Sunday, August 24, 2014

Peter, Pius, and What We Leave Behind

I generally have two books going at any given time—one for spiritual enrichment and the other for entertainment. I’m currently reading Jesus: The Son of Man by Kahlil Gibran and Love In the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve also been making my way through an audio version of Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen: A Novel.

A few days ago, I was listening to The Snow Queen as I went for a walk and I was struck by this passage:

There’s something about the courting of disaster, in shopping terms, that fascinates Barrett [one of the book’s main characters], that holds his attention, helps render him satisfied with his current stature. It’s the technically extinct but somehow still plausible hint of calamity implied by the impulse purchase—the impoverished dowager or disinherited young earl who says, “I’m going to walk the earth in this perfectly faded Freddy Mercury t-shirt (two-fifty), I’m going to party tonight in this vintage McQueen minidress (eight hundred), because the moment matters more than the future. The present—today, tonight; the sensation of walking into a room, and creating a real if fleeting hush—is what I care about, it’s all right with me if I leave nothing behind.”

At this risk of sounding unnecessarily harsh, I have to say that the reason this passage stayed with me is because I think it captures the prevailing attitude of our culture in general, including those of us who profess to be committed to our faith. 

Convenience. Expedience. Comfort. Security. Passivity. Independence. Rapacity. These are dark, hard words. And yet, we can also see how, in many ways, they are the guiding values of the culture in which we live. Each of these values is focused on “me” and what is best for my life. They give us permission to ignore what is going on around us (as long as “I” am not effected) and effectively prevent any outside voice from disrupting or forming the life that I lead. These same words can become the guiding values of communities, as well. 

And this tendency to live only for the self and for the present moment reveals how hard it is to live for the future. But the demands of the Gospel force us to see the world and our selves through different eyes. Being a disciple automatically places us within a community because faith cannot be lived out in a sort of private experience that is only focused on seeking out and gaining what is best for me and mine. 

In the Gospel for this Sunday, we hear the Peter’s great profession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But we also hear Jesus’ reply to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” For Catholics, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel forms the foundation for belief in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter. And whether you accept the Catholic understanding of this pericope or adopt the Protestant perspective (that the emphasis should be placed on Peter’s confession rather than Peter himself), this is a pivotal moment in the lives of Peter, the other Apostles, and all Jesus’ followers. 

But even after this wonderful exchange, Peter “the Rock” continues to get things wrong. His personality continues to get in the way and, at the time we would expect him to stand by his friend and Master, he denies Jesus three times (cf. Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-60; and John18:15-18, 25-27). However, as Sr. Kathleen Howard, O.S.B., observes, “It is not Peter’s character or virtuous achievements that make him a rock. It is his faith in Jesus that makes him stable and strong enough to be a foundation stone for the church… Peter’s faith is more than intellectual knowledge; it is a trusting relationship with Jesus. When he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Peter is speaking out of deep loving communion with him. He knows Christ as friend knows friend, as husband or wife knows a spouse. Knowing in this deep, loving way with heart as well as head makes Peter willing to place all his trust in Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son” (from Give Us This Day¸ August 24, 2014). 

Despite his faults, we do see Peter begin to fulfill his mission in the Acts of the Apostles. The same can be said of all the Apostles. They shepherded the Early Church through persecutions, internal divisions, scandals, growing pains, and theological exploration, leaving us a legacy of faith that in enshrined in both the New Testament and in the most ancient traditions of the Church. In their ministry, Peter and the Apostles were mindful that their work and witness had consequences, not only for those first generations of Christians, but for those who would come later. We are given a hint of this in the Letter to the Ephesians: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred to the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:19-22). The building up of the Body of Christ continues and we are a part of that process. Peter’s future is our present. We are the beneficiaries of this great legacy. And this legacy places demands upon us, because our present and our future will shape those who come after us.

As I reflected on this reading and the idea of what we “leave behind,” I thought of the ministry of Pope Francis, but also of another pope, Pius X, whose liturgical memorial was celebrated on August 21. This year marks the centenary of the death of this important but controversial pope  who was canonized 1954. 

