23 March 2008

The Death of Death: Jesus' triumph over Godless death

What is it we celebrate today in proclaiming CHRIST IS RISEN, INDEED HE IS RISEN!!? In particular, what does it mean to say that Jesus has conquered death? Isn't death still with us? What has changed? A couple of people have written about the article I posted last week and asked for some clarifications. Since the explanatory notes that accompanied the original article in Review For Religious did not translate into the blog entry it is more than likely the article left readers in general with questions and the need for clariifcations. I will try to answer or address them here as they are raised in email.

As I noted in that earlier post (A Theology of the Cross), in the Scriptures death has two meanings. There is the normal kind of perishing, the kind of perishing our pets do, the kind of perishing which is completely natural and untainted by sin. Presumably it is the kind of dying which is, for us, a natural transition to eternal life, the kind of death Mary suffered prior to her assumption, and the kind of death we might have known had sin never been introduced into our world. But there is also a second kind of death, the kind which we humans beings know and fear because it is unnatural, sinful, and therefore, by definition, Godless. It is a more characteristically PERSONAL reality created by human sin. It is also a power at work in the world, but twisted, distorted and made malignant through sin. For this reason it is variously described as sinful death, godless death, or the second death; it is symbolized by death on the cross, and what makes it horrific for us is the absence of God. It is completely antithetical to what we are made for or called to. When Paul writes that the sting of death is sin, this is what he is referring to --- death which is rendered Godless --- for we are rightly terrified of this death, and yet, every time we choose to live without God, we choose Godless death as well, for to choose life without God, is necessarily to choose death without him.

This second (kind of) death is the death which Jesus died for us, the death which he experienced in all of its depth and horror. It is marked, as his cry of abandonment tells us, by his loss of all contact with his Father. Jesus enters the realm of Godlessness, not simply that of death but of SINFUL death, the uniquely personal realm and power created by human sinfulness, and he does so OBEDIENTLY, that is, remaining open and responsive to his Father and the Holy Spirit, not turned in on himself or rejecting the dependence of faith by attempting to save himself or despairing of God. When Paul says Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, this is what Paul is talking about. Crucifixion symbolized godlessness, and being completely cut off from both human and divine communion. To die such a death while remaining obedient to God is to open this ultimate sinful and personal reality to God. It is, in fact, to implicate God into this reality thus transforming it forever.

And here is the key to understanding Jesus' triumph over death, sinful, godless death. God cannot force his way into a strictly personal reality. He must be ALLOWED in. That is true in our own hearts, and it is true of this uniquely personal reality as well. In our own lives, we are called to obedience, which means we are called to remain open to and dependent upon God and the life and meaning he gives. We are called to do that in all of life's moments and moods so that God is implicated in them --- our contribution to God's becoming "All in All"! And yet, in our own lives, when faced with threatening situations, we typically do NOT remain obedient to God. Instead we do what the crowd challenged Jesus to do: we attempt to save ourselves. This may mean doing all we can to extricate ourselves altogether from the situation APART FROM THE GRACE OF GOD, but it may also mean shutting down emotionally, doing all we can to prevent ourselves from really feeling what is happening to us or being vulnerable to all it implies. Unfortunately, we also cease to be vulnerable to or dependent on the grace of God at such times.

Jesus, however, does not shut down emotionally; he does nothing to ease his own vulnerability, and he certainly does not act to extricate himself from the situation. Even his request that this cup might pass from him is a way of remaining open to the will and grace of his Father and dependent upon that; it is an expression of vulnerability. His is truly an obedient death, and he remains open and responsive to God right to the depths of all this sinful, godless death implies. And it is here the miracle occurs. Because of this openness, this complete or exhaustive dependence and self-emptying, God is able to enter the situation just as exhaustively and transform the reality of godless death with his presence. Where once sinful death would have had the final word, it no longer does. Instead God will bring life and meaning out of even this reality. When Paul speaks of the death of death this is what he is speaking of: the triumph of self-emptying (kenotic) Love over sinful death. When he asks, "death where is yout sting?" he is pointing to this transformation.

In light of this, for those baptized into Christ's death and faithful to that baptism, death is what it can be for us: more truly a matter of natural perishing, a kind of transition to eternal life. It is no longer something we must fear in the way we once did for it lacks the sting it once had. It is instead, in light of Christ's death, the place or event in which we may meet God face to face. God forgives our sins, but he acts to reconcile us to himself, and part of that reconciliation is to defeat those realities which remain as obstacles between us and himself. Both death and godless death are among those. The post-resurrection world is not the same as the one that existed before Jesus was raised, for life has broken into some of the darkest most inaccessible places in light of Jesus' OBEDIENT death and resurrection. More precisely, heaven has broken in upon us and we are asked to be ITS citizens (that is, Daughters and Sons of God) right here and right now as a result of our baptisms into Jesus' death.

He is Risen, Alleulia! Alleluia!!!

21 March 2008

An exercise for Good Friday and Holy Saturday

In an earlier post I noted that in some ways Holy Saturday is under appreciated or celebrated. It is right that as a Church we do not give way to unconstrained grief on Good Friday, nor forget that Jesus IS risen and will never die again, yet during the Triduum we do repeat an obeservance of the events of those original Three Days on which all of our hope is founded. And originally, Holy Saturday marked the end of all the disciples' hopes.

