Dostoevsky’s Christianity

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I’ve been enjoying the novels of Dostoevsky the last few years (I’ve read and reread Brothers Karamazov, then The Idiot and Demons), as well as American Southern authors, from Flannery O’Connor to Faulkner, who evoke something of his sense of hopeless poverty, and Russian spiritual authors, from the Vladimir Lossky to Catherine Doughtery to the Philokalia, who I feel have . . . something important to say to us in the West.  I also find something hopeful in the bleak hopelessness of English Catholic novelists like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.  But no one speaks to me of both that bleak poverty and that special Russian sense for the Gospel like Dostoevsky.  I’ve been trying to figure out why. 

I have felt like part of the value of the Russians is that, for all their problems, they speak into the West from the outside.  Their problems are not our problems, so they offer a perspective that can at least shake us out of the narrow ways we often frame things. 

I’ve had a sense that somehow this fits into the Russian debate, at Dostoevsky’s time, between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.  Dostoevsky was one of the Russians who thought that they shouldn’t be imitating us in the West.  On the one hand, Slavophilia (whatever it means) makes me nervous.  I believe in Catholicism, which means rising above our national biases into the universal perspective of Christ; I hate nationalist Christianities, and Russian Orthodoxy is one of the most nationalist.  I don’t want to follow Russians deeper into their self-regarding parochialism. 

On the other hand, that might be what makes the Russians useful for us: they can shake us out of our Western biases, help us see beyond the narrowness of our own sort of nationalism, and so recover a Christianity that is bigger than America and the modern West.

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I recently began another read through Crime and Punishment, and found this wonderful line, already in the second chapter:

“A follower of the latest ideas was explaining to me just the other day that

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in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

From the pen of the Slavophile Dostoevsky, the line is obviously ironic.  It identifies the problem of the West as a kind of know-it-all pseudo-scientific outlook that thinks it rises above basic human relationships.  Dostoevsky’s word “compassion” nicely ties together a central part of the supernatural Gospel with the most natural parts of human existence.  “England”—that’s us—thinks it’s too sophisticated for either Jesus or basic human decency.

***

I happened to read these lines in a bright white Urgent Care, with one of those home improvement shows playing on the television in front of me.  On tv, they’ve just knocked open a wall and discovered some new opportunity.  I wasn’t following exactly, but the contractor says to the couple, “Do you want to switch over to a tankless water heater?”  They say, “Is that within our budget?”  He says, “Oh, it will only be fifteen hundred dollars.”  And she says, “Yes, I think we should do it: for our future, and for the environment!” 

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The impression is that “normal” people have thousands of dollars to throw around on spur-of-the-moment ideas; that we should be “investing” in “our future”; and that the most meaningful things in life are how fancy your latest renovation is.  There is no interior life, no need for compassion, no relationships, just lots of expensive stuff. 

Meanwhile, I read about Dostoevsky’s characters, horrifically poor, living in a hallway, dying of consumption and drunken despair, physically beaten by their bosses, hiring their daughters out for prostitution because they have no other hope of feeding their starving children. 

Two very different worlds: Dostoevsky’s Russia and our modern West.

***

Within the first thirty pages, a main character is on his kness, arms stretched out like a cross, proclaiming his wretchedness to his wife.  The same character has proclaimed of himself, “There’s no reason to feel sorry for me!  I should be crucified, nailed to a cross, not pitied.”

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But he says of the Crucified: “He who has pitied all men and who has understood everyone and everything, He will take pity on us; He and no one else; He is the judge.  He will come on that day and He will ask: ‘Where is thy daughter who sacrificed herself for her wicked and consumptive stepmother and for a stranger’s little children?  Where is thy daughter who pitied her earthly father, a useless drunkard, , and who was not dismayed by his beastliness?’  And he will say: ‘Come forth, I have already forgiven thee!’ . . . Then He will summon us, too: ‘Come forth, He will say, “even ye!  Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weaklings, come forth, ye shameless ones! . . . And He will say, ‘I receive them, oh, ye wise men, I receive them, oh ye learned men, because not one of them hath ever considered himself worthy. . . . ‘And He will stretch forth His arms to us, and we will kiss His hands . . . and we will weep . . . and we will understand all things.”

***

In our world of HGTV, we pretend that compassion—compassion for one another, compassion for the poor, the compassion of Christ, our own desperate need for compassion—is a thing of the past, solved by economic “progress.” 

Of course, that’s not true.  Though we might not live in the wretched physical poverty of Dostoevsky’s characters, we real human beings still feel the terror of all sorts of emotional and relational and spiritual poverty.  We still anaesthetize our pain, just like Dostoevsky’s drunks.  But we pretend that economic growth replaces compassion.  And we lose the immediacy of the Cross, Dostoevsky’s sense that our whole lives revolve around the pity and suffering of Jesus Christ. 

That’s one of the reasons to read the Russians, and all those other authors who still know that suffering is real.

It might explain, too, why our South American pope sounds so strange to the ears of rich white Americans . . . .

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Fifth Sunday: Lavishly He Gives to the Poor

Our readings this Sunday begin with a controversial idea: “Share your bread with the hungry.”

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Modern politics seems to be split between those who think the hungry probably don’t deserve my bread, and need the stimulus of their hunger to teach them a better work ethic; and those who think the government should take care of them so I don’t have to. 

