Friday, April 28, 2017

"Forever, watching love grow"

I couldn't go two weeks without posting a traditio. So, for this Second Friday of Easter I am putting up Radiohead's cover of Joy Division's song "Ceremony." According to the caption on the video, Radiohead performed this seminal song during a webcast they did in 2007. Now I need to dig up my copy of Radiohead's OK Computer album.

It was 37 years ago today that Joy Division filmed the video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

Over the past few weeks somebody has been painting lyrics on the streets of Manchester, England

I have posted "Ceremony" before, but with video of Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" on or around Bastille Day. Of course, "Ceremony" has nothing to do with the French Revolution, at least not discernibly. This is the music of my people. For us "Ceremony" is a kind of hymn.



This is why events unnerve me
They find it all, a different story
Notice whom for wheels are turning
Turn again and turn towards this time

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Divine Mercy Sunday

With Vespers this evening we bring to an end the great Octave of Easter. Of course, the Second Sunday of Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Our Gospel reading today, taken from the Gospel According to St John (20:19-31), is about the risen Lord appearing to his disciples, not once, but twice. In between Christ's first and second appearance St John writes about Thomas not being present the first time he appeared and his refusal to believe other disciples' testimony about seeing Jesus risen from the dead in the interim.

St John is careful to note that Thomas was present when Jesus next appeared. It is when Thomas encountered the risen Christ that he was invited to probe the wounds of love. In response, Thomas proclaimed: "My Lord and my God." It was then that Jesus proclaimed those, like you and me, who believe without seeing blessed. Faith saves. If Easter ought to have any effect on us it should be to break through the façade of our often deep-seated Pelagianism, the all-too-human idea that somehow, in the end, you'll save yourself.

Like the fearful disciples in St John's Gospel, in our day it is easy for us, as Christians, to remain inside, or, to use a contemporary phrase, to create a safe space. But just as the risen Lord appeared seemingly out of nowhere, which manner of appearing tells us that Christ, risen from the dead, is with us anywhere and everywhere, in the Eucharist he comes into our midst in an unusual way. He bids us, too, "Peace be with you." It is important to note that in St John's Gospel there are no apostles as such, only disciples. But in today's Gospel we encounter a most apostolic moment. In his first appearance to his frightened, hiding, disciples, after bidding them Shalom, the Lord tells them: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." He sent them to proclaim mercy- the forgiveness of sins in and through Christ.

Feast Day of Divine Mercy, by Stephen B. Whatley

An apostle is one who is sent. We call St Mary Magdalene apostolorum apostola, which translated means, "apostle to the apostles." We call her this because, as the first one to see Christ after he rose from the dead, he sent her to tell the others this amazing news. Last night I attended a clergy appreciation dinner, which always dicey as a deacon because, despite being invited, the evening usually passes with nobody expressing appreciation for those of us who, while clergy, are "at the lower end of the [church's] hierarchy" and whose existence is living the tension of clerics who live largely lay lives. At the end of the day, I suppose it isn't a big deal because deacons don't serve in order to be praised. We serve to make Christ visible and even tangibly present through our service. In any case, an elderly man, who is high up in state Knights of Columbus hierarchy, gave a talk. In his remarks he tried to explain what it means for the church to be apostolic. As might be expected in a Roman Catholic milieu, his exposition of what it means for the church to be apostolic began and ended with apostolic succession.

At least to my mind, understanding apostolic succession as the sum total of what it means for the church to be apostolic is to get it half right. Moreover, such an understanding has the effect of reducing the mystery of faith to our measure by turning apostolic succession into a history lesson, one with more twists, turns, and wrinkles than than most Catholics are prepared to accept or admit. At the end of each Mass we are sent to make Christ, who we have received in communion, present wherever we are. This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the church being apostolic. While not all of us who, by virtue of our baptism, share in the priesthood of all believers, can forgive sins (the church reserves this authority to ministerial priests), like the frightened, holed-up, disciples, we are sent to proclaim Divine Mercy.

The name of God is mercy. As recipients of Divine Mercy, we are sent to spread God's mercy by extending mercy. We do not practice the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy to earn God's mercy. We live in this way in gratitude. Living this way is what it means to worship Jesus as our Lord and our God. When it comes to sometimes feeling slighted as a deacon I need to see such moments as opportunities to bear the perceived slight patiently, which is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, giving thanks to God that my service is transparent. I want those I serve to see through me in order to see Christ. I want them to see the face of mercy.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Urbi et orbi- Easter 2017



URBI ET ORBI MESSAGE
OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF
FRANCIS


Easter 2017


Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Easter!

Today, throughout the world, the Church echoes once more the astonishing message of the first disciples: “Jesus is risen!” – “He is truly risen, as he said!”

The ancient feast of Passover, the commemoration of the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery, here finds fulfillment. By his resurrection, Jesus Christ has set us free from the slavery of sin and death, and has opened before us the way to eternal life.

All of us, when we let ourselves be mastered by sin, lose the right way and end up straying like lost sheep. But God himself, our shepherd, has come in search of us. To save us, he lowered himself even to accepting death on the cross. Today we can proclaim: “The Good Shepherd has risen, who laid down his life for his sheep, and willingly died for his flock, alleluia” (Roman Missal, IV Sunday of Easter, Communion antiphon).