As I wrote earlier, [[We observe Holy Saturday as the day when sin and death have triumphed. On this day there is no Savior, no Church, no Sacrament, and no Gospel. There is nothing to celebrate or proclaim. There is neither hope, nor freedom, nor real future. Sin and death are the apparent victors, and the present is as empty and forlorn as the desolate plaint of the enfeebled and failed messiah, whom we heard cry out from the cross just the day before. On this day we recall the original disciples --- broken by disappointment, grief, guilt, and shame, and stunned to terrified silence when the powers of the world overcame the One they called “Christ.” Their shattered hope for the definitive coming of God’s reign, and the ignominious, apparently unvindicated death of the man Jesus, stands at the center of our vision as well on this day. And in the shadow of this recollection, the bleakness of a world dominated by a power that regularly opposes and subverts the work of the Author of Life is clear. On this day, our entire horizon is death and the victory it has achieved over God’s Son, over us, and over our world. ]]

I wanted to share something I do each year that helps me observe this day more effectively, and which also prepares for a wonderful piece of Easter praxis. I remove anything from the environment of the hermitage which is meaningful in light of the Risen Christ. Of course that means an empty and open tabernacle, removal of the presence lamp, etc, but it also means any pictures, statuary, pictures of friends who are part of my life because of a shared faith, books (these days,just the books on the table next to my chair with Office, Bible, and whatever I am using for lectio at the time), certificates or other pictures, etc. Again, anything which points to the meaningfulness and richness of my life because of the Risen Christ is removed and put away. Ordinarily I take time as I do this, and consider what life might be like without these or what they represent. When it is the picture of a friend, I might focus on some of the times I failed to love them adequately, or some of the challenges to grow their friendship confronted me with. Still the accent is on what life would be like without them and who I am because of them. I cannot reproduce the grief of the disciples, but I can get in touch with the times in my life where things have seemed senseless, or where I have struggled with grief, depression, loss, etc, and imagine what these would have been like without faith and the Risen Christ.

Beginning Easter Sunday I begin putting things back --- slowly. And as I do so I take time to pray in gratitude for what it means in my life. If it is a picture of a friend, then I take time to remember some of the times we have celebrated together, some of the victories their love has made possible. Ordinarily this process takes some days, a little each day during Easter week. Thus, while the Eucharist is immediately brought back to the tabernacle and the risen Christ is present in this way once again, Easter week continues to remind in small ways of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

I think anyone can try this exercise. One need not remove everything, though that is VERY effective in helping one see clearly how central one's Christianity is in one's life, and also how much would be lost had Christ simply "stayed good and dead." The key (even if one chooses a few key pictures, symbols, etc) is to do it slowly and thoughtfully, with attention to one's feelings, and to allow it to become a prayer. This is equally true of the process of returning things to their places and reconnecting with all they mean or symbolize.

18 March 2008

But not today! John 13:21-33, 36-38

Today's readings are both moving, and challenging. Not really surprising as we move through the most Holy Week of our liturgical year, and see reflected in Judas and Peter our own less-than-human capacity for betrayal of self, God, and others. In the first lection Isaiah reminds his subject that as wondrous as his vocation to service in restoring Israel is, he (and we!!) are called to a weightier vocation: to be a light to the nations, and to bring God's own salvation to the whole world!

Jesus reminds us that this same vocation is quite simply to be friends of God, not mere servants. Of course, he calls us friends, naming us this way, and it is a wonderful thing, but he also calls us TO REALLY BE friends of his. It is the summons which constitutes the most fundamental challenge and task of our existence. We are to love God with our whole heart and mind and soul, and in fact, we are quite literally called upon to give our lives for him in whatever way the Kingdom of God requires for its fulfillment. This is what the love of friendship, as Jesus demonstrates the real thing, is all about.

But today's Gospel reminds us how difficult this vocation is. Not only must we be taught what it means, but our poor hearts and minds are dense and divided, our wills weak and unfocused, and often we are simply too frightened, or too ambitious, too greedy, or simply too caught up in a different vision of reality, a different idea of what our vocations are (if, indeed we even think in terms of vocation!) to really give ourselves to this summons and the one who makes it. Afterall, if we are really to give ourselves over to this call, we must be empowered to do so; we cannot do it of ourselves!

One of the things which most struck me about today's Gospel was the tug, the apparent clash or tension between Jesus' prediction of Judas' and Peter's betrayals and what they are really called or meant to do. I have heard this passage read as though once the predictions are made, once Jesus hands Judas the morsel dipped into the bowl, or told Peter what he will do that night in spite of his self-confidence, neither man has a real choice left: they are seen as destined to do what Jesus has said they will do. I think that sometimes we get ourselves into similar predicaments and interpret these situations in the same way: we may have a pattern of failure in a certain area, weakness or frailty --- including illnesses --- which make certain things unavoidable, or almost unavoidable in the long term, or at least from time to time. We may get ourselves enmeshed in situations from which we see no real way out, or where we are simply too afraid to do what is demanded, and so perpetuate and exacerbate those situations in our blindness and lack of nerve. And of course, in terms of failing to be friend of God, betraying his own love for us, there IS an inevitability about it. Jesus IS speaking to us, just as he was speaking to Judas and Peter: "this day one of you will betray me!" or, "before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times!"

But in light of the Palm Sunday gospel from Matthew, something else was also clear to me. Both Judas and Peter remained free NOT to betray Jesus, even after the predictions were made. Each man's actual fulfillment of Jesus' predictions took place in stages, steps, or increments and AT ANY POINT they COULD have turned back, they COULD HAVE RETURNED TO JESUS or (after Jesus had been arrested) to their witness to Jesus and to the love which he bore them and desired them to reciprocate. Each man remained completely free to take a different course IN SPITE of their weakness, cowardice, avarice, ambition or whatever. Would it have been difficult to turn away from a course of action already begun, an enmeshment already established to whatever degree, a pattern of collusion and betrayal already begun? Absolutely. But would it have been possible? In the power of Jesus' love, I have no doubt whatsoever that it would. Repentance means a change of course, a shift in our minds and hearts and a turning from one path to another. We are surely always free to repent!

So how do we reconcile in our own lives this seeming contradiction between the inevitable and what we are free to change? Afterall, I don't think we can deny that betrayal of God's love for us, and repudiation or betrayal of our friendship to and with him is inevitable or (even apparently) "destined". I suggest we keep Peter and Judas in mind: remember the increments and steps involved in any significant betrayal, any really serious sin. Remember there ARE those stages and let us remind ourselves that at any point, if only we have the courage, we can take a different course to SOME EXTENT OR OTHER. Afterall, we are weak and changeable, but God's love for us is strong and constant; it is there to empower us at every moment and mood of our lives if only we will allow it! Remember that while betrayal is inevitable, it does NOT have to be this night! Failure will occur, but it does not need to be THIS failure. Yes, I who have drunk from the very cup he offers, and taken the morsel he hands me daily am going to betray my friendship with God; I am going to fail him. It IS INEVITABLE, but NOT today! Not this morning! Not here or NOW.

