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Thursday, March 7, 2013

The body of anti-Christ

The RCIA talks about the scrutinies as a means by which “the elect are instructed gradually about the mystery of sin, from which the whole world and every person longs to be delivered and thus saved from its present and future consequences.” (#143 USA, #130 Canada) The whole concept of the “mystery of sin” is fascinating, isn’t it? The thing to remember about mystery is not that we can’t understand a thing, though, it’s that we can’t understand it completely. We can grasp aspects of it, build on our knowledge, but the whole of it eludes us. I think this is a good attitude to have about evil in general, just as it is about God—we can’t know it all and fix it. We need to have a humble attitude toward it, appreciating the insight we can glean from our experience and the reflections of humanity, but never think we know it all. Mystery, both of God and of evil, is therefore not in the realm of science so much as it is of art; its language must be the language of image and poetry, metaphor and parable, rather than that of theory and proof. God knows that there is plenty of empirical evidence around; we just need to be gentle with the way we explain it, lest we become the “evildoers” we seek to disempower.

Thinking about this this weekend, when little homiletic time was given to baptism, the very reason for Lent in the first place, it occurred to me that an analogy might be made to St. Paul’s world-changing insight about the body of Christ that is so beautifully delineated in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, and in the letter to the Romans, also chapter 12 (the numbering is an accident of history, but helps when trying to remember where these passages are!) Paul’s insight, iterated time and time again by the insight of the poets and mystics of Eastern and Western Christianity, is that baptism remedies alienating effects of sin by filling all of the baptized with the Holy Spirit, incorporating all of us as individuals into one body, the body of Christ, of which Jesus Christ is the head. Each of us has a gift to bring to the work of the body. The mission of Christ in the world is always the same, to announce the reign of God and the need to move toward it and away from sin. There are different gifts in each of us, but they flow from one spirit, and they are all given for the good of the whole body, which is turn is given for the life of the world. The mutuality of life in the body of Christ means that “if (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” (1 Cor 12:26) Perhaps this is how Jesus (in Matthew’s tradition)  was able to say, full of that same Spirit himself, that “whenever you did it to one of these least, you did it to me.”

From Fernando Botero’s series of paintings
entitled Abu Ghraib. Short film here.
The analogy to sin is that its strategy is also to build a body, but that body is characterized by dysfunction, turmoil, covetousness (desire gone awry), and death. Civilization in the “kingdom of this world” is organized violence and threat of violence rather than peace flowing from shared life and generosity. In the civilization of sin, there is also mutuality, and the small(er) ways that each of us every day chooses the strategy of sin (hoarding, self-aggrandizement at the expense of others, prejudicial treatment, wanting more than our share) accumulate until they become structures of social sin, things like trillion-dollar defense budgets, exploitation of poor nations’ resources, trickle-down economics. In this kind of world, a street gang is born from the same "civilizing" influence that larger governments are born from. Underserved populations, ghettoed and under economic attack, find economies of mutuality, solidarity, and self-defense in aggressive mini-governments in the shadows of urban life. The accumulation of individual sin, including indifference, hopelessness, silence, and even ignorance when there are opportunities for revelation of the truth, becomes a new reality, the reality of social sin. So one could say that there is also a body of anti-Christ in the world, and to some extent, even we the baptized are a part of it. This is why the Church is in Luther’s famous words simul justus et peccator, at the same time Godly and a sinner, and why it needs Lent and the scrutinies every year as it prepares to renew the baptismal vow it makes to Christ in the Spirit.

It strikes me too that, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “...God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn. 3:17) Maybe I’m reaching here, but there is so much we don’t know about the human condition. Every day, it seems, we uncover more and more about the chemical workings of the brain which affect the ways we act. Furthermore, it has been clear to ethicists since the time of Aristotle at least that humans often are not choosing evil when they do harm to others, but they are choosing what they perceive to be, whether through ignorance or malformed conscience, as “lesser good.” People tend to choose perceived good, but our vision is clouded, we are blind, so our choices are wrong and harmful to ourselves and others. This blindness can be full or partial, the result of bad luck, intentional violence, sleep, insouciance, or even "from birth." The compassion of a loving God thus enters the world in a human being to demonstrate the path of truth. Human like us, Jesus knows that we are blind. He comes not to condemn, but to make it possible for us to see, and make better choices. He brings sight and light to us. 

To look upon Christ, then, is to see the will of God for people. This is not easy. There is fearsome strength in body of anti-Christ, and its many counterfeits of good include the strategy of scapegoating, which is to say, let one or a few die to burst the bubble of violence that threatens to blow society apart. Many who have seen the vision of body of Christ with clarity have known the death-dealing violence of “the world.” Still, the non-violence of the God of life who is agape does not condemn the world to die by its own hand, but enters the world in the person of Christ to make visible the way out of hell.

