The Psalms on Jerusalem

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Lord, I love the dwelling place of your house.”

Last week we considered this cry of the Psalms generally, in relation to God’s revealing his name to us. But this week let us examine it specifically, in terms of the place the Psalm has in mind.

In the Psalms, everything leads up to Jerusalem. This might be the most important image the Psalms give us. For though the “Jerusalem which is now,” here below, in the Middle East, “is in bondage with her children, the Jerusalem which is above,” the heavenly city, “is free” (Gal 4:25-26).

The heavenly Jerusalem is, for the Christian, the place of all our desires. “You have come to mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” says the Letter to the Hebrews – and then it describes that city: its citizens, its God who dwells in it, and its worship: “and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator,” or high priest, “of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24. The new Jerusalem is based on the vision of the old Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the Psalms.

This is at the culmination of the New Testament, in the final vision, in Revelation: “he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10). The great reward, in the last chapter of the Bible, is “that they may approach the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (22:14). The great threat is that “God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city” (22:19).

So we should pray with the Psalmist, “The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. . . . All my springs are in thee” (Psalm 87:2, 7). All my springs: the living water, the only water of life, flows from that city on high.

***

Three key points the Psalms teach us about Jerusalem – the earthly Jerusalem, as image of the heavenly – are about worship, community, and election.

First, worship. Jerusalem is the place of the Temple. There seems to be some debate about how the words are used, but Mount Zion seems to refer to the hill – one of five, it seems – within Jerusalem where the Temple stood. (It’s possible it also refers to the greater mountain atop which all of Jerusalem is found.)

The people of Israel prayed in their towns, of course, in their houses and synagogues and everywhere else. But the Temple was the place of sacrifice, the place of true worship. To love Jerusalem is to love the Temple, to love true worship. In all our prayers here below we long to go up to that perfect place of prayer, God’s chosen place to meet with us.

Already we have an image of this in our churches, and the Mass, and even the Liturgy of the Hours. We long to join in the perfect worship, the song of the Angels, the song of the Body of Christ.

***

Second, community. All Israel comes together in that city. “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity” (Ps 133:1). Of course it is good to have unity and love in our homes, and with our neighbors.

But the true unity is the unity of the whole Church. It is this unity that we long for. Our longing for Jerusalem, for the whole Church gathered around the throne of God, is what motivates our work for unity in our home, in our neighborhoods, and in our parishes. Think globally, act locally: love of Jerusalem motivates love of neighbor.

***

Third: election. The people of Israel celebrate being part of God’s chosen people. To be part of that people is precisely not to think that you are the special one. It is sheer gift, God who has given you membership in his people, not us who have claimed it for ourselves.

He has shown us where he dwells. He has come to dwell in our midst: given us a holy city. Let our hearts be always there. Let love of that city motivate our every action and every word:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be cut off.

If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;

If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps 137:5-6).

Are there ways you find the heavenly city unappealing? How could you better set your heart on Jerusalem?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: There is Enough

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 55:6-9; PS 145: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; PHIL 1:20c-24, 27a; MT 20:1-16a

A theological education does not replace Scripture. It just gives you tools to read Scripture better: it warns you of possible pitfalls, and sometimes suggests important themes you might not have noted.

This all comes in handy with this Sunday’s readings. My Thomistic education taught me to beware of any over-emphasis on the will. It also helped me appreciate the real meaning of “the common good.”

***

Our Gospel this Sunday is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” “Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money.”

So the landowner is “free” to do what he wants with his money. (Actually, the Greek is just “his own stuff”; this isn’t specifically about money.) We could take the lesson to be that God arbitrarily spreads his wealth. We could gloss this over with mercy, and say that God freely welcomes others, but we could still end up focusing on God’s radical freedom.

But we should go a step deeper, and see that the freedom in question is God’s freedom to be generous. The landowner has enough that he doesn’t need to be stingy: he can pay people a full day’s wage even if they haven’t earned it, because he has the wealth.

That is the heart of God’s mercy: his super-abundance. He can afford to be generous.

***

The other two readings give us two applications of this lesson.

Isaiah says, “Let the scoundrel forsake his way . . . let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”

At the heart of that mercy is God’s generosity, and his superabundance. God does not need to keep accounts with us. He does not need to get us back for our sins, because we can never hurt him. He is self-sufficient. He has enough.

That doesn’t mean everyone goes to heaven. We do not have enough! We need the wealth that he shares with us. We need his mercy, which does not only spare punishment, but shares his riches, and transforms us. We need to receive from him – and so the scoundrel must forsake his way. But when he does, the Lord always has enough grace to save him.

That’s why “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” We live in the realm of scarcity, where if I give you half my apple, there’s that much less apple for me. That’s not how it is with God. He gives us himself, and remains infinitely rich.

***

But where Isaiah talks about the sinner turning to God, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians talks about how the righteous turns to God. “To me life is Christ, and death is gain.” “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”

Paul is not afraid of suffering. He is not afraid of death, because if he loses everything – and death is the loss of absolutely everything – but has Christ, he has lost nothing. Because Christ is infinite riches, infinite happiness. Paul has nothing to fear from death.

But neither has he anything to fear from life. He can give himself entirely to others. His willingness to die puts a nice spin on this: life is not something he clings to for his own sake, but something he gladly pours out for others.

Paul can afford to be generous, because Christ is generous with him. If God is our sufficiency, we never need to be stingy. If my kids are needy (as they often are!) and I am left to myself, I need me time, I need to focus on my own happiness sometimes, I need to take care of myself – if I have not Christ. But if I have Christ, if I possess infinite riches, if I know the happiness that is God alone, then I don’t need to be stingy, any more than God needs to be stingy.

This comes out also in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. “When the first came, they thought that they would receive more” – they wanted to hoard! But the Master gives us our daily wage, and our daily bread. That’s all we need – if we know that he will be there for us tomorrow, and the day after, and forever, to be our sufficiency.

Are there places in your life where you don’t think God is sufficient to care for you?

What is an Angel?

archangelsWith the feast of the Archangels (Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel) on September 29, and the Guardian Angels on October 2, September is a good time to think about angels. What are they? What do they have to do with us? This week we will learn about angels generally. Next week we will learn more about Guardian Angels.

The angels seem a pretty uninspiring meditation. The tradition says they are “immaterial intellects,” disembodied minds. It’s hard to say which word is less exciting. Immateriality seems doubly alienating: they have nothing to do with us, but somehow they make us feel bad about our bodies. And intellects sounds like something intellectuals talk about to alienate normal people.

On the other hand, the artistic world gives us some grossly bodily pictures. The tradition started painting them with wings to show that they are not bound to place – but since we are, and since you can’t really picture something that is nowhere, the wings have become part of a terribly sentimental image. On the “liberal” side are those for whom angel just means fluttery and nice. On the “conservative” side are some really goofy modern novels, with angels that look and act like pro wrestlers.

Yuck!

***

Well, first, some traditional doctrine. According to, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Angels are disembodied intellects. They know and love. They are capable of forming matter, turning it even into a human body, and so they can take shape and appear as men, or as anything else. But disembodied means they are not constrained to any particular time and place.

There are good angels and bad angels. Being disembodied means not living in the progression of time, but in a kind of eternal now. That is freedom, not a constraint; because they are not bound to one particular time, they can act in every instant of history. But one consequence of their kind of eternal now is that the choice they make for or against God does not change at some later date.

The bad angels are identified with Lucifer, or Satan. Lucifer is a Latin word that simply means “light bearer.” It reminds us of the original goodness and “brightness” of all the angels. “Satan” is a Hebrew word that means “adversary” or “accuser.” It points us to his opposition to God, and to all who stand with God. Lucifer’s motto is “I will not serve!” (non serviam!) The bad angels are so great, they want to be their own gods.

