As I have gone about my day, the story weaving in and out of all of it has been the Pope’s retirement. To listen to the reporters, this is a day like none other in history. For the first time in six hundred years, someone has ceased to be the Bishop of Rome without ceasing to be. For many people around the world, February 28th will hold the distinction of being the day the Pope stepped down. As I drove around, I began to wonder what else happened on this day in history; when I stopped, here’s some of what I found:
- 1066 — Westminster Abbey opened.
- 1784 — John Wesley chartered the first Methodist church in America.
- 1953 — Scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick announced they had discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, the molecule that contains the human genes, at Cambridge University.
- 1983 –The album “War” by U2 was released.
- 1993 — A gun battle erupted at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents tried to serve warrants; four agents and six Davidians were killed and a fifty-one-day standoff began.
Depending on the year, this has been a day of joy, expectation, melody, confusion, and sadness. Like any other day, I suppose. Though the things I listed were somewhat random (I wrote down what caught my eye as I went down the list), it seems each of them has some element of faith, or at least some concept of something larger than ourselves — at least that’s what I picked. Crick and Watson gave us a picture of what wonder looks like at a cellular level alongside of the grandeur of Westminster; John Wesley and David Koresh stand at opposite ends of the continuum of how one lives out a prophetic call; and the U2 record provides the soundtrack: “How long to sing this song?”
Beyond the events that make news, each year has marked a February 28th when someone was born, another died, some got married, some disappeared, some succeeded, some failed, and — for some — nothing happened. In 2000, February had an extra day, which was marked for us that year by the inclusion of a foster daughter into our family. Since leap years only roll around every so often, today is the day in history I give thanks for her arrival. I’m also glad she stayed. Though the official relationship, as far as the state is concerned, ended long ago, she is part of who we are. Since we moved to Durham, she has flown south every three or four months to see us.
This is a good day in history.
My first semester at Baylor, I took The History of Western Civilization with Dr. Wallace Daniel. He looked like a college professor, down to the wire rimmed glasses and the tweed coat with the patches on the elbows. He even smoked a pipe (it was the Seventies, after all). As he lectured, he would work a small tool in the pipe bowl, pause and light it, take a puff or two, and then put it in his coat pocket. I always imagined one day I would see a small fire come out of there, but it never happened. He did, however, light a fire in me. I became a history major, and in Russian history at that, because I wanted to be in his class. I wanted to learn from him.
He taught his classes with novels, you see. We didn’t get the Big Book of Dates and Wars and Kings. The novelists in any age, he said, are the ones who tell the truth. The facts are easy enough to find; you have to listen to the stories to learn what was really going on. Underneath the wars and royalty, people lived and died, and ate and socialized — that was the real history being made. We read Hard Times to learn about the Industrial Revolution and War and Peace to discover Russia before the Revolution, and as their characters told their stories, we found ourselves in the stream of humanity, for it is in the stories that we find ourselves and find our place.
Many of the media accounts today have focused on the intrigue within the Vatican as Cardinals jockey for position, or the regional politics of whether the next Pope should come from Africa or Latin America; they are not as much news as journalistic filler. A couple of people have talked about what Benedict will do now that he has stepped down: they have described his “stark” new abode, his desire to read and pray, and his inability to assume a public persona having been the pontiff. I appreciated the personal details because they got to the story of the man, beyond the pomp and circumstance.
In this Lenten season, I have been captured by the story of Jesus in the gospels and, as I have mentioned, the lack of detail. My friend, Todd, said in response to my post about the weather, that the gospel writers only described the height of one person: Zacchaeus; they didn’t say a word about anyone else. Perhaps the lack of detail stands out for me because I find that I want to remember them more and more: the steep angle of the winter sun in the late afternoon, the gorgeous streaks of well-earned grey hair on Ginger’s temples that make her eyes sparkle even more, the collective concentration of those of us gathered this afternoon in Cocoa Cinnamon like pieces in an art installation, the delightful discordance of our children when they stand at the front of the sanctuary and sing, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.”
On this day, I’m heading home to cook dinner for a gathering of family and friends. I expect we will make history.