In his Lives of the Saints, Father Richard McBrien observes that Pius X was “the pope best known, unfortunately, for the war he waged against Modernism, an ill-defined grab bag of liberal but not necessarily unorthodox opinions, in the course of which campaign he set back Catholic theological, biblical, and historical scholarship at least fifty years.” But Pius X is also the pope who encouraged frequent reception of the Eucharist (in an age when many only received Communion once a year, if that often) and determined that First Communion could be celebrated at the “age of discretion” (around age seven). 

Giuseppe Sarto was born to an impoverished family (his father was a postal worker) in the region of Treviso, Italy. Following his ordination in 1858, he served in country parishes before being appointed diocesan chancellor and a seminary spiritual director. In 1884, he was consecrated as bishop of Mantua, a poor and tired diocese that he reformed and renewed. Then, only nine years later he was appointed Patriarch of Venice and named a cardinal. He was revered by his people for his simplicity and humility, but he was also known for his strong opinions. All of these were characteristics that he took with him to Rome when he was elected to succeed Pope Leo XIII in 1903, taking the name Pius the Tenth. 
Pope Pius’ papal motto was Instaurare Omnia in Christo (“To Restore All Things in Christ”) and he made it clear that he intended to be a pastoral—rather than political—pope. Despite his wishes, however, he became immediately involved in international tensions and even broke off diplomatic ties with France. The majority of his efforts were focused on the internal life of the Church. Pius used all of the resources at his disposal to rout out the error of Modernism, which he condemned as the “synthesis of all heresies” in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis. Three years later he imposed the “Oath Against Modernism” on all clerics. These actions led to the dismissal of seminary professors and Catholic academics and led to a sort of reactionary theological war within the Church. Pius saw himself as the steward of the Church’s treasury of teachings and traditions and understood that the pope was responsible for maintaining the fabric of the Church in the face of an increasingly secular and fast-moving culture. 

And yet, he also reorganized the Roman Curia, called for a new, definitive edition of the Code of Canon Law (the first official collection in Church history), established the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and encouraged the laity to collaborate with their bishops. Finally, he initiated a system of liturgical reforms that paved the way for the great “Liturgical Movement” and the continued reforms of Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council. 

In 1913, Pope Pius X suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered. He died on August 20, 1914, less than two months after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War, which he desperately tried to prevent. It is said that he died of a broken heart. In his last will and testament, he wrote, “I was born poor, and I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.” In keeping with his wishes, he was buried in a simple, unadorned tomb beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Like Saint Peter, Pius X understood that something precious had been entrusted to his care and he spent his life working to shore up and beautify the building of the Church. While some of his tactics can be seen as harsh and reveal a limited perspective, he lived for the future, conscious that those who would come after him would benefit or suffer because of the decisions he made.

As Pope Francis, another successor of St. Peter, observed this morning, “what happened in a unique way in Saint Peter, also takes place in every Christian who develops a sincere faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. Today’s Gospel challenges each of us: ‘How is your faith?’… For his part, Peter is the rock, as the visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but every baptized person is called to offer to Jesus his or her own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build His Church, today, in every part of the world” (Angelus for August 24, 2014).

Part of our offering of faith, part of living this faith is being mindful that our acts or omissions have an impact on those who come after us. Living for our own present isn’t an option. Just as we have been the beneficiaries of the prayer and work of both great saints (like Saint Peter and Saint Pius) and generations of nameless, holy Christians, we have been entrusted with a responsibility to live for the future. How this reality takes shape in our lives reveals itself in our prayer and discernment and especially in how we actively engage our faith communities and the world around us. The essential point of all of this is that we have to begin to be mindful of the times and ways that we settle for the values canonized by society, as we offer our homage to the myriad of gods our culture has enshrined. We are called to do and be more. Living for the future is hard, as is living for others. But it is only in engaging in this hard work that we will find our salvation.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Us and Them

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite Woman (Matthew15:21-28) that we hear this Sunday is one of the more difficult episodes of the gospels. Not because it shares the opaqueness of many of the parables or because Jesus is revealing a challenging theological truth. Instead, it’s difficult to read and hear because it is a story about Jesus that doesn’t fit our childish Sunday-school version of who Jesus was. 

