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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Χριστός Ανέστη

"Daffodil Morning" by Margaret Larkin. All rights reserved.

Up from the Earth by Rory Cooney

Up from the earth, and surging like a wave,
Rise up, O Christ! Your God defies the grave.
Up from the earth push blade and leaf and stem:
They rise for Christ, and we shall rise with them.

Up from the cross a billion voices strain, 
Cry for a hand to lift them from their pain. 
Up from the cross, but scarred in limbs and side, 
A wounded church brings healing far and wide. 

Up from the night Christ Morningstar awakes! 
O, what a light upon earth’s darkness breaks. 
Up from the night Christ sows his life like wheat,
And death itself lies fallow at his feet. 

Up from the tomb of all the past conceals, 
See how our God a brighter day reveals. 
Up from the tomb! Though death had bound us tight, 
Like Lazarus, we stumble into light. 

Cry to the cross, where tyrants work their dread! 
Shout to the tombs where parents mourn their dead! 
Sing to the earth, for God all newness gives! 
Alleluia! Christ Liberator lives! LIBERATOR

© 1987 NALR. Published by OCP. All rights reserved

Up from the Earth - Change Our Hearts

Saturday, March 30, 2013

'My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'

My friend Michael Cymbala once defined an "outsider" as "an Egyptian at the Easter Vigil." We can try all kinds of ways to interpret and finesse the scripture, in the light of the New Testament, but we're still left with the carnage. But what is comforting to me is that we are not, by any means, the first to struggle with this, nor is it peculiarly Christian to do so. Here are some Jewish writings on the Exodus story, with a final more modern interpretation that is startling in its moral and emotional complexity. Going dark until tomorrow afternoon. Blessings to all!

(from Megilla 10)
"The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: 'My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'"
From “Torah on the Web”:
Indeed, this midrash can be found in Pesikta de- Rav Kahana (ed. S. Buber, p. 189a):
"Why does Scripture give no [explicit] command to rejoice during Pesach?
Because the Egyptians died during Pesach. And similarly do you find that although we read the [entire] Hallel on each of the seven days of Sukkot, on Pesach we read the entire Hallel only on the first day and on the night preceding it. Why? Because of what Shemuel would quote: "Bi-nefol oivekha al tismach" - "Do not gloat at the fall of your enemy." (Proverbs 24:17).
This supplements the well-known gemara (Megilla 10b and Sanhedrin 39b): "The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not rejoice over the fall of the wicked."
From the “David in DC” blog, I found this:
Following Nachshon ben Aminadab, the first Israelite courageous enough to step into the sea, the Israelites are able to cross safely, but when the Egyptians follow with their soldiers and heavy chariots, they become stuck in the mud and as the waters come rolling back over them, they drown in the sea.
At that point the angels break out into song, they are so happy, so relieved that the Israelites are finally safe. All that God had done for the Israelites has finally paid off, the Israelites are free at last.
God sees the angel's rejoicing, but God isn't pleased. "My creatures are drowning in the sea", God says, "and you sing songs".
The Midrash tells us that God was not angry with the Israelites for singing and rejoicing at the shores of the sea. The people had just escaped great danger. It was only human that they express their relief and their joy. But the angels were supposed to have a somewhat broader perspective. They should have kept their awareness of the spark of God that is in every person, even the Pharaoh himself. 
They should have remembered God's teaching, "it is not the death of the wicked that I seek, but only that he should turn from his evil ways and live."
That story from the ancient Midrash is preserved in our Passover seder rituals even to this day. When we come to the retelling of the ten plagues, we pour some wine out of our cup, or some families take a little bit of wine with their finger at this point. We show God that we understand that our cup of joy cannot be filled to the brim, as long as others, even if they were our enemies, have lost their lives.
Finally, from Wrestling with God, by Stephen T. Katz, et al., Oxford University Press, p 429:
...A much-quoted Midrash relates that when the ministering angels beheld the destruction of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, they wanted to break out into song. God, however, reproved them, saying, “My children lie drowned in the Red Sea, and you would sing?” This Midrash is much quoted, for it encourages moralistic sermons concerning a God endowed with universal benevolence. The real content of the Midrash, however, is otherwise. Even in the supreme but premessianic moment of His saving presence God cannot save Israelites without killing Egyptians. Thus the infinite joy of the moment—a moment in which even the maidservants saw what no prophet saw—is mingled with sorrow, and the sorrow is infinite because the joy is infinite….
So there’s even support, ancient but ambiguous, for a careful reading even of the joy of Exodus. Isn’t life just full of surprises?

Horse and chariot: where the rubber hits the Way

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
In our online group of merry music ministers and liturgy geeks, we once had a discussion about how to characterize Easter joy. Is it best expressed by the ancient modal beauty of chant, or boisterous hymnody, trumpets and timpani, what? How do we “do” Easter music best? Most of us, I think, do some combination of various styles and timbres to express Easter. As some pointed out, the gospels are respectfully silent about what actually happened that morning. “Historical Jesus” scholars like Borg and Crossan point out that the truth of the resurrection is not dependent upon a historicity that might have been recordable, had there been videotape in the 1st century c.e. What we know, from the tradition of the witnesses, is that those who first went to the tomb on the morning of the day following the Sabbath found that the tomb of Jesus was empty. Others, at different times and in different groups, reported experiencing the Risen Lord in different ways, but a frequent element in all these stories is that Jesus is so changed as to be unrecognizable until the moment when something happens that is unique to him, a habit of his community. He breaks bread: we’ve seen that. He says my name, “Mary!”. We’ve heard that. He’s cooking breakfast on the seashore for weary fisherman: we’ve done all this before. In all of this, there’s no real element of triumphalism, trumpets blaring, military-style fanfares of victory. But, for one reason or another, that’s where most of us find ourselves when executing our Easter music.

I've been thinking about this. Part of the Triduum's insight into the paschal mystery is that in the entire three days, taken all at once (if that were possible), is a glimpse into the heart of the mystery. It is simultaneously death and resurrection, abandonment and intimacy. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter (and Pentecost) happen all at once, in kairos, God’s time. How they unfold in our time is always different, but for God, they may be all the same. Somehow, self-abasement (kenosis) is the very nature of the divine glory. That is, it seems to me, glory is not so much "laid aside" as exhibited in kenosis. God is love.

