Las Casas, part one: Spain

I have been doing some research on Catholic contact—and war—with non-Catholic nations, for a small part of a book I’m writing. I thought it would be helpful for me to write out a narration, and I thought it might be interesting to some of you.

Today, the back story of Bartolomé de las Casas. Soon, more of his story.

Las Casas was one of the early Spanish Conquistadores in the Americas. He came with his father to Hispaniola (“Little Spain”), Columbus’s main island, and now the location of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1502, the year of Columbus’s fourth voyage. He seems to have been about eighteen. We know about Las Casas primarily through his own extensive reports.

The Spanish colonists imported a system they called encomienda. Understanding it needs a brief history of pre-Columbian Spain. 1492, the year Columbus sailed, was also the end of the Reconquista, the re-conquering of Spain from the Muslims. The verbal similarity between the Re-conquista of Spain and the Conquistadores in the Americas points to the deeper legal and cultural similarities: Spain brought to America the ideas they had developed fighting Muslims in Spain.

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Muhammed died in 609. For whatever reasons (beyond the scope of this post) conquering bands picked up his new religion and spread quickly. In 710-711 these Muslims invaded and conquered almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. 732 was their first major defeat, by Charles Martel (martel means “the hammer”), all the way at Tours, about three-quarters of the way through France to Paris (which is in the far north). The French nation was born of beating back the Muslims into Iberia, which they had mostly done by 759. After that, France moved on to other things.

But Spain had another seven hundred years to fight. They gradually got a foothold in the north, then expanded slightly south, century by century, until in 1492, among other things, the Spanish drove the Muslims out of their last redoubt, Granada, in the very south.

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Was this a just war? I may come back to that in a future post, after we (and they) have figured out what just war means. The Spanish could make the claim that they were taking back land that had been taken from them: hence they call it re-conquista: not the conquering, but the reconquering of what had been taken from them. Their case looks a little better when you watch the development: they established Asturia, in the far north, around 720, when it was clearly the Christian Visigoths retaking their land from Muslims who had invaded in the last decade. The next move south, the Kingdom of Léon, founded maybe 910, was a small expansion of Asturias against their neighbors. It was not a major invasion, just a pushing back of borders. Castile, founded about 1065, was an expansion eastward, from Léon toward Christian allies in France. And they continued to push forward their borders. Grenada, in the far south, was the last to fall (and the least obviously just war), in 1492.

I don’t want to prolong this discussion. What I do want to point out is that most of Spain’s history was forged in these wars. In fact, if you think about the dates 720 (the foundation of Asturia), 1492 (both Columbus and the final conquest of southern Spain), and 2020 (today), Spain spent 772 years fighting the Muslims, and it’s only been 528 years since they stopped. Spain is the Reconquista. And it certainly was at the time of Columbus: the only thing they had ever known was this war of (re) conquest.

So when they got to the Americas, that’s what they did. A standard method of the Reconquista was this system of encomienda.

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In all of Feudal Europe, society was organized around knights: guys who could devote their whole life to learning to fight on horseback. Fighting on horseback takes a lot of skill, so it’s something you need to devote your whole life to, but before guns (and long bows), it was also incredibly effective, so everything military revolved around it. It was also expensive, so you had to be rich.

Beneath the knights, you had serfs who supported them. The knight wasn’t working the land, so he had other people work the land for him. Was it slavery? Kind of, kind of not, but that’s not our point here. The point is, knights needed people to work the land for them, so that they could ride horses.

Above the knights, kings could only be effective if they kept the knights happy. Everything revolved around these warriors on horseback. (Interesting sidenote: the same was true of the Mongols, though there they didn’t even bother with farming: similar and different.)

In Spain, where war was the entire way of life, the way a king got knights to fight for him was by offering him serfs. Encomienda means something “commendation,” “handing over.” The basic idea was: if a knight conquered an area for his king, he got control of the land—and of the people who would farm it for him. That was the way Spanish kings encouraged the knights, the re-conquistadores, and that was the way they paid them.

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So, naturally, conquest and encomienda was the idea the Spanish brought to the Americas. It had no roots in anything especially Christian (or anti-Christian). It was just the way of life of the Conquistadores.

