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The Third Testament
By John Eklund
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 John Eklund
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Pleasant September Sunday
"Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it ..."
As I would come to realize, Christ's words to Peter, establishing the Church, are unequivocally the most important words in the entire Bible. Therefore, it is only fitting that they are the words that begin my story.
I was in my usual Sunday morning spot, the second to last pew in the back of St. Mary's church, when Father Tom began the gospel reading. Reciting Matthew 16, the young, introverted priest spoke in a way that seemed much stronger and clearer than usual. His voice was baritone and echoing and easily reached every parishioner in every corner of St. Mary's. Normally, it had a meek, nasal quality, almost like a shy Jimmy Stewart with a sinus infection. Something was definitely different.
Maybe he started using a new nasal spray or switched antihistamines, I thought as I sat dreamily gazing upward at the beautiful domed ceiling of the cathedral. Sweat slowly dripped down my fifty-seven-year-old wrinkled brow as I gazed.
St. Mary's was packed with people and it was very warm, if not sweltering. The air conditioning obviously was not working. That was no surprise, for St. Mary's was an old church, strong on charm but weak on modern amenities. The heat did not bother me, though. I was too engrossed in thought to care. In a circuitous manner, I began reminiscing about my daughter, Ellen, in her youth. Years before, she had had her own experiences with nasal sprays and antihistamines. They were memorable experiences-experiences that exemplified all of the joys and trials of child-rearing. Thinking about them, I could not help but smile.
Ellen suffered from allergies when she was in grade school. Each fall, during ragweed season, her nose would turn red, matching her watery eyes. The poor thing was forced to carry a box of tissues with her everywhere she went. Thankfully, antihistamines helped to take the edge off of her symptoms. The dilemma for her was picking out which antihistamine to use. It was a comical dilemma. Although sweet as sugar and cute as can be, Ellen was a precocious and particular child. She was exceedingly choosy about her medications, always looking for one that was just right and accepting nothing less.
"Dad, this one just isn't working for me," she would say in as authoritative a tone as a young girl with pigtails could. "It must be an inferior brand."
"Sweetheart, why don't you give it a couple of more days?" I would reply in an encouraging manner. "Sometimes these things take awhile to kick in. Sometimes you just have to be a little bit patient. Things will get better."
"But I can barely breathe," she would retort in overly dramatic fashion, often followed by a forced cough. "I can tell that I'm getting worse. Can't you?"
"You sound all right to me," I would say. "I think you'll be fine. Actually, I think you may be making a bigger deal out of this than you should. You know it is not good to exaggerate. You remember the story of the boy who cried wolf, don't you?"
"I'm not exaggerating," she would fire back obstinately, with arms crossed. "My nose is completely stuffed and my lungs are tight. In fact, I think I may start to wheeze at any moment."
She never once wheezed, but she knew that wheezing was a cause for concern for parents. She was clever that way.
Every autumn it was the same routine. One year, her doctor gave her four different prescriptions before she finally found one to her liking. It was expensive, if not amusing. Between the multiple different prescriptions and the need for refills, we were constantly running back and forth to the local corner drugstore-so often that the pharmacist got to know us on a first-name basis. Not only did we pick up the antihistamines there, but we also stocked up on Hall's cough drops, Visine anti-itch eye drops, and boxes upon boxes of Kleenex. The whole affair was like an episode from a sitcom. Fortunately, Ellen seemed to outgrow her allergies over time.
Ellen outgrew her allergies, and poor old Henninger's Drugstore went out of business. That may be more than just a coincidence.
The memories of Ellen's prescriptions and the now-defunct drugstore reminded me that I needed to stop by Walgreen's pharmacy. Walgreen's had left an automated message on my answering machine the day before: "Thank you for using Walgreen's pharmacy. Your prescription is ready for pick-up at Walgreen's pharmacy. Your prescription is ready for pick-up at Walgreen's pharmacy. Your prescription is ready ..."
The way the woman on the recording changed the inflection in her voice when she said "Walgreen's pharmacy" was certainly annoying. Her tone in the first part of the message was unremarkable, but then she paused, without good reason, and blurted out "at Walgreen's pharmacy."
Do they hire professionals for jobs like that? I wondered.
It was never long before my mind would begin to wander at church. I would often fall into a stream of consciousness, filled with loose associations, or I would pass the time making checklists of things to do. Following my usual routine, I started making a checklist outlining the rest of my day.
