Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Americans' Finale

For much of the past six seasons of FX's The Americans, I have harbored a hope that the series would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and with Philip and Elizabeth - their entire life project now gone (and its utter moral and political bankruptcy definitively revealed), - having to adapt to being in reality what they had for so long been pretending to be, a plain ordinary American couple, parents of ordinary American children. I wondered how that would play out in their varied relationships. To me, the more interesting side of the series has always been less about the spying, the sex, and the violence that littered so many episodes and more about their relationships - as a couple, as a family, as neighbors, workers, and putative citizens, as well as with their handlers and fellow spies - relationships all tainted by their duplicitous lives. 

As the show moved into its sixth and final season, with doomsday approaching it was obvious that the series would not quite end that way. The question then became what particular apocalyptic scenario would the series go with, and how many loose ends would it try to tie up? From way back, there was always the hint of the possibility (just a possibility) that Philip might perhaps defect. Now that Elizabeth, after a life devoted to murder and mayhem, was also beginning to reconsider things, might that be one scenario? All they had to do, after all, was walk across to their best friend and neighbor's house in order to defect! Or would one or both of them go down in a violent, suicidal battle with the FBI? Or would they really just get away, with no price paid for their crimes except that of giving up their comfortable suburban American lifestyle? And would they really go "home" or try to make a new life somewhere else in the US or Canada? And what about all the minor characters whose lives have been ruined, like Oleg and Martha? The show has had so many interesting characters - even the minor ones have been interesting and sympathetic figures - that it would seem hard to tie up all the loose ends. And in fact the finale didn't really try to do so - concentrating instead almost entirely on the principal characters, the four Jennings and Stan. (We never even really find out for sure if Renee was a spy or not.)

The finale may actually have been one of the very few episodes with no one getting killed (despite the tense scene centered on Stan's pointed gun), with no violence at all in fact. The violence was all emotional - the heart-wrenching separation for Philip and Elizabeth from their American lives and their American children and Stan's comparably heart-wrenching realization about his best friend.

I admit I have generally found Elizabeth hard to like (unlike Philip who always seemed more human and sympathetic). So it was somehow humanly reassuring to realize at the end that she really did love her son Henry and was somewhat broken up by her having to leave him behind (although she quickly came to agree with Philip that that would in fact be best for him). In the end, of course, all Philip and Elizabeth were left with was each other - having had to abandon their home of so many decades and their children. Their marriage, originally part of their deception, but which had grown more serious and was even solemnized some time ago by a Russian priest, ends up being their only reality, the only thing they get to keep.

Along with giving up their children, they  had to give up their one real friendship in America. The series was as much about the male bonding between Phiilp and Stan as it was about the work of either of them. Both were essentially lonely men, made so by the demands of their work. Both had comforted each other in their times of marital troubles. The amazing way Philip somehow talked Stan out of arresting them and letting them flee highlighted the talents he had honed as a well trained and accomplished liar through a lifetime of deception, one last instrumentalization of other people. But it also revealed his sincere feeling for Stan (whom he calls his "only" friend, and probably means it) and almost (not quite but almost) a kind of repentance for his horrible life. In letting them go, Stan in effect undermined everything he had devoted his career to, prioritizing friendship over patriotism and ideology.

So Philip and Elizabeth really returned to Russia. Even almost at the last minute, as their car pulled up to the border crossing, I wondered if they might turn around and try to start a new life elsewhere. But in the end they did what was probably at that point their only seriously viable option - at the cost by then not only of their son but of their daughter as well. They are safe now, but scarred. Their punishment is to grow old without the one good thing they ever produced - their children - and (as the audience knows but they do not know yet) to do so in a society which will soon turn its back on everything they had sacrificed for.

I always sort of held it against Elizabeth that she had tried to turn Paige into a spy. I liked the motif of "ordinary" American kids as a counterweight to their parents. And it had to be obvious that, whatever else happened, the Paige plot could not end well. Consistently determined to understand what she was doing and make informed decisions, Paige was the motivation for that final phone call to Henry (although she proved unable to talk herself). And at the last minute, in what had to be either irrational impulse or great courage, she got off the train at the Canadian border and returned to DC. Will she turn herself in? Or will she try to rebuild a life in hiding? How? The latter seems almost impossible. Philip and Elizabeth at ever stage in their careers had been enveloped by handlers and other contacts. Paige is a strong personality, but she would be moving on with her life alone without any of those supports. Her final scene, sitting alone in Claudia's now abandoned apartment drinking vodka, does not seem very promising. But then the story has not been kind to any of the secondary or tertiary characters who have been caught up in this tangled web.

