Brink of Millennium: Hell in a handbasket.
It is Monday of the fourth week of Easter, and I am in hell.
On the Tuesday of Holy Week, my wife's brother disappeared while fishing on a river near St. Louis. Her family, and I along with them, waited a week before Jimmy's body was found. The arrogance of death, the randomness, the chaos left behind, the stupidity and carelessness that invited this tragedy have led us on a difficult path through this season. Not a unique one, but no less difficult.
But we are not alone in hell this Easter. With inexplicable ancient hatred, Serbian forces squeeze Albanian civilians from their homes in Kosovo, raping, looting, burning, and murdering them in the process. The ethnic cleansing gains momentum even though night after night the Good Guys of NATO rain destruction upon Yugoslavian targets (that's a military word for "places where people live and work.") And then, as if the world could take any more strain upon its conscience, last week two teenagers plotted the destruction of their "enemies," and borrowing scenarios from The Basketball Diaries, Natural Born Killers, and the computer game Doom, took the world's attention away from a war and diverted it to a high school in placid Littleton, Colorado.
By the time this article goes to press and you are reading it, much will have been said and written about the events that happened just last week in Colorado on the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birth of Adolph Hitler. The pain and gravity of these events is more real to me than the millennium or the Pope's writing about it. The panicked rhetoric of the media's designated reactors, playing day and night against the morally ambiguous bombing of Yugoslavia, is a drone of well-meaning banalities and pious bromides with no bite. No one will dare to articulate the irony of a nation decrying a culture of violence while countenancing the stream of million-dollar Tomahawk cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs on the "enemy." The National Rifle Association will still meet in Denver. Milosevic will still be able to point at the beam in our eye while we try to bomb the plank from his. We'll try to get kids to turn each other in for quirky behavior, but we will continue to amass our personal arsenals of assault weapons.
We don't get it. This is a religious issue. It's an issue of who belongs to whom, who's in and who's out. Because it's a religious issue, it's a political issue. To know who we are is a call to act a particular way toward one another in the public arena. But we've forgotten who we are. We don't know how to act, and we've been unable to pass on to our children any corporate religious or even civic identity. What we have passed on to them is the recipe for alienation, cliquishness, and elitism. Our children think that insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies are the way of the world. That's how Littleton happened.
America has sowed a wind of individualism, personal gain, self-righteous retribution, and a triumphalistic sense of manifest destiny that is an archetype and model for the behavior of our young people. We are, in fact, the catechists of their despair, and we have begun to reap the whirlwind of paranoia, intolerance, nationalism, racial hatred, alienation, and isolation. We have failed to hand on to a whole generation a sense of where we come from and to whom we belong. How did we do that while Gallup and Harris were telling us that we were all going back to church in droves?
We did it by being Americans first, and disciples second. We haven't even done that well as Americans: we're not doing too well in insuring "domestic Tranquillity" and promoting "the general Welfare." Those phrases apply more to groups of stockholders and investors than large groups of the American populace.
Is there any good news? Well, lucky for us, like it or not, an unignorable global event, the dawn of the third millennium of the Common Era, is upon us. And John Paul II's apostolic letter about the event, Tertio Millennio Adveniente has something to say to us. It offers the world a way out of despair. We are in hell because we've forgotten who we are, and we like it here. Like our ancestors in the faith, we feel it's better to have our stomachs full as slaves than to risk the hunger of the journey to freedom. Or as the old comedian says, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." It's not going to be easy. We're going to have to drop our guns.
Year of the Father
Paragraphs 49 through 54 of Tertio Millennio Adveniente outline the third year of the church's millennium preparation, the "Year of the Father." To summarize, during the year Christians ought to have their horizons broadened so as to see things in the perspective of Christ, and to see that "the whole of Christian life is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father" (par. 49). The journey of humanity is a journey of conversion, of turning away from evil and doing good. Love of God and neighbor sums up the life of believers (par. 50). Like Christ, Christians will "have to raise their voices on behalf of all the poor of the world" as a result of this conversion, for the mission of Jesus was to announce the gospel to the poor. It is a year of jubilee (par. 51). The challenge of evangelizing the secularized world that is indifferent to the gospel (par. 52) and of engaging the other great religions of the world in dialogue at the highest levels (par. 53) are embraced as goals of this preparatory year. And the Mother of Jesus, the "highly favored daughter" of the Holy One, is a model for believers both in her proclamation of God's greatness and her willingness to be God's servant, bearing Christ to the world and urging us to follow his instructions.
