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Monday, February 8, 2016

Second Thoughts: No excuses (C5O)

Harmony, Hope, and Healing choir at gospel brunch,
directed by Marge Nykaza
There was a lot going on at the parish yesterday. Looming large in my mind was the fact that it was the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, what we used to call Quinquagesima Sunday. Our elect and candidates (that's how we roll in the archdiocese of Chicago) were not with us because they were at the Rite of Election at Holy Name Cathedral. Of course, the good part of the approach of Ash Wednesday is that tomorrow is Mardi Gras, and I have reason to expect there may be either king cake or paczki in my future. Maybe both, because God is good.

The other big thing going on was that the wonderful women and men of Harmony, Hope, and Healing were with our choir at 11. This group, formed by Marge Nykaza almost twenty years ago, is made up of residents and alumnae of the Martin de Porres Center in Chicago, a recovery house for abused and recovering women and their children. St. Anne has partnered with and sponsored the center for a couple of decades at least, and this was the second time the choir has been with us for mass which we follow with a gospel brunch downstairs.

So those two factors were part of the larger context from which I was hearing the readings yesterday, and we had some really good readers, which either means that I (and others) were being set up to hear something we were really supposed to hear, or that we were just lucky, and I prefer to think the former is true. Amy Florian, whom we are blessed to have as one of our regular readers at the morning mass that Terry cantors at (how amazing is that combination?) read Isaiah with a combination of naïveté and wonder that was, literally breathtaking, as she described the vision of the throne of God, the flying seraphim and the burning coal, and the booming voice that wondered above the celestial liturgy, Who will go for us? Whom shall I send? It got as quiet as our church ever gets as she said in a voice both childlike and intrepid, hesitant and resolute, "Here I am, I said. Send...me." It was almost a question, as though the prophet were not only just discovering a voice, but just waking up to being alive. And so it was like hearing the reading for the first time, calling for some kind of response.

Of course, that reading was followed by the long passage from Corinthians wherein Paul testifies about his calling to apostleship and the mercy of God that transformed his vision from a violent defender of the Torah to one whose imagination was broken open, allowing him to see that God neither needed to be defended nor was God's call exclusively to Jews, the same reformation and insight that shaped the preaching and ministry, the suffering and death of Jesus. And we heard the gospel in which Jesus calls Peter, James, and John away from their suddenly successful fishing venture, inviting them to follow him on his mission to catch people.

What I kept hearing at first was nothing stunning at all, just that God is love, and as Corinthians said last week, love is patient, and so God's call is always an invitation, even when the one being called is standing in front of a river of fire and being wooed by Angel song and purified by crackling coals and sizzling resins in the unseen hands of flame-eyed seraphim. Who will go for us? Isaiah, Paul, and Peter in their liturgical turn all protest their incompetence or unworthiness. I'm unclean, and everyone I know is unclean; my past is a mess, I'm going in another direction, I'm singularly unqualified to do the kind of thing you're apparently so good at. But underneath it all, there is thing mission. It is something about God being inside of creation and pushing humanity toward a different telos, and knowing that it cannot be done except by invitation and the participation of humanity, not by threats, demands, and laws, but only by joyful surrender and cooperation in community.

But then I heard the witness of one of the women of Harmony, Hope, and Healing who told her story at the choir mass. It was a story of abuse, loss, and alienation, a story of potential squashed and addiction and escape into oblivion, and while it sounded personal and unique I could only imagine it was repeated a million times a day and too often without the rescue in the end. But this woman, in a moment of destitution and addiction so terrible that few people in my circle have ever experienced it, heard some echo of that divine wooing that St. Paul called "grace" and got help. And after years of recovery, she not only got her life back, but she found her joy again in education and spirituality, and is helping to teach and guide women all over the country on the journey back from abuse and addiction. That story is repeated over and over again in the stories of HHH and the Martin de Porres and allied shelters.

For me, see, my excuses pile up. I'm too old. It's too big, I can't do anything about that. No one else is listening. And all that gets broken down when this seraph from the southside flies into our Holy of Holies with a story that burns like a glowing coal, and opens my heart again to that invitation: Who will go for us? I have my addictions too, I suppose, but nothing like heroin and cocaine; I enumerate my excuses, but none approaches the debilitating poverty and abuse these women and men have fought since their childhood.

I had thought that, in the matrix of the other scriptures of the day, the psalm refrain, "In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord," was rather lame, and didn't get at the heart of call to participate in God's project. But it dawns on me now that when I was singing with those sweet people from Harmony, Hope, and Healing, I was, in fact, singing God's praise among the angels, the angels of the evangelium, the choir that announces the good news, who instantiate and announce the presence of God, wherever that may be. In the ICEL collect we used for mass, our pastor asked God before we heard those readings, "Enlarge our vision, that we may recognize your power at work in your son, and join the apostles and prophets as heralds of your saving word." Be careful what you ask for, I guess, because that's pretty much what happened yesterday, when my vision was enlarged by the visitors "from the margins" whose song transformed the morning.

