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Monday, April 27, 2015

Mystagogy for dummies (like me) (B4E)

Once again, the question:

How did Sunday’s liturgy speak to me about the meaning of life in the light of the paschal mystery? What did the readings teach me about what it means to “rise from the dead”?

It was a line from the responsorial psalm that caught my ear yesterday. It was quoted by Peter, somewhat polemically in the context of a quasi-legal hearing, in the speech from Acts in the first reading.
“The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.”

What got my heart working during the hearing of these scriptures was trying to associate that phrase with the overarching metaphor from today’s gospel of the Good Shepherd. Of course, there’s the obvious connection with “laying down my life for my sheep.” But how to take this out of the purely theological context, and apply it to my faith in daily life? That is the mystagogy question.

Another question that arose as I listened to the gospel comes up for me every time I hear this scripture and similar ones. There is the condemnation, or at least repudiation, of the “hired man”:

A hired man, who is not a shepherd

and whose sheep are not his own,

sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,

and the wolf catches and scatters them.

This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.

How do I know, as a paid minister of the church, that I’m being a “good shepherd” and not a “hired man”? In context, I can see the parallel between the “hired man” in this passage, with its dominant metaphor of the people of God as sheep, as the equivalent of the tenant farmers in the parable of the vineyard, or even the builders’ unrevealed plans that are replaced when the rejected stone becomes the keystone of the structure. One one level, these are the equivalent of the “false shepherds” exposed by the prophets, who lead people away from Torah. For instance, there is Ezekiel’s stunning philippic that pervades chapter 34:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
in these words prophesy to them (to the shepherds):
Thus says the Lord GOD:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost,
but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.

I didn’t want to get sidetracked by this, but it does appear that the charge against the religious leadership of Israel during the time of the prophets and again at the time of Jesus was that it was self-serving, concerned about its self-preservation, enrichment, and legacy to the detriment of the people from whom they were chosen. By the time of Jesus, the ruling class including the temple priesthood of Jerusalem were often collaborating with the occupying power of Rome to hold back the tide of potential violence if the nation appeared to be restlessly moving toward revolt, as they might while observing the memory of Passover each year and their deliverance from Egypt. The swollen ranks of the temple aristocracy skimmed enough money from the overtaxed peasantry to arouse general resentment. Thus, Jesus could make a priest and a Levite the object of (mild?) ridicule in the parable of the good Samaritan, as well as win points with the populace in his game of status-and-shame with his inquisitors on many occasions. 

What does that have to do with me? Well, ultimately, the choice is the same on any minister of the church. Which god do I serve? Of which empire am I a citizen? Are my efforts in my work toward building the empire of God, this God, this shepherd, or the empire of “the world,” and its strategy of self-preservation, acquisitiveness, survival-of-the-fittest, and might-makes-right? That’s a tough question. Like everyone else, I’m culturally entangled in the web of civilization that makes me complicit in the domination of others in ways of which I’m not even aware. But the possibility of action is there for me to the extent that I'm aware of my complicity, and so am able to make decisions about how to act. 

But it is the metaphor of the rejected stone that I think most helps me relate to the paschal mystery this week. The cornerstone of the temple of the Holy Spirit, the building of living stones that is the church, is the rejected stone that is Christ. It is the stone that did not appear to be worthwhile because it was too weak, not worthy, not suited for such a task. And yet it is this very stone that becomes the cornerstone. What this made me remember is Paul’s observation in the second letter to the Corinthians about his “thorn in the flesh,” and the answer he received from God when he asked that the weakness be removed:

But (God) said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness."
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.  

It is here that I encountered the Easter presence of Christ in the scriptures Sunday, the way that Christ revealed the paschal mystery to me a little more fully in the scripture from Sunday. This weakness-is-strength is a scandalous idea in a universe that appears to run by strictly Darwinian natural selection. And yet it pervades the revelation of scripture, from the moment that a slave nation is chosen to be the people of God and wrested from the hand of Pharaoh. The sin of the first parents initiates a new strategy of divine participation in the human enterprise. The deceit of a son secures a birthright from Isaac, the favored runt of Jacob’s litter is sold into slavery and emerges as the savior of both Egypt and his murderous siblings.The youngest of eight sons, a shepherd, is anointed as the king of Israel. A stuttering murderer is God’s advocate before a Pharaoh, children and tree nurses are selected to prophesy to kings. The choice of the apostles themselves, and their characterization in the gospels as clueless, ambitious fair-weather friends of Jesus belies their emergence as the foundation upon which the temple will be laid, with Christ as the cornerstone.

This God, the God of the paschal mystery, is the rejected stone. This God, who did not believe status of “godhead” was something to be grasped, is the one revealed in Jesus Christ.

I guess, then, no more thinking that the job is too big for me, or that I don’t have the talent or the means to accomplish the task. I don’t. But it’s not what I can do, or what kind of ability I have. It’s not even about succeeding, if success is defined by civilization and the culture of domination and strength.

Like the Good Shepherd, my task is to serve, to lay down my life for others. God’s grace, my baptism into the mystery of this God who pours Self out for the good of all, has to be enough for me. As the first letter of St. John reminded us yesterday,
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
The DNA of the paschal mystery is imprinted on us. I’m a child of the God who is not ashamed to be revealed as weak, as slave, even as an enemy of the state. But it is this love that created and sustains the universe, and which calls me to unity and peace with every other person on the planet, every other child of God. Nothing else will give me life. There’s no way to build any other temple to God than upon the rejected stone that is Christ, and him crucified.

The stone which the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone.

By the LORD has this been done;

it is wonderful in our eyes.

(Psalm 118)