Where we get messed up, Easter-wise, is in our pharaonic view of God, which comes from revelation too, at least in the sense that this God who promises to wreak havoc on the enemies of his people is the God of much of scripture, including the Christian one. The gospel view, not as imperial and spangled as the other, is of a different kind of God. Yet we imagine "God’s glory" to be something like that of Pharaoh or Caesar, and thus we tend to celebrate the glory of the resurrection the way we celebrate civic glory. If we could have the Blue Angels, we probably would.

I'm getting hard-pressed to nuance the Exodus reading, when I sing it during the Easter vigil, in a way that allows for the light of Christ to shine on it. Does God really want us to get overjoyed about "horse and rider thrown into the sea", or might there be a different way that allows for our purification and enlightenment, freedom for both slave and master, without the violence? There is also the whole experience of freedom-as-desert — the Exodus opened up history for the Jews, yes, but only after and in the midst of "forty years in the desert". This was after, not before, the Red Sea! That’s some freedom!

Finally, I think that the meaning of the resurrection has to be grounded in this world. Otherwise there is little to keep oppressor from oppressing, and the oppressed from suffering in silence as the will of God. It’s far too easy for us just to imagine that the meaning of the resurrection is life after death, to reward the good and punish the bad. It doesn’t, ultimately, change anything in this world which, from its creation, is supposed to be good. Jesus suggested by his life, work, and word a new Way for us. He proposed an alternative empire to the empires of this world, and for his trouble, he was executed. But God’s final word is that he was not left in the grave. God raised him, validating his life, work, and word, and showing imperial power to be the lie. So now, what we do about that?

Once, the Vincentians were closing a venerable institution in Perryville, MO as their college, and asked me to write an Easter song as part of the celebration. It never appeared in a hymnal after Glory and Praise Comprehensive, but at least I think I was dealing with this aspect of the paschal mystery, presence and absence, back in the olden days, over twenty-five years ago:

We have not seen you, but we love you.
We have not seen you, but we believe you.
We have not seen you, but hope in you
For we have met you in our day,
We have met you on the way.

1. In the garden of despair,
Bowed by grief too great to bear,
Love is gone, and we've nothing left to give.
Then we hear you speak our name,
Ashen hearts burst into flame,
For your tomb is empty, and you live.

2. When our doubting drives us home
And we think we walk alone,
As we speak of the cross, a third appears.
When we offer hearth and bed,
Then the stranger breaks our bread,
And our eyes are opened. You are here.

3. Day to day we see you plead
From the eyes of those in need.
Human pain spreads before us like a sea.
And we hunger for the day
When at last we hear you say,
"What you did for these, you did for me." (© 1987 NALR, assigned to Rory Cooney)

Moses, by Marc Chagall
These are just a few thoughts on Easter joy, and the ambivalence I have felt at the vigil about the “horse and chariot” excitement. That’s what the liturgy says, and it’s reinforced in the psalm after Exodus, so I’m with it for now. I kept looking for a way somehow to say, “Yeah, but...”, and then say how Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and that if God expects us to do that, then God must be very good at it, and the story must have a "different ending" than all those people lying dead on the seashore. 

At Vigil of 2011, I had an idea, and presented it to my pastor. I thought, Well, the liturgy allows for a brief introduction to the reading. Why not say something about how God is on everybody's side, and there's no need to avoid the Easter Vigil if you happen to be Egyptian? He told me to do it myself. So I thought about it for a while, and wrote this short little preface, which I chant in the silence before the Exodus Reading:
Throughout the book of Genesis
The lesson's to be learned
That things begun in goodness
Can suddenly be turned.
Thus pharaohs mourn their babies,
And Israel takes slaves.
Whoever walks in darkness,
God is in that night to save,
To lift oppressor and oppressed,
And raise them from their graves.
A reading from the book of Exodus...
I don't know if it makes any difference or not. And as I think about the Passion narrative, the "story" for us Christians, it does indeed have a "different ending." “Put away your sword.” Those are pretty much the first words on the way of the cross, the way that leads to resurrection.

Friday, March 29, 2013

"Gave himself as food and drink"

Or, "God is awesome, but not for the reason you think," or "Yeah. You were there. You are still there."

Sometimes little things jump out at you from prayers. Partly it’s because our filters keep changing — we ourselves change, what we believe, what the beliefs are that we discard or that slough off when life gets hard or different, and we hear things we didn’t hear before, or they strike us as truer than we remember. In the opening prayer for the Holy Thursday liturgy, for instance, some words jumped out at me, and in a way they echo the ancient hymn we sang later, the Pange Lingua:

“On the eve of his death, as a sign of your covenant, he washed the feet of his disciples and gave himself as food and drink.”
In so many ways, that is unremarkable Christian speech. I don’t remember now if it is the prayer from the Roman missal or the prayer composed by ICEL for the Holy Thursday liturgy. Its words sound so familiar. And yet, when it makes itself apparent to us, it is startling. First, what happens is “as a sign of your covenant.” What is the covenant? All that language from the Jewish scriptures comes flooding in: You will be my people, and I will be your God. When you walk through the fire, I will be with you, all the rivers of the earth shall not cover you. God-with-us is the name of the covenant, God here with us. 

Christ the Servant, west wall of
St. Anne Church, Barrington IL
But what God is it whom we know to be in covenant with us? It is a kenotic deity, not a God like pagans have. Not a god whose hidden realm is like the realms of this world but even more glorious, not manifest in thunder and fire and destruction, but a God who kneels to wash the feet of people, and who gives himself as food and drink. I mean, let’s just get into that for a minute. Not only, then, is God revealed as one who bends to the place of a servant of those who follow him, but this same God gives himself as food and drink, that is, as food for people, to be consumed completely, and to become, utterly, irrevocably, substantially, at the molecular level, part of us. One bread, one cup, broken, poured out, shared, eaten, and now integral to the very corporeal reality of us. And then there is that command: Do this, whenever you do it, in remembrance of me. Do what? Eat dinner? I don’t think so. I think that serving, bending low, pouring ourselves out, giving ourselves as food and drink, it is this that brings the memory of Jesus to our thoughts.