In the concert at the gospel brunch, the choir sang a little piece that repeated a chorus that echoed a sentiment that really rose out of yesterday's gospel, something like, "Follow me, follow me to place where we can all be free." As they encouraged us to join in the song (even with coffee and/or really inappropriately decadent varieties of french toast in our mouths!), we would repeat the refrain, "follow me to a place where we can all be free," and the soloist interjected between lines, looking at us both playfully and with a prayerful admonition, "before we get to heaven, that is!" This whole patient project of the God who sees us counting our money or injecting heroin into our arm, demonizing and even murdering our enemies, making our excuses about being unfit for the peacemaking, life-giving mission of Christ, is meant for the transformation of this world, and not just to save us from it after we're dead. We're not called to survival, we're called to life, no matter how desperate we are, or the condition of our lives.

That seems perfect for Quinquagesima, within spitting distance of Ash Wednesday. After another year of seduction by the quick-fix strategies of the Great Divider, the one who is so convincing about the effectiveness of force and threats, borders and walls, insurance, savings accounts, and overstuffed closets and pantries, it's time to have our ears open again to that voice that pierces heaven with its cry for participation: Who will go for us? Whom shall I send? Maybe this can be the year for the turnaround, for being caught by the deathless grace that changes everything. Out of the smoke and chaos, the lies and excuses and practiced ineptitude of our isolationist resumés, maybe the touch of a "southside seraph's" voice will give us the courage, like a re-visioned Isaiah, to choke out with a voice that hardly believes it is saying, Here I am. Send....me?
__________________

Interested in learning more about Harmony, Hope, and Healing? Click here, where there is more information, and a way to contribute to the important work of HHH and Martin de Porres Shelter.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Second Thoughts - "Cliff" notes, Catechumens, and Corinthians - C4O

… they got up and threw him out of town. They dragged him to the edge of the cliff on which the town was built, because they wanted to throw him down from there. (Luke 4:29)

When the Iʾsh ʿItti (the man prepared for the time) reached the cliff, he pushed the goat over it backward and it hardly reached the halfway mark in its descent before it was completely dismembered. (described in the Mishna, Yoma 6:2–6).

Listening to the readings Sunday, remembering some of James Alison's description of the rituals of the Day of Atonement which echo through other parts of Luke and the rest of the gospels, it was among other things the "cliff" that caught my ear. Commentaries also call attention to the passage because of the strange notion that Nazareth was built on a cliff, which it certainly wasn't. This leads me to conclude that Luke might have been interested in something other than geography here, which of course he was. He was interested in more than history, more than biography even. Luke was interested in the meaning of what had happened to the apostles (and to him?) as they walked with and experienced who Jesus was, what had happened in the four decades or so since his death and resurrection among both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians.

Besides the echoes from the "cliff," I was also thinking about the words Paul wrote to the Corinthians about agape, and their problems with rivalry and injustice that precipitated Paul's letter. In addition, we celebrated the Rite of Sending to Election Sunday, so there was an overlay there celebrating the profound consequences of God's initiative in our lives. They all inform each other.

The way I'm understanding James Alison's "introduction to Christianity," which has been a revelation to me, and a genuine turning-around into which I believe that God has been lovingly inducting me, is that the story of the world is, anthropologically speaking, a story of imitation and rivalry that constantly escalates within social groups small and large into violence. Social groups, whole societies, are held together by transferring or projecting the violence onto "scapegoats." This transference, whether ritually within a religious framework of gods appeased by sacrifice or politically by mob action, allows us to believe that victims were responsible for the rift or trouble in the community. That way, we can all get back to work and pretend things are all right. But we are mimetic beings, and we desire according to the desire of the other, in Rene Girard's phrase, and so we cannot help ourselves from wanting what others have, and then we figure out a way to get what we want by collusion with others, choosing a scapegoat, and repeating the cycle. Furthermore, the cycle of violence itself gets repeated because we learn from the social milieu that this process of separation and victim-making is the way things work.

How this all plays out in the story of Israel, in the story of Jesus, and therefore in us is the subject of four (small, but dense) volumes of his thought, but it can be said that within the story of Israel there is the constant question about whether there might be some other One out there who embodies an alternative reality, who imitates no one and who is beyond all rivalry, a God "who is not like the other gods," and whom we say is embodied in the Yahwist tradition and who becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the "word of God," the sensible reality of who god is, who occupied the place of the victim in the scapegoat scenario and came back from the dead to expose victim-making as the empty lie that it is. Rather than creating further rivalry among "good people" and "bad people," Jesus shows in the paschal mystery that, well, all people participate in bad things, but that God doesn't really care about all that, because God's approach toward humanity is unconditionally, without any exceptionalism, utterly loving. God's approach in Jesus says, in effect, "Look at the misery you have been inflicting on each other by defining yourselves against others, and learning those tricks of separation and rivalry on the knees of your parents! It doesn't have to be that way. There is a different way to live, letting the rain fall and the sun shine on good and bad alike, because that is the way of God. You mustn't be afraid of anything. God is for you, and death means nothing to God. That's the meaning of everything. Follow me."

All right, I'm not sure that that little synopsis helps your understanding any more than it expresses what is inside of me. But I think there is a lot in yesterday's (4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C) scriptures that illustrates it. We can start with the gospel narrative, the second part of the story of Jesus's "inaugural sermon" at the synagogue in Nazareth.

