”, “being around”, intervening in life’s events, being – as we’ve celebrated throughout the whole Christmas season – “Emmanuel” – God with us. The Christmas season, which we end this day, celebrates God’s self manifestations to us: In Gabriel’s announcement of the Child, in John leaping in his mother’s womb at the approach of Jesus still in Mary’s womb, in the birth of the Child one silent night amidst shepherds and angels, in his manifestation to wise men coming from non-Jewish peoples, who recognized his kingship, his divinity, and his humanity, in his persecution by Herod even as an infant, in his quiet growth in wisdom age and grace, and now, on this Sunday, in his baptism. The baptism by John was his act of solidarity with sinful humankind, but it was above all, the Father’s dramatic manifestation of who Jesus was, in the Holy Spirit visibly descending on him and in the voice from the opened heaven that declared: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” It is a manifestation that would be complemented by the theophany of the Transfiguration with its urgent injunction, “Hear him!” (Lk 9:35), which in turn prepared for the most awesome of theophanies, “Jesus, Crucified” as a manifestation of divine love.
Of course, it is possible not to see… God is a self-manifesting God in the power, mystery and otherness of nature, but also in human triumphs, human adversity, human cunning, human intelligence, human survival, and human love. Of course – but perhaps not “of course,” off course it is possible for us not to see – to reduce the majesty of divine drama to the drabness of human rationality, to convert the wonder of God’s providence to the dryness of natural fortuitousness, to truncate the sacred into the drab categories of the profane. It is possible not to see. Like the pitiful investigators who insisted that Pi tell them not his story, as he experienced it, but a story that they could finally believe. Freed of the investigators incredulity, Pi says, “So it goes with God.”
“In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh” (John, Prologue). God has been telling his story, manifesting himself, telling us of his love during this whole Christmas Season. He tells us, “This is my beloved Son, hear him ” (Lk 9:35). “Getting the story” – finding insight into the story – is not the result of lazy passivity nor of iconoclastic criticism. “Getting the story” is the gift.
We can accept the story of God’s self-manifestation in our personal lives, that only each of us can tell in awe and amazement, or we can “tell a story,” that even we do not believe, to satisfy the incredulity of the world. “So it goes with God.” Pi says. God is part of our life story in truth. Or he is not part of our “story” in untruth. Either/or.
Even though, sadly, some would prefer: Both/and.