And modern Christianity seems split between those who substitute the so-called “spiritual works of mercy” (counsel the doubtful, etc.) for the Gospel’s somehow inferior “corporal” works of mercy (“I was hungry, and you did not feed me . . . Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”; and those who prefer to ignore all the business about God and Jesus and Truth and Virtue in favor of an entirely material social program.

Oddly enough, the solution to this tangled controversy is in what the old Greek theologians call theosis: divinization.  “God became man so that men could become God.”

***

One place to find the key is in our Gospel.  “You are the salt of the earth . . . .  You are the light of the world,” says a familiar Gospel.  (These are the lines immediately following the Beatitudes, but it happened that this year the Presentation replaced that Gospel, something that only happens on average every twenty-one years.) 

No matter where you are on whatever ideological spectrum, these lines are attractive: We all think we should make the world a better place.

But our Gospel ends on an odd note: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”  What is the connection between my good deeds and “glorifying” God in heaven?  The first part focuses on me—but the second on God.  The first part is very this-worldly—the second part is about worship and heaven. 

The Tradition sees it this way: our good deeds are a product of God’s good work in us.  The saints are his masterwork.  This is parallel to Creation: the world is good because God made it.  The things of this world are less good than God, but they really do have a share in his goodness, because he made them, and therefore they are reason to give thanks to God, to “glorify your heavenly Father.”  But whereas the world is only his Creation, the saints are his children, really sharing in his life; only a human being can love as God loves. 

***

The flipside is the other odd part of this Gospel: whereasas the second part, about the light of the world, ends with glorifying your heavenly Father, the first part, about the salt of the earth, ends with a threat.  “If salt loses its taste . . . It is no longer good for anything but to be throw out and trampled underfoot.” 

God created us in image so that, through us, he could show his glory through this material world, just as salt brings out the flavor of food.  But if we do not serve that purpose, our lives have failed.  That is the real threat of Hell: we can fail to let God work through us.

***

The Tradition notes an interesting double layer in the various calls to serve the poor.  “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless . . . .  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!” 

The poor cry to us for help—and we, who are poor, cry to God for help. 

Our Psalm says, “Lavishly he gives to the poor.”  Who is he?  God?  Or us?  In fact, it’s both.  We give, because he gives, and when we give to them, he gives to us.  The whole mystery of Christianity is in this chain of giving: “Lavishly he gives to the poor.”

***

Our reading from First Corinthians adds the key middle ground: Jesus.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 

All of Christianity, it turns out, hinges on Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

He is both the poor man and the generous man, and he teaches us to be both.

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“I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,” says Paul, and so he renounces all claim to glory and riches and power.  In Christ the poor man, we find that our true riches are not in what we hoard for ourselves, but in our total reliance on the mercy of God, who raises the dead.

And in our love of Christ, we long to poor ourselves out as he did.  The corporal works of mercy give flesh to that call to imitate Christ.  Yes, of course we should preach the Gospel.  But if we turn the corporal demands of the Gospel into merely “spiritual works,” we empty the Gospel of its power, and deny the flesh of Christ. 

The world offers a false choice, between God or this world, the spiritual or the material.  Christ shows us how the two come together.

Where do you find yourself making that false division?

[Incidentally, my apologies for my absences.  Our seventh was born in early December.  Relying to much on my own strength, I have often been finding how weak that strength is!]

Third Sunday: Jesus the Light of the Seas

This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the one act of Jesus’s ministry before he begins his preaching, with the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew has given us two chapters on the infancy of Jesus, one chapter about John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus, and half a chapter about the temptation of the wilderness.  Then, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”

Follow me!

Here we have a great play on words.  In English, he tells the “fishermen,” “I will make you fishers of men.”  That’s nice, and I don’t want to take it away from you.

But in the Greek original, the word play is different.  The word for fisherman says nothing about fish or about men.  The word is “salty”: a fisherman is a man of the sea.  He is calling them to go out to the seas of the world. 

(The Hebrew word for fishermen is about fish, not seas.  But it’s a rare word in Hebrew, because Hebrews aren’t fishermen.) 

***

There’s quite a lot in our readings about seas.  Our prophecy from Isaiah, from which our Gospel will quote, says, “he has glorified the seaward road,” adding another water theme, “the land west of the Jordan.”  Our Gospel begins, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,” whom he had met in the waters of the Jordan,” he . . . went to live in Capernaum by the sea.”  Then it quotes Isaiah.  Then we find Peter and Andrew, “casting a net into the sea; they were” fishermen?  Men of the sea, salties.  “I will make you salties of men.”  James and John were in a boat.

Strangest, though, is that business about Zebulun and Naphtali.  Why on earth begin Jesus’s public ministry with a double reference to this part of Isaiah?  “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light” is obviously good stuff.  But Matthew starts by quoting Isaiah on “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea.”

***

It helps to understand a little geography.  Here’s a map.

The Mediterranean Sea is to the left.  Israel is the bottom two thirds of the yellow part, by the sea.  Babylon is the green part to the right.  But when the Old Testament prophets talk about the invaders who would take them away to the Babylonian Exile, they speak not of “the East” but of “the North.”  You can see the reason on the map.  To the east of Israel is an empty desert.  The roads to Babylon are through the rivers and populated lands to the north, in a great “crescent” path.

