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Monday, March 20, 2017

Second Thoughts: My Bad (A3L)

"Waters of Life," sculpture at Chester cathedral.
Just when I thought I had exhausted what I would ever have to say about the Samaritan woman and Jesus, mystic Henri Nouwen, liturgist John Michael Reyes, and novelist George Saunders combine to throw me back into the cold waters of mystery and take my breath away with even more, sort of like the photo of this amazing sculpture 👉🏻 did.

I'm very leery of over-personalistic interpretations both of the scrutiny gospels and of the scrutiny themselves. But encased in this prejudice of mine is a gaping opportunity to oversimplify, throw babies out with baptismal water, and ignore important aspects of both story and ritual that are too important to gloss over. While I think it remains true that scrutinies are primarily concerned with social sin and structures of sin that provoke evil from us in ways of which we are not even aware, it is also true that scrutinies are celebrated to strengthen what is weak in us, and also have the explicit task of throwing the light of the gospel on the things we do, the way we act in life, so that we can see ourselves and our complicity in the sinfulness of the structures of civilization itself, so that we can be enlightened enough to turn around (i.e., repent) and start acting in the kingdom of God. Light and strength: these are the aspects for which I'd like to thank the above trio of spiritual gurus for reminding me that there are trees in the forest of insight. In fact, there are no forests without the trees. Let me be concrete.

In one homily I heard, the priest was talking about the thirst in the heart of the Samaritan woman, and quoted Henri Nouwen in a passage about loneliness from The Wounded Healer:
The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain... We easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know... that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence.
He didn't use all of that, but that's the idea. The church's preaching has pretty much over-personalized this gospel, and it might seem that invoking spiritual "loneliness" would follow that vector. But the way I heard it, and the sentiment was echoed by another homily that invoked Richard Rohr's well-known image of a "God-sized hole" in the human heart that can only be filled by the divine, the loneliness Nouwen praises as a gift is the human need for transcendence. We are never satisfied without a deep connection to a transcendent Other. A few of us find this in communion with one whom we recognize as divine, but I think that many more of us discover transcendence, at least in a nascent way, in connection with others, with the world of nature, in love. Once we are able to break out of the shell of our self-interest and become aware of relationships and communion, in short, in the experience of ecstasy, the loneliness begins to subside, and we tend to be drawn ever deeper into that network or matrix of divine presence that is the human family and the created universe.

It further seems to me that the formalization of this experience in the Christian community is the process of incorporation the culminates in baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. There are other ways to be connected and to experience transcendence to be sure, some for better (hooking up with a twelve-step program, for instance, joining a charitable or world-building organization like Doctors without Borders or the Peace Corps) and some for worse, like street gangs and nationalist organizations. I would judge the quality of the transcendence by the means to its goal. To the extent that the end of transcendence is self-gift, agapic love, it better satisfies the inner longing Nouwen describes as loneliness. To the extent that it defines itself not by a border between "us and them" but by a desire for encounter that goes ever outward and especially toward those unable to return the gift in kind, it is more genuinely transcendent. While these experiences may result in the growth and happiness of the participants, happiness is not their goal, but love. By not defining myself against others but as part of a grander "whole" that is all-inclusive and outward-bound, I find that the inner loneliness subsides.

For us, all of this has its origin and its destiny in God, just as the preface yesterday so beautifully stated:
"For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love."
God is, so God loves. God thirsts for love, so God creates. By Jesus's saying "I'm thirsty, give me a drink of water," Jesus pulls the woman in the story out of her ethnic and gender preoccupations even as he sets his own aside. Jesus knows that the divine fire is already burning in her because of her creation, and certainly because, the Jewish-Samaritan "narcissism of small differences" aside, she has learned the Torah as well, and wants to worship in spirit and truth. In this story of a micro-relationship between a woman and Jesus set at what might as well be the honeymoon suite at Hotel Yenta, the fourth gospel unleashes on the world a blueprint for peace and reconciliation, a blueprint which is being used to form and discern those who are being apprenticed in Christian life. The scrutiny celebrated in churches with catechumens this year wants to do exactly that: make them (and us) examine our "loneliness," and strengthen us to break out of our fearfulness and navel-gazing, claim the gifts we have been given to forge bonds with other people who need our gifts, and fill up that "God-sized hole" in our hearts with the God in whose image every human person has been fashioned.

Then I encountered a short blog post by John Michael Reyes, a liturgist and musician in the diocese of San Jose in California, in campus ministry at the University of Santa Clara. By the time I saw it, a dozen or so of my friends on Facebook were already lit up by his words, and by the end of the day nearly a hundred had read and delighted in his words. He began by posing the question, based on the gospel of the Samaritan woman, "Have you ever been so embarrassed that it paralyzed you?", he catalogued a series of events in his youth that culminated in depression and attempted suicide, became isolated and afraid. In this state, he found an echo of his former self in the woman in yesterday's gospel. False starts, false accusations, not being able to live under the scrutiny of the expectations of others. Seeing himself through the eyes of Christ allowed him to "come out" of the darkness he found himself in, and, like the Samaritan woman, he has been able through grace to work in initiation ministry and issue the same invitation to "come out" to others who seek fulfilment in Christ. He listens to the stories others tell about their lives, and helps them reinterpret their lives through the eyes of Jesus. Again, a different, more intimate take on the story itself, but it opens up the story in a new way in much the way that the Emmaus story does. Our personal story may have us arguing about our life in circles, seeing no particular trajectory or value in it. But when we say it out loud, and let Christ—including the Christ who is incarnate in the catechist or spiritual guide—interpret our story through the loving eyes and heart of God, our story is transformed and we find ourselves connected to the beating heart of the universe, and thus to others. Something new is finally possible.