People who heard Jesus speak about the jubilee that day (in the story) liked what they heard. They thought of him as home-grown, one of their own. But there was also rivalry in the ranks, people said things like "Why does he get to talk like this, isn't he a laborer?" and "why won't you do for us what you did for the folks the next town over?" If there were signs that the jubilee was starting, or of a messianic appearance, they wanted tickets and backstage passes. Jesus, though, fresh off his baptism and desert experience, remembers that he is beloved of the One who is beyond rivalry, the one whose "new idea" had come to life in him through the Spirit. So Jesus continued his exegesis of Isaiah 61 by reminding people of their own tradition. This is key: the "new idea" of the empire of God is not new at all, but an idea God has been introducing over time. Jesus is handing to his countrymen their own tradition, reframed in a way they didn't often hear it. The jubilee isn't just for them. It's for everybody, and it always has been. The good news is for the poor of every nation, not just Israel. Healing and bread are for everyone, not just for Israel. Jesus, in his homily, is showing them that a new way to universal health and safety (i.e., salvation) is available right in their own tradition, but this trips the self-protective rivalry mechanism. "We're invested in being the only chosen people. That's how we read the book. You must be bad, because the good people all read it the same way." The crowd turns against him, and is about to "cast him off a cliff" upon which Nazareth was apparently built (it wasn't, but it's a literary device, not a history book). The cliff might be important for another reason, though. Sure, it's a convenient location for a near lynching, but it also resonates with an aspect of the Rite of Atonement. You guessed it: the scapegoat.

In the rite of the Day of Atonement, two identical goats are brought to the Holy of Holies. Lots are cast, and one is identified with YHWH, the other with Azazel, a spirit associated at the time of the creation of the Septuagint with evil. The goats are identical; they are to be twin aspects of a single reality. The high priest sacrifices one of those identical goats and gives the entrails to the temple priests to consume, sprinkling its blood throughout the Holy of Holies and upon the people. This goat represents the life and love of YHWH, coming toward the people in love, and giving his life for them. The other, upon whom the guilt and evil of the people is ritually projected, is driven to the brink of a cliff, and pushed over by the temple worker. I could not help but hear in the language of Luke's narrative a reference to this action, described in Leviticus. In Luke, the crowd was determined to destroy the one who challenged their preconceptions and prejudice about God's favor. But this was not the time or place for that "sacrifice," and Jesus "passed through their midst," and went away.

Why is it that, when we're confronted by unconditional love, someone who, like Gandhi in the eponymous 1982 movie, we somehow feel the need to destroy that person? Over and over in history, we do the same thing. It's because we get invested in the structures that seem to work, the rules that make good people good and bad people bad, the borders and laws that keep strangers away, the neighborhoods and institutions that separate the haves and the services they enjoy from the have nots. We don't know about any new, "fairer" system. We just know that the one we have now works to our advantage, and someone who wants to call that into question, particularly the social, military, and economic order into question, in short, the power structure, can only be a trouble maker, causing civil unrest and discontent, and so has to be marginalized, and when necessary, destroyed. The difference that Jesus makes, and that Christianity might yet make, is that Jesus exposes that mechanism as false, reveals the victim to be "one of us," and having gone into that place of shame and alienation, he is able to say from within and yet outside of history, "let's try something new." Something new is the sermon on the mount: enemy love, bread for everyone, care for the other, even the stranger, with the care we give our families and ourselves. "Something new" is a human family with God as father and all of us in relationship with one another.

The Corinthians were no different, and Paul's letter was written as a corrective to their reverting to class distinctions, hierarchies, and elitism in their gatherings for the Lord's Supper. Then as now, however, the Lord's Supper was a sacrament, a ritual, that is, it was a means of rehearsing, or acting out together, core values of a group, core values that are to be lived as part of everyday life. Paul had heard about bickering over whom the Spirit favored over others in prayer, had been told that the rich met separately or early so that the best food and drink was available to them and not to the poor who were part of the community. He tries to remind them that Christ is a body, it cannot be separated, everyone matters, all contribute to the well-being (or the sickness) of the whole. He instructs them about the way gifts are to be exercised and regarded in the assembly, again with the admonition to consider that all the gifts are given by one Spirit for the good of the whole body, and not for the glory of the individual. Finally, he says, all those gifts are well and good, but one thing matters more than all of them: agape. Agape is the very life of God, it was given to the church by Christ, and it is the starting point and the goal of all the other gifts. Agape is the "new idea," life in the empire of God.

That new life, life without rivalry, freedom, fearlessness because of participation in a life that has nothing to do with death, is the life into which catechumens have been attracted. The awesome declaration of the bishop at the Rite of Election will be that God has chosen them to live that life, to be baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, and to begin living a new life, without borders, in complete, fearless freedom. In these days of prickly political candidates and caucuses, our corner of the world needs nothing more than people who can speak fearlessly to the rhetoric of blame, segregation, isolation, and doom. We need people who live in and invite others into the "new idea," a world of real Judaeo-Christian values. That would be a world in which a God of unconditional love, who needs no protection and who cannot be placed in rivalry with anything that is, gently calls every person into selfless care for every other person. It is a world where enemies turn out to be our salvation, where traitors are welcomed home with open arms, and where the crowd's condemned victim turns out to be just like me, and not a threat at all. It is a world where death has no power, threat is abandoned as a motivation to change, and we are all committed to everyone getting the same chance. That is the jubilee Jesus was proclaiming in the synagogue that day in Nazareth. We can join the procession, or throw him off a cliff. If we're going to move in the direction of God's empire, sign me up.

