Sunday Scriptures — Advent C 1, Nov. 29, 2015

Happy New Year! We start a new church year every First Sunday of Advent. This year is called Year C. It’s the third year of a three year cycle of Bible readings at Sunday Mass. This year, we read mostly from the Gospel according to Luke.

Advent is a season when we concentrate on the comings of Jesus into the world. There are three: his Incarnation, his coming to us by grace throughout our lives, and his return in glory at the end of time. The second is something we can experience daily and reflect on every Sunday. During Advent, we focus especially on the first and third, and today especially on the third, the glorious return at the end of time. As we get closer to Christmas, we’ll concentrate more on that first coming of Jesus into our would.

Today’s readings give us two themes: the coming of the Lord; and how we should live in expectation of that coming. Rather than look at each reading in turn, I’ll look at each them in the light of all the readings.

Our first reading — Jeremiah 33:14-16 — was written at a time when the Babylonian captivity had apparently put an end to the kingship of David’s descendants. God had promised that David’s kingdom and dynasty would last forever. Jeremiah reminds the people of the promise and says that despite all appearances, God would keep his promise. Now we know that the fulfillment of the promise is not in the form of a secular nation-state, but in a people of all nations with Jesus, a descendant of David as its eternal head. The people of Jeremiah’s time could not have imagined the transformation of God’s people into a church for all nations, but, as is often the case, God fulfills his promise in a way that exceeds all expectations.

In the same way, the church of the present age will not continue forever in its current form. St. Paul, in the second reading — 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 — speaks of the coming of Jesus with his angels as something that is a settled expectation. In the gospel — Luke 21:25-28, 34-36 — Jesus says that after cosmic upheavals, he will return in glory. The verses that are omitted between the two parts of the reading conclude with the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” So Jesus’ return will usher in a new reality.

There is a natural tendency to fear “the end of the world as we know it,” but we don’t really know what it will be like for those who are alive at the time. What Jesus tells us is that, unlike those who die of fright, we should “stand erect and raise [our] heads.” We can “escape the tribulations that are imminent.” Far from being something to fear, Jesus’ return is something to look forward to. The evils of this world will be ended.

Still, the readings make it clear clear that we need to live good lives if we are not to be afraid. God loves us. Do we love God and our fellow humans?

St. Paul prays that the Christians of Thessalonika will abound in love not only for one another but for everyone. Are there people in this world we don’t love? Obviously, we don’t know everybody in the world personally, so it’s not a question of personal affection for them. But we should want what is best for everyone, and if there are individuals or groups of people upon whom we wish evil, we have a problem. What about terrorists or abusers, for example? It’s all too human to want them to have their comeuppance, to suffer as they deserve. But Paul prays that our love will abound not only for one another but for all. That doesn’t mean that we have to like them or excuse what they have done. It does mean that we should want them to repent and stop doing evil and be saved, because that’s what’s good for them as well as those around them. For Jesus’ return, we should be blameless in holiness, which means constantly increasing in conduct which pleases God, as the apostles have taught us.

Jesus also warns us against letting our hearts become “drowsy.” We can turn away from Jesus if we become immersed in a life of drunkenness: we can become self-centered, anesthetizing ourselves to the realities of life. In the parable of the sower, some seed is choked by weeds and brambles and bears no fruit. Here Jesus tells us not to be like that, not to let concern for passing things to keep us from living lives of fruitful love for others.

All of this should be encouraging for us. Hopefully we are focused on Jesus and our hearts are not drowsy. So we need not be terrified at the thought of Jesus returning. We need not be terrified at all the tribulation we see in the world. The promise of Jesus’ return with which this new year begins encourages us to continue to grow in the Christian way of life that we have been taught. The prayer Jesus tells us to make for strength to escape the tribulations and to stand before him is a prayer for an increase of love and for growth in a way of life consistent with what we have been taught. Surely, God will show us what is needed for that growth and strengthen us to do it if we ask.

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Playing the Trump Card: The Candidacy

If the current state of politics in the U.S. facilitates a candidacy like Donald Trump’s, that does not explain his popularity. It may be worth noting that although he leads in most polls at this time, he is not the first choice of a majority, and it is possible that he is not the second, third, or fourth choice of enough for him to actually get the Republican nomination. Still, at this point it seems entirely possible that he will be nominated. So why is he as popular as he is?