In this passage, Jesus has traveled to the Gentile (non-Jewish) region of Tyre and Sidon. John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod (Matthew 14:1-12) and Jesus himself is now on Herod’s radar. It is likely that Jesus has gone to these coastal towns to get out of Herod’s jurisdiction and to have some time alone to grieve the death of John the Baptist (throughout chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear, more than once, about Jesus trying to find solitude for prayer and reflection). This would be a region where he wasn’t known. And yet, he’s recognized by a Canaanite woman (a Gentile) who comes to him begging for him to heal her daughter. But, even as a non-Jew, she expresses faith in Jesus as she cries out Kyrie ele­ison—Have mercy on me, Lord. When others have called out to Jesus with these words, he has acted quickly and decisively, offering healing and wholeness (cf. Matthew 9:27; 17:15; 20:30-31). But in this instance, Jesus doesn’t make any reply or acknowledge the woman at all—for the first time, we hear about Jesus ignoring someone who asks him for help. The disciples, of course, urge him to send her away. She’s calling after them and is an annoying embarrassment.
Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
by the Egyptian Scribe and Monk
Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (ca. 1684)
in the Walters Art Museum

The nameless woman isn’t put off by any of this. She’s asking something for her tormented child and she shows a mother’s tenacity. And when she calls out again, Jesus responds in a way that baffles and insults our sensibilities: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Although Scripture scholars have tried to explain this away, sanitizing it by trying to give it cultural and historical nuances, it’s still a shocking affront. But the woman doesn’t walk away, however hurt, angry, or simply surprised she might have been. She uses Jesus’ own words against him: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 

Personally, I’ve always heard the woman’s words in a pleading voice that reveals her desperation. It is how I imagine the prayers of those who are desperate and with no recourse—the tone of those mothers who have sent their children off into the deserts of Latin America, hoping they will find a new home and life in the United States or those parents in Iraq who are weighed down by fear and oppression, desperately seeking safety for themselves and their children, away from religious fanatics bent on pillage, rape, and murder in the name of our common God. It is the voice I’ve heard myself as I’ve stood with families when marriages have failed or who have received a medical diagnosis that can really only have one outcome.

But, perhaps that wasn’t how the woman responded at all. What if her response was intended as a challenge to Jesus: “If you’re going to call me a dog, then at least give me what you would give your dog!” This is the same passionate defiance that Dylan Thomas expressed when he wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The woman is, as Sister Barbara Reid observes, stretching Jesus to “see her not as ‘other,’ or as an ‘enemy,’ but as one of his own, one with whom he shares a common humanity, a common faith in God, a common desire for the well-being of children” (from Abiding Word: Year A). 
This woman’s belief that Jesus is someone special, her trust that he can effect a change in her daughter’s life is a powerful testament to what is possible when we truly believe and stand firm in our prayer. She stands firm in her request. What is it she understood about Jesus and his mission? We will never know. But she placed her confidence in him and she wasn’t disappointed. As the great theologian, Romano Guardini, reflects: “her own heart is wide enough to understand [Jesus], her faith deep enough not to be put off. That is the beauty of the incident. Quietly she accepts and uses the humiliating metaphor; the Lord feels himself understood and loves her for it: ‘Because of this answer…’” He continues: “What comes from God does not discriminate, qualify or limit, it overflows freely from his bounty. Here is no philosophical system, no complicated ascetic doctrine, but the fullness of God’s love, that divine audacity with which the Creator gives himself to his creatures, demanding their hearts in return. Everything for everything; we cannot but admit the truth of this—and in so doing pronounce our own judgment. For are we any better than those others?” (from The Lord). 
We Christians can be overly secure in our faith and in our understanding of ourselves as children of God. But we owe this nameless Gentile woman a debt of gratitude. The reason is because, like her, we are dogs at the master’s table because we too are outsiders—we are the “them” to the “us” of Jesus and his followers. After all, what made the woman an outsider and an enemy was that she was a foreigner (non-Jew), a woman, and she’s annoying—she’s not pleasant or easy to have around because she’s not respecting the established way of doing things. Bu, her encounter with Jesus challenges him and we see something in him begin to unfold. After all, earlier in Matthews Gospel, he had reminded his followers that he had only come to gather together the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6); It is only later that we will hear him instruct them to go “into all nations” with the Good News (28:19). This story marks a turning point for Jesus and his understanding of the saving mission that was entrusted to him by the One whom he called “Father.” And so, for us outsiders, this story is an essential part of our salvation. 