An Origin and a Family
For the time being, I need to set aside the challenges surrounding the Church's objectification of the term "Father," and concentrate on the main qualities of God that are suggested by scriptural use of the term. It is the "perspective of Christ" by which we are encouraged to see, and the name "Father" for God is part of the legacy of the Jesus of the Gospels. Following a clear (if secondary) tradition from both wisdom and prophetic literature, the Jesus of the gospels uses the word "Father" to describe the Holy One. The use of this word suggests a number of truths about God to us. First, "Father" suggests that the relationship is only made possible by the generosity and love of Another. Second, it suggests that the relationship is generative, that the child has its origin in the Father. Third, by virtue of the solidarity of Jesus' relationships to all kinds of persons, including "losers and rejects" in his culture, the filial relationship is extended equally to all people.
God is Father of a people.
'Say to Pharaoh: "Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son."' (Ex. 4:22) "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son...It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms." (Hos. 11:1, 3) It will help us when thinking about this "Father-Son" relationship that is so problematic for some that it has always described in the tradition a relationship between God and God's people, not an individual. Even the "suffering servant," another prophetic metaphor that became identified with the person of Jesus, was, in its origins, the description of the faithful remnant of Israel, the people of God. When Jesus calls God "Father," he's taking us along with him: "Our Father," Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. In his ministry of table-fellowship, Jesus is showing us how to act as authentic children of this one Father by openness, solidarity, and communion. Later, Paul will refer to the filial relationship as one of "adoption," perhaps in deference to the uniqueness of Jesus' status. But Paul was also aware that it was Israel that was God's firstborn, and the Gentile Christians to whom he wrote were not of Israel, and therefore might be perceived as "adoptive" sons and daughters.
"Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15)
"Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...Do you not believe that I am in the Father and Father is in me?" (Jn. 14:9.10) No one has ever seen God. But there are witnesses to who Jesus was, and what he meant for people. And part of that witness is that Jesus and the One who sent him are so close that they are intimate, even one. What does that mean to us? Who was Jesus? A regent? A general? A moral scorekeeper? We answer, no, of course not. None of those things. We answer with the words of the poet, Huub Oosterhuis:
He was the way we all would like to be:
A man of God, a friend, a light, a shepherd.
One who did not live to look out for himself
And did not go to death in vain and fruitless. ("Tableprayer: You Who Know")
This one "who knows what goes on in people" is the eikon of the invisible God, that is, he is both a representation of the reality of the Holy One and a touchstone for encounter with that reality, an image that carries within itself the presence of what it represents. To come to know this Jesus in the scripture, in the breaking of the bread, or in the suffering of humanity is to come to know the invisible God. "The Father and I are one...(The) Father is in me and I am in the Father" (Jn. 10:30.38). Jesus Christ, we would say today, is the sacrament of the invisible God, and the Church at its best is the sacrament of the risen and ascended Christ.
The gospels describe the ministry of Jesus not as the beginning of a new cult with a new God but as a reform within Judaism, an attempt by Jesus to bring his disciples to the heart of the law, and to an awareness of the nearness of God's reign. The immanence of Father's presence called for a change of heart, which for Jesus was not merely a matter of interior attitude but of behavior, of a "righteousness" that surpassed that of the prevailing religious leadership. The reign of God, this one whom Jesus called "my Father" and whose covenant love forged the Exodus of Israel, now in Jesus is revealed as an exodus from the power of sickness, demonic rule, and the narrow human constructs of cultic purity and worthiness, in short, of all counterfeit religion. Jesus' revelation of the Holy One as "our Father" demonstrated the primacy in his consciousness of God's initiative and trustworthiness in the covenant with Israel. The covenant is for all the people, not for a narrowly defined group of the righteous, because only God makes righteous, only God chooses, only God adopts. The loving act (e.g., of the woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee), the righteous deed (e.g., the justice of the hospitable Zacchaeus), the public expression of true faith (e.g., that of the Syro-Phoenician woman), these are what catch the attention of Jesus. Just deeds reveal true religion, as Jesus points out about the widow's offering at the temple. Since the Father is the one who sees in secret, not as human persons see, these outsiders are justified by genuine faith. God has worked in them, they have responded, and no human religion can keep them from the divine heart. Jesus' confrontational practice of dining freely without regard to the status of his hosts and guests leads irrevocably to his death. And the Father offers in that moment the greatest exodus of all: exodus from the grasp of death. At the empty tomb, the Church is challenged to accept the open table of Jesus, and not its own law, as the path of righteousness. Tertio Millennio Adveniente, on the eve of the millennium, takes a formal if timid step at acknowledging that reality when it offers dialogue with the great world religions as part of its celebration of the Year of the Father.
"Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."
So who is the Father? If Christ is icon, if to see Christ is to see the Father, who is the Holy One? I cannot know. But I suspect, as a disciple, as one who walks with and learns from Christ, that Abba is something like I-am-for-you, Life-given-away. Abba is Power-of-solidarity, Freedom-to-flourish, and No-one-outside.
These "names" are some attributes of Christ by which I can understand the Father. You see, I've met this God. I've read about this God in the scripture, heard about this God since I was a child, and there is no mistaking this God's appearance. People whom I know "bear the brand-marks" of this God in their body. God cannot hide, would not hide in humanity—deeds of God in human incarnation glow with holy presence. I heard about I-am-for-you in the Exodus, in Jesus-Emmanuel, in Mary his mother, so I was able to see that presence in my family, in my teachers, in my heroes. I recognized Life-given-away from the story of creation and in the story of Jesus; I have been able to discern it in Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Joseph Bernardin. I've known Power-in-solidarity from Acts of the Apostles and Trito-Isaiah and the Maccabees, so I've welcomed that presence in the Berrigan brothers, in Jesse Jackson and Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa. Freedom-to-flourish opened the Red Sea, made a way through the desert, opened the heart of Cyrus, made healing and power flow through the hands of Jesus, so I have seen it myself in Oscar Romero, Stephen Biko, Mandela, Tutu, and the many martyrs of Latin America. No-one-outside gathered the losers and rejects at the table of the Messiah, made Sara and Elizabeth mothers, fed the widow of Zarephath and cured Naaman the Syrian, and I have seen him in my life in Mother Teresa, John XXIII, and Jean Vanier and the advocates for minority populations in Guatemala, Mexico, and in the ecumenical movement, and in all the great movements of the last thirty years away from bigotry, apartheid, and segregation.
"In memory of me": Not-forgetting whose we are through the liturgy.
Thus far, the task has been to make some attempt to see with the eyes of heaven, to catch a glimpse of the divine perspective insofar as we are able to glean it from the perspective of Christ, the eikon of the invisible God. We imagine a God who is presence, self-gift, solidarity, freedom, inclusion. From the perspective of Christ, we come to know a God-as-Father who is the origin of the universe, and therefore of the human family, and who is the destiny of that family and its once-and-future home.
Faith has told us through revelation that Jesus is the sacrament of the invisible God, and faith also tells us that the Church, the community of the baptized, is the sacrament of Christ. The Church is the visible eikon in time of the timeless Christ who has passed into the ever-present but invisible glory of the Holy One. The Church's liturgy is its channel for passing on the genetic material of God's family, the womb where Christians are formed, the table where we are fed. We would expect the dynamic of origin-and-belonging to be evidenced in the liturgy as we have it today, and we should be able to identify the qualities of God-in-Christ as we have identified them above. After all, if the world must be able to recognize the invisible God in the visible Jesus, then the world in this and every age must be able to recognize the invisible Christ by the visible Church, in all of its varied activity, but in its liturgy par excellence. There isn't opportunity here for more than the briefest survey of ways by which the liturgy appeals to the perspective of Christ and keeps us true to Christ's vision of Abba's will for the world. Afterwards, I hope to reflect briefly on some obstacles we face that are built into the liturgy, and what difference all this makes for pastoral musicians. To begin, then, some important ways that the liturgy does not allow us to forget who the God is whom we worship:
All liturgy, rooted in scripture, keeps the story alive and grounded. The story of Scripture will never allow us to forget whose idea all this is, or what that idea is. The movement from chaos/bondage/death to creation/freedom/life is the movement of the Father's action, through God's own lifebreath, the Holy Spirit, in the world. The Church will not be able to reinvent the wheel of Life as long as the One Story is publicly told and witnessed to by the assembly of the elect.
