1. If the highest end of virtue is that which aims at the advancement of most, gentleness is the most lovely of all, which does not hurt even those whom it condemns, and usually renders those whom it condemns worthy of absolution. Moreover, it is the only virtue which has led to the increase of the Church which the Lord sought at the price of His own Blood, imitating the lovingkindness of heaven, and aiming at the redemption of all, seeks this end with a gentleness which the ears of men can endure, in presence of which their hearts do not sink, nor their spirits quail.
2. For he who endeavours to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off. For we read that the Shepherd in the Gospel (Luke 15:5) carried the weary sheep, and did not cast it off. And Solomon says: “Be not overmuch righteous;” (Ecclesiastes 7:17) for restraint should temper righteousness. For how shall he offer himself to you for healing whom you despise, who thinks that he will be an object of contempt, not of compassion, to his physician?
3. Therefore had the Lord Jesus compassion upon us in order to call us to Himself, not frighten us away. He came in meekness, He came in humility, and so He said: “Come unto Me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28) So, then, the Lord Jesus refreshes, and does not shut out nor cast off, and fitly chose such disciples as should be interpreters of the Lord’s will, as should gather together and not drive away the people of God. Whence it is clear that they are not to be counted among the disciples of Christ, who think that harsh and proud opinions should be followed rather than such as are gentle and meek; persons who, while they themselves seek God’s mercy, deny it to others, such as are the teachers of the Novatians, who call themselves pure.
4. What can show more pride than this, since the Scripture says:
No one is free from sin, not even an infant of a day old; and David cries out:
Cleanse me from my sin. Are they more holy than David, of whose family Christ vouchsafed to be born in the mystery of the Incarnation, whose descendant is that heavenly Hall which received the world’s Redeemer in her virgin womb? For what is more harsh than to inflict a penance which they do not relax, and by refusing pardon to take away the incentive to penance and repentance? Now no one can repent to good purpose unless he hopes for mercy.
St Ambrose, Concerning Repentance, Bk. 1, Ch.1
Regardless of where one stands on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the national conversation leading up to, and surrounding this event has been bizarre and confusing. In particular, the permanent avalanche of criticism and concern and outrage from Christians, which has been a staple of the conversation on gay marriage, has now become a bundle of several distinct conversations; conversations that should be separated and kept separate, for reasons of clarity and honesty.
First, the Christian narrative almost always centers on a conversation about the implications of our Scriptural and sacramental views of marriage. This is, of course, as it should. What is the origin, foundation, nature, purpose, and mystical reality of the sacrament of marriage? What can and cannot be permitted by the Church and within the Church? To Christians, such concerns are central. This, however, must first of all be an intra-denominational conversation since not even our churches can agree internally on the how to approach gay marriage (or even marriage in general). No matter how painful it is to admit it, the reality is that there isn’t “a Christian view” of marriage. In most Protestant circles, marriage is not even considered a sacrament, and within and among the churches that do consider it a sacrament, there is nevertheless debate about its symbolic function, civic function, possibility of divorce, whether it extends into life after death, and so on. Differences on gay marriage are nicely illustrated by the positions presented by theologian David J. Dunn and Rev. Andrew Harmon, both belonging to Eastern Orthodoxy. Such differences are also less nicely illustrated by acrimony and splits over gay marriage within several of the so-called mainline Protestant churches.
So the conversation about what marriage is – sacramentally, theologically – is a conversation for Christians, to be conducted first and foremost among Christians. It doesn’t concern, nor should it affect people outside our specific denominations. This does not amount to a retreat from the world, merely an acknowledgement of the reality of diverse Christian perspectives on marriage. After all, a Lutheran view of marriage has no standing, and is not expected to have any standing, among Roman Catholics. An Orthodox view of marriage is not presumed to be acceptable among Presbyterians. We are fine with that. Each denomination knows that its hermeneutic presuppositions are its own and not necessarily those of other Christian denominations. Some of these differences are radical and vast, yet almost no Christian expects other Christians to agree and comply with understandings that are not those of their own denominations. Instead, among ourselves, we simply accept difference and diversity and move on… So what, then, is the reason to demand or expect that our views and presuppositions should have standing elsewhere – such as, for instance, as a source of state or federal law? As a benchmark for what is acceptable in political life? As the rule of life for people who do not share our faith? What makes us think that it is appropriate, or even possible, to set up sacramental theology as a sociopolitical norm for a population as large and diverse as that of the United States?
