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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When the Way gets rough (A12O)

“Fear no one...

What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light;
what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul...

Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?

Yet not one of them falls to the ground
without your Father’s knowledge.

Even all the hairs of your head are counted.

So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

They’re beautiful, faith-worthy words, but don’t you wonder how people get the courage to keep speaking up, speaking God’s truth, when the current is running the other way, and they are staring down the business end of AK-47s or police dogs? Folks like Archbishop Romero (above), Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Shirin Ebadi of Iran, people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the “little” people whose courage under fire and duress is invisible to the world and goes unseen and unsung. Starting with the prophets, at least, like Jeremiah in today’s first reading but including Isaiah, Elijah, Daniel, certainly Jesus himself, taking the side of a “King” other than the one sitting on the throne of one’s own nation is dangerous business. It sometimes feels like the rest of us are just pretending to be believers, hoping that no one notices and we can just get by in peace.

Context is important, and chapter ten of Matthew is organized around the missioning of the Twelve to preaching Galilee. Notice that the author of the first gospel narrowly circumscribes the mission to Israel, not the pagan territories or Samaria, while we find other instructions elsewhere in the gospels. It's the dangerous key proclamation that is worth noting: they are to say in their travels, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." We can imagine that, when explaining what that means, they will use Jesus's own terms, incorporated from John, that the expected reaction from believers is to "repent and believe in the gospel." He tells them it's not going to be easy, that they are to expect persecution.

That core message never changes: people are being duped by false gods, gods like money, expediency, and power. The real God is nothing like that. The real God shares life, does not take it away; the real God serves, does not lord it over the universe; the real God is loving, patient, and healing, not in a rush to make things easy. Everybody is "in" with the real God, there are no boundaries, tribes, or favorites. Everybody is "in." But the false gods do fight back. And yes, it is going to be dangerous to say that there's a new god in town, even if it's a God of love, a God of peace and justice. They're going to come after you, ask you what you're doing, and make you choose your leader.

But don't be afraid. You know the truth, the truth is inside of you, the Spirit will tell you what to say. And words don't matter much anyway: it's what you do that counts. Be together, be for one another. God will be with you. I will be with you. Do not be afraid. Everything that is not justice and love will come to dust and ashes. Call everyone to the table of God's reign. Eat together. Have a conversation. Share life. Good things will happen.

Here’s what we’re singing this Sunday at St. Anne’s:

Gathering: Be Not Afraid (Bob Dufford, SJ)  “Be Not Afraid” needs no introduction, except maybe that Bob wrote this song for the missioning of a woman religious who is a friend of his some 35 years ago or so. Where we’ve come to think of it as a song for a funeral maybe, it was conceived as a song to reflect on a gospel like today’s and the preceding Sundays, gospel of missioning. “Be not afraid” was a favorite saying of the late Pope John Paul II as well, who encouraged young and old to stand firm in the faith against all kinds of pressures in the surrounding culture, some hostile, some just blasé.

I for one feel inadequate to the task of loving my enemies, especially armed ones, since I have a hard time loving and forgiving people I see every day who are no more dangerous than a file clerk, and unarmed save when they’re behind the wheels of their cars. But I know that we’ve been given immense gifts for understanding God’s word, it’s been written in us and we’re stamped with it, more, we’re being conformed to its dynamic, incarnating it. So I don’t mind praying explicitly for it even as I not-so-secretly hope I’m never called to stand against the wind.

Psalm 34: The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor (John Foley) This is a substitution for Psalm 69 from the common psalter. We did do a version I wrote for Psalm 69 three years ago, with the refrain adapted to the proper antiphon for today (“In your great love, O God, answer me”), but with summer schedule and other things on our plate I just decided to make thing easier for everyone. I think that this psalm of lament captures the heart of the liturgy of the word, anyway, though I think in retrospect if I had given it a little more thought I should have stuck with the proper psalm.

Preparation Rite: Stand by Me. Tom Kendzia’s song, inspired by the gospel song “Stand by Me,” asks God to be near “when the storms of life surround me,” and “when the tyrant wields his terror.” “His Eye” is obviously taken from its inspiration by the gospel today. I don’t see how anyone who knows the song and has it available in the repertoire would not use it today. I expect vigorous participation, even though we don’t use this song more than once a year or so and the range is extraordinarily high. People just sing it.