- All liturgy leads to or flows from Eucharist, whose authentic worship is rooted in the table-ministry of the Messiah, which we have already seen is worship of the God of all people. The other initiation sacraments and the clusters of rites that surround them form us as Christ so that our lives might be open tables that we might celebrate the Eucharist authentically. Penance restores the relationship with the table that can be weakened or broken by the power of sin. Marriage and Orders sanctify two ways of the Christian's publicly offering a life of service to the world. The Anointing of the Sick focuses the healing presence of Christ upon those who might otherwise be driven away from the family by the power of disease, disorientation, or intimidated by the clearly relentless approach of death. The liturgy of the hours, throughout the day from East to West, continually praises God for who God is (origin and destiny) and repents of the world's sin (alienation in the Family).
- The Eucharistic liturgy, particularly, takes its tone from the speech of Jesus, and is addressed in all its orations to Abba. Only in its most intimate moments, as though the dominion of God were approaching with particular urgency, does it address Christ: namely, when it is telling the truth about its condition before God (the Kyrie eleison), when the Gospel is proclaimed, and during the communion rite (the Agnus Dei and the priest's [silent] prayer before communion). At all other times, the Church with-and-as Christ, prays to Abba.
- The heart of the liturgy, anamnesis or the Eucharistic prayer, is replete with the language of reconciliation and hope for unity. The prayers dare to imagine a world in process, God's world, a world of restored integrity and newly-created unity, in which the living and the dead, united by Christ in the Holy Spirit, will offer eternal praise to God. In the meantime, we pray that the reconciling life and death of Christ may make the Church "one body, one spirit in Christ" and "advance the peace and salvation of all the world," asking the Father to "unite all your children wherever they may be." (I'm sure that Teilhard, along with George Lucas and Chris Carter, would approve of the range of cosmography implied in the phrase, "wherever they may be"!)
- The cosmic, nonspecific text of the orations means more to me now than when I was younger and unable to discern their relevance. The theme of the Eucharist is grander than the needs of the day, of the one. This is not to say that those needs of the day are to be ignored: they have their place in the homily, in the general intercessions. But the ritual orations of the Eucharist keep us centered on the unchanging realities: the desire for freedom, the need to change our hearts, and the quest of the Father's heart for the unity and reconciliation of the world.
"On earth as it is in heaven"
Are there any obstacles in the liturgy as we celebrate it to our seeing with the perspective of Christ? While the correct answer to that question is, "Of course not, that would be a contradiction in terms," let me venture forth with a couple of observations. First, while Tertio Millennio Adveniente offers a vision of Christian life and jubilee activity that is firmly grounded in justice-doing and peacemaking in this world, a vision thoroughly supported by both the Hebrew scriptures and the kingdom-preaching of Jesus, the liturgy is sometimes ambivalent on the subject, and seems occasionally to opt out of the task of transforming this world for the hope of a better world to come. This is nowhere more in evidence than in the Roman Canon, which is more interiorly focused on the unity of the Church (as distinct from the unity of the world), its place in the communion of saints, and finally the salvation of the assembly. The other anaphoras are, to a greater or lesser extent, more outwardly-oriented, acknowledging the presence of a wider plan to "lead all men (sic) to the joyful vision of your light." Without denying the truth of a world beyond this one, it seems safe to say that based on what we know of the preaching of Jesus we ought to be able to expect that the greatest prayers of the church, made in his name, proclaim that the "reign of God is close at hand," that that reign is present in this world, and that what is not of that reign needs to be torn away, rebuked, exorcised, exposed to the light, or redeemed. If Jesus had only preached about a world to come, like so many preachers today, he would have been loved by many and ignored by anyone with the political power of life or death. It had to be his obsession with freedom and equal access to the blessings of God's reign to all persons that caught the attention of those whose fortunes hung on their keeping the gates of status and holiness. Neither church nor state has conspired against Mother Angelica, or Jerry Falwell, or most American bishops (or liturgical musicians). The same cannot be said, I think, of Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Raymond Hunthausen, and even John Paul II. It ought to be clear to us what kind of religious leader Jesus was, what world he was concerned about, and, what concerns this essay, what God he represented in his person.
What is perhaps most problematic for the most people about the liturgy in this context, though, is the very concept of closed communion. One can summarize the situation like this: the Church looks upon the Eucharist as the table of apostles and martyrs, as the place where the community of the fully initiated gathers to be reaffirmed in and to reaffirm their identity as the elect of God and to be sent to continue the mission of Christ. But there is a sense in much of the rest of Christian world, and indeed among many Catholics, that the Eucharist is a memorial and sacrament of the table of Jesus, and therefore access to it should be unrestricted so that it may continue to stand as a place where inquirers and apostles eat together as equals, though perhaps with graduated levels of benefit and understanding. At whichever point along the continuum of that argument one might stand, the rigidity of the Roman church's position on intercommunion and an open table is certainly bemusing. One can certainly make the theological argument that the Eucharist is not the table of Jesus, that the work of the Church is to open its table outside the walls of the assembly so that many will make the journey to the table inside its walls. But in the world of symbol, the gospel symbol of the table of Jesus is so strongly imprinted on the consciousness of even the most casual reader of scripture that the very concept of a "closed" communion table is an oxymoron, and the reality of it a scandalous irony.