Marriage matters in the Church for a number of reasons, and all of those reasons are internal to the Church itself; yes, the Church is the Body of Christ, the Life of the World, with a mission in and to the world. Trying to force the world to accept an ontology of sacramental realities as a political baseline is not part of that mission, especially when we Christians ourselves cannot agree on it.
I will participate in a conversation about the sacrament of marriage in an upcoming synod, and then very likely again at another synod in the fall. That’s where such a conversation presently belongs. That’s where it can be expected to be valuable and relevant. In religious convocations. In journals and magazines focusing on faith, theology, spirituality. In sermons and homilies. That is where the issues and arguments can be defined, refined, explained, and understood. Not in the Huffington Post or National Review. Sacramental theology is both too important and too complex to be foisted on people who do not belong to our churches. For their sake and for ours. When a very thoughtful Eastern Orthodox writer, in response to SCOTUS’ DOMA ruling, explains that “marriage is not a “right” but a gift. It is a gift from God, and it comes with certain guidelines and restrictions” then she is certainly correct, but at the same time misses the point that the Republic and its Constitution are simply not in the business of legislating sacraments or divine guidelines. When, for instance, we talk about how marriage is a reflection of Christ being joined to his Church, then this may make perfect sense to us who believe, while at the same time be incomprehensible to outsiders – and utterly irrelevant to legislators. And we should remember: if we do take theology to the market place of secular ideas, using it as a tool of sociopolitical persuasion, we must expect to have it scrutinized, criticized, and even skewered by those who seek a different outcome. Our theology is a framework for understanding and communicating Divine Truth, yet we seem to regularly use it to create political enemies.
Second, the Christian narrative contains a conversation about the dissipation and disappearance of Christianity from the national culture. “The pews are empty, the youth is sinful, this used to be a Christian country based on Christian values… ” This story about “the end of a Christian nation” seems to automatically engage in the most un-Christian of practices: scapegoating. It ought to bother us that we are so preoccupied with blaming others for the failures of Christians to spread the Gospel and fill the pews… In Christian narratives today, it is almost never our own failure to bear appropriate witness to the God of Love and Mercy that is the root cause of our predicament.. well, we’ve got that going for us…
This “end of a Christian nation” narrative seems to make up the bulk of the conversation about gay marriage, and I have to say, it makes me very uneasy. It makes too many Christians, clergy and laity alike, sound a lot like firebrand theocrats: there seems to be an expectation that our revealed religion has a right to define social, cultural, and political life for everyone in the United States. That our rule of faith must be a political rule of conduct even for those who do not share our faith. That the United States is a Christian country built on Christian principles, so therefore any and all legislation perceived as un-Christian is ipso facto unacceptable (and by definition un-American). We hold these truths to be self-evident, lest the country should tumble even deeper into the bowels of Beelzebub.
The notion that the United States was ever a Christian nation is of course a classic “golden age myth.” Sure, there used to be a higher percentage of confessing Christians in the United States than there are today, so it was only right and proper that legislation reflected this. Such are the basic mechanics of democratic governance. Now the demographics have changed, and since “we the people” are the source of legislation, not Scripture, I don’t know how we object to legislation that reflects these demographic changes. If we do object, it seems to me that we are, in effect, demanding Christian privileges, which in turn means demanding that infidel, heretical, and unchurched compatriots bow to Scripture, rather than the Constitution. Such a demand would seem to be at odds with both the U.S Constitution and Christian Scriptures.
