The Common Ministry of Peter and Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulMuch has been said about the conflicts between Saints Peter and Paul. I have commented on them myself. However, whatever their conflicts, they were martyred in Rome at roughly the same time and that is one of the reasons they are celebrated together in one Feast. Let us see if they have more in common

Both Peter and Paul were penitents. Peter betrayed Jesus by denying that he knew him when pressured by the people in the high priest’s courtyard. Paul approved of the stoning of Stephen and persecuted the Christians. Peter heard the cock crow and he wept. Paul head a voice asking him: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Both came to know themselves to be profoundly forgiven sinners. How do we know this? Both preached God’s forgiveness to others.

When. at Pentecost, Peter confronted the people with the truth of what they did in Jerusalem forty days earlier, that they handed an innocent man over to death on the cross, they “were cut to the heart” and asked how they could be saved. Peter’s reply was: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2: 38) Peter was announcing both the truth of what the people had done and the forgiveness of God for what they had done.

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote: “Therefore we have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6: 4) This is Paul’s more complex way of saying that repentance and baptism bring us forgiveness of our participation in the death of Christ so as to be free to rise with Christ and live new lives in Christ.

In the First Epistle attributed to Peter, the author cites the forgiving example of Christ: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (1 Pet. 2: 23) It is troubling that Peter is speaking specifically to slaves but we should note that the masters are not being upheld as good examples of anything. Later in the Epistle, Peter says to everybody: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3: 8–9) The forgiving example of Christ should be followed by everybody. (Could one follow this admonition and still be a slave master?)

Likewise Paul makes the identical admonitions when writing to the Romans: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” and “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12: 14, 19–21) Lofty words but there is a troublesome sting to them. It should be noted, though, that vengeance is indeed God’s prerogative. The teachings on the part of both Paul and Peter raise the questions as to whether God actually uses that prerogative. The burning coals in the quote from Proverbs are also troubling, but sometimes an undeserved act of kindness has that effect.

What we can celebrate today on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is their united front in preaching the forgiveness of the Risen Victim which we must both receive and give to others.

On Sacrificing a Cup of Water

sacrifice of IsaacWhen the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac was first told to me in Sunday school, the teacher prefaced the story by saying that in biblical times there were people who made sacrifices to “god” and some people even sacrificed their own children, but God decided to teach Abraham that he should not do that. The story was troubling but it was comforting to know that God did not want such an awful thing. Between that and being told around the same time the story about Jesus inviting the children to come to him did much to instill in me a trust in God as deeply loving from an early age. Since then, I’ve come across many learned scholars who think such an interpretation of the Isaac story is simplistic. Who’s right?

Christian exegetes in the early Christian centuries softened the story to some extent through a Christological interpretation where Isaac is an antitype of Christ, the Son who was willing to lay down his life. Such an understanding continued in folk tradition where the English Miracle plays dramatized the story of a pleading child wondering if he really was that naughty and then becoming reconciled to his fate.

Such an approach is still troubling but it makes some effort to draw back from the notion of an violent and arbitrary “god” who really would make such a command to Abraham. Unfortunately, later medieval and Reformation theologians shifted the emphasis back to Abraham and his anguished “obedience.” Such an emphasis falls deeply into the tragic pitfall of a sacrificial atonement. While even St. Anselm, who set in motion this theological tendency, still emphasized the Son’s love of humanity in laying down his life, Luther and Calvin emphasized the Father’s sacrifice of his Son with severe violence with the Father taking his anger over human sin out on his Son. Martin Luther, for example was very stern in saying that in no way was it legitimate for Abraham (or us) to question what God orders, no matter how unethical the command. In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author calls this kind of obedience “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” Many think Kierkegaard supported that position but in fact, this suspension of the ethical is not faith. Abraham is a “knight of faith” because he does not kill his son but receives him back from God. This treatise then is actually Kierkegaard’s first salvo in dismantling a sacrificial understanding of atonement such as Luther’s. The highly convoluted arguments of this book end up in roughly the same place as my Sunday School teacher.

