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Sunday, October 30, 2011

A conversation with a 14 year old

The following exchange occurred on the way home from mass today:

Dom: Dad, where do accents come from?

Me: Eh? You mean the way people talk?

Dom: Yeah.

Me: Well, from the way people pronouce their vowels, mostly. In certain regions, people hear each other and repeat how they speak to each other and it forms a self-sustaining pattern of speech,

Dom: Oh. Huh.

Me: Where did you think they came from?

Dom: The climate?

This Man was Innocent Beyond Doubt: Distinctive Features of Luke’s Passion Narrative

Luke’s passion narrative contains several distinctive features not found in the other Gospel accounts. Three of these features in particular are the direct confrontation with evil, the need to follow Jesus, and the salvation that comes from the cross.

Luke begins his account by stating that “Satan entered into Judas[1].” This identification of Satan as the agent acting through Judas has two effects on the narrative. It establishes that it was not a mere human being, and a friend at that, that turned Jesus over to the authorities, but rather evil personified. Unlike the accounts of Mark and John, where Jesus is pitted purely against the religious and political forces of this world, in Luke, Jesus is pitted against evil itself. Therefore, the events that follow are not a matter of God versus man, but God versus evil. In a battle of God against man, there is no hope for man, but in a battle between God and evil, man has hope indeed in the eventual vanquishing of evil. Standing in counterpoint to the introduction of evil personified is Luke’s establishment of the setting of Passover, “the day for sacrificing the Passover lamb.[2]” With this detail, Luke presents Satan on the one hand and the slaughter of the innocent lambs on the other. This is the context into which Luke places the Passion: pure evil versus unblemished innocence. This scenario takes the events to an unexpected level, one of cosmic forces engaged in a spiritual battle. Jesus does not only overcome the forces of this world, as significant as that is; he conquers the very forces of hell itself.

Another distinct feature of Luke’s account is found in the actions of Simon of Cyrene. While the synoptic Gospels all state that Simon carried the cross for Jesus, only Luke adds the seemingly minor detail[3] that while Simon carries the cross for Jesus, he does so by “taking up the cross and following Jesus” (Senior and Collins 2006). While taking up one’s cross and following Jesus is a common Christian theme, what seems to be rarely considered is where that journey leads: to Golgotha, to death. If we pick up our own cross and carry it, if we persist in carrying that cross, sooner or later we will get nailed to it. Yes, we all have our crosses to bear, but who bears a cross but one who is about to be crucified? Our martyr’s death may be a physical one or a spiritual one, but in either case, we die with Christ.

Of course, if that’s where it ended, what would be the point? Why would anyone do this of their own volition, pick up this cross of death? The answer comes from the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise[4].” In Luke’s Gospel alone does Jesus offer these words of salvation to the man hanging next to him. Hanging next to “the outcasts that were central to his ministry” (Hill 2004), Jesus promises heaven, salvation, from the cross. Thus, Jesus reveals the power of the cross in that moment, by demonstrating “how salvation is available to the community through the crucified and risen Lord” (Hill 2004). By taking up our cross and following Jesus, we too participate in the saving act. This gives meaning to the cross we bear.

The forces of evil turn Jesus over to the powers of this world. The powers of this world send him to death. But evil, human power, and death have no hold on him. The battle against evil leads to taking up the cross – the powers of this world will lay the cross upon you or you can take it up yourself. What the powers of evil, and of this world, never see coming is the victory that comes from that very same cross.

Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.

Senior, Donald, and John J Collins. New American Bible Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[1] Luke 22:3 New American Bible
[2] Luke 22:7 New American Bible
[3] Luke 23:26 New American Bible
[4] Luke 23:43 New American Bible

Friday, October 28, 2011

Vatican Calls for New World Economic Order

Vatican Calls for New World Economic Order

Still pondering this one. Not sure what to think about it.

They Knew Him in the Breaking of the Bread: Meals and Miracles

The Gospel stories present frequent accounts of Jesus’ miracles. A significant portion of the Gospels is devoted to telling of His miraculous cures: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead. It is no accident that the Gospels place such emphasis on miracles. Those who have experienced them know that “sickness, possession, and death are three examples of God’s absence” (Statnick 2008).  In illness, evil, and death, we are acutely aware of our perception that God is not there. In contrast to our perceptions, Jesus’ miraculous works make a bold proclamation of God’s presence. Like the miracle accounts, a significant part of the Gospels recount Jesus sitting down to eat with his disciples, friends, and various members of the community. And like the miracles, Jesus’ participation at meals also serves as a proclamation of God’s presence, of God’s reign extending into our reality. By miracles and meals, Jesus makes God’s reign manifest. 

