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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)