Eating Together

garden1Eating is among the most fundamental activities of civilization, perhaps the most fundamental. It is the practice that brings people together to share in nourishment and social nurturing. And yet, throughout the animal kingdom, sustenance requires feeding on other living beings. Sometimes it is other animals, sometime plants. That is, a group bonding through eating inevitably bonds at the expense of other living beings.

The Christian Eucharist builds on the social bonding with its celebration of a meal that binds people together. Being bound up with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, a sacrifice made so that all other people may live, it is a meal of human sacrifice. Yet it is made a bloodless sacrifice by the serving of bread and wine that in some mysterious way are identified with the body and blood of Jesus, thus sanitizing the Eucharist of the violence in the story that is told in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus’ strange words in his long monolog that follows the feeding in the wilderness connects this feeding with the Eucharist in words that are both comforting in that they promise a deep union with Jesus, but disturbing by thrusting the violence of Jesus’ death in our faces. English translations inevitably lose much of the force of the words as there is no English word that catches the connotations of trogein.“Gnaw” comes closest but even that is not strong enough. The German word fressen, which refers to the eating of non-human animals, comes much closer. When I used the word flippantly in conversation with a German acquaintance, his reaction was very strong, about as strong as our reaction to Jesus’ words ought to be. Which is precisely the way “the Jews” react to Jesus’ words.

In reply to “the Jews’s” anger, Jesus promises that his flesh and blood are “real food” and “real drink” without which we have no life in us. Jesus goes on to make the even more audacious claim that his body and blood do not nourish us as meat and vegetables nourish us. Such nourishment is not lasting and needs to be renewed by further eating and drinking as the manna God fed the Israelites in the desert needed to be re-gathered every day. But Jesus’ own flesh and blood feeds us in such a way that we will live forever.

If Jesus can be our food in a way that sustains us everlastingly, then his own life must also be constantly renewed. This is the claim he makes when he says that he abides in his Father and his Father abides in him. This amounts to the astounding claim that it is possible to be nourished in a way that it is not at the expense of any living being. How can this be?

Since Jesus’ promise of everlasting nourishment is tied so closely to his painful death, we might get some understanding by looking at sacrifice. Sacrifice is closely tied to eating. Deities feed on animals or vegetation, or at least the aroma of them, and the sacrificers usually eat the food that was sacrificed. The Passover lamb is sacrificed both to spare the Israelites from the plague that strikes the first-born of Egypt and a sacrifice to physical hunger, and thus a source of nourishment as well. Sacrifices need to be repeated, as the author of Hebrews says. (Heb. 7: 27; 9: 6) In his sacrificial death, Jesus has obtained “eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9: 12) Thus, this author is making the same claim on behalf of Jesus that Jesus is making in John’s Gospel.
René Girard is helpful here. His thesis that civilization is founded on sacrifice and thus needs to be fueled by repetition of the same alerts us to the ongoing “nourishment” civilization receives through the periodic deaths of victims. One sacrifice lasts only for so long and then social tensions require another. Caiaphas intended Jesus’s death to be such a life-giving sacrifice for the people, (Jn. 12: 50–52) but Caiaphas got more than he bargained for. Jesus was raised from the dead and so became empowered to continually offer his life for others while no longer being subject to death himself. This is how Girard would have us understand the Church’s claim that Jesus’ sacrifice is the final sacrifice. There is no longer a need for sacrificial victims because the way has been opened for us to be everlastingly nourished by the life that was given once for all.

The death and resurrection of Christ, then, are a pledge of the heavenly banquet where we will be nourished without need of taking any life, not even that of plants, but in this life, we still need to eat living beings of some sort. Even Lady Wisdom has to slaughter animals for her banquet. What we can do is let Christ nourish us deeply in the here and now so that we do not need to sacrifice other people as we are prone to do, but rather will feed others in anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

Transfiguring Darkness

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aI was introduced to the Transfiguration of Our Lord when Raphael’s great painting of the event hit me between the eyes during my student travels in Rome. With the Feast of the Transfiguration coming during my church’s summer slump (and it wouldn’t have celebrated the feast anyway) I knew nothing about it. In many ways, I didn’t have to. The painting opened up a vision of a transfiguration of humanity beyond what I had thought possible. At the time, what faith I had wasn’t centered around any particular religious viewpoint but I was majoring in religion because I thought the subject dealt with the most important things in life. Seeing the painting was more of a religious awakening than I knew. I was, of course, impressed by the sublimity of the upper half of the canvas where Jesus is floating in the air with Moses and Elijah. But I was even more impressed by the inroads the transfigured light made into the lower half which is often interpreted as indicating sinful and benighted humanity. It has taken me years to see further into the significance of this chiaroscuro effect.