Miracles are an insight into what God’s kingdom looks like. In God’s kingdom, the people who are cured are the poor, the lowly, and the outcasts. Jesus’ healing is directed to people on the fringes of society, those whose sickness has driven them to the margins: lepers, hemorrhagics, the blind, and the lame. These are the people whom the strong, the successful, have pushed aside as human refuse. When these dispossessed see Christ, when they see their opportunity for healing, they do not hold back. Like the blind man along the road who called out to Jesus, they know that this Jesus is their only hope for health. They cry out, unashamed of their need for healing. But these miracles do not merely heal infirmity and disease or cast out evil and darkness. With each miracle, people are restored to their rightful place (Statnick 2008). Justice reigns: the leper returns to society, the hemorrhaging woman is made clean, and the blind and the lame may enter the temple. The miracles are an announcement of God’s reign being at hand. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of healing, of turning to God in faith, of sin and darkness being cast out and light and healing being brought in.

The implications of the miracles for us are powerfully direct. We too are to be about the work of healing, of casting out evil, and even of raising the dead. We heal through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, by feeding and clothing and counseling and all that we do out of love for each other. We cast out evil when we confront sin in ourselves, in our communities, and in our nation. We cast out evil when we resolve, day by day, to confront sin, to call it for what it is, and to consign it to return from whence it came. We raise the dead when we bring life where there was none, when we bring hope, faith, and love to those who live in despair.

In contrast to the miracles, the Gospel accounts of His sitting down to eat present a very human side of Jesus. Yet for Him, meals are never merely a source of nutrition. They are a call to transformation and conversion. Jesus sits down to eat with whores and thieves as well as the rich and powerful. Jesus never declined an invitation to sit down to eat with anyone, regardless of their motives. His radical hospitality extends to all, is open to all, regardless of who or what they are. In his example we truly see a new kingdom where “God and man at table are sat down.” (Stamp 1972). The meals, like the miracles, are insights into what God’s kingdom looks like. But make no mistake. By sitting down at table with whores and thieves, Jesus was not merely displaying a high-minded tolerance. He was not engaging in a show of condescension. Jesus did not go slumming. Likewise, by sitting down to eat with scribes and Pharisees, Jesus did not intend to legitimize these people or their rule. Rather, every meal with them ended in a confrontation and a call to repentance. That Jesus would sit down with us to eat is then at once a sign of hope and a call to conversion. We find our hope in His desire to be with us, despite our fallen state, and we find our conversion in knowing how far we have yet to go to be in God’s kingdom. This hope and conversion are how we come to recognize Christ Himself and Christ in each other:

“Meals are so important. The Disciples knew Christ in the breaking of the bread. We know Christ in each other in the breaking of the bread. It is the closest we can ever come to each other, sitting down and eating together. It is unbelievably, poignantly intimate.” (Day 2002)

In this intimate union with God, we find ourselves gathered around a table, eating, talking, arguing, and listening. In partaking in this intimate act with us, Jesus poses to us the question: is this how we live with each other? Is this how we reach out to each other, in our poverty and sinfulness? Do we welcome each other, the poor and the sinful, as desired guests at our tables and our lives? Are we living the kingdom?

The miracle and meal accounts in the Gospels are remarkable for what they do not tell us. After the miracles, we do not know what became of the healed. We do not know what was served at the meals or who supplied the food. We do not know what happened to many of the people who met Jesus. What we do know is a moment in time, captured, when God and man come face to face, together, not as Lord and slave, but as friends. Through the miracles and the meals, people come to deeper spiritual insight. The blind see themselves as they truly are, the hungry receive true bread for the soul, and the rich and powerful have their own famine exposed. What happens next is up to us.

Day, Dorothy. Dorothy Day: Writings from Commonweal. New York: Commonweal, 2002.

Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.

Stamp, Robert J. God and Man at Table are Sat Down. 1972.