In debates about U.S. politics, the Constitution matters. Legislation does not, and should not cater to the churches and what we may find acceptable or objectionable. Churchmen do not have, nor should have control over the country’s political and legislative processes. Societies are dynamic and ever-changing and the Church is called to preach Christ to a fallen world, not to govern it. I really don’t know what we can do other than to continue to do just that: preach Christ to a fallen world. Proclaim the Good News from the roof tops, engage in works of mercy, lead lives that reflect God’s Love and compassion. We are called to witness, not to coerce. Scripture and Tradition are conduits of Truth, but this Truth must be freely accepted – we don’t get to use them as political weapons.
If SCOTUS’ ruling on DOMA is in fact “un-Christian,” then I have to confess to not being all that shocked and outraged because I have no right to expect Christian legislation. “Always forward, never back,” in the words of Blessed Junipero Serra. We press on, as the Church has done for two millennia. Congress legislates in an un-Christian manner on a regular basis – on issues of war, torture, poverty, health care. For instance, someone would have to explain to me why it is worse for our identity as a Christian country that a gay couple gets to co-sign on a house and visit each other in hospital as next of kin, than that one in six Americans live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Is this a Christian state of affairs? Where is the moral outrage, the marches, the petitions, the FB threads, the blog posts? Are homosexuality and abortion the only defining moral issues of our time? We certainly act as if they are. And it makes us look very selective about what Christian morality is and when to enforce it.
Within this “end of a Christan nation” narrative there is a conversation about what is actually happening, and then there is a slippery slope sub-conversation (“if we allow this, then the next thing you know they’ll be marrying live stock and then it is too late for us to do anything about it”). In logic, the slippery slope argument is accurately classified as a fallacy since it doesn’t actually address the issue at hand, but instead deals with imagined future consequences. It is a great tool for squelching just about anything, from Copernican astronomy to the Civil Rights movement, so I generally ignore it. We have to evaluate and judge things with reference to what they actually are, rather than with reference to our own fearful (and more often than not ignorant and profoundly prejudicial) imaginings.
As these two conversations, the sacramental and the sociocultural, co-mingle and mesh into a massive conceptual and analytical mess, there is a third conversation going on. I think this one is the most important, but it is certainly the most marginal: a conversation that links the changing demographics, legislation, and cultural norms and cues, on the one hand, with the Church’s sacramental and counter-cultural understanding, on the other hand. There is a way of participating and witnessing that does not make us look like dead-enders sulking about our loss of sociopolitical power; a way of engaging with the issues in joyful and confident faith in God and genuine love for all our neighbors. It begins with introspection, asking what we can do better. There are real challenges here that we are failing to talk about when instead we elect to screech about modernity and post-modernity’s assault on all that is good and holy.
Pastorally, we are in a changing world that we cannot control. What are the implications of a trend towards increasing social acceptance of gay marriage? Of evolving views on human sexuality and relationships? Making like the ostrich is neither smart, nor constructive. Even in churches that are theologically unable to accept or endorse same sex marriage, there is a desperate need to begin to deal with gay people in a Christian manner. The public debate repeatedly unleashes a level of vitriol, mean-spiritedness, and outright hatred for gay people that is utterly unacceptable among folks who call themselves followers of Christ. The statement that “we hate the sin but not the sinner” has been turned into a rhetorical fig leaf on par with “I’m not a racist, but…” Homophobia and its effects are real pastoral issues, rampant in virtually all our churches. This needs to be a starting point as we move forward. We have to take seriously the spirit and implications of Pope Francis’ recent message: “no one is useless in the Church. We are all needed to build this temple.”
