It Was Necessary

yellowTulips1Easter is an occasion of great rejoicing with bells, boisterous singing, and feasting. But do we really know what we are celebrating? The Gospel reading, doesn’t exactly ring out with Christmas joy of angels filling the skies with songs of God’s glory. Instead, we get “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell the women who came to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body that Jesus was not there but had risen. They had come to the wrong place.

A small group of confused women running off to stammer the news to the disciples isn’t exactly a celebration either. The disciples’s thinking the news is an “idle tale” may reflect a masculine condescending attitude towards women, but their reaction also shows how totally disorienting the news was. The Gospel reading ends with Peter running to the tomb to take a look for himself, seeing the empty linen clothes lying about, and then going home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Lk. 24: 12) Still no celebration; just a lot of unanswered questions. Luke continues his Resurrection narrative with two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus with no indication of why they should be going there, implying that they are going the wrong way. Their conversation with a stranger on the way confirms their sense of confusion. Should we, too, be too disoriented to celebrate?

I think the key to understanding the problem lies in the words of the angelic beings: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24: 6–7) The stranger who met up with the two disciples asked them rhetorically: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24: 26) The word “must” is the key here. The Greek word dei is often translated “it is necessary.” In this case, for whom was it “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners to be crucified and then rise on the third day? There is a tendency to think the death was necessary for God, but that suggests that God needed to have God’s own son die a painful death. Many people have a problem with that notion, I among them.

I find the French thinker René Girard helpful here. He interprets the available anthropological evidence as indicating a tendency of archaic societies to solve social tensions by a process that transforms competitive relationships throughout the society into a shared desire to focus on one person and then kill that person who is deemed responsible for the social tensions. The ensuing peace (for a time) is so strong that the victim is then worshiped as a deity. It is this social mechanism that convinces people that it is necessary for “god” that the victim be killed. Throughout this process, the truth of the victim is precisely what nobody knows, except possibly the victim.

This truth of the victim was gradually being revealed in the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, most prominently in the verses about the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, whom the people accounted “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (Is. 53: 4) But then the people realized that they, not the victim, were the guilty ones. God had vindicated the “stricken one,” not the persecutors. It was these passages in Isaiah that most helped Jesus’ followers begin to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.

But on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples had not thought to connect Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Jesus had told them many times that it was “necessary” that he be handed over to be crucified, but they could not understand. How could it be “necessary” that the man who they thought was going to restore Israel should be handed over to death? They assumed it was “necessary” that the guilty ones be handed over, not the innocent. Then, at Passover time, Jesus was deemed to be the guilty one who was causing the tumult by both religious and civil authorities, and so he was handed over. But the disciples had thought Jesus was innocent. Had they gotten their man wrong? Their fleeing when Jesus was arrested suggests they weren’t so sure.

The empty tomb was the first hint that Jesus’ death wasn’t business as usual. A tomb was supposed to have the corpse of the guilty one, but this one didn’t. The announcement of the angelic beings to the women was a stronger hint that Jesus was innocent after all. The women were told that it, although it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over and killed, it was even more necessary that Jesus be raised from the dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed Jesus’ followers that the “necessity” that Jesus die was a human necessity, a necessity of human factors, and that it was Jesus’ rising from the dead that was the true divine necessity. Only then could the disciples have their minds opened to understand the scriptures when the Risen Lord met with them himself. (Lk. 24: 45)

It is gloriously great news and a wondrous cause for rejoicing that we are freed from the human “necessity” to blame a victim who is put to death for the crimes of a society. That is, unless we feel too disoriented about not having scapegoats. Maybe that is why rejoicing in Jesus’ Resurrection is a much greater challenge than rejoicing in the birth of a child who is going to accomplish something great—what, we don’t know. Rejoicing in the necessity that Jesus be raised from the dead requires us to change our minds and hearts in radical ways to take in this news. Most challenging of all, we have to accept and then embody the forgiveness of the Risen Victim when storms of accusation remain the status quo even at this present day. Are we up to the challenge? Will we come to the party?

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

On Living with Temptation

altarDistance1The temptations of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are stylized accounts of three temptations that may not have happened in so neat a fashion in real life, but are clearly meant to be comprehensive of the fundamental temptations that challenge all humans, Jesus included. Jesus’ responses to the three temptations, which would have been particularly strong during his forty days of solitude in the wilderness, are a guide to dealing with the same temptations in our own lives.

The first temptation, that Jesus should turn stones into bread, can stand for all sensual temptations. It is surely not a sin to satisfy one’s hunger but it is a sin to be focused on physical sustenance to the neglect of all else, to make god our belly. (Phil. 3: 19) The devil’s proposal puts bread front and center, which sparks the competitive tendencies of humans to seek more material goods for the sake of having more material goods than others. Jesus’ reply puts bread in a wider context, implying what Matthew spells out, that we not only need bread but “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) Within this broader context, bread is provided in the wilderness by God as it was to the Israelites in their desert journey after escaping from Egypt. When bread is a gift from God, then it should also be a gift between humans as well.

Lust for power is often thought to be the greatest human temptation, as Matthew suggests in his ordering of the temptations, but Luke makes it the second greatest temptation. We might think that the devil’s offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” as being out of our league, but all of us tend to seek power in our own social settings. That is, we try to build up what sociologists call “social capital.” This is what Jesus was warning us about in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday when he told us not to fast or give alms “like the hypocrites” who compete for human admiration. (Matthew 6) In seeking social capital, we try to build our little kingdoms piece by piece. As with the first temptation, Jesus responds with the larger picture grounded in God by alluding to Deuteronomy 6: 13: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That is, we should seek our social capital first with God rather than with humans. By worshiping and serving God, we will then serve other people rightly and thus gain social capital in less competitive ways.

The third temptation is the most subtle and the most dangerous. The first two temptations proposed substitutes for focusing primarily on God. The third temptation focuses on God. The devil quotes Psalm 91 to assure Jesus that if he threw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus’ heavenly Abba would surely save him, as promised in the psalm. But the focus on God is distorted in what amounts to an attempt to manipulate God, which would make God a competitor among human competitors. Catching this distortion, Jesus clarifies the right focus on God by saying that one should not put God to the test. The distortion of the third temptation is subtle because it is based on the profound truth that God cares for each of us and takes care of us. But to assume that we can do anything, no matter how heedless and reckless because God will take care of us is presumption, putting God to the test. If there is anything the prophets have taught us, it is that God allows us to live with the consequences of our choices. Otherwise, what meaning would free will have?

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our frailty as mortal creatures. The temptations of Christ, the same temptations we experience daily, remind us of our moral and spiritual frailty. If Jesus had to remain mindful of his heavenly Abba and guard against distortions in that relationship, we should do no less. Let us take comfort that, as the author of Hebrews said, precisely by being tempted in every way as we are, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 4: 15, 12: 2)

On Being Called by God

AndrewPreaching1The narratives of the call of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter bring to mind my own experiences of God’s call. In my case, it wasn’t quite like being attacked by a Cherubim in church, getting knocked down on the Road to Damascus or being told to throw out the fishing nets one more time and being overwhelmed by the catch.

I did quite a lot of fishing as a child for the simple reason that my father loved it and my family spent most summer vacations at a fishing lodge. I lost interest in fishing by the time I was a teenager but the contemplative aspect of fishing stayed with me as I became a monk. While praying the Divine Office and praying silently in the Abbey Church, I constantly sense God calling me out of my self-preoccupations and self-indulgence to the wider concerns of God.

I had the call of Isaiah memorized when I was a choirboy because I sang an overwrought anthem to that text, ending with the prophet’s quiet volunteering to be sent by God. Even then, I had intimations that I might be called to the ministry although I was put off by how much kneeling I would have to do. Even so, one Sunday when our whole family was too sick to go to church, I led the four of us in the Office of Morning Prayer. As for kneeling, liturgical renewal dealt with that.

