Search This Blog

Thursday, June 29, 2017

SongStories 49: Come to Us (Do Not Fear to Hope, 1985, and Change Our Hearts, 2000, OCP)

"When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying, 'Have faith and take your troubles to God.' Act instead as though there were no God, as though there were only one person in the world who could help -- only yourself." (Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, quoted in Tales of the Hasidim, by Martin Buber.)
There is a pretty strong motif, especially in my early writing, that presses the Pauline metaphor of the body of Christ to wider interpretation. What I mean is, I said things like, "I myself am the bread of life," by which I meant "I-me-the-singer," not simply "I-Jesus." The song "Like You" from Mystery prays the prayer of John Gabriel Perboyre, CM, the Vincentian martyr of the French revolution:
"Let my hands be your hands, Jesus, please.
Let my heart be your heart.
Think your thoughts in me."
The identification of Jesus with his disciples and Christ with the church in St. Paul and certainly in the gospels of John and Matthew is a binding thread of New Testament christology. It is a physical identification, or rather, a complete human identification. "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me," and "I live now no longer I, but Christ lives in me," and "Whatever you do to one of the least of these, you do to me," and other sayings articulate a truth about the intimacy between the Lord and us. We know that the scripture says these things, but we don't always play them out for their moral consequences.

As a composer and liturgical minister of the word, I want to try to help the assembly understand itself as the ministering Christ, celebrate that reality, and when necessary appreciate the dissonance between the theological reality implied by baptism and the way we actually live once we get out of the church doors. Of course, God is love, forgiveness, and understands our weakness, but we need to be awakened sometimes to the world of escape that religion can provide. We aren't allowed to imagine that worship is a substitute for compassionate action, for the work of distributive justice. We cannot say to the poor and confused, "Go to Christ." We need to learn to say, "Come to us."

Empowering this kind of behavior in our parishes will call forth a certain type of minister who makes connections between the needs of some and the gifts of others. This is exactly how the Church is supposed to work, as St. Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians, when in his metaphor of the body he suggests that "gifts are given for the good of the whole body."

The singers on the version heard on Do Not Fear to Hope were all members of a family who used to sing at St. Jerome, the Denks: Gary, Pamela (Parafiniuk), and Maria. The version we recorded on Change Our Hearts was our usual trio with a few extra singers.

I wrote "Come to Us" after being inspired by a homily preached by Vernon Meyer, my second pastor at St. Jerome and a fine biblical scholar, on the gospel for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, from Matthew 11: 37-42. It must have made an impression on me. I remember that some time after that day, I was backing my car out of the parking lot after work there, and a man was walking along barefoot, or maybe with cardboard on his feet. This is, in Arizona, crazy, both in summer and in winter. I thought to myself, "Well, I have another pair at home," so I called out to him, and said, "I have more shoes, would you like these?" And he happily received them. I was about to pull away, and he asked me for the socks too. Of course I handed them over. What was I thinking?

Now, that stands out in my head not because I'm generous and do that all the time, but because I'm selfish and I don't ever do that. But we need to let the gospel work on us and change our behavior. Sometimes, even I do.

Come to Us
by Rory Cooney

Come to me, come to us,
You who are burdened; 
Come to the word, and come to the meal.
Come without question, or pressure, or price;
Come, be embraced by the body of Christ.

Come to me, come to us,
Pilgrim or stranger,
Looking for change, or challenge, or light.
We are the people whose calling is care,
Bearers of mercy, nourished in prayer.

Come to me, come to us,
Broken or building,
Come with your children, your choices, your chains.
All are invited to friendship or rest,
To share in our struggle, our call, and our quest.

Copyright © 1986 NALR. Published by OCP. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The goodness of the Lord (A13O)

This weekend and next seem to ask us to reflect on the how kindness and hospitality are both acts of gratitude on the part of those who practice them and sacraments of God's goodness and faith in divine abundance.

No wonder we sing, "Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord." We keep discovering the breadth, height, and depth of that goodness, an ocean of incomprehensible, universal benevolence. We just get the song started and there's more to sing about than when we began. The "goodness of the Lord" is life.  It is "life to the full," life in abundance. God's love is utterly beyond our understanding. And we have a hard time believing in it, being much more Deuteronomic in our outlook. We like covenants of reward and punishment. We don't trust anyone or anything that gives it all away and asks for nothing in return except consciousness.