There are other issues also. How do we get beyond the fact that the churches’ loss of power and prestige (which the issue of same sex marriage has made abundantly clear) seems to have created a lot of bitterness and resentment among Christians? Sacramentally, what does it mean for the Church to be the custodian of eternal and unchangeable mysteries in a world that is in constant and ever-more rapid flux. Organizationally and structurally, how are we to deal with culture, society and politics given the fact that the churches are no longer able to dictate the sociocultural game plan? These are real and important questions, but they are rarely discussed because we are too busy trying to pretend that we can achieve sociocultural stasis, even though we know in our heart of hearts that it is impossible. It seems as if we have chosen gay marriage as our battle ground. Well, if we seek to end the dynamism and flux that have defined human affairs since the dawn of time, we will loose. And it won’t be the fault of our gay brothers and sisters, but of our own short sightedness and failure to ask difficult questions of ourselves.
The suffering of Christians in the Middle East has become a strategic asset in the confrontation with Islam. Pundits and commentators who have previously had exactly zero interest in highlighting the abuse of Christians, the desecration of Christian sites, and the expulsion of Christian populations have now discovered their plight. When the primary abusers were our allies – Israel and the oil sheikhs of the Arabian peninsula – Christians were acceptable collateral damage. Let us not kid ourselves: neither the ancient Christian communities of coastal Palestine, nor the Gulf states’ brown-skinned Christian guest workers from South Asia, were considered valuable enough to rock any of our geopolitical boats. As we speak, persecution of Christian minorities is practiced and endorsed by nationalist regimes in Central Asia, but since we need these regimes as allies and resource suppliers, we really don’t care.
Cold War intellectual warriors – like Robin Harris (author of this glib piece), whose contempt for human rights in places like Chile and South Africa is on record – are now crying rivers of crocodile tears for the human rights of vulnerable Christian populations in the Middle East. Upon closer inspection, however, the argument is not actually about the suffering of Christians, but about the suffering of Christians at the hands of Muslims, and how they are canaries in the coal mine in the larger confrontation between Islam and the West. Harris’ article is making the rounds, yet precious few seem to consider the basis of Harris’ concern, the abuses he fails to mention, the implications of his failure to differentiate between Arabs and Muslims, and the significance of his cultural assumptions.
Harris’ selectivity is very troubling, and the reason is highlighted by his own parallel between the persecution of the Christians of the Middle East today and the persecution of Jews leading up to the Holocaust. What moral weight would we ascribe to someone whose efforts to safeguard the Jews were limited to only those Jews persecuted by an enemy state? Whose interest in preventing pogroms was non-existent as long as they were carried out and endorsed by friendly governments? Whose tender concern for the Jewish people was kindled only as a side-effect of what it might mean for non-Jews at some later point?
WE SHOULD STAND UP for the rights of Christians, but not only those persecuted by Muslims, and not because it serves some additional clash of civilization-type purpose. We should do it because they suffer and because helping those in need is the right thing to do. Our Christian brothers and sisters in need should not be divided into an A team and a B team depending on who is doing the persecuting. Moreover, the tactical-strategic concerns of Harris’ and his cohorts is exactly the sort of “help” that the enemies of Christian communities are able to point to in order to brand them the tools of Western conspiracies. Using Christian communities in the Middle East as a geopolitical lever undermines the position of those communities and increases their vulnerability. Harris offers a mere repeat of Cold War Western tactical concern for human rights and democracy in countries within the Soviet orbit – which was never matched by similar concerns for countries within the Western orbit. This plays into the hands of the very forces that seek to cleanse the region of a Christian presence.
There is a grave problem with Harris’ failure to distinguish between Arabs and Muslims in that he portrays the two as a single cohesive unit to which the Christians do not really belong. In his narrative (like so many other neo-Orientalist fairy tales) persecuted Armenian Christians are referred to as “Armenian Christians,” jailed Ethiopian Christians are referred to as “Ethiopian Christians,” but Arab Christians who suffer persecution in their Arab homelands are referred to as “Middle Eastern Christians.” Never Arab; somehow foreign to their Arab-Islamic surroundings. This is precisely the view of those who would attack and persecute them, and undermines the legitimate claim of Christians to a stake and part in an Arab cultural heritage and a natural place in Arab society (I doubt very much that Harris uses this generic term in order to account for the Messianic Jews in Israel – since he never even mentions the various forms of discrimination and structural maltreatment facing them).
WE SHOULD STAND UP for human rights in the Middle East, but not only for Christians. We are called to love and serve our Christian brothers and sisters, but not to the exclusion of non-Christians. Jesus is very clear that such preferential treatment is the effect of natural inclinations, and there is nothing godly or Christian about only looking out for members of our own ingroup:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:43.48)
Turning the suffering of Christians into a weapon against a socio-cultural enemy is not only morally repulsive, it is also dangerous to the very Christian communities with which this faux solidarity is expressed. And to limit one’s concern to Christians is profoundly un-Christian.
Fr. James Martin, S.J. has a very good piece on the abhorrent lack of online civility among many Catholics. Of course, this is an inter-denominational scourge; no church is immune to the problem. I noted in an earlier post that the notion of not bearing false witness seems completely abandoned in cyberspace. Christians evangelizing by example (“preach the Gospel; if necessary use words”) is pitted against the anonymity of the internet – and far too often, the Gospel message of love and respect is ignored, replaced by a quick release of wrath and self-righteousness.
St. Mark 18:1-8
This is truly the day that the Lord has made! This is truly the feast of victory for our God! Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!
The goal toward which God’s holy Church strove for the forty days of Lent, the goal outlined for us already at the beginning of Advent, has finally been achieved: the triumph of Love and Light over all. Easter is the Feast of feasts and the climax of the Church’s year of grace. It has always been a time when joy and jubilance is unrestrained. Not only literally outside, but also spiritually in our hearts, the sun beams. Our God of Light has beamed into our lives, with warmth, with clarity and with eternal assurance of salvation.
Give thanks, says the apostle, to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col 1:12-13) The dire, fallen and lost state of mankind that we have reflected upon during lent mercilessly and directly to Christ’s death on the cross at Golgotha. Self-righteousness, ambition, hatred and pride led to the murder of Divine Love and the extinguishing of Divine Light. To symbolize the humiliation of Christ, we stripped the altar on Maundy Thursday. To symbolize the death of Christ and the end of his earthly ministry, we closed the Book of Life and performed the Office of Shadows, which is what tenebrae means, for Good Friday. Today we have adorned the church as gloriously and beautifully as we are able—and many thanks to those who have made that possible—because today we celebrate that the Father has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption.
There could be no greater sign of God’s love and grace than this. In a world of darkness, light triumphs. In a world of hatred and enmity, love is victorious. In a world of death and decay, life itself is crowned with glory. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, (John 10:11) Christ told his disciples. Today we reap the undeserved fruits of the selflessness and sacrifice of our good shepherd.
Our Paschal mystery, our Easter mystery has two aspects: by his death, Jesus Christ freed us from sin; and by his resurrection, he opened for us the way to eternal life. These go together, liturgically, theologically and spiritually. You cannot have one without the other; we cannot have the joy of Resurrection Sunday if we did not also have the misery of Good Friday. Every day is Good Friday, every place of Golgotha. Every day is a day of lamenting the state of the world, and every place is the place of Christ’s torment by sin and evil. But this morning we are assured that every day is also Resurrection Day and every place is also the empty tomb—where we know that all the prophecies of Scripture; all that was spoken by God’s holy prophets Isaiah, and Jeremiah and Hosea, Zechariah, and by King David and others—all their words about what lay ahead came true.
This, however, is what is called objective salvation. These are the spiritual realities that are there for us, independent of us. They require a response – subjective salvation. God offers these truths, we have the responsibility to respond, as subjects, as individuals, to that reality. How do we do that?
“For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand.” This statement by the patron saint of this parish has no greater applicability than when it comes to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. I believe in order to understand.