Now that I have preached on the Transfiguration more times than I can count, I have had many occasions to study and reflect on it. I remain inspired by Raphael’s vision of the transfiguring light and fascinated by the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that holy persons can be filled with the uncreated energies that emanated from Mount Tabor. But under the influence of René Girard’s thinking about the scapegoat mechanism, I am most impressed by the proximity of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the transfiguring light.

The narrative begins: “Now about eight days after these sayings.” (Lk. (9: 28) These sayings were about Jesus announcing that he was going to be rejected by the chief priests and scribes and be killed after great suffering, followed by Jesus’ famous words about carrying one’s cross daily. After the return from the mountain and delivering a demon-possessed boy, Jesus said : “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (Lk. 9: 44) So it is that predictions of Jesus’ passion envelope the transfiguration. Moreover, on the mountain, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9: 31) So Jesus and his two great predecessors weren’t exactly whooping it up and playing games with primordial light. Both Moses and Elijah knew a lot more about persecution than they really wanted to know and Jesus knew what the scriptures said about them.

There is much talk about the transfiguring light being an encouragement to Jesus and his disciples in preparation for the suffering ahead. There is truth to that and I have said as much in previous sermons. But the deeper truth I am seeing is that the suffering and death of Jesus is the transfiguration. The primordial uncreated energies have penetrated into the depths of human suffering, not only that of Christ but of all other people. This is the significance of the light reaching the people in darkness at the foot of the mountain in Raphael’s painting. A particularly bright spot of light lands on the chest of the boy Jesus delivers of a demon as soon as he comes down. What is the uncreated glory of God? It is that God would come to us in our darkness and suffer with us the sufferings that we inflict upon one another with the rage that makes us foam at the mouth and persecute one another. We can’t stay on the mountaintop, even if we should ever get there, but we can bring the mountaintop to others if we are willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus down to the bottom where foul spirits rage and foam. What makes the glory of God glorious is that, as St. Peter says, the light shines in the darkness “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1: 19)

Storms and Feedings

eucharist1For Proper 11 in Year B, the year of Mark, the Gospel has only two snippets. The first has Jesus taking his disciples to a deserted place only to be followed by crowds of people. Jesus has compassion on them “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mk. 6: 34) This reference to shepherding echoes the reading from Jeremiah where the prophet rails against the shepherds who destroy and scatter God’s sheep. (Jer. 23: 1) The other snippet comes at the end of chapter 6 where Jesus heals many people who are being brought to him.

Passed over are the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the stormy crossing of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walks on the water and calms the storm. I can understand why the lectionary compilers made these cuts. There are six narratives of Jesus feeding a multitude in the wilderness in the four Gospels and many stormy crossings of the Sea of Galilee. These repetitions give us a sense of been there done that and there is only so much a preacher can say about them. I’m not going to say all that much about these stories, either. Rather, I’m going to use this week’s scattered Gospel as an opportunity to look a bit at the bigger picture in Mark’s narration.