During my late high school and college years, I was a self-styled religious rebel who didn’t like the way God ran the universe. Like Paul, I was quite vocal about saying what I thought to anyone who would listen and to others who would rather not. By hindsight, I realize that I was being called all that time until I listened sufficiently to get on the track that led me to St. Gregory’s Abbey. By then I had come to realize that God doesn’t try to run the universe but God has pointed out ways we can run it better than we’re doing it if only we would listen.

It is tempting to think that one is special if one senses a call from God, as if God would surely call a superior person such as myself. But Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter all felt differently when approached by God. In each case, the call convicted them and pulled them out of the way they were living to a radical change of attitude and activity. In my case, I had to realize that a seminary I went to after graduating from college was the wrong choice for me, one fueled by my rebellious attitude. Only then could I hear the call to a seminary much better suited for me.

In God’s mission charge to Isaiah, God tells him to tell the people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” (Is. 6: 9) Jesus uses these same words to characterize the response he got from his own preaching. Some way to be “ catching people.” (Lk. 5: 10) There are many ways one can understand what it means to be a person of unclean lips living “among a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6: 5) René Girard writes of the human tendency to share desires so intensely that they become rivalrous. When that happens, we may have ears but we will not hear what other people are saying and we will not hear what God is saying to us. In my case, I had cast myself so deeply into rivalry with God that I drowned out the direction of my call for many years. Since the most vulnerable people in a society bear the brunt of the rivalry of the powerful, deafness to the cries of the poor go unheard with only prophets like Isaiah to defend them.

Paul received his call from the resurrected Christ who asked Paul why he was persecuting him in the act of persecuting his people. John’s Gospel has a variant of the story of the overwhelming catch of fish placed after the Resurrection which raises the intriguing question of whether or not Luke placed a resurrection narrative in an early chapter of his narrative. In any case, after deserting Jesus, the disciples did need to be called a second time by the resurrected Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead because first he was killed in an act of collective violence, the sort of persecution Girard argues is the result of a society allowing itself to be swamped in rivalry where we have ears but fail to hear.

Since God’s call to each of us entails preaching the Word and, much more important, witnessing to it in our ways of living, we are fundamentally spreading our repentance to others to open their ears as well. The hazard is that a sense of rivalry can enter through the back door if we treat our ministry of witnessing as a contest in which we try to “defeat” the other and win a “victory.” What we need to do is listen to ourselves in God, and listen to others as God listens to them, and use our listening skills, based on repentance, to help other people learn to listen.

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God  and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

Celebrating our Baptism

baptism_of_christ_by_tiffany (2)Luke stresses the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus much more than the three other evangelists. Most strikingly, Luke does not specifically say that John himself baptized Jesus. Luke describes John’s ministry and then says Herod added to all his other crimes by putting John in prison. (Lk. 3: 19–20) Then Luke puts Jesus front and center by saying the he was baptized “when all the people were baptized.” (Lk. 3:21)

The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the “bodily form of a dove” and the voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son, “the beloved,” (Lk. 3: 21–22) could not be a greater contrast to John’s closing words that the one who is “more powerful” was going to bring a winnowing fork to baptize by burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” John’s water baptism was a rite of purification and he expected the one who was coming to bring fire to do a more powerful job of purifying. But instead Jesus’ first act of preaching was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4: 16–19) Quite a different approach than John’s! Jesus was going for transformation, not purification.