15 March 2008

A Theology of the Cross, Holy Week 2008

Ministering to the Dying and Bereaved: Proclaiming a God Whose Power is Made Perfect in Weakness. Initially published in Review For Religious, January 2001

Death, and God’s relation to death is an overarching theme in human life, and certainly in the life of the Church. During Lent, for instance, we spend an entire forty days preparing to celebrate Christ’s victory over “sin and death.” During this season and others, images of these hostile forces, references to chaos, meaninglessness, and our bondage to all of them surround us. And in light of this, if there is anything we understand, (or should understand!), it is that these things are “the enemy.” During this time, for instance, we read in the Old Testament again and again that our basic choice, the really fundamental option that faces us in all of life’s moments and moods, is “choose life, not death;” and we know that these alternatives are not equivalent. After all, one is “of God” and the other is not. One is a choice for being, integration, re-creation, and meaning, while the other is a choice for diminishment, disintegration, destruction, and senselessness. One is the choice to respond to and fulfill the profound vocation to authentic existence spoken by God deep within us, while the other represents the repudiation of this summons and the rejection of our truest selves. One is, ultimately, a choice for an eternity in communion with the God who authenticates and completes us, the God who is the ground and source of life and meaning, while the other is the act by which we embrace the powers and utter emptinesses of hell.

At this time of the year in particular, we examine our lives for signs that they are marked and marred by our own alliances with sin and death, and we participate in a more focused way than usual in activities which reject such alliances, and are geared towards breaking the bonds established between us and them. We make the concerted effort to acknowledge, “we are dust, and shall return to dust,” that death is something that threatens us not only from without, but that it is also something that we carry around within us. And of course, we affirm and celebrate that for our sakes, and in opposition to our misguided, misbegotten alliances, God’s own Son has dwelt amongst us, implicating the One he called “Abba” into the whole panorama of our fragile, flawed, finite, and mortal existences, ---- up to and including his altogether humanly contrived, and godforsaken death on a Roman cross.

We observe Holy Saturday as the day when sin and death have triumphed. On this day there is no Savior, no Church, no Sacrament, and no Gospel. There is nothing to celebrate or proclaim. There is neither hope, nor freedom, nor real future. Sin and death are the apparent victors, and the present is as empty and forlorn as the desolate plaint of the enfeebled and failed messiah, whom we heard cry out from the cross just the day before. On this day we recall the original disciples --- broken by disappointment, grief, guilt, and shame, and stunned to terrified silence when the powers of the world overcame the One they called “Christ.” Their shattered hope for the definitive coming of God’s reign, and the ignominious, apparently unvindicated death of the man Jesus, stands at the center of our vision as well on this day. And in the shadow of this recollection, the bleakness of a world dominated by a power that regularly opposes and subverts the work of the Author of Life is clear. On this day, our entire horizon is death and the victory it has achieved over God’s Son, over us, and over our world.

In light of all this then, how is it we still hear from those engaged in pastoral ministry to the dying and bereaved for instance, that God is either the “author of death,” or it’s agent, or that anyone’s death (with the single exception of Christ’s own) is “God’s will”? How is it, with all the scriptural and empirical evidence otherwise, our ministers and faithful continue to present death as something other than the implacable enemy of life and the God who authors life? How is it that death is conceived of as other than an entirely alien and antithetical element in our existence, which God works continually and indeed, suffered greatly, to defeat --- an element that remains only on sufferance until “(God) is all in all”? How is it possible to hear from faithful who have been told that “God is the Lord of life and death,” that this must mean that when death intervenes, it is “God who KILLS us”? Yet, blunt and apparently absurd as this last formulation may sound to us, it is merely the clear spelling out of the implications of a flawed theology which considers death the event WITH which God punishes sin and calls us to judgement, rather than the hostile power he conquers, and the event IN which he intervenes in Christ, to raise us to eternal life.

Whether we are ministers trying to assist others with their own deaths, pastors comforting the bereaved, or simply persons who are trying to make sense of the reality of our own mortality, all too often we are burdened with vague, ill-defined, and even erroneous notions of death and the relationship between God and death. The situation is complicated by misreadings and distortions of Paul’s theology of the cross, and by fundamentalist interpretations of the creation narratives of Genesis. It is likewise made more difficult by anachronistic conceptions of the human being which see him/ her in terms of a body-soul dualism, as well as by simplistic notions of the sovereignty of God. The result is quite simply an inadequate theology that makes genuinely Christian ministry to the dying and bereaved difficult or even impossible, and caricatures God as the author of tragedy and absurdity in the process.

It seems to me therefore, that we must make a serious effort to correct our misconceptions of death, its relation to sin, and especially the relation of God to death. After all, how in the world are we to adequately celebrate God’s own triumph OVER sin and death, if we misunderstand these realities and posit God as their author? How can we make sense of the fact that God willed the suffering and death of his only begotten Son if we understand these realities as something God had complete control over in the first place? Are we really stuck with Anselm’s satisfaction theory, for instance, and the parody of God and God’s justice it is based on? And are we left only with the option of telling the dying and bereaved to whom we minister that “this is the will of God” or do we really have better answers at our disposal? Obviously, I am convinced there are far better answers available to Christians, and it is my intention to explore some of them, and their theological foundation, in this essay.

Common Misunderstandings of the Nature of Death

There are two basic misunderstandings regarding death and God’s relation to death, which seem to me to burden most Christians. The first is the notion that God is in COMPLETE control of human existence, and that because death is a part of that reality, this must mean that he is in complete control of it as well. There are various versions of this notion: “(Death) is God’s will;” “ Death is the way God punishes us for our sin” (especially original sin); “Everything that happens has a purpose;” “God gives and God takes away;” etc. Most often we hear versions of this theology from homilists and ministers trying to encourage us that God is omnipotent, and that everything that occurs, no matter how apparently senseless, is meaningful. We also hear these interpretations from ministers who believe that by affirming death is in God’s hands, by affirming it as the event WITH which he calls us home, for instance, some of the fear and sting of either dying, or bereavement is removed. Clearly, we sense that death is easier to bear if it is not simply perceived as an alien and hostile element in human existence, particularly if we can hear that it really isn’t the entirely senseless event it so often seems to be. In the meantime, however, we repress the serious theological questions such affirmations raise: Is all death and dying sent by God? Is God really their author? Are we expected to attribute instances of chance and absurdity to him as well, or are we expected to simply deny the existence of these things? Are so-called ‘acts of God’ really the work of God? Does “sovereignty” imply total control, or is the situation more complex than this? And of course, if God IS the author and agent of death as well as of life, what kind of God would such a deity truly be?