In every age, the Risen Shepherd tirelessly seeks us, his brothers and sisters, wandering in the deserts of this world. With the marks of the passion – the wounds of his merciful love – he draws us to follow him on his way, the way of life. Today too, he places upon his shoulders so many of our brothers and sisters crushed by evil in all its varied forms.

The Risen Shepherd goes in search of all those lost in the labyrinths of loneliness and marginalization. He comes to meet them through our brothers and sisters who treat them with respect and kindness, and help them to hear his voice, an unforgettable voice, a voice calling them back to friendship with God.

He is Risen!!

It is finally Easter Sunday. Khristós Anésti! Alithós Anésti! Alithos anesti! Alleluia! Allelulia!
Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.' Behold, I have told you (Matt 28:5-7 )


Jesus' Easter victory is our Easter victory. Alleluia! At least for me, it would be Easter without Keith Green's "Easter Song."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday homily

Readings: Isa 52:13-53:12; Ps 31:2.6.12-13. 15-17.25; Heb 4:14-16.5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

It doesn’t take too many years of preaching to figure out that preaching is probably one of the least effective ways to reach people. It seems to me that when it comes to the homily many people distract themselves mentally, waiting for it end, while others listen to it as a “talk,” or a prepared speech, designed to be of interest for the time it lasts with little or no lasting relevance.

No doubt there are reasons for these responses. In the first instance, one of the things Catholics in the pews report year-after-year is the need for preaching to improve. All of us have been subjected to inadequately prepared homilies, many of which seem endless and on never get around to making a point. It’s difficult to listen to such preaching. On the other hand, in a society that offers us so much constant entertainment, or what we might we might call infortainment, like TED talks and the like, we can easily privilege style over substance and grade the preacher on his performance, not giving it a thought beyond its entertainment value.

The reason for preaching is simple: to help you gain a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures in order to better follow Jesus, or, perhaps stated a bit more plainly, to be clearer about where he is leading you. With regard to the readings for any given Mass or celebration of a Liturgy of the Word, there are a variety of different ways of getting the point(s) of the readings across. But Good Friday presents the preacher with a unique challenge because his job is to bring his sisters and brothers, as well as himself, face-to-face with the great mystery of our redemption.

Just as the church is stripped down on Good Friday, so must the preaching be. As we stand before the cross of Christ, which we always do here at St Olaf in a profound way, and prepare to venerate it in a few moments, the question is as simple as it is obvious: “Why the cross?”

Jesus did not go the cross in order to satisfy the anger, vindictiveness, or blood lust, of the Father. In other words, the Father did not inflict the punishment you and I deserve onto his beloved Son. In the branch of theology that concerns itself with Christ’s cross, which is known as soteriology (the study of how God saves us through Christ’s death), there are different atonement theories that have been set forth. What these theories seek to explain is precisely how Christ’s death reconciles us to God. Penal substitutionary atonement is one such theory. This theory holds that God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and so he bore the punishment that we deserve. It is important to note that while this theory is widespread in the United States, it is not a Catholic understanding of the atonement.

Crucifix over the altar, St Olaf Church, Bountiful, Utah- taken 25 March 2017


So, why did Jesus have to die on the cross? First, he didn’t have to die on the cross. He freely chose to do so in obedience to the Father. Why, then, was it the will of the Father that his only begotten Son die on the cross? I think theologian Owen Cummings answered this question as well as it can be answered:
God did not predetermine that Jesus would have to suffer on the cross, just as God does not predetermine that any of us has to suffer on our own crosses. That would turn God into a cruel tyrant [and us into something like marionettes acting out a script]. What God did in the whole event of Jesus, in the incarnation and crucifixion, was to enter into the messy details of our world, a world marked by arbitrariness and unpredictability. The God who is nothing but unconditional Love, embodied and made visible in Jesus, lets the consequences of being Love in our flawed human world happen without evasion or avoidance. He did not turn away from pain and suffering. Perhaps we could say that through Jesus, pain and suffering are absorbed into the life of God, and, if absorbed, then finally transformed (The Dying of Jesus 52)
This transformation is one way to understand what is meant when, in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is described as our "great high priest." Just as a priest transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ, in turn, transforms pain and suffering into salvation.

Jesus went to the cross out of love for the Father and you. And so, as scholar Terry Eagleton noted a number of years ago in a review of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion: “The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.”

My friends in Christ, this is what Jesus meant when he said that anyone who would follow him must take up his/her cross. It is not optional. One way or another the cross will find you. This is not in question. What is in question is whether you will bear the crosses that come your way for love of God and neighbor and do the work your baptismal priesthood calls you to, which is to work with Christ turning pain and suffering into salvation. The only way to resurrection is through the cross. Following Jesus is not a formula for worldly wealth, health, or even happiness as it is popularly understood. It is the way to salvation, which alone is true happiness. Faith means trusting that this is true and hope means living your life like it is true.