I think the answer is desperation. For decades the federal government has imposed rules and policies which were against the will of a large portion, in many cases a majority, of the American people — from abortion on demand to same sex marriage (with small business owners being persecuted by vindictive and intolerant same sex couples). Small businesses and local governments chafe under the requirements of the federal bureaucracy. The federal government seeks to control local education. Fishermen are put out of business. The provision of health care has been federalized. It seems that the constitutional principles of limited government and enumerated powers are completely disregarded. Various segments of society have various complaints. The “wars” on drugs and crime have visibly failed. Meanwhile, in areas which are truly its responsibility, such as immigration policy, properly funding Social Security, and foreign policy, the federal government cannot or does not act effectively.

For decades, Republicans have nominated mostly center-right (“moderate”) candidates for President. Whether they won or lost, whether Republicans controlled any houses of Congress, the federal juggernaut rolled on, and the festering problems continued to fester. Meanwhile, the mantra of the populist Democrats, that the plutocrats control the government has begun to ring true. The result is that large numbers of people are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” It is ironic that they are supporting one of the plutocrats, one whose credentials as a Republican — much less a conservative — are highly questionable, but they have given up on government as usual, and he seems the candidate most likely to put an end to government as usual. The issues on which he is most vociferous, immigration and terrorism, are ones where his simplistic positions are just what many Republicans want to hear, and that’s sufficient to attenuate any interest in other areas.

Intransigence and extreme partisanship, it seems to me, have been largely responsible for creating the conditions which make Donald Trump’s candidacy popular with so many. Republicans and Democrats alike have been more interested in wining the next election than anything else. They have demonized presidents of the other party; they have routinely refused to seek consensus, preferring to try to make the other party appear extreme. In other words, his candidacy is the result of the actions of those in power. Paradoxically, the Tea Partiers are opposed to compromise and accuse other Republicans of being RINO’s, but if the partisan gridlock had been broken and compromise reached on a number of real problems, the Tea Party might not have been as popular, and Trump might not have emerged as their favorite.. Goldwater and Reagan were nominated because a majority of the party didn’t want “more of the same.” Trump’s supporters are similarly unwilling to have more of the same in Washington.

Will it be possible to stop Donald Trump? If Republicans who support other candidates don’t regard him as their second or third choice; if other candidates don’t drop out too soon; if Trump supporters begin to realize that his rhetoric is empty and simplistic, maybe he’ll be stopped. But if several second-tier candidates drop out and a high percentage of their followers go to Trump, there could be a bandwagon effect. Let’s hope his supporters become disillusioned before he swamps his opposition and becomes inevitable.

Playing the Trump Card: The State of Politics

I recall two landslide losses by presidential candidates: Barry Goldwater’s loss to Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon. In both cases, the loser in the general election had ridden a wave of grassroots support to win his party’s nomination over an “Establishment” candidate. While we don’t know if Rockefeller could have beat Johnson, or Humphrey beat Nixon, the result almost certainly would have been much closer.

Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, has written a fairly perceptive piece on the possibility of Donald Trump’s becoming the Republican nominee in 2016. He points out that party organizations now have little say in who gets nominated and that the media no longer enjoy the respect which once made them effective when they pointed out the flaws and falsehoods of candidates. He notes, “A growing number of Americans have become convinced the entire system is rigged – including the major parties, the media, and anyone honored by the establishment.” The result is that “now it’s just the candidates and the public, without anything in between.” There is no need to advance reasoned, thoughtful proposals. Demagogic sound bites seem to be enough to get the publicity that will translate into votes from the like-minded.

None of this happened overnight. It has developed slowly over decades.

At one time there was more variety in the ways convention delegates were selected. Some states had primaries, which might or might not bind delegates to vote for the voter-preferred candidate. Others had state conventions to select national convention delegates. Those who attended the conventions were often the self-nominated local party committee members. The process wasn’t always winner-take-all: states might send delegations that were divided among the candidates they favored. Thus the system gave party officials a considerable amount of power over the result.

Primaries are now much more widespread as a result, it seems to me, of a movement, largely supported by the left wing, for what they conceived as greater democracy. Ironically, it is the party officials who are more concerned with winning elections than ideological purity — whereas ordinary voters tend to care more about a candidate’s ideology than his electability — and in that way, they actually promote the democracy of offering candidates with the broadest possible appeal to the electorate as a whole.