Finally, over the last couple of weeks I had the extraordinary pleasure of listening to what might be the most wonderful book I've read in thirty years, since A Prayer for Owen Meany: I'm talking about George Saunders's luminous and compassionate novel Lincoln in the Bardo. On the off chance that you might take my advice and read this book yourself, I will not reveal plot points, no spoilers from me. But Saunders borrows the concept of the "bardo" from Tibetan Buddhism, and transforms it a little, to describe the place between death and "passing on" to whatever lies beyond. The Tibetan "whatever" is, assumably, reincarnation, but that doesn't seem to be what he has in mind. He seems to mean something like heaven, but for good reason he doesn't describe it in any detail, just in metaphor and promise.

The reason that it seems to appropriate here is that for the dead in the bardo, what is most precious is the illusion that they are still alive, and that they still may be able to get what they wanted in life an missed, or (in their cognizance) haven't achieved yet. What they want most is time to fulfill what is yet unfulfilled. And yet, each is so completely focused on what it is that they want that the perception of others in the bardo about them is that some element or elements of their appearance is exaggerated in a way that broadcasts, to their chagrin, what they don't have.

The entire novel takes place on the day when Lincoln's twelve-year-old son Willy is buried in a borrowed grave in a cemetery near the White House in February of 1862. It is Lincoln's shattering grief over the loss of his sweet son, the shambles of his wife's life, his horror over the first reports of the huge casualties of the battle of Fort Donelson and his mismanagement of the war that all come crashing down on the cemetery to interrupt the grousing and infighting among the dead at the cemetery. Based on the recorded visits of Lincoln to his son's grave under cover of darkness on that winter night, the novel imagines what the boy's spirit's journey might look like, how his love and his father's love might have impacted the souls buried around him, and how Lincoln might have been changed by his encounters.

For purposes of Lent, what interests me and what I want to tell you in the most general way I can is that what matters in the end is the ability to tell the truth about who we are, about acknowledging that we're actually dead, so that we can move on and embrace the possibilities that lie ahead of us. It is this truth-telling that enables us to get out of our dead selves and begin to do for one another, to begin to enter into relationships that are for other people and not focused on what we ourselves need.

For the souls in the bardo, what is actually the possibility of a different future appears to be death. And death it well may be, but it's the death of what passes for life among the dead. Stating it like that shows the contradiction for what is is: a doorway into life. This kind of change is not a fiction. Fiction offers us a metaphor for understanding reality, the world in which we find ourselves, the only world we know for certain, and the world Jesus was interested in changing. When he asks, in the story, the Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water, he shatters the silence and antipathy of centuries and generations. Chapter 8 of Acts of the Apostles (an episode of which we will hear on a Sunday late in the Easter season) will tell us the rest of the story: the Samaritans on hearing the preaching of Philip and others from the Jerusalem diaspora came in great numbers to faith in the gospel. A moment's risk at Jacob's well, a drink of water (one assumes) given to an enemy, opens up the way for the reconciliation of worlds.

Loneliness, paralyzing embarrassment, death masquerading as life and opportunity. Reyes points out, as others have, that we don't know the woman's name from the story. Why do you think that is? I suggest, as James Alison suggests about the "other disciple" with Clopas on the road to Emmaus, that it's an intentional omission, so that the person might be anyone. Anyone who, in this case, has a life whose false starts add up to six, or "infinite incompleteness;" anyone who is "paralyzed by embarrassment," or isolated by terror. Wherever we need to go to get away, the Seventh Husband, Mr. Right, is waiting there with flowers and chocolates. My story may not make sense to me, but when I hear the Stranger tell it, it sounds like a love story. A really good story. A story I belong in. A story with room for everybody. Suddenly, it seems my fear is transformed into something else.

Suddenly, all I can say is, "Let me tell you about someone who's told me everything I've ever done."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mardi (& place your other favorite days here) Gras

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Aujourd’hui, c’est le temps à laisser les bons temps rouler. This means two things: a) staff meeting today, but enough about my problems, b) and it’s choir practice day, which can only mean a party. One simply doesn’t have rehearsal on a night like this without the opportunity to consume mass quantities. 

In my choir, we may miss a note or two, but we never miss a party. We never met a carbohydrate we didn’t like. We had more time to fatten up before Lent this year than last: one might say, we were given a jubilee of weeks, during which we might drown our winter blahs in fat, carbs, and sugars. This might be regarded as a Septuagesima of Satiety, to use the jargon of another era, preparing for the jejune rigors of the forty days. So we come to rehearsal to bring the jubilee to a close. After all, what is “fasting” if not an anagram of “sing fat”?

One can, if one is I, go on for a while about the waxing and waning of weight, only there’s not much waning to talk about, which is a weighty matter. As is Lent. It seems like a fairly shallow approach to Lenten asceticism to deny oneself in order to lose weight. But looking at the same set of data from a different angle, I can see how the weight thing is a symbol (in the fullest sense of the word) of being “too much,” of using too much, overreaching into the cosmic pantry from which all should be sharing equally. Being full all the time, in any way, doesn’t leave much room, literally, for God, who moves into the quiet and void places in which one waits. I mean, it’s not all about food and eating, of course, we can and do fill up and are overweight in all kinds of ways — our time, our attention, our allegiances. We can be kind of bloated, super-sized, in ways that bump up against and overpower other people instead of being aware of them and tending to their needs. We (I) can get so consumed by consumption, by holding myself and all my needs and wants together, that I’m rendered ontologically incapable of agape. I can’t pour myself out for you, because I’ve forgotten how. I have to hold myself together. 

So, what is Lent for then? I suppose I’ll be thinking about that in the rhythm of the liturgy over the next six weeks or so. The “turning” that is conversion, I’ve come to believe, is about choosing one’s God. It’s a political decision, which seems more fitting in even-numbered years when Mardi Gras coincides with local elections or Super Tuesday and a fistful of political primaries. And then, this Sunday’s gospel, baking in the hungry desert heat, givies us two opposing theologies of “election.” Whom are we going to believe in? Whom do I believe in? And by “believe,” I have to mean what the gospel means: to love (agape) with my whole heart, soul, mind, and money. 