"Not everyone can carry the weight of the world"

Far from not posting a traditio today, Good Friday is a day that positively screams out for one! Since I didn't post anything on Holy Thursday, I think it's okay to post twice on Good Friday. I can't think of a better song than REM's "Talk About the Passion" off their 1983 album Murmur. Before cutting to the chase, I want to share something I read last night while keeping vigil in our parish's Chapel of Repose. It is from a book I highly recommend for prayer and reflection: Owen Cummings' The Dying of Jesus.

In particular, the passage comes from Cummings' reflection on the Fourth of Jesus' Seven Last Words as he hung dying on the cross. This "word" is taken from St. Mark's Gospel (15:34)- Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?, or, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Of course, these are the opening words of Psalm 22. Pressing forward a little from Christ's intelligible cry, Owen moves forward a few verses, to the words "Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last" (Mark 15:37), writing: "Mark's Jesus dies in agony with a wordless cry." Citing John Barton, he points out that, unlike the other Evangelists, "Mark does nothing to relieve the 'unadorned brutality' of the death of Jesus."

Crucifixion, by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, ca. 1675


Here is what I found particularly valuable:
God did not predetermine that Jesus would have to suffer on the cross, just as God does not predetermine that any of us has to suffer on our own crosses. That would turn God into a cruel tyrant [and us into something like marionettes acting out a script]. What God did in the whole event of Jesus, in the incarnation and crucifixion, was to enter into the messy details of our world, a world marked by arbitrariness and unpredictability. The God who is nothing but unconditional Love, embodied and made visible in Jesus, lets the consequences of being Love in our flawed human world happen without evasion or avoidance. He did not turn away from pain and suffering. Perhaps we could say that through Jesus, pain and suffering are absorbed into the life of God, and, if absorbed, then finally transformed
I find this valuable because, to state the matter indelicately, it calls bullshit on all Christians who seek to dismiss suffering as part of some grand plan to which we are not privy and, once we are, it will all make sense. Concretely, this results in the uttering of worse-than-useless pious platitudes in the face of someone else's suffering. When I think about these matters, these lyrics from Rich Mullins' song "Hard to Get" come to mind:
And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

The Friday Christians call "Good"

For this Good Friday, which comes for me at the end of perhaps the most difficult Lent I have personally endured, I offer a poem Welsh priest and poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000):
In Church

Often I try
To analyze the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs

Crucifixion, by Eric Gill

Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
To which I add, "But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit" (Matt 27:50).

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Passion (Palm) Sunday: Holy Week begins

When writing about or preaching on the readings for Passion (Palm) Sunday one can choose either to go long, normal length, or short. Given that there are two Gospels, my tendency is to go long, but for this post my aim is to go shorter. Since I am composing this off-the-cuff, we'll see (I need to be a little light-hearted in the beginning because my thoughts are heavy).

At the Vigil Mass yesterday evening, as I was reading the Narrator's part of the Passion According to St. Matthew, I became choked up as I read these words:
Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." They said, "What is that to us? Look to it yourself." Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5
After Mass I found myself wondering, "What if?"

"What if instead of trying to return the money, Judas had gone to the Lord and expressed his remorse? What would this have cost Judas?" In pondering the second question, I thought to myself, "It couldn't have been worse than the punishment he inflicted on himself." Maybe I am projecting, but it seems to me we are good at eschewing God's mercy, preferring instead the punishment we think we deserve and that, in some sense, we might actually deserve.

Even though Jesus' life was not taken from him- he laid it down of his own will, which was the will of the Father to which he resigned himself- Jesus proclaimed woe on the one whose betrayal led to his death. Since Jesus died for our sins- mine and yours- it is our betrayal, too, that led to his death on the cross. While not seeking to completely exonerate Judas, or putting myself at odds with Sacred Scripture, it is important that we not use Judas as our personal scapegoat, seeking to excuse ourselves for our complicity in Christ's crucifixion. I wish to call attention here to something the author of the Letter to the Hebrews pointed out to his readers- "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood" (Heb 12:4). If you have, I beg your pardon. I know I haven't.

Fresco from Vienna, Italy, shows Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss

Idle speculations? Hardly. As John Donne noted in his poem No Man Is An Island,
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee
Because of my personal and, I don't mind saying, traumatic, experiences with suicide, and as someone who struggles quite often with depression, it would be impossible for me to explain in words the emotion that swept over me as I read out loud, "Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself." Only a deep breath, taken at the wrong moment, saved my voice from cracking. Faces of people I know and love who have either taken their own lives, or have made serious attempts to do so, came before my mind's eye. I guess if I had to put it into words those words would be sorrowful grief.

Given the fact that most of us Christians have betrayed Jesus for far less than thirty pieces of silver, what better way to end this post than by invoking this prayer given by our resurrected Lord to St. Faustina: "For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world," or perhaps this prayer, given by Our Lady to the blessed children at Fatima: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."

I believe that Pope Francis is quite right, "The name of is Mercy." If it isn't, then we're doomed. Another name for Mercy is Jesus.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Quia caritas Dei

According to St. Matthew, Jesus insisted it was on his two Great Commandments- love God with all your heart, might, mind and strength; love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27)- that "The whole law and the prophets depend..." (Matt 22:40).