With two differences. First, where in Spain they were pushing up against their Muslim neighbors, who had previously conquered them and who, at least sometimes, could arguably be seen as agressors, in the New World the Conquistadors were completely invading someone else’s country. Though the Spanish came up with other arguments—which we shall consider later—none of the arguments for the re-conquest of Spain applied to the conquest of America.

Second, where in Spain they used encomienda for farming, in America what they wanted was gold. This has to do with Spanish materialism, which is shocking. But it also has to do with the distance from home. In Spain, they wanted to make a home. In America, the Spanish wanted to get rich and then go home. It is an interesting difference between Spanish America and English America that the English were coming here to settle (which had its own problems). The Spanish were coming here to extract gold and silver and head home.

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So when Las Casas came to America, he came looking for gold. But the encomienda system was adjusted in some strange ways. In Spain, you had to prove yourself a conqueror before you got the slaves: that is how the kings urged the knights to fight. In America, you just had to take the boat ride over: that was awful enough that the king needed to offer recompensation—and the compensation was slaves.

And in Spain, the people you were conquering were people an awful lot like you, people you had fought with on equal footing for hundreds of years, and people whose technology and way of life were pretty darned similar. In America, the Indians were really different.

A key part of this difference was weapons. The Spanish had guns. They had steel armor. And, of course, they had germs. I have been reading the recent popular histories 1493 and Guns, Germs, Steel. There are some fascinating reasons, having nothing to do with cultural superiority, that gave the Spanish huge advantages. For example, the East-West orientation of Eurasia meant that germs could travel over huge areas and encounter similar climates. It also allowed the spread of farming technologies (because farming in East Asia works about the same as farming in Western France) that supported the growth of cities. Whereas the north-south orientation of the Americas meant that a germ or farming technique that thrived in Argentina would not make it north to Mexico, etc. The upshot is, Eurasia had developed much more virulent diseases, as well as immunities, than had the Americas, and it was a pretty unfair advantage. Eurasian germs laid the Indians waste. Indian germs had no effect on Europe. (Whether advances in weaponry and the willingness to use it made early-modern Europe culturally superior or inferior to the Indians is a question I will leave open.)

So settlers like Las Casas came to Hispaniola and then spent the bulk of their energy enslaving Indians and demanding that they find gold and silver. And they called it encomienda, the Spanish way.

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I’ll end this post with a thought about (cue spooky music) “The Black Legend.” Anti-Spanish northern-Eurpean Protestant historians like to talk about how horrible Spain is. The Inquisition and the treatment of the Indians are exhibits one and two in anti-Spanish history.

In response, Catholics whine about “the black legend”: black because it’s bad, legend because it’s false.

One of my purposes in the study of history is to get the story right. And part of getting the story right is realizing that history is bad: the history of humanity, from a Christian perspective, is the history of fallen men, hell-bound but for the Savior. Part of the reason I am studying this Spanish history, I admit, is because I, not as an English Protestant but as a Catholic, abhor triumphalist claims that some countries are without sin. No country is without sin: not Spain, not America, not the Indians, no one.

Certainly not England. I got into this reading about the Indians reading about Anglo America’s history. I knew it was bad. When I read it carefully, it’s way worse than I thought. The United States was built on the destruction of the Indians, whose country we invaded, and whom we largely defeated not on the field of battle but by burning villages and killing women and children. (There’s a word for that . . . .) The English have nothing to brag about when they talk to Spain. And I think everyone should read Evelyn Waugh’s life of Edmund Campion, not least so that we can see that the Spanish Inquisition has some pretty stiff competition from England when it comes to horrific religious persecution.

In other words, my point isn’t to take sides with one nation against another. My point is, first, to get the history right—but even more, to think about the world like a Christian. A Christian does not look around the world and think things are fine and history is a long story of wonderful people being nice to one another. Human history is a parade of horribles. My salvation is in Jesus Christ (and his body, the Church), not in the awesomeness of Spain, England, the United States—or the Indians, for that matter.

“Black Legend”? It’s no legend that human history is black. It’s the truth. The lie is that we are fine without Jesus. A parallel lie is that whole nations are saintly: the Church rightly treats saints as the exception in human behavior, not the norm. There were saints in Spain and in the Americas, and I’m going to write about them. But encomienda and the Conquistadores? It’s no legend to say that they were not saints, they were fallen men, and their behavior was very dark, ugly, and un-Christian. I think we’d all do a lot better if we stopped treating any nation as holy, and find our identity and salvation in the Church, and in Jesus Christ.

Racism and the Good Samaritan

I’ve been silent for too long. This blog has been silent, for a variety of reasons I’ve mentioned over the past six months—including that our now-six-month old seventh child, though awfully sweet, remains a pain in the neck at bedtime.

But I’ve also been too silent about issues of race. Now is a good time to break that silence.

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Race has been an important issue for me and my wife. We both grew up in very white places, but have spent our adulthood in poor, urban neighborhoods. We spent the first several years of our marriage in poor, black neighborhoods of white cities, and have spent the last eleven years in a white, working-class, immigrant neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, a predominantly black city. Race has been an issue we’ve had to think about, and we have grown more passionate about it over the years.

But it’s also an issue that is hard for American Catholics, as some recent events have shown. I won’t get into those events, but I will say: I’ve been afraid to speak up as much as I’ve known I should, and it’s time to break the silence.

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My main way of thinking about this issue is in terms of the Good Samaritan. A man is bleeding on the side of the road. In the story Jesus tells, it is irrelevant whose fault the man’s plight is.

The point is that Scripture tells us to love our neighbor. In fact, in Luke 10, it is a “lawyer” (that is, an expert on the Old Testament) who asks Jesus, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer correctly answers, Love the Lord with all your heart-soul-strength-mind, and your neighbor as yourself. When the man asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story.

He concludes, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” The lawyer answers correctly, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “You go and do likewise.”

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There’s an important point here about tribalism. The Jews, like all of us—especially Americans today—believed they should love their own countrymen, but hate their opponents. (The Old Law’s command to love your neighbor and hate your enemies was not a command to hate your enemies, it was a command to love at least your neighbor; the lawyer correctly quotes it not as “hate your enemies” but as “love your neighbor.” It was a mitigation of our tendency to hate even the people in our own community. Jesus does not contradict that command, but doubles down on it.)

Jesus scorns the religion of the priest and the Levite in the story, who think they can get away with religious self-righteousness while walking past a suffering neighbor. Commending the Samaritan, he commends someone who, first, is not part of the tribe, not part of the tribalist definition of what a neighbor is. Jesus is insisting that we think of neighbor not in a tribalist way, but in a loving way. Americans today are way too focused on our tribes, including our political parties. Jesus condemns that.

And second, Samaritans don’t worship right. Jesus is slapping us in the face for our tendency to self-referential religion, religion more worried about how nice our vestments are than whether we love God or neighbor. (Look, I care about liturgy—but good liturgy, even Pope Benedict will tell you, is liturgy built on love, not self-righteousness.)

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I like to read Luke as a kind of commentary on Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s teaching culminates in chapter 25, his very last word of his fifth and last sermon, before going to his death: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. . . . I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

I have pondered these words over the years, and more and more they cut me to the quick. They are the greatest condemnation in all of Scripture. People who don’t read the Bible think the Old Testament, or St Paul, is full of fire and brimstone. They are wrong. There is no greater fire and brimstone in all the Bible than in what Jesus says to those who fail to see the man bleeding on the side of the road.

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This is not the place for a lecture on American history, but I believe there is no greater wound in our country than what we have inflicted for the past four hundred years on African Americans. There is no other moment in history—because it was technologically impossible—in which millions of people were brought to a new continent purely to be abused, their every child marked by the color of his skin as a slave. It is one of the great evils of history, and it is certainly the great original sin of our country.

It is a sin that, of its nature, endures, by the brilliant combination of DNA and a visible distinction. Every time a cop pulls over a black man, that man bears in his skin color the mark of centuries of oppression. He is held suspect of every failure of a people born with a knee on their neck. He is held responsible for every time a black kid has responded to that violence with anger.

