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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Second Thoughts: Rising from the Dead 3

3. The Emmaus Tapes 
"Emmaus," by Filipino artist Emanuel Garibay (2000).


My spirit loves that there is a special gospel for Easter when mass is said in the late afternoon or evening, and the gospel for those masses is the story of the road to Emmaus. Even in Year A, however, the narrative makes its way into regular Sunday hearing on the third Sunday of Easter, with the second Sunday always reserved for John "Pentecost" on the third day, and the "eighth day" story of Thomas.

As if there weren't enough to endear me to the story of Emmaus, which, in the day, we so often used for a missioning service for folks who came to our initiation workshops for the North American Forum on the Catechumemate, the wonderful James Alison yokes the Emmaus story with its eucharistic allusion with the opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews as he begins his "introduction to Christianity for adults" in book and video, entitled Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. In Alison's hands, what was incomprehensible in the Letter to the Hebrews becomes more inviting, and the story of Emmaus becomes more compelling than ever, a parable of wrenching conversion that turns chaos into a passion for life ("fire burning within us") and a change of direction that helped to birth the church out of the devastation wrought among the disciples of Jesus by his crucifixion.

A brief introduction to Alison's thoughts on the 
"forgiving victim" of Emmaus.

I could not do justice to Alison's exegesis on the Emmaus story here, but do want to remark before proceeding that he helps us to hear, through the Greek in the text, the extent of the roiling doubt and confusion left in the community in the wake of Jesus's execution. (One of my favorites, by way of example, is his pointing out of the verb antiballete in Greek, often translated as "discussing," might be heard differently:)
So, this third person draws up, unrecognized, and says to them: “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other (οὓς ἀντιβάλλετε πρὸς ἀλλήλους) as you walk?” Well, lest you think that this third party has lighted upon a quiet afternoon chat between two English vicars, who are strolling gently along by a river bank and saying things like “Awfully interesting things seem to have happened to Jesus.” “Yes, really, quite fascinating. Wonder what they’ll make of this in Tübingen!”, I’ve included the Greek word antiballete, from which we get our word “antiballistic”, and it means to toss back and forth in a somewhat violent manner. So rather than a quiet discussion, what is going on here is a row: you know the old joke, “two Jews, five opinions” — a considerably charged exchange of multiple viewpoints.
Alison, James (2013-11-11). Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 54). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition. 
He gets around to trying help us understand, both in this chapter and later when he's talking about the disorientation and reorientation of our lives (like the early witnesses) when we realize that God is the protagonist of our story, not us, that this turmoil is completely natural, as deep as our bones and our dreams, because we're literally pulled out of the orbit of our consciousness and drawn into the gravity of  I AM. What we thought was reality, our interacting with the world, our receiving our identity from people who may not know who they are, learning the patterns of desire and behavior of a world that has only subscribed to and learned from "civilizing" violence, turns out to be a lie, a poisonous vapor, and that all the while the Forgiving Victim has come back from the gallows and the grave with another path, another civilization formed by love, patterned after the love of God that "makes the sun shine and rain fall on good and bad alike," and who is made visible once and for all in Jesus.

What struck me about this this year, as I listened to the readings week after week from Acts of the Apostles and then from First Peter, and harkened back to the Matthew and John passion narratives, was the number of references through the season to "Moses and the prophets" in the kerygmatic speeches of Peter and others. It brought me back time after time to that line in the Emmaus story, when Jesus says to his companions, “'O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them (διερμἠνευσεν αὐτοι̑ς) in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, became their hermeneutic principle. He retold to them their chaotic story, the same story that made no sense to them, with a new thread that they had been unaware of, however steeped in the scripture, history, faith, and ethos of the Jewish people they may have been. And, Alison is quick to add, this was not merely a religion class: he was interpreting their understanding of their existence to them. There was no Jewish faith without a Jewish nation, every meal, every relationship, history, festival, and crime was related to the story. He told them, in their own vocabulary and through stories they knew and their experience of the life and death of Jesus, what their own lives meant.


In Acts 10, the section read on Easter, Peter talks about what he and the other disciples have witnessed in Jesus, in front of a mixed group of Gentiles (God-fearers) converts and Jews, about the meaning of the death of Jesus and his need to witness to the meaning of that death as it unfolded in the (unhappily, untold) story of the centurion Cornelius and his family. Like the mission to Samaria and the council of Jerusalem, this is a foundational moment in the self-awareness of Christianity, or "universal Judaism." 1 Peter 2 -3 has references in the Sundays after Easter to Psalm 16, Isaiah 28, Psalm 118, Isaiah 8, Exodus 19, and that's just the times Peter/Luke directly quote those scriptures. I've been attending daily mass through Easter (I'll give you a little time to get up off the floor and let that sink in) and the pattern continues throughout Acts. In Acts 7, alluded to during the 3rd week of Easter only with the end of Stephen's discourse and his death, Stephen tells his Jewish accusers their own story leading to Jesus by quoting from or referencing parts of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Amos, Jeremiah, Josue, Isaiah, 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, and Psalms, and that's just what I can remember from the footnotes! Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 discuss Isaiah 53 in interpreting the meaning of Jesus. Paul's address in Pisidian Antioch to the gathered Jews and God-fearers refers to Exodus, Deuteronomy, Josue, Judges, 1 Samuel, Isaiah, and Psalms.

OK, I think you're getting the idea. So why did I call this blog post, and this wash of insight over these Easter weeks, "The Emmaus Tapes"?

It seems to me that there are a lot of "lost years" between the death of Jesus and the arrival of Paul on the scene as the apostle to the Gentiles. One possible dating of the Council of Jerusalem, recounted in Acts 15, puts it around 50 CE, so maybe a period of twenty years after the events surrounding the death of Jesus. During that time, in addition to continuing to pray in the "synagogues" and temple and thus hearing again and again their own scripture read to them and discussed and prayed over with Jesus in their hearts, they also met at table, went about doing good works, and told their own stories and developed their own traditions about what Jesus said and did.
"Emmaus," by Janet Brooks Gerloff

This was all "post-Easter catechesis," wasn't it? It dawned on me that one way of seeing the Emmaus narrative is as a parable of that process. Or, conversely, we might see the apostolic narrative, the speeches of Peter, and especially the first letter of Peter, as an "unveiling" of the Emmaus tapes. If you have wondered, with me, what Jesus said on the road the made the hearts of Clopas and his unnamed companion (me? you?), maybe these stories in Acts and 1 Peter, the apostolic kerygma, is the answer, or was the answer for the Jewish hearers and their gentile God-fearer peers of the day.

For us, see, the interpretative key for our story, which includes the stories of the Jewish scriptures, the Christian scriptures, the songs and stories we learned in school and from our mothers and grandmothers, sisters and priests, along with the sturm und drang, the clang and chaos of political doublespeak, broken promises, class war, the ephemeral comforts of retail therapy, overeating, obsessing over health and beauty, worship of youth and success, all of that, everything which has us hurling antiballistic epithets at each other and crawling to church, booze, entertainment, and drugs in order to make the pain go away: the interpretative key for our story is Jesus Christ, dead and risen. He is the image of the invisible God, power that serves, utterly alive, who offers unconditional love and forgiveness that precedes our asking for it, like Grandma's, only better. Jesus taught Grandma. All the grandmas. Or the God of whom Jesus is the image did.

This is how Easter is ever new. It's the annual, eternal "Follow me" from Jesus that assures us that it will be OK to go to the place of the victim, to stand with the rejected, to risk forgiving and reconciliation, because God has already gone into that place and remains there, hallowing it. The tornadic clatter and roar of modern life is stilled by the voice of the Messiah, whose word approaches with a thread that binds all of life into a song for the pilgrim's road. The Emmaus tapes, playing still in the words of the apostles, ring down the ages to our grumpy, mistrusting, suspicious, fearful hearts, offering yet a walk into a new world, this world, transformed by a different gravity, known by the fire in our hearts, bellies, and laughter when we remember the music of his voice.