Another change has been the way the public understands the campaigns and the conventions. When I was a boy, it was clearly understood that the national conventions were where the party’s nominee would be chosen and that the purpose of the preceding campaigns was to amass as many convention delegates as possible. But, except when the party had an incumbent president who was running for reelection, there was no expectation that any candidate would arrive at the convention with enough delegates to secure the nomination. There would be negotiations in “smoke-filled rooms” as campaign managers attempted to gain the support of enough other candidates to gain the nomination. Now, the clear expectation is that well before the convention happens one candidate will have the votes necessary to be nominated. This shift has been promoted by the media’s focus on polling results and corresponding neglect of delegate counts. The result is that having a lead in the polls is seen as a sign of the inevitability of a candidate’s nomination. There is also a certain “bandwagon effect,” with people abandoning possible “kingmakers,” in order to go with a winner. Nowadays candidates tend drop out even if there is still a possibility that they could be part of a coalition that could stop a front-runner.

The media’s loss of influence is much less complex. There is a difference between honest reporting on a candidate’s positions and “attack journalism.” It seems that with Watergate, the media’s understanding of their job went from factual reporting to bringing down the “bad guys” by finding and printing whatever negative things they could find about those “bad guys.” As it became increasingly clear to the public that the media were taking sides, of course they lost the respect they had when they were thought to be disinterested reporters, presenting facts with no attempt to slant the reporting.

What this all adds up to, as I see it, is that changing mechanisms for selecting convention delegates and a changing media approach to journalism — both of which I’d guess Secretary Reich liked — have, along with changing public attitudes toward the process (fostered by the media), led to the situation we now have where Donald Trump, because he leads in the polls, is considered a likely nominee for President. As I’ve noted, insurgencies have succeeded before, generally with unfortunate results for the party in question, but it seems easier to mount one now.

One final note: the “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party regularly excoriates more moderate Republicans and those who are willing to make compromises to get desirable legislation as RINO’s: Republicans In Name Only. In doing so they falsely claim that only their ideology exists within the Republican Party, and they ignore the fact that the purpose of parties is to win elections, not to be ideologically pure. To win elections, it is often necessary to create broad coalitions of people who are not like-minded on all issues. To place ideological purity ahead of electoral success is truly to be a RINO, so it is these rule-or-ruin Tea Partiers, not the ones they accuse, who deserve the label.

Still to come: some thoughts on why Donald Trump’s candidacy has gained so much support, despite his lack of the normal qualifications for the presidency.

Sunday Scriptures — Christ the King, Nov. 22, 2015

In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King as a response to the secularism which had pervaded culture, and had in some places become actual hostility and persecution. The full name of the Solemnity is “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” When I started going to interfaith Seders, I learned that the Jewish prayer of blessing includes a phrase, melech ha olam, which literally means King of the universe. While the title of the feast was probably not chosen for that reason,* it does show a commonality in our understanding of God.

In the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II, it was moved from the last Sunday of October to the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, and no other Mass was given for the 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In other words, unlike All Saints Day, which this year happened to fall on the 30th Sunday and replaced the usual Mass for that day, today’s feast — including the readings — does not displace any others which might normally occur on this Sunday.

 

The first two readings — Daniel 7:13-14 and Revelation 1:5-8 — give us similar apocalyptic imagery of one who comes on the clouds of heaven. We identify Daniel’s “one like a Son of man” with Jesus. Originally, the author may have understood him as a personification of the people of Israel, rescued from persecution. He is depicted as entering the presence of the Father and receiving a worldwide and everlasting kingship. Applying it to Jesus, we can think of this as happening preeminently after his sufferings and resurrection, at his Ascension. Revelation presents Jesus as returning at the end of time in the glory the Father gave him. Both readings tell us that Jesus, the Son of man, is to be acknowledged by all nations, superior to all earthly kings. Revelation adds that he is our redeemer and is almighty. His people are God’s kingdom and his priests.

The responsorial psalm — Ps. 93:1-2, 5 — is our acknowledgment of the Lord’s eternal kingship.