Statnick, Roger. "Lecture: Christology." Greensburg, September 10, 2008.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Challenge to Radical Conversion: A Short Study of the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew sets the Sermon on the Mount early in Jesus’ ministry. In the preceding narrative, Jesus has fasted in the desert, faced temptation, and called his first disciples. Having witnessed Him preach in the synagogues, cure the sick, and drive out evil spirits, crowds have begun to follow Jesus. The crowds are not just from the local towns and villages of Galilee, but from the surrounding regions as well, as far as Syria and the Decapolis. This narrative presents an enthusiastic beginning to Jesus’ ministry. The narrative that follows the Sermon relates Jesus’ healing of a leper and of the centurion’s servant. In the leper we find an unclean social outcast while the centurion is not only an unclean gentile but is an authority for the occupation forces in Judea: one is a completely powerless outcast, one a symbol of brutality and strength. Juxtaposed between these images of a growing messianic movement and the ironic opposites of leper and centurion, the Sermon on the Mount unites the themes of a reinvigorated understanding of ancient traditions, radical conversion to God, and the universal call to holiness.

In the preceding narrative to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contends with the devil, quoting scripture to reject the devil’s temptations. Jesus again quotes scripture in the Sermon, but this time He rejects the traditional understanding of these passages to draw his listeners to a new understanding. Six times Jesus reminds the crowd, “you have heard it said,” but then challenges the “political-religious structure of his time” (Hill 2004) to rethink what these passages mean. In doing so he challenges his listeners to “return to the best of their traditions” (Hill 2004). Not satisfied with the status quo, Jesus asks us to reconsider the things we say and do that are too often done by rote. Jesus takes to task the conventional wisdom of the day regarding adultery, retaliation, enemies, and more, and confronts, upsets, revises and extends this understanding. It is not enough to exact justice; rather, the mercy that God shares with us we must share with others. It is not enough to love one’s neighbor; rather, one’s enemy is as much a child of God as we are and is therefore our neighbor. It is not enough to apply the cold dictates of law to marriage; rather the law of love must rule hearts and relationships. It is not enough to be loving with the “righteous;” rather, the outcast and the sinner are just as deserving of our friendship. Even with prayer, our intimate discourse with God, Jesus asks of us to reconsider our habits and assumptions. Furthermore, in the narrative that follows, Jesus puts his words into action, healing the leper (the very definition of the outcast) and the centurion’s servant, showing healing love to the enemy himself. Jesus shows by word and deed how to put this new understanding into practice.

Jesus preaches a radical conversion to God. In the narrative preceding the Sermon, Jesus calls his disciples and they leave everything to follow him, abandoning boats and nets, family and friends. In the Sermon, the Beatitudes call to us to get on with our own conversion. By inverting our understanding of what holiness is, the Beatitudes demand of us just as radical a conversion as the one experienced by the first disciples.

We don’t think of the poor and the powerless as being particularly happy. Those who have actually witnessed poverty - true poverty - would argue that the destitute, in their wretched condition, are rarely happy people. Jesus himself would have both witnessed and experienced the poverty of 1st century Palestine. Yet he knows the poor, the meek, and the persecuted are, by virtue of their destitution, in the position of being closer to where we ourselves need to be with God: they have no choice but to place themselves at God’s feet, to cast their lot on God’s mercy and providence, to become totally dependent on God. And it is this, this total dependency, which grants us happiness, for it is in dependence on God that we find that it has been God’s grace all along that has worked to uphold and sustain us. Therefore, to convert ourselves to God means to value what God values, not the things the world values. Instead of power, riches, fame, and glory, Jesus proposes we look to “the impoverished, the downtrodden” (Hill 2004). By converting our vision to God’s vision, we begin to see how to be perfect as God is perfect. Continuing this theme, the narrative following the Sermon casts a leper, obviously one of the poor and destitute, as being blessed, but also the centurion, in his humble admission of unworthiness, shows his own blessed poverty in spirit.

Jesus preaches a universal call to holiness. In the narrative preceding the Sermon, the multitudes that follow Jesus are not only from the immediate region of Galilee, but also from gentile regions of Syria and the Decapolis. The Decapolis is especially remarkable as centers of a Hellenistic culture often clashed with the Semitic cultures of the Levant. In the Sermon, Jesus preached “holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition.” (Second Vatican Council 1964). All people of every social and religious background are included, even those outside of the Hebrew faith. Continuing this theme,  the narrative that follows shows both the Roman centurion and the leper as recipients of Jesus’ healing, and these two extremes, in their being made whole, continue the theme of the universal call.

