Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Gospel of Judas and the like

Christ is Risen!

I am so bogged down with revisions for exams that I am sure none of you will mind if you hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than myself for the moment. Click the link in the title to read his excellent sermon, "Doubtful Mysteries blind us to real faith."

Here is a brief excerpt, referring to the holy gospels:
When the Jesus of the Gospels comes back from the dead, he doesn’t go and crow over his enemies, he meets his friends and tells them to get out there and talk about him — about what his life and death have made possible, about forgiveness, making peace, being honest about yourself, checking the temptation to judge and condemn, tackling your selfishness at the root, praying simply and trustingly.

This is flesh and blood. It’s not about exotic mysteries. It is about how God makes it possible for us to live a life that isn’t paralysed by guilt, aggression and pride. It asks us to come down to earth and face what’s wrong with us. Is it surprising that some people found this too direct, too in-your-face to cope with? No wonder they preferred to go on about the names of angels and the secrets of how the world began.

Let’s ask ourselves why we’re sometimes more comfortable with such stories about conspiracies and stories about mystical gurus. Is it perhaps because when we turn to what the Bible actually says, Jesus challenges us pretty seriously? What if this is a story we haven’t really listened to before? And what if everything could be different because of this particular story?

Since I may not be writing much these next few weeks, I cannot resist linking to:

They may not be my best, but I cannot resist quoting myself at times. :-)

I wish you a blessed Easter season.

Monday, 17 April 2006

What is this with the "DaVinci Code"?

I understand that cautions about this novel were included in Easter sermons from both Rome and Canterbury. I, for one, cannot understand why this book had such popularity in the first place. Wondering what the fuss was about, I (a lover of history, of course, and known to enjoy historical fiction as well), I took a look at the book in a library. I barely got through 30 pages - the history and theology were so off the mark that I was becoming annoyed. Some parts may have been inside jokes, I suppose - "The Gnostic Gospels" being not a secret document from the time of Constantine but a recent book by Elaine Pagels. (Then again, the author showed little indication he knew much about Constantine or Nicaea, either.)

Of course, I am not one for detective stories (the sole exception being my collection of Jack the Ripper books and Umberto Eco's brilliant "The Name of the Rose," which is all too accurate a picture of the Middle Ages.) Yet people seem to be seeing the DaVinci Code not as a thriller in poor historical garb, but as a key to all sorts of secrets and inside information.

There is one thing for which to be grateful. At least this is an openly imaginative novel - not presented as a newly found gospel or book of secret revelations.

I was saying last week that it is unfortunate that Jesus' humanity makes many Christians uneasy. I'm afraid that 'revelations' (by which I mean visions, not his speaking through his Church at places such as Nicaea) about him can be a far worse. For example, with all due respect to Margaret Mary Alacoque, her vision of Jesus shows an effeminate whinge bag. The 'unapproved' revelations are worse still.

Then again, if Jesus gets a raw deal here, his mother tends to do far worse. The apocryphal books, for all that the influence of Gnostic, Persian, or other ideas is strong, have a certain charm. It is rot such as Mary of Agreda's "City of God" which makes me sigh. Were Mary anything like what she is in that godawful collection (four volumes, if I recall correctly), she would have been insufferable. She was allowed even less humanity than Jesus - a prissy sort who ate nothing but a few grapes, a housewife whose manual labour was performed by angels...

I would imagine the author of the DaVinci Code banked on that people cannot resist thinking they have inside, previously hidden information... and has been laughing all the way to the bank since.

Sunday, 16 April 2006

Mysterium Fidei

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again... The new and everlasting covenant, the mystery of faith.

It is late, I'm rather exhausted if a bit exhilarated, and I have shed more than my share of excited tears at the "Christ is Risen!" part of the wonderful Easter Vigil.

Tonight, listening to the readings from the Hebrew scriptures in the darkened church, obviously I was thinking of far more than 2,000 years. One of the points of ascetic theology, on which all the greatest mystics would agree (and not only the Christian ones), is that one of the most difficult attachments from which we need to be freed is that of our images of God. They are useful, indeed, but never adequate.

As I listened to the verses about creation, about Noah, Abraham, the Exodus, Ezechiel - I realised, once again, that God is so beyond us that we can only catch a glimpse of the glory. Abraham, for example, had an intimacy with God (to the point of haggling - which the former purchasing manager in me loved) which is warm and lovely. Yet Abraham had little 'theology' on which to draw. My impressions, from the Old Testament, is that, for many centuries, the Chosen People were not even sure about monotheism. By the time of Sinai, indeed they would know to 'have no other gods before' the God of Israel - but it seems they still admitted the possibility that others existed, even if they were not to be worshipped. The God of Abraham, even with the puzzling test of the command to sacrifice Isaac, left Abraham with knowing He was not El. The God of Moses would identify himself with "I Am Who Am," and I doubt that He was anticipating Thomas Aquinas' pondering this to decide that the nature of God is to exist.

Throughout salvation history, we can see a great deal of God's gifts - His action within creation, with the Incarnation being the ultimate example. Yet even if we can recognise how God acts, we do not know precisely who God is. Divinity is beyond our comprehension.

I sound pedantic tonight... well, don't think I'm any less confused than the next person. I, too, have nearly lifelong images of God to which I have attachments. Oddly enough, many of these images are far from attractive! A God who loves to inflict suffering - who wants our lives to be an endurance test to prove obedience - who is always looking to make us grovel - I do not 'believe' in such a God intellectually, but the goblins haunt me all too often.

Yet even the beautiful images of God are never adequate. (I shall concede that I sometimes cannot reconcile "love" with divine power doing nothing to stop evil... another topic for another day.) The 'leap in the dark' to admit the limitations of our own vision can be frightening. I'm an avid believer who, in exploring aspects of the divine, could sound agnostic.

I wonder what the feelings were of the women who found the empty tomb - of Mary Magdalene when she saw the Master (whom she did not recognise.) Nothing in the disciples' understanding prepared them for Jesus' resurrection. He certainly met no common images of the Messiah, and the business with Rome was no different after his death (until a few centuries later, of course, when Rome would bow low indeed!) Images of the Messiah never included his being God himself.

The scholastic theologians would debate the aspects till kingdom's come :) (I have it on good authority that 'it's all straw'), but, men of prayer that they were, they knew what could not be defined. God is always full of surprises. Thomas, of course, defined what God was not. And the scriptures make that seem wise indeed: I am not one whose knowledge you can obtain by eating forbidden fruit, I am not El, I am not Ba'al or one of his relatives, I am not the liberator of Israel from Roman domination...

I am beginning to see why Francis of Assisi, whose images of Jesus' humanity endure to this day, had a favourite prayer through the mature years of his short life. "Lord, who are you? Lord, who am I?"

Friday, 14 April 2006

"They're kissing the feet!"

Recently, I have been studying the Victorian era in great depth, as I've mentioned in other entries on this blog. (It indeed is quite fascinating... though even a virginal hippie has to admit that she would have found the rogues and rakes of the 18th century to be far more fun. Human nature is rather constant, of course - the Victorians had to be either pompous, self-righteous, undercover, guilty rogues and rakes, or perpetual adolescents wrapped up in sports, hero worship, soppy words about marriage, and 'all for queen and country.) Being of the working class, yet having had the good fortune to have more education than the norm (...slight pause for others of my class to comment that theology 'will never get you bread and cheese'... and they are correct, though I do not regret how I live in the least), I smile at much of what I read. The oh-so-devout (translation: "respectable") middle class and wealthy of the Victorian times shook their heads at the 'wicked' poor (and by this I do not at all mean criminals.) I cannot recall the author (indeed, it may have been anonymous), but I read a delicious statement (off the mark, but still worth a note) about how all the poor wanted, as regards worship, was penny pamphlets and high Masses.

There is some truth to that, I am sure - though many of the poor had no pennies to spare, and little time or energy for Mass at all. But one misconception, which I say as one who sees deep faith in the sort of folk religion which was my own mother's mainstay, was in the wealthier sorts thinking the poor had only superstition, not real faith. (I'll save my comments about whether obeisance before one's mother and father, an Evo speciality in that era, is faith anyway.) One interesting study, of such spots as Southwark and Bermondesey, presented by Sarah Williams did not surprise me in the least. The poor may not have been crowding the churches (most who were thought that God had blessed England with special protection and prosperity post-Waterloo - poor in any era know better), but they did want the church to mark special occasions of their lives - did value their being part of the Church - and often expressed blessings and gratitude in the very actions which the highbrow would have classed as superstitious.

With this being Good Friday, any Franciscan is entitled to ramble a bit. Of course, the flaw in Franciscan preaching is and was that, vivid though the images of Jesus and his poor family are in relation to his birth and death, the divine and resurrected Logos can get lost somewhere. I understand this, of course. Many of the poor, and a substantial number of those of any class who are not given to contemplative ways, cannot identify all that well with anything as impossible to describe as the resurrection. Struggle, suffering and the like - in some way a part of every life - make Jesus seem far more a part of one's life.

My mother, a lady of extreme devotion, did attend Sunday Mass, but was not one for any services during the week. (It is possible she might have made sacramental confession had she ever had anything to confess... which, as she told me more than once, she never did.) Yet, on Good Friday, she did want to know the local church's schedule for when "they're kissing the feet." I doubt my mother could have sat through the lengthy Good Friday liturgy, but she was one of many for whom 'kissing the feet' was of great value. (Indeed, there were, and I believe still are, some churches where one may come to do precisely that, outside of service times or the main church.)

I kiss relics, my bible or Prayer Book after reciting the Offices, and my profession ring which was blessed by John Paul II. Yet I never was one much for 'kissing the feet.' I always found it vaguely embarrassing, perhaps because the very thought of kissing anyone's feet is totally revolting to me. It also seldom seemed all that reverent. The priests would walk about the altar rail, presenting the crucifix for kissing - it was wiped directly afterward. I might have been more comfortable with a profound genuflection.

Heavens, am I rambling today! Well, I attended a service (from noon to 3:00) of the Seven Last Words of Christ. (I love how, on this blog, I never give a hint of locations - I therefore can have a candour I could not have elsewhere.) The church which I attended has outstanding music and impeccable liturgy - yet this service was vaguely disappointing. There was no wonderful choral liturgy - just the sort of hymns which the Victorians love.

The preacher was one I'd hoped would be outstanding. Since he is a professor of homiletics in a very prestigious university, I had imagined deep exegesis, thought provoking reflections and exhortations... where he was one whose style centres on "as my friend Suchandsuch was telling me." I am not one for the anecdotal in preaching - nor am I much one for Good Friday sermons that seem centred entirely on 'us,' and on forgiveness. Most of the talk was about our reconciling with others, though there was a reference to Mary's constant worry about her son which almost reminded me of my friars.

On another note - what has happened during the past 25 years or so? Previously, if anything western preaching centred too much on Jesus' Passion (to an extent where the resurrection seemed an afterthought.) Yet I would see, in my adult years, evidence that we are rather afraid of looking at the Passion at all. (I suppose when the slogan "we are an Easter people" became fashionable, it became de rigueur to bypass that he had to be dead first.) Oh, I remember the arguments! Morbidity had to be avoided. Sin must be ignored lest self esteem be damaged (though those on the pop psychology crazes conveniently ignored that our internal recognition of moral difficulties, which one may learn to gloss over 'in therapy,' must be faced for any sort of health, spiritual or psychological.) Various books popular in my young adult years emphasised that 'guilt and worry' were 'useless emotions' - though it is my observation that those totally free of both are likely to be serial killers. I have had people complain to me about Julian of Norwich's writing vividly of the Passion - and, in the next breath, disliking her 'all shall be well.' (I'd best write an entry on the parousia, just for them...)

We must face the Passion of Christ - and not only to share in his pain, or to think 'my sin caused this.' Jesus' crucifixion came about through conflict, and that related to his vocation to preach the kingdom. The 'players' in the drama were not puppets, nor were they wicked. They were motivated by fear, or intolerance, or jealousy, or various other very common human traits. Recognition of that is something from which we shrink - because, created though we are in God's image, and deified though we were in the Incarnation, we still have that tendency towards violence, and always have.

The earliest Christians were all too well acquainted with the horror and shame of crucifixion. Yet the primitive church was built on the memory of a crucified man who rose from the dead. There is nothing else which is totally distinctive. It is amazing how the faith would spread, and in little time, on the memory of an executed criminal and his resurrection.

Sunday, 9 April 2006

Buona Palma

I do not know the history behind this, but, in Italy, Palm Sunday is a major feast, with much good food, family visiting and the like. (In fact, I know of no other country where many women actually are named Palma.) I well remember, in my childhood, when we made the rounds of visits (to the living relatives, but also to where the deceased were buried.) It was the custom to present everyone whom one met with a piece of palm.

Sadly, the fate of my current palm is bleak. Mirielle (my cat) has a great affection for palm... and already chewed the piece I placed behind the crucifix, so I must hide it in the drawer once again.

I cry (from being moved, not sad) a great deal during Holy Week. It is a very special time for me, when I immerse myself in the services (renaissance or mediaeval Masses preferred.) There was a period, some years back, when I had a great anxiety about attending church (odd, for one who'd been a daily communicant from adolescence.) I would love to say my first day 'back' was, perhaps, Pentecost or Easter - but, as it happened, it was a 12-to-3 service on Good Friday. And, no, it was not the 'community celebrating itself.' I blush to admit this, but God works as he will - and what drew me back was not only my faith but love from several special friends who encouraged me - and music! Dignified liturgy and music will keep me when nothing else can.

However, Holy Week is no time for a pure sermon on the aesthetic. I was in tears this morning, during the procession, seeing the cross decorated with palm, and the palm branches we raised, and hearing "All Glory, Laud, and Honour." Throughout the Eucharist and Evensong today, I kept thinking, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" And the warm tears returned - to think we've been singing this for 2,000 years, about one whom John Dominic Crossan (whom I rarely quote!) aptly terms a 'peasant, nuisance nobody.'

John (my favourite gospel) leaves us with the picture that a crowd, thrilled by the raising of Lazarus, hailed Jesus as He entered Jerusalem. It all is rather exciting. My cynical side reminds me that the apostles would have been careful to be in the limelight - even if they'd all run in fear a few days later. And I'm afraid, knowing human nature as I do, that I'm all too aware that the same people who called out "Hosanna" probably were the same ones soon to be yelling "Crucify him."

Holy Week makes everything so vivid (when the liturgy is well done.) I'll go on weeping - through Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday - and cry the most during the Easter Vigil. It has been decades during which I've sat in dark churches, hearing the history of salvation, but I never fail to have tears rolling down my cheeks when we cry out "Christ is Risen!"

I'm wondering what would make me enter anything on the blog about my tendency to cry during Holy Week. I suppose because my recent tears are from being moved, and from gratitude. In the days when the liturgy was poor - and centred more on 'us' - it was plain torture for me. So, if anything, this blog is begging for dignity in liturgy - and music that is not mediocre. Worship deserves more than that.

Tuesday, 4 April 2006

A thought from Titus Brandsma

Click the title to read of his history

Now and then, usually unexpectedly, I am moved beyond description by words. I had known nothing of Titus Brandsma until someone gave me a prayer card about him. It contained a brief history, and cited a letter Titus had written right before he was transported to (his death at) Dachau. He reassured his sister, "At Dachau I shall meet friends, and our God Almighty is everywhere."

I cannot think of any image of hell that would be worse than Dachau. Yet Titus, facing this horror with serenity, could grasp that human violence does not remove the presence of God. I would not care to pursue this knowledge in the way in which did Titus - but I suppose, deep down, I know as well that Jesus' crucifixion should remind one of that reality.

Gloomy images are hardly a staple of my blog - and I'm not so pious that I shall pretend that thoughts of concentration camps do not make me ill, no matter how much spiritual insight those such as Titus may bring. I am writing of this not only because Titus' words brought me to tears, but because it strikes me how often we can distort our vision. Titus was not suggesting that Dachau was 'God's will,' or that he was taking punishment for the sins of the world, but was recognising that God was still with him - and (not that I could explain this) that the divine image of the Creator remains in all of his people.

As I've mentioned in the past, it is vaguely amusing that hagiography (at least the sort in vogue in my childhood... when saints were depicted as perfect Victorian children for us to emulate... and Jesus was referred to in hymns as such a perfect baby that 'no crying he makes,' and otherwise as perfectly meek and mild... an image to which the gospels woudl largely give the lie) would lead one to think that holiness leaves everyone in awe - rather in the manner of a 1960s scriptural epic. Many of the saints were not the ... meekest and mildest of creatures, and the amount of trouble they had from their close associates often shows that they were hardly recognised as great ones in their own day. It never occurred to anyone (except perhaps myself... I always was a difficult child for unimaginative teachers) to question why the saints supposedly were invariably loved and esteemed, where the Son of God was sent to execution.

Trouble was, the 'scriptural epic' mode was applied to Jesus of Nazareth. Though there was no doctrine to this effect, we rather had the idea that Jesus' death did not come about naturally, and that there was no conflict surrounding him which led to the circumstances. No, he only went to the cross because it was 'God's will.' (Do not get me started on the gruesome notion that God's anger needed to be appeased...)

It was doctrine that Jesus was both true God and true man, but, to quote the splendid Raymond E. Brown, "Many Christians tolerate only as much humanity as they deem consonant with their view of the divinity." Along the way, this truth was enhanced by an odd idea (perhaps born of the idea that Jesus was not a hermit but should have been, or some Jansenistic remnant which blushed at Jesus' having been at enough parties for anyone to be complaining) that Jesus had no genuine human relationships. He was cast in the role of the perfect monk (in some vaguely morbid style - not the concept which great saints would have conceived), where seeing family is a pure duty to edify them, and friends are only targets for sermons.

I see no indication that this is true, of course. Yet we tend to shy from the idea that Judas, far from being some demonic figure, was a trusted and well loved companion. Or that Jesus' 'could you not wait one hour with me?," in which love and anguish are vivid, was merely a line to be recorded for future Perpetual Adoration manuals. Or that "why have you forsaken me?" was not merely a scriptural quotation, which would lead us all to read the pertinent psalm.

I'm almost embarrassed to hit the Post button - there is so little wit or insight in this entry. Yet I believe there is at least a concept here that is worth noting. The holy - even one who was Holiness itself - are not spyhnx like figures who have no natural human feelings, whether of self or for others. They were not smugly saying, "I do not fear - nothing can happen that God does not will or permit." Nor is wickedness part of the divine plan, and the worst victims oblations. Evil we shall never understand - but it is not a force competing with divinity.