In the Arms of Mary, in the Arms of Christ

madonnaThe image of Mary holding her Child is arguably the defining image of the Christmas season. Its tenderness is comforting in a world where violence against the most vulnerable dominates the news. Vulnerability, such as that of a newborn baby tends to arouse either a gentle wish to nurture and protect, or it sets off an urge to take advantage of weakness in hard-hearted fashion as Herod did. We see both of these tendencies happening in the world about us and it is possible that we struggle between them within ourselves. If we let ourselves get caught up in the frantic conflicts occurring today, any weaknesses we see in our opponents become targets for increased aggression.

It takes a quiet, contemplative attitude to relax and let the tender, nurturing attitude take over, even in relation to our opponents. Like Mary, we need to ponder the birth of Jesus in our hearts. Mary could hardly have doubted that the baby was as human as any other baby as she suckled him at her breast, laid him down to sleep, and heard him cry when he woke up hungry. But as the famous song asks: Did Mary know that “when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God?” Although a young parent knows that the day could come when the child takes care of the parent during helpless old age as the parent takes care of the helpless child, could she have known that the child she delivered “will soon deliver you?”

The mysterious annunciation was another contemplative moment for Mary as she had to be still and listen to what the angel was telling her, hard to believe as it was. That the child would be “great and the Son of the Most High” could have meant many things without necessarily meaning that the child was God. But conceiving the child without ever having “known man” would have made it clear that the child was not ordinary. Did she have to know or suspect that the child was God before she would hold him, kiss him, bathe him, and feed him? Surely not. The child needed her care and that was all the reason she needed.

When the child had grown, he would say that whoever fed a hungry person or clothed one who was naked did that the same to him. Mary actually did these things for Jesus himself, because she would have done them for anyone, which is how it should be.

And yes, the child she bore did come to hold her in his arms. Eastern Orthodox icons of the Dormition of Mary illustrate this insight when the soul of Mary, as she dies in the arms of the disciples, has turned into a baby girl held in the arms of Jesus.

Any time we hold a vulnerable person tenderly, we hold the vulnerable Jesus, who in turn holds us in his divine arms as we experience our own vulnerability during the challenges in our lives.

John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.

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.