It is certainly not incidental that loving God is the first of the Lord's two commandments. I don't mind saying that I believe there are ways we are to show our love for God that are distinct from how we are to love our neighbor. First and foremost, I would say, we love God by worshiping God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. It is through our worship that we acknowledge God as the one God living and true, who for us men (Greek anthropos- "human beings"- a neuter noun distinct from both masculine and feminine nouns) and for our salvation became incarnate in the Virgin's womb, was born, lived, taught, suffered and died, rose for us, ascended to heaven, sent his Spirit; it his return we joyfully await.

I think we have to be careful, however, not to make too hard and fast a distinction between loving God and loving our neighbor. To do so is very dangerous because it plays to an all too human tendency. But then there are many ways we must be discerning when it comes to revelation. For example, "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16) cannot be inverted to "love is God," at least not without fairly disastrous consequences for what God has revealed (unveiled) about Mystery of the divine. Loving God and loving one's neighbor, while distinct in some ways, are so inextricably bound together that you can't have one without the other: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:20-21).



Ideally, orthodoxy (right confession/profession/worship) leads to orthopraxis (right practice/conduct/living). But we all know, likely from our own experience, that this is often not the case. For those many times, Kyrie eleison. It is in St. Matthew's Gospel that Jesus said to the Pharisees, who were complaining (again) about him consorting with those who were considered unclean, citing the prophet Hosea: "Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Matt 9:13).

Christianity is never just plug and play, which is to say it is never a matter of fulfilling an obligation, checking a box, or performing a duty. To live that way is, in a very real sense, to be a pagan. This is why to understand the sacraments strictly in terms of ex opere operato deprives them of their power to convert us (see "Dengenerate language; degenerating faith"). By seeking to reduce these powerful means through which God seeks to communicate divine life to us to a kind of "pure objectivity" we remove ourselves, the "subject" of God's communication, from the "blast" zone, thus making the sacraments something that happens "out there," working on their own, having little if anything to do with me- this is the all too human tendency. This mode of understanding, which run deep, not only leads us to make too hard and fast a distinction between loving God and our neighbor, but runs the risk of actually severing what is inextricably woven together, not by God, but in God. What is the change effected in us by the sacraments if not becoming more like Christ? If to be like Christ is anything at all it is to love perfectly.

In light of what revelation tells about the lie of loving God without loving one's neighbor, I think it is fair to say that loving one's neighbor is a necessary but insufficient requirement for loving God with one's entire being. Hence, we must proceed with extreme caution whenever we seek to make a distinction between loving God and loving our neighbors.

Becoming a living cross

Having finished reading Guardini's short, but very impacting, book The Rosary of Our Lady, I started reading the short book The Dying of Jesus, by Owen Cummings. Owen, who is a permanent deacon, is a teacher, mentor, and, I daresay, friend of mine. I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone, with maybe the exception of Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, who has influenced me more not only theologically, but spiritually. Theology that does not nurture spirituality, that is, help you draw closer to God as well as to your sisters and brothers, your neighbors, is worse than useless and perhaps even dangerous.

The Dying of Jesus contains Owen's reflections on the Stations of the Cross and our Lord's Seven Last Words. In his conclusion on the section in which he reflects on the Stations of the Cross, which I finished just this morning- I am saving the Seven Last Words for Holy Week, Owen quotes at length a passage from Benedict Canfield's Rule of Perfection on what it means to follow Jesus to the cross:
Therefore our own pains - insofar as they are not ours but those of Christ- must be deeply respected. How wonderful! And more: our pains are as much to be revered as those of Jesus Christ in His own passion. For if people correctly adore Him with so much devotion in images on the Good Friday cross, why may we not then revere Him on the living cross that we ourselves are?
Being in no position to comment on how anybody else conforms herself to Christ in this way (being conformed to Christ means becoming cruciform), I can say that for me what the sixteenth century English recusant Capuchin friar asks here remains merely an aspiration. Most of the time, including this very morning, I grumble, complain, stew, even explode in the face of the slightest difficulty, inconvenience, or perceived slight.

Bearing wrongs patiently is not merely one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Bearing wrongs and other sufferings that come my way, not merely passively, but consciously using them to unite myself to Christ, "offering it up," to use the old words that these days are usually invoked in a sarcastic way, is what it means to follow Christ. In the Christian calculus, you add by subtraction and you win by losing. While the path of following Christ ultimately leads to the glory of the resurrection, it passes inevitably through the cross. In the words of a hymn:
Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if you would my disciple be;
take up your cross with willing heart,
and humbly follow after me
Lord, give me a willing heart.



Perhaps the central paradox of the Christian religion, which is a religion of paradox, is that of the cross of Christ (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). Stated simply, if I am to be salt, light, and leaven, I must become a living cross. A six word sentence is easy to write. How far away I am from realizing those words! Too often I resist the death Jesus himself insists I must endure with every fiber of my being. Instead, I frantically scramble to save myself. Especially this last week, I keep hearing the question Jesus asked Martha when, after telling her he is resurrection and the life and that everyone who believes in him will never die, he said to her, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26).