The other thing that struck me today, as I was reading over the normative liturgy for Good Friday and the reproaches which so many of us have misunderstood for so long as reproaches against the Jews for putting Jesus to death, since he was the God of the covenant, was the way those “reproaches” repeat like a refrain before the wood of the cross:

Holy is God! Holy and strong! 
Holy immortal one, have mercy on us.
We look upon the cross, the gallows of the Roman empire, and the man who died there and was raised up from death after three days, and we sing “Holy! Strong! Immortal!” That strikes me as subversive. If we keep our fingers crossed, and are thinking, “O man, God is really going to kick some ass for this!” or something like that "praise" song “Awesome God”...
When He rolls up His sleeves
He ain't just puttin' on the ritz (our God is an awesome God)
There is thunder in His footsteps
And lightning in His fist (our God is an awesome God)
Well, the Lord wasn't joking
When He kicked 'em out of Eden...
...well, it’s praise all right. It’s just not praise of the God of whom Jesus is the image. It’s some other god, Baal maybe, dressed up to look like a big strong manly king who can and will whip this sorry world into shape. If I’m honest, I have to say that, for modern people among whom I count my friends, many of them educated and committed Christians, most of the language of the reproaches sounds more petulant than retaliatory, the language of a jilted lover. There’s no implicit threat in the Reproaches, which might be the surprising part. The entire thing is simply, “I did this for you, and this is how you repay me. What have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me.” It's dayenu in reverse: "Wasn't it enough?" To the chagrin of the triumphalist, the Reproaches don't end with, “And now I’m really going to kick your collective butts, Satan-spawn children.”

We really don’t see ourselves in the role of godkillers. We weren’t there when they crucified my Lord. But what if this God has, for all we know, disappeared into food that we break and share, pour out and drink? What if this God has become human, as the great saints Athanasius and later Aquinas insisted, so that we might become divine? God chose to covenant, to be-with-us, in a particular way, but it is in the way that God is: generous, self-emptying, agape. Then the person we kill, or allow to be killed, by gun violence, or in war, or by starvation, or neglect, or exploitation, then the person we kill is God. And we were there
"How have I offended you? Answer me!"
In Jesus, God announced a realm different from human ones, and threw the divine lot in with the poor and disenfranchised, not condemning the wealthy, but calling everyone to share equally in the divine gift of the world. For his efforts, he was executed on a gallows for committing a capital offense, high treason against the other son of god, the other prince of peace, Tiberius Caesar. Today we’re asked to look on the man hanging on that gallows and bear witness to life: “Holy! Mighty! Immortal! Mercy.” We’ll do it in different music, with different words, in all the tongues of earth. We’ll taste his life again, given by his own hand in bread, and we, crucified and crucifiers, will try to wrench ourselves away from these idols that covet our affection and loyalty, and stand together with God-among-us. 

In every person left in poverty, every person left to die of thirst or curable disease, every bomb dropped, every IED detonated, every mental patient dropped on a curb in skid row, we are “there when they crucified my Lord.” That’s just where the Lord chose to be, eaten and drunk up by the dregs of the human race, people like us. Like us, like him. Crucified. 

Holy! Mighty! Immortal! Mercy.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Real Presence

Over the years, as a student of liturgy and Catholic thought, I have come across a few metaphors that help to demystify the idea of "real presence," that is, that Christ can be really present to us in the appearance of bread and wine. Now, there's a sense in which we just feel that Christ, as God, can do anything he wants to do. Bart Simpson wonders, Can God make a burrito so hot that he can't eat it? Our thoughts about God go off the rails (and greater minds than Bart's have posed similar ones) because of the way we think of power. Suffice it to say that the Christian definition of power, the notion that flows from the gospel of Christ, is that power is shared life, flowing from kenotic love and the invitation to follow and be disciple, and demonstrated by service to others, especially those who cannot (like the poor) or will not (like enemies) reciprocate. So, in the hope that writing these down will help both of us, here are the insights to which I've been made aware over the years. They're not my own, but I've internalized them. Maybe they will work for you, too.

1. Transubstantiation: Food transformed by presence. Consider a scenario like this one. In a certain family, a brother and a sister have grown up very close. After college, the brother goes into the armed forces. The sister gets engaged to be married, but it so happens that her brother, whom she loves very much, cannot get leave, let's say he is, in fact, overseas and involved in war. The wedding goes on, but the brother is missed. When, at the festivities of the reception, he is remembered by his sister, some tears are shed, and when the cake is cut, she instructs her friends to carefully wrap one of the first pieces, and they take it to the family home, and put it in the freezer. 
Months later, the brother returns, and when the family gathers for a thanksgiving reunion, his sister has removed the wedding cake and prepared it for him, and she gives it to him after his dinner, with a word of affection, telling him that everyone at the reception had remembered him on the day of her wedding.
I suspect that her brother ate the best cake of his life at that moment! Would any of us, in such a circumstance, think that we had eaten "just cake"? Is it only flour, sugar, butter, and baking powder that he's ingesting? Of course not! He's eating a day and a time, memory, laughter, tears, love, the hope of the human race. He's consuming and becoming a part of, as it becomes a part of him, everyone who gathered around that cake on his sister's wedding day. 
I would say, if human presence can thus transform food so completely, how much more can divine presence transform it? We might say the wedding cake was changed in its meaning, but it has not been changed completely. Divine presence, however, must be able to utterly transform a thing, make it a new creation! It might still appear to be food, but it has been changed by divine presence into something utterly other.
2. This is my body, this is my blood. Sometimes we think of these words in the consecration, echoing the words of the last supper, as magical, that by saying these words Jesus changed the supper food into his own life. The incantation hocus pocus actually reinforces that claim, as those words are a corruption of the Latin hoc est enim corpus meum, the words "for this is my body" in Latin, spoken in the mass. To any student of eucharistic theology, the story of the eucharist is not confined to the last supper; its origins are in the table ministry of the messiah as well as in the post-resurrection narratives, taken in the context of the Last Supper, with all its overtones of Sabbath and Passover. It is a complex, richly layered origin.
But even this is not incomprehensible to us as human beings. Again, I think that it's our duty to take faith out of the realm of magic and put it into the realm of experience, so that it can be truly human.
Food doesn't fall out of heaven into our cupboards and refrigerators, at least it hasn't since the time of manna. Even with the advent of "Peapod" and similar internet services where we can press a few buttons and a few hours later a man appears on our doorstep with groceries, we know that there's more exchanged than hope and electrons. The food in our homes, the food that sustains us and our families, the  food that makes our living possible and sustains us in our work and play, all this has to be paid for. Money is required. Some has to come from us, and go to someone else. This part is obvious. But what is that money, really? 
For most of us, money is life-time. We only get so much of it, only so many years. Only so many weeks in those years, days in those weeks, hours in those days. Money comes  from trading our time for it. We work at our jobs, we get money to buy groceries. We buy food with our lives. We can't trade it back in, either. You can't buy back the forty hours you traded for your paycheck, it's gone. What we have is a symbol of life spent. 
So we take that paycheck, and we go buy groceries. And we bring them home, fire up the stove and oven, and start preparing a meal. We gather our kids, our families, our friends, whomever. We take the food we've bought and prepared, we arrange it as festively as we can, or informally, on the table. We say a blessing. We pass it around.
Can you see how, as your mother, or sister, or son or daughter or friend, asks for the bread, you could be thinking as you pass it with love, "this is my body, this is my blood"? You've spent your life for it. All that's left is your intention. Can we learn to intentionally give our lives in our work, in all we do, as an act of love for others, so that even the act of sharing our tables becomes a eucharistic act that can be connected to the great eucharistic act of Christ? Life lived in love, given away, even in and maybe especially in the simple, intentional act of sharing a meal with others is an icon of divine life. Sharing food at table is sharing life.