What we sang Sunday:

Call to worship: Change My Name (spiritual, arr. Kendzia, OCP)
Entrance: Turn Around
Psalm 71: I Will Sing Your Salvation (Cooney, OCP)
Gospel Acclamation: Mass of Christ the Servant (unpublished)
Calling forward candidates: Who Calls You By Name (Haas, GIA)
Signing the Book of the Elect: Sign Me Up (Yancy & Metcalfe)
Intercessions: Mass of Christ the Servant
Gifts: God Is Love (Cooney, GIA)
Communion: Here I Am, Lord (Schutte, OCP)
Sending: If/Si (Cooney, GIA)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sneak peek: 2016 LCF CONCERT SETLIST

We're getting ready to begin the concert here at Mercy Center in St. Louis. The annual concert, which benefits both the work of the Liturgical Composers Forum and the ministry of our hosts, the Sisters of Mercy here in St. Louis, was added on as a final event for all the composers who could stay an extra night. A lot of work has gone into this by everyone, but particularly this year by the event coordinator, Jaime Cortez, whom I like to call "the hardest working man in liturgical music."

For anyone who is interested, these are the songs composers chose to do at our third concert.

Hymn for the Holy Year of Mercy (Paul Inwood)
When We Sing (Mary Jo Thum)
Take and Eat (Michael Joncas)
Psalm 139:  I Am One Wonderfully Made (Jeffrey Honoré)
Psalm 23: El señor es mi pastor (Lourdes Montgomery)
Psalm 122: Let Us Go Rejoicing (Orin Johnson)
See amid the Winter's Snow (Kevin Keil)
Who We Are (Tony Barr)
Psalm 146: Praise the Lord My Soul (Christian Cosas) 
The Lord's Prayer (Rino Angelini)
The Lord Is My Hope (MD Ridge)
Change Our Hearts (Rory Cooney)
Now Is the Time (Tom Kendzia)
Were You There/Amazing Grace (Marcy Weckler-Barr) OCP
The Supper of the Lord (Laurence Rosania)
Your Sacred Breath (Mark Mellis)
Gracias, Señor (Damaris Thillet)
Day of Peace (Janèt Sullivan Whitaker)
We Shall Draw Water (Paul Inwood)
Sweet Refreshment (Bob Moore)
Rain Down (Jaime Cortez)
Come and Receive (Carol Browning)
Blessing Prayer (Bob Fabing S.J.)


Psalm of Hope (Felix Goebel- Camala)
Evening Song (Luke Rosen)
Rejoice Always (Paul Hillebrand)
Jerusalem (Fergal King)
Jesus Is Risen Today (Kathleen Demny)
For You Are My God (John Foley, S.J.)
Blessed Are They (David Haas)

Five of our members who were able to attend the meeting were not able to be present at the concert. We also had nine choir members from the wonderful choir at Saint Margaret of Scotland in St. Louis, directed by another member, Peter Hesed.

Piano: Christian Cosas ( and some composers)
Woodwinds: Kate Basi (flute) and Mark Mellis (flute and soprano sax)
Bass and MC: Jaime Cortez
Guitars: Gary Daigle and Jaime Cortez
Conductors: Kevin Keil, Kathleen Demny, Jeff Honoré

May be next year we can manage a simulcast for interested parties. Well, it's not really party music, but we have fun anyway. Here we go for 2016, ad majorem Dei gloriam. Pray for us!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Second Thoughts: Cana, Torah, and Transformation (C2O and C3O)

I'm thinking that a good approach for me this year might be to take the "echoing God's word" approach more regularly, and write my blog following the "Second Thoughts" trajectory. In these posts, after the Sunday celebration, I look back at what I heard and thought, and write about that, rather than focusing on the preparation, which I've done a lot of in the last three years. I'll look over what I posted last time, and repost it to Facebook and Twitter if it holds up all right, especially for anyone who hasn't read them before, but I won't feel the pressure to write in advance of Sunday, and of course run the risk of repeating myself more than usual. We'll see how that goes!

This post will pull together some thoughts for the last two Sundays, the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Ordinary time, Year C. Hearing the readings, I was struck again by what sounds like the underlying reality to all three, that God is approaching us, always, and that when that happens, things change. For Israel, exile and slavery become homeland and liberation, over and over again. Furthermore, the section of 1 Corinthians we heard as the second reading both weeks pulls the other readings, even the psalm, together for me, which emboldens me to write this only because I'm not sure that most preachers (rightly, perhaps) pay much attention to the second reading which seems not to "fit the theme" created by the first reading, psalm, and gospel.

It seems to me that our church wedding, our global wedding, our neighborhood and maybe our family wedding, is a big mess right now. We're empty water jars, we have nothing to offer anyone. Or those jars might belong to our parents, our nation, our church, they represent the way we follow the rules handed down to us, or rules that we made, thinking that they would save us, keep away chaos, keep other people and their ways where they belong. We may be guests at the wedding, entitled, and out of wine. We may be newlyweds who didn't plan so well, and see disaster on a fast-approaching horizon. We have gifts, of course, we want to profit from them, we want them to be good for us, but they don't really make us happy. We are not where we should be, we're not where we want to be, we know that we're less than the sum of our potential. How can we fix this? Who can repair us?