At the Easter Vigil, I will vow, again, to follow the Jesus and serve his mission, the mission of the paschal God. This is the God of self-gift, the trajectory of whose life is one of complete outpouring, whose incarnate Word was killed as a enemy of Caesar in the world of god named Tiberius, and, wondrous is the telling, was raised up again. Do I want to follow that trajectory? The self-emptying of God is such a black hole at the center of my universe that I feel that I have no choice but to enter it, that it is my destiny along with all of creation, but also that I need to pay attention to all the signs of life beyond that event horizon. “For your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” That goes for the living as well as the dead, because God is life. It is the lesson of the Messiah, of all the heroes, saints, mystics, and martyrs in every time and place. The company is good, the journey is worth taking. It’s the leave-taking, the first step, that’s the doozy. The bigger we are, the harder we follow, as it were. 

How do I make room for this God of Jesus in this behemoth of body and ego that stuffs itself into my suits? It appears that scripture suggests fasting happily, making room in the body, praying emptily, making room in the mind, and giving generously, making room in the heart and pocketbook. And really, it’s all kinds of fasting, isn’t it? Not to take anything away from food fasting, because that’s crucial as a physical metaphor especially, but fasting from everything that flows from self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Fasting from everything unloving. How can I stop passing judgments, the million or so I make, every time I read my news feed, or serve at mass with others who have a different piety or discipline or outlook about the liturgy from mine, and whose every word and gesture grate like fingernails on the blackboard of my heart? Confront or sublimate? What is love’s path for me here? “Love is patient, and kind, it’s not rude, it doesn’t put on airs....” And this from the pen of a guy who was imprisoned, beaten, spat on, shipwrecked, lashed, mocked, and ignored in a dozen different countries he had risked his life to visit. Surely if people like me have found a way to love and forgive their enemies, I can find a way to live in peace and harmony with people who ought to be my friends in Christ? Why does that have to be so hard? 

I know it goes back to this Catholic thing about needing to be right. At least I’m aware of it, that has been a gift of the last several years of reflecting on it. If needing to be right is wrong, I don’t want to be right. I want to be like the God who did not even cling to godliness just to be “wrong” like us. 

Enough. A few short hours before Lent starts. I think i need a little less “theo-” and a little more “Rio.” Since the weather threatens a cold rain, maybe ice and snow, I must seek refuge where there are promises of warmth. Thus, I shall prepare choir practice, this week, by setting out taller wine cups, and plates big enough for paczki and king cake. ☺

**Full disclosure: I wrote this post a few years ago, but never published it. So I updated it a little bit, and put it out there today for the fun of it. Things are better for me, but it's true enough!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Sermon on the Mount: the Reign of God, right here, right now

I've been thinking since January that I ought to try to write something as comprehensive as I can about the Sermon on the Mount. It's so important in the Gospel of Matthew, and I think it's set up as the first follow-up to Jesus's proclamation that "the reign of God is at hand," that his listeners should "repent." We heard all that the week previous to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, heard on the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time. If we hear that initial proclamation together with this first of the five discourses in Matthew, I think what we're getting is the first gospel's laying out of what it means to "repent," i.e. experience and surrender to metanoia, an inner change that becomes a new path in a different direction, and begin to experience the reign of God here and now. Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven" to mean the "reign of God," using Hebraic circumlocution to avoid saying the name of God. We're not to hear "heaven" (solely) as a place that is distant or coming after death, because Jesus is clear that this condition of the kingdom of heaven is "at hand." It's very, very close. We're to hear it as the sphere of God's active influence now, in this world and all the other ones. But for us, it's this one that matters. What Jesus begins by doing in the Sermon on the Mount is spelling out what that looks like at the beginning of a public life when he will further make it visible by living it out with a community of disciples.

A few sections from the discourse are omitted from the five Sunday proclamation that we hear in Year A. Notably, one large section is used on Ash Wednesday, the section about praying with integrity, and fasting and giving alms with the right disposition. In all, half a dozen of the forty or so gospels during the weekdays of Lent are from the Sermon on the Mount, further highlighting its importance in the Christian life. As I have pointed out before and in my book Change Our Hearts, the Lenten lectionary is a "crash course" or primer in Christian living, a handbook for catechumens in their final days before baptism. Among those gospels are the Our Father, the golden rule, and enemy love. Only the last is an echo of the proclamation on these Sundays.

So I'd like to start by positing that the Beatitudes aren't a blueprint for living or a manifesto. They are Jesus's declaration of how things are right now. Jesus is telling poor, ordinary people in an occupied country that God is present in their poverty, their longing for justice, their merciful and peacemaking actions, their apparent insignificance, their pain and sadness, and their desire for God. That is what "blessed" means, translating the Greek makarios, which has also been translated "happy" or "lucky." Makarios has a sense of "being enlarged" by the grace of God's presence that is already with them. He is telling them, by contrast, that what people of influence think of as a blessing is not necessarily a blessing at all. The lowly are in the enviable (another meaning of makarios) position of already having God at their side. There is no need to desire what it appears the powerful possess, because the living God is already present, with the fullness of divine favor, in their need. As Matthew strings together other sayings of Jesus in his discourse, he lays out just what that means because of what kind of a God his Abba is. Things are just starting to get interesting.

Light and Salt
So after declaring the blessedness, the enviable much-ness of Abba's presence in his children, Matthew's gospel lays in the sayings about them being "light of the world," "salt of the earth," and a "city set upon a hill." He could not say this unless the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, were already present and available to them. In a cold, dark world of violent greed and escalating retribution that they know only too well from beneath, Jesus challenges the children of Abba to shine their inner beacon outward, and be the catalyst for the fire that will burn the old world away and make something new.