 

The gospel — John 18:33b-37 — is part of the Passion narrative which we hear on Good Friday. This excerpt clarifies for us the true meaning of Christ’s kingship. Clearly the cosmic kingship of which we hear in the first two readings has not been activated in history, and we do not know what a videocamera would show when that full realization occurs at the end of time. In the gospel, the universal king stands before a provincial governor to be judged. His kingdom does not belong to this world. His kingdom has to do with bearing witness to the truth.

What is the truth to which he bears witness? Well,  it is the entirety of God’s revelation to humanity. Above all, perhaps we can say, it is the truth that God loves each and every one of us. The context of this dialogue with Pilate reminds us that Jesus’ kingship is based on his dying on the cross. It was on the cross, as we hear on this feast in Year C, that he promised paradise to the criminal who asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. His death on the cross is the supreme witness to the truth of God’s love.

 

But if it is true that Jesus does not have the obedience of all political authorities, if his kingship is not acknowledged by all nations, that does not mean that his people are indifferent to the world and the doings of rulers. We are also anointed at our baptism to share in his kingship. This does not require us to hold public office. But when we act as members of God’s people, when we behave as Jesus would, as he would have us behave (which encompasses the whole of morality, summed up in the law of love of God and neighbor), when we do this in all situations of our lives, home and family, work, neighborhood, community, citizenship (including voting), we have an effect on the world; we make it more the kind of place God wants it it be, and in that way, subject to the rule of the king of the universe.

 

* On the other hand, in the post-Vatican liturgical revisions, the beginning of the prayers for offering the bread and the wine, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe,” seems to have been intended as a direct translation of “Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha olam,” which would presumably have been said by Jesus at the Last Supper when he blessed the bread and again when he blessed the wine.

Sunday Scriptures — OT B 33, Nov. 15, 2015

We are approaching the end of the Church’s year and the beginning of the next one on the first Sunday of Advent: November 29 this year. Next Sunday’s gospel is taken from the Gospel of John, so today we get the final passage from the Year B Gospel, Mark, and on the 29th we will hear a passage from the Year C Gospel, Luke. Interestingly, the two readings are parallel passages, quoting Jesus’ words about the end times. Today we have arrived at the threshold of the account of  Jesus’ passion, which will be the focus of the last days of Lent, so at this point, our readings for Ordinary Time are completed. When Advent begins, we are invited to consider that there are three comings of Jesus: his Incarnation coming to fruition in his birth at Christmas, his coming to believers by grace in scripture and the sacraments, and his return in glory at the end of time. So Advent begins with a look at the end times.

Today’s first reading — Daniel 12:1-3 — was written at the time the Jewish people were being persecuted by the successors of Alexander the Great, and it encourages them to stand firm in their adherence to God. It tells of the end times, which will be the end of the persecutions. The archangel Michael will protect them. God has a book with the names of those who are loyal to him, and they will be saved. Then we come to what is most important for us: a promise of resurrection. While it is not clear that there will be a universal resurrection, there will be a resurrection, and the condition of those who are resurrected will depend on their conduct, with great glory, especially for the wise and those who lead others to righteous lives.

We reflect on God’s promise of life in verses from Psalm 15 (1, 5, 8-11).

The second reading — Hebrews 10:11-14, 18 — continues telling us about Jesus, our high priest. While other priests live in time and offer sacrifices repeatedly, Jesus’ priesthood differs from theirs in two ways. His sacrifice actually takes away sins, and he is eternal, forever at God the Father’s right hand, not limited by time. Therefore his sacrifice has eternal value, and only needs to be offered once — although that offering is, like the priest, eternal.

The gospel reading is Mark 13:24-32. Jesus has been speaking of a time of tribulation which includes elements of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But the frame now expands to a cosmic scale, with the elements of the universe destroyed. God’s people will all be gathered to him — implying the resurrection we heard of from Daniel. Jesus’ words are eternal because, as Hebrews tells us he is eternal.

While we don’t like to think about the end of the world as we know it — God created it and saw that it is very good — the message today is one of encouragement. We know that there are troubles: natural disasters, diseases, persecutions, all sorts of wrongdoing, deaths of loved ones and eventually our own. But God reassures us that these evils are not forever. Jesus will return; he will set things right; he will give us eternal life with himself. So today’s scriptures give us hope.