Faith is prior to understanding. Revelation precedes reason. In this day and age, and in the past too, for that matter, religious faith is somehow thought to be unpalatable if it does not conform to reason. We see it in the arguments of those who despise religious faith, but we also see it in many of the arguments of those who claim to defend it. Faith is refashioned so as to appear rational, even scientific. Whether it be the efforts, that have gone on for almost as long as the Church has existed, to conform faith to Greek philosophy, or the more recent attempts to pretend that Biblical narratives are, in fact, 100% literal, chronological history that are threatened by scientific advances—both these involve abandoning the primacy of faith and accepting that faith must conform to some other body of thought in order for it to be true and relevant.
Consider for a moment the three women on whom the Great Dawn of the Resurrection cast its first rays if divine light. They looked at the empty tomb, they were told by the angel that Christ had risen and would fulfill his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid. Why? These were devoted followers of Christ, and the life of Christ in almost every single one of its aspects had been prophesied in great detail: The Messiah will be the seed of a woman, we read in Genesis (3:15). He will be born in Bethlehem, said Micah (5:2), by a virgin, according to Isaiah (7:14). Jeremiah (31:15) foretold Herod’s slaughter of the holy innocents, the firstborn, and Hosea (11:1) prophesied that the holy family would flee to Egypt. Zechariah foretold that he would enter Jerusalem on a donkey, and that his betrayal would come at the price of thirty pieces of silver (9:9; 11:12). In Psalms we read how he the Messiah would be accused by false witnesses (27:12), hated without reason (69:4), and that his garments would be divided and they would gamble for his clothing (22:18) We read detailed accounts of how his hands and feet would be pierced (22:16), how he would agonize in thirst (22:15), given gall and vinegar to drink (69:21), how he would be abused, but that none of his bones would be broken (34:20). Zechariah (12:10) tells us how his side would be pierced and that his followers would scatter and desert him (13:7) Isaiah prophesied that he would be crucified with villain (53:12) And all this came to pass.
Yet as each of these things happened, no one, not one, put the pieces together. No one drew the right conclusions. It would have been easy for the disciples, the followers, these women at the tomb, to employ some logical deduction and, when they arrive at the empty tomb, say “yup, he is risen, Alleluia!” Instead they ran away in fear. They looked at the empty tomb, they were even told by the angel that Christ had risen in fulfillment of his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid.
Reason, intellect and the power of deduction are not what reconcile us with our heavenly parent. Faith reconciles, devotion to Jesus reconciles. We know that these women were devoted to Jesus. They mourned his death, and even in the face of the utter disappointment that his death must have been to them, they were devoted to him. They came to honor him. They loved him. Even though they had given up hope and possibly even faith; their immortal savior being dead and all. This devotion and love for a dead activist who claimed immortality and divinity was, frankly, irrational. At the very least, it was confused.
And in the midst of this hazy mixture of love and devotion, something happens: they encounter an angel. We speak of angels often, and in popular culture these rosy-cheeked, winged creatures are thicker than flies. In Scripture, however, angels are actually rare. In St. Matthew’s account, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and to Jesus as he rejects the temptations of Satan—and then, a third time, to the women at the empty tomb. In Mark, the only living person said to have encountered angels—except the women at the tomb—is St John the Baptist. In Luke, there are a few more: the righteous priest Zacharias, the Blessed Virgin, and the shepherds in the field are visited by an angel. Jesus was strengthened by an angel from heaven as he underwent torment in Gethsemane. And then, as in the other gospel accounts, the women at the empty tomb. In John, the one and only appearance of angels is—you guessed it, at the empty tomb.
Why are they there? Well, what is an angel? There is a lot of theology surrounding this, much of it not very useful, including taxonomies and divisions into categories, their nature and essence, and so forth. The Greek word angelos, just like the Hebrew word malakh, means quite simply a messenger. In both the old and new testaments, those referred to as “messengers” are sometimes human beings, sometimes not. When they are not, they are messengers of God; messengers that communicate God’s truth or offer God’s comfort.