Jerusalem, and Judea, where Jesus found John baptizing, are in the South, and they were the last to be invaded.  But Galilee—our Gospel calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles”—is in the North of Israel, the first part to be invaded, and the place of contact with the foreigners.  The sea of Galilee pours south through the Jordan—just as the Nations stream through Galilee toward the South.  Zebulun and Naphtali were the two tribes that got this northern land in the original division; they are the older names for the North.  This is where Jesus went to begin his ministry: “in Capernaum by the sea.”

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For the Israelites, the literal sea, the Mediterranean, was a scary place.  They mostly left it to the Phoenecians: physically, boat-going people; culturally, cosmpolitan people, who mixed with the world.  Israelites kept away from boats, and away from the nations.  The salt sea is everything scary to Israel.  The Greek word “sea,” like the word for “fisherman,” also means “salty”; it’s ironic to call the “sea” of Galilee “salty,” because it was known for its sweet fresh waters.  But it is physically a place of boats—and culturally, a place of foreigners.  Galilee of the Gentiles is the place where the cultural “seas” of the world crash onto the beaches of Israel, and threaten to stream down like the Jordan.

Israelites stayed away from the beach.  Jesus went there to begin his ministry.  That’s the real word play in “fishers of men”: not that they would catch men instead of fish (though that’s a nice idea, too), but that they would go forth, not just on the physical seas of Lake Galilee, but onto the cultural seas of the world, beginning from Galilee of the Gentiles: “salties of men,” Phoenicians rather than homebodies.

***

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Our reading from First Corinthians talks about “divisions among you,” people more focused on who baptized or preached to them than on Baptism and the Gospel preached—people more focused on things that divide than on Christ who unites. 

But Christ is the light of the world, who enlightens even dark places and brings “abundant joy and great rejoicing” to the places once conquered.  That’s the original message of Isaiah to “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali”: you who were once taken away in exile will be set free. 

“Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  It’s that message of repentance, and of the kingdom of Jesus, that is the heart of the Jesus, the “meaning,” as St. Paul say, of “the cross of Christ.”  Let us not empty it of its meaning by falling to lesser things.  Let us see the light of Christ, and set sail on the seas of the world.

Can you think of a relationship where the Gospel of Jesus Christ could help you transcend petty differences?

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Baptism of the Lord – Jesus: The Way (and the Truth, and the Life) of Justice and Peace

This Sunday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, began the new Church year by proclaiming the person of Jesus Christ.

The Baptism of the Lord is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, an appropriate place to begin the Church year.  This Year of Matthew, we also get the opening of Isaiah’s proclamation of the Messiah.

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Isaiah is a long, difficult book.  The first 41 chapters proclaim woe to various nations of the earth.  But then in chapter 42, it takes a new direction.  Modern scholars call this Second Isaiah, as if it’s another author; even an old-fashioned reader like Thomas Aquinas recognizes that the book takes a dramatic turn.  It begins to proclaim the Suffering Servant, who will come to save his people from these woes.  What we read this Sunday is the very beginning of that prophecy.

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“Thus says the Lord: Here is my servant,” it begins.  But if this is the beginning, we should pay attention to how it describes him.  “Upon whom I have put my spirit,” it says, and then “He shall bring forth justice to the nations. . . .  He establishes justice on the earth . . . . I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice.”  Justice.  The Messiah brings Justice.

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But justice doesn’t mean what we think that it means.  The first indication is that Isaiah immediately adds, “Not crying out, not shouting.”  We think of protest, from Left or Right.  But Jesus’s way is calm.

“A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench”: gentleness.  We think of justice in terms of crushing enemies, whether Left or Right.  But he is meek and gentle. 

He will “bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  In Isaiah, those “dungeons” (an odd translation: anyway, prison buildings) are real: Israel is in captivity in Assyria, on the way to Babylon.  The prisons from which Jesus frees us today are no less real, though metaphorical.

But the way to freedom is through “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind.”  A new kind of justice, real justice, from a new way of seeing.

***

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The Psalm adds, “The Lord will bless his people with peace.”  Justice and Peace.

Ironically, where Isaiah said the Messiah will not shout, the Psalm says, “The God of glory thunders,” “The voice of the Lord is over the waters . . . the voice of the Lord is mighty.”  Justice does not mean protest and crushing enemies, but nor does peace mean silence.  The voice of the Lord, which the same Psalm 29 says, “breaks the cedars of Lebanon . . . makes Lebanon to skip like a calf . . . flashes forth flames of fire,” breaks in and transforms us.  The Messiah brings peace and justice by the power of his word, which converts us. 

***

In our reading from Acts, Peter is discovering that the Gospel welcomes in the Gentiles, and not only those who were of Israel by the flesh: “God shows no partiality.”  That crushing of walls is a huge, and underrated, theme of the New Testament.  He breaks down the walls of division.  He creates peace from those who were at war.

But how?  “You know the word that he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ.”  Through the word of Jesus Christ.  He is our peace.

***

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And by the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament has a way of speaking that seems odd to us.  “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power,” it says.  It sounds like Jesus was an ordinary man, who then received power from on high. 

That’s not true: Jesus was the Word become flesh, God from God, Light from Light, from the very beginning.  And yet Scripture shows that the same Spirit who comes on us is the Spirit that anointed Jesus.  We receive the anointing of Jesus.  We receive the Holy Spirit and power.  And it is only that power from on high that can make justice and peace in this world.

A parallel thing happens in the Baptism of the Lord.  “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” John asks Jesus.  The Opening Collect of this Mass prays that, “As the Holy Spirit descended upon him, [and You, God] solemnly declared him your beloved Son,” so too “grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well and pleasing to you.”

Jesus, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit from eternity, brings that Spirit into the waters of Baptism so that we may receive the same Spirit when we enter into those waters.  And as the Spirit is the Spirit of sonship, we become children of God, “sons in the Son,” sharing in his nature.

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Jesus is our justice and our peace, because only he can give to us that true justice and peace that is the truth and harmony of the Holy Trinity, the eternal right relationship of perfect love and joy. 

Through the sacraments we enter into Jesus, and begin—slowly—to be transformed into the love and truth of the Trinity.  On the one hand, the only true justice and peace is in Jesus, who heals our sinful hearts, so full of selfish division, and lifts us up into divine harmony.  On the other hand, anything that does not result in peace and justice is not true union with Jesus.

Where do you see the tragedy of false efforts for peace and justice—on the Left and the Right?

Holy and Not So Holy Families

At last the holidays are over.  I can step away from entertaining and get back to reading, writing, and prayer.

But Christmas is a family holiday, which the Feast of the Holy Family naturally follows—in more ways than one.

On the one hand, Christmas is about Jesus being born into a holy family.  On the other hand, we celebrate that feast in our own, less than holy families. 

I count myself blessed that, for all my family’s challenges, I look forward to being with my family at Christmas.  But I notice, every year more, how family struggles bring misery to many people’s Christmases.

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We idealize Christmas as a magical time, families gathered around the tree and around the table, giving wonderful gifts and basking in the light of tree and candles.  And that’s partly true.  But, just because it should be a magical time, it’s also a time where we notice all the ways our imperfect families spoil the magic: forgetting what others really want, from gifts or from time together; sinking into selfishness where we should be basking in love.

As my children get older, I appreciate the failures of parents.  The future Pope John Paul II, as a young priest, wrote a play called “The Radiation of Fatherhood.”  I don’t know anything about it beyond the name, but that name is a wonderful idea.  I am called to share in God’s Fatherhood, to teach my children what it means to be loved, what it means to be receptive before a benevolent and powerful parent, what it means to receive gifts in the deepest sense.  How wonderful to radiate fatherhood!

But, just because it is wonderful, how awful that we fail at it.  How awful that at Christmas I, and every other parent, am too often tired, or impatient with my children’s glee or weakness, or just want to be left alone. 

At Christmas we realize the scars that we all bear, of parents who have not always radiated the glory of God’s fatherhood. 

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Call this the second wound. 

Our first and deepest wound is Original Sin.  Original Sin isn’t something attached to our souls—it is a lack.  Our first parents received from God a fabulous grace, that both united them to God (grace elevates) and held them in unity within themselves (grace heals), so that, among other things, their appetites and desires helped them live a happy life, instead of leading them to misery. 

Our first parents also received the ability to hand this gift on to their children, so that we too would live that unity.  Instead, they squandered it.  Their selfishness broke their union with God, broke their unity within themselves—and withheld that gift of unity from us, so that we are born to struggle instead of to peace.  Original sin is a wound deep within ourselves, a lack of grace that can only be healed by God’s grace.  That is the first wound.

But the second wound follows closely.  Just as Original Sin wounds us from within, so our parents wound us from without—and what a horror, as a parent, to realize that we pass these wounds on to our children.  I’d like to think that my children are receiving from me all the gifts that will make their lives perfect and happy—and, to be fair, our parents gave us, and we give to our children, many gifts.  But wounds, too.  We are all screwed up by our screwed-up parents, and we’re all screwing up our children.

A favorite Christian poet names both sides: “I’ll carry the songs we learned when we were kids.  I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by.”  Our personalities begin as that mash of beauty and scars, both handed down by our parents.  That is the family celebration of Christmas.

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But at Christmas, Jesus enters into the family.  The real magic is not our perfect Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or Christmas dinner.  The real magic is that God has not abandoned us to ourselves. 

We come to the creche not as the bearers of gifts, but as the bearers of wounds.  We come to Christmas not as those who make things magical, but as those who know we need a Savior.  The only gifts we can pass on are those we receive from him.  (How magical that the Magi came to the Savior King only because he was already at work in their hearts.  Our desire to serve him is itself his gift.)  The only songs worth singing are the ones that come from him and point us back to him.  The only songs worth singing are the ones that acknowledge our scars, and bare them to his healing balm.

The Holy Family is holy because Jesus is there.  He radiates his love into the heart of Mary; she loves him because he loved her first.  The lesson of the Holy Family is not that our families should be perfect, nor less that they automatically are.  The lesson is that grace heals and elevates, and that the only way to make our families holy is to draw near to the Savior. 

Somewhere in there is his poverty, with nothing but dirty hay for his bed, and letting himself be treated like food for beasts.  May you take with you from this Christmas that poverty, with Jesus at the center.

What wounds did you discover this Christmas?

Keeping Christ in Christmas II: the Positive Side

Last week I argued that keeping Christ in Christmas does not mean saying “Merry Christmas”—a phrase much more connected to figgy pudding, Santa Claus, and consumerism than to anything about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—to Jews, Muslims, and secular people, which is to say almost everyone we encounter today.  Keeping Christ in Christmas has to mean something about Christ, not something about preserving the secular aspects of the modern winter holiday we vaguely call Christmas. 

This week I’d like to say something more positive.

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Love as I have loved

Christmas is literally the feast of Christ.  In England they still refer to the feast of St. Michael (Sept. 29), after which the Fall Semester for universities and courts is named, as Michaelmas.  The English liturgical tradition calls the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Feb. 2), when candles are blessed (because it is bleakest midwinter and because Simeon calls Jesus “a light for the nations”) Candlemas.  As Michaelmas celebrates Michael, and Candlemas celebrates candles, Christmas celebrates—Christ.

In liturgical Christianity, we celebrate lots of things.  The Council of Trent (1545-63) had to point out, because people sometimes used to get confused, “the Church at times celebrates certain masses in honor and memory of the saints; but it does not thereby teach that sacrifice is offered to the saints, but to God alone, who crowned them; thus the priest does not say, ‘I offer sacrifice to thee, Peter, or Paul;’ but, giving thanks to God for their victories, he implores their patronage, that they may intercede for us in heaven, whose memory we celebrate upon earth.”  In all things we celebrate the work of God Alone, but sometimes we celebrate that work as it appears in the lives of saints and angels, and sometimes in different mysteries of the life of Christ. 

Even at Easter, we celebrate the greatest work of Christ.  But at Christmas, what we celebrate is not a work, but Christ himself: the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of who he is, which comes before all the wonderful things he does.  In Latin it is called Natalis, the birth, by which God is born as man—but the English tradition is onto something in calling it simply Christ-mas, the feast of Christ.

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This Fourth Sunday in Advent, we read Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”  We read already the birth story in Matthew’s Gospel, which confusingly tells us that the angel tells Joseph “You are to name him Jesus . . . to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet . . . they shall name him Emmanuel.” 

Emmanuel means God is with us, which is amazing.  The name Jesus goes a step further in the same direction.  Jesus is a Greek from of the Hebrew “Yehoshua.”  Instead of Immanu-el’s generic “el,” “God,” the root here is “YHWH,” the supreme name of Israel’s God.  And instead of “im-manu,” which means roughly “with us,” in Jesus’s name we get “yashah,” “he saves.”  That God is with us, “Emmanuel,” is amazing.  That YHWH acts in our lives to save us, “Jesus,” is more amazing yet.

So this Sunday we also read the opening of Paul’s masterpiece, Romans, where he calls himself “a slave of Christ Jesus,” consecrated to the “the gospel about [God’s] Son,” calling us “to belong to Jesus Christ.”  He also mentions Jesus’s greatest work, “resurrection from the dead.”  But before we get to the Cross and Resurrection, we have to look to Jesus himself.  We need Christ-mas.

***

John Paul II talked a lot about a phenomenon he called “practical atheism.”  Theoretical atheism means that you embrace the idea, the theory, that there is no God.  Practical atheism means that you might theoretically believe in God—but in practice, it makes no difference in your life.  Secular Christmas is a great example: you can claim to celebrate the feast of Christ, but nudge God out of it altogether.  I fear that even a lot of people who claim to be devout Christians use Christianity more as a placeholder for a general conservative attitude than as a real relationship with God.

Taking things a step further, I’d add to “practical atheism” the danger of “practical theism.”  By theism I mean religion (theos is Greek for God) without Christ.  I fear it is awfully easy, especially in our current climate, to proclaim yourself a Christian in practice, but to have little or no place for Christ in your Christianity.  There’s a lot of talk about natural law, a lot of religion that seems more excited about capital punishment and free markets than about the Gospel, lots of philosophical Catholics whose religious worldviews don’t have any place for Jesus. 

That’s a problem.  We need Christmas, an annual feast to remind us that every day we need to refocus on Jesus.

***

In our reading from Romans, Paul names three practices for recentering ourselves on Christ. 

St. Jerome

The first is Scripture.  To believe that Christ is Savior is to believe that he teaches us something we wouldn’t know without him.  I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to say Christ changes everything, and then to get all your ideas from philosophy.  Philosophy plays a delicate and important role in Christian thinking, don’t get me wrong—and I should say more about that than I have space here to say.  But if Christ changes anything, our thinking needs to be radically subject to his word.  As Christians, as Catholics, we believe that Word is Scripture.  To be Christ-centered has to mean subjecting our minds, again and again, every day, to that word: above all, to the Gospels, but also to the New Testament, and even to the Old Testament, in which Christ mysteriously proclaims himself.  Christianity without Scripture is a Christianity where Christ is irrelevant: “practical theism.”

(I should add: by extension, the same goes for the papacy.  In the age of Pope Francis, conservative Catholics seem enthusiastic about a Christianity without a Magisterium.  Ultimately, that means a Christianity without revelation—and a Christianity without Christ, where we do it all by our own genius.  Beware, conservative Catholics!)

A second practice Paul names for recentering ourselves on Christ is devotion to grace.  Grace, I think, is the central content of Scripture.  We need to be healed.  We cannot fully know natural law, because we cannot live natural law, without Christ.  We need devotion to the sacraments, devotion to prayer, devotion to the Holy Spirit—and beneath them all, devotion to grace, to Christ’s work in our lives.  We need to recognize, in our lives and the lives of those around us, that the Fall is real: we are a disaster without Christ.  That’s the real heart of Christian mercy: the recognition that of course we fall without grace—and that grace can heal, but in Christ’s mysterious plan, it heals us slowly. 

And the third practice Paul names is simple devotion to the name of Christ: to think about the meaning of that name, but also just to say the name, to pray the Jesus prayer, to pray the Hail Mary with a focus on his name, to turn again and again and invoke the name of Jesus Christ.

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Of course we also need to bear witness to Christ.  But we can only bear witness to what we have discovered ourselves.

This Christmas, let’s redevote ourselves to Christ.

How do you return to Jesus?

Keeping Christ in Christmas

I was in the grocery store the other day, shopping for Christmas.  A nice cut of meat was on sale that we wanted for Christmas dinner.  (I hope it survives getting frozen in the interim.)  So I was chatting with the butcher about what our families like to cook for Christmas.

I live in a pretty diverse part of New Jersey.  At the checkout I was chatting with a woman I see regularly there; I gather from her veil, and from her being an African American with an Arabic name, that she is probably a Muslim, like many people in my city.  (Perhaps sometime I can write about black Muslims; I understand that’s a complicated proposition, involving both ill-treatment by Christians and a desire to live a devout life.  But this is not about my judgment of her soul.)

So I figured, not trying to have any deep thoughts about diversity, just to have a polite pleasant interaction with my neighbor, that talking about what meat we eat for Christmas was probably not the best way to be loving toward her at that particular moment in the checkout line.  I didn’t hide that it was for Christmas, but we shifted to talking about family, and kids (we just had our seventh!), etc.

The same thing happened a few days later, at another grocery store, where I was buying stocking stuffers but thought there was a decent chance the checkout guy was Jewish. 

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And it occurred to me after that last encounter, as it had not occurred to me before: not so long ago, this was something really controversial.  The maybe-Jewish guy said, “Happy holidays,” and on the way out the door, after pleasantly saying “you too!” I remembered that not so long ago we were fighting about saying, “No!  Merry Christmas!  It’s not just ‘Holidays,’ you heathen!”  Keep Christ in Christmas!

Now, I do think we should witness to our faith.  But I want to challenge what it means to keep Christ in Christmas. 

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Keeping Christ in Christmas certainly means that my family tries to pray extra during Advent, and keep a sense of waiting, and to go to Mass and pray extra and read the Bible at Christmas, and decorate with the creche, etc.  When my secular family comes to visit, we’re planning to keep up our traditions of Christmas prayer.  Certainly we need to keep Christ in Christmas. 

And certainly, we should look for chances of all kinds to witness to our faith.

But keeping Christ in Christmas is different from keeping the word “Christmas” in the holidays.  Demanding that the Jewish or Muslim checkout people hear me say “Christmas,” I propose, has very little to do with witnessing to Christ. 

In fact, in our culture, the word “Christmas” has little obvious reference to Christ.  If I want to witness to Christ, I need to talk about him.  Saying, “Merry Christmas” to someone who is not a Christian is just keeping the word “Christmas” in the holidays.  Whatever that is, it is a different thing from keeping Christ in Christmas.

The phrase “Merry Christmas” points us a step further.  There’s nothing Christ-centered about the word “Merry.”  “Merry” is about a particular element of Victorian culture that somehow we like to preserve.  From a tiny bit of research, it looks to me like the phrase came into popular parlance through the song “We wish you a merry Christmas,” which makes no reference whatsoever to Christ.  The phrase “Merry Christmas” has everything to do with “figgy pudding”—that is, with sensual indulgence and with Victorian culture, which was not especially Christian—and almost nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

I’ll keep saying Merry Christmas, in appropriate contexts.  “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” does say “remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day!”  (Though it doesn’t quite say “Merry Christmas.”)  But let’s not confuse that phrase with keeping Christ in Christmas.  Keeping Christ in Christmas is something different.

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Going a step further, all of this leads us to some things about the New Evangelization.  We live in a unique historic period, in at least three ways. 

First, modern travel has created multicultural societies as never before.  Perhaps you live in a place that is mostly Christian: fine!  But realize that much of the world, like my corner of New Jersey, is not mostly Christian anymore.  More than perhaps any other time in world history (imperial Rome might be an exception, but I don’t think so), we live in a society where we can make few assumptions about the religion of our neighbors; we certainly cannot assume they are the kind of people who celebrate Jesus Christ at Christmas.  “New Evangelization” is a reminder that we need to evangelize people who are not Christians, not assume they already are. 

Second, modern technology has created a society uniquely forgetful of God.  Most societies in history have had screwed up ideas about God (or the gods)—but at least they had some spiritual awareness.  Today, we can’t even assume that God is on people’s radars.  When they think about Christmas, they think about material things: figgy pudding, stockings, lights, gifts, food.  The New Evangelization has to begin with reminding them that there even is a supernatural realm. 

And third, we live in the first post-Christian society in the world.  In ancient Rome, Christians were a minority, but only Christians celebrated Christmas, so if you talked about Christmas, you were talking about Christianity.  In most parts of today’s world, Christmas means—well, it means shopping, and food, and stocking stuffers, all the stuff in my interactions above, but it has nothing to do with God or Jesus Christ.

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We often get into the wrong arguments.  We should fight hard to keep Christ in Christmas.  We need to celebrate him in our homes, and in our Churches, far more than we do.  We need to bear witness to him, however and wherever we can. 

But saying Merry Christmas to non-Christians, I submit, is something quite different from keeping Christ in Christmas. 

How will you bear witness to Jesus Christ this holiday season?

The Our Father and the Kingdom

Last Sunday we celebrated Christ the King, this Sunday we begin Advent, where we await his coming.  A good time to think about Christ the King.

I have written in the past about the Our Father.  There are many ways to pray it, many ways to think about it.  You can just pray it straight.  But I find it fruitful to have some theme, to keep me paying attention.  I have had times where “thy will be done” was a fervent enough pray to give meaning to the whole thing, or other times, more tranquil, where I was thinking about God’s fatherhood.  I wrote about how it can describe twelve steps, from heaven down to earth, or how you can think about it in connection with the sacraments. 

But a friend who does scholarship in Judaism recently introduced me to a new focal point: the kingdom.

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My friend’s main insight was about the first petition: “Hallowed be thy name.”  This is, of course, the most obscure part in English—but that’s the fault of our English tradition, not of the prayer Jesus taught us.  “Hallowed” means sanctified: “made holy,” or “treated as holy.”   

One way the Old Testament talks about “hallowed be thy name” is in terms of the reputation we give God.  When Israel sees God’s “children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name” (Isaiah 29:23).  But when God seems to be absent, “Their rules wail, declares the Lord, and continually all the day my name is despised” (Isaiah 52:5). 

Most of all, when God’s people are evil, they cause God’s name not to be sanctified: “Wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land’” (Ezekiel 36:20).

St. Paul summarizes this as, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

It is easy to think about this in light of the sex abuse scandals: the name of God is blasphemed because of our sins. 

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The flipside is that the name of God should be sanctified, revered, “hallowed,” by the way we show forth his goodness. 

That happens, in part, by our holiness, by our good works, which show God’s work in our life.

But, it must be said, our actions will never be good enough to hallow God’s name.  It is also by our mercy, our awareness that he is good, and he is strong, though we are not—our humility—that we can make God’s name hallowed.  

Or rather, that God can hallow his own name through us.  If he does anything good in us, it is to lead us and others to himself, to hallow his name.

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When you think about the first petition in this way, you can think of the whole Our Father as begging God to let the nations see him through us.

“Hallowed be thy name.”  That is our greatest prayer.  Just that they may know you—that we may know you.

“Thy kingdom come.”  They will know God when we act like he is our king, in our individual and social lives.  That is how God’s name is hallowed.  And, conversely, his kingdom is nothing more or less than us knowing who he is, living in the light of his mercy.  His kingdom comes when his name is hallowed—and his name will be hallowed as his kingdom comes.

“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Again the same: God is king when we live according to his will, and accept his will, in his commandments, in his providence, even in the suffering he sends us.  When we accept his will, we make him king, and we let his name be known and hallowed.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”  So what do I desire?  What is the one thing I ask for myself?  The strength to let his kingdom come in and through me.  I don’t ask for more than that—but I do ask for that strength, keep me going God. 

“Forgive us trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I recognize that on my account, his name is blasphemed, and so I beg his forgiveness.  But I know, too, that his name is mercy. That I make him known not by my perfection but by living under that mercy.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Let me only live in that kingdom, let me never step out of it, so that I may know your name and make it known, so that your name be hallowed.

“Our Father, who art in heaven.”  May I know you, and may they know you.  We ask for nothing else.

Thirty-Third Sunday: With Empty Hands

My apologies for posting this so late.

In the liturgical year, November is a time of dying: the end of the Church year, which rebegins in Advent, as we prepare for the new birth of Christmas; the death we experience in the natural world as the cold sets in; and the end of our in-order reading of the year’s Gospel, as it approaches Jesus’s death, and Jesus talks about the end times.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus responds to people’s admiration of the “costly stones and votive offerings” at the Temple by saying, “there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  All things end, now fades all earthly splendor.

Our first reading, from the prophet Malachi, is nicely paired: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven.”  The “blazing oven,” in Hebrew, is more literally a “gleaming flame.”  So when the reading goes on to say that just as those who fear God will experience “the sun of justice with its healing rays,” we realize that the same fire—the fire of death and the fire of God—is destruction for some, and healing for others, depending how we relate to God.

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In this week’s Gospel, after he tells them that the costly stones of the Temple will be thrown down, they ask Jesus about the end of time.  His answer isn’t nice.

Terrifying things will come—and false Christ’s will claim to save us.  But neither of those things are the end.  He doesn’t say, “when something scary happens, that must be the end.”  He says, “Lots of scary things will happen—long before you even get to the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation,” “earthquakes, famines, and plagues”: these aren’t the things of the end, these are situation normal.  It’s a real danger of our rich American society that we imagine that we can escape from bad things.  Of course we do our best—but the world is a scary place.  And that’s not even the end.

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But even worse than the temptation of false Christ’s (and false predictions of the end), and even worse than the external threats (earthquakes, famines and plagues), the worst suffering will be on account of our faith.  How’s that for a Savior?  This one says, “If you follow me, you will get hurt.”

“They will seize and persecute you . . . because of my name.”  Following Jesus is not supposed to make life easy.  He says it will make life hard. 

Then he explains how to respond: “You are not to prepare your defense beforehand.”  It’s tempting to think the threat of persecution means we need to defend ourselves.  Jesus sends us in barehanded—just as he went to his own death.

Part of our defenselessness is that Jesus promises that even our families and friends will turn again us, “and they will put some of you to death.”  There is no one we can trust.