3. Real Presence of Whom? We Proclaim the Death of the Lord. It's really a discussion for another time, another book, in fact, but it needs to be said here too. Since we are talking about being invited to a table to dine with the Lord, we need to ask, "Whose "real presence" are we consuming? 

In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, the "Lord and Giver of life," enters into the gifts of bread and wine to transform them into the presence of Christ, so that the body of Christ, the gathered assembly, can be nourished for the mission of God upon which it was sent by baptism and confirmation. "Receive the Holy Spirit," Jesus said, "as the Father sent me, so I send you." What is that mission? It is the mission of the moshiach (messiah, anointed one), or as the Greeks called him, Christos, the Christ. There is one Spirit. The same Spirit that anointed Jesus anoints us for the same mission, to announce the gospel to the poor, liberty to captives, joy to those in sorrow. "Turn away from sin (the empire built by violence and greed) and believe in the good news." That good news is the real presence, in Christ, and now in us, of the empire/reign of God, to be built by self-sacrificing love for the peace and equal good of all people.

What's the catch? Well, the empire of sin isn't going away easily. It had no trouble disposing of Jesus by the machinery of capital punishment for treason: the cross. But God raised Jesus from death, never to die again, to bear witness forever to the triumph, however slow to appear, however fragile its peaceful, relentless strategy may be, of abundant life. "When we eat this bread and drink this cup," said St. Paul, writing about the meal that is the sign of the new creation, the sign of Christ's risen, living body, the church, "we proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes." All who follow the master in holding up the absolute equality of the daughters and sons of Abba, who announce that God is for everyone, regardless of their past, their parentage, nationality, or even creed, are destined for the cross. There is no other path to the resurrection. 

Holy food for holy people. The Holy Spirit makes the Eucharist for us, so that we can be made more fully, week by week, Sunday by Sunday, into the likeness of Christ. So St. Augustine, in one of his sermons, told his people in the city of Hippo:
“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! Be a member of Christ’s body then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true! Be what you see; receive what you are!”
To demystify doesn't suggest that the mystery is taken away, only that what appears magical before enters the realm of mystery for us now. Mystery does not suggest unintelligibility. It suggests the impossibility of definition. It suggests a reality that defies circumlocution. Once we can connect with what happens around our tables and in our own lives, how food shared is life shared, we can see more clearly why Jesus used food in the first place and commanded us to remember him, and dwell on the mystery from a place of ownership and belonging. It is our own mystery that we receive! Knowing this, we can listen for that echo in our own life, day by day, of the promise he has made to be with us always. Trusting that promise, we live to keep the same promise to each other.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Confiteor (a twofer in the spirit of Lent)

What I say, I don't feel
What I feel I don't show.
What I show isn't real.
What is real, Lord, I don't know.
(Confiteor, from Mass, by Leonard Bernstein (text by Stephen Schwartz)

When I started this blog, I told my wife that I wasn't going to be negative or overly critical of people (or their points of view) this time around, and try to present my own thoughts as positively as I can. So I might have strayed a little off the path with what I wrote this morning about what one priest said in a homily a long time ago about what "Triduum" meant.

I'm not a big believer in WWJD spirituality, but I'm fairly certain this is an example of WJW'ntD.

Since I'm thinking that "being right" is overrated for everyone in the light of the gospel, that not even God held onto like-God-ness in order to love more clearly and completely, I suppose that one has to say the same thing for everyone. There are a lot worse things in life that not knowing when Triduum is, or how to pronounce it, or the difference
between Philippians and the Philippines, an Aramaean and an Armenian, or even that the Immaculate Conception isn't God putting Jesus in Mary's womb. The fact that all of those things happen, that they are facts of my/our history doesn't make them true. There are a lot of worse things in life, and yes, I've actually done some of them. And the very same people who don't get the details and nuances of some of the arcana of theology and geography are really, really good at their jobs and know how to change the oil in their cars. And they feed the hungry, take care of elderly parents, visit the sick and imprisoned, and love other people whether its convenient or inconvenient. 

So, I'm writing this to say that, while precision is important, science is good, and knowledge is the possibility of strength and change, Christianity is experiential, not gnostic. There will be no written exam, not even a true-false, at the end of time. Just that business we heard on the first Monday of the first week of Lent, Christianity 101, first day of class, from the Master himself. 
Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
I'll try to pay more attention to it. You can hold me to that. 

Ideo, precor...See you tomorrow.