Summary: Rising from the dead drops us into the unknown, and for a while it's like waking up in a different house when its still dark. But the new house has been prepared with loving hands, and we discover that it is a commune. A new narrative replaces what we had thought was our story. We are finally ourselves, finally home.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Second Thoughts: Rising from the Dead 2

2. "You will never wash my feet."

I guess I've spilled a lot of ink, as have others, on John's version of just what "Do this in memory of me" means. What caught me ear this year though was Peter's line, repeated in our song during the foot washing, and, strangely, addressed in a throwaway line between the rite and the intercessions by our pastor, a line that could have been an entire homily. (I don't remember the line, I only remember that the way I received it stuck with me.) The idea was this: Peter was appalled by Jesus's action, but not so much by the fact that Jesus washed his feet, but that, as a disciple, he was going to have to do so as well. He saw that in the action, before Jesus had said anything to them.

We had just finished working through some of the ideas in Crossan's book How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Is God Violent? An Exploration from Genesis to Revelation, and I had cross referenced some of the ideas there with two other books. One was Derek Flood's Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (are these titles too much, or what?) and books by Bernard Brandon Scott and Borg/Crossan on St. Paul and his metamorphosis-though-literary-assimilation from a radical disciple of Jesus to an apologist for accommodation to the Roman empire. The book about Paul, in short, make the case for Paul the Jewish Christian, and for distinguishing between the actual letters and letters edited or written under his name by others. They note the sharp distinctions between the radical Christian equality in Paul's texts that proclaim that in Christ there is "no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, (Gal. 3:28)" and then in other (assumedly not Pauline) places make clear distinctions in all cases. That's all by way of background, because I want to focus on "neither slave nor free," and bring in the Letter to Philemon here, along with the words of Galatians quoted above.

So in the Last Supper story in the gospel of St. John, "Jesus took a towel," stripped, and washed the disciples' feet. We say this over and over again. We act in out in our Holy Thursday liturgy, and pick liturgical nits about who is qualified to get their feet washed by the slave. But we don't really deal with the reality being expressed here. The master, the one who has led the trek from Galilee to Jerusalem over the months and years of his ministry, the healer, the spell-binding story teller and teacher, the paterfamilias at the table of the disciples, does something so radical that, in our much more egalitarian society, we cannot imagine. The one at the top of the honor system among their peers, the one whom every apostle and disciple, apparently, right up to his death and even afterward, thought to be the promised Messiah who would deliver Judea and Galilee from Roman occupation, literally takes the social position of a slave, removes his outer garments, and washes the feet of (at least) the twelve. This stomach-churning reversal must have blind-sided them. The unfiltered Peter, in John's account, can only blurt out, "You will never wash my feet."


This event is not mentioned in any of the synoptics, nor is it mentioned in any of the Pauline or universal letters. However, Bruce Chilton in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Brill Academic, Boston, Leiden 2002) cites a "criterion of coherence" with several strains of "greatest/least" and "servant/master" sayings in the synoptics, and with Pauline themes like the hymn in Philippians 2 about the kenosis of Christ. Chilton (and others) see Jesus, and later, the church, as symbolically taking on and ultimately subverting the class distinction that is slavery. Jews were allowed to have slaves, but recall that their foundational experience, whether you start from the captivity and work backward or Egypt and work forward, is one of slavery, and so within the ethical memory of the nation there is an antipathy to slavery, the same one from which the sabbath proscription on work arose.

Along with the Galatians assertion of "in Christ, there is neither slave nor free," we have the happy little letter to Philemon to which to look for insight as well. In that letter, Paul exhorts a friend, one of his own, to manumit the slave Onesimus, and perhaps to let him (Paul) keep him as an assistant. The whole story is only understood, we don't have all the details. But Onesimus apparently did something legal, i.e. go to his master's friend, Paul, to plea with his master for his freedom. While with Paul, Onesimus was converted to Christianity, which put everybody in a bind. So Paul is attempting to persuade (not bully or guilt-trip) his friend into freeing Onesimus as a brother in Christ, thus being able to keep an assistant and save the former slave from punishment, even death.

This is all to say that slaves were a very low form of humanity in these times, lower than servants (The Greek word doulos translates both "slave" and "servant" as well as other meanings in a complicated, often subjective, process.) Servants were trusted household employees, in some cases, almost members of the family; slaves, not so. No Jewish slave would be allowed to wash feet (see footnote to John 13:5 in NABRE.) And in the household narrative of the Last Supper, there were tasks servants would do as part of the meal preparation and service as well as guest hospitality, but the work of washing feet was solely the work of slaves. Paul's famous use of a pre-existing Christian hymn in Philippians uses the word doulos to describe Jesus taking "the form of a slave." Indeed, John sees the humiliation of Jesus in the washing of the feet as a sign pointing both to his humiliating death and to his "descent" from divinity to "pitch his tent among us." Thus there is that "criterion of coherence" that resonates with us who try to imitate the master, and who hear his word from other gospel accounts that "whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all," and "the greatest among you must be your servant."

So imagine Peter, getting his feet washed, but having grown up in a world with slaves, and servants, and masters, and probably having some commerce with all. Imagine Peter, in Jesus's inner circle, having given up his fishing business in Galilee and putting his hopes on this itinerant rabbi, who might be the Messiah who would overthrow Rome: what might be in it for him? I'm sure there was danger in the air: maybe Jesus arranged with Judas for the meeting with the Sanhedrin, willing to lay down his life rather than risk a riot during the holiday, who knows? Certainly the parabolic entry into Jerusalem amid the crowd ahead of Passover, and the little dust-up in the Temple would have put the disciples on edge; the secret arrangements for the upper room read like a Cold War setup for an encounter among spies. And now, in that context, at a meal on or near passover, Jesus the master washes their feet, acting for all the world like a slave. Peter has signed on as a disciple, and if the stories are to be believed, had blustered his faithfulness with the best of them. Now the master is acting like a slave. He doesn't even have to verbalize the conclusion, which they all would have seen as he did it:
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.i
Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.
If the Master does it, the disciple does it. Peter's horror isn't about the humiliation of Jesus: it's about the humiliation of Peter, who has a few more lessons to learn before the end of the narrative. The difficulty of Peter's conversion will be attested throughout Acts of the Apostles, especially when he waffles on the question of circumcision in the inclusion of Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem. But these lessons serve him well, as he learns to serve at the feet of the master, the Lord who serves as a slave.

Summary: Resurrection is the transformation of our past, a "new song," because God is creating, "doing something new." The risen world in Christ is utterly egalitarian, no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.

The two books about the radical (i.e. "original, real") St. Paul:

The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge by Bernard Brandon Scott

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Monday, May 15, 2017

Second Thoughts: Rising from the Dead 1 (Palm Sunday and Triduum, Year A)

(T)hey did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. (Jn. 20:9)

Well, they're not the only ones, are they? 


These are a few of things that were swirling around my head this year through Holy Week and the beginning of the Easter season. As usual, they're not necessarily original thoughts with me at all, just things that struck me with renewed vigor from previous years, or new ways of seeing old things. Some of them come from articles, or conversations, or even homilies. Because we spent eight weeks this year studying the problem of God's (apparent) violence in the Bible with Dominic Crossan in a video series made available through Living the Questions, some of the issues that Crossan perennially surfaces in his work were especially vivid for me. And of course, the importance of the Emmaus story and other stories of the passion and resurrection of Christ have renewed spiritual power for me because of James Alison's course Jesus, The Forgiving Victim, which we also completed recently with a couple of dozen people in the parish after engaging with it for two years.


But those are just lenses through with these stories are filtered again, new ways of seeing old truths, and my sharing my own insights will necessarily be affected by them like they are about everything else I've learned through the years. So here we go:


1. Why have you abandoned me? In an internet essay for HuffPost called "The Communal Crucifixion of Jesus," John Dominic Crossan explores the connections between the gospel accounts' use of Jewish psalm and prophetic texts and the way they were heard and preached in the early church. What he has done is turned the jewel of hermeneutics on the passion narrative a little bit, and rather than seeing the sayings as fulfillment of prophecies about the specific death of Jesus of Nazareth, he posits that the use of the quotations was to clarify and expand the meaning of the death of Jesus by associating it with the fate of the people of Israel. From their earliest communal memories of slavery in Egypt and Babylonian captivity through their more recent experience of the violence and cruelties suffered under the Greek, Hasmonean, and Roman occupations, the authors of the gospels united their narratives by reference to texts like the servant canticles of Isaiah and the psalms of lament, especially Psalm 22 and Psalm 31. More about this later, when I discuss some thoughts about the Emmaus narrative and the "law and the prophets" role in the apostolic kerygma before and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Crucifixion, condemnation of the innocent, torture, and random violence were the daily bread of the Jews, especially in the years from 4 BCE (around the time Jesus was born) until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Given the thousands of crucifixions of "enemies of Caesar" who were part of various uprisings during that period, I imagine most Jews of Judea and Galilee must have had first hand experience of the brutality of Rome. Their situation was desperate. And yet, the "good news" that the apostles and evangelists were risking their own lives to preach was that Jesus, victim of Rome's iron-fisted "justice" system and the collaboration of conflicting interests within Judaism, was not dead but alive, rescued from death by God as some had begun to believe since the time of the Wisdom literature, a couple of centuries. Out of an unswerving faith in God's justice, a new strand of hope for a resurrection of the dead, in this world, arose. If God is just, how could the young martyrs who had stood against Antiochus Epiphanes and other tyrants who desecrated the temple be lost forever in their youth? Surely a just God would not abandon them to death! From such faith rose the apocalypse of Daniel, in which God would clean up the violent mess of the world. Such passages like this in chapter 12, for instance:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
Some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace.
But those with insight shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament,
And those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever...
...as well as passages like the familiar text from Wisdom (chapter 3), read so often at funerals, 
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their judgment they shall shine
and dart about as sparks through stubble;
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
and the LORD shall be their King forever.

We rarely, I think, appreciate what a break this kind of tradition was from other strains of Judaism, which continued in the tradition of the Sadducees who "did not believe in the resurrection." But the pharisaic tradition continued to explore resurrection as a necessary correlation to God's justice, and Jesus was part of the tradition. After his death and resurrection, the church struggled with what the resurrection means for those "left behind," what its meaning is for the earth and its people. Is resurrection about another world, an afterlife? Not in this view, at least, not entirely. It certainly appears that the emphasis both in the preaching of Jesus and that of the church is that it is this world that is created and loved by God, and this world which is to be transformed into God's new heavens and new earth. Those who have suffered the fate of Jesus at the hands of powers that rely on cruelty and violence to gather their way, those who are abandoned, humiliated, tortured, whose flesh is pierced, who are spat upon, degraded, and buried among the forgotten, like Jesus, they will rise again, borne up by the power of a God who is full of life and who has nothing to do with death. The gospel message, then, is "Change the world with love. There is nothing to fear."

We goyim—gentiles cannot fully comprehend the tribal unity of Judaism in the time around the life of Jesus. Connections between family, extended family, and nation were tight; people were able to survive because they were not alone. And there was no distinction between tribe, nation, and faith. Jewish self-identity was rooted not in political history but in their sacred stories and scriptures. The authors of the gospels, some possibly Jewish themselves, converts to Judaism, or "God-fearers," Jewish sympathizers who took to preaching of the apostles about Jesus, knew this, and experienced in the betrayal, torture, and death of Jesus the brutality suffered by their nation at the hands of invading powers forever. They reverenced these connections, the suffering of innocent people beloved by God, by framing the passion narratives in with words and phrases borrowed from scripture and loaded with resonance from their own story. They would do the same with the resurrection narrative. The same psalm (118) that is quoted for the entry into Jerusalem ("Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!") is quoted for the betrayal and death of Jesus (the "stone that the builders rejected") and for his resurrection ("has become the cornerstone. This is God's doing! This is the day the Lord has made!")



Thus for the kerygma of the Apostles and the evangelists, the death and resurrection of Jesus spells the end of a world ruled by violence and despair. God had personally entered into the place of death and shame, and returned a verdict of "Innocent" with the resurrection of Jesus. But the Victim of the crime is the same in life and resurrection: no retribution, no more victimization. The preaching and life of Jesus suggests a new world order of mutual care, healing, and loving resolution of communal problems. The old order would crumble around the tables of Christians who would refuse to participate in the business-as-usual of Caesar's world. God asserts "peace through justice," the world counter-asserts "peace through victory by violence." Now as then, the transformation of earth depends upon the resolve of Christians to believe in life and sharing goods in an economy of divine abundance, or accommodation of an economy of scarcity and fear, driven by an ethic of "might makes right" and survival of the fittest.

The passion narratives, rich with allusions to the suffering of Israel throughout its history, and considered against the rich backdrop of the preaching of the early apostolic community in Acts and the letters of St. Paul, give us a way of hearing this story in our own day. Sanitized from the suffering of most of the world, in many ways ignorant of the depth of human suffering, we may not be able to fathom the humiliation of public execution, the sadistic tearing of flesh, torture devised to prolong the sufferer's agony. But we can still hear the message of the "forgiving victim" who offered a path for transformation of the world in the Sermon on the Mount, in his life of healing and breaking down barriers between people, and in his faith in a God who is head of the household of the world, who wants a loving family, and who desires "mercy and not sacrifice." With his disciples, we can still wonder through this Easter season at the empty tomb, and listen for stories of peoples' encounter with him, risen, conversing about how it might be better to surrender to death than to kill, because "the souls of the just are in the hands of God," and even this:
Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Who'd have thought that even possible?

Summary: Somehow, resurrection is for everyone, it happens in this world, and it happens because God is life and God is just.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Second Thoughts: With Lincoln (and Lazarus) in the Bardo (A5L)

Note: Second Thoughts is an ongoing if sporadic series of posts on Sunday readings and motifs that occur to me after the liturgical experience. Most of what I do as a blogger, because of how my work is organized, is necessarily prior to the Sunday experience, but as most of us have come to understand, the liturgical event itself often shapes our receiving of the scriptures on a particular day. To see other "Second Thoughts" posts, use the "Labels" function on the right, and select that topic.

I wrote about it a little bit two weeks ago, but now it appears that the novel I was raving about then may be a better metaphor for the life-giving, in-breaking love that is the heart of Easter faith and therefore of conversion and initiation than I said even then. That illuminating novel, and it's a first novel to boot, is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Having experienced it as an audio book with a cast of over a hundred characters including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly, David Sedaris, Susan Sarandon, and many others, I had been dying to talk to someone else about it for weeks. Terry did finally get a chance to read it and she thought as I do that it's a deep and beautiful book on many levels. Without overstating the religious resonances, there is much to contemplate with regard to ultimate things in life: transcendence, what matters to us, how we relate to each other as human beings, how we deny death and put too much of our energy into things that don't matter, how understanding and mutuality help us break out of those patterns.

I don't mean to give a review or summary of the book here, but there are interesting parallels between what goes in the bardo in Saunders' novel and in our lives interpreted by the Lazarus story in the fourth gospel. For my purposes (and Saunders has taken liberties, by his own admission, with the concept from Tibetan Buddhism in applying the scenario to his novel), the bardo is a place of shadowy life between death and whatever is beyond death, a place which appears to be very much like the surroundings in "real life," but devoid of color and reason. Souls of the dead are circumscribed and defined by unfinished business from their former lives, seem doomed to repeat decisions and actions from their lives, and are encumbered by "physical" transformations of their bodies corresponding to their issues as well: extra eyes, legs, and arms, for instance, and in once particularly prominent case, one character has an oversized, tumescent penis.

But the really strange thing about the bardo is that the inhabitants are unaware that they are dead, and as they accustom to their environs and begin to suspect that all is not right, they enter into a complex denial of their reality and not only won't admit their situation but have an elaborate vocabulary of circumlocution.

Enter into this alternate reality, in February of 1862, the tiny, kindly soul of the innocent Willy Lincoln, who has succumbed to typhoid in the White House, a second child lost in the house of Lincoln. His death completely unhinges his mother, and father Abraham is distraught and inconsolable at a time when he is barely able to clear his head about the weighty problems of the intensifying Civil War. The historical record, which is cited in long chapters of excerpts from contemporary letters and memoirs, indicates that the President went to the rented crypt that housed Willy's body at night to visit with the corpse of his son. It's this event that provides the crisis and forward motion for the occupants of the bardo.

These souls are trapped in the world of their own unreality, unable to see or admit that they are dead, and unwilling to let go of the illusion of the appearance of "life" that they have, lest they lose the illusion of hope that they can reverse some wrong or achieve some goal left unaccomplished. Driven primarily by necessarily selfish preoccupation and trying to put the best face on their situation, even episodes of anger, lust, and murder amount to epiphanies of ennui, to be repeated over and over without change of outcome. Occasionally one or more inhabitants of the bardo will move into another (higher?) plane of being in a flash of light and sound. We're never really sure where they've gone to, but my probably prejudiced feeling is that the beings who sometimes come among them as "angels" are indeed moving them by persuasion toward greater light by encouraging them to imagine themselves forgiven and offered the resolution of their past problems.

Lincoln's entry into the graveyard and the crypt that houses Willy, the exposure of the souls to Willy's confusion and wonder and Lincoln's unabashed grief, along with the bardo inhabitants' previous experience of children's souls (like a memory of compassion) moves some to action. Let me just say that in trying to help the elder Lincoln let go of his grief and leave the cemetery the souls within go to great lengths to achieve their goal, including the occupation of the same space, getting "inside" each other and eventually "inside" Abraham Lincoln, and in doing so achieve new compassion and insight unavailable to them before.

What all this has to do with Lazarus and Jesus may not be clear to you. In fact, it's not crystal clear to me. Lazarus needs help. He's dead. He seems beyond help, though probably not to himself. The occupants of the bardo need help too, they're unaware that they're dead, and unable to progress beyond that unfulfilling stasis between actual life and some kind of afterlife. They need someone to break their silence, tell them to stop pretending that they're alive, and admit their real problem: death. It is Willy who is finally able to break through to the largest number of them, and that because of their intervention with Lincoln.

We all lie to ourselves and each other about our participation in death. We think of ourselves as alive, but our life is really a house built on the suffering of others. We cooperate with death in ways of which we aren't even aware; we've built structures of empire and security that depend on the exploitation and subjugation of others. Somebody has to tell us that we're dead, or we're just going to stay where we are, repeating the patterns of our counterfeit lives, and reinforcing the unjust structures that entomb the poor and marginalized.

Scripture scholar Dominic Crossan's description of the economy of "salvation," or how things get "fixed up" in the end, is "collaborative eschatology." It's as though, he says, we have sat around for four thousand years waiting for God to make justice happen in the world, and at the same time, God is waiting for us. He repeats Archbishop Desmond Tutu's adage that "Without God, we can't. Without us, God won't." God in Jesus has stood at the door of the tomb where the world insists on living and called us to come out. The least God expects us to do, the easy part, it ought to be, is to untie the burial cloths. Christ has done the heavy lifting. It's our job to roll away the stone, and let people go free. If we're unwilling to do that, we're still trapped by death.

Prophesy to the bones! Prophesy to the breath!

That is the urgent invitation God makes to Ezekiel, paralyzed with grief, fear, unknowing, and self-doubt upon the desolate desert plain of Har-megiddo, surrounded by the sun-dried bones of King Josiah and all of his fine young warriors. All Ezekiel has to do is open his mouth, and tell the bones that God can do it. Just that little bit of the prophet's breath would set in motion the possibility of a people's restoration.

I will open your graves, and have you rise from them. 

Amid the worst that life can do, the lies, the brutality, the broken promises, the unfulfilled hopes, amid the missiles, the sarin gas, the drone strikes, the closed borders, the deportations, amid the decapitations in foreign lands, the neglect, abandonment, and ultimately executions of the mentally disabled in this one, amid the eyes-averted from famine and genocide, and the preferential option for capital, there is still power in us to tell the truth, to 'prophesy to the bones,' and to hear the splatter and crunch of bones, sinew, blood, and breath as what was dead comes to unimagined life. It seems we need to be forced to look upon the death that our perfidy has caused, even if the spirit needs to carry us by the hair to the battlefield, hospital, or detention center and command us to look at it.

I have spoken, and I will do it! Oracle of G-d.

The ache and rigor of life, the unrelenting taskmaster of conscience when the heart is opened to the agony of the world, the paralysis and inertia of our (my) disconnectedness and alienation from any vision of a non-violent way forward, really forward-together, out of the desert of political impotence, all of this is the colorless bardo in which we wander, I wander, in a dreamy pretense of life that is nothing but a grave. How can I hear, and really, just as important, how can I become the echo of that voice that bellowed out of a roiling gut of lamentation, angry, untouchable, and fearless in the homeland of ruin, despair, and putrefaction:

LAZARUS! Come out!

Believe it or not, that's what the community of the baptized, gathered by the Spirit, the "breath" of God in the name of the deathless Jesus and the God of life, is called to do, to be. Baptismal water drowns the death of isolation and alienation and wakens to the life of a community for others. Is it any wonder we have Lent every year to get ready to renew the promises of baptism, to reject sin and believe the gospel of Christ? Is it any wonder that those who are called to approach those sacraments for the first time apprentice as Christians for months or years, and ultimately undergo three scrutinies for the purpose of purification (rejection of unrecognized or habitual evil) and enlightenment (the truth about ourselves and the gifts we have been given that strengthens us in the love needed to give ourselves away for others)?

Lincoln in the Bardo might need to become a go-to text for adult Lenten discernment, a kind of literary examination of conscience, a metaphor and maybe even an allegory for our spiritual lives, by which I mean an inventory of what is within us that activates and motivates what we do in the world. Those three classic gospels from John do their awesome work, particularly with good preaching, but for me, at least, Saunders' novel picked me up by the hair and set me down in front of a mirror, surrounded by the dry bones of the fine young armies of my heart, to use Leonard Cohen's unapproachably perfect phrase, "torn by what I've done and can't undo." For me this Lent, Leonard, and Ezekiel, and Saunders' Lincoln have been both Inquisitor and Paraclete.

Thanks, Art. I needed that.

 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Second thoughts: Through the eyes of love (A4L)

My heritage is Irish, and we tend even in our most generous moments to nourish a negative streak about human nature. Then of course there is the embarrassing but nevertheless unassailable truth that we tend to critique in others, and thus in the world at large, what we most dislike about ourselves, and so one's (my) self-awareness as a sinner of copious guilt and intent colors the way I see the world even when I'm trying my best to advertise grace and mercy. There is no way out of that box. It's the way we're made.

So when it comes to covering the scrutinies, as I read the scriptures and what is written about the scriptures, when I hear them preached, when I learn from fine scholars how the shape the faith of the church and the practice of our worship, I know that I have leaned heavily in my life toward the awareness of sin, especially when it comes to patterns of social sin that are so woven into American life that we don't even recognize, let alone acknowledge, the ironic blasphemy, say, of going to war in the name of God, or building a border wall, cancelling immigrants' visas, or repealing environmental and climate regulations while going to churches and singing hymns, and writing nasty (and usually non-factual) internet postings about the how America is a Christian nation that was founded to be "under God." I say all this self-critically, because being judgmental about all that is, in itself, as evil as anything else. It all boils down to loving one another, Jesus says, which is the same as loving God. When we stop loving one another, even if it's as simple and seemingly harmless as calling someone an a***ole, even if s/he deserves it, is a step on the road to murder, if we believe the Sermon on the Mount. And I tend to do so.

In my years working in catechumenate ministry with the North American Forum, it took me a while to begin to grasp this, and my early attempts at writing musical settings for the scrutiny prayers were heavy on the "purification" and light (as it were) on "enlightenment." When colleagues pointed this out to me, it was clear, and I was able to make changes in texts that were more balanced, and for every "From fear and isolation, deliver us" there was a "Strengthen us in solidarity and hope, kyrie eleison." Slowly, I hope, changing words will begin to change actions. I think that that is true. It's why we have liturgy.

So this is what I brought to the readings for Lent 4, even though we didn't have a scrutiny this year. It helped me to understand the entire set of readings in the light of that one wonderful line from the first reading, "Not as (human beings) see does God see, because (people) see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart." I was reading an article by Amy-Jill Levine about parables recently, when she was speaking about God's preferential option for younger sons. Starting in Genesis (Abel, Isaac, Jacob) and through the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, God favors younger over older sons. Dominic Crossan puts this to God's opposition to the traditions (habits) of civilization itself, which favor the eldest. God, in other words, sides with innovation and evolution, while civilization favors dynasty, routine, predictability. This predilection of the divine, Levine says, is traceable into the parables of Jesus in the Christian scriptures. So one aspect of God's vision is to see the gifts of people, regardless of their social position, as moving humanity forward in new and often chaotic, unpredictable, even unlawful ways.

The essential thing, though, the thing that brought up my conventional and Irish focus on sin and the scrutinies, is that the vision of God always sees good. It is the vision of a father or a mother (as Isaiah 49 reminded us this week at daily mass) that sees a beloved child when it looks at every human individual, no matter or graceful or sin-steeped we may be. Seeing as God sees is to see every person as the image and likeness of God, a beloved child, so to us, a brother and sister loved by a common parent whose love is completely unrivalrous and assuring of all love's bounty. It's that loving vision that allows Jesus to see that God wants the healing of the blind man even on the sabbath, when laws need to be broken to allow it. It's the vision of sin's dominance and the need for human repentance that keeps the opponents of Jesus from being able to recognize the hand of God in Jesus's action. The Deuteronomic code, in fact, almost predicts this outcome. Evil in the world must, Deuteronomy says, be the result of human disobedience, so repentance is a requirement for healing, freedom, and poverty. Even when wisdom literature, such as the book of Job, intervened on behalf of the God of Genesis, and should have left the Deuteronomist on the slag heap of history, human beings just seem to need to associate punishment with their bad behavior, and on we go with our legal codes, habits of violent child-rearing, and war.

But the over-arching tenderness of God, that premiere attribute of loving-kindness, is proclaimed from the first verses of Genesis. We still don't really believe it. What the pseudo-Pauline author of Ephesians calls "light" in the second reading is just that: the tenderness of God, the eyes of love that sing with the unknown rhapsodist that Ephesians quotes:
Sleeper, awake!
Rise from death!
Christ will be your light.
The enlightenment sought by the scrutinies is a share in that vision of the God of love that can only see us and our sin and foibles with the loving eyes of the Creator, the one who delights in the making, the sustaining, and homecoming of us all. I want to shaped by that vision. I don't want to see shadows of my own perfidy in every person who crosses me, in my church, and in my government. I want my vision of everyone, especially people whom I consider to be my rivals and antagonists, people who like me are trapped in the "be good or else" covenant of the Deuteronomist, to be enlightened and transformed by the vision of God. And I want their vision of me to be transformed, too, and of the earth, and of the poor, and of the economy. To accomplish this, though, I think conversion always needs to keep its eyes on the God of love and the reality of the human family that God wants. The light that the scrutinies and Lent throws upon the way things are in my life and in the world is God's love. "Everything that becomes visible is light," sings Ephesians. When we love, when we see as God sees, we become light, we become localization of the divine. That's what I want to be. That's how I want to be when I renew by baptismal promises at Easter. I want to shine. I want us all to shine, right here, right now, in my home, on my street, in my church, on my job, in this very world.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Second Thoughts: My Bad (A3L)

"Waters of Life," sculpture at Chester cathedral.
Just when I thought I had exhausted what I would ever have to say about the Samaritan woman and Jesus, mystic Henri Nouwen, liturgist John Michael Reyes, and novelist George Saunders combine to throw me back into the cold waters of mystery and take my breath away with even more, sort of like the photo of this amazing sculpture 👉🏻 did.

I'm very leery of over-personalistic interpretations both of the scrutiny gospels and of the scrutiny themselves. But encased in this prejudice of mine is a gaping opportunity to oversimplify, throw babies out with baptismal water, and ignore important aspects of both story and ritual that are too important to gloss over. While I think it remains true that scrutinies are primarily concerned with social sin and structures of sin that provoke evil from us in ways of which we are not even aware, it is also true that scrutinies are celebrated to strengthen what is weak in us, and also have the explicit task of throwing the light of the gospel on the things we do, the way we act in life, so that we can see ourselves and our complicity in the sinfulness of the structures of civilization itself, so that we can be enlightened enough to turn around (i.e., repent) and start acting in the kingdom of God. Light and strength: these are the aspects for which I'd like to thank the above trio of spiritual gurus for reminding me that there are trees in the forest of insight. In fact, there are no forests without the trees. Let me be concrete.

In one homily I heard, the priest was talking about the thirst in the heart of the Samaritan woman, and quoted Henri Nouwen in a passage about loneliness from The Wounded Healer:
The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain... We easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know... that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence.
He didn't use all of that, but that's the idea. The church's preaching has pretty much over-personalized this gospel, and it might seem that invoking spiritual "loneliness" would follow that vector. But the way I heard it, and the sentiment was echoed by another homily that invoked Richard Rohr's well-known image of a "God-sized hole" in the human heart that can only be filled by the divine, the loneliness Nouwen praises as a gift is the human need for transcendence. We are never satisfied without a deep connection to a transcendent Other. A few of us find this in communion with one whom we recognize as divine, but I think that many more of us discover transcendence, at least in a nascent way, in connection with others, with the world of nature, in love. Once we are able to break out of the shell of our self-interest and become aware of relationships and communion, in short, in the experience of ecstasy, the loneliness begins to subside, and we tend to be drawn ever deeper into that network or matrix of divine presence that is the human family and the created universe.

It further seems to me that the formalization of this experience in the Christian community is the process of incorporation the culminates in baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. There are other ways to be connected and to experience transcendence to be sure, some for better (hooking up with a twelve-step program, for instance, joining a charitable or world-building organization like Doctors without Borders or the Peace Corps) and some for worse, like street gangs and nationalist organizations. I would judge the quality of the transcendence by the means to its goal. To the extent that the end of transcendence is self-gift, agapic love, it better satisfies the inner longing Nouwen describes as loneliness. To the extent that it defines itself not by a border between "us and them" but by a desire for encounter that goes ever outward and especially toward those unable to return the gift in kind, it is more genuinely transcendent. While these experiences may result in the growth and happiness of the participants, happiness is not their goal, but love. By not defining myself against others but as part of a grander "whole" that is all-inclusive and outward-bound, I find that the inner loneliness subsides.

For us, all of this has its origin and its destiny in God, just as the preface yesterday so beautifully stated:
"For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love."
God is, so God loves. God thirsts for love, so God creates. By Jesus's saying "I'm thirsty, give me a drink of water," Jesus pulls the woman in the story out of her ethnic and gender preoccupations even as he sets his own aside. Jesus knows that the divine fire is already burning in her because of her creation, and certainly because, the Jewish-Samaritan "narcissism of small differences" aside, she has learned the Torah as well, and wants to worship in spirit and truth. In this story of a micro-relationship between a woman and Jesus set at what might as well be the honeymoon suite at Hotel Yenta, the fourth gospel unleashes on the world a blueprint for peace and reconciliation, a blueprint which is being used to form and discern those who are being apprenticed in Christian life. The scrutiny celebrated in churches with catechumens this year wants to do exactly that: make them (and us) examine our "loneliness," and strengthen us to break out of our fearfulness and navel-gazing, claim the gifts we have been given to forge bonds with other people who need our gifts, and fill up that "God-sized hole" in our hearts with the God in whose image every human person has been fashioned.