In his pioneering study of the literary patterns in Mark, the great English theologian Austin Ferrer noted many doublets among other patterns in the Gospel. In Mark 6, we have the first feeding in the wilderness and the second stormy crossing. A second feeding of a crowd in the wilderness takes place at the beginning of chapter 8. Why these doublets? Ferrer notes that the first mass feeding takes place in Jewish territory and the second in Gentile territory. That is, Mark is foreshadowing the union of Jew and Gentile in the Christian missions that take place after Jesus’ death. Given this appearance of peaceful unity, I was startled that Robert Hamerton-Kelly said that these doublets are a multiplication of mimetic doubles that move towards the crucifixion of Jesus. Hamerton-Kelly is applying Girard’s thought to the Gospel where mimetic rivals become mirror images of each other. But when I thought further on the matter, it made sense to me. First, the two feedings happen separately. Jews and Gentiles have not yet been brought together. Second, preceding the first mass feeding is the first stormy crossing of the Sea towards Gentile territory. The second stormy crossing in the same direction occurs before the second mass feeding. The intertwining of stormy crossings with the two feedings suggest that uniting Jew and Gentile does not come easily. The episode with the Syro-Phoenician woman who Jesus curtly tried to dismiss precedes the second feeding, suggesting that Jesus may have had his own struggles in the matter. The disciples, of course, don’t understand the feedings at all.

In Ephesians, Paul writes about the union of Jew and Gentile as a done deal. He writes to the Ephesians that they are “no longer strangers and aliens” but are “members of the household of God.” (Eph, 2: 19) This union sounds easy and peaceful until we note that Jew and Gentile have “been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2: 13) That is, the storm of Jesus’ crucifixion brings the two peoples together. In Mark, along with the other Gospels, we see that the act of crucifying Jesus banded the Jews and Gentiles together for the first time. In Acts, Jews and Gentiles are again brought together through repentance and forgiveness. All this time, Jesus has been gently shepherding two separate flocks into one flock.

What may have looked like a pedantic look at literary structure in Mark actually leads us deeply into the midst of the storms that keep us humans apart from other humans. We live in these tensions as we seek to let the Good Shepherd lead us from far away to near at hand where we will feed each other in one great multitude.

Living with Mimetic Desire through Meditation: An Introduction to a Practicum Workshop on Contemplative Prayer

FrJudeInChoir - CopyRené Girard’s Mimetic Theory has given us many important insights into the roots of human violence, both in the human heart and at the root of civilization. By revealing the entanglements of our desires with the desires of others and the way this entanglement easily and quickly leads to rivalry, even in people of good will, Mimetic Theory places strong demands upon us. Being a scholar and thinker, Girard wasn’t the sort of person to work out practical disciplines that might help us live by his theories, although his overall character as known to me suggests that he lived by his ideals very well. I have heard of one telling moment when he was asked how to live by his theory. René answered that it requires sanctity. There are many saints over the centuries who have taught spiritual practices that help us live with the challenges that Mimetic Theory brings to light.

Girard analyzed the interaction of human desires on a horizontal level where the workings of mimetic desire in a social matrix can be quite claustrophic. Here we can get hemmed in by the pressure of strong desires that either conflict or draw everyone in one direction that usually ends in persecution. It is this scapegoat mechanism committed at this horizontal level that is the basis of civilization. Given the mendacity that civilization so established requires, civilization has been built on lies since the beginning. This suggests that relief can only come from outside the system, from a desire vertical to the horizontal matrix. The question is, how do we tap into a vertical reality that rises above human mimetic rivalry and offers us an alternative to it?

Of the many disciplines that have been developed in the world’s wisdom traditions that help us tune in to reality outside the human mimetic system, I wish to focus on meditation, known as contemplative prayer or centering prayer in the Christian tradition. One of the earliest and most developed contemplative traditions arose within Hinduism by the sages whose teaching were recorded in the Upanishads. It is surely no coincidence that this withdrawal into meditation was accompanied by questioning and sometimes rejecting Vedic sacrificial rituals. Out of Hinduism, Buddhism arose, a tradition in which meditative practices remain fundamental. Buddhists treatises on meditation often show deep insight into the working of mimetic desire and the need to escape its violent aspects.

There seems to be a contemplative element to much ancient Greek philosophy but I haven’t found much in the way of contemplative practices there except perhaps the Pythagorean community, for which information is scanty. Judaism also produced little in this regard but the many references to meditating on God’s Torah, especially in Psalm 119, suggest that the study of Torah may have included a meditative aspect.

