God’s Kingdom in Two Small Coins

widow's miteThe widow who put “two small copper coins” in the temple treasury, all she had to live on, (Mk. 12: 42) has been held up by many preachers as a touching example of heart-warming generosity. Those of us who have come to notice the social and economic issues in the Gospels have seen some concerns that are rather chilling.

Highly troubling are the preceding verses where Jesus denounces the scribes who “devour widows’ houses.” The scribes of today wear state-of-the-art business suits, sit on prestigious boards, and make a great display of their almsgiving after defrauding vulnerable people with such practices as predatory loans. Although using economic power to defraud the vulnerable is not the same thing as passively receiving a penny from a poor widow, the juxtaposition of these references to widows raises questions. The questions become more worrisome when we recall how the prophets denounced those who oppressed widows and orphans almost every time they spoke out on social issues.

The very next verse on the other side of the story of the widow and her two coins raises even more urgent questions. In response to a disciple’s commenting on the great stones of the temple, Jesus says: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk. 13: 1) This suggests that the poor widow is giving her last two coins for a bad cause. The Epistle to the Hebrews drives home this point when he says: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (Heb. 9: 24) Jesus himself has become the Temple and there is no need for any other.

Is this poor widow a bad example, then? By no means. This poor widow reminds us of the widow who gave Elijah some of the last grains of meal that she had after which she expected to die with her son. (1 Kings 17: 12) Moreover, the poor widow’s generosity in giving everything she had echoes the story of the rich man who was also asked to give everything but went away sad because of his great wealth. Since giving everything is a sign of the Kingdom of God, the poor widow is a sign of the Kingdom while the rich man who went away sad and the rich who contributed lavishly to the temple treasury are not. On the other hand, the woman who poured a jar of ointment over Jesus’ head (Mk. 14: 3–9) was also giving most, if not all, she had. Another sign of the Kingdom.

The matter of a bad cause reminds us that generosity is required of those who depend on alms. We must be good causes. In a time when many “scribes” of today create charitable scams, it is important to use charity money in a charitable way. I feel this responsibility as a member of a monastic community as I remember where the money we spend comes from.

The Jar of meal from which the widow baked a cake for Elijah did not run out in spite of the long famine. Jesus, who also gave all of himself on the Cross, rose to new life, a new life of endless abundance that the widow who gave two small coins surely shares along with the woman who poured out a jar of oil over Jesus’ head. Will we be signs of God’s Kingdom like these two women?

On Carrying Crosses and Renouncing Them

sideAltarsIcons1Jesus’ insistence that we deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him (Mk. 8: 34) jolts us into thinking about what our priorities in life should be. Without being so jolted, we tend to deny other people, take up our favorite pastimes and follow whoever takes our fancy. However, we encounter a serious problem if and when we do take Jesus’ words to heart. We tend to get muddled over what constitutes a “cross” and how we should carry it. Because of this muddle, there is the danger that the cross will be trivialized. Carrying our own crosses is not about being a good sport if we catch the flu.

Fundamentally, the cross is about persecution. Jesus is telling his disciples that he expects to be crucified for the way he is confronting the religious and imperial authorities. The Servant in Isaiah was also persecuted by people who smote his back and plucked out his beard. (Is. 50: 6) More importantly, the cross is about not retaliating if one is persecuted, so being patient with Great Aunt Hattie who complains about every act of service is not so trivial. The combination of not retaliating and setting our faces like flint (Is. 50: 7) is precisely what Peter missed when he called Jesus the Messiah. That is why Jesus shut him up.

The biggest problem of waxing eloquently about carrying our crosses is that we overlook the danger, the likelihood, of being crosses for other people. We easily fool ourselves into thinking we are not persecuting others as long as we aren’t pulling beards or driving nails into someone’s hands and feet. But, in his epistle, James shows us how easy it is to be a persecutor. He says that the tongue, small as it is, is a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze and it even “sets on fire the cycle of nature.” (Jas. 3: 5–6) We both bless and curse others with this little member. (Jas. 3: 10) James is warning us how the contagion of collective violence such as that afflicted on Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus can afflict anyone by the agency of anyone through such use of the tongue. Language, the sign of civilization, is compromised from the start by its role in persecution. The more “civilized” we become through writing, the printing press, newspapers, the Internet and Twitter, the more quickly and efficiently peoples’ reputations are destroyed by firestorms set off by the tongue and its extensions the pen and the computer keyboard.

Instead of boasting about carrying crosses, we most need to busy ourselves with relieving others of the crosses we lay on them. Manipulating others into persecuting us to make them feel bad while making us feel good is really another way of persecuting others. As Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus show, crosses can come to us quickly if we speak out against persecution, since that is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Jesus warned the people of his time and us of our persecutory tendencies with his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard. (Mk 12:1-12) and by driving the money changers from the temple whose officials were exploiting the poor. (cf. Mark 12:41-44)

Following Jesus, then, is about both taking up our crosses and renouncing them. We take up our crosses by doing everything we can to stop persecution even if we suffer for it. But before going after other persecutors, we need to take the logs out of our eyes before taking the splinters out of the eyes of others. (Mt. 7: 5) Otherwise, our witness against persecution is likely to turn into persecution of the persecutors. This is why we can only take up the cross if we renounce using it as a weapon but rather use it as a Tree of Life for others.