Communion: Blest Are They (Haas) I return to David's setting of the Beatitudes (and Darryl Ducote's as well) during Year A to help keep in mind the Sermon on the Mount, so that we can hear its words echoing through the rest of Matthew's gospel. The core message of the Beatitudes is that, contrary to what the world sees and believes, God is already present in the poor, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, and those who hunger and thirst for justice. All of those markings seem like God's absence to the world. We don't want a God like that. But that's the one we have, if we believe Jesus. The ultimate test of this came to Jesus on the cross. Faced with death as an enemy of the state and its god, Tiberius Caesar, he was faithful to his mission, and God, with him in death as in life, raised him from the dead. "Yours is the kingdom of God" means, "There is nothing but life for you. Don't be afraid."

Recessional: The Summons ("Will You Come and Follow Me," John Bell) We end the liturgy with John Bell's reminder about our vocation to follow the Lord wherever that road takes us, and sing together our willingness to go there, for another week. For today, at least?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Some blog posts on the Eucharist (2017 Update)

Here is a list of links to all (?) of my posts that are specifically about the Eucharist, for quick reference and for those who might like to have one!

Real Presence (some thoughts and stories about the meaning of real presence)

We Proclaim the Death of the Lord (the connection between Eucharist and the death of Christ)

Intimacy for Mission (a reflection on the readings for Corpus Christi, Year A. Eucharist, memory, and freedom)

It Takes a Village (reflection on the feeding of the multitudes in Mark, and a understanding what Scripture might mean by, "they did not understand the meaning of the loaves.")

The Hand of the Lord Feeds Us (first of seven posts about John 6, the Bread of Life discourse, as proclaimed in Year B)

Liberation and Transformation (second of seven John 6 posts, about our call to collaborate in the liberation and transformation of the world)

Taken, Blessed, Broken, Shared (third of seven John 6 posts, reflecting on the four movements of the Eucharistic action seen in the NT, and picked up by Henri Nouwen in his book Life of the Beloved.)

Giving Thanks Always, for Everything (fourth of seven John 6 posts, this one on Eucharist as thanksgiving, bouncing off Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything)

To Whom Shall We Go? (fifth of seven John 6 posts, with more about "real presence" and food, but getting at why we stick with the Christian way of life even when it seems like we're getting nowhere.

Looking Beyond the Manna and the Man (sixth of seven John 6 posts, this one about transcendence in the Eucharist, Where is the heaven of the 'bread from heaven,' and what kind of God brings us to it?

Sign and Foretaste of Heaven (final of seven John 6 posts, more about the meaning and location of the "heaven" we share in the experience of Christ in the Eucharist)

All Are Welcome—To What? (part 1) This essay reflects on the quandary of the open table, who's an insider, who's an outsider? Hint: there's no real answer.

All Are Welcome—To What? (part 2) More about the meaning of the barriers to communion, and what kind of thinking and action might begin to break them down.

Being Augustine's Infantes as We Prepare for Corpus Christi (first of three posts from 2017's series on Eucharist, slightly expanded, that appeared in St. Anne's Sunday bulletin, the Clarion.)

Eucharist and Conversion (second in the series, this essay briefly considers how the Eucharist, a sacrament of initiation, is a continuing call to conversion, and how we miss what that means sometimes.)

Are You Being Served? (third in the series, the connection between Eucharist and service, both inside and outside the Sunday assembly)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Eucharist: Are you being served? (Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ)

This week we trained a few new Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (EMs for short), and as part of that training I ask them to reflect on what brought them to the ministry. How did they experience the call to become an EM? Was it from a family member? Something they heard or saw at church? Some change in their church life (for instance, confirmation)?

There are as many answers as there are people, but generally they describe their experience as a “call” in some way, either organically, in a natural progression, say, from childhood service as an altar server to a new ministry as an EM, or as part of a larger shift in life, a desire to get more involved in church, a yearning to know more and participate more in faith life, a deeper experience of God.