So let us disregard all the accumulated theology for a moment. As the women, in their devotion, came to the tomb and found it empty, they were met by a messenger of God who proclaimed to them that Christ is risen. This is how we know the truth of our faith—revelation from God. Not logic, not reason, not deduction, not science—but revelation. In Christ, every single prophecy of the Old Testament was fulfilled and completed, yet even his most devoted friends thought he was dead.
Isaiah, roughly seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, wrote this: Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5). Yet not one of his friends saw it as it happened before their very eyes. Hosea, who also prophesied a about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, said this of the Messiah: After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight (Hos 6:2). But the devoted women expected him to be dead nonetheless. Why? Well, what happened is not a regularly occurring phenomenon, it is not expected. Statistically, it is an aberration. In terms of biology, chemistry, and every type of material cause and effect and can think of, dying and rising are not commonly sequential. The women relied on their experience and knowledge of the material world and therefore expected him to be dead. It took a messenger from God to jolt them into understanding. Again, the words of St Anselm: I believe in order to understand, not the other way around.
One of the Church Fathers (Severianus) wrote “Your breast was darkened, your eyes shut, and therefore ye did not before see the glory of the opened sepulcher.” The Venerable Bede wrote of that “the rolling away of the stone means mystically the opening of the Christian sacraments, which were held under the veil of the law; for the law was written on stone.” Many of the Church Fathers understood the tomb to be an image of the human heart, and an image of human salvation. Severianus wrote that the women “entered the sepulcher, that being buried with Christ they might rise again from the tomb with Christ. They see the young man, that is, they see the time of the Resurrection, for the Resurrection has no old age…”
They beheld an image of the Resurrection, timeless, ageless; they were allowed to peek at eternity, at eternal life in the midst of a tomb. Truly the tomb is an image of our hearts: it is within our hearts that our devotion to Christ must be real. It is within our hearts where all that is earthly must die. It is within our hearts that Christ must rise, and reconcile us with the Father.
Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.
St. Matthew 27:1-54
Matthew and Mark report that Jesus cries out from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” after which he lets out a loud cry. One of the fathers at New Camaldoli recounts various explanations for these words, a recitation of the first verse of Psalm 22. One explanation is that Jesus was simply saying the prayers that a devout Jew would say as he was dying. Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monastic, explains it by saying that even Jesus’ own image of God was taken from him. That all his ideas about God were revoked; a similar kind of death that we have to undergo in our prayer lives as we let go of all names and forms that we hold on to for comfort. But the Camaldoli father, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, suggests another, “more chilling, literal, scriptural explanation” for these words of Jesus: that the Father really does abandon Jesus!
The Greek word paradidonai appears quite a few times in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. It means “to hand over” or “to betray.” Judas hands Jesus over to the temple guard, the temple guard hands him over to the court, the court hands him over to Pilate, and Pilate hands him over to his final execution. All using the same word. But, in reality, none of these people an institutions are handing over Jesus – it is the Father who hands him over. The Father hands Jesus over to those who would scorn, torture and kill him. The others are, well, bit players; instruments of God. My God, My God, why have you handed me over? As Fr. Cyprian points out, this is why the other lines from Psalm 22 are so poignant: He trusted in the Lord, let him save him and release him if this is his friend (Ps 22:8, Mat 27:43). But God doesn’t save him or release him. He has handed him over.
There are some severe implications of this reading. If God does not save Jesus from all of this, what about the rest of us? Could God abandon us too? Martyrs have sealed their faith with their blood throughout the history of the Church. Good Christian folks are attacked. Those who work for peace and justice are murdered. Countless people are killed in earthquakes, or simply starve quietly to death due to no fault of their own.
There is a tendency among Christians to think of prayer as incantation, reducing God to a genie that is hauled out at our convenience. Some time ago, a friend told me that God had showed them a piece of jewelry that had been lost. They couldn’t find it, they prayed to God, and God answered prayer by letting them find it. My response was perhaps not very diplomatic. Do you really think that God cares about jewelry, I asked? And if this is how prayer works, why does he not direct those who starve to some food, when they pray for it?