There is another two-fold lesson here, I believe. First, we have to be very aware of how we exclude others from our faith communities. The Church has no place for an “us/them” mentality. Those walls have been broken down: “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In many of our communities we have a “saint versus sinner” mentality, or an idea that some of us enjoy a certain “election” by God that excludes everyone else. Perhaps we draw these lines based on race, gender, or sexual orientation (and this can be done consciously or unconsciously). Others of us might be more hesitant to embrace those of different socio-economic status (meaning both the poor and the affluent), those who are divorced or remarried, the disabled, the mentally ill, those with a "history," or those with different theologies or political views. If we discover that we are part of a faith community that has these prejudices, we have to ask ourselves, “Who we are protecting?” Surely we can’t believe that we’re protecting God or the integrity of the Gospel. 

Second, we have to be willing to accept that this story has consequences for how we engage the broader culture. There is no possibility of our divorcing our faith and prayer from the demands placed upon us by the broader culture. It is so easy to set aside the demands of the Gospel for expediency and comfort. Too often, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the value of the separation of Church and state means that we are freed from the obligations of exercising our faith as we fulfill our civic duties. Beyond this, we also have to risk the criticism, judgment, and possibility of change that can occur when we speak out, in faith, for the rights of the poor, the exploited, the sick, the persecuted, the homeless, refugees and migrants, and all those others who live on the margins of our society. We Christians have a responsibility to reach out to these individuals and groups within our communities and this means risking going to the fringes ourselves to seek them out and care for their needs.  

As I said, if we had lived in Jesus’ time and culture, the majority of us would also have been considered outsiders and enemies by his first followers. We enjoy the spiritual comforts and assurance that we do because of courageous women and men of faith who claimed their place as a follower of Jesus. This is our inheritance and we do not have the right or privilege to make a “them” of anyone else. God’s Kingdom is a place of welcome, safety, and nurture to all, because all are invited.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Prayers of Thanks on the Assumption

Since moving to Los Angeles a year ago, I find myself in a much more diverse theological landscape than I’ve known in well over a decade. Obviously, understandings of Mary and the Communion of Saints rank among the differences that divide Christians. The mystery that is celebrated in the Solemnity of the Assumption has often been described as a uniquely “Catholic” feast. And, while it is true that the Dogma of the Assumption was officially promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the mystery that inspires this celebration is firmly rooted in the ancient Tradition of the Church and has its foundations in the words of Scripture, and this celebration is shared with Orthodox Christians throughout the world. Many members of the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Church also honor Mary on this day.

This feast, which celebrates the truth that, at the end of her earthly life, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was taken body and soul into heaven, evolved from a liturgical celebration of the “Day of Mary, Mother of God,” in Jerusalem in the fifth century. Although it was originally a more general celebration of Mary, it soon became a commemoration of the Natale (“birthday” [into Heaven]) of Mary. The feast made its way into the Byzantine Empire in the late sixth century and was being celebrated in Rome by the middle of the seventh century. Under Pope Sergius I (d. 701), this day in honor of Mary came to be celebrated as a memorial of Mary’s passing from this life and included a midnight procession (during the night of August 14) from Rome’s church of St. Adrian to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. By the end of the century, it had come to be known as the “Assumption of Holy Mary.”