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)

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.

On Being Branches Connected to the Vine

eucharist1The image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us a powerful image of closeness both between ourselves and God and also with each other through our grounding in God.
Each of us is a branch connected to the vine which is Jesus. Jesus is telling us that the desires of each and every one of us must be rooted in His Desire, which is the same Desire as that of his heavenly Father. Between Jesus and his Father, there is no rivalry and Jesus does not enter into rivalry with us. From our side it tends to be a different story. We experience rivalry so constantly that it is very hard to imagine a relationship without rivalry. Just note how political and social debates are saturated with it.

Jesus’ words start to sound threatening when he talks about branches withering, being thrown away, and then burnt. However, it isn’t Jesus who cuts off the branches; it’s branches that cut themselves off. Life rooted in Christ has to be rooted in Christ. This is, or should be, a tautology, but we have a folk saying about cutting off the limb we’re sitting on. People who center their lives on one or more rivals instead of Christ are doing just that. Once cut off from the vine, we are consumed with rage with our rivals, a strife that burns us up.

We often think of union with God as individualistic but that is not so. On the contrary, union with the vine unites us with all of the other branches. This means we share our union with the vine with everybody else’s union with the vine. It is by being united to others through Christ that we have the ability, through grace, to act towards others in God’s Desire rather than through our rivalistic tendencies. Since there is no rivalry in Jesus, there is no way that Jesus would encourage rivalry with others who are connected to him. In his first epistle, John says that we should love one another because “love is from God” and God is love. (1 Jn. 4: : 7–8) Again, God’s love for us is deeply connected with our love for one another. God abides in us insofar as we love one another. If we cut ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from other people and if we cut ourselves off from other people, we cut ourselves off from God.

The image of the vine and the branches is, above all, Eucharistic. The Eucharist is a public event. The wine in the Eucharistic celebration is the blood of Jesus that he gave to heal all of us of our violent ways. The blood of Jesus on the altar shared with each of us makes present to us the death of Jesus at the hands of persecutory humans as it also makes present the risen life of Jesus. In exchange for the way we betray Jesus with our violence, we receive the gift of life through deep union with Jesus, a union like that of the branches to the vine. We associate blood with violence, such as with the term “bloodshed,” but blood is the life within us and it is life that the Risen Jesus gives us through his Blood. This is the wine, the blood, that flows from the vine to the branches to connect us to Christ and to each other.

Rising to a New Humanity

crosswButterfliesSt. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it. St. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it.
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes it clear that what seem to be personal sins are embroiled in the matrix of human desires where what is disordered within us spurs on what is disordered in other people and vice versa. It isn’t personal sin but the interpersonal sin of basing culture on the rejection of God that has us in thrall. In the grip of social sin, we choose a foundation of persecution that culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus. Persecution is based on lies, lies that are woven into our deepest being. The great Afro-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois knew what it is like to be among a people caught in a system of lies. He described the “double life” of being both black and American when he wrote: “Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretense or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.” After developing these thoughts further, Du Bois says bluntly: “The price of culture is a lie.” (W.E.B. Du Bois and the Sociology of the Black Church and Religion, 1897–1914, p. 156–157) Here we can see how the culture of persecution defines us so that this shared desire feels like the natural order of things. At this point, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as personal sin. What seems personal is too caught up in our social matrix to be personal in an individualistic sense. We are not lone sinners, we are social sinners.
The Eucharist with its background in the Passover is fundamental to St. Paul’s understanding of the death and Resurrection of Christ. (See A New Passover—A New Life) As the Jews were delivered from a persecutory culture and given the chance to begin culture anew, Christians, in the renewed covenant, are offered the same chance to base culture on the forgiving victim rather than the unforgiving persecutory crowd. As the Passover was a repudiation of enslaving other humans in any way, the renewed covenant also repudiates enslavement. The failures to make such a new start have been painfully obvious for centuries. The cryptic and disturbing narrative of Jesus’ Resurrection in Mark prophesies this frustrating failure. It seems highly unlikely that the fear on the part of the woman who went to the tomb was consciously a fear of being thrust suddenly into the beginning of a radically new culture. But fear based on the weirdness that a man should have been raised from the dead does not seem to account for all of their fear either. In any case, such an unprecedented event with so much power must have been seen as the game changer Paul took it to be. It was perhaps all the more frightening that they could have had no idea at the time how the game of life was being changed.
This seems like a lot of doom and gloom when we are supposed to be celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord, but we really can’t begin to understand and appreciate what the Good News of the Resurrection is all about, let alone truly celebrate it,  until we know the bad news about death from which we are being delivered. In the Paschal Troparion of the Greek Orthodox Church, worshipers sing:
Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!
The persecutory society requires death as its foundation and maintenance. Jesus’ Resurrection tramples this death and tells us to go to Galilee where Jesus is always waiting for us to make a new beginning in building the kingship of God. (Mk. 16: 7) This is what it means to say that death is conquered and we are free.


These thoughts are developed in more detail in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire