Inside the Host

A Eucharistic host is usually small. At my first communion, it was about the size of a nickle and so thin I thought it was a sticker. The host that goes into a monstrance is closer to the size of a silver dollar but it’s still awfully thin. So why put such a small thing into a fancy monstrance? The word comes from the Latin monstrare meaning to show, indicating that a monstrance shows something hidden in the small host. As if the monstrance in itself were not enough, from medieval times up to recent modern times, the host was carried in elaborate processions through public places. Just a few years ago, I witnessed such a procession in Innsbruck that featured prayers given by the city dignitaries and rifle salutes by the Landwehr.

So what’s the big deal? Many religious thinkers not sympathetic to such devotions have asked the question and with a full heap of scorn and have complained of attempts to imprison Christ in a small piece of bread. This accusation misses the point. It isn’t that some evil bishop kidnaped Jesus and locked him up in the piece of bread. Rather, Jesus himself offered himself to us in the bread at the Last Supper. In a mysterious way, the piece of bead has become the Body of Christ. That really is a big deal.

But how can this be? How can a piece of bread ever become the Body of Christ? Jesus did not explain it, which is as good a reason as any for us not to try to explain it either. I personally find attempted explanations along the line of transubstantiation interesting as I savor the paradoxical reasoning of substance and accident becoming at odds with each other, but I have to admit this is more of a puzzle game than an act of devotion. After all, we aren’t saved by a metaphysical formula; we are saved by Jesus. And it is Jesus who invites us into the tiny home that he has made in the host. The very word expands:” “host” as in sacrifice (from hostias) as well as a host who invites us as a guest. (Any host knows that there is some sacrifice in inviting a guest.)

Just the notion of one person being invited by Jesus to an intimate meal as in George Herbert’s celebrated poem Love III would entail quite an expansion of space inside the a Eucharistic host. But there is much more. Jesus invited all twelve of his disciples to his Last Supper and it is possible that many more attended as well. In any case, Jesus invites not just one person, however individual and focused each invitation might be, but a multitude of people to the meal, so the inside of the host is more the size of an infinite banqueting hall. And the meal offered by Jesus has brought in the whole of creation that made the bread on the altar possible to begin with.

But there is much more. Since it is the person of Jesus who invites us in the sacrament, then we are meeting up with the whole person, not an outward persona such as what a maitre D’ in a restaurant would present us with. Besides meeting the person who healed the sick and the crippled, told mysterious parables, and commended the lilies of the field, we are meeting the person who was crucified on account of the social tensions we humans were not able to solve. The tomb in which Jesus was laid would have been a real prison except that it couldn’t hold him and it exploded inside out as Jesus was raised from the dead. So, inside the Eucharistic host, we are meeting the crucified and risen Jesus who is also glorified in Heaven. The inside just keeps on expanding.

There is still more. The crucifixion of Jesus is not an isolated act of one person: it is an act that absorbs every single unjust act of violence committed against every human being for all time. So all of the horrific atrocities we know of and many more are all included with the crucified Jesus inside the Eucharistic Host. This is the reason that the Eucharist has profound social significance. It isn’t just about me and Jesus; it’s about everybody and Jesus and we share with Jesus the suffering of everybody. And yes, there is still more. If every human atrocity is absorbed in the crucifixion which is present in the little host, then all the more is the redemption of the Resurrection present, a presence to raise every unjust act up to God for God to vindicate every injustice. The crucifixion absorbing all crucifixions is dark and unspeakable. It is all the space of infinite nothingness. (It has been asked if there can be poetry after the Holocaust.) The dazzling darkness of the Resurrection is even more unspeakable in its embrace of all crucifixions. This darkness is more infinite than the first. All of this inside a Eucharistic host no matter how small on the outside. Quite a lot to swallow.

The Gentle Resurrection

Luke’s first Resurrection narrative is the quietest of all four Gospels. Matthew is easily the loudest with an earthquake announcing the event. That’s our idea of Easter! Mark is puzzling and a bit of a cliffhanger with the women running away from the tomb out of fright. That’s still a pretty intense reaction. John is almost as quiet with the women finding the tomb empty before Jesus appears to Mary, but Luke is quieter still. The women are puzzled by the empty tomb and the announcement of the two men in dazzling clothes. They do tell the disciples but the disciples don’t believe them, not just because they are women but because the news is too unbelievable. The narrative ends with Peter looking into the empty tomb, amazed, but scratching his head.

There is an air of suspended reality about all this. Much of it has to do with the shock of grief over the death of a loved one. In the shock of grief, nothing seems real, least of all the absence of the loved one. It’s like the person is there and not there. This isn’t what we think Easter is all about but I would argue that this is the most realistic entry into this stupendous event. We are used to thinking of earth-shaking events as–well–events that shake up the world. But these sorts of events don’t really change the world as they are the same old acts of competition and violence and force that have been with us since Cain killed Abel. If the Resurrection were such an earth-shaking event, it would actually have kept the world going in the same old rut of retaliatory violence. That the Resurrection is so low-key, especially in Luke’s version, shows us that the Resurrection does indeed embody a radical act of non-violence, giving us all the space we need, century after century, the discern why it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners, crucified and then rise from the dead. The necessity for the death was, of course, a human necessity as Caiaphas affirmed. (Jn. 11: 15) The Resurrection, though, is God’s necessity. It was necessary that God raise Jesus to give us an undying life-giving presence for all time. But this presence needed to be totally without violence, i..e. without force of any kind, just as Jesus’ death had to result from renouncing all violence in the face of evil. Not even the earthquake in Matthew forced Jesus’ resurrected life on anybody.

St. Paul writes about being baptized into Christ’s death before rising with him. (Rom. 6: 3) The initial phase of disorientation described by Luke is very much a feeling of death as the world the disciples had been living in had also been rendered unreal, even if the imperial order continued unabated as it always had done. There is a lot more to dying to the old self than giving up our own personal sins. More than that, we need to die to the culture of violence we are immersed in so as to enter the life-giving nonviolence of the resurrected life. Since there is nothing earthshaking about it, nothing to make headlines, it may not seem like much, but to the contrary, embracing the forgiving life is indeed everything.

We may think that nothing has changed when we read about the virulent racism in our own country and around the world. Even worse is the horrific act of violence in Ukraine, which makes headlines, but is really only a repeat of what Rome was doing in Jesus’ time. But something has changed over the centuries. We now have oppressed people throughout the world arising in non-violent protest, including Martin Luther King Jr and William Barber II. We have a world-wide protest against the invasion of Ukraine and many countries doing what they can to help their stricken neighbor. These are all signs of the Resurrection in the midst of the horror and death that Jesus suffered on the Cross. The Resurrection, though, isn’t just about events on a large scale. It is also about small events of love and concern for the well-being of others day after day with the people right next to us—our neighbors.

Where Are You Planted?

The last time I preached, Jesus announced the Jubilee of God. I suggested that we will likely find the rest of the Gospel filling out what such a Jubilee entails. If that is so, the blessings and woes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6: 20–26) seem to be an odd way to have a jubilee. Usually we think that being rich and being well fed at meals filled with laughter and receiving lots of compliments is precisely how to have a jubilee. On the other hand, being poor and hungry while weeping and being reviled are all downers, but Jesus seems to suggest that these downers are what the jubilee is all about. As for Jesus himself, after he announced the Jubilee, he was spoken well of for about a minute and then it all tanked and he was driven out of the synagogue. So Jesus was already practicing his jubilee in terms of the Sermon on the Plain from the start of his ministry.

Obviously we need all the help we can get for understanding these troubling and puzzling words, so let’s see what we can glean from the first two readings. Jeremiah also talks about blessings and curses. Does he mean that God curses people God doesn’t like? The people that Jeremiah says are cursed “trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength.” (Jer. 17: 5) Sounds like these people are cursing themselves by rejecting God. The contrast of a tree planted by the water and a tree planted in salt land suggest that blessings and curses are simply natural outcomes of being grounded in God or not being so grounded. Jesus, then, picking up on Jeremiah, would be suggesting that the poor and hungry are grounded in God and the rich and sated aren’t. If that is true, then maybe being rich is overrated and is not such a great cause for jubilee. It is worth noting that the Rich Young Man went away sad because he had many possessions.

The words of St. Paul from the end of his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15: 12–20) with his anxious defense of the Resurrection suggest the possibility that the reversal takes place in the afterlife. Jesus does hint at that for the reviled and defamed. Maybe a better afterlife can also be some consolation for the poor and starving, but that does not otherwise help us cope with being poor and starving and slandered right now. And Jesus is saying that the poor are blessed now, not just later. The anxiety on Paul’s part is the denial of the resurrection on the part of some supposed followers. What’s the problem? If applying Jeremiah’s words to the Sermon on the Plain leads us to depend on God, we must depend on a living God, not a dead one. Only if Jesus is truly raised from the dead as the apostolic witness avers can Jesus be depended on right now.

So, the big take from Jeremiah and Paul is that we are blessed if we are grounded in God and we are unfortunate if we are not. That much is certainly true and has the advantage of being a pretty big loophole where there didn’t seem to be one: we don’t have to worry about having some economic resources and being well-fed as long as we are grounded in God. But maybe this loophole threatens to be a trap. Surely Jesus is warning us that the more we have, the less likely we are to depend on God.

At this point. I get the feeling I’m fretting that if I have one penny too many, I lose my blessing and become unfortunate. Same if I take one bite of food too many, laugh too much or get one compliment past my quota. There is no end to this spiral unless I stop and turn around. After all, these thoughts are all centered on self. There is no jubilee in such fretting and there is no depending on God either. But what if we think more about other people having something to eat and something to laugh about? What if we stop reviling other people and build them up by letting them know we appreciate them? Doesn’t this start to look a little more like the Jubilee announced by Jesus? If we take this approach, we start to see how we hinder these things and how our social system hinders them. This gives us cause to weep, but if weeping leads to making these things better, then we have turned tears into laughter. But the deeper mystery remains. Sometimes we don’t see the silver lining of being poor and starving, crying and being reviled and these things often happen as a result of doing the things listed above. Jesus is encouraging us by promising that the silver lining we cannot see is really there in the love we pour out for others. He should know, having gone through Gethsemane and the Cross. This is why we are blessed even in such times if we are grounded in the crucified and Risen Christ.

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?

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.

God’s Sabbath Rest

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years (Lk. 13: 13–17) is one of many healing miracles where the Evangelist emphasizes its occurrence on the Sabbath. These healings were provocative to the Jewish leaders because they interpreted the Sabbath law to preclude any kind of work. Jesus clearly intended to challenge that interpretation but there is a deeper teaching about the Sabbath that he wants us to learn.

We see hints of this deeper teaching in these stirring words from Isaiah about the Sabbath:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 58: 13–14)

For the prophet, one dishonors the Sabbath by grimly pursuing one’s own interests instead of delighting in the Lord. In healing the crippled woman, Jesus was not pursuing his own interests, but that of another. More important, the healing caused much delight in the Lord on the part of the people who witnessed it except for the Leader of the Synagogue. A bit earlier, before speaking specifically of the Sabbath, Isaiah expressed God’s commendation of those who offer food to the hungry and “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” ( Is. 58: 10) Jesus obviously thought that satisfying the need of an afflicted woman is a way of honoring the Sabbath.

Psalm 95 refers to God’s “Rest” to mean both entry into the Promised Land and the Sabbath Rest as God’s intended end for humanity. The rebellion of the Israelites in the desert threatens to prevent the Israelites from entering God’s “Rest” on both levels. (Ps. 95: 11) The author of Hebrews picks up this theme in its eschatological dimension, noting that Joshua had not led the Israelites into the ultimate Rest when we cease from [our] labors as God did from his.” (Heb. 4: 10)

The author of Hebrews returns to this eschatological theme at the end of the letter when he contrasts the frightening dark cloud of Mount Sinai that the Israelites came to with our coming to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12: 22–24) Once again, we have corporate rejoicing. More important, we have the “better word” of Jesus, the Forgiving Victim in contrast to Abel’s blood that inspired vengeance from which God had to shield the murderer.

The Psalmist’s warning that those who murmur against God and Moses will not enter into God’s Rest and the author of Hebrews’s use of the same threatening tone for those who refuse the warning from Heaven sound vindictive but the “better word than Abel” suggests otherwise. I think we do better to realize that God’s Sabbath Rest isn’t so restful as long as we grumble like the Leader of the Synagogue. Nobody was casting him out of God’s Sabbath Rest; he just wasn’t having any part of it.

Inspired by Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week, most Christians celebrate the Sabbath on that day when we celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ at the altar. Since the Resurrection points to the ultimate meaning of the Sabbath, I would think it is not too much to see this healing by Jesus as one of many foretastes of the Resurrection, an encouragement to celebrate new life from the bondage of illness and injury and social oppression. The healing of just one person seems a small thing compared to the heavenly crowd in Hebrews but the whole crowd rejoiced in the healing, indicating that healing one person entailed healing the whole community. This group rejoicing suggests that the Sabbath Rest is hardly a boring, static existence but a dynamic rejoicing in the interests and healing of others which leaves no room for murmuring and rejecting God’s blessings. We should be too busy rejoicing for that.

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

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

On Being Lifted up for Us

crosswButterfliesAs we draw near to Holy Week, the lections focus on Jesus’ anticipation of his Passion. Jesus’ famous response to the Greeks about the grain dying in the ground in order to bear fruit suggests a good deal of serenity on Jesus’ part. But one can imagine personifying a grain suddenly experiencing the pain of being ripped apart from within and panicking that it is dying before blossoming out into a new life beyond imagining. If somebody had quoted Jesus’ words to the grain before it happened, would the grain have been serene about what was to come? A brief reflection on our own nervous state about such an occurrence probably gives us the answer to that question.

Jesus seems less serene when he says that his soul is troubled and raises the question if he should ask his Father to save him from this hour. But Jesus’ resolution returns in the very next verse: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “ (Jn. 12: 27) The clear echo of Jesus’ anguished prayer at Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels comes to mind here. Luke is particularly dramatic with the drops of blood dropping to the ground. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses Jesus’ anxiety more than the Gospels: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Heb. 5: 7) It is significant that, although Jesus was not saved from death, his prayer was heard. Or was Jesus saved from death?

After his Gethsemane-like words in John, Jesus says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John goes on to say: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (Jn. 12: 32-33) I agree with the many scholars who take this verse and similar ones in John as conflating the cross and resurrection. John abounds in word plays and here John gives us a double meaning to “lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross and he was lifted up in the resurrection. This conflation has the danger of minimizing the reality of Jesus’ death, making it a quick and easy passage to the resurrected life. However, I see a strong tension in the way that John makes the expression “lifted up” do double duty. After being lifted up on the cross, the crucifixion remains an enduring reality even after Jesus is lifted in the resurrection. That is, it is not only the Resurrection but the crucifixion that draws people to Jesus. John gives a powerful stress on the victimization of Jesus as the focal point when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (Jn. 12: 31) The crucifixion judges the persecutors and the resurrection drives out the persecutory mechanism that has ruled the world. It is because, as the author of Hebrews said, Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb. 5: 8) that he has the power to draw us to him. That is the say, the conflation can work both ways. It seems to dilute the experience of Jesus’ death but it also retains the painful death in the glory of the resurrection. This conflation shows how vital both elements are. Jesus was raised up on the cross as a victim of grave social injustice. God raised Jesus to vindicate Jesus and to demonstrate that the crucifixion, a disgrace in the eyes of the persecutors, was in truth the glory of God. (The Greek word doxa is another double entendre as it means both disgrace and honor.)

We can speculate on how Jesus himself actually experienced his approaching death but can arrive at no definitive answers. Even the New Testament writers who dealt with it give us varying portrayals. It stands to reason that Jesus’ own emotions were at least as complex as the sum of depictions in the New Testament. But, as the author of Hebrews said many times, Jesus is the forerunner into persecution and death to give us the courage to face both ourselves.

The Strangest Victory of All

Cemetary2Easter is a great celebration, but it is a strange celebration. It isn’t like celebrating an election won or winning the World Series. It most certainly isn’t like celebrating victory in war. But if we have trumpets and kettle drums to augment the shouts of Alleluia!” we might forget the strangeness sometimes and get carried away by a sense of triumphant victory.

The sober but profound truth is that we are celebrating the resurrection of a loser. Jesus was not voted into office; he was handed over to the authorities who put him to death. Jesus did not win a war; he refused to fight one. His disciples were downhearted because they thought Jesus was the one who was going to restore Israel, and he obviously didn’t do it. When he rose from the dead, some of his disciples thought he might restore Israel after all, but he still didn’t. All Jesus did was have quiet meetings with his unfaithful followers who had trouble recognizing him. During those meetings, Jesus explained the scriptures to try to help us understand why he could only win by losing. We still have trouble understanding this.

Jesus did win a victory; a great victory. But it was a victory Jesus won by losing. That is, if Jesus had defeated the Roman Empire by force and restored Israel in that way, Jesus would have lost, and so would everybody else. For defeating an enemy by force is the way the world normally works, so if Jesus had won in that way, the world would not have changed and the rule of defeating one another by force would continue to rule the world as it always has. But Jesus triumphed over triumphalism, thus defeating trimphalism for all time.

The Resurrection proves that it is Jesus who rules the world and not those who defeat others by force, least of all empires. If that is the case, then Jesus rules in an odd way. For Jesus does not give marching orders and intimidate people to do what he wants. (Unfortunately, many pastors do that on Jesus’ behalf.) Jesus rules the world by gathering those who will join him into a community of vulnerability and forgiveness. Of course, the vulnerable and forgiving lose in the game of life which is ruled by force.

It is frustrating to see the powerful prey on the weak and not only not does Jesus not tear the oppressors apart but Jesus teaches us not to do that. But the victory Jesus won on the cross was the victory of losing and the victory of Jesus’ Resurrection is the continuation of Jesus’ losing ways. What is so frustrating is that there is so much forgiving to do that it is overwhelming. Many of the news stories I read about make forgiving very difficult for me. The worst thing about these news stories is that they show how unforgiving our society is. Given that, it is a blessing beyond imagining that Jesus is gathering us in a different way. If Jesus had not won by losing, we would all be losers without even knowing how deep our loss is. But Jesus has won the great victory so that He can give us his life of mercy and love for us to pass on to others. We also are relieved of the responsibility to “win;” we only need be faithful in works of mercy. This is the way to life for ourselves and for all other people. This is the restoration of Israel. This is what we celebrate when we cry out: “Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”