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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Second thoughts—(C2A) Baruch, God's mercy, and the dreary curse of aPelagian Advent

I haven't been able to get a recent session with James Alison out of my head, and it might be for a good reason after all. I suspect that will be up for you to decide if you have the stamina to reach the end of this article. It's stems from his exposition of a series of passages in Luke, and I'll give a synopsis of one at the end of this post. Meanwhile, please, bear with me.

First, let me say that I think this Year of Mercy is a great idea, especially the way Pope Francis has mixed in the word "tenderness" and the Catholic ambivalent "extraordinary." When Catholics say "extraordinary" or "ordinary" we're generally not making a value judgment. We're speaking Latin in the 21st century like a bunch of noobs, and what we mean is "ordinary" in the sense of "pertain to order (or orders)." For instance, extraordinary ministers of the eucharist, while "ordinary" to most Sunday celebrations in the sense of "they're usually there," are "extraordinary" in the sense that they're not ordained, they don't have (holy) orders. Ordained people are "ordinary" ministers of the eucharist. The rest of those who do so are extraordinary. And we're extraordinarily lucky to have them, otherwise mass would be another half hour long. "Ordinary Time" isn't just "not special," it means that the Sundays are numbered "in order." Back to the extraordinary year of mercy: they usually come every 25 years—we just had one in Y2K. But this pope felt that this was the time, I think, with so much violence and internecine rivalry in the world, to take a year to look mercy in the face, as it were, and see what it really looks like. Or rather, whom it really looks like. To him, the face of mercy is the face of Jesus, which is to say, the one who showed us that sacrifice and religious ritual and practice and membership is not a substitute for acting with mercy and love toward one another, but a path in which to exercise mercy and love. "Go and learn the meaning of this: 'It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.'" Nothing in our religious life (this includes our politics) must stand in the way of acting as neighbor (or as sister or brother) to the person or people who need me. Nothing. People first; rite second.

But I have been a little concerned that local churches, lacking the imagination, courage, and zeal of the Holy Father, and with long and revered (if unaware) habits of substituting rite for mercy, have begun to indulge in a bit of reductionism. What I mean is, the message of God's mercy lavished on the world is being constricted into "forgiveness of sins," and specifically, going to confession. If that is the case, the message is lost, and we can just forget about the whole thing. For one thing, for at least a generation, the mediation of mercy through the clerical class is a non-starter. The clergy sex scandals of the last generation and the current generation's complicity and cover-up of the scandal has seen to that. For another thing, the trivialization of sin by reduction to matters reproductive has made a sham of the idea of the confession of sin in a world of manipulated economics and power. When first communion parent classes are told to teach their children about the sinfulness of masturbation, for instance, we have a problem with sin. When preachers use the pulpit to preach their opinions about candidates based on their records on reproductive rights when their opponents have vigorously anti-life positions on gun sales, war, poverty, and immigration, any talk of confession is passé. What we need is the gospel of mercy. What we're getting is the desperation of power slipping away.

Both what I'm reading in social media and my experience of chatter among clergy and others leads me to think that something about the church's Confession Obsession is becoming the easy option for actual mercy and reconciliation. That's right, I said it. Once again, we substitute ritual for experience, rather than allowing ritual to be the public expression and intensification of our experience. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible realities, and yet over the years we want the outward sign to replace the interior reality. Confession instead of repentance. Mass instead of kingdom community. Baptism instead of genuine belonging.

But there is great material in these Advent liturgies for introducing mercy again as both a source of faith (i.e., God is mercy) and ethics (i.e., "be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.") John the Baptist, making his annual appearance on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, makes the first annunciation of the reign of God in advance of his encounters with Jesus. His message is something like this: repent, so that God will save you (i.e., get right, and make the wilderness road straight and level for God [Lk. 3:4-5, after Is. 40, 3-5]). Jesus, on the other hand, has a radically different message: "God has saved you, sin no more"; or better, "Follow me, let's eat." Jesus opens a path to conversion by risking contact and dialogue (after Baruch 5:7, wherein God makes the wilderness road straight and level for us.) Jesus understands that God's approach is merciful; Jesus is the mercy of God. God draws near to us in Jesus, and this blew me away Sunday night when I heard the first reading and finally heard the images in it from the liturgy of atonement!