Word of the day: Triduum

This isn’t going to be much of a posting, and I suspect you can guess why. Time is of the essence in my work these days. Thank God for my colleagues, especially Georgene and Karen, who take care of all the copying, sorting, ordering, filing, and reminding that needs to be done, or else we’d have to celebrate Easter in June. That, or I’d have to start working on it on St. Steven’s Day.
I apply what I consider to be a healthy hermeneutic of mistrust to liturgical catechesis (in practice, not in theory). If you do liturgy badly, and don’t understand even its basic principles, then you can’t do catechesis based on it. You’ll be compounding the problem, not solving it. This is also why liturgists frequently start drinking earlier in the day than other people with less stressful jobs, like brain surgeons and ordnance and explosive handlers. Case in point: a priest who will not be named in a church which will not be disclosed once told three hundred school children and about 150 adults that “Lent is over today (Wednesday), and the Triduum begins tomorrow. The Triduum is the three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, ending with the Easter Vigil.” 
It’s not like this is something everyone has to know, but if you’re in the Catholic “biz” as a professional, it’s a given that you should know what the Triduum is, and when Lent begins and ends (and why you can’t really figure out 40 days when you’re counting them up.) But in case someone asks you at a party what Catholics mean by “Triduum,” or it appears as a Final Jeopardy Answer, I thought you might want to know that “Triduum,” a strange late Latin word whose meaning isn’t all that clear, refers to the three days beginning with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, after Vespers on Holy Thursday, and goes for three days ending on Easter Sunday at Vespers (evening prayer at sundown). Lent ends at sundown on Holy Thursday. Easter Sunday is part of the Triduum. It’s not a way we usually count days in Western culture, but the feast didn’t originate in Western culture, it originated in Eastern culture among people who counted days as going from sundown to sundown. Finally, "Triduum" is pronounced like this: "tri" like the "tri-" in "triple;" "du-" like the "du-" in "duet"; "um" like, um..., um..., well, like "um." Accent on the first syllable. TRIduum.
Soundcloud excerpt of Dan Schutte's "Glory in the Cross"
Glory in the Cross - Dan Schutte (iTunes link to Dan's album)

The church celebrates the Paschal Mystery of Christ as a single liturgy lasting for three days. You’ll notice, when you come, that we begin with singing and the sign of the cross (if your presider is following the Roman rite) on Holy Thursday, and we don’t really “end” that celebration. There’s no dismissal, just a procession with the blessed sacrament to an altar that is in a different place from the main sanctuary. We pray there, keeping vigil through at least part of the night. The next day, Good Friday, we begin without a procession as such, there is no sign of the cross or opening song, we just begin with the opening prayer, as though we were continuing the celebration from yesterday. Again, we leave in silence after a closing prayer, no dismissal, no singing. Then, at the Great Vigil, we begin outside and process into the church, taking part in a series of processions following the newly consecrated candle to the ambo and then to the font with the elect; processions carry the neophytes into the assembly bearing the gifts, and finally lead them and all of us to the table. Now, finally, we are dismissed to the world. Those who attend on Easter Sunday continue the celebration begun the night before at the Vigil, renewing their baptismal promises with the good news of the Lord’s resurrection ringing in their ears. All in all, it’s a grand celebration, exhausting, but in the good way!
The General Norms for the Liturgical Year speaks of the Triduum as bearing the relationship to the entire year that Sunday bears to the week, and sees it as having an arc that reaches its acme at the Vigil:
18. Christ redeemed us all and gave perfect glory to God principally through his paschal mystery: dying he destroyed our death and rising he restored our life. Therefore the Easter triduum of the passion and resurrection of Christ is the culmination of the entire liturgical year. Thus the solemnity of Easter has the same kind of preeminence in the liturgical year that Sunday has in the week. 19. The Easter triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.
So it is fitting and just that we spend all this time getting ready for it, that our music be as good as it can be, that the church and its building look beautiful and act beautifully and with justice on these days more than any others. And this is why blog entries are shorter this time of year, and why, when writing one, a musician or liturgist might not even finish a

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

That whole "obedient unto death" thing

Irish Catholic homes in the late 50s and early 60s weren’t places of particular lenience in the deportment department. I mean, it’s not like there was a drunken father with a belt in every house, or that corporal punishment was sternly meted out in every Catholic school, but there was a certain kind of “big stick” diplomacy that had a familiar refrain, “just wait until your father gets home, you’ll get what’s coming to you,” and we knew the refrain pretty well. We were intelligent kids though, and it didn’t take us long to get into the rhythm of good behavior, generally, if for no other reason than pain management. Self preservation. So, as long as I lived at home or was at school, I was a pretty good kid. Then, two months after my 13th birthday, I went away to seminary high school, and quickly learned a different kind of obedience. 

It was 1965, after all, and as strong as the Catholic subculture was, the counterculture embodied in the Beatles, the folk movement, the Haight-Ashbury culture, and the growing anti-war movement, which was quickly expanding to be anti-establishment on many levels, was even stronger. Keeping us away from the television and radio at school didn’t help much either - there are always ways of finding out what’s going on in the world, of tuning in to the music of the human family, especially in times of such high (literally) social awareness. 

Even in the seminary we got into a “question everything” kind of attitude. I was constantly pushing the rule on hair length until they hunted me down like an animal and used shears on me. (What a rebel, eh?) The social studies professor gave us John Birch Society propaganda to read, so I became a communist. Not a party member, mind you, but I read and could quote the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital as if I understood what they were talking about. The just-ending Second Vatican Council seemed to be inviting a new experimentation in music in worship, and my friends and I, as fond as we were of Latin masses and the TTBB harmonies of the St. Gregory and Benziger hymnals, were always ready to rewrite the lyrics of the current radio songs to use at mass. “And I Love Her,” from A Hard Day’s Night, became “And I Love Him,” about God. Similarly, the Stones’ “As Tears Go By” and the New Christy Minstrels’s “Today (While the Blossoms Still Cling to the Vine)” from the movie Advance to the Rear (does anyone remember that?) became part of our daily mass repertoire, along with other tunes that have slipped into oblivion. 
Let’s just say, I was never a hardened criminal, but the whole obedience thing escaped me. I was never a model student, a model citizen, or a model anything. I just didn’t see the glory, or wisdom, or virtue of being obedient.
Which is why texts surrounding the death of the Messiah and the suffering servant in scripture, heard so often during Lent and particularly during Holy Week, grate on my ear. As I went to mass for the first time last weekend, two phrases in the early moments of the liturgy caught my ear: one in the opening prayer (the ICEL version) and the other in second reading.
O God of eternal glory,
you anointed Jesus your servant to bear our sins,
to encourage the weary,
to raise up and restore the fallen.
Keep before our eyes
the splendor of the paschal mystery of Christ,
and, by our sharing in the passion and resurrection,
seal our lives with the victorious sign
of his obedience and exaltation.
(Opening prayer, Passion Sunday, ICEL Prayers. Note: don’t even try to find these any more since the NCCB revoked the imprimatur on them...Every liturgist I know put hers or his into a secret hiding place so that the Liturgiepolizei can’t confiscate them.)
...he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross. (Phl. 2:8) (Second Reading, Passion Sunday)