The French thinker René Girard is very helpful in helping us deal with this troubling story. He theorizes that since the dawn of humanity, societies have dealt with systemic conflict through uniting against a victim who is blamed for the crisis. This initial act of mob violence, repeated time and again was institutionalized into rites of sacrifice. Children were frequently among the victims. The Maya, for example, thought that the children’s tears would bring much-needed rain. This social factor is a startling contrast to the narrative of Abraham where he and Isaac are alone save for a pair of servants. Girard would have us see Abraham’s dilemma in terms of his surrounding culture where everybody else was sacrificing their children so that it seemed the religious thing to do. For Girard, God breaks through the collective so that Abraham, as an individual hears God’s true desire, not as an individual genius, but as a human related both to God and to Isaac and the many offspring in faith that he would beget through Isaac. So Girard also agrees with my Sunday school teacher.

When Paul says: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Rom 6: 12) we tend to understand these words as lone individuals each struggling against our sinful hangups. But for Paul, the dominion of sin is the human culture that perpetuates itself through collective murder and sacrifice. This is the Gospel story Paul preached: not a story about individuals who sin, but a society that swarms with violent passion in troubled times. Such as our own time. This is why the end of sin is death. Literally.

Before the movers and shakers and the crowd coalesced to put Jesus to death, Jesus told us that; “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Mt. 10: 42) Simple. It doesn’t take a professor with several degrees to understand it. And yet, the “little ones,” not just children but vulnerable people in many inner cities, do not get a cup of water that is not dangerously contaminated. Flint, Michigan is everywhere. This is the power of sin’s dominion that holds society in thrall. Jesus is telling us, as God told Abraham, that we should not sacrifice our “little ones,” but we should nurture them. Like Abraham, we have to move out of the crowd that continues to sacrifice children and then regather with those who will bring drinkable water to those who need it. My Sunday school teacher got it right.

See also: Abraham out on Highway 61

For an extensive discussion on the story, including the quote from Martin Luther, see:

Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Proper 8, Year A

For an introduction to René Girard, see: Violence and the Kingdom of God

and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

 

The Holy Spirit as a Divine Person who Inspires and Fosters Love

White_Doves_at_the_Blue_Mosque_(5778806606)The Holy Spirit is the most obscure of the three Persons of the Trinity, not that the other Persons aren’t mysterious as well. One reason is that the Son is said to show the Father, and the Holy Spirit is said to show the Son, but that leaves nobody to show the Holy Spirit. So obscure is the Holy Spirit that it is difficult to think of the Holy Spirit as a Person at all. It is not uncommon to hear the Holy Spirit referred to as “it,” although both masculine and feminine pronouns also fall far short of the Holy Spirit’s personhood.

It is easier to sense some personhood for the Father and the Son because their relationship is defined by filiation, that is, the Father begetting the Son has a personal analogy in human experience. But the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the other Divine Persons is through spiration, that is breathing. We think of breath as a human function rather than a person in his or her own right. The Holy Spirit is often called the “Bond of Love” between the Father and the Son. This is a beautiful phrase but again, it doesn’t give the Holy Spirit a personality. If we say two people are bonded in love, we think of the bond as something between the two people, not a third person.

Since it is a sure thing that the Holy Spirit is a Person, however obscure, and however mysterious, then perhaps we can take these rather impersonal images and analogies and personalize them.

The Holy Spirit as breath, the Person spirated, or breathed, by the Father and the Son is associated with inspiration. The Holy Spirits’s inspiration in its gentler form is symbolized by a dove in scripture, most importantly at Jesus’ baptism, where the image accompanies the heavenly voice acclaiming Jesus as the Son of the heavenly Abba. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as flames of fire inspiring the disciples to preach in the languages of the pilgrims from foreign countries. In all this, we have, again, impersonal images, except insofar as birds can show some elements of personality. In all this, however, we can see the Holy Spirit revealed as a Divine Person who inspires and energizes. In fact, the Holy Spirit inspires by distributing various gifts to various people, enhancing both the individuality of people and our connectedness as we exchange these inspired gifts to each other. Through this exchange of gifts, we can inspire others with our insights and enthusiasms. We can think of the inspiring teachers and preachers who have energized us to spread that same enthusiasm and inspiration to others. This is what the Holy Spirit does.

The Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son can also be understood in a personal way. That is, the Holy Spirit is a Person who actively encourages love between other people. Humans can act as such a bond of love. Friar Lawrence plays such a role in Romeo and Juliette. In South Pacific, Bloody Mary encourages the love between Col. Talbot and the Polynesian woman in the song “Happy Talk,” while Col. Talbot himself struggles with his racist heritage in “Carefully Taught.” As these go-betweens try to help lovers overcome obstacles (scandals), so the Holy Spirit encourages all of us to overcome all obstacles to loving relationships.

In the Upper Room, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the apostles and then commissions them to spread forgiveness to other people. (Jn. 20: 23) (I don’t think Jesus wants us to retain the sins of others.) Here we have the Holy Spirit as the Person who inspires, encourages, forgives, and reconciles. In all of these acts, the Holy Spirit remains hidden, showing other people to us and us to other people. At the same time, the Holy Spirit shows us the Son in other people and shows the Son in us to others. If we wish to really honor and celebrate the Holy Spirit, we, too, will go and inspire, encourage, forgive, and reconcile others.

The Still Small Voice of the Good Shepherd

lambsThe Good Shepherd is a reassuring image. The shepherd is in charge and the sheep follow the shepherd’s guidance. When thieves and robbers and wolves come to threaten the sheep, the shepherd deals with them in no uncertain terms. Jesus’ claim to be the gate, the way in and out of the fold, gives us another reassuring image: some of us are in and certain other people are out, just the way it should be.

But in my reflections on John 10 from a year ago, I noted that the Good Shepherd is the Lamb of God who lays down his life for the sheep. With this realization, the hierarchical picture breaks down. The Good Shepherd is not above the sheep but is one of the sheep. Whereas even the most compassionate and conscientious shepherds end up eating or sacrificing the sheep, Jesus shares the fate of the sheep by becoming the Paschal Lamb in place of the sheep.

The Lamb of God is also an odd gate. Rather than keeping the lambs inside, he leads the lambs in and out with so much movement that the idea of there being a gated sheepfold ceases to make sense. Rather than keeping the bandits and robbers away, Jesus lays down his life for the flock when the bandits attack. If Jesus is the gate, than his willingness to lay down his life is the way in to this abundant pasture for all who would join his flock.

In an essay on the Eucharistic Christ, James Alison explores these paradoxes with great insight. After taking us through stages where we fixate on the bad shepherds and feel righteous about identifying and hating them, Alison takes us to a stage where the fixations fall away:

There is no definitive inside and outside for the Good Shepherd, there are places of shelter and of feeding, different places to which the door gives access, and which presuppose movement, non-fixity, and confidence in being neither in nor out. It is assumed that the best feeding place might not be one that seems to be “in,” yet the good shepherd is able to make that place available to his sheep.

The mixup that Alison envisages reaches the point where we are all sheep and all wolves, not in a negative sense where each of us supposedly good people find the wolf within, but rather a recreation of abundant life where nobody needs to be a sheep who is devoured or sacrificed or a wolf who does the devouring and sacrificing. This is where our baptism into the death of Jesus leads us further into the abundant life of Jesus.

It is in the space of this abundant life that we hear the true voice of the Good Shepherd as the Lamb of God, which Alison suggests is the still small voice that Elijah heard in the wilderness. When we hear this still small voice, the strident voices of bandits are drowned out and our own voices can take on the same stillness that others need to hear.

The Shaken Empty Tomb

lightingEasterFire (2)Matthew says there was an earthquake when the angel of the Lord came down, rolled away the stone of an empty tomb and sat on it. Both the earthquake and the empty tomb give us apt images for the way we experience Easter this year.

An earthquake turns the world turned topsy-turvy in a short time and that is exactly what the COVID-19 pandemic has done. Suddenly everything is out of place. Church, the place of refuge in hard times has become a place of danger. Schools are empty. Community is suddenly located on the Internet where social critics have said it is conspicuously absent.

The earthquake has Eastertide, like the tomb, feeling empty this year. The boisterous celebrations with trumpets and choirs aren’t happening. Here at the abbey, we celebrate the Easter Vigil the way we usually do except for simplifying the lighting of the Easter fire and the procession. But we usually have a lot of people join us for the liturgy and this year nobody can come. The church will feel empty. We usually have a party after the Easter Vigil. This year we will not because there is nobody to have a party with.

At Easter, we usually skip the empty tomb and jump to celebrate Jesus’ being raised to life, which is quite a lot to be excited about. The empty tomb is mentioned in all four Gospels but it seems beside the point when Jesus is walking around, still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion yet very much alive.