By the fourth Christian century, monasticism had become a highly organized institution. The earliest monastic literature of pioneers such as Anthony of Egypt and Pachomius refer to free-lance ascetics who initiated them into contemplative practices., suggesting that practitioners of contemplation go back to Christianity’s earliest years. The many challenges in Jesus’ teachings involving self-knowledge and self-discipline, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were enough to drive many people into the desert just as Jesus himself was driven out into the desert to prepare for his public ministry. The Beatitude “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” was among the most meditated on verses in all scripture in this early monastic movement. There are many ways this beatitude can be understood, but surely one of them is that the less a person is affected by rivalrous mimetic desire and the more attuned to the non-rivalrous model of Jesus’s Desire, the more pure of heart one is.

Contemplative prayer did not develop in Christianity as an antidote to mimetic rivalry. The purpose of contemplative prayer is to reach union with God through Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Even so, the more we learn of mimetic desire, the more we realize that union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit is a powerful means of withdrawing from mimetic rivalry and developing habits of the heart that foster nurturing other people.

Among the differences in contemplative disciplines in various traditions, there are many similarities. The greatest of these is that the nuts and bolts of contemplative prayer, if you will excuse such a mechanical image, seem to be roughly the same across the board. In these traditions, including that of psychologists who recommend meditation for the sake of mental health, the primary technique is a gentle focusing of the mind that collects a person and leads to a withdrawal from the inner noise that plagues us most of the time and often fuels mimetic rivalry. Zen Buddhist masters aptly call it the monkey mind. The approach to focusing should always be gentle. When the monkeys in the mind get active, they are irritating and it is tempting to get angry at them and try to swat them away. In this way we easily get caught up in mimetic rivalry with the monkey mind, which is the opposite of meditating. More problematic, when we try to quiet the mind in order to meditate, we often find our minds filled with rivalrous thoughts where every little grudge or slight blows up and takes center stage. It is enough to make us think that trying to meditate makes us more rivalrous than we were before. That is not the case. What is happening is that rivalrous desires and actions that were below our radar have become more visible in the quiet space we are clearing within us. The noise of mimetic rivalry does not like silence so it makes a huge racket to try and draw us back into the fray until we take it for granted once again. As with monkey mind distractions, it is self-defeating to engage in battle with rivalrous thoughts. We must do the opposite: let the racket continue on its own steam without any fuel from ourselves. Of course, it won’t do to try not thinking about whatever distracts us. We must return to whatever focus we are using for our meditation.

It is when we look at how we focus or what we focus on and the world view we bring to contemplative practice, that we see the differences between traditions. A Christian’s primary focus is Jesus Christ crucified and risen as the normative example to follow. Even if a Christian does contemplative practice without images, the Christian is moving inside the example of Christ. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola use structured meditations that often involve putting one in a Gospel scene, reliving it interiorly, and making a resolution to apply the fruit of the meditation. Much Buddhist meditative practice is without images but within Tibetan Buddhism, many elaborate mandolas have been devised to focus meditation. Whatever examples we have in our traditions, we open our hearts to invite them to enter deeply within us so that their desires can resonate within us.

The type of focus that mainly, or totally eschews images turns up in just about every contemplative tradition but there is usually a means of focusing that is not tied to images. Many Zen practitioners use a koan, Hindus a mantra, Islamic Sufis practice dhikr. Repetitive prayers turn up in the desert monastic tradition in Christianity, with many of these monastics saying a Psalm verse over and over again. The opening verse of Psalm 70: “O God make haste to help me” was a favorite, noted in the writings of John Cassian. The Eastern Orthodox tradition fostered the Jesus prayer which involves repeating the name of Jesus. The anonymous 14th century English classic The Cloud of Unknowing suggests focusing on a prayer word such as “God” or “Love.” Contemporary teachings on centering prayer are deeply indebted to this treatise. Whether a focusing technique begins with images or without, over time, contemplative practice moves beyond images, beyond thought, and sometimes beyond the focusing technique into a state that is paradoxically called both emptiness and fullness. If and when such a state happens, there is nothing to do but just be.