Or rather, we go not empty-handed, but armed by him alone, trusting in him alone: “I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking.”  Our strength will not prevail.  We need to renounce our strength.  But his strength is sufficient: “a wisdom . . . that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”

It’s worth noting that death itself will be like this: we will stand alone and defenseless.  The only one who can save us is the one who conquered death on the Cross.

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Real Christianity is scary; it involves a kind of hopelessness.  “I do not promise to make you happy on earth,” Mary told Bernadette—and Jesus tells us over and over in the Gospel.  If you’re looking for a God who will make things easy and nice, the Gospel is the wrong place to look.

And yet there is hope beyond the hopelessness, blessed joy in our sorrows and sufferings, Resurrection on the other side of the Cross.  If we call to Jesus, he will sustain us.

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Our second reading adds a funny little angle.  The Lectionary is perhaps less successful than usual in its deployment of Second Thessalonians.  It’s hard to capture the genius of this little letter. 

This reading doesn’t give us the central topic of the letter, I suppose because that topic is summarized in the other readings: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him,” it says, and like our other two readings, it predicts the calamities we have to look forward to.

But then it makes a funny turn, and this is what the Lectionary gives us: “In toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.”  “We instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.” 

The genius of Second Thessalonians is to say our response to all these dire predictions is not to stockpile water and weapons, not to gossip about when or how we think the end will come—but to put our head down and trudge along. 

As Jesus says at the end of our Gospel: “By your perseverence you will secure your lives.”  The real excitement is to abandon ourselves to him. 

Are you ready to meet Jesus?

Thirty-Second Sunday: I am the Resurrection

This week’s Gospel story is easy to understand, but its lessons are harder to find.

The Sadducees ask Jesus a trick question: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?  For all seven had been married to her.” 

Jesus responds that it’s a false dilemma, but his reasoning gets more and more strange.

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First, he says there is no marriage—which answers the question by making it worse: does that mean that heaven will destroys our earthly loves? 

Second, he explains why there is no marriage: “because they cannot die.”  (Our translation leaves out the “because,” but “because” is a fascinating word when you’re trying to understand a reading; it shows how the writer thinks the sentence is relevant.)  What does the inability to die have to do with not getting married?  And even more, what does it have to do with earthly marriage disappearing?

Third, he explains the not dying: “because they are like the angels.”  (It’s a funny word, literally “angel-equals.”)  Does that mean we resurrect without human bodies?  Or that angels have human bodies?  The Tradition answers both those answers “no”—but how are they like angels?

And fourth, he gives his final answer: Since at the burning bush God tells Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Abraham must have risen from the dead.  I don’t find that argument convincing at all.  If I say the United States is the country of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I am not making any claims about the resurrection. 

Jesus’s argument seems a bizarre chaining together of claims that do not clarify each other.  And anyway, who cares?  That there is a resurrection is of course important.  But what does this encounter with the Sadducees add to my understanding of it?

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A first clue is the word “age.”  The Sadducees conclude without that word: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?”  But Jesus responds by introducing it: “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are made worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead . . . .”

More than angel-equality or inability to die, these two “ages” suggest mystery.  Like the Sadducees, we imagine that heaven is just a slight tweak on this life.  Okay, we can’t die anymore, maybe we grow wings, but we imagine things will be about the same on the other side of death.

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But here, at the beginning of his response to the Sadducees, Jesus tells us that the key to thinking about the Resurrection is to realize that it’s a different world, a different “age.”  (The Greek word means something like “forever”—and Jesus is saying there is “this forever” and a different “forever.”) 

He is saying that the Sadducees—and we—lack imagination in our thinking about heaven.  Or perhaps we are using our imaginations too much, trying to picture something that matches our experience here.  To the contrary, says Jesus, no eye has seen, no ear has heard.  You have no idea what it will be like. 

Rather than trying to iron out the details—or to disprove the Resurrection because we can’t iron out the details—we need to realize that all will be transformed. 

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(How will things be transformed?  No sin and no death is a pretty big change.  Try to imagine a new world where everyone loves each other perfectly—where everyone has been “made worthy of the resurrection.”  Spiritually, maybe it’s not that the earthly love of marriage will be wiped away, but that it will be perfected, so that we all love one another with the intensity of spousal and familial love, no longer need to guard our modesty from prying eyes, and no longer need sexual intimacy to kindle our love.  And what will the body be like, without death and suffering, including the ache of longing?  Pretty hard to imagine!) 

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A second key to this reading is Jesus’s interpretation of Scripture. 

What he says about the burning bush is not convincing.  He hasn’t found a proof text that proves to every skeptical reader that the writer of Exodus believed in the Resurrection.

But it is an interesting rereading of that story.  Jesus finds in God’s words to Moses a deeper, fuller meaning than we would have expected.  There’s more to the story, a deeper statement about who God is, and how he relates to Moses, and to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and to us. 

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The Scripture is not confirming Jesus’s authority.  Rather, Jesus is lending his authority to Scripture.  He is showing that he understands Scripture at a deeper level, takes Scripture to a deeper level, than we could find without him. 

And how?  Because Jesus knows that other “age” with the intimacy of someone who lives there.  He can talk about the God of the Burning Bush as someone who knows the Father face-to-face, who burns with the same light and heat.

In fact, what we learn is not something about the Resurrection, but something about Jesus, and about the God of that coming “age.”  Because Jesus himself is the Resurrection and the Life. 

How could you contemplate Jesus as heaven himself?