Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bird Poop and Providence

It’s Tobit week at daily Mass, and you know what that means: bird poop! A biennial favorite for those in the know, it's the week when you can expect to watch your lector struggle to keep a straight face while reading aloud about warm bird droppings (“warm” no less!) falling into Tobit’s eyes. In case you missed it, it was yesterday—mark it on your calendar for 2015!

Anna and the Blind Tobit, Rembrandt (ca. 1630)
The book of Tobit is one of the Old Testament deuterocanonical books—otherwise known as “the Apocrypha” among Protestants—so it wasn’t a Scriptural text I grew up hearing in the Presbyterian Church. Consequently, sitting at Mass as a new convert some years back, and hearing the bird poop reading for the first time, I just about bust up laughing—can you blame me? It’s truly a comical scene: Having risked his life burying a fellow Jew in defiance of the law, Tobit lays down for a nap next to a courtyard wall, and sparrows perched above poop in his eyes. I can’t be the only one that looks forward to hearing that ancient anecdote proclaimed in church every couple years.

To be sure, the rest of the story isn’t quite so comical. Tobit contracts an eye disease and goes blind, his wife has to go to work weaving cloth to support him, and his whole life seems to fall apart. “Lord, command that I be released from such anguish; let me go to my everlasting abode,” he prays. “For it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery in life” (3.6). 

What follows is pretty complicated—there’s an archangel and a demon, a marriage and several murders, a journey, a debt repaid, and recovered vision. Along the way, Tobit also recovers his fundamental trust in God—despite the disappointments and adversity—and his faithfulness is rewarded abundantly. In a Job-like way, Tobit’s story calls us to live lives abandoned to the Lord, come what may. God is God; we’re not. We can’t possibly see things the way He sees them, so no matter the difficulty or setback, we’re reminded to keep banking on Him and hoping in His love. “Blessed be God who lives forever,” Tobit prays after his reversal of fortune. “For he afflicts and shows mercy, casts down to the depths of Hades, brings up from the great abyss” (13.2).

The Healing of Tobit, Bernardo Strozzi (ca. 1625)
But there’s one additional element in Tobit’s story that makes me prefer it to Job’s better known tale. It’s the role of Raphael, the archangel mentioned earlier. His name means “God heals,” and Raphael is truly the Lord’s instrument in restoring relationships, health, and even property to the story’s chief characters. 

What’s particularly striking about Raphael’s actions, however, and what sets them apart from God’s restorative actions in the Book of Job, is the way Tobit’s author weaved them together in the narrative with the very travails that beset all the key players in the first place. Bird droppings and blindness for instance? All part of God’s plan to match up Tobit’s son, Tobias, with Sarah of Media. And when a fish attacks Tobias on his way to Media? It’s a propitious opportunity for Tobias to acquire the very balm that will heal his father’s sight.

Raphael Taking Leave of the Tobit Family, Rembrandt (1637)
This mixing and connecting of conflict and resolution throughout Tobit is highlighted by Raphael in his parting words to Tobit: “I was sent to put you to the test,” he says. “At the same time, however, God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah” (12.14). Junk happens; we don’t understand it; we cry out to God for understanding and relief. But, more often than not, it’s the very junk we wail about that ends up being the source of our growth and transformation and even salvation.

Providence seems to work that way often. We see obstacles; God sees opportunities. And often our stubbornness is such that He is forced to resort to those maddening obstacles to divert us from our ruts of pettiness and sloth and greed and pride.

Forced? No, I suppose not. We are speaking of God, after all. Yet it does seem to be the way He prefers to do things though—working through circumstances, orchestrating events, prompting and upsetting, prodding and tripping. We're so blind to the obvious ways we're called to live that sometimes He has to, well, make us blind in order to make us see.

All the same, let's be clear: Sometimes bird poop in the eye is just bird poop in the eye. Still, next time it happens, wipe it off, and glance around. It just might be a sign that an angel is nearby and God is up to something.

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