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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The parable of God's Name (C3L)

"Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith." Misericordiae Vultus, 4/11/2015, Pope Francis

The Lord is kind and merciful. Full stop.

Is there any word from beyond which we need to hear any more during Lent? In these days when we are more aware than ever of how how impossibly vain we are and how futile our attempts to do good are, how far we are from what the gospel calls us to do and to be, what's more important to hear that those six words from the psalm Sunday? Or these, from the first reading: "I know well what (my people) are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them."

Of course we want God to come down to rescue people from their suffering, and when triaging that, we hope God gets to us first, however self-focused and petty our misery. Meanwhile, we tend to carom between amazement and blame when we witness the suffering of others, still convinced in our heart of hearts that the Deuteronomist was right, that those who suffer are being punished for their sins, or for being infidels, or for being born in the southern hemisphere, and that those who are doing well are the blessed and chosen.

In these readings for the third Sunday of Lent in year C, it seems to me that we have a couple of parables of God's mercy, one from Luke and one from Exodus. We see, as it were, God's Son in one and God's name in the other, and from both of those there radiates the tenderness and compassion we hear proclaimed for our violent, exploitative, and recidivist race, the spark of whose interior life nevertheless shines with the very image and likeness of the creator.

Reports come in to Jesus asking for his judgment on an item heard on Herod-the-Fox News, about an abomination perpetrated by the sadistic Roman governor, apparently murdering some Galileans in the middle of some religious rituals. Quickly losing patience with their bewilderment, Jesus throws in another story making the rounds, about the deaths of eighteen people when a tower collapsed at a site near Jerusalem. His point was not to shock the crowd into silence, but to make them stop wondering whether the victims were somehow at fault for what happened, more worthy of their terrible fate than other Jews including his listeners. The question is, how did he get from their misfortune to "unless you repent, your fate will be the same"? Is he saying that repenting of sin will render the penitent immune from disaster?

It's hard to think so, looking at the arc of history and the rest of the gospel kerygma. But what if by "repent" he continues to mean "get your meaning and destiny from God," and start believing and living in the kingdom? Stop believing in Rome, and start believing in your own God, in solidarity, community, and social equality. Start believing in a God who doesn't prevent disaster but is present to disaster, and become agents of God's presence with your healing and hospitality.

Jesus turns to a parable, as he always seems to do when discursive language isn't enough. When we hear this parable, we often want to turn it into an allegory. Who does the fig tree represent? Who is the planter? Who is the gardener? The trouble with an allegory is, if you get a character wrong the first time around, it blows the meaning of the whole story. Are we the fig tree and is God the planter? (Psalm 80 and other scriptures could support this reading.) Maybe. That might fit the "angry God" theory, as though Jesus and God disagreed on the fate of the world, and Jesus talks God out of chopping us down. Is that how we want to think of God? Is it possible for the Father and Son to be so out of sync with each other? I can't imagine it.

But maybe the planter is just "the way everything is." The planter is the law of entropy. Everything deteriorates to chaos. The planter is "might makes right" and "survival of the fittest" and the Pax Romana. The planter is the way all of us look at the wreck of our lives, at the destruction wrought by our culture, when we take the time to assess it and admit our complicity. The planter is the voice that says, "It was worthless anyway, throw it out. Let them die. They deserved it. Life is futility, chaos. We bring order. Rip it all out and we'll try something else." And maybe, just maybe, God, and therefore Jesus, is the gardener. When we turn back to the values of our culture for the thousandth time, when we refuse to believe in peace and equality, when we work and vote and support terrible, divisive ideas that take life away from people, that steal from the poor and give to the rich, even after decades of listening the gospel and singing the songs and going through the rituals, and we're right at the place where no one would blame God or Jesus or anyone else from throwing the book at us and letting us experience some of the very suffering we've caused the world, God steps between the victim and the axe, the culture and its victims. Christ the gardener takes the maligned tree tenderly in infinitely merciful fingers and says, "Wait a minute. Here I am. Let me work with it again." Here's someone, finally, who can make something out of nothing, a world out of the dust that we are. Someone believes that we have possibility. Can we remember that touch?