It is one of the characteristic strengths of great drama - whether Shakespeare or Netflix or even Cable TV - to cause the audience to identify with and feel something even for characters who have done appallingly evil things. For all the harm Philip and Elizabeth and their historically evil cause have done to so many people over the course of their long careers as "illegals," it was hard not to feel for them watching their final, poignant phone conversation with Henry, watching their faces as they saw Paige abandon them at the Canadian border, watching them make the irrevocable decision to drive across the border into the Soviet Union, watching them look at their old/new homeland from the side of the road and contemplate who they are and what they have lost.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Restless Wave

The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great fights, and Other Appreciations (Simon and Schuster, 2018) is Senator John McCain's latest (and presumably final) political/personal memoir, co-authored with McCain staffer Mark Salter, who has collaborated with McCain on several books. (The book's title is taken from the Navy Hymn: Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.) 

I have never voted for McCain and can't imagine any circumstance in which I would likely do so. Nor have I ever read any of his previous books. In our present, polarized, hyper-partisan political culture that would normally be a reason not to read such a book.  It is a tribute, perhaps, to McCain's personal and political impressiveness, to what his personal and political character have represented - or at least to what he has at his best wanted to represent - that this is just the sort of book that one should be reading right now as a partial antidote to our poisoned, hyper-partisan political culture. Whatever his other qualities or faults, McCain, in terms of his personality and character, manifestly represents the antithesis of Donald Trump.

For McCain, "among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight," and it is in that spirit that he tries to recount key chapters in the last decades of his career. Of course, there is the story of the 2008 campaign. He still defends Sarah Palin and her selection as his running mate (a choice some would argue helped move his already problematic political party even further along the destructive road to where it is now). Even so, he highlights his original preference for Democrat Al Gore's 2000 running mate, fellow Senator Joe Lieberman, who was both a friend and "shared the same worldview and concerns." Having been dissuaded at the time from choosing him as a running mate for fear of dividing the Republican party, he says he still wishes he had done so, still believes "that a McCain Lieberman ticket would have been received by most Americans as a genuine effort to pull the country together for a change." 

That more or less captures much of the book's spirit - a flare for independence (his famous image as "maverick"), his ambivalent relationship with his own party, his openness to working with Democrats, and his commitment to a politics that is different from what we have now (but in some ways more reminiscent of what it once was earlier in his career). He emphasizes his opposition to torture, his advocacy of the "surge" in Iraq, his take on the problematic "Arab Spring," his fight for campaign finance reform (and his negative view of Citizens United and the Court that unwisely decided it), his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, his strongly interventionist foreign policy positions (so different from both Obama and Trump, both of whom represent the  semi-isolationist wings of their respective parties), especially regarding Vladimir Putin and Russia's "nostalgia for empire," the importance of long-term commitment to what he understands as fundamental American values in foreign affairs, and finally his own battle with cancer.

Of particular interest are his assessments of Hillary Clinton, whom he had gotten to know and work with in the Senate and whom he calls his friend, Barack Obama, whom he respects on various levels but whose foreign policy he found flawed, and Ted Kennedy, with whom he had an almost model, bipartisan relationship, personally and politically.

Those personal relationships reflect his commitment to a more traditional congressional style. Speaking of the Senate's 2006 immigration bill, which passed with 62 votes (38 Democrats, 23 Republicans, 1 Independent), he says: "It was major legislation passed the only way most major legislation is ever passed: with a broad bipartisan majority built on compromises both sides could live with and good faith on the part of the senators most involved." He believes that the current political dysfunction is "getting little done for the country, which exacerbates voters' alienation from Washington, which encourages them to elect more people to Washington determined to stop any compromise, and block genuine progress on anything." 

On immigration specifically, he attributes the failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform "to the misinformation and downright lies that enflame opponents, which have only gotten more pervasive and more inflammatory over the last decade."

The public is already largely familiar with McCain's positions on bipartisan cooperation and getting things done through "regular order," but his insistent advocacy of them at this point as part of his final legacy may be his most significant contribution to that cause. 

in conclusion, he celebrates " a happy life lived in imperfect service to a country made of ideals, whose continued success is the hope of the world."

Monday, May 28, 2018

At the Cemetery

Many of us are certainly old enough to remember Memorial Day's original name - Decoration Day. It began as a day to honor the dead from the Civil War by decorating their graves. Eventually, it became a day to honor the graves of all veterans, but for a long time the emphasis remained on visiting and honoring their graves. My own generation grew up in the aftermath of World War II, and visiting the cemetery on or near Memorial Day was part of that war legacy. Even today, volunteers still visit cemeteries to place flags on graves – a reminder of the importance of the special places of memory we call cemeteries.

So we celebrate this Mass today in a cemetery established by Knoxville’s first Catholic community, committed and devoted to doing their Christian duty to all the dead of the parish.

In Italian, the word for cemetery is campo santo – literally, “holy field,” or, as we would say in common English, “holy ground.” Cemeteries are special places for us – special not just because they are blessed by the Church and marked by beautiful monuments. They are special places because this is where we remember those who have died, who have gone before us in life, our cherished past to whom we owe our present. Remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. To remember those who have died, as our nation does today and as we do whenever we visit a cemetery, is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. To remember those who have gone before us in faith, as we do especially here today but every day at every Mass, is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope we still share with them in death.

So it is good that we gather together today, to remember and pray for our brothers and sisters whose bodies lie here in this holy place. It is, as the author of the book of Maccabees has reminded us, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be purified from their sins and welcomed among the saints, as we too hope someday to be welcomed with them forever.

Homily for Memorial Day, Mass at Calvary Cemetery, Knoxville, TN, May 28, 2018.

Photo: Memorial Day Mass at Calvary Cemetery, 2016.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit

With the end of the Easter season, the Paschal Candle has been banished to the Baptistery, and the Resurrection icon’s place has been taken by a 15th-century portrayal of the Holy Trinity [photo]. Its theme is the familiar story in Genesis of the patriarch Abraham’s three angelic visitors, a visit subsequently interpreted in Christian tradition as an image of the three persons of the Trinity. In it, the second Person - the Son, the Word, who reveals God to the world - is portrayed prominently in the center, pointing outward into the world. The Father seated to one side, looks lovingly at the Son, who in turn looks lovingly at the Father, while the bright-robed Holy Spirit is seated on the other side. The three Persons gaze at each other in mutual loving communication, into which we in turn are also meant to be drawn by the Son.

Well, you might say, that’s all very nice, but what of it? For so many (maybe most) of us, the Trinity sometimes seems somewhat abstract – a doctrine duly believed in, of course, but not something otherwise given too much thought to.

But this is in spite of the obvious fact that we were all baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On that occasion, we – or our parents and godparents - all made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one which we repeat regularly when we sing the Creed at Mass. Meanwhile, our sins have been forgiven in the sacrament of Penance, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who are married have exchanged wedding rings in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The principal prayers of the Mass are mostly addressed to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And we have all, over and over again, been blessed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In short, our entire religious lives, both individually and collectively as a Church community, have been defined, formed, shaped by this awesome Trinitarian mystery of who God is, that defines God’s ongoing relationship with us and ours with God.

Admittedly, the words we use to talk about the Trinity, words like one “nature” and three “persons,” used not as we use them in ordinary language, but as technical terms of philosophical language, may seem somewhat abstract.

The so-called Athanasian Creed, which used to be recited the Church’s morning prayer today and on many other Sundays as well, uses rather repetitive, dense-sounding, liturgical language to speak of the Trinity, for example:

The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.

And that is just one small excerpt! Even so, however abstractly or densely we have learned to talk about the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity remains our fundamental – and uniquely Christian – insight into who God is.  Created in God’s image and likeness, we all have a built-in, natural, longing for God. But who God is - who God is in himself - is something we could never have come to know on our own.  That had to be revealed to us by God himself. And God has done so, revealing who he is in himself – one God in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We do not worship three gods, but one God – a unity of Persons in one divine nature or substance. Each of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is truly God, each distinctly God, but existing eternally in relationship to each other: the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, the Holy Spirit to both.

At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself, how he acts toward us. Who God is in himself is how God acts; and thus how God acts in human history reveals who God ultimately is. Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as Moses testified in today’s 1st reading [Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40] as one who repeatedly reveals himself in how he acts toward us.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who for our salvation came down from heaven, and who, seated at the right hand of the Father, has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, making her the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Led by the Holy Spirit – as Saint Paul told the Christians in Rome [Romans 8:14-17] and through them tells us - we have become true sons and daughters of God the Father and joint heirs with Christ.

The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church. Filled with the same Holy Spirit, we who receive Christ’s body and blood are transformed into one body in Christ, participants in the mission of his Church.

That mission is nothing less than to make disciples of all nations - in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:16-20].

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 27, 2018.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Praying the Creeds

I was happilyy impressed several weeks back when the congregation at Barbara Bush's funeral was invited to recite the Creed together as part of the funeral service. One of the many wonderful things about Anglican worship is the prominent inclusion, as a consistent practice in Anglican services, of one or other of the traditional creeds.

The imminence of Trinity Sunday reminds me that this feast was traditionally not only the end of Easter Time but also the day most associated with the so-called "Athanasian Creed," which used to be recited at the Office of Prime on that day (and until 1955 also on many other Sundays of the year). Properly entitled the Symbolum "Quicumque Vult," the "Athanasian Creed" was ascribed at times to Saint Athanasius (c.296-373), but was actually composed in Latin, probably in Gaul, perhaps a century after Athanasius. Ascribed to him because of its strong affirmation of Trinitarian belief, it was Western in both origin and usage. Authorship aside, it remains a remarkably resonant creedal proclamation, fittingly associated with Sundays. (Verses 1-28 are focused on the Trinity; verses 29-44 are primarily christological.) 

The "Athanasian Creed" is just one of the three creeds traditionally used in the Western, Latin liturgical tradition. The creed commonly called the Apostles Creed (Symbolum Apostolicum) used to be recited daily at Prime and Compline. That medieval usage continues in the Anglican daily offices of Matins and Evensong. (I remember how, when I was at Windsor Castle on sabbatical in 2005, we would always turn to face the altar when reciting the Apostles Creed during those daily offices in Saint George's Chapel.) The inexplicable hostility to the liturgical use of creeds on the part of 20th-century liturgical reformers resulted in the Apostles Creed's complete disappearance from the Divine Office in 1955. 

The third creed, sadly now the only one still used in the liturgy, is, of course, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (photo), composed originally in Greek and thus the only creed used in both the Western and Eastern Churches. In the Eastern rites, the Creed remains a regular part of every Divine Liturgy. In the Roman Rite, however, its usage has been much diminished. Formerly used on all Sundays and very many feasts, it is now confined solely to Sundays and "Solemnities." Traditionally one of "the parts of a Sung Mass," the Creed is nowadays more widely recited rather than sung, even in otherwise "sung" celebrations, a dramatic rejection of centuries of liturgical practice, inexplicable except as one more consequence of 20th-century reformers' dubious legacy of hostility to the traditional prominence of creeds' in the liturgy. (Not long ago, it was even worse! For example, in the 1980s I can recall attending Sunday Masses at which the Creed was routinely omitted!)

Lex orandi, lex credendi. Liturgy has always been at the heart of what we do as a Church. Increasingly it may well become the only thing we do - the only experience of Church and religion most people will have in their lives, as an ambient Catholic and Christian culture and the cultural institutions that in the past shared responsibility for forming individuals, families, and society as Catholic Christians continue to weaken and disappear. . The proclamation and profession of an articulated faith in the liturgy, something previous centuries could perhaps take for granted, will therefore be that much more important a part of whatever liturgical experiences people have..

Thursday, May 24, 2018

About That Wedding Sermon

Some 27 or 28 years ago, I attended an Easter Mass at which the preacher began by walking down the church's main aisle pushing a shopping cart with the figures (from the Christmas crib set) of the three wise men. At the pulpit he took them out and began his homily which was structured around telling them the rest of the story, what had happened after they had returned home from Bethlehem. The preacher was a very talented and creative priest, and his performance was superb. To this day, I (and others who were present) can remember it. At the time, I thought it was a very good homily. It probably was. But I honestly don't really remember any of the content. It was the entertaining gimmick that made it memorable, and it is that (not the substance of his message) that we all remember. The obvious lessons I took from that (and other similar experiences) were that a cleverly creative and entertaining homily by a talented preacher will likely be very well received, but that what will be remembered will likely be how clever and entertaining he was - in other words, the preacher not the message

It is less than a week now since the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, delivered his now famous address at Britain's royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. He and his talk have been widely praised and perhaps as widely criticized  On the merits, I probably come down somewhere in the middle, there being in my opinion both much to praise in his talk and some things not to praise.

I am no expert on wedding homilies. Other than the (utterly unmemorable) ones I myself have delivered, I have had occasion to listen to very few. From what I have heard, however, from what I have been told by other preachers, my sense is that many wedding homilies try to be highly personal, displaying the preacher's personal knowledge of the couple, perhaps with stories gleaned from conversations at the rehearsal dinner the night before. Compared to that approach, Bishop Curry's sermon was certainly a more traditonal sermon with a real religious message, in fact a good and serious message (even if a bit belabored in its length). Whether it qualified as an effective message about the meaning of Christian marriage or just some generic form of comfortable Christianity can continue to be debated; but it was, as I heard it, a Christian message, however obscured that might now be by the preacher's style and all the responses, which have focused almost entirely on him and his impact on his audience. 

Certainly that suggests the one critique that is easiest to make - that this controversy itself suggests that the sermon has been received primarily as a performance and is being evaluated accordingly. It is primarily the performance (and the preacher himself) that is being either praised or criticized. How many times in the last week have I heard or read that the Bishop's preaching style was so different from what would be more typical at such a formal occasion? That has been said in praise, as well as a critique.  How many times in the last week have I heard or read impressions of its impact both on the congregation in Saint George's and on its world-wide audience. The question of whether the style was appropriate to the occasion is not an illegitimate one, although one has to assume that the royal family's decision to invite him was not made in ignorance of his preaching style. And, if his hearers were reacting (whether positively or negatively) primarily to the preacher himself and less (if at all) to his religious message, that may well be his fault for having preached the way he did. But it may also as much reflect a widespread ignorance of and discomfort with specifically Christian and even more generically religious language and ideas on the part of not a few of those listening - both within the Chapel and beyond its walls.