Then I encountered a short blog post by John Michael Reyes, a liturgist and musician in the diocese of San Jose in California, in campus ministry at the University of Santa Clara. By the time I saw it, a dozen or so of my friends on Facebook were already lit up by his words, and by the end of the day nearly a hundred had read and delighted in his words. He began by posing the question, based on the gospel of the Samaritan woman, "Have you ever been so embarrassed that it paralyzed you?", he catalogued a series of events in his youth that culminated in depression and attempted suicide, became isolated and afraid. In this state, he found an echo of his former self in the woman in yesterday's gospel. False starts, false accusations, not being able to live under the scrutiny of the expectations of others. Seeing himself through the eyes of Christ allowed him to "come out" of the darkness he found himself in, and, like the Samaritan woman, he has been able through grace to work in initiation ministry and issue the same invitation to "come out" to others who seek fulfilment in Christ. He listens to the stories others tell about their lives, and helps them reinterpret their lives through the eyes of Jesus. Again, a different, more intimate take on the story itself, but it opens up the story in a new way in much the way that the Emmaus story does. Our personal story may have us arguing about our life in circles, seeing no particular trajectory or value in it. But when we say it out loud, and let Christ—including the Christ who is incarnate in the catechist or spiritual guide—interpret our story through the loving eyes and heart of God, our story is transformed and we find ourselves connected to the beating heart of the universe, and thus to others. Something new is finally possible.

Finally, over the last couple of weeks I had the extraordinary pleasure of listening to what might be the most wonderful book I've read in thirty years, since A Prayer for Owen Meany: I'm talking about George Saunders's luminous and compassionate novel Lincoln in the Bardo. On the off chance that you might take my advice and read this book yourself, I will not reveal plot points, no spoilers from me. But Saunders borrows the concept of the "bardo" from Tibetan Buddhism, and transforms it a little, to describe the place between death and "passing on" to whatever lies beyond. The Tibetan "whatever" is, assumably, reincarnation, but that doesn't seem to be what he has in mind. He seems to mean something like heaven, but for good reason he doesn't describe it in any detail, just in metaphor and promise.

The reason that it seems to appropriate here is that for the dead in the bardo, what is most precious is the illusion that they are still alive, and that they still may be able to get what they wanted in life an missed, or (in their cognizance) haven't achieved yet. What they want most is time to fulfill what is yet unfulfilled. And yet, each is so completely focused on what it is that they want that the perception of others in the bardo about them is that some element or elements of their appearance is exaggerated in a way that broadcasts, to their chagrin, what they don't have.

The entire novel takes place on the day when Lincoln's twelve-year-old son Willy is buried in a borrowed grave in a cemetery near the White House in February of 1862. It is Lincoln's shattering grief over the loss of his sweet son, the shambles of his wife's life, his horror over the first reports of the huge casualties of the battle of Fort Donelson and his mismanagement of the war that all come crashing down on the cemetery to interrupt the grousing and infighting among the dead at the cemetery. Based on the recorded visits of Lincoln to his son's grave under cover of darkness on that winter night, the novel imagines what the boy's spirit's journey might look like, how his love and his father's love might have impacted the souls buried around him, and how Lincoln might have been changed by his encounters.

For purposes of Lent, what interests me and what I want to tell you in the most general way I can is that what matters in the end is the ability to tell the truth about who we are, about acknowledging that we're actually dead, so that we can move on and embrace the possibilities that lie ahead of us. It is this truth-telling that enables us to get out of our dead selves and begin to do for one another, to begin to enter into relationships that are for other people and not focused on what we ourselves need.

For the souls in the bardo, what is actually the possibility of a different future appears to be death. And death it well may be, but it's the death of what passes for life among the dead. Stating it like that shows the contradiction for what is is: a doorway into life. This kind of change is not a fiction. Fiction offers us a metaphor for understanding reality, the world in which we find ourselves, the only world we know for certain, and the world Jesus was interested in changing. When he asks, in the story, the Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water, he shatters the silence and antipathy of centuries and generations. Chapter 8 of Acts of the Apostles (an episode of which we will hear on a Sunday late in the Easter season) will tell us the rest of the story: the Samaritans on hearing the preaching of Philip and others from the Jerusalem diaspora came in great numbers to faith in the gospel. A moment's risk at Jacob's well, a drink of water (one assumes) given to an enemy, opens up the way for the reconciliation of worlds.

Loneliness, paralyzing embarrassment, death masquerading as life and opportunity. Reyes points out, as others have, that we don't know the woman's name from the story. Why do you think that is? I suggest, as James Alison suggests about the "other disciple" with Clopas on the road to Emmaus, that it's an intentional omission, so that the person might be anyone. Anyone who, in this case, has a life whose false starts add up to six, or "infinite incompleteness;" anyone who is "paralyzed by embarrassment," or isolated by terror. Wherever we need to go to get away, the Seventh Husband, Mr. Right, is waiting there with flowers and chocolates. My story may not make sense to me, but when I hear the Stranger tell it, it sounds like a love story. A really good story. A story I belong in. A story with room for everybody. Suddenly, it seems my fear is transformed into something else.

Suddenly, all I can say is, "Let me tell you about someone who's told me everything I've ever done."




Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mardi (& place your other favorite days here) Gras

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Aujourd’hui, c’est le temps à laisser les bons temps rouler. This means two things: a) staff meeting today, but enough about my problems, b) and it’s choir practice day, which can only mean a party. One simply doesn’t have rehearsal on a night like this without the opportunity to consume mass quantities. 

In my choir, we may miss a note or two, but we never miss a party. We never met a carbohydrate we didn’t like. We had more time to fatten up before Lent this year than last: one might say, we were given a jubilee of weeks, during which we might drown our winter blahs in fat, carbs, and sugars. This might be regarded as a Septuagesima of Satiety, to use the jargon of another era, preparing for the jejune rigors of the forty days. So we come to rehearsal to bring the jubilee to a close. After all, what is “fasting” if not an anagram of “sing fat”?

One can, if one is I, go on for a while about the waxing and waning of weight, only there’s not much waning to talk about, which is a weighty matter. As is Lent. It seems like a fairly shallow approach to Lenten asceticism to deny oneself in order to lose weight. But looking at the same set of data from a different angle, I can see how the weight thing is a symbol (in the fullest sense of the word) of being “too much,” of using too much, overreaching into the cosmic pantry from which all should be sharing equally. Being full all the time, in any way, doesn’t leave much room, literally, for God, who moves into the quiet and void places in which one waits. I mean, it’s not all about food and eating, of course, we can and do fill up and are overweight in all kinds of ways — our time, our attention, our allegiances. We can be kind of bloated, super-sized, in ways that bump up against and overpower other people instead of being aware of them and tending to their needs. We (I) can get so consumed by consumption, by holding myself and all my needs and wants together, that I’m rendered ontologically incapable of agape. I can’t pour myself out for you, because I’ve forgotten how. I have to hold myself together. 

So, what is Lent for then? I suppose I’ll be thinking about that in the rhythm of the liturgy over the next six weeks or so. The “turning” that is conversion, I’ve come to believe, is about choosing one’s God. It’s a political decision, which seems more fitting in even-numbered years when Mardi Gras coincides with local elections or Super Tuesday and a fistful of political primaries. And then, this Sunday’s gospel, baking in the hungry desert heat, givies us two opposing theologies of “election.” Whom are we going to believe in? Whom do I believe in? And by “believe,” I have to mean what the gospel means: to love (agape) with my whole heart, soul, mind, and money. 

At the Easter Vigil, I will vow, again, to follow the Jesus and serve his mission, the mission of the paschal God. This is the God of self-gift, the trajectory of whose life is one of complete outpouring, whose incarnate Word was killed as a enemy of Caesar in the world of god named Tiberius, and, wondrous is the telling, was raised up again. Do I want to follow that trajectory? The self-emptying of God is such a black hole at the center of my universe that I feel that I have no choice but to enter it, that it is my destiny along with all of creation, but also that I need to pay attention to all the signs of life beyond that event horizon. “For your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” That goes for the living as well as the dead, because God is life. It is the lesson of the Messiah, of all the heroes, saints, mystics, and martyrs in every time and place. The company is good, the journey is worth taking. It’s the leave-taking, the first step, that’s the doozy. The bigger we are, the harder we follow, as it were. 

How do I make room for this God of Jesus in this behemoth of body and ego that stuffs itself into my suits? It appears that scripture suggests fasting happily, making room in the body, praying emptily, making room in the mind, and giving generously, making room in the heart and pocketbook. And really, it’s all kinds of fasting, isn’t it? Not to take anything away from food fasting, because that’s crucial as a physical metaphor especially, but fasting from everything that flows from self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Fasting from everything unloving. How can I stop passing judgments, the million or so I make, every time I read my news feed, or serve at mass with others who have a different piety or discipline or outlook about the liturgy from mine, and whose every word and gesture grate like fingernails on the blackboard of my heart? Confront or sublimate? What is love’s path for me here? “Love is patient, and kind, it’s not rude, it doesn’t put on airs....” And this from the pen of a guy who was imprisoned, beaten, spat on, shipwrecked, lashed, mocked, and ignored in a dozen different countries he had risked his life to visit. Surely if people like me have found a way to love and forgive their enemies, I can find a way to live in peace and harmony with people who ought to be my friends in Christ? Why does that have to be so hard? 

I know it goes back to this Catholic thing about needing to be right. At least I’m aware of it, that has been a gift of the last several years of reflecting on it. If needing to be right is wrong, I don’t want to be right. I want to be like the God who did not even cling to godliness just to be “wrong” like us. 

Enough. A few short hours before Lent starts. I think i need a little less “theo-” and a little more “Rio.” Since the weather threatens a cold rain, maybe ice and snow, I must seek refuge where there are promises of warmth. Thus, I shall prepare choir practice, this week, by setting out taller wine cups, and plates big enough for paczki and king cake. ☺

**Full disclosure: I wrote this post a few years ago, but never published it. So I updated it a little bit, and put it out there today for the fun of it. Things are better for me, but it's true enough!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Sermon on the Mount: the Reign of God, right here, right now

I've been thinking since January that I ought to try to write something as comprehensive as I can about the Sermon on the Mount. It's so important in the Gospel of Matthew, and I think it's set up as the first follow-up to Jesus's proclamation that "the reign of God is at hand," that his listeners should "repent." We heard all that the week previous to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, heard on the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time. If we hear that initial proclamation together with this first of the five discourses in Matthew, I think what we're getting is the first gospel's laying out of what it means to "repent," i.e. experience and surrender to metanoia, an inner change that becomes a new path in a different direction, and begin to experience the reign of God here and now. Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven" to mean the "reign of God," using Hebraic circumlocution to avoid saying the name of God. We're not to hear "heaven" (solely) as a place that is distant or coming after death, because Jesus is clear that this condition of the kingdom of heaven is "at hand." It's very, very close. We're to hear it as the sphere of God's active influence now, in this world and all the other ones. But for us, it's this one that matters. What Jesus begins by doing in the Sermon on the Mount is spelling out what that looks like at the beginning of a public life when he will further make it visible by living it out with a community of disciples.

A few sections from the discourse are omitted from the five Sunday proclamation that we hear in Year A. Notably, one large section is used on Ash Wednesday, the section about praying with integrity, and fasting and giving alms with the right disposition. In all, half a dozen of the forty or so gospels during the weekdays of Lent are from the Sermon on the Mount, further highlighting its importance in the Christian life. As I have pointed out before and in my book Change Our Hearts, the Lenten lectionary is a "crash course" or primer in Christian living, a handbook for catechumens in their final days before baptism. Among those gospels are the Our Father, the golden rule, and enemy love. Only the last is an echo of the proclamation on these Sundays.

So I'd like to start by positing that the Beatitudes aren't a blueprint for living or a manifesto. They are Jesus's declaration of how things are right now. Jesus is telling poor, ordinary people in an occupied country that God is present in their poverty, their longing for justice, their merciful and peacemaking actions, their apparent insignificance, their pain and sadness, and their desire for God. That is what "blessed" means, translating the Greek makarios, which has also been translated "happy" or "lucky." Makarios has a sense of "being enlarged" by the grace of God's presence that is already with them. He is telling them, by contrast, that what people of influence think of as a blessing is not necessarily a blessing at all. The lowly are in the enviable (another meaning of makarios) position of already having God at their side. There is no need to desire what it appears the powerful possess, because the living God is already present, with the fullness of divine favor, in their need. As Matthew strings together other sayings of Jesus in his discourse, he lays out just what that means because of what kind of a God his Abba is. Things are just starting to get interesting.


Light and Salt
So after declaring the blessedness, the enviable much-ness of Abba's presence in his children, Matthew's gospel lays in the sayings about them being "light of the world," "salt of the earth," and a "city set upon a hill." He could not say this unless the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, were already present and available to them. In a cold, dark world of violent greed and escalating retribution that they know only too well from beneath, Jesus challenges the children of Abba to shine their inner beacon outward, and be the catalyst for the fire that will burn the old world away and make something new.

The Our Father 
Rabbis teach their disciples to pray. By putting this story into the collection of sayings that make up the Sermon on the Mount, the author of the first gospel helps us understand just what the God in like in whom Jesus believes, whom Jesus trusts with his life, from whom Jesus draws his strength, and, we come to understand, who reveals Jesus as his unique Son by the way he lives his life. I've written about this prayer at length in two posts, "Grokking the 'our' in the Our Father" and "Revisiting the Lord's Prayer," so no need to go into detail here. What's important in the overall placing of the Lord's Prayer in this part of the gospel, in the shadow of the proclamation to "repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand," is its underlying faith in a provident God who wants to be known as a father to his children. There are many gods available to Jesus's hearers, then and now, notably the god of the Roman empire, Tiberius Caesar. They are only too well aware of the kind of god Tiberius is, a god who brings peace through victory in war, keeps peace by the presence of violent legions and bestial governors, and whose justice benefits the victors alone, and oppresses the empire's subjects.

Jesus's God, on the other hand, they already know from their communal story, and whom their gentile sympathizers know to be a liberator and friend of the weak. But Jesus is even more intimate in his prayer to Abba, reminding them about how they treat their own children, and saying "if you love your children, how much more does abba love his?" Furthermore, the very naming of God as abba invites those who pray into a relationship to one another, a relationship that will be further explored in the Sermon. It is the relationship of a family of sisters and brothers who care for one another, who love each other with the same love with which they love themselves. Even more startlingly, it is a family relationship that includes all of God's children. It's not limited to those whom we consider family: it extends to all of God's beloved children, including the enemy.

The Hypertheses: love as the fullness of the law
There are five sayings in the Sermon on the Mount that teach us how Jesus reads the bible. They are called the hypertheses, and can be identified by the formula, "You have heard it said...but I say to you." On one level, Matthew has been setting Jesus up, even by placing this discourse on a mountain, as a new Moses, and wants to show his Jewish audience, and others who may want to idolize the law of Moses, that law is something that should not restrict good while it protects the weak. Things like these hypertheses, the prophecies fulfilled in the infancy narrative, and the number of discourses in Matthew come in fives because Moses was revered as the author of the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, called the Torah, or the Pentateuch.