In the Exodus story, God sees the way things are, the "normalcy of civilization" in Crossan's wonderful phrase, and comes to Moses in a sign that breaks open the possibility that "normalcy" isn't the way things are going to be any more. There is a bush. It is on fire. And it is not burning. There's something you don't see every day. God sends Moses, a renegade slave hiding from a murder rap, back to the seat of power, to Pharaoh, to demand the release of the Hebrews. The conversation around the name of God, which Moses thinks would be a good idea to know, since the Egyptians know so many gods that they're bound to ask him which one sent him, is exasperating in how little it reveals. In other words, it tells the truth. "You don't know me. You can't even imagine my name." That's one way of reading the unpronounceable, unknown name Moses receives. Another way, one excellent article suggests, is that the text is in the future tense: "I WILL BE THAT WHICH I WILL BE." The (Jewish) commentator says that the future tense is used in the Hebrew, which the commentator finds interesting because it's the only form of the verb that doesn't specify gender. "The people will come to  know God through their unfolding experiences together...(The name) seems to tease us, saying, 'You want to know my name, just wait and see!' While God is absolute, there are no divine absolutes; each of us, in our own time, will come to know God in our own way." (The article is here.) (And another good one.)

In the gospel, Jesus reminds us that repenting is for everyone. And Jesus doesn't mean beating our breast and being miserable: he means turning in another direction, he means turning toward the Father, and he has already said that he is showing the direction ("follow me"), ditto his honor-bestowing mother ("Do whatever he says") and Father ("Listen to him.") The baptismal message of Lent is: God keeps coming after us. Stick together. Wash off the "way things have to be" and start living in the new world. Stick together. Take care of each other. Make peace through your just living.

See, God is the protagonist in the universe. It is God who is acting from utterly beyond all knowing but more intimately than we can imagine. We are players in God's world. Or would be, if we weren't constantly being distracted by the counterfeits of peace, safety, and power that are being pushed on us by "the way things are," the normalcy of civilization. That is Egypt. That is Rome. That is empire.  Our refusal to turn, or blindness, or fear, whatever it is, is what is making us so unhappy. The "other god" demands unanimity or destruction, cooperation or the cross, submission or slavery, participation or marginalization. The One who reveals self in action, "I AM WHO I SHALL BE," invites us to walk through the cleansing water to the margins of civilization and do something new. Together. With Jesus, the "face of the Father's mercy," we place ourselves between the fig tree and the axe, and ask for a little time to work on things.

Here's what we're singing this weekend at St. Anne:

Entrance song: Lead Me, Guide Me
Kyrie: Daigle-Kendzia "Lead Us to the Water"
Psalm 103: The Lord Is Kind and Merciful (Cotter)
Gospel acclamation and General Intercessions: Mass of Christ the Servant (still in beta)
Preparation Rite: Be Merciful (Haugen)
Mass of Creation
Lamb of God: Mass of St. Aidan
Communion: Christ Be Our Light
Closing: Amazing Grace

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Life without Alleluia

Literally burying the Alleluia at
Fraternity of St Joseph the Guardian
 in La Londe-les-Maures, France
My friend and uber-musician from Long Island, Christopher Ferraro, posted on Facebook a quotation from Dom Prosper Gueranger’s masterworkThe Liturgical Year. Gueranger was a French monk, the abbot of the Solesmes monastery for nearly four decades in the mid-18thcentury. The classic 15-volume work ($459 on Amazon--cheap!), written over the years from 1841 until his death, was left unfinished. Ferraro’s quotation concerned the “Suspension of the Alleluia” during the season of Lent:

"That indifference for the liturgy of the Church, which is the strongest indication of a weak faith, and which now reigns so universally in the world, is the reason why so many, even practical Catholics, can witness this yearly suspension of the Alleluia, without profiting by the lesson it conveys. A passing remark, or a chance thought, is the most they give to it, for they care for no other devotions but such as are private; the spirit of the Church, in her various seasons, is quite beneath their notice.…Why be indifferent in this present instance? Why deem of no interest to piety this suspension of the Alleluia, which she, the Church, considers as one of the principle and most solemn incidents in her liturgical year?”