Pondering the Lord's question "Do you believe this?" all week led me to make an important, even necessary, distinction between wanting him to be the resurrection and the life and actually believing that it is true. After all, wouldn't actually believing him lead me to follow him, to imitate him in the way he insists I must? Grasping the necessity of this distinction enables me to understand two things. First, faith is much more than intellectual assent. Even I believe in the sense that I give my assent. Second, hope is not synonymous with optimism. We often speak of hope and optimism as if you can't have one without the other, but my experience teaches me again and again that hope lies beyond optimism. I think this is the lesson of Christ's cross.

What the Cross of Christ shows me is my my inadequacy, my refusal to become fully human. However, reading the words of Benedict Canfield this morning reminded of something vitally important: the need to gaze on myself with the same tenderness with which Christ gazes on me. Too often I am content to just beat myself up, accuse and condemn myself, or, in the words of the late Passionist priest, Harry Williams: "to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee [within that I] call God and who despises the rest of what [I am]." Such a god is an idol, a diabolical one.

My wounds are dear to Jesus' Sacred Heart and so they should be dear to me and offered lovingly to him. In the end, it's all I have to give to him who loved me, not just to the point of death, but to the extent of rising of from the dead. Just as love is the reason for creation, love is the power that raised Christ from the dead: Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est.

Who crucified Jesus? I did. But I rely on his words, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Despite the fact that I often know full well what I am doing, I trust in Christ's mercy. I am convinced that Jesus never looked on us with more tenderness than when he hung dying on the cross.

Friday, April 7, 2017

"In this dread act your strength is tried"

It's been a long time since I had a week as downright difficult as this week. I am eager to walk the Stations of the Cross this evening. Why so difficult? Is work going badly? No. Have I suffered a great loss? No. I did learn that Archbishop George Niederauer, who ordained me while serving as bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, a man of whom I am very fond, is not doing well. In fact, he's close to passing over. Last Friday was the funeral for a brother deacon who was my classmate in diaconal formation. Today we celebrated the funeral Mass for one of our dearly beloved parishioners. Also, my best friend's Dad died today.

Of course, there was the utterly unconscionable chemical attack in Syria this week, our response to it, and with both the prospect of more innocent people being killed and forced to flee even as we protest taking in refugees.



I am glad at today's funeral Mass our Gospel reading was from John 11. It was an extract from last Sunday's long Gospel reading:
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world” (John 11:21-27)
There is something about dealing with death makes me want to rebel. My rebellion is my audacious faith in Christ's resurrection. This faith, more precious to me that anything, is a gift from God. Without it I would be lost. It is only the Son of God hanging on the Cross that allows me to make sense of things, even as I realize my complicity in and guilt for Christ's death.

I love this passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians:
And even when you were dead [in] transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross; despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it (Col 2:13-15- emboldening and underlining emphasis mine
Jars of Clay, singing one of my favorite hymns, "O Come and Mourn With Me Awhile" is our Friday tradito for this last Friday before that Friday we paradoxically call Good:

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Degenerate language; degenerating faith

In my earlier post on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord I alluded to the mystery of the uniting of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ, noting that the dogmatic definition of this mystery is denoted as the "hypostatic union." The Church's dogmatic definition of this mystery was promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, which set forth the following concerning Jesus Christ:
acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us
Reading section 7c of Heidegger's Being and Time, I was struck by a passage that seems quite relevant to the domain of Christian dogma. This passage was well-summarized by Pope St. John XXIII in his speech to open the Second Vatican Council:
What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else (emboldening and italicizing emphasis added)
In section 7c, in which he seeks to describe and define phenomenology, Heidegger, in discussing how phenomena, which he understands as the objects of philosophical inquiry, can be covered up, concealed, "buried over," or distorted observes- "It is possible for every phenomenological concept and proposition drawn from genuine origins to degenerate when communicated as a statement." This happens when truthful, or authentic, propositions start to be "circulated in a vacuous fashion," thus becoming "free-floating" theses. In other words, the historic, time-conditioned, contextualized nature of the proposition is lost and, along with it, an adequate understanding of its meaning.

In the realm of dogma, it usually becomes the answer to the question nobody is asking, or repeating incomprehensible formulae in response to genuine questions. In the first edition of her translation of Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh, translating the sentence I just cited, uses the word "autochthony" to describe what happens when a proposition that adequately conveyed a phenomenological concept degenerates. "Autochthony" means both that it originates where it is found and it is native to the system in which it is produced. De-contextualized, de-historicized, de-temporalized, I think, gets at the matter quite well.



As with the hypostatic union, a concept must first be grasped to some extent before it can degenerate. Just as most Christians, to paraphrase Karl Rahner, remain mere monotheists rather than full-blown Trinitarians, so most Christians merely pay lip service to Christ's humanity, his consubstantiality with the Blessed Virgin and so with us. While revering him as divine, many Christians, implicitly adhere to a sort of Docetism (from the Greek verb "to seem," meaning he only seemed to be human) with regard to his humanity.