The coronavirus has killed vastly disproportionate numbers of black people, and the coronavirus economy has had a vastly disproporionate effect on them. There are long books to read and write about the legacy of racism in our country, but we need to look no further than the coronavirus to know that somehow—save the explanation for later, first acknolwedge the fact!—everyone who is born black in this country is bleeding on the side of the road.

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Our Lord tells us, in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, that the path to eternal life (“what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”) is through the man bleeding on the side of the road, because love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. He tells us that those who ignore that suffering “will go away into eternal punishment” because they have refused the Lord himself (“when did we see you?”)

The Good Samaritan is a good way to understand two very different meanings of the word “racism.” White people tend to use that word to mean personal animosity, or even direct action, against black people. If I haven’t kicked any black people today, they say, then there is no racism, and I bear no responsibility. I can walk past like the priest and the Levite.

Black people tend to use the word “racism” not to refer to personal animosity but to a Situation, the situation in which, among so many other things, black people are disproprortionately hurt by the coronavirus and its economy. However we explain the mechanisms of it, the fact is that black people are lying bleeding on the side of the road. It is because of “race”, and one of the meanings of the suffix “-ism”, says the Dictionary, is a “state, condition, or property.” There is an -ism, a condition, a status quo, about race, and it’s a problem: racism.

In the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, Jesus is not interested in whether you personally caused the problem. In Christianity, we are not innocent until proven guilty; Jesus does not absolve us of personal responsibility unless we’ve personally caused the man to be bleeding on the side of the road. Everyone who proclaims herself not responsible proclaims herself not a Christian. In Christianity, Jesus demands that we come to the aid of that man whether or not it’s our fault. Because Christanity calls us not to absolve ourselves of responsibility, but to love, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

To say it’s not my problem is to fail to love. Jesus condemns that attitude, because eternity without love is hell.

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Loving requires opening our eyes. It is easy, especially in our suburbanized and polarized country, to cross to the other side of the road and avoid ever seeing the wounded man. Jesus calls us to get out on the road and see people. Read some books. Read some web pages. Come to our cities—get over the horrific lie that places with black people are dangerous—and see what is really going on. Open your eyes and learn to love.

This blog post is the tiniest first step I can make in binding up the wounds of my neighbor. Pray for me to do a lot more.

Please, recommend some good places to learn!

Ordinary Life in Apocalyptic Times

I haven’t been writing for awhile, a halfway intentional decision, in part because I’ve been working on some longer writing projects (a virtuous reason), in part because I’ve been overwhelmed by a colicky newborn, and a transition from a very busy early semester to a global health crisis in mid-semester (the force of events)—and mostly because I’m just disorganized and give up too easily.

But a thought on the present crisis gives me a chance to begin again.

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A couple of my Catholics friends whom I most respect have suggested we see this crisis in sort of apocalyptic terms.  There is obvious truth to that proposal.  We are experiencing a cataclysm.  Beyond the death toll, which may be shocking, the health crisis is demanding an economic and social crisis.  None of us will forget being unable to go to work or Mass.  Many may face long periods of unemployment.  Loneliness and other social pathologies are sure to be horrible.  We already had rising rates of suicide and other “deaths of despair,” such as opiate overdose.

And we must receive these things as coming from the hand of God.  (God does not, of course, dictate how we handle the crisis.  But with numbers of infections and deaths doubling multiple times per week, along with 20% of those with known infections needing to be hospitalized because they can’t breathe, I’ll accept the unanimous opinion of public-health officials that we do need to take drastic measures.)

There are careful distinctions we can draw, of course, between what God directly causes and what he only allows.  But those distinctions don’t change the fact that we must receive this crisis, like everything else, as somehow part of God’s plan for us.  Horrible times plus the sense that it comes from God: Apocalypse.

Finally, we must hope that somehow God plans to bring good out of this crucifixion.  And good means conversion.  Somehow this is a special time of conversion.

Apocalyptic literature talks about an “illumination of consciences.”  Somehow what’s supposed to happen is that, alongside horrible signs, people recognize their sins, and many, somehow, convert.  It’s not hard to imagine how the fear of death, the shattering of our sense of control, and even our isolation, with or without family, could create a perfect context for such an illumination.