I have used the word tradition many times. That is because the practices I have been talking about have developed in traditions where teachings were handed down from generation to generation. In these traditions, contemplative practices are deeply grounded in scriptures, teachings, and liturgical practice. Contemplative practice is best performed within a tradition accompanied with respect for other traditions. This has become a problem for many people in modern and post-modern times where a sense of tradition is eroding. Sometimes this erosion can be blamed on people desiring to be autonomous, a trait that Mimetic Theory warns us makes us all the more susceptible to mimetic movements in society. Many times, however, it is a result of scandals within the various traditions where trust has been compromised. In any case, awareness of the traditions in which contemplative practices are embedded is important and can be enriching. The more one can participate in an deep tradition, even if marginally, the better.

Contemplation is an exercise in letting go and letting God, to use a phrase made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is worth noting that contemplative meditation is one of the twelves steps of recovery for addiction. In renouncing the monkey mind, we are also practicing the renunciation of mimetic rivalry. This is a practice that can have real effects in our lives as it gives us practice in renouncing mimetic rivalry in our day-to-day encounters. Mimetic Theory teaches that we are connected to everybody through the interaction of our desires. In rivalrous encounters, we are stuck together in rivalry. Contemplation opens us up to all other people through God’s Desire that is outside of the system. This divine Desire invites us to union with all sentient beings through the Desire that set all of Creation into motion at the beginning before the beginning of civilization.

[For a much more detailed discussion of contemplative prayer see Moving and Resting in God’s Desire]

Whirlwinds and Storms

Cemetary2In the readings from Job and Mark huge storms break out. Storms are chaotic, but they follow the laws of nature, curiously now called “chaos science.” Just before the stormy voyage on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus had pointed out that plants grow from seeds by the laws of nature and that the Kingdom of God is like this natural growth. But what does the storm at sea have to do with the Kingdom of God? Since it is also by the laws of nature that storms destroy crops, are there storms that can blow away the Kingdom of God? The frightened disciples in the boat seem to have thought so and they feared that Jesus didn’t even care about it. Out of the whirlwind God says a lot about throwing oceans around but doesn’t say anything about caring for Job’s excruciating sufferings. Being a puny being in a vast universe doesn’t cheer up a suffering person.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul doesn’t write about any storms at sea (although he was to endure one later on) but he writes of his apostolic life as one big storm. Many of the hardships are human-caused such as “ beatings, imprisonments, riots.” Paul goes on to say that he and his companions are “treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed.” Paul could be forgiven for wondering if God cared about him. Job also complains about human storms. In addition to the torment from his so-called “comforters,” he bemoans that “my adversary sharpens his eyes against me. They have gaped at me with their mouths; they have struck me insolently on the cheek; they mass themselves together against me.” (Job 16: 10.) René Girard has demonstrated that human behavior also follows natural laws, particularly in the chaos of mob violence such as described by Job and Paul. Far from thinking God cares about him, Job charges God with handing him over to the ungodly and casting him into the hands of the wicked. Three chapters later, Job cries out with the hope that his Redeemer, or vindicator, lives and will stand up for him, even if his own flesh has rotted away by then. Paul, though thrown into the hands of the ungodly at least as much as Job has a different reaction. He describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul doesn’t say anything explicitly about God’s providential care for him, but his sense of having everything in the midst of deprivation and rejoicing in his sorrow witnesses to a bounty of God’s grace in the midst of the storm.

The storms on the Sea of Galilee may remind some readers of human storms such as the meltdown of human evil that led to the Flood, or perhaps was the flood, from which Noah and his family was delivered by God. (1 Pet. 3: 20) It is worth noting that natural laws provide consequences for irresponsible use of the environment that bring on storms and more intense storms at that. As the political storms in our country and elsewhere in the world continue to escalate with an immigration policy that has become a huge atrocity and the heartless neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, one wonders if God cares. Obviously a lot of humans don’t. This sort of neglect on the part of people who claim to be Christian sets the kind of obstacles in the way of others that Paul himself says he tries to avoid. From the whirlwind, God says to Job that God “shut in the sea with doors when it burst out of its womb” and then prescribed boundaries. So, God did not just let the sea run wild but put limits to its chaos. On the Sea of Galilee, Jesus topped that act by calming the sea entirely. Curiously, calming the sea seems to have intensified the human storm as the disciples became more afraid of Jesus than ever. This fear spills over to the next story when the Garasenes drive Jesus away for healing the demoniac.