-------

The period following the Babylonian captivity, described in the book of Nehemiah yesterday, was a very active time in the compilation, writing-down, and editing of the books of the Hebrew bible that would culminate in the Septuagint about 200 years later. In today's first reading, we hear about the reading of the Torah to the assembled returnees and those left behind, all the anawim, at the site of the razed temple after the return. We can only imagine the way this was heard by that displaced, bedraggled congregation, though its stories of creation from nothing, destruction and salvation, covenant, captivity and release must have been framed by its writers, editors, and the receiving ears in the experiences of three or four generations of exile and servitude in a foreign land finally ended.

People wept hearing their experience read back to them, wrapped in assurances of God's presence. And Ezra and Nehemiah, seeing this, want people to understand that the proper "response" to god's word is rejoicing. The assembly, the proclamation of the word, all of that should bring people to joy, to celebration, and the kind of celebration that leaves no one out, that is aware of those without enough and moves to fill what is lacking in their joy. 

The "wisdom" psalm we sang reiterated all that, that God's word is spirit and life. Torah is perfect, honey from the comb, refreshing, clear as light. 

"Today" is a day precious to the Lord. This Sunday, whenever it is, "Ordinary Time" is precious to the Lord. And its meaning is the same for us as for Israel: stop weeping about yourselves, be glad, "eat rich food and drink sweet drink." AND give some to everybody, even if they're not prepared, not gifted, didn't bring their own food and drink, or don't have it. The meaning of sabbath, of Sunday, of today, the meaning of assembly before and with God, is the care of one another, making each one feel like a necessary part of the whole. 

This is what St. Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians to remember. Today, Sunday, the gathering of the assembly, isn't self-indulgent, self-congratulatory. It's not self-focused at all. It's about the other, especially about the poor and those who don't have enough to celebrate, enough to feel the presence of God with them. We're members of a body, everybody matters. Every part matters. "If a clod be washed away by the sea," the poet John Donne preached, "Europe is the less."

Finally, the transformation of all the gifts within us to be able to fulfill the needs of all of us by others is the work of the same Spirit that filled Jesus and managed his ministry in life, which as St. Luke said, brought him back to Galilee after his post-baptismal sojourn in the desert. That solitude itself was spirit-driven, and it is the same Spirit which Jesus bestowed on humanity from the cross (Jn. 19:30b) and on the morning of the resurrection (Jn. 20:22). That Spirit is the Spirit of God, the God who has nothing to do with death, who is unbounded generosity and mercy, who wants to persuade us from within our lives and our history to be done with rivalry, hoarding, and death-dealing. It is this God who has lived in the place of the innocent victim among us, experienced us at our worst; who went to death with words of forgiveness on his lips, and returned from the grave with rehabilitating love for us and the desire that we go together in a new, different, life-giving direction. It is that Spirit that was summoned upon the water jars of Cana, and turned embarrassment into celebration, even as it hinted that no ritual alone would ever make us "clean" before God, but that God already accepts us with love and wants the wedding to go on with plenty of wine for everyone.


The Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, is that Spirit. It's not a spirit of superiority, of shameful victory, of "God is on our side," but a spirit that just keeps whispering: Do not be afraid. Go into the dark. I've already been there. I'm still there. Whatever you thought was in those water jars, take a big drink and pass it around. If you think your life is good now, just wait until you give it away for the sake of others. Just wait until you "proclaim liberty to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind,
(and) let the oppressed go free." You ain't seen nothing yet.

Christ invites us to participate in God's project, in James Alison's metaphor, to "play a different game," a game where everyone is beloved of God, is good, no matter what. It's the beginning of a new year of grace. I hope I can give myself time to internalize all this, and more important, just start acting on it.

What we sang this weekend:

Entrance: Turn Around
Psalm 19: Your Words, O God
Presentation: God Is Love or We Are Many Parts
Communion: Within the Reign of God
Recessional: Joyfully Singing or All Are Welcome

Link to James Alison's Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice  at Amazon.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cana and God's approach