The Our Father 
Rabbis teach their disciples to pray. By putting this story into the collection of sayings that make up the Sermon on the Mount, the author of the first gospel helps us understand just what the God in like in whom Jesus believes, whom Jesus trusts with his life, from whom Jesus draws his strength, and, we come to understand, who reveals Jesus as his unique Son by the way he lives his life. I've written about this prayer at length in two posts, "Grokking the 'our' in the Our Father" and "Revisiting the Lord's Prayer," so no need to go into detail here. What's important in the overall placing of the Lord's Prayer in this part of the gospel, in the shadow of the proclamation to "repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand," is its underlying faith in a provident God who wants to be known as a father to his children. There are many gods available to Jesus's hearers, then and now, notably the god of the Roman empire, Tiberius Caesar. They are only too well aware of the kind of god Tiberius is, a god who brings peace through victory in war, keeps peace by the presence of violent legions and bestial governors, and whose justice benefits the victors alone, and oppresses the empire's subjects.

Jesus's God, on the other hand, they already know from their communal story, and whom their gentile sympathizers know to be a liberator and friend of the weak. But Jesus is even more intimate in his prayer to Abba, reminding them about how they treat their own children, and saying "if you love your children, how much more does abba love his?" Furthermore, the very naming of God as abba invites those who pray into a relationship to one another, a relationship that will be further explored in the Sermon. It is the relationship of a family of sisters and brothers who care for one another, who love each other with the same love with which they love themselves. Even more startlingly, it is a family relationship that includes all of God's children. It's not limited to those whom we consider family: it extends to all of God's beloved children, including the enemy.

The Hypertheses: love as the fullness of the law
There are five sayings in the Sermon on the Mount that teach us how Jesus reads the bible. They are called the hypertheses, and can be identified by the formula, "You have heard it said...but I say to you." On one level, Matthew has been setting Jesus up, even by placing this discourse on a mountain, as a new Moses, and wants to show his Jewish audience, and others who may want to idolize the law of Moses, that law is something that should not restrict good while it protects the weak. Things like these hypertheses, the prophecies fulfilled in the infancy narrative, and the number of discourses in Matthew come in fives because Moses was revered as the author of the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, called the Torah, or the Pentateuch.

I came to see this section in a new light after my encounters with James Alison's Jesus: The Forgiving Victim, as well as a couple of other books dealing with the question of violence in the bible, especially Derek Flood's wonderful book Disarming Scripture. For the sake of the people of God, Jesus is critical of the religious rulers who have turned religious law and worship into strictures of law and summary obedience that is not in their best interest and does not reflect the nature of Abba whom he knows to be relational and not just "a god like the other gods." "The prophetic spirit however is one that lovingly critiques religion from the inside, not as a way to destroy it, but as a way to make it good and whole," writes Flood. "This was the focus of Jesus, and is characteristic of how he read and applied Scripture in the context of confronting the fundamentalism of his day." Jesus makes clear that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law of love, with Abba showing the way and being the greatest lover of all, doesn't forget to dot an i or cross a t of the law.

Alison helps us understand that every reading of scripture is an interpretation. There has never been one way to interpret any text, and, in fact, when stories had to be told or written texts interpreted, the question was always "through whose eyes do you read the scripture?"
…(F)or ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?”
Alison poses that one answer to that question that can be found in Jewish scriptures, arising out of a story during the Exodus (Numbers 12). There is a row between Miriam, Aaron, and Moses about who ought to be able to speak for God. God answers the question in story by saying it is Moses the "humble, more than anyone else on earth" who speaks on his behalf. So one rabbinic way of interpreting the scripture would be through the eyes of "Moses the meek," giving the gentlest, most expansive interpretation possible. Alison goes on, though, to give a later option, from the dawn of the Christian era:
The other main answer to the question “Through whose eyes do you read the texts of Scripture?” is the answer given not by rabbinical Judaism, but by its slightly older contemporary, Universalizing, or New Testament Judaism, what we now call Christianity, which had begun to try to answer this question in the years between Jesus’ death and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. That answer was “We read the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus our Rabbi.” And those who gave this answer were well aware that they were answering a quite specific, and complex, question of interpretation. Their claim was that Jesus was a dead and living Rabbi. In other words, that a living interpretative principle was available to them to open their eyes to read their texts.
All of this is a way of seeing how Jesus reads the scripture in a way that says, "I know that's what your Bible says, but that's not the issue. The issue is that Abba wants a family, wants sisters and brothers who treat one another as equals, with love that is unrestricted by any claims of law or duty. The question was never 'How little can I do and still be a good person?', but rather, 'How can I live as a child of a loving abba in such a way as to reflect and give the love I have received from abba toward everyone else in God's family?" 

Enemy love, desire, and the golden rule
Once again, my purpose here is to look at the sayings of Jesus that Matthew has strung into the Sermon on the Mount and see in them an introductory sermon on the kernel of his preaching, "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." In these few words, Jesus is trying to say that nothing is going to change if we keep doing business as usual. "Repent" means, literally, turn your life around. "Kingdom of heaven" means, the gentle presence of my abba-God. Don't keep using the methods of the world around you. Violence begets violence. The escalating demands of desire for wealth and power put you at odds with one another with terrible consequences. There is another way. There is another God. Don't keep up the old behaviors and expect a different outcome. Turn around—this is really good news. Follow me.

The last of the hypertheses, and at the very heart of this entire sermon, is the saying about enemy love, and the stunning request Jesus makes of us to "be perfect, as (in the way that) your heavenly abba is perfect." What does that mean? We spend our lives judging others, their actions and their motivations, deciding who is worthy of our respect and care and who isn't. Jesus says something different.
You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
To use Girardian language, it is the spiral of mimetic desire and the structures supporting a violent scapegoat mechanism that fuels the carnage of Caesar's world, or just "the world" in the language of the bible. We identify an enemy, internal or external to our group. We define our "in" group over and against the enemy, someone who wants what we have. It doesn't matter what it is. This pattern of blame and demonization leads to violence, and the murder or marginalization of the enemy puts the angst of society relax for a while until the next crisis arises. But the need for more security, more goods, more resources, more room, more jobs, more entitlements inevitably leads to escalating pressure within the "in" group, and the cycle continues. How do we break this cycle that is apparently foundational to civilization itself?