In my view, a dogmatic concept that seems to have degenerated in the manner described is that of transubstantiation. To be clear up-front-I do NOT deny and fully accept the dogmatic definition concerning transubstantiation, which seeks to explain how the bread and wine become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, in order to accept it, I have to grasp in its historical context- the counter-Reformation, a time when Christ's "real" presence was beginning to be denied by Protestant reform groups and rethought by others; Thomas Cranmer's own views on Christ's "real" presence in the Eucharist, which he never denied, for example, evolved over time to a quite subjective understanding. The Council of Trent sought to teach very clearly that Christ is truly present in the consecrated elements in what might be described as more or less "objective" manner. Nonetheless, this explanation, rooted as it is exclusively in the Aristotelian metaphysics of substance, as all dogmatic explanations are bound to be, does not take us to the core of the mystery.

No statement, dogmatic or otherwise, could ever fully explain how Christ comes to be present to us through the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love, any more than a dogmatic definition can fully convey to us the mystery described as the hypostatic. Perhaps the best such a statement can do is enable us to rationally grasp that it can happen by giving a plausible explanation as to how, according to Greek metaphysics, it can be so. While we understand Christ's presence in the consecrated species to be "real," an action of God's, as it were, we cannot discount that sacraments depend, at least to some extent, on the faith of recipients. In other words, our insistence on objectivity (just as there is no pure subjectivity, there is no pure objectivity- it is a self-refuting claim because only a subject can posit the concept "pure objectivity") can turn sacraments into something akin magic tricks, which is why a strictly ex opere operato understanding of sacraments is a degeneration of their original meaning, rendering sacraments static.

At least in my view, sacraments need to be grasped phenomenologically, as philosopher Fr. Robert Sokolowski's work suggests (as an example see his article "Steps into the Eucharist: The Phenomenology of the Mass"), not in some manner that plays the subject off against the object, which playing off suggests a fundamental incongruity between subjects and objects, which metaphysical mismatch phenomenology helps us to overcome. This is exactly why we must do what Good Pope John urged in conveying our understanding of what God has revealed in ways that make sense to intelligent people living today.

As Anglican theologian John Macquarrie (among others) suggested in his book Pathways in Spirituality (a book I just finished), perhaps the best attempt to describe how Christ comes to be present to us in the Eucharist since the Council, transignification, is not incompatible with transubstantiation. In other words, entertaining such explanations as transignification does not require rejection of transubstantiation, even in an implicit way. Our understanding of a mystery as deep and unfathomable as the Eucharist, resting as it does, as all the sacrament do, on that Mystery of mysteries, the Incarnation, can certainly benefit from a variety of explanations.

I believe it was theologian Nicholas Lash who wrote something along the lines - A theologian is a person who watches her/his language in the presence of God.

"Do you believe this?"

Readings: Ezk 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Rom 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

It's funny what you notice in a Gospel reading by proclaiming it out loud at Mass. As a deacon, I have the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel in the Eucharistic assembly. In fact, proclaiming the Gospel is the most indispensable thing a deacon does in the Mass.

In proclaiming the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A of the lectionary cycle, both last night and again this morning, I was struck by what Thomas said in response to Jesus telling his disciples (there are no apostles, as such, in St. John's Gospel) that Lazarus was not sleeping but was, in fact, dead. After telling his disciples of Lazarus' death, which no doubt saddened them because, like Jesus, they probably knew Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, quite well, the Lord tells them he is glad he was not there to heal Lazarus (something for which both Martha and Mary sort of him rebuke for) "that you may believe" (John 11:14-15).

If we take what Jesus said to Martha as the content of what the disciples were to believe, then what they were to believe is what the Lord said to Lazarus' grieving sister: "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26). Raising Lazarus, which was a resuscitation, not (yet) resurrection, Jesus, in praying to the Father, expressed, once again, his ambivalence when it comes to working miracles: "Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me" (John 11:41-42).

Backing up to Jesus' summons to his disciples to accompany him to Bethany, where Lazarus lived and was now entombed, with the words "Let us go to him" (John 11:15), Thomas, who was called "Didymus" ("the twin"), or "Doubting Thomas," as he came to be popularly known due to his refusal to believe his fellow disciples when they told him Jesus was risen from the dead, replied with these words: "Let us also go to die with him" (John 11:16). What? Doubting Thomas made this faith-filled statement? Indeed, he did. I think exploring the meaning of this easy-to-miss statement can allow us to go deeper, not into the mind and soul of "Doubting" Thomas, but into the nature of faith, which is what makes it relevant to us.

One way to understand this puzzling statement is that while Thomas understood Jesus' summons to die, he did not yet fully grasp resurrection. To be fair, neither did any of the other disciples. But really, who among us does? Faith does not come by giving intellectual assent to a series of well-thought-out propositions convincingly exposited. Faith comes through experience, from events, things that happen to you, by hearing, which, in turn, comes "through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17). Like Thomas, I think we're more familiar with dying than rising, which sometimes appears outside the realm of what is possible, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26; Mark 10:27).