The second misunderstanding is related to the first. It is the notion that death, and here we are speaking of human death, is something that threatens us entirely from without, and so, is something which God can overcome by mere fiat. It is sometimes combined with the secular view that death is a wholly natural and neutral reality. This notion of human death fails to understand it as a partly, and indeed profoundly personal reality which is not simply part and parcel of our temporality, but is a special aspect of sinful existence. Because of this, it often goes unrecognized, much less acknowledged that God cannot force his way into this realm, nor overcome it from without. As in all else that is personal in our lives, God must be allowed or implicated into this realm if he is to bring it under subjection to himself and transform it. The logical consequences of this misunderstanding are also generally repressed, for such a misunderstanding of the relation of God to death generally raises the question: why did the Word have to become incarnate and God’s own Son suffer a torturous death by crucifixion, if God could have simply overcome sin and death by fiat?

Another Look at the Relation of Death to Sin and God

God created the world of time and space. He created it out of nothing (nihil), and it retains the ability to cease existing, to sink once again into nothingness. The created world continues to be conditioned by non-being. It is ambiguous and threatened. Non-being is an aspect of temporal-spatial existence. While created reality depends upon God for its existence, it is not simply from and of God. It is not, for instance, an emanation of God, and it does not possess its own being. It is finite and must be continually summoned and held in existence against the power of non-being also at work within and around it. Beyond this, and in part because of the presence of non-being as a conditioning element, this world also possesses potential. It has the capacity to grow and change. Non-being conditions this world as threat and as promise. It is both a condition of possibility and the condition of non-possibility.

When we consider human existence the situation becomes even more complex, because human beings are created with the capacity to reject God, and to ally themselves with that which is other than the One from whom life and meaning come, even looking to this as a source of life and meaning. Not only is human existence ambiguous in all the ways historical existence is ambiguous, but human beings can refuse to simply receive meaningful life as a gift from God. They can, as the OT puts the matter, “choose to know good and evil,” (in the very intimate way the OT uses the term knowledge), or “choose to be as Gods,” or again, they can “choose death.” Human beings can ally themselves with life and the author of life in total dependence, or (and there is no other option), they can ally themselves with the powers of non-being, the meaningless, anti-life, anti-truth, literally godless powers that are also part of spatial-temporal existence. And of course, they do. In fact they do so inevitably in one way and another. Without exception human beings embrace the powers and principalities of this world in a mistaken bid for autonomy and completion. They “live (and die) from” these powers, and in doing so give them greater standing, status, power, menace, and malignancy in the world than they would have without human complicity.

But where does non-being and the power of non-being come from in the first place? Is God its author? Is non-being a “something,” a form of matter as Manichaeism once suggested, and where else could it come from than the God who is the source of all that “is”? One of the better explanations comes from J√úrgen Moltmann in his, God in Creation. Building on a Jewish kabalistic notion , Moltmann explains:

<< God makes room for his creation by withdrawing his presence. What comes into being is a nihil which does not contain the negation of creaturely being (since creation is not yet existent), but which represents the partial negation of the divine being, inasmuch as God is not yet creator. The space which comes into being and is set free by God’s self-limitation is literally God-forsaken space. The nihil in which God creates his creation is god-forsakenness, hell, absolute death; and it is against the threat of this that he maintains his creation in life. Admittedly, the nihil only acquires this menacing character through the self-isolation of created beings to which we give the name of sin and godlessness. . . . This points to a necessary correction in the interpretation of creation: God does not create merely by calling something into being, or by setting something afoot. In a more profound sense he “creates” by letting-be, by making room and by withdrawing himself. >> (Emphasis added)

And what then of sin or estrangement from God? If non-being is a “natural” part of finite existence, then isn’t sin, which is primarily estrangement from God, also simply something natural, a part of historical existence? The answer is no. Sin, which begins as a natural separation or distinction from the God who dwells in eternity, occurs when human beings (who dwell instead in time and space) choose not to be entirely dependent upon God to save them from the threat of non-being. It occurs when human beings mistake actual independence from God for freedom, and when independence from God is pushed the further disastrous misstep, and mistaken for equality with God. It occurs whenever human beings decide that a humble response to God’s summons alone is not to be the only determinant of their lives, and align themselves with that which is not from or of God. It occurs when we make common cause with death and non-being rather than with the One who is the source of life and meaning. It occurs whenever human beings turn away from their creator toward that which is antithetical to him in acts of rebellion and apostasy, and transform a more natural separation-yet-communion into actual estrangement, alienation, and sometimes-outright antipathy. It happens whenever the “we” of our “original” state is rejected and/or betrayed, and thus transformed into the self-conscious, self-concerned, relatively isolated “I” attested to in the Genesis narratives.

Similarly then, death has also been transformed from something natural into something entirely unnatural. The death that we recognize as an integral part of human existence is something wholly unnatural. Just as human distinction and separateness was transformed into actual estrangement and alienation from God, from self, and from others, so too has normal finitude, ordinary mortality, taken on monstrous proportions in light of human sin. Human death is not simply a natural or neutral event. It is not simply the moment when non-being overcomes being, although it is certainly that as well. Human death is menacing; it is associated with human complicity and collusion with the anti-divine powers of nothingness, meaninglessness, and chaos. And of course, for this reason human death is “the wages of sin,” and implies the triumph of godlessness ---- a triumph which human beings have assisted, colluded, and become complicit in, in every possible way. Human death, apart from Christ, is a death of godforsakenness.