First, I'll go to pick up my blood pressure medication at Walgreen's. While I'm there, I'll buy more Hershey's with almonds. Whoever first decided to combine chocolate with almonds was a true genius. That unknown, divinely inspired soul made the world a much better place. Really, what did Einstein ever do for society that could compare to the pure joy of eating a 31 Flavors chocolate-almond ice cream cone? And what did da Vinci ever create that could compare with the magnificence of a chunk of dark chocolate almond bark? Later, I'll meet Jerry to watch the Bears game ...
The Chicago Bears were 2-0, and although it was early in the season, there was realistic hope that they would not end up being a total embarrassment. Being a pragmatist, I was not asking for a repeat of the glorious 1985 championship season, the year they lost only once and clobbered the New England Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl. One simple play-off win would suffice. It seemed like it had been forever since they had actually won a game in the play-offs. Even making it to the play-offs was a rarity for them. The years of futility were frustrating, but I kept coming back for more nonetheless. It was sometimes hard being a Chicago fan.
When the game is over, I'll go back home and order some gifts for Ellen on the Internet. I'll spend my evening working on a lesson plan for this week.
I was employed as a professor at a small local Catholic college, and Sundays were the days I worked on my lesson plans. The upcoming week, I was scheduled to lecture on Norse mythology, with an emphasis of discussion on its influence on modern culture. I enjoyed the Norse myths immensely. They had a primitive charm to them. Although in general they were not nearly as popular as the Greek and Roman legends, a few Norse tales definitely merited discussion. I already knew what the first day's topic would be.
I'll start with the story of how mistletoe became associated with kissing. It is one of the major focal points of the Norse tradition and is a story that the class should enjoy.
In my opinion, the epic story of the mistletoe is one of the greatest myths ever told. Although written in simple terms, it compares favorably to anything in the Greek, Roman, or Asian genre. The story revolves around the tragic death of a Norse god named Balder. He was the god of light and springtime and was the most beloved of all the beings in the vast Norse universe. Because of the long winters they endured, the ancient Norse people placed a great emphasis on light and springtime, and Balder was a Christ-like figure to them. According to the legend, Balder had a dark and unsettling dream one night; he dreamed that he was going to die. Word of Balder's sinister premonition spread throughout all of Asgard, the golden kingdom of the gods. The other Norse gods were so disturbed by his dream that they had every creature and every object in heaven and on earth promise to do no harm to Balder. So great was the love for Balder that every creature and every object in heaven and on earth unreservedly agreed. The mountains and the seas, the giants and the dwarfs, the stars and the moon, the trees and the beasts, the fish and the birds, the frigid ice and blazing fire-all made a sacred vow to protect the creator of light and bearer of spring.
It seemed that with the litany of solemn pledges, Balder was safe. Yet there was one dire omission: the gods of Asgard neglected to ask the mistletoe, thinking that it was too dainty and weak to cause anyone harm, especially a powerful god from Asgard. The oversight was a tragic one. Several days after Balder's ominous dream, Loki, the Norse equivalent of Satan, tricked Balder's unsuspecting blind brother, Hoder, into shooting an arrow at Balder's heart. At the tip of the arrow was the neglected mistletoe, magically strengthened by Loki's evil. Hoder took the arrow with the deadly tip, pulled back the bowstring, and let it fly toward his beloved brother. Hindered by his lack of sight, Hoder knew not what he was doing; he was an innocent victim of Loki's evil. When the mistletoe struck, Balder fell dead immediately and was condemned to spend eternity in the underworld.
The gods of Asgard were stunned and horrified. Throughout the entire universe there were cries of unbridled grief. The wailing of those saddened was heard day and night. Weeks passed, but the mourning continued, with no foreseeable end. Faced with such hopelessness, the sorrow-filled gods sent a messenger to confront Hel, the queen of the underworld, and plead for Balder's return to the world of the living. Hel agreed to allow Balder's return, but only if all things, both living and lifeless, would weep for him. All things wept, except for Loki, who disguised himself as an old crone and refused to shed one tear. Because of Loki's wickedness, the god of light remained in the land of the dead. With Balder gone, the heavens and the earth were left in darkness and cold. Three bitter winters came in sequence with no summer in between. Hope and happiness faded away, becoming distant memories. All that was once good became tarnished with evil, and morality disappeared. It remained that way until the mythical universe eventually came to its cataclysmic end.
The end of the cosmos was called Gotterdammerung, the Twilight of the Gods. In the final days, the gods of Asgard fought one last great battle against the frost giants and hellish creatures of the underworld. All perished in the battle. Odin, king of the gods, was devoured by a giant wolf, and Thor, the mighty god of thunder, succumbed to a serpent's poison. Despair and desolation were ubiquitous. The heavens burned with fire and the land sank into the sea. The Norse gods were no more.