“Call” is just the right word, because what Christ is doing through the Eucharist, and what God is doing through Christ and their Holy Spirit, is calling us to participate in saving the world. Christ is the face of God's loving desire, God's mission. As 2nd Corinthians put it in today's (Thursday's) first reading, it is
"…Christ, who is the image of God
For God…has shone in our hearts to bring to light
the knowledge of the glory of God
on the face of Jesus Christ."
Christ is the face, the "outward sign," or sacrament, of the invisible reality of God saving the world. What we do without God’s help is imitate one another in selfish desire for and consumption of whatever we think will make us happy. And that’s what we all want, and wanting the same things ultimately leads us to conflict and violence. We start seeing the world as “us” and “them,” “friend” and “enemy,” “insider” and “outsider.” Jesus, the human face and voice of God, baptized us into a different vision, a different faith, a different way of life. Jesus brings us into the family of God, where everyone is “in,” “friend,” in fact, family. Brother and sister. We begin to imitate Jesus, who imitates God, who loves everyone, who lets the rain fall and sun shine on good and bad alike, who is so wonderfully generous that God created us like God's self, a race in God's likeness, daughters and sons together in the garden.

Belonging is what we experience as members of the body of Christ, the Church. The Spirit of God makes us, many though we are, one. We have many different gifts, but they’re all given for the good of the whole body. We belong to Christ, and so we belong to one another. But in this community of the church, this belonging pushes us outward as our vision deepens, and we begin to see that we’re not really whole until everyone is in. So we receive the Spirit’s mission to do what Christ did: “as the Father sent me, so I send you” to preach the gospel, and help people understand that they have one Father, and they are all brothers and sisters. Belonging, in the community of the Church, leads to mission. As in the Trinity whom we celebrate as God, unity and diversity are one and the same thing. That is the image of God in which humanity is made.

Jesus himself “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped.” Instead, he became like us. He left, in a sense, the “belonging” of the Trinity, and went on God’s mission. “I did not come to be served,” Jesus said, “but to serve.” It’s a different kind of God we have. The more like God we become, the more we are drawn to serve one another, both in the church and its liturgy, and outside the church in the rest of our lives of family, school, work, politics, and economy.

We call our worship event a “service.” But whether or not we are liturgical ministers, and I hope everyone considers this according to their gifts, we are all called to serve one another in our lives, and serve the mission of God made visible by Christ. Life is a banquet that God serves to everyone. If we’re doing it right, while we’re being served, we’re also learning to be waiters. That’s what ministry is: being a waiter, a server, at the banquet of the Lamb, the Lamb of God who came not to be served, but to serve.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Eucharist and conversion (Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Year A)

More and more in recent years, I’ve been seeing liturgy in terms of conversion, mostly because I’m understanding all of Christian life as a process of “turning around” from what we’re taught is normal to what Jesus taught. Most of what Jesus taught is not really normal at all (in the sense of "business as usual," but it is actually more real. We might wistfully be glad Jesus is teaching all those bad people to be more like us, but unless we're understanding from him that his words both comforting and challenging apply to everyone and not just to those who're different from us, we're rewriting the gospel to fit how we're already living, and not really taking seriously its radical departure from the organizing strategies of the world.

We learn everything (we learn what is "normal") by imitating other humans, starting with our parents. We learn to walk, talk, eat certain foods with certain utensils, everything, all by observing and imitation. We’re taught who is good and who is bad by those around us, who we’re like and who we’re not like, who is better than we are, and who we are better than. "Normal" is learned behavior. Because of that, we all learn to want the same things, whether it’s certain toys, clothing, or cars, or whether it’s security, power, authority, or property. And often it leads to conflict, so “civilization” (the way things are, and have always been) has organized us into bands of people who define themselves by who we aren’t, who we belong to, to whom we owe allegiance, and who is an enemy. Religion often participates in this “civilizing” influence. And civilization does a pretty good job of organizing us into competitive groups and keeping something like peace, unless we happen to be in the out-group, which is where it’s dangerous to be. We might look different, believe differently, live in a different country, not have enough money, any number of things that separates us from the dominant culture. Suddenly, we can easily be identified as “the enemy” and disposed of however enemies are disposed of. And in case it doesn't occur to you right off, everyone is in several "out" groups, as well as in groups. It's not just an us vs. them world, it's more like everyone vs. everyone else.

But Jesus came to show a different way. His teaching suggested a question, something like, “How’s that whole thing with (the Roman god-man) Caesar’s civilization working out for you? How's normal for you? Happy? Let me show you a different way, a different authority. A different kind of empire, and a different kind of God.” He laid out the essentials in what we heard earlier this year, and also in the Lenten weekday readings, in the Sermon on the Mount. Call God “our Father,” because we’re all brothers and sisters, and what God wants is a family, and it’s a family that God will care for. Do unto others what you’d like them to do for you. Turn the other cheek. If you have two of something, give one away. Love your enemies. Don’t even call people names. If you want to be great, be like God, and serve everyone else.