This highlights an important point about such sermons - that they could actually become evangelizing moments, but are not very likely to do so. That can happen only if the the Christian story (whether the Christian story about marriage specifically or the more general Christian story) is presented attractively, but also clearly - in other words, if the message overwhelms the experience rather than being overwhelmed itself by the aesthetics of the preaching experience. That, it seems to me, was what the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, tried to do at the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His talk was much, much shorter, much less a display of the preacher's virtuosity and more about something the hearers probably needed to hear - an authentic proclamation of a Christian message about marriage in the modern world. He spoke of bride and groom "making a new life together so that life can flow through them to the future."  (There was no Teilhard de Chardin in his homily, but he did begin with words from Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast day it happened to be - "Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.") 

William being destined in due time to become king, his wedding was, of course, a much more formal, official state occasion, a factor which should also to be considered before admitting any gratuitous criticism of his younger brother's obviously much less formal event!

Most of us will never preach at a royal wedding or any other occasion with a worldwide audience. But many of us do preach on occasions which bring in many somewhat uninterested or incomprehending listeners. Weddings and funerals, for sure, but also Christmas and Easter. That is why I have always disliked Christmas Eve "Children"s" or "Family" Christmas pageant-Masses, which increasingly seem to me to be such a lost opportunity. Such celebrations are filled with visitors who may be there only for that one occasion. But, instead of hearing an attractive, if challenging, adult message about the meaning of the Christmas story, they are as likely to see and hear confirmed what they already suspect - namely that religion is kid-stuff, possibly very good for children but of little relevance to actual adult life.

But, back to the wedding! In my opinion the only seriously problematic thing about Bishop Curry's talk was its length. If his homily had been, say, half the length it turned out to be, my guess is that reactions would have been different. Like most preachers, he could probably have said most of what he needed to say in half the time anyway! And he would more likely have held his hearers attention, thereby avoiding the appearance of discomfort in the congregation. While practically everyone in the world now knows that he preached about "love," maybe more people might remember his serious and challenging message about love if the homily had been short enough to hold their attention. (I suppose he understood he was going on too long. Hence his presumably humorous aside to the wedding couple that he knew he had to end so that they could get married. That could have been a nice touch - but only if he had actually stopped at that point!)

All in all, I think some of the praise has been excessive - and some of it apparently a somewhat mean-spirited way of mocking the royal family. The criticism, I think, has also been somewhat excessive (except on the issue of length). Some of it too has been somewhat mean-spirited, as if any deviation from some supposedly set pattern of formality were ipso facto offensive. 

A couple of years form now, will anyone remember Bishop Curry's message about love? Or, as happened with that Easter Magi homily, will the preacher himself and the responses he generated be what will be remembered instead?

The message I take away from all this is that it is always problematic when anyone (especially a preacher) draws too much attention to himself - especially when the event is really so obviously meant to be not about you at all!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Impeachment Obsession

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. (The Constitution of the United States, article II, Section 4).

Like so many provisions of our 18th-century Constitution, this one remains subject to multiple competing interpretations. Impeachment's actual role in American history has been modest, a consequence of the few occasions it has been applied, all of which may or may not reflect what the Framers may have actually intended or expected.

Like so much of our American constitutional and legal tradition, impeachment originated in inherited British practice, according to which the House of Commons could accuse someone of a crime leading to a trial in the House of Lords. Since this process did not require royal assent, it could be used by Parliament against officers of the Crown even if they enjoyed the  monarch's support. The monarch him(her)self, however, was above the law and so could not be impeached. Hence the Constitution specified explicitly that the President too would be subject to this process, along with all other "civil officers."

One danger that some might have feared from this would have been that impeachment of legitimately elected Presidents might become a congressional habit and thus evolve into a de facto parliamentary form of government. That has not happened, however. In fact, very few impeachment trials have actually taken place - 19 in all, 15 of federal judges, of whom eight were convicted and removed from office. (One was subsequently elected a member of the House of Representatives, which may say something about how his impeachment was popularly perceived.)

Only two presidents have actually been impeached - Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Andrew Johnson was arguably one of our very worst presidents. Even so, he was acquitted by one vote, after which his case became a kind of parable against politically motivated impeachments. That was certainly how it was presented to us in school 60 years ago, a view reinforced by JFK's account in Profiles in Courage. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was very obviously politically motivated by a hyper-partisan, out-of-control Republican Congress. Democrats rightly rallied around the President. So there was no serious chance of his ever being convicted by the Senate, and indeed Clinton left office as one of the most popular modern presidents. As the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has observed, the Clinton impeachment fiasco "showed that a determined majority in the House could impeach a President without legitimate reason." But the electoral price the Republicans paid for their behavior in the 1998 election, Nadler notes, showed that "people disapproved" of what the Republicans did. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) agrees that the Clinton impeachment "blew up in our [Republicans'] faces and helped President Clinton." Impeachment, Graham argues, "has to be bipartisan, or it's going to be a failure."

Yet, in today's even more hyper-partisan atmosphere, impeachment talk has become the rage again in some quarters. One donor, Tom Steyer, has made it a major plank of his platform and apparently has a mailing list of more than 5 million people. Hopefully, most Democrats will resist this temptation! It seems reasonable to guess that the best cause the Republicans could attach themselves to in this election year could be persuading their voters to come out and re-elect Republicans, if only to avoid another hyper-partisan impeachment that would attempt to negate the previously expressed will of the electorate! 

And it is not as if there weren't a lot of important policy issues that the Democrats could run on! Why, one wonders, would any party imperil its case with the voters by tying itself to a possible impeachment which would likely fail in the Senate anyway or, at best, would merely saddle the country with Mike Pence?

In the wake of the Andrew Johnson fiasco, few ever expected impeachment to be employed against a president again, except in the most extreme case of criminality or malfeasance. Watergate precedents notwithstanding, that is the way it probably should stay. Judges have lifetime appointments. So impeachment is obviously the only available avenue when a judge proves unworthy. Presidents, however, are elected; and so, absent an extremely compelling case of criminality or malfeasance, broadly recognized as such in society, the will of the electorate (even if originally distorted by the Electoral College) deserves to be upheld for the allotted term (after which an unsatisfactory president may either retire voluntarily or be involuntarily voted out). The alternative of undoing an election would, on the contrary, be even more divisive, even more de-legitimizing of our political process, and even more subversive of our essential civic institutions.

The present Administration's contemptible campaign to subvert and de-legitimize institutions like the FBI has already succeeded in creating a constituency prepared to believe that an effort at impeachment would be nothing more than an illegitimate partisan attempt to undo an election (a repeat of the 1998 Republican-led Clinton impeachment effort). Indeed, in today's NY Times, Frank Bruni cited a CBS News poll that several weeks ago showed that fewer Americans believed Mueller’s investigation to be legitimate (44 percent) than to be politically driven (53 percent)! 

Given the likely partisan make-up of the Senate for the foreseeable future, such an effort would probably fail anyway, at even greater cost to our national unity, to civility, and to the perceived legitimacy of our political processes and our essential civic institutions.

It is our institutions - all of them - that need strengthening. Healthy, properly functioning civic, social, and political institutions are the best remedy against executive malfeasance, which is why their weakness at the present juncture is so lamentable and dangerous. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"The Birthday of the Church"

This year, the Jewish and Christian calendars coincide, much as they did then, when (according to the Gospel of John) Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover (14 Nisan). Just as Good Friday fell again this year on Passover eve, Shavuot and Pentecost likewise coincide this year, both occurring today, Sunday, May 20, which makes this a good occasion to recall and highlight the connection between them.

Pentecost is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day (the 6th day of Sivan, the 3rd month) after Passover and in Christian usage the 50th day of Easter. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the seven weeks that began with Passover. Shavuot was the second of the three great pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish calendar and originated as a joyful thanksgiving for the early summer harvest, when two loaves, made from new flour, would be offered to God as the first fruits of the grain harvest. To commemorate this, Jews now eat two meals on the day of Shavuot — an earlier dairy meal, and then later a festive meat meal.
Over time, Shavuot became primarily a commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which (according to Exodus 19) happened early in the 3rd month, seven weeks after Israel’s escape from Egypt. Recalling this, on the first night of Shavuot (this year, Pentecost eve), Jews throughout the world keep an all-night vigil dedicated to receiving the Commandments anew. The Book of Ruth is read. Ruth, of course, was King David's grandmother. She was also originally a Gentile.

The modern Roman Missal provides for a Pentecost Vigil, an option which is, I suspect, seldom used. In the early Church, however, Pentecost paralleled Easter as a baptismal feast. Out of that evolved a Vigil liturgy on Saturday morning, which (until its abolition in 1955) replicated much of the traditional Holy Saturday morning rite. Celebrated in violet vestments, it began with repeating 6 of the 12 Holy Saturday prophecies and the blessing of the baptismal font, followed by the Litany of the Saints, all just like on Holy Saturday. The vigil concluded with a festive Mass (in red) which anticipated Pentecost, just as the Easter Vigil seven weeks earlier had concluded with a festive Mass anticipating Easter. All that is gone now, of course, along with the Pentecost Octave that previously paralleled the Easter Octave.

Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the giving of the commandments fulfilled the promise of nationhood, of which the exodus event itself had been but the beginning and of which David's kingdom would be the flowering. So too, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from frightened friends of an absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses testifying to the whole world, Gentiles and Jews alike.

Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the Church,” since it was as a direct result of their having received the gift of the Holy Spirit during the festival of Shavuot that followed Jesus’ Ascension that the apostles began their mission – the Church’s mission – of preaching the Gospel to the whole world - thus fulfilling and completing the promise of Easter and carrying it out into the world of day-to-day life and work.