So the scrutinies have a dual purpose for the elect and, by explicit intention, for us: they “uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good.” (RCIA, US #141, Canada #128) Later, the Rite says that  “the presiding celebrant should carry out the celebration (of the scrutiny) in such a way that the faithful in the assembly will also derive benefit...” (US 145, CA132) Last Sunday's scrutiny, it seems to me, invites us to look at a whole range of personal choices that participate in strategies of sin. Put another way, what if the woman at the well had just ignored Jesus’s request for water, which, culturally speaking, would have been perfectly understandable? What if Jesus had dropped the request? The story itself seems to be a literary setup, and ultimately is not concerned with a woman and her village but with the reconciliation of Jew and Samaritan in the Way, with their finding worship in spirit and truth—that is, in a life of solidarity, mutuality, and agapic love—expressed in the breaking of the bread, with both groups finding life-giving water in Jesus. In other words, the gospel is about personal choices affecting society and therefore affecting the globe. 

This Sunday, there will be questions asked of catechumens, candidates, and faithful alike in initiating churches, about our religious behavior, and whether it is more interested in cosmetic legal uniformity than in health (salus, the root of the word “salvation.”) It is a specific God, after all, into whom we are baptized, and we can tend to turn away from this one to gods of our own making without even noticing. Finally, at the third scrutiny, catechumens are brought face-to-face with the grave, the ultimate threat of anti-Christ, and again we are asked what God we believe in and which reign we will serve. Will it be Christ and the hope of life, here, in this world, or the empirically verifiable death that strikes fear into our hearts and demands our allegiance to “civilized” conventions of violence, borders, and bloodshed?

Wherever sin is, thanks be to God, grace abounds. The thing we always need to remember is that, in Jesus Christ, the grace of God has already conquered sin, but that victory is unfolding in time through the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. Remembering Jesus Christ is also a good corrective to our sometimes misguided desire to legislate or coerce the reign of God upon others. This is just wrong thinking. The way to bring the dominion of God into the world is just to start living there, to turn away from sin and believe in the gospel. As simple as this sounds, it is extraordinarily hard to do without a faith community and without bold and courageous preaching to keep us focused on Christ the icon, and him crucified. We will never bring the reign of God through law or coercion of any kind. God is agape, and so it is only by service, by invitation, and communal life that we can authentically participate in its arrival. Baptism, confirmation, and eucharist are the doorway to that community. Lent, with its three scrutinies, are the annual call to keep turning to the true God, who is well of cool water making spouses of former enemies, clear light that makes the blind see and exposes the blindness of the sighted, and irrepressible life, in this world, that overwhelms the worst violence that we, the civilized of "this world," are capable of doing to one another. Isn't that something to "Lætare" about?

(Other posts on Lent 3/4/5 Year A and the scrutinies here.)


  1. This is thought-provoking good.

    I've been worried the past few years by what I've considered the preaching of the antigospel: church people, not just the hierarchy, who, by their words and actions, drive people away from Christ.

    And in some cases, they may not realize what they do. That line from the end of this weekend's scrutiny Gospel, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains." is a finger-pointer at others, but also a personal challenge because, as you say, we have all been ensnared into the body of antichrist.


    1. You're so right, it's all of us. My point is, that's what the scrutinies are for, and that is what Lent is for. But we're not even using it! We're trying to guilt people into going to confession, as though THAT were the solution in a church culture that applies a hermeneutic of suspicion to all ordained ministers. We're not talking about sin in a way that connects with people, so we can't talk about conversion in a way that connects with people. It's a vicious circle of religious inertia.

    2. Agreed. I've gotten curious looks from a few pastors who were skeptics on facilitating that "benefit" for the faithful. Scutinies, for them, were more rituals to conduct, and staged for watching than something that might engage the conscience and contribute to its formation.

      Sadly, a neighboring pastor, otherwise fairly "orthodox," doesn't conduct scrutinies because they are too "negative."


    3. I've noticed that over and over again in many contexts. Pastors who consider themselves liturgical apt will substitute an easy kind of orthodoxy (what's comfortable for me) for genuine orthodoxy (the ritual of the church); and pastors who bridle at the church's ritual as being too restrictive merely substitute their own ritual behavior (repeated patterns of prayer and gesture) for the rites. It's worthy of an anthropological study.

      It really makes one want to ask a priest who doesn't do scrutinies whether he's actually read the rite, which says that not only are the NOT optional, but they can only be dispensed by the bishop. Not to mention the fact that even a cursory reading shows that they are positive rites for strengthening. I'd better stop. This close to St Paddy's day i feel i'm getting my Irish up.