It is also, therefore, a death marked by the wrath of God, but wrath in the genuinely Pauline sense of the word. After all, God has created us with the capacity to choose something other than himself, or to be something other than we are created to be. And choose we do. And when we do, God leaves us to our choices. This is precisely what living under the wrath of God means. It does not mean that God is angry. It certainly does not mean that he punishes us in any way. It means simply that we are left to the choices we have made and the alliances we have forged throughout our lives. It means that, in fact, God respects (that is, he will not and cannot interfere with) these choices or alliances. It also means that those who are born into the world after us are touched by the same powers and principalities which we ourselves have elevated and magnified with our choices. Paul describes this in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans. The wrath of God implies being “given up” to the alien powers with which we have aligned and allied ourselves, and therefore, to the gradually worsening decadence and disintegration that afflict us, our society, and our world because we have made common cause with chaos and nothingness. It implies an inhuman death marked by the embrace of godforsakenness, one in which absolute godlessness triumphs. Whatever death is or would be apart from Sin, it is not this. Instead it is the enemy of sinful humankind and of God, and it is this situation which the Cross of Christ is meant to address.

The Cross of Christ and the Death of Death

There are times and situations in human life and history which demand we look again at everything we believe, every definition and presupposition we hold, every scrap of knowledge we think we possess, and every perspective which seems intelligent, or natural, or logical. The picture of reality gained from the perspective of Holy Saturday surely suggests that the cross of Christ is, at the very least, one of these events. From this perspective alone we have a picture of a failed and possibly delusional “Messiah.” After all, God’s Son had not climbed down from his cross. He had not saved himself as he had saved others, and in the process he died a completely degrading and entirely ignoble death. The one he called Abba with an unprecedented intimacy had not established his reign with a mighty and outstretched arm. The angel of death had not passed over, nor had the powers of Rome been routed in any way reminiscent of the Egyptians at the Exodus. Instead, sin and death were the apparent victors on this day, and a God whose power is, even today, mainly understood by believers and unbelievers alike in abstract, impersonal terms of omnipotence, had proved unable to deal with the consequences of human freedom and its abuses, much less with the destructive powers of the world. And yet, the Christian Gospel affirms that this evident failure was the ground of a far more awesome victory, the victory of a hitherto unknown God whose “foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.”

So then, how is it the Cross of Christ “works”? This question is often posed “Why did Jesus have to die this kind of death?” And implicit in this query are a number of others: “why couldn’t Jesus simply have died of old age?” or, “why would his Father allow such a thing, much less will it?” or, “what kind of God would demand that his Son suffer betrayal, torture, abandonment, and even godforsakenness or hell?” and, “if God asks that of his Son, how can I believe he will have mercy on me?” These are important questions, and they are variations on the questions raised whenever God is made the author or agent of death. They are also the questions which are at least implicitly raised by notions of the cross which make it the place where an infinitely offended God is appeased or placated. And the answer to them is as simple as it is almost incomprehensible in its wondrousness. For God’s sake and the sake of a divine justice which is defined solely in terms of mercy and which seeks the reconciliation and completion of all of reality WITH God, God must overcome everything which separates him from us. For this reason, in order to implicate God into the realm from which he is by definition absent and from which he has actually been further excluded by human sin, someone sinless and therefore still entirely open and responsive to God, must die such a death.

On the one hand, this death must represent the worst death a human being may die. It must be a death marked by failure, weakness, abandonment and isolation. It must be a genuinely “inhuman” (that is, sinful) fate, the death of one whose dignity has been stripped from him, and who is left completely powerless and alone, with nothing left to recommend him to God. It, above all, must be a death where this one is given over entirely to nothingness, to the emptinesses of hell. It must be the death we each deserve --- the death that, without Christ, we each will die because of the alliances we have forged, and the choices we have inevitably made and ratified. It must be the death we each merit for ourselves, and often visit on others. And it must be that death in which the wrath of God is experienced without mitigation or diminution, precisely so that God can instead become inexhaustibly present here under the aspect of grace. At the same time, it must have been the most genuinely human death ever died. There could be nothing present in Christ which mitigated or compromised his openness to and dependence upon God, nothing which prevented the entire will of God being done in him, nothing which spoke of misguided autonomy, collusion with the powers of death and sin, disobedience, or pride. At the precise instant Jesus’ death is the most inhuman (godless) imaginable, it must also be the most human (open to God) precisely so that genuinely human existence which is defined in terms of obedience to and communion with God once again becomes a real possibility in our world. And the result is not only the possibility of genuinely human existence, but also necessarily, the simultaneous “death of (godforsaken) death.”

As we noted above, human death, the “wages of sin,” the result of our alliances with the “powers and principalities” of this world, cannot be destroyed from without, by fiat, without God also destroying his entire creation and abrogating the freedom of those who would and do ally themselves with these powers. So God chooses to become present even here in the realm of nothingness. God empties himself completely of his divine prerogatives in order to definitively reveal and assert a novel kind of divine sovereignty, an incredibly paradoxical power defined in terms of weakness. Sinful death is the ultimate enemy, and so, God chooses to be subject to it so that he might transform it entirely. Thus, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are followed and rendered permanently valid by Easter, the definitive and wholly new “Passover.” After Christ, death is no longer the godless place, and it no longer has the final word. Because of Christ, and because he chose to become subject to sin and the wages of sin out of love for his Father and us, God has become present “in the unexpected place,” and the power of death, which was the power to separate us from God forever, is definitively broken. The God Jesus reveals--- the One whose Name he makes known and real among us, is the formerly unseen, infinitely paradoxical God who, from creating to redeeming his creation, “calls into being the things that are not, and raises the dead to life.” Most significantly, he does so with a sovereignty which is worked out in self-emptying and self-limitation, a justice which is defined in terms of mercy, and a “power (which is) made perfect in weakness.”

Paul summarizes this whole theology in one statement: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their transgressions against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Note well that Paul does not say, “God was in Christ being reconciled to a world that offended him infinitely.” Note as well that neither is Paul concerned with a kind of justice which is either familiar or comfortable to us. This justice is neither distributive nor retributive. In no sense is this a God “who gives us what we deserve.” Instead Paul’s entire focus is on the fact that in the Christ Event, and most especially on the cross, God asserts his rights over creation, and defines justice with an exhaustively kenotic and sacrificial mercy which secures our freedom on the one hand, and which transforms the very things we choose when we abuse and misuse that freedom on the other. In this theology, God’s justice is actually expressed as his refusal to allow anything to separate us from him. Here grace and justice, are largely synonymous. If wrath means allowing us our choices out of love for us even in full recognition of our sin, grace means allowing us our choices, but, out of an unconditional love, transforming the very nature of that which we choose so that we are no longer separated from God, or broken and estranged as human beings. If wrath means allowing us to choose the godless and godforsaken, grace means the transformation of these things, and especially the transformation of sinful death into an actual sacrament of God’s presence. If sin means our separation from God and the self-assertion and ingratitude that prompts it, divine justice is God’s assertion that we belong to him no matter what, and what is ordinarily called “justification” is the reconciliation that results when God acts out this judgement in the Christ Event.