Because the innocent mistletoe had caused so much grief and suffering, the Norse people decreed that mistletoe should never again be associated with death or sorrow. It became a custom for warring Norse tribes to declare a truce, should they happen to meet under the mistletoe. Over the centuries, this peace-related custom eventually evolved into the love-related custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
My stream of consciousness continued as the Mass went on.
After the mistletoe introduction, I'll spend the rest of the lecture focusing on how J. R. R. Tolkien used themes from Norse myth throughout the epic Lord of the Rings.
I began reciting the lecture in my mind:
In Norse myth there were nine worlds: Muspelheim, Nilfheim, Darkalfheim, Midgard, Jotunheim, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Asgard, and Gimle. Some of the worlds were occupied by gods, some by giants, some by elves, and some by dwarves. Man lived in Midgard, or as Tolkien would say, middle earth. Magical rings played a very important role in the old Norse legends. There was one cursed ring, in particular, that would bring doom to whoever wore it ...
My train of thought was broken, as it was time to rise and receive Holy Communion. With my hands clasped, I reverently walked up to the priest to receive the Host, but I walked right past the bearer of the wine cup. I had never found in sanitary to share a wine cup with hundreds of other parishioners, even if it is the Lord's cup. Wiping the rim with a cloth just did not do it for me.
After communion, I headed for the door.
It was a beautiful September day, perfect for football. I got in my car, drove to Walgreen's, where I picked up my blood pressure medication, and then headed for Al's Pub, where my good friend Jerry and I went to watch the Bears' games. Meeting Jerry after Mass in fall was my Sunday routine. I had been doing it for many years. Back in high school, Jerry and I used to go to church together. He had since become an agnostic. Losing his faith, he no longer prayed to God, and he never attended Mass. In general, he viewed religion with skepticism, if not cynicism. Yet despite his loss of faith, he made it very clear that he was not an atheist.
"You really have to be a pompous fool to be an atheist," he would say.
Jerry was no fool; he was just a doubter. That is really what an agnostic is-one who believes that it is impossible to know if God exists; in other words, a doubter. An atheist arrogantly believes that God does not exist. Atheism goes far beyond simple doubting. I had always felt there was something evil about being an atheist. It seemed to me that a good-willed, logical person would at least contemplate the possibility that there might be a supreme being and show enough respect to not outright deny his existence.
Jerry and I had been friends for over fifty years. He and his wife, Joyce, had me over for dinner at least once a week. Ever since my wife, Tina, died eleven years before, Jerry and Joyce had been like family to me. Moreover, they treated Ellen like she was their own daughter, and I could never adequately express my gratitude for that.
"Over here, Fred!" shouted Jerry as he waved to me from across the dimly lit main hall in Al's Pub.
Al's Pub was an inviting, old edifice that in many ways resembled an Alaskan Yukon lodge. On the roof of the pub was a stuffed Kodiak bear encased in glass. Inside the pub's sturdy doors were high, wood-beamed ceilings and two cozy fireplaces. The walls were a rustic wood, and several of the windows had beautifully handcrafted stained glass. Jerry was sitting on a bar stool near the giant television screen in the pub. He was a large man, and the stool almost seemed too small for him. Despite the discrepancy between his size and the stool, Jerry, in all other ways, looked perfectly at home in a sports bar. With his rotund build, gruff voice, poorly groomed mustache, and jovial nature, he was the epitome of a middle-aged football fan.
"Hey, Jerry, what's new?" I called out as I made my way past the large, central stone fireplace adorned with a giant mounted moose head. "It looks like the game is about to start. Do ya think the Bears will make it three in a row?"
"Even a blind pig finds an acorn, so anything is possible," he quipped.
"That's right; anything is possible," I replied with a chuckle.
I sat down on the stool next to Jerry's and reached for a menu. Jerry grabbed a basket of peanuts and popcorn that was sitting on the bar and slid it between us.
"What's Ellen been up to?" Jerry asked. "Has she found a new man yet?"
"She's seeing a couple of different guys but nothing serious. I'm not in any rush to see her married off anyway."
"True, true." Jerry nodded in agreement. "But she'll need to get married for you to get those four grandkids you hope to have."
"I do look forward to someday having grandkids," I conceded. "Four is a good number, but five may be even better. You know, with five I could field the starting lineup on a basketball team."
"That's a good point," Jerry said with a wink and a smile. "Very well thought out."
"I just want to make sure she has met the right guy," I said. "That's why I'm in no hurry."
"I hear ya," Jerry said, his eyes moving rapidly to the television screen. "Hey, here's the kickoff."
Excerpted from The Third Testament by John Eklund Copyright © 2010 by John Eklund. Excerpted by permission.
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