Then the way he lived this out, with the words “Follow me,” was to eat and drink with everybody. Nice people, not-so-nice people, good people, throwaways, rich people, poor people. Everybody. This was such a “Jesus” thing that it became the way that his friends remembered him, and spread the good news he entrusted to them, after his death. In both Luke's and John's post-resurrection stories, Jesus cooking and eating with the twelve continues to be part of the story of presence and recognition. 

Eucharist reflects all of this and more. It’s a meal for a new creation. Enough for everybody, and everybody gets the same. God provides, we share God’s goodness in the gifts we’ve been given. No one is privileged above others in the community of Jesus. Leadership is service in the Eucharist. In the liturgy, "follow me" becomes "Go and announce the gospel of the Lord," or "glorify the Lord by your life." The liturgy announces itself to be a sacrament, and outward sign of a reality we are living the rest of the week, month, year, the rest of our lifetime. What happened here, the liturgy says, go make that real in the world again. Take the nourishment this gathering, God's word, and the bread of heaven has given you, and share it with everyone. Go, team God. Peacefully. See you next week. 

But for a lot of people, those who believe in the competence and expediency of normal civilization, those whose idea is that power is control, that might makes right, and that one's own "in" group has priority over all others in everything, including access to the good things of the earth, and freedom, and happiness, are not interested at all in the message of Christ. They will always push back, either by ridiculing the very idea of the gospel, or rebaptizing it in the name of their own gods, and turning it into a gospel of prosperity, or a gospel of nationalism. Those who believe otherwise are reduced to irrelevance, or worse. Persuasion and example take too long. We can sacrifice other people and their children so that our children can be safe. Better yet, we can assure ourselves that God will take care of them after they die, and feel better about ourselves. The end justifies the means. The gospel is an ideal. Muscle is real. 

“When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord, until you come.” Caesar and those in power know exactly what the new empire is all about. The Romans thought they could put a stop to it. But the early church had experienced the resurrection. They understood, with Jesus, that God is life, for whom death does not exist. There would be no death for the word of God, no death for the gospel. We who eat and drink the body and blood of Christ need to know that our future is the same as that of Jesus and the martyrs if we choose his way. But to be part of the “kingdom of God” means leaving behind the deathmaking, regret, and sorrow of “normal” civilization, and beginning here and now to live in the world of the resurrection. In the Eucharist, the Lamb who was slain by the normalcy of violence lives among us and shares the infinite life of the Spirit with those who gather to turn and follow him to live, here and now, in a different world. Blessed are those who are called to the table of the Lamb of God.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Being Augustine's "infantes" as we prepare for Corpus Christi

Over the last year and a half, I've been writing a weekly piece in our parish bulletin, The Clarion, going through the liturgy from beginning to end, just offering a little catechesis on the parts of the mass. In a happy coincidence, the communion piece is about to end on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord next week. I did about six weeks on communion itself, with another four or so on other aspects of the Communion Rite, beginning with the Lord's Prayer. On three of those communion weeks, I shared my blog post on "Real Presence" in three installments—I needed a break from trying to be original. 😁

So I thought it would be a good opportunity, in this week after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, preceding Sunday's solemnity, to expand those shorter articles a bit here, and share them more widely. You've already seen the "real presence" article because I repost it every year during Holy Week, so I'll just work with the new essays from the Clarion.

Notice, in the imaginative exercise I give below, how it is that the great St. Augustine teaches about real presence in the Eucharist, in a clean and pristine form. Christ is present in the Eucharistic meal in order to transform the many into one. The transformation is real, Augustine says, so act like it! There is, thus, already present in Augustine's teaching a nascent sense that the healing (salvation) of the world is a participatory event. It is announced, prepared, and nourished by God, but requires our opting-in. In Tutu's words, "Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not." (see endnote)

I’d like to invite you to a little exercise for your imagination to begin this reflection on the Eucharist.