Once, at a conference, I heard Fr. Diarmuid O'Murchu tell a joke that alluded to the gospel of this Sunday’s mass, the wedding feast at Cana in John 2. It seems there was a wedding in a small church in Ireland, see, and the pastor was to be out of town on an extended holiday, so the young curate was given the wedding to officiate. The young bride-to-be was a dance teacher, and the young priest thought it would be lovely touch if she and her new husband had a bit of a dance at the end of the ceremony, right there in the sanctuary in front of the congregation and the Blessed Sacrament, to symbolize everyone’s joy at their blessed union. The couple thought it was a lovely idea, too, so on the day of the wedding, right there in front of the priest, the people, and the Blessed Sacrament, the young curate invited them to the dance, and they jigged and reeled for a couple of minutes and headed down the aisle. There was much jaw-dropping and head-shaking among the older churchgoers, who gave the pastor and earful when he returned from holiday. The pastor called in the young curate and says, “Now, look, Father, what the devil did you think you were doing having the couple dance there in the sanctuary, in God’s house, right in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and all?” The nonplussed young curate retorted, “Well, Father, Jesus himself went to the wedding in Cana. Sure they had dancing there?” The pastor shot back, “Aye, y’omadhaun, but they didn’t have the Blessed Sacrament at the wedding in Cana, did they?”
I’ve never been a big fan of “supercessionism” or replacement theologies, in which the Christian covenant replaces the Jewish one, with Jesus as the new Moses, the apostles replacing the twelve tribes, and all that truck. Happily, Catholic and Jewish theologians have definitively come to a new place with regard to all that, with Rome moving beyond even Nostra Aetate to a new place in the 2015 document, "The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." What’s going on is far more radical for both Christians and Jews. For us, the “reign of God” which is incarnate in Jesus replaces the whole economy of human intercourse, our instincts of self-preservation, rule by force and strength, and survival of the fittest. To believe that God became flesh in Christ Jesus is to believe that as God’s incarnate Word, Jesus was the best God could do to show us both what God is like and what we ought to be like. This is what it means to be mediator Dei, one being who is truly God and truly human. The paradigm of God’s dominion shifts from self-preservation to the wondrous fountain of life that is kenosis, or self-emptying; rule by force and strength is replaced by service; “survival of the fittest” is replaced by abundant life, teeming through spacetime, the life of the Holy One poured into a grain of wheat.
In the reading from Isaiah, the desolate and forsaken people of Israel, returning after long exile, hear the good news that “your builder shall marry you,” that God will rejoice in her like a bridegroom rejoices in a bride. Using names that play off of one another in Hebrew (it would read something like this for us: “No longer shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ but instead, ‘Forsythia’! Not ‘Desolate,’ but ’Desired’), Israel reborn is renamed because she is a new reality. Anyone who has ever been surprised by love knows exactly what this is like, including the new names that come along with love, both informally between lovers and even formally, at times, in marriage. Love creates a new reality. The new names just articulate something that has happened much more deeply within us: we are radically changed. Love does indeed change everything. 
Doesn’t it stand to reason that, when God is the lover, things are transformed completely? Not just names, but the realities themselves. And the wedding feast at Cana becomes the first sign of the new encounter between God and humanity in Christ as John recounts it. The stone water jars, used for ritual purification (a religious rite) among the Jews, are filled with water which, without a word, Jesus changes into wine. Now, what was previously a religious law and legal prescription is impossible. Now there are a hundred fifty gallons of good wine where before there was just water for washing. There’s only one thing to be done: drink up! Here, in Jesus, there is a God who doesn’t want the wine to disappear at the wedding, and who doesn’t mind breaking a few laws of human religion in order for the wine to be made available for the joy of all. And these were people who, by the wine steward’s admission, were already drunk.
The young curate in Diarmuid’s joke saw that the joy of the new reality of the wedded couple was in perfect harmony with the God whose first irruption into our human enterprise was, by one evangelist’s account, at a wedding. The curate didn’t miss the reality of a personal God who is really present in people first, and in sacramental signs secondarily and differently. If love changes everything, and things aren’t changing fast enough, it might just be that we haven’t really fallen in love with this God who has admittedly fallen - ‘fallen from heaven,’ in a manner of speaking - for us. We wait around for all kinds of other lovers, we give ourselves to gods of our own making and religion that filters the true God through constrictive nets of power and control, but Jesus is the one who changes all that tawdry water into wine, showing us a God who offers us a way out of these hells, large and small, of our own making.
As Fr. Gene Walsh once said, “Jesus offers you two things: your life has meaning, and you’re going to live forever. If you can find a better deal, take it.”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Bethlehem, you think you're so small? (C4A)

The Visitation shrine at my church, the pregnant
Mary of Nazareth arriving to serve her kinswoman's needs.
Just when I thought that the Letter to the Hebrews was utterly beyond caring about, James Alison brings it alive into my life a couple of years ago by way of the somewhat cryptic opening to Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, wherein he introduces what he is about to spring on us through the first three verses from that letter:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a 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. (NABRE, Heb. 1:1-3) I confess that when I first launched into JtFV, it didn't really mean much to me, either, especially on page 1 or 2, and James made such a big deal out of it!

But as we went forward, it began to make more sense. Everything about the story that the author of Hebrews refers to, the story of their ancestors through the prophets, came in a new and direct way through Jesus of Nazareth, "the very imprint of his (i.e., God's) being." In other words, as we say during Advent, God is making God's approach to us, from within and yet beyond the universe that God made and which cannot contain divinity. When I read the verses from Hebrews that are this Sunday's second reading, I hear it in Alison's context. Jesus has come "to do your will," to do what God always does, to come with healing and love, going before us into the places we dread with assurances of life and the exhortation, "Do not be afraid." Jesus is the incarnation of a God that humanity had not imagined, a God who was not interested in "sacrifices and holocausts for sin," but in the one, in all of those, who "come to do your will" by taking the victim's place, showing rivalry and hatred for what it is, and fearlessly taking their life into the place of death with generosity and hope.