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Guercino, 1621


Because it can easily give rise and/or lend support to an unhealthy Platonic dualism that is sadly all-too-familiar among Christians even today, I think it helps to point out that in our second reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, the distinction the apostle makes between "spirit" and "flesh" can in no way be construed as a rejection of the body. In other words, salvation is not achieved by liberating our spirits from our bodies, as the Manicheans and other Gnostics believed. To understand what St. Paul wrote as being dismissive of or denigrating the body is not only to badly misread this passage, it demonstrates an adherence to a Gnostic tendency that has led to a lot of what I briefly described in Friday's post. As human beings, we are embodied beings, which is why bodily resurrection is so terribly important for us.

The Greek word for "physical body" transliterates into English as soma, whereas the Greek word for flesh transliterates as sarx. The word St. Paul uses for spirit, whether our spirit or God's, is pneuma. Like sarki, the proper form of sarx for the context in which the apostle employs the word, the appropriate variant of soma (i.e., soma- singular; somata- plural) is used twice in this passage. It is good that both sarx and soma are used because it helps us grasp the distinction between flesh and body.

Soma first appears in the phrase- "the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also" (Rom 8:10- emboldening and italicizing emphasis mine). Because the word in the original Greek is soma, the word "bodies" in this verse is better translated as "body," as it often is in other English translations. Somata appears in this sentence: "If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom 8:11- emboldening and italicized emphasis mine). By "flesh" (i.e., sarki), St. Paul referred to something like an unregenerate mind or soul, a person who has not received, has not been infused with, the Holy Spirit, what the apostle, in this passage, refers to as both "the Spirit of God" and "the Spirit of Christ"- the indwelling of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can't really blame Thomas for not grasping resurrection, even after witnessing Jesus' miraculous resuscitation of Lazarus, or even for refusing to believe the testimony of his fellow disciples after Christ was raised was from dead. Would you have believed? More importantly, as Jesus asked Martha, "Do you believe this?" It's a lot to grasp; too much at times, really. Like Thomas, what remains important for us, what we are supposed to be reminded of on Fridays of Lent as we abstain and generously give alms to help those in need of material assistance, as we walk the Stations of the Cross together, is the necessity of going to die with Jesus. The only way beyond the Cross is through the Cross. In order to enter the light, you must first pass through darkness.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Some thoughts on the theology of marriage

In my disorderly and quite undisciplined intellectual life, if that's what you can call it (I am possessed of an intellect, even if not a terribly good one), this week I began reading a May 2013 report produced by a theological commission appointed by the Church of Scotland's General Assembly: "Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry" (the report can be accessed here). In all honesty, given everything else I have going on (about which I try not to be too bitter), I haven't made it very far through the report. The report explores the question as to whether a member of the Church of Scotland can be a minister of the Word and Sacrament or a deacon if s/he (the Church of Scotland has permitted women in ministry since the late 1960s) has entered into either a legally recognized same-sex civil partnership or a legally recognized same-sex marriage.

In Section 1.5.4, the report points out a few things that, at least in what I read about marriage (mostly books and articles written by Roman Catholics for Roman Catholics), are often ignored. The title of this section of the report is- "The Contemporary Debate: Believing in Marriage. Believing in Marriage was a different report issued by the Church of Scotland's Working Group on Human Sexuality the previous year, 2012. The section of the report under consideration gives an overview of some the findings of the previous report concerning marriage in the Bible. Citing Believing in Marriage the report states:
There are clearly both continuities and discontinuities between Old and New Testament perspectives on marriage. There is clear continuity when the gospels explicitly interpret Genesis 2:24 [which I frequently refer as the Bible's UR verse on marriage] as an indication of the Creator's intent that marriage be monogamous and for life; and although the New Testament primarily addresses Christian disciples, it understands the call to marital faithfulness to be universal, and adultery to be a mark of general rebellion against the Creator
In seeking to expound on the discontinuity, Believing in Marriage went on to note:
... the Old Testament uniformly sees marriage and procreation as signs of God’s blessing and human virtue, both in the order of Creation and amongst the covenant people, the New Testament moves in a different direction. First, there is a departure from the assumption that marriage is for all – living in the light of Christ may have different implications for disciples. Second, there is almost silence on the issue of procreation – no longer is this a significant means of God fulfilling his promises to his people. Disciples are called into relationship with God in Christ, and with each other, and that relationship stands apart from, and perhaps even in tension with, the ‘normal’ social order of family life. This differing attitude can in part be explained by how the people of God are to be constituted in the light of the gospel. No longer is belonging seen as genealogical. It is not birth but belief that defines who belongs. It is primarily mission and not procreation that ensures the growth of God’s people, although this is not to deny that the divine covenant has always included the children of believers. Further, whereas the Mosaic Law assumes an intention to regulate the social order of Israel as a whole, the New Testament assumes that God’s people will exist as a minority differentiated from the wider social order, a differentiation existing even within the same family structure
I think the discontinuity highlighted here by the Church of Scotland's Working Group on Human Sexuality has relevance for Catholic discussions concerning marriage and family and not merely when it comes to ecumenism.