The earthquake and the empty tomb go together. An earthquake shakes everything up, leaving us with a lot of empty space. And that’s what the empty tomb is: an empty space where the body of Jesus was supposed to be. Since, in Matthew’s Gospel, the angel wastes no time in telling the women that Jesus is risen and the women run into Jesus himself almost immediately on their way to tell the disciples, we are not given time to reflect on the empty tomb. The other evangelists, especially John, give us more time for this.

But let’s linger at the empty tomb just a bit in this time of loss and fear of more loss. The empty tomb is a hole in the Resurrection. How can the Resurrection have a hole in it? Isn’t the Resurrection about the fullness of life? But emptiness and fullness go together when it comes to the spiritual life. We go through life with gnawing desires that can’t be filled and sometimes shouldn’t be. Usually we don’t even realize it. If we stop and reflect, the emptiness stares us in the face. That is why many prefer not to stop and reflect.

When an earthquake like the pandemic strikes, we are so shaken up that it is very hard to avoid thinking about what really matters in life and what doesn’t. Things important yesterday aren’t so important today. The disciples thought they knew Jesus pretty well but when Jesus allowed himself to be handed over to the Jewish and Roman authorities and be crucified by them, they weren’t so sure they knew Jesus after all. Wasn’t he the one who was going to redeem Israel? Doesn’t look like he’s done that.

The earthquake and the empty tomb give us the space to empty out our preconceptions about Jesus, and what it means for Jesus to reveal God to us. One of the preconceptions is the need to organize society around who is “in” and who is “out.” Jesus was cast out of the city and crucified so that society could come together in his absence. But Jesus’ absence, the empty tomb, becomes the center. And in this empty center, Jesus comes to greet us and to tell us not to be afraid. Strange words to hear in the midst of a frightening earthquake and in an empty tomb. Can we hear these words? Can we empty ourselves enough to let the greeting of Jesus fill us with a new life that is beyond our understanding, a new life that will transform the crisis of today and the crises we will face in the future?

A Season for Sacrifice

crossRedVeil1Lent is the season when we think of making sacrifices, usually small ones, like giving up a pleasure or two. This Lent, we have been called upon to make many large sacrifices because of the COVID-19 virus. The social distancing needed to slow the spread of the disease entails giving up many very good things that we take for granted. I can’t even go out and get a haircut when I need one. The disappointments through canceled events are many. For me, it’s a concert I was looking forward to and, more disappointing, a speaking engagement where I was going to present a paper I had worked on for many hours. I’m sure many others have had greater disappointments than that. It must be hard, for example for children not to be able to play freely with their friends and to be separated from grandparents. One of the greatest renunciations for committed Christians is, ironically, Church. Usually, going to Church is something one increases during Lent, but the social distancing called for right now has worshipers staying home and making do with online services. I would think this would make worship a self-emptying process as the familiar sacred space and the people one is usually with would not be there except on a computer screen.

We do not necessarily choose to give up these things. When concerts are cancelled, for example, one doesn’t have the option of going. Bishops around the country ordered the cancellation of in-person services before most state governors had issued executive orders. The only choice is to be a reasonably good sport about it. Or not. We may grieve the things we lose during this time, but we can take comfort in the assurance that these renunciations are saving lives, maybe even one’s own. Thinking of others in this way lightens the load that comes of focusing on our own losses. Greater than the sacrifices of social distancing are the sacrifices of those who are risking their health and possibly their lives to serve others during this time. Medical workers top the list. True, these people entered these professions expecting to make sacrifices for others, even if not in so intense a fashion. But people stocking shelves in grocery stores or working elsewhere in the food chain are also risking themselves and these are not jobs one normally expects to be so risky. Then there are those who lay down their lives. One example I’ve heard of is a priest in Bergamo. His parishioners had bought a lung ventilator for him, but he gave it to a younger man who was dying. Not even his body was recovered in the midst of the mass burials.