The gospel on Advent 4 in Year C is the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth when Mary visits Elizabeth during her strange and unexpected pregnancy. Here, the younger Mary makes the journey to see to her kinswoman's health during her delivery, and Luke puts into their mouths joyful words of promise and fulfillment. Here again, Alison helps us see yet another literary undercurrent in the story. There are a succession of hints that an elaborate Atonement ritual is being carried out, to be recognized after the birth of Jesus by none other than the priest Zechariah, also the name of the priest recognized in the Septuagint as the last priest to have a vision of the Holy One during the rite of atonement in the first temple before the deportation to Assyria:
Elizabeth, as soon as she hears Mary arrive, “shouts out with a great shout” — the same Greek verb as the shout by which the Levites greeted the Ark of the Covenant when King David brought it into Jerusalem. And then John the Baptist, still in her womb, dances with joy, in the same way as David danced before the Ark. In other words: the missing holy objects are all coming back into the restored Temple, a process which will be complete when the Fire comes back, at Pentecost, and the wall of separation between Gentiles and Jews comes down shortly thereafter. [Alison, James (2013-11-11). Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 247). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.] 
Advent is nothing if it is not a calling to an increased attentiveness to God's approach in our world. And this is not the God we had imagined, one who approaches with violence and retribution to be inflicted by an entourage of super beings, but a God who puts an end to sacrifice and wants to flood us with life, health, and possibility. Sacrifice diverts our guilt onto another symbolic victim to let us continue on our merry way; ritual lets us substitute words and symbols for the actual solidarity and commitment to others that create peace and justice. God, rather, approaches as a human person, and shows us how to live on behalf of others, without fear, without artificial separation and borders. God approaches without threat, but with an invitation, "Follow me." Chances are, whatever or whomever we've been following already, we know something's really wrong, that we're causing devastation and havoc around the world that just keeps getting more fearsome and hopeless, and we need a way out. God approaches in the midst of all that as a baby and a gospel and says, "this is going to take some time, but we have all the time there is: follow me."

Like Elizabeth, like Mary, like the sleepy town of Bethlehem, we may be full up and have our own problems. We may feel overwhelmed, unsuited, too small, too old, too young, too oppressed, too entitled, too busy, too sinful, too dirty, to take on the project that God has begun and to which God continues to give life. It is God who reassures us, whose word calls us "blessed" and "beloved," and who teaches us to say, "I come to do your will." Or as Mary said, quoted in the gospel antiphon today, "I am your servant; do with me as you wish." Nobody thought of this before, even though it was all around us in nature, that we can't cling to life, but we can multiply it by giving it away.

Standing generously in the darkness, surrounded by a world looking for leaders who will end the fear and terror upon which we've been feeding in our feral lives, we'd do well, like Mary, to go visit a pregnant kinswoman who needs us, or, like occupied Bethlehem, open our doors to some strangers in need of a place to stay. It's dark, dangerous, and cold. But God is drawing near, with an invitation to the world to walk a new path out of its fear and danger. It's God's project, not mine. But I want to go there, to say with Mary, "Fiat. Do it through me." Or, in the words of ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, whose language is more like my vernacular, I may be scared, I don't know where this will end up, but "screw it. I'll go first."

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: Canticle of the Turning
Psalm 80: Lord Come and Save Us (Kendzia)
Advent Alleluia (Joncas)
No Wind at the Window (Bell)
Mass of Creation
Communion: Walk in the Reign
Sending Forth: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (vv 1, 6, 7)
or Come, Emmanuel (Alonso)




Thursday, December 17, 2015

Second thoughts: Dancing in the darkness with God

What I heard Sunday in the readings were those words, "in your midst," chiming out like a rhyme at the end of a song lyric.
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!The LORD, your God, is in your midst,a mighty savior...(Zeph. 3:15) 
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,for great in your midstis the Holy One of Israel! (Is. 12:6)


Neither Zephaniah, in the 6th century BCE, and Isaiah, in the 8th, lived in the lap of luxury. Both prophesied in intensely difficult times, Zephaniah at about the time of the Babylonian conquest, and Isaiah at the time of the Assyrian conquest, both of which involved deportation of the population. We're reading versions of their prophecies descended from oral traditions over several centuries and edited after the return from Babylon, at the time of the Second Temple, probably in the 5th-4th century BCE. Plenty of time to finesse the prophecies, of course, but in the face of the vagaries of Israel's experience in history, their scriptures cling to faith in the covenant with God against incredible historical pressures to accommodate to stronger neighbors. Through it all, there is in the prophetic tradition both a warning against betrayal of the covenant and a deep faith even in the worst of times that God is present with them, "in our midst," as the readings today say, and a cause for rejoicing. Isaiah's great name for God is Emmanuel—God-with-us, which seems to be our favorite Advent appellation for the divine.

I guess I keep coming back to this because the world is still this way, the Christian world, the Jewish world, the whole divine world, in songwriter Greg Brown's happy phrase, "like a thump-ripe melon,/ So sweet, and such a mess." Somehow we think that happiness, ease of life, health, wealth, all that stuff, are signs of God's presence. But the witness of scripture is that it ain't necessarily so. Those things are no more a sign of divine favor than sickness, poverty, exile, and death are signs of God's absence. God seems to be present in all of it, but perhaps most clearly, most impossibly, in the places we least likely want to enter, places of shame, loss, and death. When we enter into those experiences, we find that God has gone there ahead of us. This is why, I think, the crucifix, with its corpus of the dying savior affixed, is such an omnipresent sign of consolation when we don't allow it to just be a decoration (as though as dead man nailed to a gallows could ever be a decoration.)