It struck me that, though I try to maintain the practice of figuratively “burying the alleluia” on the Sunday and (now) the Tuesday morning before Ash Wednesday, I’ve never actually put into words for myself why ought to notice it, or why it is important enough that, through the changes of the Second Vatican Council, it survived in liturgical practice in Western Catholicism even though in the East the Alleluia continues to be sung through Lent. I came up with three thoughts we might ponder while we are not singing the Alleluia. (After Mass, of course…don’t be distracted from the homily!)
  • Remembering God. Years ago, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideologyreminded us that when we read and pray scripture, especially in the psalms, we should keep in mind that in Israel there was often too-close a connection between the court, which ruled Israel in the world, and the Temple, which preserved the presence of God and the memory that it is the just and merciful God who is the only true king of Israel. It is difficult to tell in the psalms just who is being enthroned and worshipped: the king or God? It was the job of the priestly class (and when they failed, the prophets) to be sure those lines were neatly drawn. Sometimes, as in Psalm 150, the line is completely obscured. It seems to be a litany of “Alleluia! Praise the Lord in the temple! Praise him in the sky! Praise him with all your instruments!”, on and on without ever saying why? When prayer gets like that, all "Alleluia, ain't life great," it becomes oppressive, a tool of the status quo, the ruling class and their interest. But other psalms, even some Hallel psalms (psalms with the words “Hallelu Yah” in them, “Praise the Lord”), are more deliberate. Psalm 146 is a good foil for 150. It encourages us to “Hallelujah” because God is always faithful, is just to the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and so on. This “doxology” in the prayer is a reminder to the king that God is in charge, even of the king, and that the king should act like God, and “give bread to the hungry” and “set prisoners free.” So the first thing we could do when we miss singing the Alleluia is remember why we sing it in the first place: to help us remember that God, and the works of God in Christ, are the very reason we rejoice. The status quo isn't always good for everyone—it rarely is, but God is always good, has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.
  • Solidarity with those who live without an Alleluia. There continues to be a danger, there is for me, anyway, that my “Alleluia” is a word of worship of an idol, of a god who props up the prosperity and power of the rich and powerful (I include myself in this number when speaking about the world as a whole.) “Alleluia” in our worship as it announces the gospel and peppers our music can be a real cheerleader’s “RAH!!” for the first world. So on one level, fasting from the Alleluia during Lent gives an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the poor, the persecuted, and the hopeless. The number of these people, our brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved children of the same Father, is nearly one in two in the world. Nearly one in four live in extreme poverty, on less than the equivalent of $1.25 a day. When we sing “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” to paraphrase, possibly apocryphally, Tom Conry, we’re not singing about ourselves. Silencing the Alleluia for a while can help us remember that. At the same time, it can help us to remember those who are not living an “Easter” existence, even in a temporary sense. Brutally knocked down by loss of security, by sickness or death, many people whom we know have lost the Alleluia in their heart. Again, the silencing of the Alleluia for Lent can help us remember them and act on their behalf if we choose to do so mindfully.
  • “If Christ is not risen, our faith is empty.” Finally, and certainly not least among these three, is the opportunity to reflect on what the world might be like if Jesus of Nazareth were just a rabble-rousing nationalist preacher and had been forgotten after enduring the sentence of capital punishment executed upon him by the Roman governor. What if God had not intervened, had left us to wonder, had not snatched Jesus from the grave to let the authority of his life give us a shining option to the normalcy of violence and “might makes right”? Christians hear and pray and sing “Alleluia” as our Easter song, as the anthem of resurrection and the proclamation that Christ is alive in the life and mission of the Church. Not singing the Alleluia for the duration of Lent gives us an opportunity to imagine the chaos of a world without the Sermon on the Mount, without the Good Shepherd and the Good Samaritan, without the good news of a God-who-is-with-us, a loving Parent for all, who calls us beloved children. It’s a bleak prospect, a dystopia in which love is even more fragile than now, without the hope that every act of self-giving imitates the One whose love formed the world.
One mystic (Abbot Rupert, quoted in Guéranger) speaks of the “Alleluia” as “a stranger amidst our other words. Its mysterious beauty is as though a drop of Heaven’s overflowing joy had fallen down on our earth…For this reason, the word Alleluia has not been translated. It has been left in its original Hebrew as a stranger to tell us that there is a joy in his native land which could not dwell in ours.” Perhaps "Alleluia" is the song of the "already-not yet" reign of God, and during Lent, we ponder the "not yet" of God's reign and our participation in with others who refuse to "hear the cry of the poor" by forgoing the "already."  

Preface 1 for Lent, in the previous translation, included these words: "Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed." During these weeks when we “fast” from singing or even saying the word “Alleluia” during our liturgical prayer, maybe some of these thoughts can help us find a place to take that sense of discomfort and maybe even loss to find an even greater joy when it returns to the liturgy at the Easter Vigil.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Beam and Splinter (C8O)

My first thought while considering the gospel this week was to advise you to take its warning seriously when reading this blog: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?" The message isn't "don't read this blog," it's "this blog isn't the gospel, so exercise discretion and use discernment."