In such times of stress, there are some who opportunistically seek to profit instead. The selling of needed medical equipment for many times their wealth is a tragic example of this. There is also talk about sacrificing human lives to save the economy, a notion that makes The Economy loom like a deity requiring sacrifices. I don’t mean to minimize the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus and the need for careful balancing of economic peril with that of the disease. I am calling for a deep concern for the lives of all people. In all this, there is the fundamental choice of whether we will make sacrifices of ourselves as needed or will prefer to sacrifice other people. This is a fundamental choice we face all the time, but the current crisis adds urgency to it.

The Great Sacrifice of Jesus who died on the cross makes it quite clear that God is in the business of self-sacrifice and is certainly not a deity that requires sacrifices of others. And yet, as our model, self-sacrifice is what is asked of us because of what Jesus did for us and continues to for us all the time. During this season, we are reminded of those who made a sacrifice of Jesus, oblivious of the sacrifice Jesus was making for us and even for them, if they could accept it. The love that motivates Jesus is awesome, beyond our comprehension. If we even begin to tap in to this love, we come to see for ourselves that it is the way, not to glory, but the way of glory.

A Thought for the Annunciation

annunciationRecently, I read the Scythe Trilogy by Neal Shusterman. (For Girardians: Shusterman has shown much insight into mimetic desire and scapegoating in his many young adult novels.) This trilogy envisions a future where a massive computer called The Thunderhead runs the world: coordinating work, managing the healing of sick and injured people, everything except for one thing. Since people no longer die of natural causes, the population is lessened somewhat by the institution of Scythes who randomly kill people gently and without malice. This is called gleaning. The Scythes and the Thunderhead are separate and do not interact. What would a trilogy like this have to do with the Annunciation of Our Lady?

Not surprisingly, the Scythes eventually attract enough corrupt members to threaten the institution. The Thunderhead cannot intervene directly and must use very careful workarounds to counter this corruption. There are two incidents I can share without seriously spoiling the main thrust of the plot. These incidents offer helpful analogies to the Annunciation.

In the first incident, the Thunderhead decides it must inhabit a human being for a brief time as a necessary step to properly completing a project. Accordingly, the Thunderhead possesses a human. Although this is just for a moment or two, it is traumatic for the human and also for that person’s lover who shares the pain. This incident makes it quite clear that the Incarnation of the Son, the Logos, could not be accomplished by force and be a salvific event for humanity.

In the second incident, a woman, a very ordinary woman, but one who has done well in a pressure situation, receives plans for a highly ambitious project designed by the Thunderhead. This plan will go through only if this woman, representing humanity, gives assent to the project, which se does. The project then goes forward with momentous results. Here we have a strong analogy to the Annunciation. Only by way of a genuine free choice by a human being does the Incarnation of the Son, the Logos occur.

Mary’s fiat, her agreement to the angel, changed the world. The ordinary woman in the Scythe Trilogy and Mary, another ordinary woman in a pivotal situation, show us that, ordinary people like you and me never know how crucial each “yes” to God can be. But God knows.

On Washing our Eyes at Siloam

purpleFlower1

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (Jn. 9: 39)

This is one of the harder of the hard sayings of Jesus. It suggests that if we can see, we really can’t and if we can’t see, then actually we can. In the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9, the blind man sees pretty well in many ways even while he is still blind whereas the “Jews” prove to be blind as to what is really happening right before their eyes. The overt irony throughout the narrative makes it clear that physical sight is symbolic of the ability to see at other levels. We say “I see” all the time to indicate that we have understood something.

The trouble is that most of us think we can see very well at this figurative level. That is, we think our worldviews are correct, or at least mostly so. Jesus’ admonition should make us stop and think about that. If we are sure that we see, we are actually being pretty sure about ourselves, which gives us a pretty good chance, amounting to a certainty, that what we think we see is wrong, at least in important respects. So how can we truly see?

I think we are helped by the famous admonition from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt. 7: 1–3) Jesus makes it quite clear that judging other people automatically blinds us severely. This fits exactly with the story of the blind man in John. The assumption on the part of the disciples that either the blind man or his parents had sinned makes them blind on account of the judgmental attitude. The “Jews” are highly judgmental of the blind man for letting himself be healed on the Sabbath and all the more judgmental when the formerly blind man doesn’t see things their way when they explain the matter to him.