Storms are scary but we have to face the question of whether or not we are even more scared of God’s peace, the vindication from God that Job longed for. Storms are chaotic, but social change that brings people at enmity together feels more chaotic and is scarier still. Why else should there be so much talk about walls at our borders? Note that the boat carrying Jesus and his disciples was heading from Jewish territory to Gentile territory. Was the whole idea of bringing peace across the dividing sea more frightening than the storm? Paul’s confidence in rejoicing in the midst of sorrow and possessing everything in dispossession is scary too. What a way to calm human storms! For Paul, God has not calmed the human storm that brought him persecution; God has calmed Paul himself in the midst of the storm, a powerful indication that God cared for him and for all others still caught in the storm. The image of Jesus sleeping through the storm at sea indicates that Jesus, too, had this calm in the midst of the storm. But Jesus did not calm the human storm that nailed him to the cross at Calvary, and Jesus himself cried out with fear that he had been forsaken. As soon as this storm started to break at Gethsemane, the disciples fled. When the women came to the tomb where a young man dressed in white told them that Jesus was going before them to Galilee, they were even more frightened by the calm after the storm and they fled. Are we willing to follow Jesus in the way that leads us, with Paul, into the teeth of the storm with rejoicing and hope for social change that does not require others to be dispossessed, or do we fear more the calm after the storm where we confront the God who cares about those we don’t care about and also those we fear and hate?

Christ’s Dynamically Wild Presence

corpus christi processionThe Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharistic host. One of the events that inspired the institution of the feast was a vision granted Fr. Peter of Prague in 1263. He had doubted the presence of Christ in the sacrament until he had a vision of blood dripping from the host as he consecrated it. This vision, along with earlier visions of St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon, led Pope Urban IV to order the institution of this feast. Of other Eucharistic visions I’ve heard of, it is better to be silent rather than ruin today’s celebration.

I happen to have a high devotion to the real presence of Christ in the sacrament and the two great hymns that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote for the feast are edifying. But the problem with focusing on the presence of Christ in the Sacrament is that it circumscribes the consecrated host and seems to imprison Christ in it. This is to take the Eucharistic mystery out of context. After all, the phrase Corpus Christi is used in the New Testament to refer to the Church and not the sacrament by itself. Benediction has the danger of re-creating this isolation and its origins aren’t reassuring. It derives from a devotion to see the elevation of the Host at Mass, which is fine, except that this viewing was in place of receiving the Host or even of worshiping in community. There are stories of people who would rove from Mass to Mass to see as many elevations as possible! My theology professor in seminary, Arthur Vogel, railed against Benediction because it treated the sacrament as an object rather than an integral part of a dynamic celebration.

Corpus Christi processions have the same danger, but they do bring a communal aspect to the feast. Just a few years ago I found the custom alive and well in Innsbruck. I attended Mass at the cathedral where it was standing room only. After the Mass, there was a procession throughout the town with devotions read by the mayor and other dignitaries and the Landwehr fired off salutes with their rifles.

In John 6 Jesus speaks of his presence in the bread from Heaven in a dynamic way where those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him as he abides in us. In isolation, these verses suggest a relationship with individual believers but the broader context is the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, which was a communal event if there ever was one. Jesus, then, does not abide in us on an individual basis but abides in all of us as a sharing community. If we eat the Body of Christ, we are eating the very generosity and self-giving of Jesus. If we don’t give of ourselves, we have missed abiding in the community that abides in Jesus.

St. Paul’s recounting of the Last Supper begins with the solemn words that he is handing on the tradition as it was handed on to him. He then quotes what are called the Words of Institution, the words traditionally believed to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. When put this way, we again have the sacrament restricted to a few words and Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic elements. St. Paul, however, provides many more words to the social context of the Eucharist, namely that the Corinthians should be sharing the food they bring to the celebration with the poorer members of the congregation rather than flaunting their feasting in front of those deprived. That is, it is not enough to discern the presence of Christ in the sacrament; it is also necessary to discern the body in all of God’s people.