Liturgically, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter Time to Ordinary Time – the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when the promise of the resurrection takes effect in daily life. Just as the new life promised by spring continues into summer, the new life promised by the Risen Christ continues in our world in his Church. In that sense, Pentecost is the annual liturgical observance of what happens every week with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, to renew the face of the earth as one body and one spirit in Christ, as the Risen Lord’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Wedding at Saint George's

Among my many happy memories from my 2005 sabbatical summer at Britain's Windsor Castle was praying Prayer Book Matins and Evensong every day with my classmates and the Canons of Saint George's in the Garter Knights' choir stalls in Windsor Castle's beautiful and historic Saint George's Chapel, site of tomorrow's royal wedding.  (As I recall, that summer I usually sat in the King of Norway's Morning Prayer and Evensong.)

Saint George's Chapel was erected in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and is part of England's glorious pre-Reformation religious and civic legacy. As a "Royal Peculiar," the chapel and it Chapter of Canons survived the worst excesses of the Reformation. It remains central to the Order of the Garter, whose members - the Monarch, the Prince of Wales, 24 Knights Companions, and other Royal and Stranger Knights - all have their banners displayed in the stalls. Several English and later British monarchs are buried within its precincts - Edward III, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VIII, King Charles I, George III, George IV, William IV, Edward VII, George V, and George VI. So, as an alternative to clippety-clopping around London, Windsor's Saint George's Chapel is an obviously appropriate place for a royal wedding.

Along with the beautiful place come the stately cadences and the beautiful language of The Book of Common Prayer. Particularly worthy of esteem is the traditional Instruction with which the BCP Marriage Rite begins, simultaneously so familiar and so solemn: Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God and in the face of this Congregation to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God, etc. It minces no words about the seriousness of marriage and the duty to approach it reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God, and considering the three purposes of Matrimony - the procreation of children ... a remedy against sin ... [and] the mutual society, help, and comfort, that one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.  

Weddings are primordially social events, their significance deeply embedded in our human consciousness, for a wedding signifies the continuation of the human story and of a family's story from this generation to the next. A royal wedding further signifies that for a nation's story.

Royal weddings also focus our attention on the enduring value of the under-appreciated institution that is modern monarchy. It contrasts with the demonstrable deterioration of electoral politics and the widespread weakening and evident decline in effective democratic governance which we are currently experiencing not only in the Untied States but all over the Western world, all of which ought to highlight the symbolic, social, and civic importance of non-electoral, value-bearing institutions, that help hold societies together and offer an alternative to the destructive values of contemporary popular culture.

As a recent article in The Spectator (Jenny McCartney "Why Britain is lucky to have Meghan Markle") pointedly observed: "The widespread profound affection that the British public has for Queen Elizabeth is partly based on the fact that although she’s always been there, we’ve never had too much of her at any given moment: she’s a combination of cosiness and mystery, and she doesn’t get on our nerves. The Queen doesn’t over-emote or tell us every thought that passes momentarily through her head: she’s a one-woman antidote to the excesses of social media."

Monarchy may not be the only "antidote to the excesses of social media,"  but it is surely a most obvious one - at least for those societies lucky enough still to possess one. it is one of the very few traditional social and civic institutions still standing that has somehow managed to survive the blight of modernity's anti-communitarian individualism and post-modernity's moral and cultural vacuum.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Another Book about Pius IX

The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe, by David I. Kertzer (Random House, 2018).

Pope Saint John XXIII was famously devoted to the memory of his now-beatified, 19th-century predecessor Pope Pius IX, writing in 1959: "I always think of Pius IX of sacred and glorious memory and, by imitating him in his sufferings, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization." (He did not live to do as he had hoped. Instead it was Pope Saint John Paul II who finally beatified Pius IX - together with John XXIII - on September 3, 2000.) 

The triumphs and sufferings of Pius IX form the centerpiece of the Church's troubled voyage through the 19th century. That century began with the papacy at one of its lowest levels of power and prestige with election of Pope Pius VII in Venice, where the papacy was in effect in exile from Rome then occupied by Napoleon. It ended with Pope Leo XIII, bereft of political power and a self-styled "prisoner of the Vatican," but with the papacy experiencing renewed and heightened spiritual and moral prestige. In between, came the long and conflict-ridden pontificate of Pius IX.

David Kertzer is already the author of several acclaimed books on the papacy and Italian religion and politics (most notably his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe). In this latest work, he tackles the complex story of Pope Pius IX's early, failed flirtation with liberalism and Italian nationalism that culminated in the Roman revolution of 1848 and the Pope's exile - and eventual return thanks to foreign military assistance. It represents a small slice of Pius IX's extremely long pontificate, but it was an important moment in papal and European history - the brief experiment in which the Pope allied himself (or seemed at any rate to ally himself) with liberalism and Italian nationalism and how the failure of that experiment forced the Pope on a more reactionary path, which set the stage for all subsequent Church history.

Kertzer's account is quite detailed, The reader will learn more about the day-to-day political, military, and diplomatic developments during that period than he or she probably ever expected to know. The book is also a good historical lesson in the importance of personalities in international relations. That said, he seems to want to make the episode even more decisive than it necessarily was, thanks to the author's historical preoccupation with and contemporary concern about the survival of theocratic anti-modern, anti-liberalism.