The outcast is transformed, made whole, healed and renewed. The outsider’s faith is a marvel. Jesus accepts them both. All are called to be radically transformed to faith and to love. In living this call, all are made holy.

Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.

Second Vatican Council. "Dogmatic Constitution On The Church." Vatican Web Site. November 21, 1964. .

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Charity in Truth: A Book Review

In 2008, my 401(k) and IRA portfolios were reduced to a tenth of their former value. What had taken my wife and me 20 years of scrimping and saving to accumulate was reduced to almost nothing in a few days. I was powerless to act and could only watch helplessly as forces beyond my control destroyed our diminutive nest-egg with breathless and brutal efficiency. The destruction of my minor wealth was, in the scheme of things, a trivial event compared to the misery and pain being felt by others around the globe. In fact, I could not help but be struck by how many people were so deeply affected. The global financial crisis was, and continues to be, not simply a problem of governments or multi-national financial entities, but a dilemma for everyday persons who suddenly realize that their lives are interconnected in innumerable ways; did the people of Iceland ever imagine that their existence could be so troubled by a mortgage company in California whose annoyingly ubiquitous advertisements they had never even seen? When I learned that Pope Benedict's encyclical Charity in Truth was written in response to this global crisis, I was anxious to read what he thought, to see what problems he identified and what solutions he saw.

Benedict begins his encyclical by identifying Christ's mission to humanity as  the “principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (1) and by firmly committing the Church to “promoting integral human development” (11). In fact, he describes human development as a vocation, a definition that raises human development from mere human activity to the level of a sacred calling, to human and divine activity working in concert. Understanding human development as a vocation introduces God into an otherwise mundane process. With God, human development is not merely having more or doing more or knowing more, but it is being more. Human development then is a matter of becoming. This, of course, begs the question, “what is it that we are to become?” In short, we are called to become a whole person, more human, and in becoming more human to “love our brothers and sisters in the truth” (1). Human development, in all its facets and varieties, is the vocation of all persons, and all persons aid and benefit from the doing and the being, from growing and from helping others to grow. As a vocation, one must understand themselves not from the point of view of a “giver” alone, as a person who “has” giving magnanimously to those who “have not,” but as a person partaking in a reciprocal encounter in which both parties give and receive. Finally, as a vocation, human development is a calling that one must constantly discern, not as a personal choice alone, but discerned in and with a community of persons. The discernment process applied to this vocation, as to all vocations, includes the rational, the personal, the communal, and the sacred.

Understanding human development as a vocation has implications beyond one's own personal growth. In fact, it is most important that one's vision extend to the growth of community and culture. Benedict rightly asserts that, as a vocation, human development “offers a wonderful opportunity for encounter between cultures and people” (59) and can be an avenue to become Christ to others and to discover Christ in others. In the act of performing the vocation of human development, both the persons serving and being served find Christ in each other. In being Christ to those of another culture, new ways of understanding how to be Christ and how to build the Kingdom can emerge. In this way, cultures interact not on a purely human level, but also on a sacred level that raises the cultures to the life of the Trinity, to be sanctified in the life of the divine. What is good in a culture is made better and what is lacking is exposed to the light of charity and truth. However, charity finds what is lacking in any culture, so that not only the culture that is being served but also the culture providing the service benefit from God's truth and love. Developed nations may rediscover in their roots what contributed to their level of human development in the first place, and emerging nations may discover that they have a real contribution to make - a contribution of wisdom and understanding - and that they are not merely subservient receivers of charity, as it were, but vocational partners in the growth and development of persons.

The interactions that occur between cultures frequently take place in the context of the global economy as transactions between distinct parties. Benedict identifies commutative justice as regulating “the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction,” (35) while distributive justice applies not only to the parties involved in the transaction, but also to "the wider network of relationships within which [the market] operates" (35). Transactions in the marketplace can never take place in isolation: the existence of the marketplace itself attests to this fact, given that so many are involved in its creation and maintenance. The human activity in the marketplace occurs in the context of local, regional, national, and global communities. Therefore, not a single transaction can be thought of as isolated, but must be understood by the breadth and depth of the various relationships that support, create, are sustained by, and are affected by the means and ends of the transaction itself.