Now, forty years after my first seminary experiences, people who know me would still raise an eyebrow if you tried to tell them, as some have tried, that I’ve become a conservative, or that I’ve settled into a monkish obedience to liturgical law (no offense to any monks who might be's just an expression). But, over the years, as a father, I learned the value of obedience from my children as an alternative to chaos, and as a way of rehearsing the limitations that life places on us in all kinds of subtle ways. I’d like to think that I still know the value of a little anarchy and civil disobedience, too, but that’s not the subject I’m trying to get to today. I’m trying to deal with what it means that Jesus was “obedient to death.”
People seem to hear this to mean that God ordered or requested that Jesus die for our sins, that it was the only way his anger and righteousness could be appeased. People broke God’s law, and someone had to pay, and God loved us so much that he did it himself by coming a human being. I find this “atonement” theology revolting. If God is a god of life, s/he has no business brutally forcing death on anyone. I’m willing to struggle with the reality of death in the whole economy of salvation, but saying that God willed Jesus’s death, and Jesus obeyed him and died, doesn’t make sense to me. So I keep working with it.
Our word “obey” has its roots in a Latin compound, “obedire,” that is made up of a preposition, “ob”, and a verb, “audire.” “Ob” means “toward” or “alongside,” and “audire” means to hear or listen. The Latin is a translation of an earlier Greek word “hupakuou” and the Hebrew “shana” which both are derivatives of the verb “to hear or listen” in their respective languages. Hearing and listening is thus at the heart of obedience in the biblical sense. To hear the word of God, which is efficacious and “accomplishes the purpose for which I sent it,” is to be in harmony with the divine will, to be just, to have shalom, right relationship with all things. To obey is thus to attend to, to lean toward, to be ready to catch in the ear any instruction that comes from the mouth of the divine. So the question is, how do you know? How did Jesus know?
I think that it’s pretty clear that Jesus knew his scriptures. He may have found particular guidance and comfort in his later life and ministry in relatively recent “servant songs” of Isaiah and apocalypse of Daniel and related writings, from which the evangelists seem to have extracted the phrase “the son of man” as an epithet for him. This phrase simply means “someone born of human parents,” or “a human being.” From the servant songs seems to have come the dawning realization that the fate of the servant was in the hands of God, who would not let his chosen, whether the nation of Israel, its prophet, or Jesus himself, be destroyed, since they were the object of God’s affection and covenant, and God would be bound to give them life by his own faithfulness. No matter how awful things might get around him, there was the sense that, as God’s chosen, he would not be destroyed. If God is God, then God will have the final word. Since God is life, then life would have the final word. It had been such in the darkest periods of Israel’s history, at the Exodus and both periods of captivity in Babylon (the first of which was the milieu of prophet Isaiah), as well as the more recent horrors of the Hasmonean atrocities under Antiochus Epiphanes (recorded in the books of Maccabees) and the current occupation by Rome.
But beyond this knowledge, which was certainly the faith of Jesus’s heart, there was the intensity of the bond that is recorded in the various accounts of the baptism of the Lord, when a voice from heaven (out of the clouds? the wind? the river? who knows?) declared “This is my son, the beloved.” Again on Tabor, in an episode recounted in the lectionary just four weeks ago, after Jesus had predicted his own death and was about to set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem, the voice from heaven repeated its declaration of love. These moments (were there more?) must have been the ones that fixed themselves in his memory. Jesus obeyed that voice, the one so full of tenderness and empowerment. It was that word toward which he turned, that tone he heard, that music to which he harkened as he made his way to Jerusalem and his destiny.
I’ve spoken before about the trial in the desert, the “hour” of trial before this great and final hour of his exodus when he reverses the murderous selfishness and malignant desire of humanity for a hundred thousand years and refuses to be allied with any voice or agenda other than that of the One who calls him beloved. By embracing the divine voice, Jesus fully embraces his humanness; by opting to desire what God desires, he opens himself up to a world where obedience to God’s voice will mean numerous acts of disobedience in a worldview and culture that does not understand love because it is bound to death and self-preservation. By choosing what God wants rather than his own desire, Jesus is going to be able to love universally, see all people as children of Our Father, while many of his countrymen and the occupiers of the nation will still see walls of race, habit, caste, wealth, and gender dividing up the human family into bickering, resentful cliques.
So obedience leads to disobedience. Where have I heard that before? It sounds like Gandhi. It sounds like Mandela. It sounds like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Romero, and Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers, and so many other witnesses who have heard the same voice that Jesus heard in the baptismal waters. Once you’ve heard that Voice, once you “listen toward” that voice in obedience, you see how hollow all human law is, much of it written to protect the majority from the minority and keep people apart rather than bringing them together. Of course, much law is also good and necessary, it protects the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich, and the minority from the majority as well. But bad law, from apartheid to Jim Crow to Die Endlösung der Judenfrage becomes transparently demonic once one has listened toward—obeyed—the voice of God.
None of this excuses my recalcitrant behavior as a youth: only hormones explain it, at least until I turned 20. For the next twenty years, it was pure orneriness. Now I try to recognize it and foster it when it seems to originate from the dissonance between divine love, implanted in me at baptism and renewed in me at every Eucharist, and human law. The “precious blood of the martyrs” is witness to the ferocity of the backlash toward the civil disobedience by God’s anointed in every age and nation where the gospel has been preached. Let us pray that we all have the strength to listen toward the voice that calls us lovingly by name to live here as resident aliens, citizens first and forever of the City of God.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Nine months until Christmas

If this weren't the Monday of Holy Week, it would be the feast of the Annunciation. It's been moved to the first day outside the octave of Easter, Monday, April 8. But the date (March 25) is important, and would be somewhat lost if I wrote this note in April. The Annunciation is a major feast of the Church, a day upon which we remember the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, the incarnation of the Messiah. According to the story in Luke 1..
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
The fact that this feast day falls on March 25 might be thought to be because Christmas is exactly nine months from today, and since Jesus was a perfect baby and his mother was a perfect mother, we need to count exactly nine months backwards from the day of Christ's birth to arrive at the date of his conception and therefore of the Annunciation. Voilà!