Jesus's answer is, "Be perfect like abba is perfect." Stop judging. Stop defining who you are by defining yourself against others. See how God does it: everything that has been made is for everyone. No judgment, just all that life pouring out of the heavens. If you do that, love your neighbor as yourself, if you act like children of abba and family to each other, you can change the world.

What we will be doing is letting the Spirit of God, who is within us, do what the Spirit wants to do: make us one. We have been given the Spirit, all of us, but to us Christians, explicitly and with our ultimate consent, in our baptism. But the Spirit given to us is pure gift, that is, it is the spirit of love, the spirit of self-given-for-others, and so longs to be lavished upon others. To the extent that we act like God, we are divinized. We let our sun shine and rain fall on the good and bad alike. We love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. What people see in this is God working, and so Jesus can say, "your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father."

It's crazy and seems impossible, but it's the only way out of hell, the hell of violence and suspicion that is "the world" without God.

Do not worry
The Sermon on the Mount encompasses all of chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew, but the final installment that we hear in these gospels of Ordinary Time is the end of chapter 6. (Actually, the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which, along with Sundays 10 and 11 isn't celebrated this year due to the way the liturgical calendar is constructed, contains verses 21-27 from chapter 7. You'll have to read that part on your own!)

In the last section that we hear this year, Jesus says that we won't be disappointed when we seek God's reign and its "righteousness" first.  He means that we were made for it, that it will fit us like a glove, and the reason that we're unhappy in the kingdom of Caesar is that we're trying to force ourselves into a world for which we were never intended. What made those people go out to hear Jesus that day, and John the Baptist before him? What made those fishermen leave their livelihood and go itinerant with the rabbi when he invited them? Don't you think that they knew there was something wrong, and they heard something right, an echo of their purest, most ancient identity, in his words? I think this is what Matthew means when, at the end of chapter 7 and the conclusion of Jesus's discourse, he says,
When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
At the end of chapter six, Jesus tells them that they're in good hands when they entrust their lives to Abba and to one another as sisters and brothers. That's what is meant by the "kingdom of heaven." Jesus means that when we switch our allegiance, our trust, our hope, from the "kingdoms of this world" to the world of "our Father," we will find the real security, justice, and peace for ourselves and for everyone else, the only real possibility for security and peace and justice, because when everyone has enough, the cycle of mimetic desire and escalating violence is broken. When what we see in others is self-gift, when "doing unto others what you would have do unto you" is practiced by everyone, our human talent for imitation and "desiring according to the desire of the other" is finally turned away from competition and toward mutuality.

So "do not worry," because when you care about one another's good, your neighbor's got your back. Do not worry, because that is the way you were made to live in the beginning.

I need to hear this again this year. I think we all need to hear it, because the voice of Tiberius is still telling us to be afraid of enemies on the frontiers, while arming the borders against enemies imagined and, to a lesser extent, real. The choice for us, nominal Christians, liturgical Christians, continues to be "business as usual" and complicity with the almost unspeakable violence of which other gods are capable, or to just turn around and start cooperating with the Spirit of God which has been planted in our heart, and which calls out to others to listen to the voice of Jesus gently pleading with us to live another way. We keep coming back to hear that message, Sunday after Sunday. We know something is wrong. We insist, most of the time, on hedging our bets and throwing in with the guys with the guns. But there he is again, in his gospel being read when we get together, astonishing us with his teaching, a word utterly unlike the tweets and executive orders and threats we hear from the other gods who say they swear to protect us. We know something's wrong, and these words two millennia old sound like they were written just for us today: "Be light. Be a fire. Be reconciled. Do not resist the violent. Love your enemies. Do good to haters. Be perfect. Don't worry. And pray like this: Our Father. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth." Our Father. Amen.

My posts on the individual Sundays for the Sermon on the Mount:

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (the Beatitudes)
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (salt and light)
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (reading the Bible like Jesus)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 1 (beyond talion, resisting violence)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 2 (love your enemies, be perfect)
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, (lilies, birds, two masters)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Triduum stories

I thought that, like I did with posts on the scrutinies, I'd gather the various posts on aspects of the Triduum (and Palm Sunday for good measure) on one page where they're easy to spot. Another way is to use the "Labels" to the right ---> and just click "Triduum," which makes them all pop up on one page. But for them as likes a list....


Who comes in the name of the Lord?
That whole "obedient unto death thing"


Anniversary: My half-life as a music director
Real presence
"Gave himself as food and drink"


It's not a funeral for Jesus
Nine months until Christmas (Annunciation)
Thy kingdom (not of this world) come
I AM (I am not)


Toward a family-friendly Easter Vigil
Horse and chariot: where the rubber hits the Way
"My creations are drowning, and you are singing before me?"


Triduum music for 2014
Word of the day: Triduum
Who's in charge here?


Christos anesti

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Invisible joy and the emptiness of love (A4O)

God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God. (1 Cor. 1: 27-29)
I am so looking forward to praying through the Sermon on the Mount in these approaching Sundays of Ordinary Time, and to boot we get the continued reading of the beginning of 1 Corinthians. Sunday's gospel is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that foundational piece of Jesus's preaching which we know by the latinate term beatitudes, or "blessednesses."