We celebrate our own baptism on this day as we follow Jesus to the river Jordan, see the dove for ourselves and listen to the voice from Heaven proclaim us sons and daughters of God. Our baptism, too, is a call to spread God’s love and favor to others. We are used to living in a culture built on wrath and disfavor, where we bind and oppress captives rather than free them. The call of baptism is a constant call to leave this culture of wrath to journey towards a culture of love and the freeing of captives.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return from exile gives us powerful images for our own return from exile through baptism. Isaiah grounds this call in creation, linking baptism with God’s calling us into being. The journey is arduous, as Jesus’ journey in the desert was an arduous testing by Satan. We will pass through waters and rivers but God will be with us and they will not overwhelm us. We will walk through fire but the flame will not consume us. (Is. 43: 2) As with the Flood from which Noah was delivered and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites fled from Egypt, we can see the waters and the fire as images of the wrathful culture that is trying to pull us back. In his exuberance, Isaiah himself stumbles by suggesting that other nations are given in ransom for the freeing and gathering of Israel. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is the first step of bearing the sins of all people so that he will be a ransom for everybody, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even Babylon, included.

Each of us receives a unique call to play our part in the baptismal journey. Can we hear the voice from Heaven declaring God’s love for us and moving us in the direction we are each to go to perform our part of the journey?

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.

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)

The Throne of David: Part Two

crecheThe celebration of the birth of Jesus is a time to put all political differences aside in glad agreement that this child is born. I wish! I have pointed out many times over the years when preaching on Luke’s nativity story that it puts political issues front and center, forcing us to confront our political realities if we are to confront the Gospel.

The key political words uttered by the angel who appeared to the shepherds are: “good news,” “savior,” and “peace.” These words sound innocuous to most of us but they aren’t. In Luke “Good News” is not a cheery feel-good article in the newspaper or on the Internet. “Savior” isn’t a cartoon super hero who knocks out the bad guys for us. “Peace” has to be understood rightly or it isn’t peace.

“Good News” or “Good Tidings” are the usual translations of the word euangelion. It also provides the title of Luke’s book. In Roman times, euangelion was the technical word for tidings sent out from Rome by the Emperor who was the only one who had the right to send out “good News” or “Good Tidings.” Caesar Augustus had recently sent out the Good News that he had won the long civil war triggered by the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive father Julius. This “Good News” made Augustus the “Savior” of the Roman Empire. Again, only the Emperor was allowed to be the “savior.” By winning the war, Augustus had brought “peace” to the Empire. Nobody else had the right to be the “peace” maker. But Augustus had brought and preserved “peace” through violence. Although many biblical historians have cast doubt on the likelihood that the registration ordered by Caesar Augustus happened right at the time of Jesus’ birth, it puts the whole nativity story under the shadow of the Emperor’s controlling power that enforced “peace” by keeping track of his subjects and pushing them from place to place if “necessary.”

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit he throne from David from his heavenly Abba and reign forever, He would, however, be a very different king than his forbear. Another angel is now telling the shepherds that the true Good News is that this child has now been born and this child is the one who can truly save us from our own violence and establish true peace. Jesus’ rulership has been expanded beyond the House of David to the whole Empire, which is to say, the entire world. Caesar Augustus is the one who has usurped God’s role of savior and bringer of peace.

This neat contrast between Jesus and Caesar, however, looks like a political campaign between the competing leaders of two political parties. This is our human way of looking at it. The mystery is that Jesus did not come into the world to compete with Caesar Augustus the way he competed against Brutus and Mark Antony or David competed with Saul. Jesus came to preach and live a totally different way of living than the way of Empire, a way not based on violent competition but on mutual support. Rather than inflict violence in humanity’s never-ending civil war, Jesus took the whole violence of all empires in all times on himself in the place of all those who have been and ever will be victims of Empire. That shepherds, social outcasts in their time, heard the voice of the angel and the song of the heavenly host but the ruling elite saw and heard nothing should serve as a warning to those of us who are relatively well-off in our own time.

I suppose I shouldn’t spoil our Christmas party by bringing up Jesus’ death, but it is Jesus’ death that we will shortly commemorate at the altar. Closer to holiday cheer: we also celebrate at the altar the risen, forgiving resurrected life of Jesus that opens us up to a new birth, a new life, based on the forgiving risen life of the child whose birth we celebrate tonight.

See also The Throne of David: Part One