It’s early in the fifth century CE in northern Africa, in the cathedral of St. Augustine, on Pentecost, the fiftieth day of Easter. Augustine is gathered with his people at the end of the Easter season. Try to imagine the joy in the room, the noise and wonder of the infantes, not babies, but new Christians, people we'd call neophytes or the newly baptized, and the joy of everyone that the austerity and fasting of Lent, and now even the seven weeks of Easter celebration are coming to an end. There may even have been more baptisms during the vigil overnight before Pentecost, we don’t know, but the homily may refer to them. If so, the room would be redolent with the smell of chrism scented with frankincense, and maybe the honeyed fragrance of new candles.

I think that presupposition is that there was not much direct catechesis on the Eucharist before baptism because, in its pristine form, catechesis comes after experience. The word "catechesis" even shares a root in the word "echo"—catechesis catches our experience and interprets it in the light of the gospel, letting God's word and the gospel bounce around inside of us like an echo, reverberating off the walls of our days. Early catechesis would happen after the liturgical experience, like the best catechesis does today. Rather than say, "This is what's going to happen to you, and this means this, and that means yadda yadda &c &c", the style would have been to say, "what just happened? How did you feel? What did the word, the community, and the meal say today?" The catechist, in this case, the homilist-bishop of Hippo and, later, Doctor of the Church, would then do some teaching based on the experience and the people's reactions.

Augustine, their popular bishop, speaks to them with his famous voice, and this is what they hear:
What you see on God's altar, you've already observed during the night that has now ended. But you've heard nothing about just what it might be, or what it might mean, or what great thing it might be said to symbolize. For what you see is simply bread and a cup - this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ's body, the cup is Christ's blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter. As the prophet says, "Unless you believe, you will not understand." [Is. 7.9; Septuagint] So you can say to me, "You urged us to believe; now explain, so we can understand." Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: … “How can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?" 
My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: "You are the body of Christ, member for member." [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true!  
But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: "The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body." [1 Cor. 10.17]  Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. "One bread," he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the "one body," formed from many? Remember: bread doesn't come from a single grain, but from many.… Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. … 
Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God's singular mercy; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine happiness through God's own son Jesus Christ. Amen! (from Sermon #272, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, [354-430]).
The great bishop and teacher's inspiring words ring down the ages. We are meant to live in peace, meant for unity and mutual love. The mystery of the Eucharist is an invitation to be made more and more aware of the innate unity-in-diversity that is the human race, made in the image and likeness of the triune God, whom we celebrated yesterday as unity-in-diversity. We've got the diversity part down, all right. We're nations, races, belief systems, non-belief systems, states, families, and individuals, all clamoring for our rights to be separate and free agents of our own happiness. But the Eucharist teaches that happiness isn't true unless it's happiness for everyone, and while diversity is clear and true, unity is equally true, but more difficult to achieve, because it requires surrender. Unity requires service to one another, care for those considered to be "outside" of our circles of belonging and support, and ultimately, love of our enemies. The gift of diversity is given, like all gifts, for the good of the whole, of unity.

Endnote: from God at 2000, quoted in Marcus Borg (ed.), page 131. Tutu may have been quoting or paraphrasing St. Augustine's sermon 169, Qui ergo fecit te sine te, non te iustificat sine te. ("So he who made you without you will not justify you without you."

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Rising from the Dead 4: Easter spreads its Pentecost wings

 4. Easter Spreads Its Pentecost Wings

This is the day that people, mostly men, have made.

It is a day full of violence and images of violence. Beheadings and suggestions of beheadings. Lynching and dreams of lynching. Murder and threats of murder. War and rumors of war.

It is a day when strangers are presumed to be enemies, a day when those who look, speak, or dress differently from us are presumed to have it in for us. It is a day of mistrust and quarantine, deportation and isolation. It is a day of fear, and scarcity, and hoarding, class war and intellectual snobbery.

This is the day that we have made. Let us feel the oppressive weight of it, rue the energy we've spent demonizing our enemies, believing the lies of scarcity and death. We'd been warned. We know better.

There is another day, the day we've been living for the last fifty days in another reality, when we give our time to it, if we'd let it break out of its Sunday horizon. It is the day God has made, and it is beautiful to see.

Narrative and Counter-narrative. The world has always belonged to the death-dealers, the lynchers, beheaders, the masters of exile and forced labor. And there has always been another story, rising up from that dark narrative like light seeps through a crack in a wall. It is a new narrative of shared plenty, of freedom and equality, of rest and abundance for all. The story takes place in this world, transformed by justice. The forces of the quick fix, of might-makes-right, of manifest destiny have always tried to assimilate this counter-narrative, to marry it to the property of the rulers. But it will not be held captive for long. "There is no imprisoning the word of the Lord." Its story makes fools of its captors and shows them for the duplicity and opportunism of their revisionism.

In the days following the murder-by-capital-punishment of Jesus of Nazareth, there was confusion and fear among his inner circle. But as dark and final as the narrative had turned, the counter-narrative was as sudden and bright as creation, a "big bang" that threw unimagined light in every direction. The tomb of Jesus was found to be empty, and the frightened folk who had been his companions suddenly found voices and power to say something extraordinary, without fear of reprisal: Jesus, whom they had seen die, was alive. Their experience, during the reorientation to the new light of Easter that was the empty tomb, the experiences of Mary, Peter and John, Thomas, Clopas and his companion, and finally the other disciples, was that the divine mission undertaken by Jesus in their lives had been passed on to them, ordinary Jews, to spread to the world.

This couldn't have happened overnight, and might not have happened at all except for the extraordinary change wrought in a fiery Pharisee evangelist named Saul by a vision of the risen Christ. His narrative, too, was overturned, reinterpreted, and given back to him, so that the Law and the prophets meant something utterly new, not to be enforced and defended by threats and violence, but by persuasion and table talk. Even more important, the deep sense of mutual belonging to God that had formerly been a covenant only with the children of Abraham came to be understood by him to be offered in a new way, through Christ, to the whole world. In a similar, more gradual way, the same insight seems to have sunk in with Simon Peter after some interactions with a Roman official and his family. The preaching of the twelve, at least as recorded in Acts half a century later, reveals continued meditation on Jewish scriptures but with a new narrative in mind that slowly begins to include everybody in the parental love of God through adoption in Jesus Christ through the working of God's love in the Holy Spirit.

We who have been part of the Easter liturgy over the last 50 days have heard this story retold over the din of counter narrative being noisily and angrily, violently, mortally preached by ISIS, Donald Trump, Putin, Duterte, and their spokespersons and minions. While the voices of death and isolationism and domination preached their dysangelion, we have heard how a handful of inexperienced fishermen and artisans voyaged around the known world, often reviled and ridiculed, subject to shipwreck, shunning, hunger, threatened with prison, stoning, and exposure to Roman arrest and revenge, took a message not of threat or exceptionalism but of welcome and the all-encompassing love of God to the world.

What kind of fire? What kind of fire would turn these men and women of no particular influence, means, or talent into a peaceful force that called such diverse people to unity in the crucified Jesus and their own transformed Jewish story of a world created by God for freedom and equality?

After fifty days, after ninety days, after two millennia, what kind of fire would convince us to ignore the narrative that says "there's only enough for us," "only our way for the world," "enterprise before the earth," "violence will be met with deadlier, unremitting violence," and "one race above all others"?

Christ still announces his simple message: Turn around. Stop listening to those angry, lost voices. Believe in love because it is the life of God. Follow me. Love your enemies. Call God "our Father," everybody in the family. If you have two, give one away. Lead by serving others. Treat everyone the way you'd want to be treated.

How's the other way working out for you? Happy with the way things are? Jesus says, Turn around. They're lying to you. You're going the wrong way.

I don't know what it means "to rise from the dead." I have no grasp of what resurrection life is. But I see something worth following here because it changed people from being afraid of death to embracing it when it became unavoidable because they were certain from their experience that it was not the end, that something full of life, something greater than life, was coming, and coming in this world, because it was here that they experienced the resurrection. It is for everyone. No one is excluded, no one gets less than everything. No one has to fight, argue, or kill to get it. It's gift. No one offers anything better. So I choose to believe in "Follow me."

Follow me into the fire that is Life. I'll go first.

Summary: Rising from the dead means finally breaking out of the cocoon that is the safe and familiar: family, community, faith, nation, into God's wide universe of the whole human family, the earth. We've been raised in a world that has given us too small an identity and crippling allegiances with no future. The gospel and the resurrection offer abundant life, for everyone, in this world, and more. "Only God could make this day. It is beautiful to see." (Psalm 118:23) "Lord, send out your spirit and renew the face of the earth." (Psalm 104:30)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Rising from the Dead 3: The Emmaus Tapes

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

Rising from the Dead 2: You will never wash my feet

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

Rising from the Dead 1: Why Have You Abandoned Me?

(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... 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.