That's what I'm getting at with the "dreary curse of a Pelagian Advent." I want everyone to know about the year of  mercy, that it's a visible sign of an invisible reality. The visible sign is the (finally) open door of the Big Churches, i.e., cathedrals and basilicas. But the invisible reality is, the door to God, the door to divine mercy, is always open. We open our doors every few years to remind us of that, but God never closes it. We baptize a few babies and adults every year, but the invisible reality is that everybody is already inside the eternal mercy of God. We break bread and share a cup among about one of 5 or 6 people in the world every week, and not all of us know or are convinced of what that means, but the invisible reality is that God's feast and table are set for everyone, everyone is invited, everyone belongs. The lack of participation isn't because we don't believe strongly enough; it's that we prefer to dine in our private accommodations with people like us, and aren't really interested in sharing life with strangers and enemies. We're not really catholic. Let's own that. But God is. I need a strategy for this year for being more like God. We all do. We need a big, daring, bleeding-heart, get-off-of-the-sofa, don't-be-afraid plan to be more like God. Starting this year. And then we leave the doors open. Remember Baruch: God is doing the valley-raising and the mountain-lowering. We need to look for that, and take that highway, and get off the political grid and out of the mall.

(If you're tired, this would be a good place to do something else, and come back to my blog later. There's a bit of a natural break here. If you're feeling particularly intrepid, or are drinking coffee, read on!)

It was only the fifth time that I heard the first reading when the imagery of the rite of atonement hit me in the stupid face. Jerusalem, being rescued by God from exile, is pictured in the reading from Baruch as being wrapped in the robe and mitre of the high priest in the atonement ritual, the one day of the year when the high priest is allowed speak the name of the Most High which is written in gold on his ceremonial headgear. In the rite, celebrated in the first temple but kept in an idealized memory through the captivity and recalled on the return, the Lord (i.e., YHWH) becomes flesh, in a sense, instantiated in the person of the high priest who emerges in white and gold raiment from the Holy of Holies in order to speak the divine name after completing the atonement sacrifice on behalf of his people. God, in other words, in order to keep the covenant and finally be at one with Israel emerges from the center of creation and blesses the people by being with them: Emmanuel. Here, in the prophecy of Baruch, God invests the anawim, the remnant of Israel returning from Babylon, with the vesture of the high priest and through the remnant presents the atonement to the whole earth:
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,
bear on your head the mitrethat displays the glory of the eternal name.For God will show all the earth your splendor:
you will be named by God forever
the "peace of justice," the "glory of God’s worship." (emphases mine)

God's mercy is the starting point, the Presence-within-presence, the Other-other, that suffuses everything, first creating, then sustaining, and seeing everything into a benevolent future. We're in a culture that values self-actualization, that relativizes human dignity into market economics. If we can produce and purchase, we're valuable. The more we can produce and/or purchase, the more valuable we are. The less we can produce and/or purchase, the lower our place in civilization's food chain. If someone can disprove this, I'm listening.

But God's mercy isn't like that. The starting place is universal belovedness of every person in God's eyes. That's the invisible reality. The spark of divine mercy into whose image each human person was made calls from the deep, one to the other, without notice or reference to race, nation, belief system, or wealth. All of us receive our identity as human beings from others, from the Social Other, without whom we are nothing. We receive life, a name, language, the ability to walk and learn and discern from the Social Other. And the Social Other, from time immemorial, has systems of self-preservation in place to deal with our mimetic desire when we inevitable start to want the same things. We use strategies of violence, threats, incarceration, isolation, "majority rule" and so on in order to keep order. We communicate our fears, rivalries, and desires through our society in such a way as to get what we want, what we perceive to be good, and very often, if not always, at the expense of others. Without an alternative influence to the Social Other it is impossible to break out of our pattern of imitation that keeps us bound to violence. The face of mercy, the human face of Jesus that reflects the glory of God and God's wholly unselfish desire for humanity, God's love, is the alternative movement to the grinding gears of civilization in which the lives of the poor are burned for fuel and the progress of weak nations and peoples are crushed under the wheels of some counterfeit of progress.

The church ought to be the sacrament, that is, the visible sign of the invisible reality of God's mercy. The church ought to do in its worship some image of what we should already be doing as members of the church in the world. That is, our liturgy ought to describe in symbols the mercy that we have already experienced from God in our lives, and lead us to live out mercy with one another, with every one-another, outside of the liturgy. It stands to reason that the thing we want to get in touch with are the many ways we have messed up, wrought destruction, invited disaster with our lives, and have been shown mercy. We ought to be telling stories of our weakness and vulnerability, not touting our strength and power. (Of course, I'm reminded here of the "success" of Nadia Bolz-Weber's ministry and her books, which urge this very practice in Christian assemblies.) God's mercy is constant, never-failing, always present and available, preceding every thought or action of ours that flows from mercy. Somehow, the loving energy, the awareness of God's gift to us in Christ, the clear alternative to the violence, values, and rivalry of civilization, needs to be made explicit by Christians in our lives, and then proclaimed and celebrated in our liturgy. What happens too often, instead, is that we employ the strategies of civilization inside the church, and rather than being genuinely catholic, we create a group of insiders in opposition to outsiders, the very opposite of being catholic. The truth is, everyone is already in, and they haven't been told in such a way as to convince them that rivalry has been put off the table! We employ strategies inside the church that divide, create castes, imagine divine power as being mediated through a few rather than flowing out of baptismal grace into all, or worse, imagine divine power as the power of civilization writ large. We imagine that if we were just big enough and strong enough, we could conquer unbelief and win the whole thing. But divine power, of course, doesn't look like that. Divine power looks like being born in a stable, like touching the untouchable, eating with enemies, washing feet.