Implications for pastoral musicians.
Most of us aren't biblical scholars and liturgists. We've picked up what we had to know to get along; if we've been lucky, we've been apprenticed to or mentored by those who are experts, we've read their work, sung their music, imitated their prayer and poetry. I still think that there's nothing that will keep us more on the track of worshipping the One who is revealed in a Person and in the Word than by being in relationship with a community, by studying scripture and the liturgical tradition of the Church, and by coming to know Christ through engagement with and service of other people. To come to know Christ in the poor (in its wealth of meanings), in prayer, especially in liturgy, in the give and take, thesis and antithesis of community life, and in intelligent study of the revealed Word is to come to know the Father, for Christ is the image of the invisible God.
Some other strategies for us:
- Sing what's important. Work toward singing the Eucharistic Prayer. Sing worthy settings of the Psalm every week. Let's imagine a sung rite where all the important exchanges and texts are sung by everyone by heart, and work toward making that a reality.Inclusive language, pace the interim lectionary, is not a choice, but a demand of the reign of God, where everything is inclusive. But this is a matter for community arbitration.
- Don't try to fix what isn't broken. Leave the prayers alone. Don't edit them for relevance.
- Look for texts that have the broadest vision and that share the scriptural tradition of a world in which all creation reveals God, and that speaks of God in words reminiscent of our vision of Jesus, the eikon of the invisible God, who proclaims that "the Father and I are one."
- Being a servant church that serves the Father of Jesus and proclaims the freedom and equality of all God's children means paying attention to the wider reality of the world while we worship in our neighborhood assemblies. In practice, I suggest this means that in suburban white churches it might be important to sing some gospel music; in mixed black and white neighborhoods, it might be important to sing a song in Spanish even if next to no one speaks it as a first language. There is a sense in which intelligibility takes a back seat to symbolic efforts at incarnating with hospitality the vision of Christ. "Unity of style" is an elitist red herring, unless the "style" is the diverse unity of all cultures under one God and Father of all.
At last, a way out of hell.
In the movie Gandhi, a repentant Moslem confesses to the Mahatma that he has slaughtered a Hindu child. "I am in hell," the man weeps. The weak, fasting Mahatma gazes at him from his bed, and finally replies, "I know a way out of hell. You must adopt a child, and the child must be a Hindu." In other words, to break out of the hellish cycle of violence, or poverty, or revenge, both a prophetic imagination and a bold new course of prophetic action are required. Conversion or metanoia is a "change of heart," which is more than simply a change of mind. Like the act of remembering, it only begins as an interior mental act. It risks a new praxis, a new set of behaviors, in the hope of discovering a new world.
Tertio Millennio Adveniente is a call to conversion, and conversion offers us a way out of hell. In it, John Paul II suggests to us that during this year our horizon needs to be expanded, that we ought to try to begin to see with the perspective of Christ, to see the world "through heaven's eyes," as the song from The Prince of Egypt suggests. To celebrate the millennium and the Year of the Father, we will receive this blessing: we will remember our origin, and we will come to understand that we belong to each other.
Presence. Self-gift. Solidarity. Freedom. Inclusion. These characteristics of the Father are the gift of God in the Spirit to the Church. They are the word that we have to remember and learn to speak again when we are confronted by hell. We have, all of us, our origin in one whom Jesus called Abba, and every public and private action of ours has to be measured against the implications of that Name. If Christians in Serbia, and Kosovo, and Colorado, and Barrington, and every other corner of the earth could live in that full knowledge for this year, and begin to teach our children to live on the journey to the Father's house as well, we would have a millennium to celebrate. We would then be able to pray with a new integrity and authenticity the words of our Eucharistic Prayer:
"Father...in the midst of conflict and division,
we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Your spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another,
Hatred is quenched by mercy,
and vengeance gives way to forgiveness...
(T)hrough your son you have brought us back.
You gave him up to death
so that we might turn to you, and find our way to one another."
This article is available as an online pdf at this site, page 17.