There was a time when images of the end of the world were used, like images of hell, to frighten people into good behavior, but that was not the concept of those who wrote the scriptures. Their hearers didn’t need to be frightened by threats of potential future sufferings, they needed the reassurance that the evils they were already suffering were not the last word. God gave that reassurance to them, and today he gives that reassurance to us in the sacrifice of Calvary and the resurrection of Jesus as the promise of our own resurrection.

Red Cups in the Sunset (or Starbucks)

The past couple of days have seen a fair amount of internet talk about Starbucks’ red cup for this year. It’s basically just a plain red cup with a Starbucks logo on the front, and the usual spaces on the back to indicate things about the contents.

Since I don’t regularly patronize Starbucks, I hadn’t been aware that they’ve traditionally had a red cup. But it seems many people are frankly incensed because in prior years the cups had a seasonal design, and they take the lack of imagery this year as symptomatic of a war on Christmas or a war on Jesus.  I think the controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

In the first place, there is nothing inherently wrong with this year’s design.

Even more to the point is this article which I came across. It shows that over the past several years the designs on the red cups were of things such as snowmen, sledders, people dressed for cold weather, and words like “hope.” In other words, no nativity scenes, now word Christmas, nor anything else explicitly Christian. The idea that winter scenes are what Christmas is about, of course, is nonsense. The idea that not having winter scenes on a red cup is anti-Christian is even greater nonsense.

I’d even say that Starbucks has, probably inadvertently, taken a small step to restore the true meaning of Christmas by removing the secularized images which often pass for Christmas decorations. Instead of complaining, Christians who know what Christmas is really about should be thanking Starbucks for this year’s design, not criticizing and even calling for boycotts. In that spirit, I went to a Starbucks today, and bought a cup of their Thanksgiving Blend coffee.

Once there, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but bags of their Christmas Blend coffee for sale (rushing the season a bit, but that’s what retailers do). Even more wonderful, in front of the bar was a barrel with large boxes whose cellophane front showed the contents: a large white triangle with colorfully covered round objects, looking sort of like Christmas tree ornaments. They were labelled Advent Calendar, and they promised a daily treat.

Far from warring on Christmas, Starbucks is recognizing not only Christmas but, truly rare and worthy of applause, Advent as well. Those calling for a boycott have made themselves look really foolish.

Sunday Scriptures — OT B 32, Nov. 8, 2015

As we approach the end of this year in the liturgical cycle, the first reading and the gospel show us instances of extreme generosity by poor widows, while the second reading foreshadows the emphasis on the glorious return of Jesus which will become a major theme in the next few weeks.
In the first reading — 1 Kings 17:10-16 — we hear the story of Elijah and the (pagan) widow of the (pagan) city of Zarephath in (pagan) Sidon. The background is that the wicked King of Israel, Ahab, has married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon, and under her influence has introduced the worship of her god into Israel. Through Elijah, God announced that he was sending a drought on the land. Remarkably, God sent Elijah to the country of Jezebel’s father to be safe from Ahab, promising that a widow would provide for him. This is why, as the reading begins, Elijah goes to Zarephath and requests hospitality from a poor widow. Her generosity and reliance on the word of Israel’s God bring her and her son life in place of the death which had seemed their certain fate.

We should strive to emulate the widow’s faith in the word of God which is proclaimed to us, with its promise, not of earthly life, but of eternal life: the salvation promised in the second reading.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 146:7-10, with response from the beginning of the psalm — leads us to make our own, the sort of faith in God’s care for us that the widow of Zarephath exhibited, and to praise God for that loving care. The words recall those of Isaiah which Jesus quoted in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:12), as well as the description of the Lord’s care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, in Deuteronomy 10:18, which then the people (we) are commanded to emulate.
In the gospel — Mark 12:38-44 — Jesus is approaching the last days of his ministry, teaching in Jerusalem. He begins with a warning against the pride and greed of the scribes, whose conduct is the very opposite of God’s care for widows. Jesus then calls attention to the generosity of a certain widow. At that time, widows, having lost the income produced by their husbands, basically had no reliable source of income. If there were children, they would be expected to support them. Otherwise, they had to rely on charity from others. So the generosity of this widow who gave all she had to the temple is the most radical generosity possible, and must be based on an absolute faith in God’s providential care.