The problem now is that I am getting a bit judgmental about “the Jews.” Jesus has exposed their blindness and since I can see that, I assume I can see. But if I can see what “the Jews” don’t see, then there is the possibility, I mean likelihood, that I am becoming blind. I am seeing the speck in the eyes of “the Jews” and not seeing the log in my own. This blindness is quite serious when I reflect on the centuries of persecution of the Jewish people with stories like this present one being a pretext for that.

If we really want to see, we have to really understand that judgmentalism is our favorite blood sport and it really can be bloody in a literal sense. If I see a speck in somebody’s eye, that speck is probably there, but seeing the speck should be fair warning of the log in my own eye. We need to take Jesus’ advice and go to Siloam to wash the log out of our own eyes. If we do that, we will be much less judgmental and a lot gentler about helping other people with the specks in their eyes.

 

See also: Seeing with more than the Eyes and Sight and Vision Recreated.

The Beloved Son on the Mountain

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aAt the end of Epiphany, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord to prepare for Lent. The vision of the glorified Christ is supposed to cheer us up for the grim days of penance and the grimmer days of following Jesus through his Passion. The Transfiguration also prepares us for Easter as it gives us a foretaste of the glorified body of the risen Lord.

The climax of the Transfiguration is the bright cloud overshadowing the disciples and the heavenly voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt. 17: 5) These same words were said to Jesus at the time of his baptism. These words of encouragement from Psalm 2 strengthened Jesus for his immediate trial in the desert when he was tempted. This time, they strengthen Jesus before his final trial at the time of his Passion. The royal psalm also has much of the same foreshadowing as the “kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed.” (Ps. 2: 2) This is exactly what happened to Jesus.

When the disciples heard the voice from the bright cloud, they “were overcome with fear.” What were they afraid of? Was it just the power of a voice from Heaven? That could account for the fear. But maybe there is more to it. The disciples had been following Jesus for some time but they often failed to understand him, not least when Jesus predicted his imminent suffering and death. Were these predictions giving the disciples second thoughts about Jesus? If so, the heavenly affirmation of Jesus would have been frightening if it was Jesus’ willingness to suffer that made Jesus the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. Worse, this could mean that being willing to follow Jesus through the same suffering and death was the way for them to be sons with whom God was well pleased. The glory revealed on the mountain was a powerful encouragement, but the kind of encouragement that must have left the disciples shaken, as it should leave us shaken.

Lenten penances are small potatoes compared to the willingness to suffer if the kings and rulers and all other people should rage together and rise against the Lord and those who follow the Lord’s anointed. May the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection strengthen us with the deep life that casts out fear so that we can bring peace into the world of strife and rage.

On Entering Jesus’ Baptism

HolyWater1When we dip our fingers in a holy water stoup as a reminder of our baptism, how much do we really remember? Do we stop to think that the water is as explosive as the bread we receive at the Eucharist?

John baptizing people with water at the River Jordan seems idyllic if we overlook John’s warnings to flee the wrath to come and the axe poised to chop down the tree of our lives; all this to prepare the way for the one who comes to baptize with fire to burn away the chaff. The baptism of Jesus seems much gentler in that Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sins and vices like the rest of us and so didn’t need to be saved from a wrathful response from God. But this peaceful event becomes dramatic when a voice from Heaven declares Jesus to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased. Whatever Jesus is going to baptize people with, it won’t be fire burning up the chaff.

At the end of his life, the baptism with which Jesus is baptized turns out to be his suffering and death on a cross. This makes it clear that we did not need to be baptized to ward off the wrath of God, but to ward off human wrath. What we needed was to be delivered from the wrath in our own hearts that led us to join the persecutors of Jesus. This is what Paul was getting at in his epistles, when he wrote of baptism as a passage through the death of Jesus into Jesus’ resurrection. The passage of baptism, then, is a passage into death to our own wrath, then unto the flood of the wrath of other humans which was inflicted on Jesus, and ending in a new resurrected life without wrath.

The acclamation of Jesus’ heavenly Abba becomes all the more significant in retrospect as it gave Jesus the loving encouragement to go through his own baptism. When we follow Jesus in our baptism, we also begin with the encouragement of the voice from Heaven that we are beloved of God. Far from being driven to flee God’s wrath, we are invited by love to enter the cleansing water so as to participate in God’s affirming love, a love that will sustain us when we struggle with our own wrath and suffer the wrath of others.

That’s a lot to think about when we dip our fingers into a holy water stoup.