All of this, of course, is the climax of the Divine self-emptying that began at creation. It contrasts precisely with the pretensions to divinity assumed by human beings in sin --- the same pretensions that crucified Christ in a riot of religious righteousness and political expediency. This is indeed the victory of a God whose “foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.” It reminds us that ours is a God who is folly to “Greeks” and a scandal to “Jews,” and as it does so, it calls into question everything we once held as conventional wisdom about God, his sovereignty, wrath, justice, power, and dignity, and it offers us alternative and paradoxical definitions of all of these, as well as our own notions of what constitutes genuinely human existence. What was true at the time Paul wrote about the scandal and foolishness of the cross is no less true now. For this reason we can be very sure that if the Cross has not challenged our notions of all we experience and know, we have not really understood it. Even more seriously, so long as we refuse to accept the redefinitions achieved on the cross, we make it, and what was achieved there, void. There is, I think, no place our success or failure in this has more serious consequences than in our theology of death, and our ministry to the dying and bereaved.

Implications for Our Ministry to the Dying and Bereaved

This brings to our ministry then, an alternative way of looking at death, tragedy, senselessness, and their relation to God. I believe this alternative perspective results in an altogether more extensively and intensively comforting pastoral approach, but there is no doubt that it is tremendously challenging as well. After all, it requires that both we and those we minister to, give up the facile answers and simplistic platitudes that have so long mistakenly passed for Christian faith and truth. This perspective demands then that we adopt a grammar of salvation built on the paradoxes embodied in a theology God worked out in creation and on the cross in terms of kenosis and asthenia. In this theology, the God who renounces his own prerogatives out of love for us is not in total control, but ultimately, he is the God who asserts his rights over all of creation and mercifully brings all things to fulfillment in himself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once rightly reminded us, “Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably nothing that happens occurs outside his will.” In this theology God has willed the sinful death of only one person, his own Son, but he has done so only in order that he might defeat godless death entirely. In this theology, God gives, sin distorts, desecrates and destroys, and death takes away, but God intervenes in death and robs it of any ultimate victory. And in this grammar of salvation, not everything that happens in our world makes sense or has meaning, but at the same time it can all be the basis for celebrating a God who will bring order out of chaos, life out of death, and meaning out of absurdity if we only give him the chance, and perhaps even when we do not.

In concrete terms this means that when dying or grieving persons ask us if this human death is the will of God, we must answer no, but what God will make of it in Christ is another matter. Death is the enemy, and it is both God’s and ours, but in Christ it is also the vanquished enemy whose power, for all its awfulness, is a merely a hollow shell of what it once was. If we are asked why God does not intervene to save a dying child, for instance, we must be clear that God has intervened, but he has intervened in death to transform its very nature, and make sure it does not have the final word. And when those we minister to rightly affirm that they have sinned, and are frightened of God’s justice, or that they feel guilty as death approaches, we have to be able to remind them that God’s justice has determined they will not be separated from him. No. God has asserted his rights over all of creation, and has promised to love us with an everlasting love. Perhaps it is the case that God’s mercy assumes an awful aspect for those unprepared to be nothing but forgiven, but for those who are prepared to accept this gift, God’s justice is a source of unending joy, and its promise is still ultimately comforting. So, while we cannot minimize or trivialize the sin and guilt anyone experiences, neither can we allow it to be perceived as greater or more powerful than God’s own solution for it. The wages of sin is godforsaken death. But an innocent Christ has died our own deserved godless death, and the wages of this death is eternal life in communion with a God who refuses to allow sin and death to remain godless.

Many Christians are scandalized or frightened by the suggestion that God is not in complete control of his creation. They believe it offends against a God who is traditionally described in terms of omnipotence. But they have not been introduced to the paradoxical sovereignty of the God of Jesus Christ who defeats sin and death by participating in them. Here God’s sovereignty is exercised precisely where he dies for us. A God who is said to limit himself in creating and redeeming a free creation, is a real stumbling block to many Christians, and more than this, many are made nervous by the notion that there are things at work in the world which God neither foresees in detail, nor immediately controls. This too seems to offend against the theology of an omniscient, omnipotent God. Many will be downright angry at a notion of divine justice where people “don’t get what they deserve.” After all, a God whose judgement IS his mercy certainly is a stumbling block. But, again, God asserts his rights over us as he will and for all these people, the paradox of a crucified God whose foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men, needs to be more convincingly proclaimed and taught. While some of us find the notion of God as the author and agent of death repugnant, many others are threatened by a notion of death where God is neither the agent nor the author. At the same time however, these folks may not have been taught that through Christ’s death and resurrection sinful death is miraculously transformed into a sacrament of God’s presence. And yet, it is certainly part of an adequate ministry to the dying and bereaved to make these central aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ effectively known. We will have failed badly if we are unable to recognize and adequately affirm either side of the God-death equation that is at the heart of Christian kerygma.

Every human life has its Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays. There is failure, absurdity, betrayal, collusion, isolation, injustice, cruelty, torment, and death. There are times when we are simply left helpless and mute in the face of our own and others’ inhumanity, and when we are bewildered by the tragic and inexplicable circumstances of our personal and collective histories, as well as by the silence and apparent inadequacy of God at these times. In the short term Sin often does triumph and the powers of this world are sometimes immediately victorious. After all, God is not yet “all in all,” and not all that happens is either from or of him. Ministers to the dying and bereaved have to be courageous enough to admit these things without mitigation or equivocation. And yet, there is another side to all of this that must be communicated clearly and persuasively.