In this increasingly diverse and global marketplace, the meeting of peoples and cultures has yielded the fruit of human development in what Benedict identifies as “hybrid forms of commercial behavior” (38). In fact, what Benedict identifies in terms of potentiality is already an actuality, and rather old news at that. Hybrid forms, that “without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents,” (38) have already emerged, as is seen in the OpenSource movement in software development. OpenSource provides a unique model of subsidiarity and solidarity in which anyone with the skills needed can contribute to the development and use of sophisticated systems and computer software[1].

Benedict goes on to suggest the need for additional funding for underdeveloped countries from the more economically developed countries. However, it should be obvious that additional funding requires reform. The United States alone sends 5.7 billion USD in financial aid to Sub-Saharan Africa annually[2]. For this amount of money, we would expect to see some improvement in conditions in the continent, in the quality of human life and in human development, but accountability is lacking, and without accountability there can be no development. There needs to be cultural development in addition to fiscal aid and until that occurs, the vocation to human development is simply not there; it is purely technical aid at this point and aid without justice, at that.

Justice itself cannot be seen as limited to those who exist in one particular place or time, as Benedict points out in discussing intergenerational justice (48). Justice is a concept that crosses time and space, past, present, and future. We have received the fruits of human activity, “ecological, juridical, economic, political and cultural,” (48) from past generations who toiled to develop themselves and the world for our benefit. We have stewardship of the same ecological, juridical, economic, political, and cultural contexts for this moment. Having received what was given to us, we must remain mindful of what we intend to pass along to future generations for their own needs and development. Justice demands that what we do now must take into account the needs and dignity of future generations.

If we are serious about the task of intergenerational justice, the environment is one obvious area that will be of continued concern to future generations. Benedict invites us “to a serious review of [our] life-style” “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices” (51). As a small-holding farmer, I take the environment and my stewardship of it seriously. We use green technologies, such as composting and bio-fuels, as much as possible. We limit the use of herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics on our food and animals. We buy locally as much as possible from fellow farmers, and we buy crops and goods that are grown with the same attention to the environment that we give. Even so, we can further decrease our environmental impact by reducing our fuel consumption, especially fossil fuels, through the pooling of resources, trip planning, and efficiency. However, I must point out that one of the major sources of fossil fuel consumption in my life is the weekly 120+ mile round-trip I make to Seton Hill every week. For my job, I am able to telecommute from home and collaborate on-line with fellow employees around the world in real-time, so I find it distressing that we waste natural resources in order to be physically present in a classroom. While I understand the need for community and formation in relation to ministerial education, new and more complex understandings of community need to be developed so that education and formation may be done on-line. This is not going to be optional. Soon, there will simply be no other choice, and I think it would be better to get started on making the transition now.

On the topic of technology itself, Benedict asserts “the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the ‘wonders’ of technology” (68). Man has the ability to increasingly identify, predict, and control the material world, from atoms to weather patterns, from his own DNA to the forces that ignite the stars. Man's ability to control the material world has increasingly encroached on what used to be thought of God's domain alone. These things that we control were proven not to be God's sole domain at all. The former understandings of God that gave our life context and a sense of destiny have been lost. However, without God as a context and destiny, our purely human ability to predict and control the material world results in such horrors as the Holocaust and atomic warfare, embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning. Technology alone cannot solve our problems; we need new ways of understanding God as our context and destiny. We need to have God involved.

What became apparent to me as I read the encyclical is that reason and natural law, which form the basis of Benedict's encyclical, must be presented anew in order to find an audience in the post-modern world. The language of story, the sharing of an event as opposed to an academic presentation of facts and argument, is what appeals to the post-modern ears. The arguments that Benedict makes must be made real and present in terms of people's everyday lives, in ways to which everyone can relate. This is one of the challenges in using a document like Charity in Truth in a parish setting. In addition, the American concept of “rugged individualism” is a major obstacle to the sense of global community and interdependence that Benedict describes. For a great many people, human development is seen as a competition between individuals rather than a cooperative effort between persons. A certain dose of formation in the nature and practice of Christian community will be required before Charity in Truth receives a friendly welcome at many American parishes. Until then, I would continue to emphasize the reality of the very familiar and local forms of interconnectedness and interdependence that everyone is comfortable with, and I would work to build on this foundation to help develop a truly global perspective. For my part, I would hope to gain a new appreciation for the myriad of ways in which my friends and neighbors are already working to help each other, by living their vocation everyday, to develop and grow as persons.