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" seemed like the perfect song for Sunday when we sang it, because of its play between "mourning in lonely exile" and the command to "rejoice." As I was thinking about it, I mused that in Latin, its original text alluding to birth rather than approach, begins with the words "Gaude, Emmanuel" (i.e., Rejoice, Emmanuel) which goes on to a different finish (Rejoice: Emmanuel shall be born for you, Israel) from the English version (Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.) In another English translation, we hear "Rejoice, O Israel, to thee shall come Emmanuel." If the original verb were veniet (shall come) instead of nascetur (will be born), then the Latin, with the Hebrew words as both subject and indirect object being caseless, we would have the happy ambiguity of either our current meaning or of encouraging Emmanuel to rejoice because of Israel's approach. Alas, I think nascetur limits the field of meaning to one direction, but it gave me something to think about during the homily.

So, two things on more serious notes:

I have friends who are in darkness now. So do you. And as I say, the whole world has its share of darkness and pain. The advent message is fresh as tomorrow's dawn. I was just speaking to a friend who has chronic pain, and has had a tough go of it the past couple of years on several fronts. As we were speaking, I remembered some deep wisdom from Henri Nouwen's book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, which I read and integrated last summer into some sessions I facilitated with the adult track on aspects of the eucharist at Music Ministry Alive. In that book, Nouwen speaks of "befriending the brokenness" in our lives, rather than denying it, fleeing it, or suppressing it. Nouwen's starting point and unwavering faith, tried in the fire of his own suffering, is that God's love of us precedes everything we think and do, every failure, every agony, every betrayal or curse or malice we suffer at the hands of others, and continues to be with us as we go through life and suffer the effects of those events. While the darkness in the world tries to tell us that we are less than we imagined, worthless, rejected, unfit for life, the inner voice that is the voice of God continues to say, "You are my beloved child, in whom my favor rests." He proposes the difficult task of putting our pain and doubt "under the blessing," and not under the curse, which is to say, take the time in prayer to discern the presence of God within and listen to the authentic voice, the voice of life, the voice that spoke the universe into being. He says that "the challenge (Jesus) poses is to discern in the midst of our darkness the light of God. In Jesus’ vision everything, even the greatest tragedy, can become an occasion in which God’s works can be revealed."

This kind of faith, that God's presence is not "light at the end of the tunnel" but rather light in the darkness, life "in the midst" of death, dancing and joy "in the midst" of exile, as Zephaniah and Isaiah have it, is Advent faith, and timely as tomorrow's news.

Secondly, this sense that God goes before us into the darkness and is ever present there, in our midst even if our midst is a place of terror, sickness, and death, is a truth that we learned, and that Jesus and the apostles and St. Paul learned, from their scriptures. "Salvation comes from the Jews," as the gospel of St. John and Paul's letter to the Romans attest. I was so happy to read about Vatican statement last month that reiterated and even more clearly stated what was taught in Nostra Aetate, that it was the Jewish people whom God first called to covenant, that that call is irrevocable, and that Torah is a true way to salvation in the one God. I'm no expert in Judaism, and I don't claim at all to know the intricacies of the new Vatican document on Jewish relations, but I have read it. I believe from other reading that part of Jewish consciousness, encoded in the Hebrew language and in Yiddish which is descended from it, is a central metaphor of life as exile. The state of the Jew, whether in Eden, Egypt, Babylon, or just not in Jerusalem, is a state of being in exile. In fact, not being able to be in the temple of David. This was a watershed insight to me when I was reading Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (P.S.), Michael Wex's funny treatise on Yiddish.

The name of that Vatican document is "The Gift and Calling of God Is Irrevocable," which really ties up everything I want to say in this post. Without splitting hairs, the theologians who worked on that document expressed with clarity why it's possible, while still expressing the uniqueness of Jesus, to understand that the Jews are carried into God's life without acknowledging Jesus as Messiah and savior. It's because God does the carrying. It is because God called the Jewish people, and opened up the entire world to the possibility of Christianity through the narrative that formed that people, including Mary, Jesus, the apostles and Paul, and all of the first disciples. That narrative continued when, after the destruction of Jerusalem, rabbinic Judaism and, in James Alison's wonderful words, catholic Judaism (Christianity) went their separate ways. But even now, even after Jesus and the formation of the church, the law and the prophets continue to inform Christianity, even as they formed Jesus. For us, as the incarnate Word of God, the instantiation of the God of Moses, Jesus is love-made-flesh, the eternal call to the depth of undying agape that inspired the law and prophets in the first place. Jesus is the sacrament of God "in our midst," Emmanuel, God who says "I AM with you always." The Jewish people have their own understanding of God-with-us, but the covenant of love and presence that has bound them as a people for four and a half millennia continues in full force even as they experience their diaspora across the world, and live in a religious culture that is never "at home" in it.

Being in exile with Israel, opening ourselves to the experience of incompleteness while rejoicing in the truth of our deep solidarity with one another that precedes but is sacramentalized in baptism, confirmation, and eucharist, these are Advent experiences of God's presence. "Fear not," "do not be discouraged," "have no anxiety at all" are good things for us to hear because we forget who we are, beloved of God, being approached all the time by the divine mystery that wants to save us from the fear, anxiety, and violence we receive and imitate from the culture around us. "Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel." Advent is about God approaching us, a God who jumps up and down in a joyful dance right in our dark world, inviting us to join in the hora, and reach out and invite others into an ever-widening, ever-deepening, God-centered circle.