Preparing us to hear Matthew is the reading from Zephaniah, naming the "remnant" of Israel, the anawim, those who remained faithful to the covenant after the extreme trials of the captivities. It is from these poor, stateless, faithful Jews, who point the way to God for people who lose their way. Then we hear Paul's mighty boast to the Corinthians, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the folly of the cross. Paul is alarmed to have heard about rifts in Corinth among believers in different "versions" of the gospel, which we heard about last Sunday. There are divisions as well between rich and poor, rifts that have begun to exhibit themselves in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. So Paul starts at his center, and appeals to the cross and to the immense and unknowable wisdom of God which appears to human beings as folly. Through the unthinkable execution of an innocent man, God reconciles humanity, ends the cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice at the heart of human religion, and offers an alternative worldview to the Pax Romana, which is to say, peace through victory and forced obedience. Through Christ, and therefore through his followers, human wisdom is overturned, and something new is begun.

At the heart of this faith is Paul's relentless belief in the agape that God is. Time after time in his letters, Paul refers to the kenosis of the logos, that is, that God's "personal, definitive self-expression" emptied self into creation. In a sense, God died, giving up life completely for "other" and yet, God's life is never gone, it is, rather, the fullness of life. As human beings, however, we analogically experience that life-to-death-to-life of God as the paschal mystery. We think of God's utter love and self-abandonment as death; we can't see anything else, and yet, God has nothing to do with death. It is love, complete, unknowable, light-filled, utterly other-oriented, that we mistake for death, because we simply can't conceive of it. We can't conceive of a god so selfless that s/he does not cling to god-ness, but pours it out. This is folly to the Greeks, their philosophers and pantheon. But Paul clings to the idea tenaciously, convinced that, in spite of its folly, it is the heart of the reality of God in Christ to the extent that we can understand it.

Perhaps it is thus that Jesus can call the anawim of the earth makarios, or "blessed," "fortunate," or "happy." Having been through all of those translations, I'm in a place now where I'm happy with "blessed." It's a God-word. It can't be mistaken for a sense of giddiness or good luck. To a world, even to his fellow Jews, that believes that to be "blessed" is to be powerful or wealthy, or healthy or intelligent, Jesus proclaims that blessedness is an invisible joy, a gift that can only originate and get its meaning from God, and that blessedness in this God can only be intuited through a sense of not being possessed by the reign of Caesar. In fact, it might be a bonus to be its enemy, to be among the persecuted and calumniated like the master. The poor, even the poor in spirit, the meek, peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the single-hearted, those who are sorrowful, these are the ones closest to God's own nature, God's poverty, God's loss that is creative for the cosmos. God's self-gift, mirrored in Christ, the image of the invisible God, seems to be, unimaginably, a blessedness that we can only perceive as the emptiness of love, and yet it is the creative force that imagined every universe, and sparked the wild singularity that spawned a trillion suns a nanosecond after time was born. If that's death, if that's poverty, I'll take some of that!

A few years ago (I want to say 2011?) on this Sunday we had a busload of Lutherans with us from southern Illinois, they had driven three hours or more to join us in order that we could, together, commission a woman missionary that our communities were sending to the diocese of Goma, in the Congo, to the village of Nkokwe. We committed to supporting that village for five years, and this little community from southern Illinois has already forwarded her a year's worth of living expenses.

When Jackie Griffin was called to the center of the assembly that morning for a commissioning by us and her Lutheran community to her new work in Nkokwe at Rugari parish (Our Lady of the Rosary), the power of the paschal mystery was palpable. I stood with the rest of the community, and felt the breath sucked from my lungs, nearly weeping in that moment of grace, as this woman, full of life and the gospel imperative, committed herself to a year in a turbulent nation where privation, sickness, political violence, and murder are part of the fabric of daily life. This, I became aware, is the real thing, someone who was, for all intents and purposes, selling everything she had, pouring her life out, and giving it to the poor. This was a moment of agape made visible, and anyone who didn't feel that was just not paying attention. In a spiritual, non-threatening sense we were going with her, but it was her life on the line. By the grace of God she planted a seed of the resurrection in that corner of the world, one that we hope will rebound upon us with its clarity. Jackie is blessed. The people whom she goes to serve are blessed. Somehow, by association in the body of Christ, maybe we too, in our suburban outpost of Caesar's empire, will be blessed by our association with them. Slowly, sometimes unwillingly, we learn the lesson of love's emptiness and the joy that is invisible to the privileged and the powerful.

Here's what we're singing for January 29, the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

Entrance: Bring Forth the Kingdom (Haugen)
Psalm 146 "Blessed Are the Poor" (Cooney, verses GIA, unpublished refrain)
Preparation Rite: Beatitudes (Balhoff) or Blessed Are They (Haas)
Communion: Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
Sending Forth: Canticle of the Turning (Cooney)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Second Thoughts: Second Advent

Looking back over last Sunday's readings, or rather, recalling what I was hearing over and over on Sunday, I realize that I was hearing echoes from the news, from social media, and from my own reflections over the past weeks when I had been pretty intensely preparing for some Advent presentations I did in the parish and elsewhere.

To me, the thing about Advent is that it's about preparing for Christmas. So somehow we ought to be thinking about what that means: preparing for Christmas. The General Norms for the Liturgical Year says there's a dual purpose to Advent, one, looking backward to Jesus's coming in history, and one looking forward to his coming at the end of time (#39). As I thought about that, it made me remember that, from God's perspective, those are the same thing. Along with those "two" approaches, or advents, there's also the approach of Jesus in the poor and needy, in all people's times of darkness, grief, and loss, and also the approach of Jesus in those who answer the call to participate in God's mission of reconciling the world. Also the approach of Jesus in the sacramental life of the Church, the ritual making-present of the saving life of God in baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, and the other sacraments and the people of the Church as well. All of that is God approaching us, bigger than we can imagine. Well, not bigger exactly, but vastly different from what we can imagine. Other than we can imagine. So much so that theologian James Alison describes the experience of encounter with God as a realization of the "concavity" created by God's approach, in that maybe we can't actually ever experience God directly, but sort of recognize God's "footprint," or the dent God leaves in reality, perhaps like Moses, who so wanted to see God as God truly is, and was only allowed to see God's arse ("hindquarters") after God passed by. And that made me think of the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews, which happens to the be second reading for the Christmas Mass during the Day, which a lot of us will never hear because of Linus van Pelt and the midnight mass readings:
Brothers and sisters:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
So preparing for Christmas means preparing to celebrate this Christ, this human being who is the very "imprint of (God's) being," the visible sign of the invisible God. We only know this God through this Jesus, who is the refulgence of God's glory, the flash of a lightning strike. It's that God whom we come to know through this Jesus, for whom we have to prepare.

Sunday's gospel introduced John the Baptizer in the desert, so introduces us pretty much without our realizing it to the adult Jesus, who meets John at the Jordan, and to whom John sends envoys in next Sunday's gospel when he (John) is in prison. John and Jesus have a similar sounding message. John says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," while Jesus will add, "believe the good news" when he takes up John's cry after Herod kills the Baptizer. What's the same about their proclamation is that both understand that things are wrong (this is not a revelation to anyone, we all know this!) and that those who believe in the God of Israel have to change direction (i.e., repent, metanoeite) and live a different kind of life from everyone else. The difference in their proclamation is what they understand God to be like. For John, "the ax is laid at the root of the tree," and there is "wrath to come" from which no evil can escape. John's approaching God is the god of wrath and vengeance, who will sweep the chaff from the floor and burn it in everlasting fire. John's messiah is the Terminator, who will bring God's judgment on the earth. For Jesus, on the other hand, God's judgment on the earth is mercy. Jesus is, in fact, God's judgment on the earth. For Jesus, God is abba, the householder of all, and what God wants is peace in the whole house among all God's children. When Jesus says, "Follow me," he wants to show us how that is done. Lesson one will be the Sermon on the Mount.

So for me, this past Sunday, as I looked forward to the Christ of Christmas and the Jesus of the gospel of St. Matthew, what I kept hearing was that word "Gentiles" which appears in the first reading, the psalm, the second reading, and is understood by contrast in the gospel when John reproaches the Pharisees and Sadducees for imagining that it is enough to be "sons of Abraham" to achieve God's favor.

First, Isaiah, out of the chaos of political defeat and captivity, describes the reign of God as ruled by someone who will be like God, that is, who, filled with God's own breath (life/spirit) will decide for the poor and afflicted. The reign of God will be characterized by non-violence among all living things, natural enemies will forego fighting, prey and predator will play together. The dangerous and endangered will be reconciled, says Isaiah, and after setting up the resolution of those natural dialectics, Isaiah dares to announce the end of an historical one: the difference between the chosen (Jews) and the nations (Gentiles, non-Jews).
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the nations,
the Gentiles shall seek out,
for his dwelling shall be glorious.
Psalm 72, a coronation liturgy, goes on to suggest that the ascending regent will also be like God, for it prays that God will "with your justice endow the king, and with your judgment the king's son," i.e., the ascending monarch. This means that he "will rescue the poor when they cry out, and the afflicted when there is no one to help them." And "he shall have pity on the lowly and poor, and save their lives." But the psalm sees a dominion "from the river (the Euphrates, the east) to the ends of the earth (i.e., the coast of Spain, the west)," and a procession in which all the kings of earth will participate. In other words, the dominion of peace and justice is worldwide. Everyone is included.

Paul's letter to the Romans is addressed to a community whom he has not met yet but which he intends to visit as soon as he makes a trip to Jerusalem with alms from the Greek churches. He has heard that some of the same problems are arising there between the Jewish Christian and the Gentile Christians, specifically, that some Jewish Christians acting on their own authority and understanding of the gospel are teaching that Gentiles must become Jews (i.e., be circumcised and follow Mosaic food traditions) before they can be baptized. St. Paul, himself a Jewish Christian, uses all of his persuasive powers and knowledge of the law and the prophets to convince them otherwise. In this passage from the beginning of the letter, Paul is telling them that the whole purpose of Christ coming into the world was to demonstrate God's love for all and God's desire that both Jews and Gentiles are part of the divine family, Jews by birth, and Gentiles by adoption, Jews by the "promise" (i.e., the covenant) and Gentiles by God's mercy. This is a really big God, Paul is trying to say, widening the promise to include everyone in Christ. Paul wants this insight to produce "harmony" and "accord" in the community, urging them to "welcome one another for the glory of God" because of it.

So when John the Baptizer turns on the Jewish leadership in his baptism exhortation, he's saying to them, "You can't just say 'we're in because of Abraham' any more. You have to change too. God can make children of Abraham out of the rocks we're standing on." Everybody, everybody, has to acknowledge their sins and then "cross the Jordan" again into the promised land through baptism, remembering and acting on the memory of the God who brought them through that water the first time. There's been too much accommodation to Caesar, John is saying. We need to remember who the real God is, the one who led us through the Red Sea, out of captivity into freedom. We need to claim our freedom. When John says that no one can claim to be "in" because of being Jewish alone (i.e., "children of Abraham,") he's saying, in effect, "In the kingdom of heaven, no one can say 'I'm in, you're out.'" That's because the kingdom of heaven, which means earth, when God is in charge, is God's dominion, and everyone belongs.

I suppose I should try to sum up these thoughts somehow. It was pretty simple when I was thinking about it, but it all gets expanded in the "big picture" of Advent, which is about preparing for Christmas. To prepare for Christmas is to prepare for Christ, who reveals to us a specific God. This is a God, the second Sunday of Advent says to me, who doesn't let me live in a religious bubble, but who keeps reminding me that I'm only as close to God as I'm close to the person I like the least. This is not a god of retribution and war, but a God of distribution and peace, of utter justice (everyone should have enough to be happy and make others happy) and fullness of peace (there is no envy for what others have, but only joy that all have enough.) Whenever faith gets to a place where it suggests that some are in, some share God's favor, and others don't, and it really doesn't matter what the criterion for judgment is, then that religion has pitched its tent outside of the reign of God. That's probably enough for one Sunday.

