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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The long and the short of it


Amen, I say to you,
wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told in memory of her. (Mark 14: 9, from the “long form” of the St. Mark Passion (Year B))

You know the old saying about “whoever isn’t part of the solution is part of the problem,” right? Well,
what if there are two problems, and trying to solve one is compounding the other one?

I think about this a lot, but what got me going this time was the irony of the amount of time I spent writing about the parable of the two lost sons last week, and then at two of the three masses I played for Sunday the priest read the short version of the gospel. This edit includes the critical set-up line, that is, the complaint of the scribes and Pharisees about Jesus's table company, and then the first two of the three parables, the lost sheep and lost coins. It omits the parable of the prodigal son, shortening the gospel reading time by about half. In one case, the priest said that everyone had already heard the latter parable in Lent; in the other, it was the other side of the coin, that people never hear the first two parables. In both cases, I wasn't all that upset since, as I explained in what I wrote over the last few days, the heart of all three parables is the same if you follow the exegetical evidence. Furthermore, it was Catechetical Sunday, and there was both a blessing of catechists after the homily and a witness talk by catechists after communion. With the Bears kicking off at noon, we did need to get to communion by 11:55. Have to keep the home fans happy. KIDDING!

As a general rule, I prefer that we read the longer version of the scriptures, and shorten other stuff if necessary. It's not like we Catholics overdose on the Bible. Today's readings (including the psalm) were so rich, I just longed for someone to walk us through that beautiful garden, provoking our corporate imagination to the possibilities of the alternative worldview proposed by the parables. There were moments of hope. The pastor even broached the political implications of the gospel in a fairly concrete way. But if you skip the parable of the prodigal son in the C24O readings, using the short version, you never get to the crux of the issue, that is, how do we answer parable's unspoken questions? Those questions, of course, are, "Are we going into the feast with the lost, or not? Do we want a restored family like the father wants, or do we want what we think is our 'right'?" And maybe most importantly if least obviously, "Do we not even realize that our outrage and protestations of superiority are gross illusions, and if we insist on staying outside, well, we're nothing but outside?"

I've already talked that to death, but as I said above, this brings up a problem that comes up with some frequency in the liturgy: should we use the longer version of the story (usually a gospel, like a Passion narrative, or one of the long Johannine stories used for the Scrutiny Sundays in Lent), or the shorter one? Here are two problems I mentioned above, at least as I see them. First, there is the length of these readings, when Catholics are obliged to be at mass, presumably with small children and infants. Clearly, the hierarchy, as represented by those who compiled and approved the lectionary, see this as a problem as well, and so they allow for a shorter reading as well as the longer (and preferred) reading. So, problem number one is having a worthy celebration on major feasts, several of which are on the pathway to Easter. For those in the majority who do not or cannot attend the Triduum services, Palm Sunday is the one time during the year that the Passion is read at liturgy. And this generally has to be done with the rite of blessing the palm branches attached to the entrance rite as well. As I see it, this is both a problem of sustaining the attention of the assembly, including the children if possible, and the length of time required for mass.

Secondly, there is the problem of what actually gets heard. There is no option in the lectionary, for instance, to read the introduction to Luke 15 (the crabby scribes) and then listen to just the Parable of the Two Lost Sons, though that is the way the reading appears during Lent in Year C. With the Passion narrative in Year B, the Passion according to St. Mark, the short reading omits the anointing at Bethany, the Last Supper, the arrest at Gethsemane, the trial before Caiaphas, and the denials by Peter. These all have aspects that are necessary for hearing the resurrection narrative on Easter, and for helping us differentiate the gospel narratives from one another. This struck me more than ever last year, having re-read the Borg-Crossan The Last Week, in which Mark’s narrative of failed discipleship among the apostolic community in the gospel, and the lauded demonstration of discipleship by the woman who anointed Jesus at the house of Simon the leper, is so persuasively argued. (This is not even to mention the irony, so thoroughly documented by Radford-Reuther in In Memory of Her, that the promise of Jesus that the memory of the [unnamed!] woman’s discipleship would be kept forever is omitted from this proclamation.)

But the liturgy isn’t scripture study, obviously, as important and under-used as scripture study is, especially among lay Catholics, in the church. So for the past several years, as liturgy director in a parish, I’ve opted for the shorter passion, allowing a bit more attention to the blessing and procession with palms. I ache for a homily on Passion Sunday that is less devotional and pays more attention to the cost of discipleship and the consequences of agape and kenosis. Or why not zero in on the second reading from Philippians, and that hymn's spiraling rhetoric that soars to its conclusion that “every tongue should proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.” I wanted to hear someone say, “and when you say ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ you are saying that the economy is not lord, the war is not lord, revenge is not lord, Putin, Obama, Bernanke, Ji, Ayatollah, Murdoch, Netanyahu is not lord. And this is what happens to those who follow this through to the end.” I want to hear someone explain why this itinerant preacher of gospel, this “holy man,” this worker of wonders, this healer, was killed, and so many others are not. What was so dangerous about him that he was crucified as an enemy of the empire? Why won’t you tell us this, I want to say?

But without the longer version of that narrative, no one well ever notice the woman who washes Jesus’s feet and anoints him, who puts her love for him and his embodied word above her economy and reputation. I’d like to hear a homilist reprove "fiscal conservatives" and tell us that “the poor you have always with you” is not an excuse to forget the poor, or give them a can of beans or a quarter in the poor box; that it’s a way of saying, “you will always be among the poor,” while acknowledging the discipleship (being “at the feet” of the master) of the unnamed woman in Simon’s house.

No, we'll never hear that if we don’t hear the long version of the passion, and we won’t hear the long version as long I suggest or urge the shorter version for the sake of the little ones and their parents. And we won't hear the unspoken question to the hearer invoked in the parable of the two lost sons as long as it's an option to omit it, and another five pounds of parish and diocesan needs have to be squeezing into the already stuffed ten-pound bag of the sacredly hour-long Sunday mass. 

So you see? Here we are stuck between the Scylla of enculturated attention deficit disorder and the Charybdis of the unwritten law of the hour-long mass, between the rock of the clock and the hard place of the eucharist as community catch-all, bulletin board, and recruitment poster.

It’ll be all right. “Repent, the empire of God is at hand” is an imperative, there is an urgency about it, but it is still God’s work, and it is always an invitation, and not coercive. As long as we stick to the gospel, and hold to it together in reflective solidarity, at least we’re on the Way. (I'll take some more of that Kool-Aid, thanks.)