A contemporary icon of
Mary, Our Lady of Hope
When we talk about the mysteries of the Faith, it is important to pay attention to when and how many of our liturgical celebrations developed. As with other great Feasts (including Christmas [December 25], the Transfiguration of the Lord [August 6], the Presentation in the Temple [February 2], the Triumph of the Cross [September 14], and the Immaculate Conception [December 8]), we can see what our ancestors believed by seeing how they prayed. Or, to say it another way, the fact that there was a celebration of Mary’s entrance into Heaven tells us that early Christians believed that there was something special about the death of Mary (called her Dormition (“falling asleep”) in Latin) and that they saw particular meaning in this mystery. 
Among the earliest set of prayers we have for this Feast (from the eighth century Gregorian Sacramentary), is a prayer which reads: “God, turning your gaze to the humility of the Virgin, you raised her to the sublime dignity of the Mother of your Son and crowned her with incomparable glory.” This theologically ripe sentence tells us what is at the heart of the celebration of Mary’s Assumption: Because of Mary’s humble and unique cooperation in the mysteries of salvation, she enjoys a privileged place in Heaven. In his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen expresses this truth in this way:
Mary is the most pure contemplative. Luke describes her as contemplating the mysteries of the redemption. After telling about the visit of the shepherds to the Child, he writes, “As for Mary, she treasured all these things in her heart” (2:19), and after describing how she found Jesus in the temple among the doctors of the Law, he adds: “His mother stored up all these things in her heart…”
The doctrine of the Assumption affirms the fulfillment of this contemplative life in heaven. There the most redeemed human being, the woman in whom God touched us in the most intimate way, the mother of Jesus and all who believe in him—there she stands in the presence of God, enjoying forever the beatific vision that is the hope of all monks and all Christians.
The glory and grace that Mary enjoys now in Heaven is also promised to each of us. We are reminded of this in the Second Reading for the Mass for the Assumption: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ” (Colossians 15:20-23).  

The special grace that preserved Mary from the decay of death (cf. Genesis 3:19; Romans 6:23) contains a promise of restored life for each of us. But, in order to really appreciate the gift and promise of the Assumption, we have to recognize that grace and call which God extended to Mary were received, by her, with an open heart. She did not allow those gifts to remain idle within her heart and soul. This is Mary as the woman of faith and this is Mary as a model for all of us who follow her Son. Mary’s active and living faith inspired her to place her trust in God’s promises and to give herself completely to the will of the Father: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Even Jesus himself praised his mother’s faith. When a woman called out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” he replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28). Mary was called blessed not simply because she happened to be the mother of Jesus. Mary is blessed because of faith and obedience. 

Inspired by the beauty and grandeur of this mystery, Saint John Damascene (d. ca. 749) wrote:
This day the Eden of the New Adam [Heaven] welcomes its living Paradise, in whom our sentence has been repealed… Eve heeded the message of the serpent… and together with Adam was condemned to death and assigned to the world of darkness.
But how could death swallow this truly blessed soul, who humbly heeded the word of God?... How could corruption dare to touch the body that contained Life itself? The very thought is abhorrent, repugnant, in regard to the body and soul of the Mother of God. 
So, on this Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, let us take a moment to offer a two-fold prayer of thanks: for the gift we have received because of Mary’s obedience and faith which are at the heart of this celebration and for the promise of new and eternal life that God has made to each of us, in Christ, when we faithfully and lovingly respond to the movements of the Holy Spirit, as did Mary.


Midday. I See the Open Church by Paul Claudel +
Midday. I see the open church.
It draws me within.
I did not come, Mother of Jesus Christ,
to pray.
I have nothing to offer you.
Nor to ask of you.
I only come, O my Mother,
to gaze at you,
to see you, to cry simply out of joy.
Because I know that I am your child,
and that you are there.  
(This poem describes a decisive moment in Claudel’s life when he was recovering an awareness of God and of Mary’s role in the Christian life.)