The widow, in giving all she had, is in effect an example of total self-giving. Jesus, giving himself on the cross shows us the epitome of such a gift of self. Pope St. John Paul II teaches us in his Theology of the Body, that marriage is a promise of the mutual self-giving of each spouse totally to the other and that celibacy for the kingdom of God should be a comparable self-giving of the celibate to God.
The theme of self-giving is also found in the second reading — Hebrews 9:24-28. We continue to hear about Jesus as our high priest. There are three main themes: Jesus offers himself to the Father once; this self-offering is on our behalf and takes away our sins; and he will return to bring the fullness of salvation to those whose sins have been taken away.
We might ask the Holy Spirit to show us to what extent we give ourselves either to a spouse or to God. If not in a state which calls for such a total self-giving, do we still give generously of ourselves to those who are in our lives, and do we realize that ultimately all we have and all we are belongs to God? On the other hand, to what extent do we seek to maintain our status, like the scribes of whom Jesus speaks? Do we neglect the needs of others while concentrating on being admired in our community or in our circles of friends and associates? Is our religiosity empty, or even partially for show? We can ask God to help us be more like these generous widows and less like the greedy and status-seeking scribes.

The Catholic belief is that the Mass brings that unique sacrifice of Jesus to us so that we become participants in it as members of his body. This participation should strengthen us to live out the message of the scriptures, if we accept the grace of God which enables us to do so. We can be both those who proclaim God’s loving care and who provide for the needs of others on God’s behalf.

Thoughts on “Tannhäuser”

On October 31, I attended a “Live in HD” showing of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Tannhäuser.” It was a very good production. The costumes, scenery, and action strove for authenticity, and achieved it, IMO — unlike some opera and theater productions where the director decides to remove the piece from its intended time and place, usually to the detriment of the work. The story of the knight and minstrel who spends a year with Venus in her subterranean abode, returns to the above-ground world, is disgraced when he reveals that he has been with Venus, goes on a penitential pilgrimage to Rome, is at first rebuffed by the Pope, but finally pardoned was very moving as sung and acted, above all in the scenes where Elisabeth pleads for him with the knights, where he describes his pilgrimage, and where his pardon is proclaimed by the arrival of the Pope’s miraculously leafed-out staff. Not having seen James Levine in several years, it came as a shock to see him in a motorized wheelchair, looking at first glance like Stephen Hawking, with arm movements that seemed on partially controlled. But he clearly still knows the music and can communicate to the players and singers. So it’s admirable that he continues to practice his profession in spite of his physical limitations.

There will be an “encore showing” of the performance in various theaters on November 4, and I recommend seeking it out.

But I’ve been thinking about how Wagner treated the story, which is his mixture of two sets of legends. It’s a really effective drama. Still I have my problems with Wagner, relating both to the scenario and to specific language.

First, the language. An important element of the story is Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope for his sin. I find it remarkable that Wagner always uses circumlocutions in referring to the Pope. It’s never “Pope” but “him who speaks God’s judgment,” “him through whom God reveals himself.” Can’t he bring himself to say, “Pope?” I  suppose the circumlocutions  are more poetic, and indicate the authority ascribed to the Pope, and therefore the importance and validity of the pilgrimage. But still, I’m surprised.

A bigger deal for me, is Wagner’s attitude here and elsewhere to the pre-Christian deities. Both here and in Lohengrin, there is a battle between Christianity and those pre-Christian deities, conceived as still existing. It seems true enough that vestiges of pagan notions, and even pockets of pagan belief, persisted in Christianized parts of Europe. So in creating a drama from legends about the early 13th Century, he may be using elements of folk culture of the period. In Tannhäuser, the conflict is between carnal love, represented by Venus, and chaste love, represented by Elisabeth. While chaste love is victorious in this opera, and in “Parsifal,” it is quite the contrary in “Tristan und Isolde.” Of course, chaste love and carnal love coexist in holy matrimony, but you won’t get that from Wagner.

Then there’s the “Ring Cycle.” It treats the Norse gods as real but eventually destroyed because of their greed leading to various acts of treachery, adultery, and incest. At its center, though it celebrates, not so much this destruction of the gods, but the union of Wotan’s daughter with his grandson. Hearers are led to have sympathy for the semidivine offspring of Wotan and to be sorry for their deaths.

So, I’m bemused by Wagner’s theology, as I understand it, but good theater often presents challenging ideas, and the dramatic story and fine music make Tannhäuser worth seeing.