I came to see this section in a new light after my encounters with James Alison's Jesus: The Forgiving Victim, as well as a couple of other books dealing with the question of violence in the bible, especially Derek Flood's wonderful book Disarming Scripture. For the sake of the people of God, Jesus is critical of the religious rulers who have turned religious law and worship into strictures of law and summary obedience that is not in their best interest and does not reflect the nature of Abba whom he knows to be relational and not just "a god like the other gods." "The prophetic spirit however is one that lovingly critiques religion from the inside, not as a way to destroy it, but as a way to make it good and whole," writes Flood. "This was the focus of Jesus, and is characteristic of how he read and applied Scripture in the context of confronting the fundamentalism of his day." Jesus makes clear that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law of love, with Abba showing the way and being the greatest lover of all, doesn't forget to dot an i or cross a t of the law.

Alison helps us understand that every reading of scripture is an interpretation. There has never been one way to interpret any text, and, in fact, when stories had to be told or written texts interpreted, the question was always "through whose eyes do you read the scripture?"
…(F)or ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?”
Alison poses that one answer to that question that can be found in Jewish scriptures, arising out of a story during the Exodus (Numbers 12). There is a row between Miriam, Aaron, and Moses about who ought to be able to speak for God. God answers the question in story by saying it is Moses the "humble, more than anyone else on earth" who speaks on his behalf. So one rabbinic way of interpreting the scripture would be through the eyes of "Moses the meek," giving the gentlest, most expansive interpretation possible. Alison goes on, though, to give a later option, from the dawn of the Christian era:
The other main answer to the question “Through whose eyes do you read the texts of Scripture?” is the answer given not by rabbinical Judaism, but by its slightly older contemporary, Universalizing, or New Testament Judaism, what we now call Christianity, which had begun to try to answer this question in the years between Jesus’ death and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. That answer was “We read the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus our Rabbi.” And those who gave this answer were well aware that they were answering a quite specific, and complex, question of interpretation. Their claim was that Jesus was a dead and living Rabbi. In other words, that a living interpretative principle was available to them to open their eyes to read their texts.
All of this is a way of seeing how Jesus reads the scripture in a way that says, "I know that's what your Bible says, but that's not the issue. The issue is that Abba wants a family, wants sisters and brothers who treat one another as equals, with love that is unrestricted by any claims of law or duty. The question was never 'How little can I do and still be a good person?', but rather, 'How can I live as a child of a loving abba in such a way as to reflect and give the love I have received from abba toward everyone else in God's family?" 

Enemy love, desire, and the golden rule
Once again, my purpose here is to look at the sayings of Jesus that Matthew has strung into the Sermon on the Mount and see in them an introductory sermon on the kernel of his preaching, "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." In these few words, Jesus is trying to say that nothing is going to change if we keep doing business as usual. "Repent" means, literally, turn your life around. "Kingdom of heaven" means, the gentle presence of my abba-God. Don't keep using the methods of the world around you. Violence begets violence. The escalating demands of desire for wealth and power put you at odds with one another with terrible consequences. There is another way. There is another God. Don't keep up the old behaviors and expect a different outcome. Turn around—this is really good news. Follow me.

The last of the hypertheses, and at the very heart of this entire sermon, is the saying about enemy love, and the stunning request Jesus makes of us to "be perfect, as (in the way that) your heavenly abba is perfect." What does that mean? We spend our lives judging others, their actions and their motivations, deciding who is worthy of our respect and care and who isn't. Jesus says something different.
You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
To use Girardian language, it is the spiral of mimetic desire and the structures supporting a violent scapegoat mechanism that fuels the carnage of Caesar's world, or just "the world" in the language of the bible. We identify an enemy, internal or external to our group. We define our "in" group over and against the enemy, someone who wants what we have. It doesn't matter what it is. This pattern of blame and demonization leads to violence, and the murder or marginalization of the enemy puts the angst of society relax for a while until the next crisis arises. But the need for more security, more goods, more resources, more room, more jobs, more entitlements inevitably leads to escalating pressure within the "in" group, and the cycle continues. How do we break this cycle that is apparently foundational to civilization itself?

Jesus's answer is, "Be perfect like abba is perfect." Stop judging. Stop defining who you are by defining yourself against others. See how God does it: everything that has been made is for everyone. No judgment, just all that life pouring out of the heavens. If you do that, love your neighbor as yourself, if you act like children of abba and family to each other, you can change the world.

What we will be doing is letting the Spirit of God, who is within us, do what the Spirit wants to do: make us one. We have been given the Spirit, all of us, but to us Christians, explicitly and with our ultimate consent, in our baptism. But the Spirit given to us is pure gift, that is, it is the spirit of love, the spirit of self-given-for-others, and so longs to be lavished upon others. To the extent that we act like God, we are divinized. We let our sun shine and rain fall on the good and bad alike. We love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. What people see in this is God working, and so Jesus can say, "your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father."

It's crazy and seems impossible, but it's the only way out of hell, the hell of violence and suspicion that is "the world" without God.

Do not worry
The Sermon on the Mount encompasses all of chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew, but the final installment that we hear in these gospels of Ordinary Time is the end of chapter 6. (Actually, the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which, along with Sundays 10 and 11 isn't celebrated this year due to the way the liturgical calendar is constructed, contains verses 21-27 from chapter 7. You'll have to read that part on your own!)

In the last section that we hear this year, Jesus says that we won't be disappointed when we seek God's reign and its "righteousness" first.  He means that we were made for it, that it will fit us like a glove, and the reason that we're unhappy in the kingdom of Caesar is that we're trying to force ourselves into a world for which we were never intended. What made those people go out to hear Jesus that day, and John the Baptist before him? What made those fishermen leave their livelihood and go itinerant with the rabbi when he invited them? Don't you think that they knew there was something wrong, and they heard something right, an echo of their purest, most ancient identity, in his words? I think this is what Matthew means when, at the end of chapter 7 and the conclusion of Jesus's discourse, he says,
When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
At the end of chapter six, Jesus tells them that they're in good hands when they entrust their lives to Abba and to one another as sisters and brothers. That's what is meant by the "kingdom of heaven." Jesus means that when we switch our allegiance, our trust, our hope, from the "kingdoms of this world" to the world of "our Father," we will find the real security, justice, and peace for ourselves and for everyone else, the only real possibility for security and peace and justice, because when everyone has enough, the cycle of mimetic desire and escalating violence is broken. When what we see in others is self-gift, when "doing unto others what you would have do unto you" is practiced by everyone, our human talent for imitation and "desiring according to the desire of the other" is finally turned away from competition and toward mutuality.

So "do not worry," because when you care about one another's good, your neighbor's got your back. Do not worry, because that is the way you were made to live in the beginning.

I need to hear this again this year. I think we all need to hear it, because the voice of Tiberius is still telling us to be afraid of enemies on the frontiers, while arming the borders against enemies imagined and, to a lesser extent, real. The choice for us, nominal Christians, liturgical Christians, continues to be "business as usual" and complicity with the almost unspeakable violence of which other gods are capable, or to just turn around and start cooperating with the Spirit of God which has been planted in our heart, and which calls out to others to listen to the voice of Jesus gently pleading with us to live another way. We keep coming back to hear that message, Sunday after Sunday. We know something is wrong. We insist, most of the time, on hedging our bets and throwing in with the guys with the guns. But there he is again, in his gospel being read when we get together, astonishing us with his teaching, a word utterly unlike the tweets and executive orders and threats we hear from the other gods who say they swear to protect us. We know something's wrong, and these words two millennia old sound like they were written just for us today: "Be light. Be a fire. Be reconciled. Do not resist the violent. Love your enemies. Do good to haters. Be perfect. Don't worry. And pray like this: Our Father. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth." Our Father. Amen.

My posts on the individual Sundays for the Sermon on the Mount:

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (the Beatitudes)
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (salt and light)
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (reading the Bible like Jesus)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 1 (beyond talion, resisting violence)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 2 (love your enemies, be perfect)
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, (lilies, birds, two masters)