The truth is a little more complicated. In fact, it's much closer to the truth to say that the date of Christmas was set as December 25 because it was nine months after today, March 25. In antiquity, it was thought that the prophets would enter the world (either as conceived or born) and die on the same day. Two different calculations were made in early times, based on evidence in the Gospels and in the tradition (that Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath in a year when Sabbath and Passover were on the same day), and people came up with March 25 and April 6 as the date of his death. For Christians, this is enough to start fighting about. This explains the dating of Christmas in the West (under the influence of Rome) as December 25, and in the East, under the influence of Constantinople, at January 6. Of course, to this day, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox sides of the Church celebrate Christmas on different days. Using the premise that Jesus had to have died on the anniversary of his conception, Christians set the date of the Annunciation as March 25. For some reason I am unable to discover, it is celebrated on the same date in the East and in the West. (Add to this the confusion caused by the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and you have a story of heretics, excommunication, and general unpleasantry. There was, clearly, no perfect time to be a Christian, including the first half of the first century, CE.)

John Collier (2008) "Annunciation"
Who knows what of these midrashic stories in Luke's infancy narrative are factual: they certainly ring true in the heart. God chooses an unmarried young woman to the work of salvation, because "nothing is impossible for God." Mary protests to the angel that she can't do what the angel suggests, because she is a virgin. The angel makes clear that it is God's Spirit that will overshadow her, and the child to be born will be "holy, the Son of God." God seems to choose the unlikely, the untalented, the inept, the "impossible" to do divine work, possibly because it will be clearer to everyone that it is divine work being done, or possibly just to show us how wrong we are most of the time in the way we judge each other and ourselves. Abram and Sarai were too old, Moses was a stutterer and a wanted felon, David was the youngest of the sons of Jesse, and later an adulterer and directly responsible for the death of his lover's husband. The list goes on and on. Mary is another, and not the last, in this long line of the chosen-but-unqualified. It helps us see that everything depends on God, and we don't really have to be so manipulative and controlling with our lives. 

What can I learn from this feast day? Well, it may be that the next thing God asks me to do will look to be impossible, but I have to do it anyway, and it won't matter if I'm not qualified, in my own mind, to do it. It may be to learn to say, "I am the servant of the Lord: let it be done to me as you say." It may be I should reflect on how the Holy Spirit has overshadowed me in my life, and how some divine pregnancy in me has given birth to Christ in the world. With Mary, I shall sing today, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name." 

Henry Tanner (1898), "Annunciation"
I've written five songs that touch a little on these mysteries of the annunciation and incarnation directly. I've linked to them below, with the exception of the songs from Mystery, for which the recording is out of print. "Carol of the Mother" (excerpt above) was a song I developed in the course of an arranging class at Grand Canyon back in the 80s. (All of my music classes were remedial, and had no perceptible lasting effect on me.) Like the other songs on Mystery, the text was coming from a fairly prolific period for me in my first years at St. Jerome, and being in a very creative coterie of liturgical musicians and artists in Phoenix. The octavo is still available at OCP, but no recording is available. "To My Surprise," a duet between Mary and Elizabeth at the "visitation," is a song about faith, joy, and freedom, the elation that can overtake us when we realize that "God has kept his promises" to us.

The others are "Say the Word" and "Canticle of the Turning" from Safety Harbor, and "Every Generation Calls You Blessed" from Christ the Icon. Both "Say the Word" and "To My Surprise" are from a little one-act musical called Mary's Song, which a friend and I wrote for his teen ministry. In Mary's Song, the angel Gabriel is attracted to the physicality of humans, and is a little envious of the high calling that Mary has received, though in a pure and grateful way. Mary acknowledges that no one but the God of surprise could have planned this event, and since God chose her, she vows to choose him. "What shall I do? Say the word!" she sings. That's exactly what God does in her: speak the Word that God has spoken to the cosmos from the beginning, in a permanent, human, and final way. God continues to do the same in us, through the indwelling of the same Spirit in our hearts. What must we do, Lord? Say the word! 

I'll try to remember that each of the time I hear the words "The Lord be with you" over the next week. I hope they will cause Gabriel's words to echo in me, that wonderful greeting to Mary, mother of the Church, mother of Christ, mother of God. "Rejoice, Full of Grace! The Lord is with you." May we, her children, sisters and brothers of Jesus, be aware of how full our lives are of grace today, because God is with us.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A passion for Christ

Here we go again. 

John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg have written a riveting book on the last days of Jesus, called The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem. Apart from the fact that my well-honed bullshit detector makes me wary of anyone who wants to tell me what the gospels “really mean” or worse, what Jesus means, or meant to say, the work is really extraordinary in the amount of scholarship and insight that it brings to a reading of Mark’s day-by-day narrative of the eight days that begin with Passion Sunday and end with the morning of the resurrection. 

Hanging over the book is the image of two processions taking place on Palm Sunday, in about 30 CE, in Jerusalem. One of them is a demonstration of Roman “imperial theology,” the civil religion upon which the empire was based. Pontius Pilate would be leading part of the legions stationed at Caesarea Maritima into Jerusalem to reinforce the troops stationed at the fortress Antonia in anticipation of the crowds expected at the temple for the days leading up to the Jewish Passover. This show of force would be made to deter any would-be rioters from disrupting the city. The arms, men, and horses of Rome, representing all the might and determination of Caesar and the “Pax Romana,” with all its brutal implementation history and strategy, represented one piece of the religious drama playing out in the city that day. The other, of course, is the procession being led by Jesus, riding on a donkey, representing a different strategy and a different empire: the empire of God. He arrives riding not on a warhorse, but on a beast of burden, conjuring the prophet Zephaniah: 
Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he,
Meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.
He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem;
The warrior's bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.
His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Two kings are hailed, two processions enter the city. One strikes fear into the hearts of the residents, one elates them so that if the mouths of the revelers were stopped “the rocks themselves would start to sing.” Crossan and Borg make the point that Jesus’s ministry has been from the beginning to announce that the empire of God (or reign, or kingdom) is at hand, and that human beings have to go in another direction in order to follow it. The map of Caesar’s empire has borne the motto of “peace through victory,” with all the violence and subjugation that victory entails; the map of the empire of God is “peace through justice,” that is, peace through equality, mutuality, openness, sharing, healing. There is, however, only room for one emperor at a time. In this case, the gentle prophet of God’s empire was, within a week, to suffer the death reserved for enemies of the state: crucifixion. That gallows was not an end, however, but a beginning, as the resurrection of Christ showed that the power of Caesar, the power of death, was not absolute nor the last word. 