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But I resist ultra-supernaturalism.  Perhaps it is partly a matter of personality.  But it is also a matter of theological conviction.  Let me approach this topic again, but from a more humdrum angle. 

I’m stuck at home.  I’m teaching online, but I already had a light schedule this semester, and now most of my meetings are cancelled, I have no commute, and my time is freed of the million things that take up my time at work.

I daydream about productivity.  Now I should have time to teach my children music, and math, and theology, and literature; to take long walks and do other exercise; to read; to get enough sleep; to write!  What an opportunity!

But in fact, though the circumstances around me have changed, it’s still the same me.  The me who reads too much on the internet during ordinary times does the same thing during extraordinary times.  The me who spends too much time daydreaming and not enough time working: that’s still me.  I am still too irritable with the people I should love.  I am still distracted when I should be praying.  I still get caught in negative internal monologues. 

One of my favorite professors once said that the central idea of science fiction is that you put human beings in completely unusual circumstances—and it just brings out what is always true about human beings.  I haven’t read much science fiction, but in the Lord of the Rings, for example, what’s really great is that Sam and Frodo, hobbits deep in Mordor, are still showing us the most basic realities of friendship, weariness, and temptation.  Put me in the wildest situation—and it’s still me. 

(A silly way to say the same thing.)

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Over the years I’ve had the opportunity for many hermitage retreats.  Mystical!  Spiritual!  Hermitage is wonderful.  But it’s still the same me.  I’m no more insightful on hermitage than I am at home.  I pray more, but I get distracted just as much.  On more than one hermitage, I’ve managed to waste hours and hours, and undermine my big plans, just playing with the fire.  Take away the internet, and I still get just as distracted.  (Sure, playing with the fire is pretty “contemplative.”  But it’s also a pretty good way to procrastinate, even on hermitage.)

In fact, what’s wonderful about hermitage is not that I become a different me, but that, as in science fiction, I put myself in a totally different situation—and find the same me.  Silence just reveals how distracted, and self-focused, and silly, I’ve always been.  It is very illuminating!  Certainly helpful!  But not because it magically makes me a new person, but because it shows me who I was already, forces me to deal with it.

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I suspect death, our personal apocalypse, like sickness, is the same way.  All our selfishness, all our greediness and ingratitude, will come to the fore.  We’ll have to deal with ourselves, in the most naked, face-to-face way.  And that will be scary.  The final judgment, the final chance to deal with our reality, which we’ve done such a good job covering over.

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I’ll tie this all back to the coronavirus apocalypse two ways.

First, sure, this is a crisis given to us by God, an apocalyptical moment of some kind (though anyone who tells you they know the day or the hour of Christ’s final coming needs to spend more time reading his words and less time with private revelation).  This is an illumination of conscience, absolutely.

But I don’t think anything magical will come of it.  Like hermitage, all that an illumination of conscience can do is throw us back to where we were in the first place: to show us our selfishness, and to see if we are humble enough to cast ourselves on his Mercy.  What the Apocalyptic reveals is the Ordinary.  And what it demands is the Ordinary: to live our lives the way we ought to live them everyday. 

That’s how this apocalyptic crisis affects ourselves.  The same is true of how it affects our relationship with our neighbor.  It’s tempting, when we think about apocalypses, to hope that suddenly God will step in and handle evangelization for us.  Suddenly, this grand moment will come, and God will magically convert everyone, and all that ordinary boring Gospel stuff will disappear, and we won’t have to love our neighbor, or speak the Gospel to him, or be good witnesses.

But here, too, all the apocalypse does is throw us back to the Ordinary.  In this crisis, and in the final crisis—both the personal final crisis we’ll each face on our deathbeds, and the ultimate final crisis at the end of history, whenever that may come—nothing changes.  What the apocalypse reveals is what was always true.  We still need to love our neighbor, preach the Gospel, be good witnesses of Christ’s love.  There is no other way. 

How do think about the Apocalypse?  How do you think about the moment we’re in?

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.

***

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.

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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.”

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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.

***

“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.

***

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. 

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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. 

***

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. 

***

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.

***

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.

***

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?