The good angels are identified with Michael, a Hebrew name that is a rhetorical question: “Who is like God?!” To those who want to be their own gods, Michael says, “ah, but God is so much greater!” The old-fashioned image of a baby head with wings is weird – but it comes from a tradition that paints with symbols, instead of sentimental images. The baby is like Michael, who lets God be God, and does not grasp after power. The wings remind us of the angels’ freedom from the constraints of time and place.

***

The angels can teach us some things, by comparison. They can teach us humility. The wings are meant to remind us that we are constrained in a way that not all God’s creatures are. They remind us of our limits, and that there are others who are infinitely more intelligent than we are.

They also remind us to embrace our materiality: we are not angels! Our way of sanctity and happiness can only be through the little here and now where we live.

And they can remind us, too, of God’s greatness. God is not an angel, not just an especially smart immaterial creature. The angels can speak to us, and enlighten us – but God made us, and he made them. Angels are awesome, but need a creator; God needs no creator. Angels cannot create, and do not cause us to exist; God does. It is worth pondering sometimes whether we realize just what an awesome being God is.

***

Finally, not only can we learn from the angels by looking at them; they can actively teach us. The old cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad one on the other is not far from the truth.

Although angels can work in the material world, that is not the main thing they do. They see more than we do, and they can show things to us. Good angels remind us of the greatness of God, and can show us where he is acting now: just as Gabriel (whose name means “God is mighty”) taught Mary her vocation, and Raphael (whose name means “God heals”) showed Tobias where to find God’s healing.

And, of course, as C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters shows us, the bad angels can plant bad ideas in our minds, to lead us away from the one God. We should be aware of where these ideas come from.

Are we aware of the influence of bad angels? Could we practice greater devotion to the good ones?

Aparecida on Fundamentals of Formation

brazil-popeWe are reading through Aparecida’s presentation of “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” The chapter has four steps: it begins with the “Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ,” then examines the “Process of Formation,” next more closely examines “Initiation” and what follows after, and finally considers the “Places of Formation.”

The second chapter, on Process, has two parts. The second is perhaps what we are more inclined to think about, and what seems to be the focus of many formation programs: the “diverse dimensions” of formation (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral), care for “accompanying the disciples,” and an emphasis on turning the formed into formators, through a “spirituality of missionary action.”

But first Aparecida again points us to fundamentals: “fundamental aspects of the process.”

     6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

          b. The Process of Formation of Missionary Disciples

               i. Aspects of the process

                    1. The encounter with Jesus Christ

                    2. Conversion

                    3. Discipleship

                   4. Communion

                   5. Mission

In a sense, the document is repeating what it says in the previous section (and we examined last week): that all our “processes” have to be focused on Jesus. Let us not get ahead of ourselves, more worried about process than about the real goals of the process!

***

These five “fundamental aspects,” Aparecida underlines, “appear differently at each step of the journey.” That is to say, they are not five steps; we do not “move on” from encountering Jesus, then get to conversion, then discipleship, communion, and mission. Instead, every step of our journey must re-engage these five fundamental aspects. These, together, are the measure by which we gauge whether each new step is a step forward, or off the path.

Then too, these five aspects are “closely intertwined and draw nourishment from one another.” Without a sense of mission, our encounter with Christ is sterile; there is no conversion without communion, no true discipleship that isn’t about conversion, etc.

***

Again Aparecida underlines the “encounter with Jesus Christ.” “Without the kerygma,” that is, the basic Gospel message, the basic proclamation that Jesus is Savior, “the other aspects of this process are condemned to sterility, with hearts not truly converted to the Lord.”

Everything we do must constantly return to Jesus Christ.

***

But so too, everything must focus on real conversion, a real change of heart. Formation is not just about learning new things, and not about just any kind of personal change, but about the kind of change we call conversion.

Aparecida helps us measure our focus on conversion by pointing us back to the constant remembrance of Baptism and Confession.

Baptism is, fundamentally, an act of repentance, of rejecting our old ways, dying to the world’s standards, and embracing the new life of Christ. John the Baptist’s Baptism did not have the power of Christ’s, but it reminds us what that power was about. John told them to repent!