God is not a genie, prayer is not incantation, we are not magicians. The abuses of prayer are dangerous to the souls of Christians, and to the reputation of Christianity. Prayer allows us discernment. It is our means to get to know God and his intention for us. It aligns us with God’s plan, not the other way around. And that was, indeed, what happened on the cross. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke another verse from Psalm 31: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus aligns himself fully, finally and perfectly, with the plan of the father and hands himself over; he abandons himself. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus stated that No one can take my life from me, I give it freely (Ps 31:5, Luke 23:46). Here, on the cross, that comes to pass after Jesus, having prayed and reflected and agonized over his fate—abandoned by the father—aligns himself with that abandonment.
Palm Sunday is a beginning. A beginning of fulfillment of prophesy in all its majesty and splendor and victory… and bitterness and humiliation and degradation. In the first Gospel reading from St Mark, we met the victorious Christ who enters into Jerusalem to the acclaim and praise and adoration of the people. In the second Gospel reading, taken from St Luke, we meet our Christ as captive, as accused, as ridiculed, as a torture victim condemned to death. How brief the cheering and clapping and public displays of reverence and adoration for Christ! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! (Mark 11:9-10) is turned into those words that should send chills down our spines and bring tears to our souls; that thrice repeated Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! (Luke 23)
But what had happened? How did the crowd turn against Christ in such a dramatic way? How did the blessings and adoration as he entered Jerusalem turn into these curses and this hatred? Knowing human nature, we have good reason to suspect that some of those who were present at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem were also among those who cursed him before Pilate. Old Adam is nothing if not a turn-coat. Even among the closest friends of Christ, there were those who abandoned and betrayed him.
The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light. (John12:35-36):
“While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” This is not a story about other people in distant country at another time in history. This is about us, each and every one of us here today. This is not a story about the Jews and the Romans, it is a story about us. We have to absolutely reject, not only anti-Semitic readings of Scripture—which most certainly have been recurrent throughout the history of the church—but also the charge that our readings of the Passion of Christ, when guided by the Holy Spirit, even can be anti-Semitic. Only if we believe that the original sin of Adam tainted no one but the Jews can we blame it on them. Only if we believe that Christ came to save only the Jews can we blame rejection on Christ on them. Only if only the Jews can be saved by faith in Christ can we read the Passion of our Lord and point a finger to the Jews, and say “they did it!”
We did it! Christ was mocked and beaten and crucified for all of our sins. This is precisely the point of the New Testament, written in the blood of the righteous one. This is precisely the point of the crucifixion and the resurrection, with which our entire Christian faith stands and falls. All of us are saved by faith in God through Christ; all of us share in responsibility for humanity’s rejection of him. You and I, every day, through our sins great and small, continue to condemn him to death. When we read in the Gospel according to St Matthew that all the people answered ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (Mat 27:25), this applies to humanity. His blood is upon all generations of humanity, which is why all generations of humanity are in need of salvation and reconciliation with God through him whom we have crucified. A short but powerful prayer ascribed to the 16th century saint Philip Neri captures this realization. It is just a one-line prayer, but it packs a punch: “O Jesus, watch over me always, especially today, or I shall betray you like Judas.”
But our Gospel reading from St Luke also points to the way forward; the way to reconciliation with God.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39-43)
This must surely be the most powerful statement of salvation through faith in Christ. No works reconciled this man to God, no penance of fasting, no church membership, not even baptism. Christ did not ask him what his crime was, he did not ask him what sect or nationality he had identified with. Based simply on his faith, Christ told him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The man believed, and that was enough, even on the cross. The man, whatever he had done, had come face to face with not only the harsh temporal law of the Roman authorities, but also the Law of God—and the Grace of God. Even on the cross, Christ was able to reconcile a repentant and contrite soul with God. Faith alone. Christ alone. The cross alone.
May Jesus watch over us always, especially today, lest we shall betray him like Judas. Amen.