Finally, the vision of Isaiah of the "peaceable kingdom" is not an optimistic vision or an idealized vision of world that is truly in chaos. The vision of the peaceable kingdom is the way things actually are, only a decision away. The road to the peaceable kingdom is being prepared by God through the wilderness, with God himself in the lead, perhaps as a little child, perhaps as an itinerant rabbi, perhaps as a population in desperate need of food, water, education or freedom, perhaps as a capital criminal nailed to a cross. This God sees that we've been captivated by other gods, other emperors, who want to make things better for our country, or another country, or our fellow rich people, or people who think like us, with their catechisms of violence, seizure, and the rule of power and money. But it is the God of blossoming justice and profound peace who is drawing near all the time, from inside of us, from outside of us, denting our broken reality with unrelenting love, inviting love, and being present to us from inside the darkness we create by building our houses and empires of false happiness on the misery, captivity, and desperation of others. It is this God whom we long for, whom we await, whom we prepare for at Christmas, the Christmas written on the calendar of every cell, of every photon and particle of matter in the universe. It is this approaching, inviting, abba-God who is drawing near to us again and again and again in Christ, and with a light that darkness cannot extinguish, shows us the way forward with the words, "Follow me."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

SongStories 48: Keep Awake (from Keep Awake, 2001, WLP)

I still find Keep Awake a pleasure to listen to. The songs did not "hit" with the audience, and did not appear in later editions of Voices As One, and as usual I'm at a loss to explain it. It could just be that they are too idiosyncratic, and not traditional enough in either words or music to appeal to churchgoers. They seem to have a life on Rhapsody and Pandora, which is encouraging. I'm particularly proud of "Apocalypse," which was our take on Daniel's vision, sort of expanded into a more general and universal "dream" of new world saved by a community in solidarity, and of the title track, "Keep Awake," another end-time song that ends with a litany I wrote, based on Mt 25, as a kind of homage to Bruce Springsteen's "Land of Hope and Dreams." Great guitar work and an outstanding vocal performance by Gary on that song really give it wings.

Claire and I wrote these songs well over 15 years ago, before she went to college, and long before she had a career as a brilliant and award-winning author and narrator of audio books with a growing portfolio of successes. I'm sure she wishes she had some of these album lyrics back (who doesn't?), but none of  us gets much of a second shot after publication! We knew what we were doing, because we had wanted to write some songs that might arise from the actual hopes and dreams of young people, and there she was, an actual young person, writing the lyrics. I had handed her a set of possible scriptural starting places, and told her to translate them into English.

I've wanted for a very long time to try to write some songs based on apocalyptic literature that opens up their meaning for contemporary people, rather than just putting up more roadblocks to internalizing those hope-filled texts that rise up in times of great distress, as I like to say, sort of like the freedom songs of the slaves in the USA, or like dissident underground newspapers of the French resistance or the eastern European countries of the Cold War. This album had two attempts in which I had filtered my desire to do this kind of thing through Claire's inchoate poetic imagination. The other song, "Apocalypse," about which I have previously written, plays with the idea of "son of man," i.e., the "human being" whom God will send to clean up the mess of injustice in the world, and tries to suggest that the "son of man" not only could be any of us, man or woman, but that we are called together "like a light upon a hill" to be that person. All times are rehearsals for end times. Christ is ever present in the need of victims of violence and injustice, as well as in the compassionate response of Christians to those victims. 

"Keep Awake," on the other hand, is about watching for the signs of the times, about praying for the coming of Christ (Maranatha) while at the same time being aware of the presence Christ has promised would always be among us. "Christ at the margins" of our world, of time and space, is the Christ of the last Sundays of the year and of Advent, when these apocalyptic narratives are generally proclaimed. Maybe, when I get it right some day, the music will resonate with a wider audience!

The above clip is from the first half of the song, a sort of "folk song" section, with a string of scriptural allusions with the interjection "Keep awake!" being a percussive refrain that moves the lyric forward. Below, a second clip is from the second half, the "litany" section. The two choral motifs on the triple "Keep awake" and the "Maranatha, come" texts form an ostinato over which Christ speaks the exhortation to us to love our enemies, come to the help of the desperate, and find him in wakened hearts and acts of service to the broken-hearted and marginalized.

Keep Awake by Claire Cooney & Rory Cooney 

Keep awake!  When the clouds will gather warning of the storm,
Keep awake! Hear the groan beneath the wind.
Keep awake! by river for the river flows to the sea,
Keep awake! as world becomes another Galilee.

Keep awake! See, the sun calls forth the darkness, not the light.
Keep awake! see the shadows on the moon,
Keep awake! under heaven, as the heavens fall to earth,
Keep awake! earth is shaking like a woman giving birth.

(Maranatha! Come, O Lord! Maranatha! Come, O Lord!)

Keep awake! Watch for summer in the greening of the leaves,
Keep awake! Note the tenderness of trees,
Keep awake! I am near you, as the dawn is to the day,
Keep awake! Everything you know is passing away.

Keep awake! Let your hearts be open wider than before,
Keep awake! For the hour comes at last,
Keep awake! None can show you when the ending will begin,
Keep awake! Not the beasts, not the children, not the shining seraphim!

Keep awake, keep awake! Keep awake!
I may enter like a thief in the dark of night,
Like a lover in the morning light.
All the ones you cast aside will become my bride,
All the silent, broken losers, all the prostitutes and boozers,
Maranatha! Come, O Lord!
People of the street, all the foreigners you meet,
In the enemies of your nation I will foil your expectation!
Help me! I am waiting at your door! Help me! I’m a prisoner of war!
Help me! I am hungry, sick and sore!
Look around. I am waiting to be found. 
Look around. I am waiting to be found.

Copyright © 2001 World Library Publications. All rights reserved.