The first reading from the Elisha cycle in 2 Kings is a story about the ongoing kindness of a couple who welcome the prophet and his servant into their home. For the hospitality they are shown, the prophet promises the woman, who is advanced in years, a child by the time of his next visit, a promise which comes to pass. The dynamism of God's generosity in the story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman is echoed in the words of Jesus about the life of service to the reign of God. That "the generosity of God is never outdone" is the way this usually gets spelled out in  homilies, but it doesn't help us hear this in the language of reward and worthiness, which isn't the language of the reign of God, but of the world. Agápe is not concerned about worthiness or reward. Love doesn't discern that way. Love discerns on behalf of the receiver, not the giver. Love makes worthy. Love is its own reward. It's not what we want though. Reward and punishment seem to be hard-wired in us, but they're not. They're the result of thousands of generations of going the wrong way.

I'm afraid we can get caught up in the language of the gospel of Matthew, with its rhetoric of worthiness and reward. And for much of life, when we consider ourselves as measurable by a hierarchy of needs, I suppose that kind of thinking does serve a purpose. "Thou shalt not steal" is a good rule to live by, at least until we learn to respect the rights and works of others as our own, but it serves us less well when we see it as an absolute, and apply it, say, against the theft of bread by a starving person. Once we move on to the Golden Rule, "Do to others as you would have them do to you," or to "Love one another as I have loved you," we are not concerned any more about reward and punishment, legalism, or the breast-beating unworthiness of slaves.

"Worthiness" and "reward" are not part of the vocabulary of love. When we hear Jesus's words in the gospel today, we might try to hear the word "reward" in the sense of "the fruit of surrender." That is, the reward is not for "being good" or doing something good. It's the natural result of living the way we were meant to live in the first place, caring for one another, looking out for each other's needs with attentive kindness. "You're beating your moral heads against the wall," says the gospel. "Just stop it. It feels really good. Stop with the self-promotion and greedy hoarding and get with the way you were made to be, in the image of God: generous, creative, nurturing.

It is St. Paul in the letter to the Romans who gets to the heart of the matter here. God has already given everything to us in Christ, who showed us the way, who is the way, to the reign of God. In his death and resurrection, he trusted in God's absolute vivacity, and God flooded him with life. His life demonstrated an option for all time to the deadly "normalcy of civilization," and by living it for the reign of God, he got the "reward" of living life as it was meant to be lived, living for others. Created as a man in God's image and likeness, Jesus walked like God in his life, spreading healing love and generous hospitality all around, and life worked for him. St. Paul reminds us that baptism, and the calling to faith that brought us there, binds us to Jesus, so that we too live in "newness of life" when we live our baptismal life, which he spells out later in chapter 12 of the letter, here quoting from The Message adaptive translation:
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. …Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. (Rom. 12: 9-10, 12-13)
We've been watching the Hulu production of Stephen King's 11.22.63, the story about an attempt to use a kind of time travel to stop the Kennedy assassination. The protagonist discovers in the story that the past "pushes back" against any attempt to change it, throws up sickness, accidents, violence, and other roadblocks to anything that might change the outcome. In a sense, that is what the cross is: an instrument of the violent pushback with which the normalcy of civilization greets the gospel. The present, it seems, also doesn't want to be changed, and so the cross is something to be expected by the believer. In times of distress and rejection, we need to keep our eyes focused on the "rewards" of the gospel--the joy of giving and receiving a cup of water, the joy of community, of hospitality, and of service. This deep joy is born from the love that makes and sustains the universe, image and likeness of the servant God who placed human beings in a garden and walked with them there. Every act of hospitality and kindness is a sacrament of God saving the world, an act of the risen Christ bringing forth the reign of God in this world. In our loving service of one another, even more surely than in our song, we sing forever the goodness of the Lord.

What we're singing this week at St. Anne:

Come to Us
Psalm 89: Forever I Will Sing
Where Your Treasure Is (or Whatsoever You Do)
Faithful Family
All Are Welcome

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)