We have to keep alive that sense that our life is rooted in Baptism, rooted in repentance, and conversion. The fundamental instrument of that repentance is Confession. Any part of formation that does not fundamentally lead us back, and deeper, into Confession, is a kind of formation that has missed the mark.

***

All true formation must also always be about “discipleship,” which Aparecida defines as “constantly maturing.” Disciple means “student”. True formation means maintaining that attitude; life-long formation means never ceasing to be a student of the Lord Jesus.

Aparecida says our discipleship must be a constant maturing in knowledge, love, and following Christ. Any formation that doesn’t lead us to know, love, and follow the Master always more and better is not real formation.

***

The fourth fundamental aspect of true formation is “communion.” Just as true formation leads us deeper into the encounter with Christ, it also leads us deeper into the Church. That includes the teachings of the Church, as part of discipleship, but communion points us deeper. Communion means we learn always love our neighbor more and better; always to find ourselves more in relationship with other Christians.

We begin to see better how these five elements are “closely intertwined and draw nourishment from one another.” True conversion draws us to better love, deeper communion with the Church, both local and around the world. Deeper communion, deeper love, points us right back to conversion, as we want to love better. True discipleship points us towards both. And a true encounter with Christ both leads us to conversion, discipleship, and communion, and is then fed by those things. The deeper we love, the more truly we will encounter him.

And so too, will we be sent forth in mission, to draw others to encounter, conversion, discipleship, and communion.

 Are we moving forward in all these ways? When we think about evangelization, do we tend to overlook any of them?

Ratzinger on the Importance of Words in the Liturgy

Pope Benedict XVI is often assumed – on very little evidence – to be in favor of a wholesale return to liturgy as it was before Vatican II. But to the contrary, his words below are the strongest argument I have ever read for vernacular liturgy.

To be sure, some like to drive a wedge between “early” Ratzinger (this is from 1966) and a supposedly more conservative later Ratzinger – but he has always denied this distinction, saying none of his views have fundamentally changed. As Pope, his abundant promotion of Biblical spirituality is built on the insight expressed below.

It should be added that, in the same article, he argues that Latin has some role in connecting us to the earlier tradition – just as the Hebrew Amen, Alleluia, Sabbaoth, and Hosanna, and the Greek Kyrie Elieson remind us of our even earlier history. And already in this article he is arguing for the value of ad orientem liturgy. But he rejects arguments against the central importance of vernacular in the liturgy. A truly Ratzingerian liturgy, I think, would be ad orientem, but in English.

cardenal4“Against the movement towards the vernacular it is urged [by people Ratzinger disagrees with] that it is only right that the element of mystery in religion should be veiled in a language all its own and that this has been the practice of all religions known to mankind. . . .

[But] We can easily prove that the argument about the element of mystery in religion is not a valid one, any more than is the argument about retreat into the silence of individual piety, not to be disturbed by the community at worship; in fact, both these arguments stem from a basic failure to understand the essence of Christian worship. . . .

The essence of Christian worship is that it is the announcement of the Glad Tidings of God to the congregation bodily present, the answering acceptance by the congregation of this announcement, and the whole Church talking together to God, though this latter is closely interwoven with the announcement of God’s message.

For instance, the announcement of that which Christ did for us at the Last Supper is, at the same time, praise of God Who willed so to work in us through Christ. It is a remembrance of the salvific deeds of God in our regard and at the same time a cry to God to fulfill and complete the work then begun, at once a profession of faith and a profession of hope, at once thanksgiving and petition, at once announcement of the Good Tidings and prayer.

Thus the liturgy, viewed solely from the linguistic structure, is built on an intermingling of the “I” and the “you”, which are then continually being united in the “we” of the whole Church speaking to God through Christ. In a liturgy of this kind, language is not for the purpose of concealment but for the purpose of revealing, it is not meant to allow each one to retreat into the stillness of his own little island of prayer but rather to lead all together into the single “we” of the children of God, who say all together: Our Father. It was therefore a decisive step that the liturgical reform took when it released the word from the fetters of ritual and gave it back its original significance as a word. . . .

It is not the purpose of liturgy to fill us with awe and terror in the presence of sacred things but to confront us with the two-edged sword of the Word of God. Neither is it the purpose of liturgy to provide a festive and richly-adorned setting for silent meditation and communion of the soul with itself, but rather to incorporate us into the “we” of the children of God, that God who by His Incarnation has emptied Himself and come down to our level and become one with us, the lowliest of his creatures.”

-Joseph Ratzinger, “Catholicism after the Council,” 1966

The Psalms on the Name of God

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Having entered the Temple, and worshiped both through actions (washing his hands, going around the altar) and through words (speaking praise and telling God’s wondrous works), the Psalmist now speaks of pure love:

“Lord, I love the dwelling-place of your house

And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.”

In the Jerusalem Temple of old, and then in Jesus and his Blessed Sacrament, God has come to dwell with us. This week we will consider the importance of his making himself present, by focusing on God’s “name.” Next week we will consider the place of his dwelling.

***

The Psalms refer to the name of the Lord over a hundred times. Just in the first ten Psalms, for example, we get

“Let them also who love your name be joyful in you” (5:11).

“I will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high” (7:17).

“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth” (8:1 and :9).

“I will sing praise to your name, O most High” (9:2).

“They who know your name will put their trust in you” (9:10).

***

The Psalms give thanks for all that God has revealed to us – “Your Law is my delight!” (119:174). God has not left us to figure it all out by ourselves. He has shown us the way.

The Christian rejoices in the revelation of the Law even more than does the Jew. This is what Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about.

“The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good,” says St. Paul (Rom 7:12). The problem is “the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin” (7:14). “I delight in the law of God in the inward man; but I see another law in my members” (7:22-23). Thus he calls the Old Testament Law “the law of righteousness”; the problem is that the Old Testament people, without the grace of Christ, “had not attained to the law of righteousness” (9:31).

But now we have a new law, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2). The Spirit is a “law written in their hearts” (2:15). He calls it the “law of faith” (3:27) and says “love,” the love of Jesus Christ, poured into our hearts by his Spirit, “is the fulfilling of the law” (13:10.

How good God is, to show us the way!

***

But he has revealed even more than the way, the law. He has revealed himself, his “name.”

Last week we saw how we approach God through thanksgiving. Thanksgiving even gives us a kind of definition of God. What is God? God is the one who made the earth, who made the seas, who made the family, who made beauty, and the possibility of beauty. God is the one, too, who has given us all the help summed up under the titles “the Law” and “the word,” and who has died for us, and given us his sacraments. When we give thanks for all this, we get an idea of who God is.

But God is above all this, infinitely greater than all the gifts he gives. That’s what the Psalms point to when they talk about his “name.” He doesn’t just show us what he can do. He shows us who he is.

This is a mysterious thing. It isn’t contained in the un-pronounceable letters YHWH, though their mysteriousness points us both to the reasonable knowledge that he is above all our words and to the great wonder of faith that he chooses to reveal himself to us.

The Holy Spirit, the new law, takes us deeper into knowledge of him, beyond all words, as does the person of Jesus. Indeed, the “name” Jesus points precisely to him: he who comes to us, and he who wants not just to do things for us, but for us to know him, himself.

The name points us to reality of divine friendship: that, whatever friendship with God could possibly mean, he calls us into union with him.

***

The name of God, it must be said, is not exclusive, it is inclusive.

That is, the purpose of revelation is not to create a club with a password. God’s name is not revealed as a way to keep people out: “if you don’t say the right name, we won’t let you in!”

No, God’s name stands for all the ways that God lets us in, calls us in to a divine closeness that would never be possible without his revelation and his Spirit.

O Lord, how excellent is your name!

Do we try too hard to reach God on our own? How could we better allow him to teach us to pray?

The Exaltation of the Cross: Suffering and Gratitude

Exaltation-Cross

NM 21:4b-9; PS 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38; PHIL 2:6-11; JN 3:13-17

This Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross takes precedence over what would be the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings show us how the Cross teaches gratitude.

The first reading, one of the stories about the Exodus in the Book of Numbers, begins with one of the Bible’s most amusing stories, about ingratitude. God has brought his people out of slavery in Egypt – and they complain, “against God and Moses,” “We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

The Exodus is the central story of the Old Testament. This humorous little story of ingratitude takes us to the heart of Scripture.

***

God’s response foreshadows the Cross. He punishes them, with biting serpents. But why does God punish?

The punishment leads them to ask God for deliverance: “Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.” The punishment takes them from complaining to trust, from ingratitude to a rediscovery of gratitude.

God’s way of salvation is even stranger, at first glance, than is his choice to punish. “Make a saraph [a serpent] and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” The poisonous snake on a pole becomes the symbol of healing. (We still see that symbol on ambulances, and are reminded of it – and of the strange old union between barbers and medicine – in barber poles.)

The whole dynamic is of gratitude. To look at the bronze serpent is to be reminded that everything comes from God: the punishment, the good things we were punished for not appreciating, and the healing from that punishment.

Our sufferings cease to sting when we discover that they too are a gift.

***

Our reading from Philippians, the great Christ Hymn, gives us another angle on the same story.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” The Philippians hymn teaches us about two kinds of grasping.

The first is our grasping. We think everything is ours for the taking. We demand food – and delicious food! – in the wilderness, we demand an end to our suffering. We demand even equality with God. But Jesus teaches us that equality with God is not something to be grasped. Like everything else, we can only receive it as a gift. We need a savior.

And that savior himself does not grasp, and so shows us what it looks like to accept God as Father. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . . He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death.” Jesus models the humility that alone can lead us to God: the humility that grasps at nothing, and is obedient even to death on a cross.

***

John’s Gospel simply states the thesis. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

People often insert a word that isn’t there. “God loved the world so much”? But that’s a different word (ever clearer in the Greek). It doesn’t say this is how much God loved the world. It says this is the way he loved the world.

The particular way God chose to love us was by giving his Son to die on a cross – “just as,” the same passage tells us, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”

He could have loved us a different way: could have given us more delightful food, could have shortened our wanderings in the desert. Instead he gives us the Cross – both the fangs that sting us, and the sting of death lifted up in our sight.

***

“He gave his only Son,” John tells us, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

We can look at our crosses and think God wants “to condemn the world.” Rather, he wants to remind us that “no one has gone up to heaven” without being taken there by Jesus; “equality with God is not something to be grasped.”

Like the serpents in the desert, our crosses, paradoxically, can teach us not to complain, but to cry out to God for help. When we cry out, God does not give us the deliverance we expect. He shows us the Cross of Jesus, to teach us that our crosses are gifts from him, just as everything is, and that the true relief is his presence, his union with us. He alone is our peace.

What parts of our life do we fail to receive with gratitude?

At the Foot of the Cross, She Stands

stabat materOn Monday, a week after Mary’s birthday, and one day after the Triumph of the Cross, we celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows.

The tie-ins are nice. First we celebrate, with a bigger feast, Christ’s triumph. In fact, this feast used to be called, “The Finding of the Cross.” “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” This is a very objective feast. By focusing on the Cross itself, it reminds us that Christ did the work. Christ saves us. It is the Cross that sets us free.

Placed in September, it lets the Easter mysteries of Spring penetrate to the other side of the year. And it recalls the High Holy Days of the Jews, and the Day of Atonement, in which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people – perfected on the Cross.

But the next day, we celebrate, as it were, the subjective side. It is Christ who saves us. But it is Mary who is first to be saved, Mary who receives the gift of Christ on the Cross. Our Lady of Sorrows doesn’t do anything, except enter into what Christ does. Yet it is that entering in that is the whole point. Christ died to save us – and Mary stands there for us.

Indeed – this is the other tie-in – it is for this that Mary was born. In a quick week, we go from celebrating all the promise of Mary’s birth to seeing the fulfillment of that promise, in the Cross. For this she was born: to share in the sufferings of Christ, to be bathed in his blood.

***

But what does Mary gain at the Cross? What happens to her there?

The tradition – especially the Dominican tradition – focuses on a single word in John’s Gospel: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother” (John 19:25). Stabat Mater, sings the great sequence, the special hymn for this day: she stood.

She did not faint. Though others were there, the heart of the mother, which, Simeon prophesies in Luke’s Gospel will be “pierced by a sword” (Lk 2:35), is a singular place to meditate on this standing.

Notice, when you look at traditional art of the crucifixion, that Mary Magdalene is typically sprawled on the ground. And who would not? The Cross is too awful, the very pinnacle of awfulness. If the Cross does not make us despair, if the Cross does not make us faint, then nothing will.

But the Cross does not make the Mother of Jesus faint or despair. She stands. (So, says the Greek of the New Testament, does the disciple Jesus loves: in traditional images, John too is standing with Mary, as we are called to stand.)

***

We are not meant to see in this an image of Mary’s strength, or stoicism. To name a feast Our Lady of Sorrows is to see the connection between Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus. She has every reason to fall. Nobody’s heart could be more broken than Mary’s.

How then does she stand? Her standing is an image of grace. We can imagine a ray of light (as in the image of Divine Mercy) shining into Mary’s heart, holding her up beyond all human strength. A ray of hope beyond hope: for “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he still hope for? But if we hope for what we do not see, then with patience we wait for it” (Rom 8:24-25).

The Holy Spirit dwelling in Mary’s heart keeps hope alive in complete darkness. She cannot see beyond the darkness. But hope keeps her alive. Hope keeps her standing.

And the root of that hope is love: the love that binds her to Jesus on the Cross, and the love that is as strong as death (Song 8:6).

 ***

This is the Gospel. This is the meaning of the Cross.

Jesus does not save us from suffering. We are “joint-heirs with Christ; if we suffer with him, then we may be also glorified together” (Rom 8:17). Glory sounds nice – but the promise is that we may pass to heaven through the Cross.

Yet the promise of Our Lady of Sorrows is that we can stand through that suffering. Jesus has been there. Mary has been there. John has been there. We do not take the place of Jesus, but like Mary, his Spirit poured into our hearts can transform our suffering into the place of union, of hope and love. If, like John, we stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary.

What Cross is Jesus offering to help us stand through? What does it look like when we faint?

Aparecida on “Places of Encounter with Jesus Christ”

brazil-popeThis week we begin our more detailed examination of Chapter Six of the Aparecida Document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” There is a lot of talk about this topic right now, including a popular book on Forming Intentional Disciples and a big recent conference on the formation that should happen in an “Amazing Parish.” Aparecida has much to add to the conversation.

The chapter on formation begins with the question of truly Christian spirituality:

6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

     a. A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ

          i. The encounter with Jesus Christ

          ii. Places of encounter with Jesus Christ

          iii. Popular piety as a place of encounter with Jesus Christ

          iv. Mary, disciple and missionary

          v. The apostles and the saints

True spirituality will be truly Christian: focused on Jesus Christ, and fully Trinitarian: we know the Father through union with Christ, and we are united to Christ not by merely human effort, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in our hearts.

***

This clear focus on Jesus and the Trinity is already a great contribution of Aparecida to the discussion about formation. There can be no formation without a clear focus on the goal.

But Aparecida’s greater contribution is in its discussion of “places of encounter with Jesus Christ.” I fear some of our recent conversation has been too jealous of Protestants, embracing the language of “personal relationship” (whatever exactly that might mean) and then looking to Protestant methods like “discipling” and even “welcomers” at the Church door.

Aparecida’s approach is more traditional, and more Catholic. The Tradition has some fantastic resources of its own!

***

The first section on “places of encounter” walks us through the standard practices of Catholicism, quoting abundantly from the wonderful magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI.

We encounter Christ in Scripture, where he speaks to us, and especially in the profound encounter with Scripture we call lectio divina. We encounter him in the liturgy, where we enter into the communal experience of Scripture as presented to us by the Tradition. Sunday Mass, understood as participation in the life of the Church, is itself a profound encounter with Christ.

We encounter Christ in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which is both our perfect worship and our perfect union with Christ himself. We encounter him, too, in Confession, where he enters into our moral struggle.

And we encounter him through the experience of Christian love: in the parish, in the soup kitchen, even in political action, when we let the love of Christ move us to action.

***

But after reviewing all of these, Aparecida plunges us even deeper into Catholic wisdom with three sections on “popular piety.” A long list helps us define the term: patron saints, novenas, the rosary, the Way of the Cross, processions, songs, saints and angels, solemn promises, family prayer, pilgrimage, the crucifix, candles, pictures of Mary.

Pope Francis has identified this as his favorite section of the whole document. Perhaps the key insight is in these words: “Popular piety delicately permeates the personal existence of each believer.”

The “popular” part of popular piety is its connection with our own particular circumstances and passions. The liturgy, lectio divina, and the Eucharist all insert us into the life of Christ – but popular piety brings Christ into our lives. It is all the ways that a particular people brings Christ into contact with their particular concerns.

Maybe this is what Protestants mean by “personal relationship.” But notice the difference between chatting with Jesus-my-buddy and popular piety. Popular piety is at the same time more passionate, more expressive of our deepest feelings, and also more reverent of the mystery of God and the Word-made-flesh.

***

Aparecida, speaking from a place of pilgrimage in Brazil, speaks especially about pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is deeply personal, both along the way, and at the end.

Along the way, pilgrimage gives us the time to think, to actively focus our life towards our goal. The opportunity, too, to work, to make our faith about putting one foot in front of the other.

The end of a pilgrimage is a shrine, an expression of Christ’s contact with our particular culture. It casts us more deeply back into the encounter of Christ with our world: whether it’s a shrine to great missionaries (like the North American Martyrs, or Mother Seton, here in the mid-Atlantic) or of our culture’s particular devotion to some aspect of the life of Jesus or Mary.

How could we make our faith more personal through popular piety? Where could you go on pilgrimage?

Pascal on Entertainment

Blaise Pascal (1623-62), was both a great mathematician and a great spiritual writer and very devout Christian. Now, he was a heretic – part of the Jansenist movement, which, though it never exactly left the fold of the Catholic Church, was condemned for a far too negative view of human nature – so if you don’t like what he says here, you are free to disagree with him.

But I think he has a point, and an important one for us today. The danger of theater, he says (and, far more, the danger of television and the movies) is not that it portrays evil, but that it portrays the good in such a shallow, easy way. The danger is that we leave thinking life is that simple – and do not realize the great struggle that goodness is.

I think we could apply this to many simplistic things people say about “good and evil”: if a movie has good guys and bad guys, we are supposed to think it’s basically Christian. But life is not that simple: Pascal would warn that these movies do not challenge us enough. And even more, he says, when the movies portray love: if only love were so easy! The danger is that, in thinking goodness is easy, we will not take our own spiritual development seriously.

In this quotation, do not miss the element of seduction. Pascal is portraying the innocence of theater not because he thinks it is innocent, but because he thinks its false innocence is dangerous.

pascalAll great amusements are a danger to the life of the Christian; but of all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theater. It represents the passions, so natural and subtle that it awakens them and brings them forth in our hearts; above all the passion of love, especially when it is portrayed as very chaste and honorable.

For, the more innocent it appears to innocent souls, the more apt are they to be moved by it; its vehemence flatters our self-love, which straightway develops a desire to produce the same effects which we see so well represented. At the same time, we develop a conscience founded on the honorable feelings portrayed, which reassure pure souls who fancy that a love so apparently moderate cannot injure their innocence.

So we leave the theater with our hearts so full of all the beauty and tenderness of love, our souls and minds so convinced of its innocence, that we are ready to receive its first impressions, or rather to seek occasion of awakening them in the heart of some one else, so that we may experience the same pleasures and sacrifices which we have seen so well depicted on the stage.

-From “Pascal’s Apology for True Religion” (part of the Pensées)