As I've grown older, and a little more open to criticism and other points of view, I've more and more come to understand the great wisdom in the "beam in your own eye" gospel adage. Of course, there is a certain irony in it that is inescapable: you always hear it from someone else, and so it's probably generated from inside that person's conscience, that is, the beam in the accuser's eye noticing the beam in yours. The point is that we all have beams. Some of them are light beams, and they actually help us see our own faults in the faults of others. Because of mimetic desire, we jump at the chance to distance ourselves from the wrongdoing we see, while neglecting to accept the truth that what we see in the other is a reflection of something within us.

Relationships with friends and family may provide an example. Let me make one up, this is completely fiction. But let's say your brother and his wife have an argument. I know your brother and his wife. They're both really good people, altruistic, hard-working, fun to be around. But your brother's wife thinks he's too critical of her: she tells him from time to time that he always finds fault
with what she says, is constantly correcting her, and she finds this wearisome and hurtful. Your brother, meanwhile, is thinking to himself, "Luke 6: 41-42," but doesn't dare say it because your sister-in-law will look it up and begin divorce proceedings.

The thing is, they're both right, probably, to some extent. But no matter how big the beam is, the story doesn't end there. Dig deeper and what do we find? All kinds of childhood hurts, lack of affirmation, denial of worth, the imitation of learned behaviors of criticism. We all do this: we try to make ourselves feel better by making someone else feel worse, and often by doing the same things we are accusing the other of doing. We can't help it. We were made to imitate others. When we act in self-defense we tend to use the weapons at hand.

I'm going to let go of this now because I'm not a psychologist and I'm not even that good an observer of human nature, I'm just trying to know myself better and I know that I do criticize in others what I don't like in myself. When I look back even at older posts in this blog at snarky and read the nasty things I've said about this priest or that politician, I'm shocked sometimes to realize that there are traits in me that are exactly what I was criticizing in my splinter-afflicted target.

Maybe those beams are all splinters? Maybe we're all the sum of all the treatment and mistreatment we've received in our lives, and some of us (I include myself in this group) have been unreflective about how that pain has influenced our interaction with the world, with the people we know and the decisions we make in our lives.

I'm guessing that to God, they're pretty much all splinters, and God is like a grandma who loves us so much, sees us with the finger-pointing and name-calling, and can't do much more than shake her head, get us a cold Pepsi and some fried chicken, and change the subject so we learn to see each other again as siblings instead of feral beasts or sworn enemies. And that's why Jesus wants to stop learning from each other, but to learn from and imitate him, because he imitates God who is "kind to the ungrateful and wicked." To learn from Jesus is this regard is its own reward, because as we heard in last Sunday's gospel, "...the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you." Not only will our lives be full of the divine love that gives rather than the mimetic divisiveness that seeks to destroy the other in order to build ourselves up: Jesus promises that "when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher."

As I said earlier about the Sermon on the Plain, after his Nazareth sermon about his vision of his ministry and vision of the arrival of the jubilee, Jesus gathered disciples, embarked on a campaign of miracles and exorcism (healing and liberation) and now takes the time to do some mystagogy with them on what all that means. They, and we, need new hearts to understand what we are seeing and hearing in Jesus. We have no other experience of someone who acts not to be admired or to divide and conquer enemies. We've lived by the rules of "how things have to be," of the normalcy of civilization for so long, that this surprising announcement of a new, peaceful kingdom is befuddling because we want it to become like all the kingdoms we've known: one that defeats enemies and makes us rich and powerful. It is not, and will never be like this, not in our world, not even in our homes. It is a place and time and method of invitation, collaboration, and self-gift. It is a reign of love by a Father-God or, if it works better for you overall (it does for me), a Grandma-God, who gathers rather than rules, who feeds rather than conquers, wait us out rather than gets angry.

I want to get inside of being my grandma. I'm the right age, anyway. I want to listen to the gospel, and finally act my age. I hope you don't have to wait this long!

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Entrance Song: We Are Called (Haas)
Penitential Rite: (Kendzia/Daigle) "Lead Us to the Water"
Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth (Cooney) not the psalm of the day, but a wisdom psalm that summons us to delight in good and grow where the nutrients of the soul are most abundant
Celtic Alleluia (O'Carroll/Walker)
Preparation of Gifts: Were I the Perfect Child of God (John Bell) This charming text and accompanying Scottish melody seem wonderfully suited to today's liturgy, tacitly acknowledging both the faults have and the grace that helps us correct them. 
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Lamb of God and Communion: May We Be One (Daigle/Cooney)
Recessional: Halle, Halle, Halle (Bell, arr. Haugen) To bury the Alleluia until Easter!