To be sure, the events described in the book were most decisive for Pius IX and his subsequent policies - both his internal Church policy and his external political policy. Those events were likewise most decisive in finally forging the path Italian nationalism would have to take. With the Pope as an inevitable obstacle, the only viable vehicle for Italian nationalism and eventual unification was was the Piedmontese Savoyard monarchy with its constitutional and liberal institutions. But, while extremely decisive for Italy's future, its seems an exaggeration to suggest, as Kertzer seems to be suggesting, that these events were decisive for the future of absolutism in Europe. On the contrary, one could contend that absolutism was already doomed in Europe everywhere west of Russia. Its vestigial survival in Rome was entirely a consequence of the papacy's uniquely religious character. The dual conviction that the temporal power was essential for the maintenance of the Pope's religious mission and that for religious reasons the temporary power had to be absolutist and clerical created a completely unique context in Rome, which was of no avail to other would-be absolute monarchs. 

Two aspects of the story that really seem to scream for attention are its account of the popular hostility to priestly government and the papal preoccupation with the absolute necessity of the temporal power. Probably more than anything else, the former was decisive in this story. (There remains a perennial lesson in that, which we can recognize in the repeated pattern in places where the clergy have - or have appeared to have - exercised disproportionate political power, e.g., modern Spain and modern Ireland). Historically, had Pius and his advisers been able and willing (neither of which they were) to create an efficient lay-administered civil government under papal sovereignty, it is arguable that the popular hostility to the temporal power would have been considerably less intense, with correspondingly different results. That would not necessarily have been sufficient to counter the long-term appeal of Italian nationalism and unification, which ultimately only the House of Savoy could accomplish, which in turn highlights the salience of the second problem of the persistent commitment to holding on to the temporal power.

While no one can seriously underestimate how the eventual loss of the temporal power in 1870 ultimately worked in the long term to the Church's advantage, history makes it easy to understand why the temporal power was perceived as essential. After all, even now in its vestigial and largely symbolic form, the Pope's politically independent status as a sovereign in international law, while perhaps not an absolutely unmixed blessing, has repeatedly proved itself to be much more of an asset than a burden. 

A final lesson which Kertzer's account highlights is the ephemeral nature of political popularity and the danger of any political leader's over-eagerly seeking to cultivate such popularity. The inherent incompatibility between Pius IX's attempt to win popular acclaim and his transcendent institutional mission was but a special historical illustration of the universal challenge that the desire for popular approval poses for any leader who has an institutional mission that goes beyond the transience of short-term popular approbation.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


St. Bernard of Clairvaux [1090-1153] is supposed to have described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” Back where I came from, Ascension is still celebrated on its own day, last Thursday. So, there, one is still greeted in the morning by the local news’ announcement that in the entire city what is called “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended because of the holyday. It’s even better in parts of Europe where Ascension is a legal holiday and where even the Stock Market is closed in observance of Ascension. 

Growing up, of course, what we so especially liked about the Ascension was that we got off from school! But, of course, we had to go to Mass in the morning, and at least some of us really looked forward to the wonderful ritual of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. The point of that, of course, was not just Christ’s departure, but also the new way he is now present to us. As the Church prays in the Preface of today’s Mass: he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

If you look up, just like the apostles in the story, you can see in the center of the ceiling a painting of the Ascension [photo], one of three ceiling paintings that are all that is left of a number of such paintings that were attached to the ceiling and walls of this church by a group of itinerant artists a century ago. When we replaced the ceiling in 2013, there was a lot of anxiety about preserving those paintings, and we brought in an expert from Pellissippi State College to examine and clean them. I even climbed the scaffolding myself one day just to say that I had touched one of the paintings. (I could still do that then, although I doubt my knees would let me do that now!)

Historically speaking, Ascension commemorates the last of the Risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples in the weeks after his resurrection. The Risen Jesus no longer walked earth the way he did before he died and rose, but he did, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading, appear a number of times to his disciples during that post-Easter period of 40 days [Acts 1:1-11], speaking about the kingdom of God.

So, now, if Jesus doesn’t walk the earth as he did before, where exactly is he? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we profess every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father, where, as the letter to the Hebrews assures us he lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:25; cf. Romans 8:34].

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock, which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven. The footprint and the idea that the pushed off with such force that he left a footprint in the rock may be a bit fanciful, but it does make the important point that it is Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now with God. So the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself.

So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. Meanwhile, in this interval between Ascension and the end - a time full of problems and challenges of every sort, of crises and conflicts in the world and even in the Church, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries - in this interval between Ascension and the end, the Risen Lord remains with us though his gift of the Holy Spirit. Far from being absent, Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, is still very much present among us by the power of his promised gift of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in the Church, through which we remain connected with him, so that, through us, he can continue his work of transforming our world. Again, as Pope Francis, has recently reminded us: “In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness” [GE 15]

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 13, 2018.