Continuing its analysis of the discontinuities concerning marriage between the Old and New Testaments, the section continues:
The theological motifs governing marriage also change. The New Testament views both Creation, and God’s covenant relationship to his people, in the light of Christ. As the Old Testament compares marriage to God’s covenant with Israel, the New Testament compares marriage to Christ’s relationship with his Church. Furthermore, the theme of an expected marriage between Yahweh and his people is drawn into the New Testament and presented as part of the self-understanding of Jesus. The kingdom of God is compared to a marriage-feast thrown in honour of the coming bridegroom (Matthew 9:14-15, 22:1-2; 25:1, Mark 2:18-20, Luke 5:33-35). Jesus himself is portrayed explicitly as this expected bridegroom, whose return is delayed


Before anyone starts to go crazy about "that heretical deacon," let me clearly note that the view of marriage set forth in Believing in Marriage is discontinuous with the Catholic Church's understanding of marriage. This becomes clear in light of the fact that, as Believing in Marriage points out, Reformed and Catholic views of marriage diverge most dramatically when it comes to the question as to whether or not marriage is a sacrament. Believing in Marriage points out that the Church of Scotland, being a Reformed Church, or, to stick with clunky Catholic terminology, "ecclesial community," does not view marriage as a sacrament. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.19.34), citing Genesis 2:21-24 and Matthew 19:4-12, Calvin argued against marriage as a sacrament. Briefly, Calvin asserted that nowhere in his life and ministry did Christ institute marriage as a sacrament and he also noted that Scripture does not contain anything like a marriage ceremony. Of course, there is plenty to be discussed with regard to both of these assertions.

While some Catholics may protest, it helps to understand that marriage vis-à-vis the Church has a very complex, if not downright convoluted history. The history of what is and what is not a sacrament is an interesting history in and of itself and certainly not as straightforward as Catholics often believe. If marriage is not a sacrament, there is a credible argument to be made, one made by the Church of Scotland's Working Group on Human Sexuality, that marriage is not fundamental to the faith. After all, it does not touch on the content of the Creeds, which for the Church of Scotland are the Apostles Creed and the Westminster Confession. If marriage is understood as not being fundamental to the faith, then different conscientious views concerning the possibility of what are called "same-sex" marriages may be held and charitably discussed.

One thing that becomes increasingly clear to me as I study the sacraments at the service of communion as a married Catholic cleric is that Roman Catholics have a very high theology of both marriage and ordination. I think there is a distinction to be made between a high sacramental theology and an impossibly high theology of these two sacraments. I think it is pertinent to point this out in light of the fallout over Amoris laetita, which controversy, about which everyone seems to have an opinion, tends to obscure the most important task of all arising from the two synods on marriage: better preparing couples to live the sacrament of matrimony. Having an impossibly high theology of matrimony (and orders) concerns me because it has very real, very vexing, practical, personal, and pastoral implications.

It is not the case that I am opposed to a sacramental understanding of what have been described by theologian Owen Cummings as the "diaconal" sacraments. It is certainly not the case that I reject the sacramentality of either. But I do think our sacramental theology is often not only ahistorical, but often downright unhistorical (high vs. impossibly high). With regard to marriage, the Catholic Church has articulated very well the continuities between the Hebrew Scriptures and our uniquely Christian Scriptures, but I think we need to pay closer attention to the discontinuities, as well as to the actual history of the Church's understanding and practice of marriage over two millennia. Even accepting an ever deepening, Spirit-led, development of the Church's understanding of the sacrament of matrimony, how we got from there to here cannot be traced with anything approaching a straight line, which is not to say there is no inherent, what one might call "dogmatic," and enduring properties of matrimony. Conversely, the Church of Scotland, in light of the articulation by their Working Group on Human Sexuality of marriage in the New Testament, and virtually all other Protestant ecclesial communities, could stand to focus some attention on the importance and practice of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom in the Church.

When it comes to the mystery of faith as made explicit in and through the sacraments, which explicitness is at least partially derived from the lives of participants in sacramental rites, thus contributing to what makes them "real," I suppose a certain "ahistoricity" is to be expected. But fanciful and unhistorical views need to be critically engaged and charitably challenged because faith is not fantasy. Evangelization is dramatically impacted by Christians who seek to live and perpetuate some kind of saccharine alternative reality. I think the trajectory on which the Second Vatican Council, particularly Part II, Chapter I of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), set the Church when it comes to marriage, needs to be followed. This trajectory can can be described as understanding marriage first and foremost, even exclusively, as a sacrament (a mystery) instead of as a juridical reality, or a remedy for concupiscence. Like the cursus honorum, it is useful to discern to what extent the theology of marriage in the Latin Church is rooted in Roman law. I think it is only by doing this that we can begin to grasp to what extent this is consistent with revelation. I also think we're overdue for an updating, a ressourcement, of Christian celibacy, or celibacy for the sake of God's kingdom. Of course, ideally, the two need should develop hand-in-hand.

Since today is 1 April, or April Fools Day, and I am writing on marriage, I remembered that I have an aunt and uncle who were married close to 50 years ago on 1 April.