This is the Alison story I alluded to at the beginning of my post, if you have made it this far. It begins with a passage about a healing in the gospel of St. Luke. There are others like it, but just take a quick look at this story (Luke 13: 10-17). I hope to round it up at the end of this article with mercy, sacramentality, and Advent.

Alison's exegesis appears in Chapter 8, "On Inhabiting Texts and Being Discovered," (pp. 362-370, Kindle Edition) of Book 3, "The Difference Jesus Makes," of his work Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults. In the same section he takes similar tacks with three other passages: the man with the withered hand, casting out demons by Beelzebub, and Zacchaeus. The passage I'm referencing is the story of the healing, on a sabbath and in a synagogue, of a woman who had had an infirmity for eighteen years. Alison points out a few pieces of information to get us started:
1) the woman didn't come seeking healing; Jesus sees her, bent over and unable to straighten up, and heals her without her asking for anything.
2) the "eighteen years" is a literary clue that was meant to take those who heard it back into the Jewish scriptures, and the referent seems to be the story of Ehud in Judges 3: 12-25, an unforgettable story about a left-handed hero that, thanks to its swashbuckling hero and scatological detail, would have been known to every bar-mitzvahed teen in the world. In that story, Israel has been "bent over" and under the control of the Moabites for, you guessed it, eighteen years, and, unlike the woman in the synagogue, had "cried out to the Lord for a deliverer."
3) as usual, synagogue leader was upset because Jesus is healing on the sabbath.
4) the word behind Jesus's outburst, when he calls the synagogue leader and everyone else (maybe including the woman he healed) "hypokritai" in the passage, refers directly its the Septuagint usage in Job 36:13 "the godless in heart cherish anger; they do not cry for help when he binds them." There, the phrase hypokritai kordai, is translated by the NRSV "godless in heart." 
What Jesus is getting at is that refusing to pray to God for help when we're clearly in a mess, like, say, everyone in that synagogue under the thumb of the Roman empire, and the woman even in her distress, is a tacit complicity in godlessness. It is a lack of faith, an abandonment of the covenant. When the people were in a mess in the time of the Judges, they cried out, and God sent them a left-handed hero who delivered them from their eighteen-year bending-down. Now, he says, no one is crying out, and God shows up anyway in your midst, and heals you of your ills. Why? Because that's what God always does! And the kicker is, you don't want him to do so, because it interrupts your sabbath rituals when healing and freedom comes! Here, in the synagogue, in the very house of God, the healing power of God is made manifest, and we are indignant. Go figure!

This, and the preceding passages I mentioned, lead Alison to urge us to remember Jesus's appropriation of Hosea's aphorism: "Go and learn the meaning of this: 'It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.'" I don't think this is a condemnation of ritual per se, but a condemnation of ritual that is not surrounded by lived mercy. It may be a condemnation of substitutionary ritual of all kinds, where we use a sacrament or any kind of religious life or membership as a replacement for actually living as the daughters and sons of God with open doors in all our churches, homes, and hearts. It may be a condemnation of any pious strategy that pretends to be religion when at the same time it excludes, sets itself apart as better-than or holier-than, and forgets that it too is sinful and forgiven, once no people, now God's people, once aliens and strangers in a foreign land.

Let us learn the meaning of mercy together. Maybe what we need is the church "going to confession" to the world, and asking forgiveness for our fakeries. We know that God has done good through us, that God is still working on us to make a better world. But let's not open ritual holy doors and slam the doors that real people in need have asked us to open. Let's not celebrate receiving mercy that we're not willing to show to every other person in our life. Let's not pretend to be catholic when we imagine ourselves as exclusive, deserving of special privilege, or the gatekeepers of divine grace, knowing full well that if God wanted, stones, apes, and algae could be turned into catholics in the twinkling of an eye. With two weeks of Advent to go, we can make a good start. We can think about how we're not finished yet, that God is doing something with us, but that we need to try to stop resisting and opt into freedom and a good, healthy humanity, which is what the bible means by "salvation." If today's feast, the Immaculate Conception, teaches us anything, it's that we can't accomplish that without God, and God will not accomplish it without us. Like Jesus himself, salvation is pure gift. It's for everyone. No exceptions. And that's the only way it can be genuinely received, as part of everyone, no exceptions.

Good Lord. These are my second thoughts about last Sunday. I have to stop thinking, or there's no way we'll be ready for Christmas. You get bonus stars if you've read this far. Thanks for reading if you did. May God have mercy on us, and we, finally, intentionally, tenderly, on one another.