The end of the story is being written day by day, year by year, Easter by Easter on the lives of the church and the world. A microcosm of the ongoing struggle, of the two processions vying for the attention of Jerusalem, presents itself each year with the school year and spring break schedule imposing itself on the celebration of the Paschal Triduum and the holiest days of the year. Our little burg empties out during spring break, and in those unhappy years, occurring about 50% of the time, when spring break coincides with either Holy Week or Easter Week (preceded by Good Friday and the Easter weekend), we celebrate the most solemn celebrations of our faith with a decimated choir and ministry pool. That’s just the way it is. 

Borg and Crossan end their book with a stunning paragraph that harkens back to the two processions with which they began it. It seems as good a place as any for me to think about Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion as we try to figure out where our allegiance lies this year, and with what degree of integrity we will renew our baptismal vows this year, wherever we may be on Easter Sunday: 
 “Holy Week and the journey of Lent are about an alternative procession and an alternative journey. The alternative procession is what we see on Palm Sunday, an anti-imperial and nonviolent procession. Now as then, that procession leads to a capital city, an imperial center, and a place of collaboration between religion and violence. Now as then, the alternative journey is the path of personal transformation that leads to journeying with the risen Jesus, just as it did for this followers on the road to Emmaus. Holy Week as the annual remembrance of Jesus' last week presents us with the always relevant questions: Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?” (p. 216) 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Who comes in the name of the Lord?

From tomorrow’s gospel, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from the Gospel of St. Luke (19:38) -
“Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest.” 

The cry of the crowds in the gospel reminds us of the angels singing over the fields of Bethlehem. Yet there seemed to be less irony in the angels song, who were privileged to behold the birth of the divine among us, a baby in an animal shelter. In the infancy narrative, the angels heralded the eminently unnoticed birth of a future pretender to the throne of Caesar Augustus. Here, on the streets at the gates of the Holy City in the wildly unpredictable days before the festival, the crowds seem to be thrilled that God has finally arrived with rescue in the person of this wonderworker. (‘Hosanna’ means something like ‘grant salvation’, according to the RNAB). They expect God's solution to their political problems to arrive in a ‘king,’ a son of David, who will throw the Romans out and reestablish the independent monarchy of Judah.
That’s what we want, too. Every year without fail, we seem to watch as the passion, death, and resurrection story turns into a restoration dream of some kind of monarchy, so that we can be the winners and sit on the right and the left. It goes something like this: Jesus suffers and dies for our sins, but knew he would rise again, and he does, and then God gives him a crown and he rules forever with power and glory. Look at the images —they are images of empire, based on our romantic nostalgia for jewel-draped, imperial übermenschen, so that even our language in prayer is full of words like “all-powerful,” “omnipotent,” “kingly,” “dominion,” “splendor,” and so on.
But when Christians say “Jesus is Lord,” we don’t mean that Jesus is a Lord like Constantine or Charlemagne or King Henry. We have no experience of Jesus being like that. To the contrary, Jesus had a completely subversive view of leadership: “Whoever would be first among you must serve the rest.” When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we mean that lordship is redefined by who Jesus is. When we say “Christ the King,” we don’t mean that Jesus has a crown, lives in a castle, and rules, however benignly, like the kings of earth. His word is the opposite: “my kingdom is not like those of this world.” We mean that for us, being “king” has been redefined by Jesus. The one who was born in an animal shelter, who ate and drank with prostitutes and sinners, who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, was tried for capital crimes, beaten, nailed to a cross and died, that Christ is king. Being king changed from ruling with power to laying absolute “power” aside, bending down from heights of eternity, and washing the feet of the world. Just how much the Church has bought into the wisdom of Caesar and ignored its mission can be seen in the shock of people when the new Pope Francis seems uninterested in the trappings of his office and tries to lead by example a way of simplicity and service. It remains to be seen how his leadership will redirect the Church's course.
Furthermore, we learn from the human Jesus what God is like, since he is the “icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The paschal mystery of Jesus is the paschal mystery of God, who is love, being-poured-out-for-others, and even so, somehow, the fullness and paradigm of life. Riding on a donkey into Jerusalem not to overthrow the oppressor but to be faithful to who he is, life-giving unto death, Jesus “comes in  the name of the Lord,” yes, as king, but changing the very meaning of dominion, turning it upside-down, just like it happened in Bethlehem, and on each step of the road he had taken since.
I suppose my task this year, like every year, is to figure out what that means for me as a father, husband, friend, voter, church leader, shopper, songwriter, citizen, son, grandfather, and so on. Figure out some way to stop contributing, however unwittingly, to death-dealing, power lust, and the tyranny of needing to be infallible. As I’ve been saying in my workshops and days of renewal and as I’ve said here, if Jesus, being God, “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at,” then surely all the lesser statuses, including being right about everything, means nothing if it’s possible to give life in some way to other persons. If there is absolute beauty in this self-emptying love of God that pours itself out into all of the wonder of creation, then creation for me as an artist must be telling the truth without bombast, without promoting a god of armies and blood.
It’s not always easy. In the Exodus story, horse, chariot and rider are thrown into the sea. It’s easy to make that into a kind of act of divine vengeance, rather than as the result of the violent intransigence of a king and slavemaster who would not back down from his own need for retribution. Even today, every bullet we fire ultimately strikes us in our own heart, and the hearts of our children and grandchildren.
Have a good Holy Week. Blessed are you who come in the name of the Lord of service and peacemaking.