Monday, July 21, 2008

'I Love Lucy', Redemption, and the Laughter of Recognition

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Being now of an "older generation," my knowledge and appreciation of certain aspects of popular American culture will appear dated, if not archaic. My immediate interest in this meditation is television, so to demonstrate the gap that separates me from a "younger generation" of viewers, I could begin by saying that I have never watched a complete episode of "Seinfeld," "Cheers," or "Will and Grace" - to give a few examples of household names that elude me in terms of any real familiarity. As terrible - if not inconceivable - as this may sound to some, I could never work up the necessary interest level in any of those shows. Even my pastoral instinct of having some knowledge of what was attracting the "average American" could not help me shake off my complacency. My era was the late 50's to the mid or late 60's. I could probably hold my own in firing off the name of show after show, including who starred in each one. And I could get downright nostalgic in the process.

This short preface is meant to introduce a discussion of a series of reruns that I have recently watched of what I would consider the best comedy show of this bygone era: "I Love Lucy." I am sure that for some of you reading this, an immediate smile of recognition and a shared experience of laughter and delight just passed over your faces. With a blank stare, others may acknowledge never having heard of it; to a faint recognition of the name; or to the same indifference that I mentioned above for the recent blockbusters of television history. Or perhaps your own nostalgic parents have introduced you to the zany world of Lucille Ball and her comic genius. Be that as it may, I recently watched a few old reruns with a combination of nostalgia, the sheer enjoyment of a good laugh, and a bit of observation and analysis.

Within what was less than thirty minutes per episode, the title character "Lucy" (played by the inimitable Lucille Ball) always managed to create for herself a dilemma that was humanly speaking almost impossible to resolve in a satisfactory manner. These dilemmas always occurred within the context of her relationship with her Cuban-born and somewhat temperamental husband, Ricky Ricardo, and their two good friends Ethel and Fred Mertz. The setting was their modest New York apartment, or Rickey's nightclub where he performed as a singer and dancer. These self-generated dilemmas - for it was clear that there was no one else to blame - were the result of Lucy's curiosity, ambition, stubbornness, competitiveness, or the age-long "battle of the sexes" that she and her husband Rickey were always engaged in. (Upon a close viewing, you will detect some clearly "proto-feminine" elements at times, though the "sexism" of the 50's can be pretty heavy: "Lucy, stop bothering me, and go into the kitchen and wash the dishes!") In the end, each episode climaxes with an unrealistic but hilarious failure of an attempt on Lucy's part to satisfy the flawed elements of her personality mentioned above. Forced in the end by her ambitious plans to don outrageous disguises, perform impossible feats of dexterity of which she was incapable, or dissimulate to a highly unethical degree, Lucy's Pandora-like curiosity would lead to a collapse that was quickly forgiven by her husband and friends because she is basically good-hearted and lovable. This was the brief lull in between dilemmas that restored a semblance of sanity and stability to their domestic equilibrium and that made the marriage possible to continue. In "real life," of course, such a relationship would have ended in either a bitter divorce - or an act of domestic violence.

This comic treatment in the form of exaggerated dilemmas based on human foibles could be seen as an effective inversion - if not subversion - of the primary theme of all good drama and tragedy: the human dilemma or human condition. The reality of the human condition has been endlessly explored, and powerfully presented to our gaze by all of the world's great artists, in the genres of literature, music, painting, and now film. The era could be that of the Greek tragedians or today's postmodernism. The human condition is the subject of philosophical speculation, psychological analysis and theological reflection. Ultimately, it is a matter of observation and experience: you just have to be alive to know all about it! The dramatic and tragic dilemmas caused by what is referred to as the human condition are basically summed up in the fact that we are, as human beings, flawed and finite. As flawed beings, we have the capacity to ruin our lives, and the lives of others; and as finite beings, we know that our lives will end in death. This is the source of a great deal of anguish and anxiety, powerful dissatisfaction, and a restless search for stability and meaning in life. This is a universal and shared experience that no human being is spared from. Response to the human dilemma can embrace stoic resignation, or a wistful recognition of the absurdity of life. It leads to an endless series of dilemmas that challenge our capacity for virtue, or tempt our capacity for vice. Thus, life is filled with both extraordinary acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, but also unwanted drama and tragedy.

The Apostle Paul sums up the universality of the human condition by revealing: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (ROM. 3:23) To be "flawed," then, is to be sinful; or to be under the power of sin. This implies that the human dilemma of being flawed and finite is an abnormal condition, the result of the parasitic entry into life of sin and death. According to the story of Adam and Eve, these twin horrors are self-inflicted, and providentially "allowed" by God. Human beings are fallen and fractured. Thrust into a world dominated by sin and death, we are in a constant struggle to protect our "self" but at the expense of the "other." It all seems inevitable. St. Paul further elaborates on the unintentional results of our twisted desires and motives: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (ROM. 7:15, 19-20, 24) This is the dilemma of human existence. For the Apostle Paul, this dilemma was "resolved" through the coming of Christ: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (ROM. 7:25)

According to St. Athanasius the Great (+373), the Incarnation of the Word of God as Jesus of Nazareth was not only God's response to the dilemma of human existence; but also God's response to the divine dilemma. In his great treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius posed the divine dilemma with precision and power:

Man, who was created in God's image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.... As then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely, it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. (On the Incarnation, 6)

Since God is not indifferent to His creatures, God acted to liberate us from the "wages of sin," which is death itself, when "the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world." In responding to the divine dilemma, God freed us from the human dilemma that we were - and are - powerless to resolve on our own. Though without sin, the Word of God voluntarily entered into the abyss created by the human condition:

Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire. (On the Incarnation, 8)

Admittedly, there is quite a gap between "I Love Lucy" and On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius! And it may be rather doubtful that I closed that gap in a convincing manner. But when we are laughing at what is, essentially, something created to entertain us, we can still detect there a presentation of the human condition with all of its "dysfunction:" weakness, fears, anxieties, vanity and pride. We laugh the laughter of recognition. This, in turn, relieves some of the ongoing tensions of life. Comedy holds up a mirror to human foolishness and weakness. When no real harm is done, we can laugh at that foolishness and learn to laugh at our own pretensions in the process. Ultimately, though, we need to get real "serious" about the human dilemma/condition. Our liberation from its misery has already been accomplished in the Death and Resurrection of our Savior. We now need to be living icons of that liberation in our manner of life, the decisions we make and the relationships we are blessed to be in with others. And thereby, to cry out from the depths of our heart together with the Apostle Paul: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Fr. Steven

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