Death and the apparent triumph of non-being are followed by resurrection, and as a result, we really can’t look at any of reality in quite the same way again. The negativities of life are real, but so is the God who chooses to enter into them and transform them with his own life and presence. After all, ours is the God of Jesus and Paul, the God who raises the dead to life, the God whose justice is defined in terms of mercy rather than wrath, and who refuses to allow anything to separate us from his love. Ours is the God who assumes a position of impotence in order that his sovereignty might be perfected and we might be saved when we are most helpless. And he is the God who does this so that even while we face squarely the greatest tragedies and senselessnesses life has to offer, we can exultantly cry with Paul, and help those to whom we minister to do the same, “Sin where is thy victory, death where is thy sting?”

10 March 2008

Choosing Manna and Water from the Rock, Numbers 21:4-9

Tomorrow's first reading is a challenging one for us. Christians may forget that the serpent was a powerful symbol of both death and life, poison and healing, resurrection and eternity, as well as sin and sinful death prevalent in Middle East religious cults. They may also forget that Satan was not unequivocably evil in Jewish thought, but instead always served God, or was constrained in some way by the purposes and will of God. And of course, we are apt to ask ourselves why it is a golden calf is condemned but a brazen serpent is acceptable. But, as thorny as some of these issues are, they are not where the challenge of this reading lays for us, I don't think. And, as central and significant as the image of the coming passion of Christ is with its parallel to the raising up of the serpent on the staff, with life coming from death, and the defeat of sinful death especially, I don't think this is where the challenge of today's first reading lays for us either.

Instead, I think the challenge lies in the area of the idea of pilgrimage, of life journeys, of impatience with and ingratitude for the day by day nourishment God provides. It has to do with accepting the perks of being God's chosen people, but rejecting the more tedious, mundane bits of day to day life in complete dependence upon God. It has to do with looking for God's mercy when we are desperate, but becoming bored with it on an everyday basis. It has to do with allowing God's love to be sufficient for us, recognizing the miracles that accompany us on our DAILY journeying, and not rejecting (or ignoring) the food God provides us as "worthless" or "tasteless" or "empty."

The first lection is the story of a people eating manna God provides daily, and drinking water which comes from supernatural sources, and growing bored with these and forgetful of how truly miraculous they are. The journey is tiring. The food is neither varied nor can it be stored up. It must be gathered daily or it corrupts and can no longer nourish. It is truly "daily bread" and must be received in that way. Israel ceases to recall the reasons she should be grateful and does what she and we often do all so well in such cases, she grumbles and whines! Things look better to her on the other side of the Red/Reed sea; the grass is greener in Egypt it seems. In fact, slavery looks better to Israel than the freedom which God has brought them to and whose fulfillment he promises in the future. Slavery was hard work, but freedom is also not without its tedium, responsibilities, and difficulties --- not least the day to day, moment by moment praxis of dependence upon the power and mercy of God, which, miraculous as it is, demands one remain completely mindful, open, and grateful.

We often extol how faithful God is from moment to moment. In fact, we note that should he forget us or his covenant at any point, we will simply cease to be. And yet, in our own lives we forget we are participants in a covenant which requires ongoing, moment by moment faithfulness. We tend instead to try to get by on "saved up grace" or skate along on yesterday's prayer, Sunday's liturgy and readings, last year's retreat, the sacraments and catechetical education we received as adolescents or young adults. Some few may make it to daily Mass, and that is surely an improvement, but how many read spirituality and/or theology regularly in ways which nourish them afresh? How many do lectio? How many pray office, or stop for quiet prayer once a day? How many of us are really concerned with making our entire lives into a prayer, or, in the words of Scripture, "praying always"? Few of us are really as faithful to these sources of miraculous nourishment as we could be, I think, and this is true whatever our state of life or vocation.

Today's first reading gives us an immediate image of the passion by recalling the serpent raised on a staff, and calls to mind the healing that can come from something deadly. On our way to Holy Week and Easter, that is surely significant. The challenge, at least as I read this lection however, is not located here but in recognizing how similar we are to the Israelites and their forgetfulness, blindness, and ingratitude. In a culture which offers us entertainment, diversion, and novelty in every conceivable form we are apt to choose these things over the more difficult and even tedious manna and water which God asks us to live on, no matter how miraculous it is! I think the challenge of today's first reading is in demanding we examine our own lives for signs of ingratitude, forgetfulness, impatience, boredom, and a desire for security, independence from God, and the entertainment and novelty which distracts us from the difficult praxis of choosing and valuing the daily bread offered us by God, whatever form that food takes.

04 March 2008

"Do you Want to be Well?" John 5:1-16

Today's Gospel is one of those intensely intriguing ones where the reader plays a huge part in determining what actually happens in the story (because the story is not a matter merely of the past; the Gospel writer very much WANTS it to draw us in as well). I once remarked in an earlier blog entry that some of Jesus' parables are rather like Thematic Aperception Tests, and today's Gospel strikes me very much that way --- there is much left undefined or ambiguous, lots of room for projection, for implicating ourselves in the story and interpreting the questions, responses, followup behavior, etc. For those unfamiliar with the TAT, this is a psychological test often given to candidates for religious life, priestly ordination, etc. During the test the client is shown a series of pen and ink drawings, ordinarily a series of ambiguous pictures, and asked to tell the stories of the characters and scenes depicted there. S/he is asked to characterize the situation in each drawing, narrate how it came to be, and also give the story some sort of an ending. It is quite an enjoyable test UNTIL one realizes that the ONLY thing exposed for the tester is the inner and psychological life of the client!!! THAT is laid bare with incredible clarity! Well, today's gospel reading can function that way for us today, and would be wonderful for lectio.

Several things struck me right away. First, the reference to multitudes of sick, crippled, etc, in the temple area, but somehow also separated from the very life of the Temple. Second, Jesus' question to the one man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (a whole generation is signified here): "Do you want to be well?" --- certainly an intimate question which also retains complete respect for the man's freedom and innate dignity. Thirdly, the man's not-so-direct answer: "I have no one to put me in the water, and before I can get there, someone else has already entered." Fourthly, there is the exchange between Temple officials and the healed man who is walking and carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Both sides of this exchange are interesting: the officials' for their blindness and lack of priorities, and then for their focused hostility, and the response of the healed man who says he does not know who healed him or commanded him to take up his mat. And fifthly, after meeting Jesus again later on, and being challenged by him to not fall into sin so that something worse than paralysis befalls him, the now-healed man runs back to Temple officials to inform them that it was Jesus who healed him on the Sabbath!