The leaders of the Liturgical Movement of the last century, Lambert Beauduin in Belgium and Virgil Michel in the United States, grounded their liturgical principles, featuring engaged participation of the laity, with a theology of the Church as the Body of Christ. More importantly, they argued that the Eucharist is a sign and dynamic of social change, especially in ameliorating life for the poor. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement worked very closely with Michel to this end. Far from being trapped in the bread and wine or in a monstrance, Christ is running wild throughout the world, changing not only bread and wine, but people and the whole fabric of society.

The Elusive Trinity

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The Trinity is a fundamental doctrine for Christianity but Christianity is a story of salvation before it is a set of doctrines. The Trinity is no exception. If we get the story right, we might get the doctrine right, but if we get the story wrong, then we get the doctrine wrong for sure.

John 3 tells of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at night, suggesting he is in the dark. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (Jn. 3:3) don’t seem to follow from what Nicodemus has just said. It sounds like the answer to a question that was not asked. Is there an implied question to what Nicodemus did say? The only implied question I can pick up is: “How do I do the signs that you do?” If so, Jesus is saying that Nicodemus is asking the wrong question. Jesus says first that Nicodemus must be born again, or born from above, most likely both. Jesus “clarifies” the matter by saying that Nicodemus must be “born of the Spirit,” which is a problem since, like the wind, nobody knows “where it comes from or where it goes..” (Jn. 3: 8) Here, one Person of the Trinity enters into this story.

So far, Nicodemus is showing difficulty in knowing what he really wants, further indicating that he is in the dark. We are tempted to laugh at him for his obtuseness, but we would do well to ask ourselves if we really know what we want? So asking ourselves inserts us into the story where all of us are in the same pickle as Nicodemus, which is to say, we are all in the dark. René Girard is helpful here when he suggests that all of us don’t know what we want and so we all look to other people to show us what we want. That is, if we see (rightly or wrongly) other people wanting something, we tend to want it too. Girard also gives us the insight that since none of us knows what we really want, we end up in a social muddle that is fraught with conflict. In Romans, Paul tells us that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Rom. 8: 14) So, even though we don’t know what we want we can be born anew, from above, into the Kingdom if we let this Spirit, whom we can’t understand or grasp, lead us.

Then, in another non sequitur, Jesus tells us a mini-story: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (Jn. 3: 13) While Nicodemus and the rest of us have been thinking of rising above our humanity, Jesus has come down to take on our humanity and only then did he rise back up to heaven. So, trying to do the signs that Jesus did by some human technique is bound to fail and will keep us in the dark. But Jesus then retells a mysterious story in Numbers as a variant of the first story. During a medical and social crisis of plague in the wilderness, the sort of crisis Girard warns us will happen when we don’t know what we want, Moses was instructed to raise a bronze serpent so that any who look upon it are healed. Jesus is now claiming that he is the “bronze serpent” raised up on the cross. Raising Jesus on the cross is the result of our muddle over not knowing what we want and falling into violence as did the Jews in the desert. Yet looking at Jesus on the cross to the point of really seeing what we have done offers us a cure of our violence. Not only that, but so looking at Jesus will give us eternal life. In John, this phrase does not refer primarily to life after death but to the quality of life here and now (and presumably after death as well.) Being cured of our violence certainly is a way to an improved quality of life. This is the way of being born again, from above, of being children of God. Once born from above, our desires become much clearer and they are focused on the well-being of other people. More important, after coming down from heaven, Jesus did not return there until after he was raised up on the cross. What is above and what is below has gotten thoroughly turned around. We now have two members of the Trinity in our story.

Then Jesus briefly tells the same story in a different way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3: 16) Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, although there was much to condemn, but Jesus was sent so that the world might be saved through him. Paul says that the Holy Spirit cries out within us: “Abba! Father!” This exclamation makes us joint heirs with Christ if we allow our desires to be formed by the Desire that flows through all three persons of the Trinity.

When presented as just a doctrine, the Trinity looks like an mutual admiration society of three. When presented as a story, the Trinity is a union of three persons dedicated to creating and re-creating humanity and all creation.