The reference to multitudes of sick and crippled underscored for me a sense I already had, namely, that this gospel addressed all of us as sick or crippled in some way. When coupled with Jesus' very direct question, "Do you want to be well?" I think only a person who has never realized how it is we each come to terms with our various forms of unwellness, how we collude with them, struggle against them, accommodate them, and eventually accept them as more or less natural, would think Jesus' question a strange or completely obvious one. Afterall, after 38 years of illness most of us would have built our lives around the illness in some way which allows us a more or less comfortable accommodation to its limitations and demands --- even if this process is never perfect! To get well after 38 years of illness is no less a dramatic change than becoming seriously ill in the first place. Physical ailments are one thing, and they typify all the various ways a person can come to terms with something that is not natural or fully human --- and accommodate these things we certainly do!! But during Lent, the focus is more on our spiritual illness or lack of wellbeing, and there is nothing obvious about the answer to the question, "Do you want to be well?" Indeed oftentimes we have ignored the illness and have no awareness healing is necessary, much less at hand! Furthermore, when we ARE aware of the illness, we may not want to be healed really, just improved on a little! We don't want to commit ourselves to REAL spiritual healing. That, afterall, goes by the name of holiness, and who in the world REALLY seeks to be holy today???

I was struck by the paralyzed man's response. He does not say, "Yes, I have been waiting here for almost 4 decades. I want to be healed more than anything in the world!" Neither does he recognize that Jesus is actually the true living water and source of his healing as others have already done. His response COULD be a kind of blaming of others, or it COULD be an indictment of the religious system of his day which isolates those who are ill or crippled from the life of the Temple. It COULD be the cautious answer of one who is just now considering the idea that PERHAPS he COULD be healed and is beginning to get his mind (and heart!) around the fact that today might be the day. It COULD be the resigned response of one who has given up and knows that he will never be the first in the pool, and probably would not be healed there even if he were first! It could even be the response of a person who would like Jesus to be a little more realistic and see what the paralyzed man is really up against! (See what I mean about projecting ourselves into the story? It's terrific for uncovering our OWN hidden and not-so hidden motives and attitudes toward healing!)

Following his healing (an act of God which still requires trust and courage by the formerly paralyzed man; he still MUST pick up his mat and walk, afterall!), there is the rather chilling encounter with the temple officials. How many of us identify with their inability to see what is REALLY right in front of them, their lack of perspective, their legalistic attitudes, or their focused hostility at Jesus? And yet, how many of us have approached liturgy, for instance, with the very same mindset and condemned some breach of the rubrics when what was far more important was the healing of a fellow Christian in some major way, shape, or form we failed even to see? None of us like to see ourselves as scribes or pharisees, but all of us have a bit of closet temple-official locked inside our hearts, I am afraid! For some, it has become the primary attitude with which they approach their parish liturgy: what can I find wrong today? What breach of the Sabbath (e.g., Mass rubrics) can I point out today? How many unorthodoxies can I locate in Father's homily?" And of course, liturgy is not the only area in which such an attitude can be operative. How often do we notice someone did not follow the rules or "draw inside the lines", so to speak, in our daily lives --- while completely neglecting the fact that the person has ACHIEVED something they had been unable to perform until this point? If one walks away from this story without seeing something of themselves in this exchange between temple officials and healed paralytic, or fails to be challenged, I would be amazed!

Then there is the encounter with Jesus later in the story, after the man has been challenged by the Temple officials for carrying his mat. Jesus affirms his new condition "See, you are well!" and challenges him not to sin, lest something worse result. Does Jesus buy into some naive linkage between sin and illness? Is he asking us to do so? If so, how so? What IS the linkage REALLY? Is Jesus saying that sin can lead to worse things than physical illness? Is he reminding the man that he must commit himself to something besides his illness or his heart will be filled with something unworthy? And then there is the man's response: he runs back to the Temple officials to tell them the healer's name! Is he consciously betraying Jesus (we have been told in this and earlier readings that Jesus is staying away from crowds which are now dangerous to him)? Is he merely trying to tell the officials the simple answer to what they asked, naive of any awareness that this constitutes a betrayal of his healer (afteralll, he has been on the margins of what has been happening due to his illness)? Is he trying to fit into the Temple from whence he has been ostracized for so long? Is he trying to curry favor, in other words, or simply trying to show how responsible he can be now that he is well? What illnesses still afflict him? Blindness? Insecurity? And what kind of blindness then? Ingratitude? What is it that motivates this man? Once again, we can read critically, exegetically, of course, but to some extent, I think we will have to project ourselves onto or into the text to answer many of these questions, and to really HEAR the text. So long as we are clear this is what we are doing, in this way we will learn more about ourselves than we will ever learn about the man in the story!!

For me, healing stories are always difficult, but this Lent, where the focus is not on chronic physical illness, but rather on all the failures in humanity which regularly plague me, Jesus' question, "Do you want to be well?" hits hard. It hits hard because it presupposes an awareness of being unwell in fundamental ways which require a healer, a messiah of Jesus' caliber and character. It presupposes the ability to say, "Yes" not only because I am unwell, but because I have colluded with the dominant culture so much that I often have remained unaware of my basic unwellness and suppose I am essentially fine --- just a "bit of a sinner" you know! And of course, it commits me to picking up my mat and walking on with it, right in the midst of all those who will be offended by the act! For a monastic and a hermit, this picking up my mat and walking with it will look differently than it will for some, but in this day and age, the call to holiness is no more acceptable for hermits than it is for businessmen or housewives, parents, professionals, etc. Do I want to be well? All of my focus on humility this Lent had led to this one reading, and this one question. And I think the answer really must be, "Yes, no matter how much admitting and accepting my own brokennness and embracing genuine holiness scares me!" For many different reasons I may be more comfortable with a divine king than a divine physician, but this is Jesus' own question to me in this season of my life --- it is not projection on my part!! Of that I have no doubt at all. So, then, how is he speaking to you?